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Madam Umbridge Home for Wayward Girls

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Another day, a different dream perhaps.

.   .   .

Flames.

Everywhere.

Lapping up the walls, climbing the curtains, spilling across the ceiling in pools of orange and red light, so bright they burned her eyes, so hot they scorched her flesh, filled her lungs with copious smoke, black rot, turning her esophagus to ash.

She choked, gagged, clawed at her throat, desperate for air, desperate for life.

Tears streamed from her eyes, vision so hazy she could barely make out shapes in the vast chaos before her. The wood floor beneath her was warm, flammable, as unsafe as every other surface within the vast room.

She scrambled on her hands and knees, heavy skirts tangled around her legs, slowing her progress, making her clumsy as she pulled her weak body futilely towards the doorway, at least the direction she thought was the doorway.

A crash, an explosion beside her, fresh plumes of flame and sizzling embers erupted high into the air like the mouth of a spitting volcano, spilling molten lava across the grand piano, the settee, the chaise lounge. Everything was burning. Everything was dying. Hermione was next.

She coughed up murky spittle, wiping away the strings of saliva with the back of her ash stained hand. She gasped, inhaling yet more smoke, suspended in a black haze of poison gas, hellfire flickering angrily through the gaps in the dark clouds.

She couldn’t go on. Her limbs were too weak, arms too shaky to support her weight any longer. She collapsed in a sweaty heap, long curls matted with debris, caked to her forehead, covering her face in a delicate mask that did nothing to protect from her imminent demise.

And then she heard it.

Voices.

Screaming her name.

Unmistakable even through the roaring flames, the deafening snap of an overhead beam as part of the ceiling caved in around her, chunks of plaster and tile crashing down, the chandelier shattering mere feet away, glass exploding in every direction like crystal raindrops.

“Hermione!”

Her mother.

“Mione!”

Her father.

She wept, curling slowly into the fetal position, burying her face in her sweat-slick palms, wracked by dry, broken sobs.

The fire was upon her now, forming a perfect ring around her huddled form. It was a sentient being, an angry god born from the pits of hell, come to drag her into the depths of fire and brimstone where her soul would suffer eternal damnation.

There was nothing left to breathe but smoke, nothing left to feel but raw flame tearing away her flesh and searing away nerve endings. It would take her sight, her breath, her life. Her heart would be the final thing to go, she’d burn alive as her most vital organ continued to beat with the ivory cage of her ribs.

Her entire body would turn to ash, she’d be frozen in abject horror forever like the victims of Pompeii. She’d become a passing tourist attraction with no name, no story, no memory. Dust in the wind.

The flames washed over her like a tidal wave, and in that final moment of cognizant terror, she heard her mother scream for her one last time, the sound ringing in her ears, deafening.

“Hermione!”

She screamed, the fire consuming her limbs, her skin, her muscle and bone.

“Hermione! Wake up!”

Her eyes snapped open, darkness surrounded her.

“Calm down! It’s a dream! It’s just a dream!”

The deafening roar of the fire still echoed around her. She blinked rapidly, turning her head in every direction, searching for the flames, the black smoke, muscles tense and ready to spring, to run for her life.

“Stop yelling!”

She blinked again, the disembodied voice taking physical shape before her. A face, pinched in distress, inches from her own. Hands clasping her shoulders so tightly she cringed back, but they held tight. Her throat felt raw, scorched. But not by smoke. By her own screaming.

She snapped her mouth closed and the roaring stopped. The room fell silent, eerily so. She gasped for breath, wiping at her face, fingers coming away wet. She blinked, staring at her glistening fingertips in confusion.

“Hermione? Are you okay?”

She blinked again, peering up. The face was recognizable now.

“Parvati?”

“Bloody hell, you scared the shite out of me.”

The girl slowly released her shoulders and leaned back from where she sat on the edge of the bed. Hermione drew her knees up beneath the thin blanket, wrapping her arms around her legs and trying to regulate her breathing, trying to eradicate the lapping flames from her memory. The nightmares were a regular occurrence, inescapable, but if she forced her mind onto other things she could usually shake the lingering effects within a few minutes.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“I’d be amazed if you didn’t wake the entire floor. You were screaming your head off for at least five minutes. I kept shaking you but you wouldn’t come out of it.”

Hermione swallowed, throat tight, the melancholy taking longer to escape than usual. “It was stronger this time.”

Parvati nodded. “Obviously. Did you take your medicine?”

Hermione glanced away, eyes down.

“It’s okay. I won't tell anyone. But you won’t be able to hide it from them much longer if you keep on like this every night.”

Hermione nodded weakly, idly running her fingers through her loose curls for a distraction. “I’ll be okay. I’m sorry again for waking you. Do you want some tonic to fall back asleep?”

Parvati shook her head, folding her hands in her lap and sighing. “No use. Lav’s missing. Again. I’m going to stay up till she gets back.”

Hermione raised a brow, glancing to the third bed in the small room, the covers drawn and a lumpy figure beneath. At a distance, it would be easy to mistake as a person, but from where they sat it was clearly pillows artfully arranged under the blanket.

“How long has she been gone?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t hear her leave. But it’s already 2 am, another inspection is due to come round any time now. She better hope her skinny arse doesn’t get caught or we’re all in for. You know Umbridge will say we were accomplices.”

Hermione nodded, lips turned down. “If she’s caught this will be her third strike. Umbridge is dying to make an example of her.”

She sighed, throwing back her blanket and drawing her legs over the side of the bed, knees still weak from the lingering terror of the dream. She cringed to see the large sweat stain she left on the sheets. It was as if her body truly thought it was trapped by fire.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to find her and bring her back before the guard comes round.”

“Are you mad? You’ll just get yourself caught and we’ll all be punished anyway!”

“I know the route Filch takes. I can avoid him. Just stay here, and if she comes back before I do, make sure she stays put.”

Pavarti groaned. “Mione, I really don’t think you should-”

“If she gets a third strike she’s out on the streets. Do you really think Lav can survive out there on her own?”

They shared an intense, meaningful look for a moment longer before Pavarti relented, stepping away from the bed. “Please be careful.”

Hermione shrugged on her thin robe that barely reached her knees, pulling her long hair free from beneath the collar. “I always am.”

And then she tiptoed barefoot to the door, opening it a crack and peering out, holding her breath. Upon seeing the dimly lit, empty corridor she slipped out without a backward glance, carefully clicking the door closed behind her.

She bit her lip, pressing to the wall as she quickly padded down the hallway, past numerous closed doors, the faint sound of snores and heavy breathing discernible through the thin barriers. A couple times she heard whispering and her heart lurched, fearful someone with insomnia would hear her creeping past and peak their head out to investigate. For the most part, the residents here respected each other’s privacy, as long as you stayed out of their business they stayed out of yours.

But a select few loved to meddle, loved to kiss up to the Matron and were always on the lookout for rule breaking. With her dreadful luck she’d draw the attention of the wrong person, so she did her best to remain silent and invisible, becoming one with the shadows she moved between.

She had a good idea of where her missing roommate may be, the blonde loved to sneak outside to the courtyard to smoke and drink after the majority of the Home was in bed. Hermione just hoped she was engaging in those vices alone. The girl received her first two strikes after being caught in the company of young gentlemen after curfew.

Hermione carefully avoided the squeaking floorboards, having mapped out the best routes to take after the last few months of residency. She may be one of the newest additions, but she was a very quick study, and more observant than most.

She gasped lightly at the sound of muffled voices around the corner, her heart racing when she realized she wasn’t hearing a hushed conversation, but rather heavy moaning.

Good lord…

She swallowed tentatively, peeking her head around and gazing down the dark hallway beyond. She saw no one, but there was a faint glow of flickering candle flame cast across the far wall, emitting from a door at the end of the corridor that stood open barely an inch.

She bit her lip, debating whether she should journey any further.

Heaven knows I don’t want to see what they’re up to, but if it’s Lavender then it’s better I catch her than Filch.

She sighed, squaring her shoulders and quickly dashing down the hallway on tiptoes before she could think better of it. She gazed over her shoulder to make sure the coast was clear before steeling herself to gaze inside the dimly lit room.

It was a storage closet if the abundance of cleaning supplies were any indication. How foolish for them to engage in such a sordid act in Filch’s own pantry! Did they want to be caught?

She gasped, eyes wide as her gaze moved past the stacked crates and buckets and glimpsed the gyrating bodies beyond. She swallowed heavily, whipping around and pressing into the wall, mortified and shocked.

She expected to see kissing, perhaps heavy petting at worse.

But the couple inside was engaged in full on coitus.

Hermione’s cheeks flamed, heart racing.

What am I doing here?

She was about to sprint away when she thought once more of Lavender.

She hadn’t gotten a good enough look at the female to know if it was the missing blonde. The man’s bare, rippling back had taken up her field of vision. She shook her head, rubbing her eyes.

And what if it is Lavender? What am I supposed to do? Knock on the door and kindly interrupt them, tell her it’s time to return to the dorm?

She bit her lip, the sounds behind her gaining in volume and pace.

“Scream for me,” a deep baritone whispered from within the room, mostly gravel.

Hermione’s entire body went rigid, lungs deflating as her blood ran cold.

She blinked rapidly, tears forming behind her eyes, hands fisting at her sides. She tried desperately to keep the buried memory from surfacing but it was to no avail. She stood in a darkened, dusty hallway with no distractions beyond the passionate coupling mere feet away. She shook her head as if to rattle the thoughts away but they raced to the forefront of her mind, vivid and bright as the morning sun.

“That’s it, luv, scream for me…”

She screamed with the full force of her lungs, kicking, clawing, twisting, a desperate, dying animal, veins pumping pure adrenaline from her racing heart through her thrashing limbs.

“That’s a good girl, now say my name.”

Hermione gasped for breath, pulling herself forcefully from the waking nightmare, doubling over and trying not to gag. Her heart pounded wildly in her ears, drowning out the couple behind the door. She closed her eyes.

Count backward from ten.

Come on, count…

Ten…

Nine...

Eight…

“-about time, I was starting to think he’d changed his mind. Couldn’t say I’d blame him.”

Hermione's eyes snapped open as she rose to her full height, heart leaping into her throat at the unmistakably shrill sound of her Matron’s voice.

She glanced around like a cornered animal, feeling like prey about to be skewered. If Umbridge caught her out after curfew she wouldn’t bother with warnings or reprimands, she’d throw Hermione out on the streets this very moment with nothing but the clothes on her back and her bare feet beneath her.

For some inexplicable reason, the Matron hated Hermione with a white-hot passion that eclipsed her distaste for all the other charges. Hermione had no idea what she did to inspire such deep seeded loathing, but she didn’t particularly care to ask. The less time spent in Madam Umbridge’s presence the better.

She swallowed thickly as she heard the sharp click of the Matron’s heels against the hardwood, fast approaching. There was an uneven patter following in her wake, the sound of Filch’s broken gait. Hermione’s mind went blank with terror, she ran down the hall and started twisting every knob in sight. She whispered a silent prayer of reverence when one of the doors gave way, allowing her to slip inside.

The room beyond was pitch black, but silent and seemingly empty, which suited her purpose just fine. She shut the door behind her but for a small crack to listen through. She held her breath, quite the feat when her adrenaline was surging out of every pore. She leaned in close, muscles tense, listening to the sound of the Matron and her loyal minion pass the hallway perpendicular to the one Hermione was in.

The voices were muffled by the door, but she was certain she heard the word “Doctor” in there somewhere. Hermione blinked, waiting for the voices to fade away entirely. The last doctor had been dismissed before Hermione’s arrival at the Home. She heard through the grapevine that they had been searching for a replacement but apparently no respectable professional wanted to tie their horse to a den of wayward teen girls.

She licked her lips tentatively, taking a deep breath and allowing her shoulders to relax as the threat of discovery was gone. She decided to linger within the empty space a few moments longer, just to ensure that they were far enough away for her to slip back to her room.

And what about Lavender?

Hermione sighed, tipping her head back and closing her eyes.

Dammit.

She didn’t know why she felt such an obligation to protect her roommates, she had only known them for a short time, but the girls had been kind and accepting of Hermione from her first day here. Where many shunned her on principal, Parvati and Lavender had taken her under her their wings and shown her the ropes, taught her the lay of the land, helped keep an eye on her while she adjusted to her new, upside down life.

She couldn’t in good conscience leave one of them to suffer at the hands of Umbridge simply because the toad-like Matron hated everyone under her care.

Okay. I’ll spend five more minutes looking for her. Tops. Assuming that wasn’t her in the closet…

In her panic to hide she’d nearly forgotten about the hidden couple. She wondered if they were close to finishing. The thought made her shudder with revulsion.

As Hermione pictured the layout of the Home in her mind, planning what routes to take to best avoid discovery, she felt a cold draft steal past, a faint whistling sound in the air, loose curls blowing into her face.

She spun around, blinking in confusion. She didn’t see any windows in the room. Where was the gust coming from?

She held her breath once more, taking a tentative step deeper into the all-consuming darkness, hands extended out to feel along the wall and keep her balance, when she felt some electrical current in the air sweep around her like a wind tunnel, making the fine hairs on her arms and nape stand on end.

Hermione swallowed desperately, quickly retreating to the door.

Oh god please, not again-

“Hermione…”

She clamped a hand over her mouth to capture the scream that rose up on instinct. She was barely able to swallow it down in time before she felt the warm breath on her neck, the presence of something else behind her, and she tore the door open in blind terror, running full speed down the shadowed hall, mindless of the noise she was making.

When she reached the intersection at the end she started to turn in the direction of her room when she saw the distant shadow of a short, hunched figure at the far end of the hallway.

Damn!

She couldn’t risk taking the usual route back, Umbridge would be impossible to bypass. So she turned on her heel and dashed the opposite way, leaving the network of hallways that comprised the resident dorms and entered another wing, one she’d never ventured into before but to her knowledge sat empty, used mostly for storage. She could hide out here until the Matron returned downstairs, then hopefully make it back to her room before Filch resumed his inspection rounds.

She tried to slow her breathing, to quell the rising panic festering in her gut like hot coals. She again started trying to open doors before she found one that was unlocked. She stepped inside with a large sigh of relief. This room had a round window at the top of a curved ceiling, a decent sized chamber that to her surprise contained a well-made bed, chest of drawers and a standing wardrobe.

She blinked.

Bloody hell, does someone live here?

She stood frozen, straining to hear any movement, but the room was deathly still and silent, as well as freezing. Her bare legs were covered in goosebumps, the thin fabric of her faded robe doing little to shield her arms from the cold. She breathed out and saw a faint plume of air that quickly dissipated in the large open space.

She hesitantly made her way to the chest and opened the top drawer, unsurprised to find it empty save for a King James Bible, standard in every room. She shut it swiftly and opened the remained drawers in turn, relieved to see the room was uninhabited.

She ran her fingers through her hair, trying to rein in her frazzled nerves.

You did this to yourself, sneaking out like a fool. If you get caught it will be your own fault.

She sighed.

Maybe it will be better if I’m thrown out. I can’t stand it here anyway. Harry will put me up-

She closed her eyes, quickly shaking the thoughts away. No. She wouldn’t turn to Harry, despite his many offers, his practical begging, to help her. She wouldn't compromise him in such a way. Now that she was eighteen it would be far too scandalous for her to reside on his residence, despite the fact they were childhood mates and he was abroad with the Her Majesty’s Royal Navy most of the year anyway.

The gossip rags would still have a field day, labeling her a kept woman and destroying any chance of either of them finding suitable matches. Hermione didn’t even want to marry, she was perfectly fine becoming an old spinster with a house full of felines to keep her company. Cats she could abide.

But she would never risk damaging her best friend’s chance at finding a suitable bride, someone to share a lifetime of happiness with. Harry desperately wanted a family of his own, ever since his parents died when he was a lad. He would tell her he didn’t care about those things in a heartbeat if it meant convincing her to leave this place and come live at Grimmauld Manor, but she couldn’t forgive herself for denying him a chance at a happy union.

So here she remained, until she was finally tossed to the streets or a giant sinkhole opened up and swallowed her whole. The latter didn’t sound so bad, really.

She was pulled from her frantic musing by the sound of muffled but fast approaching voices outside the door. She groaned.

I can’t catch a break, can I? The story of my miserable life…

Her heart stuttered anew when the voices got louder, closer, heading straight for her.

No, it can’t be…

Of all the rooms in this giant, haunted mausoleum of a girls’ home, they had to be headed straight for the one place she chose to hide.

She spun in a frantic circle, seeing no closet doors to hide behind. She glanced briefly at the bed, she was certainly thin enough to slide beneath the frame but the coverlet was too short and didn’t reach the floor, she’d be easily seen.

Blast it!

She dashed for the standing wardrobe, tossing open the door and spinning around to tuck herself inside. It was a tight fit to be certain, but she managed to fold her legs and suck in her breath and was able to shut the door, enclosing herself in darkness just as the voices reached the bedroom door.

She heard the creak of hinges and then footsteps entering, at least two sets, the click click click of her Matron’s heels making her cringe, but the slow, steady gait that followed was too smooth and even to belong to Filch. Her heart raced so hard she pressed a hand to her chest in a futile effort to keep it within her body.

If I’m caught like this I’m done for.

She swallowed thickly, squeezing her eyes shut and willing herself to become invisible. She knew it was a wasted effort, she’d been in worse situations and prayed with equal desperation for an escape, never to receive any reprieve. She knew now would certainly be no different.

She was on her own. As always.

“I hope you will find the room satisfactory.” Umbridge. “It is located in the east wing so you’ll have plenty of privacy. Of course every now and then one of the girls likes to sneak off to do god knows what, delinquents, the lot of them. If you find anyone roaming about report them directly to me and I shall dole out the proper punishment.”

Hermione held her breath, trembling in her huddled position, terrified to even blink.

“The room is more than satisfactory. Thank you, Madam.”

Hermione swallowed lightly, straining to hear the second voice. A deep, resonating baritone, smooth and pleasant, and perfectly foreign to her ears. There were only a handful of men employed at the Home, Filch the one who most frequently interacted with the girls. Aside from outside gardeners and maintenance workers, and the owner of the local Apothecary who made infrequent visits, Hermione couldn't recall any other male staff members.

“Good. Well, I shall let you get settled then, Doctor.”

Hermione blinked, heart lurching. Doctor? It seemed the Matron had found a replacement after all. But the idea of it being a male physician sent chills of unease down her spine.

“I appreciate your hospitality, Madam, especially at this hour.”

Footsteps headed in her direction. Hermione drew in a sharp gasp, pressing into the wood backing of the wardrobe. This was it, she was about to be discovered and thrown out on the streets and left to rot away in the gutters, scrounging for scraps and puddles of filthy water-

The door swung open and soft candlelight streamed in, along with a beam of moonlight that perfectly illuminated the face of the handsome stranger standing a foot away.

Staring right at her.

Their eyes locked, hers wide and full of unbridled terror, his slightly narrowed but without scorn, with storm grey irises that seemed to glow from within, stealing what little breath she had left. The corner of his mouth tipped up, and as though nothing were amiss, he glanced away and began to shrug out of his heavy overcoat.

“I look forward to meeting the residents tomorrow,” he said, reaching into the wardrobe and extracting a folding hanger from above Hermione’s head. She watched in fascinated shock as he casually strung the garment around the wood and hung it up beside her.

“Your feelings will change soon after you do, I assure you,” her Matron said with no shortness of scorn from where she hovered near the entrance.

The Doctor’s eyes locked with Hermione’s once more, rendering her as motionless as a pin through a butterfly wing.

“I beg to differ. I have a feeling there are some rather interesting individuals residing here.”

She felt a warm flush steal across her neck and cheeks and became hyper-aware of the fact her bare legs were on display. She wanted to pull her robe down, wrap it around her knees, but she feared such a movement would draw her Matron’s attention.

“The only interesting thing about them is how wild and graceless they can be. They go out of their way to disgrace everything the fairer sex stands for.”

The stranger raised a dark brow, sharp features looking lethal in the flickering light, his smirk expanding into a smile that showed a row of perfectly white, gleaming teeth, but his expression held no humor, it looked cruel, mocking, and it made Hermione instinctively shrink back further.

“It seems you harbor no affection for your charges, Madam.”

Umbridge scoffed indelicately. “As I said, wait until you meet them for yourself.”

His eyes remained fixed on Hermione, unyielding in their intensity. “I look forward to it.”

And then to her great shock-

He winked.

And closed the door, once more encasing her in darkness.

She released a slow breath, lungs burning for oxygen as the muffled exchange of conversation filtered through the door.

Oh my god.

She pressed a hand to her chest, then slid her fingertips to her neck, checking her pulse, feeling the almost painful thrum of her artery.

Oh my god.

She couldn’t form any more coherent thought than that. The moment was unreal, a strange dream, unlike her usual nightmares but no less terrifying.

There could be no other plausible explanation.

She blinked rapidly in the darkness as she heard the click of her Matron’s heels receding. She sat numb, frozen, unsure what to do.

“You can come out now.”

She gasped anew, hoping he had left as well.

Of course not, this is his room you idiot girl.

She swallowed, biting her lip as she slowly unfurled her legs and pushed the door open with a trembling hand. She hovered, still seated on the wide shelf of the wardrobe, and gazed with wide eyes at the man standing before the foot of the bed, arms folded casually across his chest.

She trembled, muscles tense, a frightened animal in the midst of a predator.

A devastatingly handsome predator, which only served to terrify her further. Beautiful things were always the most deadly.

He was tall and lean, shoulders broad and waist narrow, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to reveal pale, sinewy forearms. But she spared little observation for his body, her eyes locked with his, everything around her become hazy while his face remained in perfect clarity.

He had a thick wave of dark brown hair rendered black in the moonlight, his high cheekbones and sharp jawline reminding her painfully of the aristocratic features of another man with equally pale eyes, causing her chest to seize painfully.

She unconsciously rubbed at the gaping wound, causing those pale eyes to flicker down and track the movement. She released a pained breath, remembering she was still clad in nothing but her thin nightdress and robe and quickly scrambled to her feet, pulling the garment closed around her and tying the sash with clumsy fingers.

“Hello.” His voice both soothed and rattled her nerves.

Her eyes darted around the room. The door was closed.

Please don’t let it be locked…

“My name is Doctor Riddle. And you are?”

Her eyes snapped back to his. She hesitated, wanting to run like a frightened rabbit, but some invisible force kept her grounded. She swallowed past the constriction in her throat before answering in a weak voice.

“Hermione.”

The man nodded, as though he suspected that were her name, and then took a casual step back, turning to face the bed.

“Pleasure to meet you, Hermione.”

She blinked, watching him lean down and open the traveling case that lay at the center of the mattress.

“Do I want to know why you were hiding in my wardrobe?”

She took a deep breath, steeling her nerves. “It wasn't your wardrobe when I first got in.”

This seemed to amuse him, a secretive smile playing at the corner of his lips. “Fair enough.”

He started pulling piles of clothing and books from the case, spreading them over the coverlet in a meticulous fashion. She watched him for several moments as though in a trance. Then he turned to face her once more, and she was shaken from her stupor.

“I have a feeling you’re not where you’re supposed to be, and that the Madam of the House will have a great deal to say about the matter if you’re caught.”

Hermione took a step back. “I…”

He tipped his head, eyes roaming her body, but in such a clinical fashion it didn’t unsettle her as it normally would. “I won’t report you. But I suggest you return to where you need to be in haste.”

She nodded mutely, taking another step back until she was halfway to the door. They continued to stare at each other, gazes locked, hers displaying a strange fascination and his some unknown emotion that shone brightly in his expanding pupils.

“Thank you,” she whispered, not knowing what else to say, and quickly spun on her heel, dashing for the door.

As she opened it and prepared to slip out he called her attention once more.

“Hermione.”

She glanced over her shoulder, pulse thrumming.

He smiled. The effect was devastating, making her mouth go dry.

“Sleep well.”

She blinked, unable to form words, so she merely nodded and slid through the narrow opening, clicking the door shut behind her.

She stood in the middle of the hall for several beats, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, a part of her still curled up tightly in the wardrobe, awaiting discovery.

Did that just happen?

She shook her head, swallowing thickly and pushing on, dashing down the dark hallway with her heart still lodged in her throat. She was so frazzled she lost track of her route back, taking more than one wrong turn before correcting her path, and running headlong into a figure huddled in the shadows.

She gasped sharply, prepared to scream when a hand clamped over her mouth.

“Shh!”

Hermione reared back, fighting off the strong limbs that entwined around her.

No no no no no no!

“Mione, shut up!”

Hearing her nickname rendered her motionless, the familiar voice taking root in her mind. As she stilled the hand slowly freed her lips. She pushed the arm away angrily, spinning around and glaring up at the tall figure before her.

“Cormac! You idiot, what are you doing-”

She blinked, cut short by the memory of a muscled, sweaty, undulating back. She swallowed, cheeks aflame.

“You were in the closet with Lavender.”

He blinked, raising a brow, then his face transformed into a wolfish grin. “Were you watching us, luv? A bit of a voyeur are you?”

She crossed her arms, eyes narrowing. “I came to rescue her from herself. If she gets caught sneaking around after curfew she’ll be kicked out. But I doubt you care about that, as long as you get your midnight kicks.”

He shook his head, tilting his head and eyes roaming her body slowly, his expression nothing like Dr. Riddle’s had been. She felt dirty, exposed. She stepped back, blushing anew.

“Well, maybe you should help her out, sneak out in her place. You know I’d make it good for you.”

She felt bile rise in her throat. “Get. Out.”

You vile, loathsome pig went unspoken, but the moniker was clearly read in her eyes. However, Cormac wasn’t easily offended, not like most young men his age. He merely laughed at her ire like it was some private joke between them.

He carded his fingers through his sandy blonde hair and winked, another perverted mockery of the gesture Dr. Riddle had made earlier and then stepped over to the window.

She blinked, about to ask him just what the hell he thought he was doing, but his intent became obvious as he pushed open the pane and hoisted himself up into the frame.

“Are you mad?”

He glanced over his shoulder. “Worried about me, luv?”

She glared. “Do try to break your fall with your neck.”

He tossed his head back and laughed, causing Hermione to glance around frantically, terrified Filch would hear.

“I’ll see you later,” he blew her a kiss and then slid his other leg over, dropping down down down...

She ran to the window and peered out, sighing in relief as she watched the idiot land gracelessly in a dense pile of springy shrubs. Once she confirmed he wasn’t dead she pulled the window shut and locked it. Her eyes were caught by her own reflection staring back at her in the pane, a pale, ghostly image with deep circles beneath doe-like, haunted eyes.

She allowed her gaze to linger a few moments longer before she slowly backed away, bidding the translucent version of herself a silent farewell as she continued her path to the dorms.

By the time she slipped inside her room, she felt well and truly exhausted. The silver lining was she was likely to pass out as soon as she laid down, her mind too addled to concoct any more nightmares.

“Hermione, thank god! We thought Filch had snagged you!”

She jumped slightly at the declaration, Pavarti hovering by the door. She glanced past her to see Lavender sitting in the center of her bed, weaving her pale tresses into an intricate plait.

Hermione narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth.

“Please, spare me the lecture,” the blonde said without any real heat. “I know, I’m a bloody idiot and am just asking for trouble. You’re terribly disappointed in me, I got it.”

Hermione sighed, rolling her eyes. “It’s no fun when you say it for me.”

The blonde smirked. “Sorry I made you go chasing after me.”

Hermione made her way towards her own bed, feeling weary down to her bones now that the adrenaline had dissipated from her system.

“Did you spot Filch?” Parvati asked.

Hermione bit her lip, debating just how much to tell them. For some inexplicable reason, she wanted to keep her exchange with the doctor private. She had so few things that belonged solely to her. She tossed her robe to the foot of the mattress and slid her legs beneath the blanket.

“No,” she said, laying her head on her pillow. “I didn’t see anyone.”

Chapter Text

There’s no use going back to yesterday,
Because I was a different person then.

.   .   .

Hermione stirred her porridge absentmindedly, eyes fixed on a bare patch of table beside her bowl. She had yet to bring a spoonful to her mouth. The breakfast selection at the Home was narrow, though not totally abysmal. They still had appearances to keep, and a bunch of starving, malnutritioned wards would not ensure renewed funding every year.

The Queen liked to throw crown money at social causes, particularly those suited to women, without having to step foot in the hovels herself. Hermione was certain the funding was at least partially diverted to other interests before the residents saw any benefit. But the powers that be couldn’t allow the place to fall into complete ruins, otherwise they’d be cut off entirely.

Still, she had no stomach for the food set out before her. She selected a bowl of mush so she’d have something to do with her hands, giving the illusion of eating. Her appetite was nonexistent, as it had been for the last year. She only ate when pressured, and her thin, brittle frame was showing the wear and tear of her poor diet. Her collarbone all but jutted out from her pale skin, nearly every rib visible around her middle. She wore high collars and extra layering to hide the evidence of her slow disintegration.

Truth be told she could care less about her appearance these days. And it seemed right that her outside match her inside. Broken and scarred.

It was strange to think back to who she once was such a short time ago. The silk dresses, the glittering gems, the painstaking hours of prep before she’d dare step foot outside. Her mother would spend all morning twisting Hermione’s curls into lavish up-do’s, strategically placing pearl-tipped pins throughout, giggling along with her daughter as the thick locks refused to stay in place for more than a second or two.

Thinking of her mother caused a sharp pain in her chest, a chronic ache of late, one she knew was psychologically based though she pressed her hand to the spot anyway. A silent acknowledgment of her grief, her loss, her past.

She lowered her hand to her lap as someone slid onto the bench beside her. Hermione didn’t have to look up to know who it was, the smell of gardenias hitting her nose before the white blonde braid was visible in her peripheral.

“Good morning, Hermione.”

“Good morning, Luna. You’ve been tending the garden?”

The slight girl smiled, her expression one of genuine serenity. “You are very observant. Or did Lauma tell you?”

Hermione couldn’t help but smirk. “No, I’m afraid Lauma doesn’t speak to me.” She continued to stir her bowl. “What form did she take today?”

“A spotted magpie,” Luna said as she played idly with her long braid. “She sang to me while I watered the flowers.”

Hermione glanced sidelong at her strange companion who claimed the woodland fae goddess communed with her in the form of various animals. “That’s a good sign, isn’t it? It means it’s going to be a good day.”

Luna shrugged a delicate shoulder. “It depends on the message. She sounded a bit frantic. I think she was trying to warn me.”

Hermione blinked, a sudden cold settling into her bone. She set her spoon down, turning to face the blonde fully. “Warn you about what?”

Luna reached for a piece of burnt toast without a care in the world. “I don’t know, I had trouble understanding her. Something in the air is affecting my aura.”

“The air? Like smog?”

“No,” she slid the butter dish closer. “Nothing you can see. Something you can feel,” then glanced at Hermione with guileless blue eyes. “You can feel it, too. I can tell.”

Hermione swallowed, heart skipping a beat. She tentatively wet her lips, about to ask more questions when a new voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Loony Lovegood, covered in filth before breakfast is finished. Sleeping in the stables again?”

Hermione glared at the girl standing behind them.

“What’s your problem, Marietta?”

The girl smiled with malevolent glee. “My problem, Hermione, is Loony’s stench. Or maybe it’s you I’m smelling from across the room?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Luna smells like the garden and I practically bathed in rose oil this morning, I know your capacity for original thought is limited but do try and be more creative.”

She turned back around, not willing to give the petulant girl another moment of her time, but felt the rage simmering at her back all the same.

“You stupid bunter, think you’re so much better than everyone here because you grew up on the Westside? Well, now you’re stuck in the East end like the rest of us because no man will have you, which makes sense considering you’re certainly nothing to look at, so don’t think for a minute-”

“Not thinking is really more your thing, isn’t it Edgecomb?” Came a new voice.

“As is deterring members of the opposite sex with your ghastly face.” Came a second.

Lavender and Parvati appeared, flanking the angry girl from behind, exchanging smirks as they crossed to the table and sat opposite Hermione and Luna.

“You- you- dumb whores-”

“It’s alright, Rhetta, if there are men desperate enough to pay for it there’s gotta be someone willing to stick it to you for free.”

“Lavender!” Hermione hissed. “Not at the breakfast table.”

Her roommate laughed, reaching for her own piece of burnt toast without a hint of shame. “Oh please, it’s not like I told her to wear a bag over her head-”

“That’s enough!” Hermione glanced around, looking for Umbridge as Marietta turned bright red, sputtering in rage and embarrassment.

“It’s really just your complexion, luv,” Parvati said, voice dripping with faux sympathy. “Men mistake your face for your arse and get all confused.”

Lavender choked on her bite, spitting crumbs across the table. Hermione shook her head, spotting their Matron at the head table, eyes narrowed and fastened on the cluster of girls. “We’re being watched.”

All heads swiveled around to peer at the head table as well. Marietta reluctantly stepped away from the group.

“This isn’t over,” she hissed menacingly, stomping away with clenched fists and a blistering red face.

“I can’t believe you said that, Parvati,” Hermione whispered. “What if she reports you to Umbridge?”

The girl rolled her dark eyes. “She’d never have the nerve to repeat it because she knows it’s true.”

Hermione sighed as Lavender erupted into a fit of giggles. Luna started humming as she nibbled at her crusts, seemingly oblivious to the entire encounter.

“Oh relax, Mione, Edgecomb isn’t a threat. She’s a brown-nosing little-” Lavender stopped short, mouth agape and eyes glassy. Hermione blinked, brow furrowed.

“Lav?”

The blonde was unresponsive, eyes affixed to some point beyond Hermione’s shoulder. Hermione glanced at Parvati in confusion and noticed her gaze similarly locked. She spun around on the bench just as the chatter within the dining hall come to a standstill. The silence was jarring, eerie, and then Hermione saw what everyone was staring at and understood.

Dr. Riddle had entered the room.

For his part, he either didn’t notice or chose to ignore the profound effect his presence was having on the female population surrounding him. Her money was on the latter, as the sea of teenage girls made their interest shamefully obvious. They giggled and blushed, whispered behind their hands, batted eyelashes and tipped their heads coyly.

Hermione felt a wave of nausea seize her. She was embarrassed to be in the same room as these twits, counted among their ranks. She turned back around to say as much to her friends when she noticed her roommates practically salivating onto the table.

“Oh for heaven’s sake…”

They didn’t hear her, eyes tracking his every movement as he slowly cut a path down the middle of the room toward the head table.

“Strange…” Luna mumbled, gaining Hermione’s attention.

“What is?” she whispered, the room still uncharacteristically quiet.

“Your aura… it’s changed.”

Hermione blinked, at a loss for words. Just then the silence was broken by the cringe-inducing sound of their Matron clearing her throat. It sounded kittens drowning in a burlap bag. Hermione imparted a lingering look of confusion and dismay to her benchmate before turning to face the front of the room.

Umbridge stood on her little crate, making her round shape hover two feet higher than usual. She glanced about the room with her signature narrowed and suspicious gaze paired with a cruel little smirk.

“How lovely to have everyone so attentive first thing in the morning. Perhaps I’ve been able to instill a modicum of manners into you after all.”

Dr. Riddle came to a stop beside the Matron, turning to face the room with his hands clasped behind him, shoulders back and chest out. Despite the modelesque stature, she could tell it was a natural repose for the man, not an act of preening she was used to seeing young men like Cormac exhibit when in female company.

She tilted her head, studying him in a clinical fashion, much as he did to her the night before. She hadn’t been able to really process his appearance then, as frazzled as she was. Now she was safely encased within the group, free to peruse at her leisure.

He was obviously quite attractive, even more so in the sunlight, which was surprising as it normally revealed flaws. But his pale skin was unblemished, carved from marble, sloping in perfect lines beneath a heavy brow. His clothing was as dark as his hair, well pressed and bespoke.

Everything about him was inviting, screaming refinement and money, it was no wonder the room was filled with such shock and awe. It wasn’t often such a specimen was seen on this side of town, little less within these walls. At least not during daylight hours. Plenty of rich young men found themselves wandering the halls at night in search of female company. And many of the residents were only too happy to oblige, taken in by promises of a better life. Others simply gave in for the promise of one less lonely evening.

But Hermione wasn’t fazed by his appearance or beauty. If anything she was off-put by both. She was no stranger to high born males who dressed like kings and treated everyone around them like squires. She had lived alongside that sphere for most her life, never a part of it, always an outsider looking in, painfully aware of her so-called shortcomings due to her great misfortune of being born into the wrong family.

She was already classifying the Doctor among the gentry she so detested. She had barely spoken to him last night, and truth be told he showed her great leniency in letting her go without punishment or even reprimand, but she didn’t dwell on that detail. She couldn’t afford to think of him as anything but a person to avoid. She would form no ties with this strange man.

She finished her examination and judgment before Umbridge even introduced him to the room.

“I would like you to all help me in welcoming our newest member of the administration, Dr. Thomas Riddle. He joins us from St. Mungo’s Hospital where he came very highly spoken of by all of his associates, and we are so very honored to have him join us.”

There was an explosion of chatter, eyes gleaming and limbs fidgeting as the crowd moved as one to try and get a closer look.

“Ladies! Ladies, do calm down!” Umbridge yelled, looking greatly put out. Her pleas fell on deaf ears, the ensuing chaos growing louder as girls called across the room to one another, exchanging jokes and laughing sharply.

Dr. Riddle looked mostly amused, the corner of his mouth tipping up as he gazed around the room with little interest. Hermione’s spine went rigid. It was as she suspected, of course, Umbridge would hire someone with as little regard for the residents as herself. And if rumor was true, no one wanted the post to begin with which is why it took so long to fill, so she highly doubted Riddle was all that respected in the field unless he simply drew the short straw.

She narrowed her eyes at him, glaring at the side of his perfect face, only for his head to turn and his eyes to lock with hers.

She jolted, accusing expression melting away to one of dismay at once again being pinned beneath his intense gaze. There was a sudden flash of lightning in his storm cloud eyes, perhaps a flicker of recognition, and his air of amusement only grew. She felt a flush spread across her chest and up her neck, staining her cheeks, heart stuttering, and then he finally released her, glancing back into the crowd as if nothing had happened.

She deflated with a sharp breath, unaware she’d even been holding it in.

Yes… I definitely need to stay away from that one.

“Blimey, I think he was looking at you.”

Hermione blinked, glancing across the table.

“What?”

Parvati raised a dark brow. “He was staring right at you. Probably thought you have a fever with how red you’re turning.” She smiled knowingly, making Hermione burn even hotter.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. He wasn’t looking at me.”

“Leave her alone, Parv,” Lavender smirked, twirling a long strand of hair around her finger. “If he pinned me under his stare I’d be turning all shades of crimson.”

“If he had you pinned under-”

“Enough!” Hermione hissed, facing the front of the room, folding her hands in her lap so tightly her knuckles turned white.

“Quiet!” Umbridge all but screamed, complexion turning a blotchy purple. “Act like respectable young women!” Her eyes bugged out, a vein throbbed in her forehead. It was all Hermione could do to hold in her laughter, others weren’t so capable. Umbridge silenced them with a lethal glare.

“You will all behave the way young ladies are supposed to behave, and will not embarrass me or this establishment!”

Riddle looked both humored and perturbed by the Matron’s tirade. Hermione did her best to keep her eyes off him but she was finding it increasingly difficult. The crowd finally settled, silence falling across the room in a rippling wave. Umbridge gasped for breath.

“Dr. Riddle will be treated with the respect that his title and position in the Home deserve. Any offense against him will be treated the same as an offense against me.” She scanned the crowd with a slitted gaze, her focus lingering on a select few charges, Lavender included. The blonde rolled her eyes, indifferent to the threat.

“Once the Doctor is settled into his office he will begin seeing patients on a case by case basis, starting with those who have not been to see a physician since their admittance.”

Hermione’s heart skipped a beat.

“If this includes you then you will review the schedule posted outside the clinic door tomorrow evening. If you are late for your appointment or try skipping it-” her eyes fell on Hermione, burning bright with hell flame, “I assure you, you will not enjoy the consequences.”

Hermione released a slow breath as the Matron glanced away. She felt her heart lurch once more as she felt the Doctor’s fathomless eyes upon her, no doubt taking cues from Umbridge. She swallowed thickly until the feeling of being watched passed. Her fists were clenched so tightly her blunt nails broke the skin of her palm. The sting of pain grounded her.

And as if the Matron didn’t just spend the last five minutes threatening and belittling the entire room, she smiled brightly and bounced on her heels. “Splendid! I am so looking forward to another productive day. The weather is superb, so there’s no excuse for anyone to dawdle in the dining hall. Remember, idle hands are the devil’s playthings.”

Parvati scoffed under her breath as the room once more erupted into conversation. Hermione watched as the Doctor extended a hand to their Matron, helping her off the crate. Umbridge flushed lightly, her hand lingering on his even after his fingers released her. Hermione blinked, glancing away sharply and staring at her congealed porridge.

“Well, the day is certainly off to an interesting start,” Lavender said, sweeping a pile of crumbs to the floor with a smirk. She loved creating a mess for Filch.

“You’re one lucky bint, Mione.” Parvati grabbed a piece of toast and began ripping it into small pieces, tossing them over her shoulder onto the floor. “You’ll get to spend some quality time with the good doctor before any of us. You have to report back, spare no detail.”

Hermione rolled her eyes at their antics. “I will do no such thing. I don’t understand the cause for such a stir. He’s a medical professional, what do the girls think is going to happen? He sees us as his patients and nothing more.”

Lavender smirked, leaning in closer. “Obviously you don’t know why the last doc got chucked.”

Hermione’s pulse thrummed wildly. “What do you mean?”

“He was a bad man.”

Hermione jumped lightly, nearly forgetting Luna was still seated beside her. The girl’s simple but loaded declaration made goosebumps erupt along her arms.

“What did he do?”

“Let’s just say he adhered to the medical half of his job title a bit more closely than the professional part,” Parvati said with disinterest, glancing about the room.

Hermione’s mind reeled. “Are you saying he was inappropriate with the residents?”

“If that’s the genteel way of saying he knocked boots with ‘em, then yes.” Lavender looked far too amused for the subject matter they were discussing.

Hermione blinked, face turning white. She opened and closed her mouth, at a loss for what to say, unable to think through the sudden emotions that seized her. How could such a thing happen? This was meant to be a safe haven for young women, the mere idea that someone charged with providing protection and care could abuse them in such a way was overwhelmingly terrifying.

She glanced over her shoulder at where the Doctor last stood, but he was already gone.


Hermione pushed open the glass inlaid door, the overhead bell ringing through the small Apothecary.

“You’re late.”

She fought back a sigh. “I was detained by Madam Umbridge. She extended the list, we have a new physician on staff and the medical pantry needs restocking.”

“I’m aware. Now stop wasting my time further and hand it to me.”

Hermione crossed the wood slat floor and did as requested, barely phased by Snape’s ire. She was used to it after three months of regular visits. It was unheard of for Umbridge to entrust one of the residents with the important task of procuring medical supplies for the Home, apparently, Filch had been assigned the errand previously. But Hermione’s existing knowledge of medicine and chemistry made her a more viable candidate for the task.

Of course, Umbridge went through the shopping basket with a narrowed eye upon her return each time, no doubt paranoid Hermione was pocketing substances for herself. Hermione found it mildly irritating but didn’t take great offense, she knew how much she could earn if she sold tonics on the side to the other residents or even on the street. Lavender had already tried to convince her to do so more than once before Parvati finally convinced the blonde to let the matter rest.

And as much biting sarcasm as Snape drenched her with during her visits, she knew he preferred her to Filch’s company any day of the week. He often tossed out random questions to challenge her, looking annoyed when she answered correctly, but also somewhat pleased. She imagined he considered the majority of his customer base to be idiots.

She watched as his black eyes scanned the parchment, flickering back and forth rapidly before he set it on the counter and disappeared between the aisles. She heard him rummaging about, the tinkling of glass, and saw flashes of his thin, ghostly frame between gaps in the shelves.

“May I help?”

She already knew what the answer would be, but enjoyed poking at the bear with a stick. She had so few outlets for entertainment these days.

“The only help you could provide is acting as a human door jam.”

She rolled her eyes. “I was going to suggest substituting the laudanum with soothing syrups. Both are addictive but the girls won’t be as familiar with the latter and therefore less likely to abuse it.”

“Seeing as I’m not a complete imbecile I’ve already made the alteration.”

She folded her hands behind her back, glancing about the shop with a gleam in her eyes, pacing along the display cases. She didn’t notice Snape watching her through the shelving, dark brow raised.

“You seem restless today, Ms. Granger. List the humoural temperaments.”

She blinked, feeling a thrill race along her spine, making her stand taller. “Sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic, if you’re basing it on classical theory. If you lean towards Kant’s argument then of course phlegmatic is merely the absence of temperament. Unless you adhere to the five temperamental theory, in which case the latter is deemed neutral, whereas relationship-oriented introverts are regarded as the fifth classification.”

The corner of his mouth tipped up a fraction before his expression once more pinched into a classic scowl.

“There, you got to show off. Now stop wearing a hole in my floor.”

She sighed, coming to a standstill. “The pedlar’s back. I saw him at the corner of Browning on my way here.”

“I’m aware.”

She frowned at the scorn in his voice. “Why hasn’t he been arrested? He’s selling snake oil and patents, at least one death has been linked directly to a tonic from his wagon.”

“The authorities rarely put the focus where it is most needed, surely you of all people are aware of that unfortunate fact.”

Hermione swallowed thickly, averting her eyes to the floor. She couldn’t shake the dark cloud she felt hovering above her since last night. She was pulled from her thoughts by Snape’s bored drawl.

“I find it fascinating you have such concern for the welfare of Fletcher’s clients and so little for your own.”

She glanced up, brows pinched, watching him move from one aisle to the next like a graceful bird of prey, long deft fingers grabbing up tiny bottles, boxes, and pouches and adding them to the ever growing pile.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve lost half a stone since you last deemed to grace me with your incessant presence.”

She feigned fascination with a display case in front of her, which did nothing to deter him.

“And here I thought you had some common sense about you. Surely you’re aware daily sustenance is needed for the body’s vital functions to continue operating?”

“Last Spring a man survived for twenty-two days on a boat without food.”

“What a useful piece of information.”

She bit her lip, glancing down, a flush stealing her cheeks.

Snape was silent for a while, the only sounds in the shop his swift footsteps as he navigated inventory until he spoke again, voice laced with disinterest.

“You should try and survive until Parliament reconvenes. Gurney is bringing forth an interesting proposal.”

Her head snapped up, embarrassment forgotten in wake of excitement. She stepped around one of the shelves but only caught a flash of black coat tails as he darted to another corner.

“They’re voting on the Medical Act?”

She didn’t have regular access to political news anymore, having to settle for snippets she overheard in the streets or read in stray newspapers she found along the pavement.

“Indeed.”

“Do you think it will pass?” she continued to search for him along the stacks. He was like a human shadow, jumping from one place to the next as quickly as light traveled.

“The Queen is certainly against it. But Gurney has a long record of overcoming great obstacles. He managed to get the Property Act through after all.”

Hermione swallowed heavily. The implications were life-changing. For the first time in a long time, she dared to feel hope. Her heart was light and fragile as glass in her chest, one touch and it would shatter to pieces.

Snape appeared before her as though materializing from thin air. She reared back, tipped off balance. He grimaced as she steadied herself against the wall, narrowly avoiding crashing into a cough suppressant display.

“Another symptom of starvation is lightheadedness.”

She blinked rapidly. “I didn’t- I mean, you-” she swallowed, shaking her head and falling silent as he passed her swiftly, loaded basket in hand.

“I will add these to the Home account. Tell me, do you enjoy performing sums as much as hearing yourself speak?”

She blinked, head tipping as she watched him pull the ledger from under the counter, writing fast and furious along the page.

“I find myself in need of part-time assistance. I would put a sign out front but I shudder to think of the vermin it would attract.”

Her heart lurched. She inhaled sharply as she watched him continued to write, speaking as though she weren’t even there.

“I need someone to take inventory, restock shelves, and conduct rudimentary sales on occasion. And while I’d prefer a deaf-mute, I doubt I’ll be able to find one on such short notice. If I’m forced to settle, I suppose you’re as adequate as anyone else. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in the position?”

She swallowed thickly, standing straight. “I- yes, of course, that is, I would be honored to- if you needed the help-”

“Bloody hell.” He glanced up sharply, eyes narrowed. “I already regret asking.”

She couldn't help the smile from overtaking her face, causing him to scowl further. “Yes! I would love to assist you-” she stopped short, eyes widening. “But I don’t think Madam Umbridge would allow it.”

His expression flickered, true malevolence overtaking his face for a brief moment, so quick she wasn’t certain if she imagined it or not.

“I will speak to her,” he glanced back down, continuing to write. “Your skills are wasted as a simple errand girl.”

She blinked rapidly, sure she’d misheard him even as warmth permeated her chest. The comment was high praise coming from Snape, and it had been so long since she’d heard such commending words regarding her intellect she felt shaken to her core.

He raised a brow, eyes still focused on the parchment but no doubt sensing her reaction. “Don’t get a big head. It will look obscenely out of place on that skeletal body.”

That was more like it. Still, she felt light, dizzy with excitement and hope, the dark cloud overhead breaking apart, light peaking through.

For just a moment, she felt the old Hermione stir beneath the surface.


She was so excited about her potential new position at the Apothecary she nearly forgot her second mission of the day. She was supposed to head straight back to the Home with the supplies, of course, but she knew escaping the oppressive walls would be all but impossible as soon as she returned.

And she had something vitally important to do, no matter the consequences.

She briefly studied her reflection in the window pane, trying not to cringe. She looked ghastly, and while she normally didn’t give two figs, she knew the person she was meeting with inside the cafe would have a strong opinion on the matter.

She sighed, doing her best to keep her loose curls out of her face. She didn’t spend nearly as much time as she should twisting her hair up, it was only a matter of time before the entire mess came crashing down around her.

She knew she couldn’t delay any longer. Taking a deep breath she pushed the door open and stepped inside. Luckily they were meeting at a halfway point and therefore she only received a fraction of the sidelong glances she would have been subjected to if they were at a nicer establishment.

She stood on her tiptoes, peering around the tops of heads looking for the familiar shock of hair, balancing her Apothecary baskets between her hands.

“Mione! Over here!”

Her heart leaped into her throat. She spun around, eyes wide and smile breaking loose upon spotting him.

“Harry!”

He stood from his chair as she approached, weaving between tables. He stepped forward, unable to wait any longer, and seized her in a hug. She laughed, wrapping one arm around him and holding the basket aloft with the other. He breathed into her hair.

“Christ, I’ve missed you.”

She felt tears spring to her eyes at the simple admission. Her chest burned.

“I’ve missed you, too.”

He slowly released her. They gazed at each other, oblivious to the stares they were receiving from the other patrons. Her bedraggled appearance may not cause a huge stir, but a man and woman embracing publically was certainly a borderline scandal. No doubt the onlookers were curious to see how much further the couple took it.

But Hermione was used to the assumptions people drew about her and her best friend. She’d given up explaining their bond years ago. Harry had been a central part of her life since their fathers became work associates and then friends when their children were barely three feet high. After his parents died and his godfather took him in, Hermione’s parents doted on the boy they considered a son.

She had been used to seeing him on a daily basis until he turned eighteen and joined the Royal Navy. Being without him for weeks, sometimes months at a time was a painful adjustment. And then tragedy had struck Hermione’s own family, and now she saw him even less.

“You look dashing,” she said with a smirk, admiring his tanned complexion and bright emerald gaze.

He flashed a dazzling smile, dimples appearing at the ends. “Stop that. You look-” he stopped short, finally taking a moment to gaze upon her fully. His smile fell, eyes dimming. “Mione, what’s happened?”

She swallowed, stepping around him towards the table, eager to sit and block her thin frame from view.

“Nothing’s happened, let’s sit and order, I’m starving.”

She cringed, regretting the turn of phrase as soon as she said it. She kept her gaze averted to the basket as she set it beside her feet.

“Obviously. Have they not been feeding you?”

She shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve just been really busy-”

“Too busy to take care of yourself?” He slid into the chair across from her, eyes narrowed.

“Harry, please, let’s not do this right now-”

“Then when Mione? I haven’t seen you in over two months, and you look like you-”

He inhaled sharply, shaking his head. Now she narrowed her eyes.

“And I look like I what, Harry? Say it.”

“Nevermind.”

“No, you obviously want to talk about it, so let’s talk. What do I look like?”

“I don’t want to fight.”

She exhaled slowly, expression softening. “Neither do I.”

He sighed, handing her a menu and opening his. “If you want we can go round back and I’ll let you punch me.”

She smirked. “That sounds splendid.” Her eyes roamed the page without reading anything. She glanced over the top. “How was the Mediterranean? You look like Apollo come to life.”

He laughed shortly. “I don’t know about that. But it was breathtaking, Mione. I have to take you to the islands. You’ve never seen water so blue, the way it sparkles like blue topaz beneath the sun.”

She smiled, happy to see Harry talk so animatedly about something once more. Her friend was normally in high spirits, always finding the bright side no matter the situation. She had been equal parts heartbroken and thrilled when he followed in his father and godfather’s shoes and enlisted.

“And the ship? Is it really mastless?”

“Yes, the first of her kind. She has a twin that is about to be sea-bound as well. They’re called Devastation class.”

His eyes lit up as he described the ironclad warships, but Hermione felt a stone sink to the pit of her stomach.

“Do you man the gun turret?”

He smirked, shaking his head. “I’m not senior enough for that. Yet. But Sirius thinks I’ll be ready in another couple years. I’m focused on weaponry but still training.”

She sighed. “I hate the thought of you on 13,000-ton weapon in the middle of the ocean.”

“If I’m going to be in the middle of the ocean, better to be on a floating weapon.”

She rolled her eyes as he laughed. “Relax, Mione. No one is going to mess with our ship, not when they know the firepower we have. I was in more danger on the previous routes I sailed.”

“Don’t remind me.”

His eyes scanned her face. “Enough about me. How are you?”

She bit her lip, focusing on the menu once more.

“That bad, huh.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Exactly.”

She swallowed tentatively. “Harry-”

“I don’t understand why you insist on staying there, Mione. Grimmauld is sitting completely empty right now, and even when Sirius and I are off rotation we’re practically family-”

“The rest of the world doesn’t know that, Harry. And they’d hardly listen if we tried to explain it to them.”

“I don’t give a toss what the rest of the world thinks.”

“People who don’t care about the opinions of others lead very lonely lives. And that’s what will happen to us both if we’re labeled an item.”

“We won’t be lonely if we have each other.”

She sighed, setting the menu down and leaning forward. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. I love you, Harry. And right now you might be longing for travel and adventure, but someday you’ll want to settle down, find a wife and start a family. And you’ll never be able to do so if all of London thinks I’ve been your kept mistress for the better part of our youth.”

“Then I’ll find someone outside of London.”

She rolled her eyes. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.”

“You mean you can’t stand it when I punch holes in your argument.”

“You’d have a better chance of punching holes in your warship.” She picked up the menu once more, eyes narrowed.

He smirked. “Glad to see your sharp tongue hasn’t dulled.”

She smirked in return. “I seldom have the opportunity to use it now that you’re off sailing the high seas.”

“So I take it that means you haven’t spoken to anyone else?”

Her amusement faded, knuckles turning white as she gripped the paper so tightly it bent.

“Hm?”

“I’ll take your half-hearted deflection as a resounding no.”

She swallowed. “I think I’ll get something sweet, I’m craving fresh fruit.”

“Hermione.”

She ground her teeth, hating when Harry used her proper name. It rarely boded well.

“I know you’ve been avoiding our friends because you’re all they ask me about since I got back.”

“Don’t be dramatic, you only got back yesterday.”

“I did. And guess who was waiting at my doorstep?”

Her heart lurched, her entire body going rigid in her seat. She continued to stare blankly at the dessert selection.

“I have no idea.”

“No guess whatsoever?”

“I’d have made one otherwise.”

“So you didn’t get into a big fight with-”

“I don’t want to discuss this.” She glanced up sharply, eyes narrowed. She couldn’t bear to hear his name spoken aloud. Not yet.

“I didn’t want to discuss it either, but I was forced to listen to his drunken ramblings until one in the bloody morning, so you can sit here and listen to me for a few minutes.”

She rolled her eyes, crossing her arms like a petulant child.

“Now I have no idea what is going on between the two of you…” He narrowed his gaze. “Frankly, I don’t want to know, since I’m sure it will send me into a violent rage, and I’m not going to be kicked out of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy over Draco Bloody Malfoy-” she cringed, unable to mask her visceral reaction. “So the two of you are going to work it out so I don’t have to have to act as mediator.”

She shook her head. “No one has asked you to be a mediator.” She certainly knew Draco wouldn’t. Then again, if he was truly in his cups last night and went to Harry’s door, then he must have been in quite a state… she wondered how much he revealed. It couldn't have been much, otherwise, Harry would have brought up the topic right away.

“The two of you have fought like cats and dogs since I made the horrific mistake of introducing you ten years ago. If I didn’t step in every now and then I’d have lost my sanity a long time ago. But I can’t do that anymore, not with being abroad and not with you being stuck in that asylum. I worry about you every day, all day, Mione. I need to know you’re okay. Draco can look out for you. But if you refuse to speak with him-”

“It’s not that,” she said, quickly swallowing and wishing she could recall the words.

Harry raised a dark brow. “No? Then what is it?”

She inhaled sharply, cheeks tinging pink. Harry groaned. “Bloody hell, I knew it, I’m going to fly into a violent rage-”

“It’s not a joke.”

“I’m not laughing.”

“I don’t want to discuss this with you-”

“Then discuss it with Draco!”

“I can’t!”

She blinked, jolting as she realized she had practically screamed the last part. She glanced around, eyes from nearby tables upon them. Harry sighed, either oblivious or uncaring of their audience. Probably the latter, as her friend was frustratingly observant.

“You don’t have a choice, Mione.”

She glanced back across the table, brows furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“He said you have to arrange a meeting with him, or he’s coming to you.”

She swallowed.

“Furthermore, he said if you make him come to you, he’s arriving in his family’s most gaudy stagecoach and wearing his most ostentatious suit and will tip the gossip rags off to his whereabouts so your reunion makes it to the front of the paper.”

She rolled her eyes, hands curling into fists on her lap.

Harry smirked, finding far too much humor in the blonde aristocrat's ludicrous threats.

“He also said to inform you that if you plan on slipping out of the Home upon his arrival, he’ll have his father purchase the deed to the building and the land, and have everyone but you evicted by morning.”

Hermione nodded, face pinched. “Lovely. Anything else?”

Harry smiled. “Yes, he said you have twenty-four hours to send him word, starting from last night.”

She scowled. “That son of a-”

“Are you ready to order?”

Hermione blinked, gazing up at the woman who stood beside their table, eyes fixed firmly to Harry, obvious wonder in their depths. Even out of uniform her best friend made a very attractive sight.

“Not yet, luv, give us a moment,” he barely spared her a glance but flashed a cheeky wink that made her giggle nervously.

“Okay, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

She walked away slowly, batting her lashes. Hermione rolled her eyes. “Why am I surrounded by such desperate women?”

“She wasn’t desperate, she was flirting. There’s a difference, not that you’d recognize either.”

“What does that mean?”

“Your idea of flirting is debating politics or breaking someone’s nose.”

She flushed brightly. “That was one time! And it was hardly flirting-”

“As I said, I don’t want to know. I just want the two of you to get it sorted. Which is why I’m here to reluctantly act as your messenger pigeon.”

She sighed, shoulders drooping. She didn’t want to do this, wasn’t ready to do this, but it seemed she had little choice in the matter. Her free will burned away in her childhood home.

And yet a part of her, albeit a small, frustratingly supercilious part of her, knew that Draco wasn’t being all that unreasonable. After all, she had ghosted him for the last three months, avoiding public markets and parks where she knew he may corner her, and remained unresponsive to his many letters.

She read them all, obsessively, until she memorized every word, before carefully folding and binding them in a pile, tucking them beneath her mattress pad only to repeat the ritual night after night.

Her silence was cruel. She knew that. But avoidance was so much easier than facing the situation head-on. There’d been too much to deal with this last year, she couldn’t process it all at once.

However, it seemed he finally had her cornered. She believed every word of his threat. It would only serve his ultimate purpose to splash their faces over the gossip rags, and she knew if she held up in her room he would happily purchase the building, his family had more money than the Crown and his father was constantly buying and renovating properties. A Wayward Girls Home would only diversify his already massive portfolio, making him look like a charitable philanthropist and further strengthening the Malfoy name.

She chewed on the inside of her cheek, pulling free from the vortex of her thoughts and feeling exhausted by the onslaught. She locked eyes with Harry, exhaling sharply through her nose at his amused and knowing grin.

“Tomorrow. Royal Gardens. 10 am.”

It was a struggle to bite out each word. Harry seemed only more amused. “Great. Where should he meet you inside?”

She closed her eyes briefly, the familiar stab of pain impaling her heart. She snapped her gaze back quickly, trying to mask her reaction.

“Just tell him to meet me at Kew. He’ll know where to find me.”


Hermione was reluctant to part ways from Harry. She would have happily lingered all day in his company, but she had delayed her return to the Home for too long already. She had no doubt Umbridge would punish her for her tardiness, but she wanted to avoid total house arrest.

She doubted Draco would appreciate her excuse if she stood him up, and she certainly couldn't reveal her plans to meet him tomorrow to her Matron. Umbridge already thought all of her charges were sexed up strumpets who were only a glance away from being impregnated by any man that passed them along the street.

Hermione would have to be on her best behavior and draw as little notice to herself as possible until she was able to slip out after breakfast tomorrow morning. Perhaps she could get Parvati to cover for her should her absence be noted. She would ask less questions than Lavender-

“There you are!”

Hermione froze halfway down the hall, the click click click gaining speed and volume behind her. She took a deep breath before slowly turning around. She opened her mouth but her Matron cut her off.

“I don’t want to hear whatever pitiful lie you’ve concocted! You should have been back an hour ago. Where have you been? And give me that!” She forcefully tugged the Apothecary basket from Hermione’s grasp. “If I find a single item missing you can rest assured you will be spending the rest of your nights sleeping in the gutter.”

Hermione forced her face to remain neutral. “Yes, Madam.”

Umbridge huffed in annoyance, always frustrated by the fact Hermione never took the bait.

“Come to my office at once.”

Hermione fell in step behind the short rotund woman, hands clenched at her side. They followed a few more twisting paths through the old building before they emerged inside the horrendously decorated room.

Each wall was lined with shelves housing a menagerie of glass figurines, mostly cats, but a large assortment of other adorable creatures with large round eyes and softly curling mouths. It was always jarring standing inside such a whimsical space accompanied by the evil witch herself. It was a conundrum that such a vile woman would have such delicate, fanciful taste in decor.

Hermione felt the hairs on her arm and neck stand on end everytime she was trapped inside. It reminded her eerily of the sensations she experienced when passing through other parts of the Home… other dank, dark, rooms-

She cleared her throat, trying to distract herself from the treacherous thoughts. She couldn't afford to think on that now, not here, not in the presence of Medusa herself.

Umbridge glanced over her shoulder at the noise, eyes wide and expectant. Hermione flushed, scrambling for an excuse as to why she called the woman’s attention.

“Um… I…” her mind was a wasteland of broken thoughts and memories, her emotions still running rampant after her visit with Harry.

The Matron rolled her eyes. “Spare me.”

She set the basket on her desk and began rummaging through the pile, clicking her tongue as though annoyed everything was in order.

Suddenly a large dark mass floated past the open doorway. Hermione gasped, stepping back, an invisible current of cold sweeping past, settling into her bones, hardening her muscles and freezing her in place.

“Idiot girl,” Umbridge hissed, stepping out from behind her desk. “Not an ounce of propriety.”

Hermione blinked, dazed, staring at the empty doorway, wondering if Umbridge saw the haunting apparition as well. The Matron stepped into the hallway, fake smile plastered ever so sweetly on her face. “Oh, Doctor Riddle, do you have a moment?”

Hermione swallowed, brows pinched in confusion as the steady tread of footsteps echoed off the stone. Suddenly a tall imposing figure appeared before her, dressed in the same dark pitch as this morning. Hermione flushed brightly, realizing she mistook his passing figure as some supernatural entity.

I’m going mad.

She blinked rapidly as his eyes shifted past the short Matron and fastened on Hermione.

“Yes, Madam?”

Umbridge glanced over her shoulder with a scowl, as though it were Hermione’s fault for drawing his attention away. “I just received new inventory from the Apothecary. Would you like me to have it delivered to your office?”

He smiled, eyes snapping down to the older woman who flushed hotly beneath his scrutiny. Hermione swallowed, something in his expression looked lethal.

“No need, I am happy to take it myself.”

“Oh, alright then, please, come in.”

It was disturbing to watch Umbridge titter about like a nervous school girl. It was more disturbing to feel the shift in atmospheric pressure as the Doctor stepped inside, as though his presence held a gravitational pull all its own. Hermione fought its effect, stepping back until she was practically pressed up against the wall. The movement drew his attention, eyes locking onto her once more. The corner of his lips turned up in a wry smirk.

“Hello there. My name is Doctor Thomas Riddle, and you are?”

She swallowed, stomach twisting into knots.

“The doctor asked you a question!” Umbridge hissed as she reloaded the basket.

Hermione wet her lips, trying to remember how to breathe. “Hermione Granger.”

“Hermione,” he repeated, eyes dancing with amusement. “That name sounds strangely familiar.”

She stared at him with wide, pleading eyes. This was it. He was going to expose her midnight excursion to his chamber, last night’s reprieve was merely a mocking gesture, a passing amusement at her expense.

“Ah yes,” he said with a bright smile, teeth gleaming in the light. “I know where I’ve heard the name… The Winter’s Tale. Were your parents fans of Shakespeare?”

She blinked, heart thumping painfully in her chest, her body still surging with adrenaline, unsure what was happening, but she forced her voice to work beyond the tight constriction in her throat.

“No. I mean yes, they were.” She swallowed nervously, flushing further under his intense scrutiny. “But they were bigger fans of Greek Mythology. My mother’s name was Helen. My father called her his Helen of Troy.”

The Doctor’s eyes flashed, his expression changing but the emotion indiscernible to her eyes. “Ah, yes. Hermione, the daughter of Helen and King Menelaus. She married the son of Achilles, did she not?”

Hermione felt her shoulders ease a touch, finding familiar footing among such topics.

“Yes, after breaking an engagement to her grandfather.”

The Doctor chuckled, the sound rich and deep and soothing to her nerves.

“Seems she caught a lucky break then.”

Hermione wet her lips, stepping away from the wall slightly, the lure of such conversation overriding her previous panic.

“Hardly. Pyrrhus took a mistress and abandoned his wife after she failed to conceive. Hermione fled Sparta, married her cousin and died in childbirth.”

The Doctor raised a dark brow, eyes narrowing slightly. He drew in a short breath, she held hers, eager to hear his response, when their Matron’s shrill voice broke the spell woven between them.

“I find such stories a complete waste of time. They’re myths, nothing more, hardly worth studying. No one ever succeeded in life by memorizing fairytales.”

Hermione blinked, glancing down, barely catching the predatory flash that overcame his features as he faced Umbridge.

“On the contrary, Madam. I find that Greek and Roman mythology played a pivotal role in the developing world, leading to the most notable innovations in arts and science that allow us to lead the lives we do today.”

Umbridge glanced up, eyes wide. “Oh. Well, I…”

“The earliest charted navigation system for shipping routes were created thanks to man’s understanding of the stars, which were explained using stories of ancient myth and legend, making them easier to memorize and teach to future generations.” He tucked his hands into his pockets, tipping his head as he pinned her with a rather sardonic expression. “In fact, the majority of the cosmos are named after such stories. And even today the symbol for modern medicine is the staff used by the God of healing, Asclepius.”

Umbridge’s face was somehow deathly white and blistering red all at once. Hermione felt her chest swell with some unknown emotion, heart racing, and for a brief moment, her eyes met the Doctor’s.

Time stopped. The air shifted once more, gravity evading the room, leaving her weightless, floating among the stars he just described.

And then he glanced away, as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Hermione felt her feet hit the floor, limbs heavy, cursedly weighted to the earth.

“That’s very interesting, Doctor,” Umbridge said in a keening voice, obviously embarrassed and fishing for a change in topic. “Well, the supplies are ready if you’d like to take them…”

She swallowed nervously as the Doctor approached, smiling without warmth as he picked the basket up. He glanced down at the contents, brow raised. “These were delivered?”

Umbridge bristled. “No, they were picked up by Ms. Granger. Is there a mistake? I knew the girl was up to something-”

“Not at all. Everything is in order. I was merely curious.”

Umbridge deflated. “Oh. Yes. Well, it saves on a delivery charge if I send one of the residents.”

The Doctor nodded. “Perhaps she can help me stock the medical pantry, given her familiarity with the contents.”

It wasn’t phrased as a question. Hermione felt her heart leap into her throat.

“Oh…” Umbridge looked decidedly thrown for a loop. “That is highly unorthodox. We don’t trust our charges to handle the medical supplies directly.”

“Merely to purchase and transport them.”

Hermione bit her cheek to stop from smiling. She’d never witnessed anyone challenge their Matron before. It was superbly entertaining.

“I… well, Ms. Granger has a background with such things, otherwise I wouldn’t-”

“Wonderful, she’s the perfect candidate to assist me then.”

Umbridge blinked. “That’s not- I don’t- well, I suppose-”

“I begin seeing patients in two days time. Send her to my clinic tomorrow after lunch.”

Hermione swayed on her feet, wondering if she was rendered invisible. He had engaged her without hesitation moments before, teased her even, and now he spoke as if she wasn't in the room.

“Alright,” Umbridge said with obvious unease.

“Thank you, Madam. Have a wonderful evening.” He turned without awaiting a response, striding for the door.

The room was rapidly darkening with the setting sun, his face cast in shadows. Hermione drew in a breath, feeling equal parts frustration and dismay, not fulling comprehending either reaction.

He stopped in the hall, turning to face the doorway, directly before Hermione but out of her Matron’s sight.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Granger.”

She swallowed, limbs rigid.

“I shall see you tomorrow.” His smile was perversely beautiful, lethal, dripping venom. “Sleep well.”

Chapter Text

Is it mad to pray for better hallucinations?
.   .   .

Hermione took a deep breath, hands curled at her sides. She was trembling, and it had nothing to do with the temperature surrounding her. The manufactured heat normally soothed her nerves, but not today.

She stood beneath a glittering blown glass roof that arched high into the blue skies above, thick green canopies cascading overhead, breaking the sunlight into beams that illuminated the miniature rainforest surrounding her.

The Palm House was a true marvel of engineering and beauty, the gem of the Royal Gardens, a point of English pride. It housed the most breathtaking exotic plants, many extinct from their original habitats, an explosion of lush greenery and bright colors. Everywhere you turned there were blossoms, orchids, epiphytes, ferns and bromeliads… there was no square centimeter that wasn’t covered by leaf, petal or bark.

It was an oasis, Hermione’s favorite spot to come and explore since she was a child. It was where her father took her every Sunday, no matter his workload. It was where she dragged Harry and her friends to explore when they otherwise wanted to spend the day lying in or getting into trouble.

It was where she and Draco-

She swallowed, pressing a hand to her chest.

Bloody hell. Was she really doing this?

She debated fleeing for the umpteenth time, the only thing keeping her in place the lingering threat Draco posed if she stood him up and the pleasant memories the Palm House invoked.

She calmed herself by thinking of her father, his warm brown eyes and easy smile, the excitement that lit his gaze as he introduced her to some rare plant species, explaining the potential medical benefits of researching the genome. He became so animated when discussing his passion, sharing it with his only child. She loved listening to his voice.

She swallowed, eyes burning. She pushed the memories aside, taking another deep breath, this one shaky and thick in her throat.

Get it together! Don’t let Draco see you like this…

She already cringed to think of what her hair looked like thanks to the saturating humidity. She’d spent twice the time getting ready this morning, skipping breakfast to allow maximum beauty prep. Her roommates had berated her with questions, knowing she was up to something. Hermione never spent so much time carefully plaiting her hair. She certainly never asked to borrow Lavender's rouge.

She’d managed to drive them out of the room with promises of explaining everything later in the evening. She’d worry about thinking up some excuse later. She couldn’t tell them the truth. They’d never understand.

She tried to distract herself by examining the nearby rubber tree, watching the white sap slowly drain from the long narrow stump into a metal dish at its base.

And suddenly, she felt a shift in the air. Not just any shift. A familiar sensation of being watched, examined, stripped…

She swallowed tentatively, swaying on her feet as she slowly turned in place, eyes cast downward, delaying the inevitable. But the feeling only intensified, a red-hot heat stealing across her skin, reminding her too much of the fire. Her gaze snapped up.

And there he was.

Standing tall and picturesque in a three-piece charcoal bespoke suit, black undervest and crisp white cravat. The silver chain of his pocket watch peeking out from beneath the lapels. His tie and pocket square were silver, which instinctually made her look to his eyes, mercurial and hypnotic, always eliciting a bevy of reactions in her.

His white blonde hair was swept back, the thick locks perfectly tamed as always. She curled her hands at her sides, wanting to run her fingers through that hair, muss it up, tear at his clothing, make him look less god and more mortal. His flawlessness angered her. She inhaled sharply, eyes narrowing.

“Malfoy.”

His eyes narrowed in turn, sharp features pinching into a familiar scowl.

“Granger.”

She straightened, spine ramrod straight.

“You summoned me. Here I am.”

She watched his Adam's apple bob as his eyes swept over her like a physical touch.

“Here you are.”

Her heart beat wildly as his long legs ate up the distance between them. She braced herself for impact, unsure what would happen, unsure what she wanted to happen…

He stopped a meter away and she felt her body deflate, whether in relief or disappointment she wasn’t certain. She glared up at him, limbs rigid. He glared down at her, limbs lax and loose like a cat basking in the sun.

He slowly reached out and seized her hand before she had time to process the movement. His long fingers uncurled her fist, bringing the dainty appendage to his mouth where his lips lightly grazed the skin on her knuckles, maintaining glare for glare all the while.

She scoffed at the chivalrous act, enraged he could be so formal at a time like this. Like she was… like she was… like she was just anyone

She tried to pull her hand away but he merely gripped it tighter, keeping it near his mouth, his words hissed across her skin.

“Never a shred of manners.”

“Not everyone can be such an epic ponce.”

“As opposed to a know-it-all, uptight bint.”

“Leave it to a man to consider intelligence in a woman a character flaw.”

“If I wanted to list your flaws I’d start with your hair.”

“I’d start with your pointed face.”

“You look dreadful, barely ninety pounds soaking wet.”

“Your expression looks dumbfounded, as usual.”

“You already commented on my face. Losing your edge, Granger?”

“Not in the least, I have to limit my insults to small words you’ll comprehend.”

His eyes were ablaze, sharp cheekbones tinging pink, but she suspected it wasn’t in embarrassment. She knew that look. She knew it was likely reflected in her own face.

“You have no idea how infuriated you’ve made me these last three months,” he ground out, jaw ticking.

“I couldn’t care less.”

“Is that so? I’ll have to fix that.”

She gasped as he closed the distance lightning fast, arm seizing her waist and pulling her flush against him, easily lifting her off her feet. He strode backward, leaves brushing their shoulders as he backed them into a corner, covered by thick foliage, as though they were truly sequestered in the pits of the Amazon. She blinked, dazed, light-headed, and then instinctively twined her arms around his neck as his lips descended on hers.

The kiss was frantic, hungry, fang, tongue and claw, wild beasts battling for dominance in the jungle, predators trying to overtake the other. She moaned as her back was pressed against the unforgiving bark of a tree, digging through her dress and corset, leaving indentations in her skin. Or perhaps it was his fingertips leaving bruises, marking her as his, as he liked to say.

She pulled away first, gasping for air, feet still dangling half a foot off the ground, pinned between his body and the tree. She tipped her head back in a vain effort to open her airway, exposing the column of her throat. He took full advantage.

She made a desperate keening sound as his teeth scraped along her pulse point, tongue quickly following to soothe the burn. She was too lost in the raw heat of it all to feel proper embarrassment.

Her hands drifted into his hair at long last, fingers raking through the silken locks, nails scratching along his scalp, earning an animalistic growl from deep in his chest. She felt it rumble up his frame to his throat, pressed as tightly as they were.

“D-Draco-” she barely recognized her own voice, eyes drifting closed.

He jolted, hips grinding into hers. Stars flashed behind her lids, she moaned, wetting her lips and trying again, voice stronger, firmer.

“Draco.”

“Say it again,” his voice sounded like pure gravel, making her core tighten reflexively.

“Draco.”

“Again.”

She opened her eyes, fingers releasing his hair and curling over his broad shoulders, caught between pushing him away and pulling him closer.

“We can’t- we have to stop.”

“Hermione…” he breathed against her neck, breath scalding.

“No… we can’t, not here.”

“Just say my name again.”

Her heart lurched, eyes going wide.

“That’s a good girl, now say my name.”

She gasped, choking on a sob, pushing with all her strength at his shoulders. She was no longer encased in Draco’s arms, no longer surrounded by his familiar scent, drowning in his liquid sounds...

She was pinned between another man and a hard, unyielding door. Locked. Trapped. She could feel the knob digging into her lower back. Could smell the cigar smoke and liquor on his breath, feel the scrape of sandpaper along his jaw against her neck. A caged bird, unable to escape the extended claws of the cat paw stretching through the bars.

Her eyes filled with tears, desperate sounds emitting from her throat.

Her feet hit the ground, lungs expanding rapidly as her body was relieved of the weight pressing against it. She felt coldness seize her at the loss of warmth. Her muscles shook with relief, with shock.

“Hermione?”

Her eyes snapped up, unfocused, lost.

“What’s wrong?”

Gentle fingers seized her jaw, tipping her face upward. “Are you crying?”

She swallowed thickly. “No.”

His thumb swept beneath her eye, smearing a trail of wetness. “Did I hurt you?”

She blinked rapidly, pulling her face from his grasp, turning her back to him and wiping at her eyes, burning with embarrassment and shame.

“Of course not.”

“Then I upset you?”

“It’s not you, Draco.”

“Then what is it?”

She shook her head. “It’s nothing. I’m just a bit overwhelmed. I haven’t seen you in so long and-”

“And whose fault is that?” His concern was rapidly replaced with ire, she could tell by his voice.

That was good. Ire she could handle. She was used to his anger. His worry and concern would destroy her.

She spun back around, emotions once more in check. Dark memories suppressed to the depths of her mind where they belonged.

“I surmise by your tone you think it was mine.”

His eyes went comically wide before narrowing to menacing slits. He stepped towards her, fists clenched at his sides.

“Have you lost your mind as well as half your body weight? I’ve made every attempt at communicating, at closing this distance between us-”

“And why do you think I put the distance there to begin with?”

“I have no bloody idea! If I did then perhaps I wouldn’t be wandering the city half mad, seeing your face in every frizzy-haired woman I pass, hearing your voice in every opinionated arse I’m forced to listen to at sessions!”

She blinked, his mocking words undermined by the declaration hidden beneath, knocking her from her pedestal of anger.

“Draco, I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you-”

“Didn’t you? Have these three months not been a punishment?”

Her brows drew together. “Punishment?”

“You’re angry with me for proposing so soon after your parent’s death. You weren’t ready then.” His shoulders relaxed, face softening, his emotions always flipping on a dime, making her head spin. “I understand that now. I should have been more sensitive to your feelings, tried to understand what you were going through. I...” he swallowed, as though forcing the next words out. “I’m sorry.”

She raised a brow, expression pinching. Draco was many things. Intelligent, sharp-witted, barb-tongued. His presence was unyielding, all-consuming, drawing every eye when he entered a room without having to utter a word. Between his pale, Adonis looks and notorious surname he never had to compromise, was never denied anything. He didn’t stop to consider the feelings of others, wasn’t emotionally sensitive.

And he certainly never apologized.

“That was the worst memorized speech you’ve ever delivered. And that includes when you were hungover and had to stumble your way through factory wage reform for two hours.”

His eyes narrowed once more, his mask of endearing patience falling away, breaking to pieces on the packed earth beneath their feet.

“Greengrass ensured me it would have a profound effect upon you.”

Hermione reared back. “You told Daphne about us?”

He rolled his eyes. “Bloody hell, we weren’t as incognito as we liked to pretend. People noticed when we disappeared from rooms at the same time.”

She blinked. “What are you saying? Everyone knows you proposed?”

His expression turned lethal. “Don’t be daft. I would hardly go bragging about being rejected so splendidly. I only told Daphne because our parents are trying to arrange a marriage contract between me and her sister.”

Her heart lurched, breath pulled violently from her lungs.

“You’re marrying Astoria?”

He raised a pale brow, malicious delight in his eyes as the corner of his mouth tipped up. “And what if I were? You’ve made your lack of interest quite clear. Surely you have no care in the matter.”

She huffed, crossing her arms. “Two seconds ago you spewed an apology, saying you understood, and now you bait me with threats.”

His expression sobered. “Is that why you said no then? I rushed it?”

He stepped closer and she stepped back. A look of hurt flashed across his features, there one instant and gone the next, anger quick to follow. “Why are you treating me like this? What did I do to upset you so?”

She blinked, eyes burning, chest throbbing. “You didn’t do anything.”

His chest heaved. “Is there something I should have done? You know I hate puzzles, Hermione. Just tell me what you need, what you want, and you’ll have it. There’s nothing I wouldn’t give to you.”

The words were spoken with such passion she couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t react as he invaded her space once more, wrapping an arm around her, pulling her in gently this time, one hand splayed along her lower back and the other weaving into the hair at her nape, tugging her head back, forcing her eyes to his.

“Hermione…” he dipped his head down. “I will lay the world at your feet,” he whispered against her lips.

She closed her eyes, unable to maintain a shred of rationality when her vision was so filled by him. “I don’t want the world, Draco.”

She turned her face away before he could kiss her and steal away the last of her resolve.

“I’ve told you that.”

His body went rigid, holding her tighter.

“Then what do you want?”

She blinked, eyes fixed upon a dwarf fern at the base of a eucalyptus tree.

“I don’t know.” She swallowed lightly. “But I know what I don’t want.”

She forced her eyes to meet his. They looked like swirling pools of molten silver, flickering rapidly between her gaze, no doubt trying to suss out her weakness, a way to win the argument. She shook her head, pressing her hand to his chest.

“I don’t want a husband that resents me.”

His brow pinched. “What are you talking about?”

She sighed. “We both know your father would never allow you to marry me.”

“I don’t give a shite about what he wants.”

“He’ll cut you off, Draco. You may say you don’t care now, but trust me, you will. You’ve lived in the lap of luxury your entire life. It’s all you’ve ever known. You’ll learn to make due without it for a little while, consider it an adventure no doubt. But soon you’ll miss it. Want it back. And you’ll blame me for taking it away.”

He blinked, rearing back but not releasing her from his hold. “Is that what you think? Why you said no?”

“Partially.” Her eyes narrowed, nails digging into the silken fabric of his perfectly pressed tie. “I also wasn’t exactly swept off my feet with the manner in which you delivered the proposal. Mostly because it wasn’t a question, it was a demand. A foregone conclusion you drew in your mind before you even arrived. You didn’t declare your affection, you declared a business proposition, a means by which to keep me from winding up destitute. I hardly need your charity, I’m doing just fine on my own.”

He scowled. “Oh yes, you’re obviously thriving at the shelter, you look positively radiant in such fine garments, they must lavish you with riches-”

“You smarmy little-”

“Furthermore,” he interrupted, clutching her tighter as she pushed away, flush with indignant anger. “I find you’re the one who’s drawn forgone conclusions, assuming you know what my father will do. And even if that were to happen, the fact that you think I would turn my frustrations out on you is positively ludicrous.”

“Oh stop it, Draco. You know in your heart everything I’ve said is completely accurate. He wants you to marry Astoria Greengrass for heaven’s sake! Do you really think he’d be fine with you marrying me instead?”

He blinked, mouth opening but no sound emitting. She nodded. “Exactly. And don’t get me started on your mother-”

“Don’t you dare speak against my mother.”

She rolled her eyes. “There you go. Always defending her, even when she makes cutting remarks everytime I enter a room! You know she’d have a conniption if you told her we were engaged. She’d be more incensed than Lucius, and that’s really saying something.”

“I’m a grown man, I don’t need their approval.”

“Don’t you? What about their money, Draco? You really think you could handle living in a home without a private wing devoted just to game rooms?”

He scowled. “I won’t apologize for being born into a family with wealth.”

“And I won’t apologize for being born into a family without it!”

They glared at each other, still pressed firmly against the other, a battle of wills that shook the ground and split the sky.

“Mummie! Look! There are people back there!”

“Where darling? I don’t see any- oh… come along, Henrietta.”

They sprang apart like similarly charged magnets, watching the woman drag her young daughter away from the sordid couple, sending a haughty look of judgment over her shoulder.

Hermione glared at the retreating stranger, too incensed to feel any real embarrassment. Draco swept his fingers through his hair, realigned each strand into place, erasing all evidence of her touch. She took a deep breath, stepping through the trees and shrubs and onto the tiled walkway. He followed in her wake, a simmering heat at her back.

“You claim your intent is not to hurt me, and yet you choose this as our meeting place.”

She blinked, turning to face him once more, mindful to keep several feet of distance between them.

“I chose this place because it’s rarely crowded during weekday mornings, and it reminds me of better times.”

“Better times? So the fact that you rejected my proposal within these very walls means nothing to you?”

She swallowed tentatively. “I didn’t-”

“Or that it’s where we shared our first kiss?”

She closed her mouth, thoughts scattered by the raw pain and longing in his eyes. She felt tears burning at the back of hers and blinked rapidly to keep them at bay. He held her gaze steady for several long, heavy beats before drawing to his full height, emotions cloaked behind his beautifully crafted debonair mask. She wanted to tear it off his face, grind it to dust beneath her heel.

“I see. I didn’t realize our time together meant so little to you. That’s good to know. It will help me move on, as you so obviously have done.”

She felt her chest wrench open. “Draco-”

“There’s no need to drag this on any further, Ms. Granger. I apologize for my unwanted advances. I will leave you to your life. I won’t bother you any further.”

She huffed in annoyance. “I can’t tolerate your melodramatics.”

He started to scowl, the mask starting to crack, but he fought the urge, inhaling sharply through his nose as he stepped back. “Then you should be thrilled you won’t have to suffer them any longer.”

She narrowed her eyes, crossing her arms. “So that’s it then?”

His eyes roamed her face and body one last time, the want, the hunger brewing just beneath the surface, before latching onto her gaze, rendering her breathless.

“That’s it then.”

And then he spun on his heel and marched out of the Palm House.

Out of her life.


Hermione sat at the table in a swirl of bristling anger.

“Bloody hell,” Parvati said, glancing up from her plate. “What’s the matter?”

“Everything is perfectly fine.”

“Oh. Okay then.” She rolled her eyes and brought a bite of hash to her lips.

Hermione drew in a sharp breath, eyes narrowing as she scanned the open space beside her roommate.

“Where’s Lavender?”

Parvati shrugged a shoulder, swallowing her mouthful. “Dunno. Probably running wild through the streets, driving Filch to madness.”

“What?”

“Today was her turn to do the market run. She went with a few others, I think Hannah was in the group.”

Hermione blinked, glancing around the tables for the familiar set of strawberry blonde pigtails. “They should have been back by now.”

“Don’t worry, Mione. You know Lav, she only volunteers so she can meet up with Cormac. The rest of the lot is probably combing the city for her.”

Hermione shook her head, gazing back across the table. “I don’t understand what she sees in him. She has to know he’s only using her, he’ll never take her away from this place.”

“Who says she isn’t using him? He’s paid for most her wardrobe, buys her whatever she wants when they’re out.”

“But at what cost?”

Parvati raised a brow. “Just because it’s a great expense to you doesn’t mean it’s that way for everyone.”

Hermione’s shoulders drew back, cheeks flushing. “I didn’t- I just meant-” she swallowed, shaking her head. “I just don’t want to see her get hurt. Or kicked out, on account of him of all people.”

Her roommate smirked. “You really hate that boy.”

“He’s vile.”

“He’s handsome and rich.”

“That has nothing to do with his personality.”

“Spoken by a true debutant.”

Hermione’s brows pinched. “Me? A debutant? You have to be joking.”

“You may not be blue blood but you’re as close to it as anyone here has met. You speak differently, act differently-” she raised a staying hand as Hermione went rigid in her seat.

“It’s not an insult, Mione. If anything it’s a compliment. You’re well-bred, educated, raised with solid morals, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think it’s hard for you to relate to most of the girls here because of it. We weren’t brought up like you. Most of us never had a role model of any kind to teach us right from wrong before we wound up in this place. Lavender doesn’t consider herself compromised when she runs around with Cormac. She doesn’t feel like less of a person, less of a woman. She doesn’t view the world as you do.”

Hermione let out a slow breath, feeling the words settle into her skin, all the way to the bone. She felt a wave of guilt and shame seize her, especially in the wake of her afternoon outing with Draco. She was a hypocrite, a fraud. She held her friend’s gaze for several heartbeats before finding her voice.

“You’re right, Parvati. I shouldn’t judge. I have no right. I’m sorry if I’ve ever made you feel uncomfortable.”

Parvati smiled, scooping another pile of hash into her spoon. “No worries, luv, I would have kicked you out of our room by now if you did.”

Hermione smirked, believing every word.

“So…” her friend said abruptly. “Where were you off to in such a hurry after breakfast?”

Hermione glanced away. “I had an errand to run.”

“Hm… an errand that required you to leave in your nicest dress and return with red stained lips?”

Hermione’s hand flew to her mouth, fingertips pressing gently, feeling the tender swollen flesh. She blushed hotly, unable to meet friend’s eye.

“It was a rather unique errand.”

“I can see that. Must have been strenuous.” She chuckled lightly as Hermione flushed brighter. “I expect you to relay every detail of said errand later tonight.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “I’ll tell you the same thing I said yesterday at breakfast…” she trailed off, eyes losing focus.

“Mione?”

“Shite,” she hissed under her breath, causing her roommate to laugh.

“You never curse, this must be good.”

Her hazel gaze snapped back up. “I just remembered, I have to assist the Doctor today, after lunch.”

Parvati sat up straight, eyes bright. “You lucky bit-”

“Language.”

“You just swore!”

“That was by accident.”

Parvati rolled her eyes. “I’m starting to rethink not kicking you out of the room.”

Hermione glanced at the large clock hanging over the head table and sighed. “I better go now, I don’t want to be late.”

“You haven’t eaten.”

“I’ll eat later.”

“Uh huh.”

Hermione avoided her gaze, standing from the bench. “Please, do your best to keep Lavender contained within the building when she manages to return.”

“Sure, you go play with the good Doctor and leave me the thrilling task of strapping her to the bed.”

“I’m sure she already owns a set of binds.”

“Hermione Granger!” Parvati called after her retreating form. “You just made a dirty joke, you scandalous minx!”

Hermione couldn’t help but flash a cheeky wink over her shoulder, sharing a look of amusement with her friend before leaving the dining hall.


By the time she reached the set of imposing double doors all her humor had faded. The clinic was on the first level, set back from the dining hall and other public rooms. It had been closed for months, all injuries and maladies outsourced to other venues depending on their severity.

Most ailments didn’t extend beyond a common cold, but last month a girl had caught pneumonia, Hermione had diagnosed it herself and insisted the resident be taken to Mungo’s despite Umbridge's vehement denial anything was wrong. The Matron delayed the girl’s transfer until she collapsed in a breathless heap in the middle of the corridor.

Hermione was relieved there was finally a doctor on staff, she just wished it was someone less… intimidating. Yes, that was the best word for it.

She swallowed, steeling herself before raising a hand, knocking on one of the doors. The sharp sound echoed loudly off the stone walls, down the empty corridor at her back. She felt a chill steal along her spine, standing at alert, heart rate increasing.

“Come in.”

The deep voice was muffled, distant, but unmistakable. She closed her eyes briefly before forcefully shaking the stiffness from her limbs, reaching for the rod iron handle.

Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to fear. You’ve faced truly terrifying situations. This is nothing.

Her silent musings did little to reassure her, they merely filled her with a greater sense of foreboding.

She opened the large door and stepped gingerly over the threshold, halting just beyond to take in the clinic for the first time.

It was a vast space, one long room that ran the length of the building it seemed, broken up by white curtains hanging off hooks suspended from the ceiling, surrounding empty, unmade cots. Windows littered the back wall, filling the space with copious sunlight, lifting her mood slightly.

A noise drew her focus to the side, a large oak desk came into view, stacked with papers and books and random items her eyes couldn’t identify at a distance. Beyond the desk was a large shelf brimming with yet more books, her heart started to race, fingers twitching at her side, desperate to run them along the worn spines.

She jolted when there was sudden movement, the clip of footsteps, and from behind a standing partition, a silhouette appeared, tall and lithe. She blinked, taking another step inside, clasping her hands before her.

“Doctor?”

The silhouette sprang to life, disappearing entirely as the real version materialized before her eyes. He stood at the same distance as he had the morning before in the dining hall, yet without a crowd of witnesses surrounding them, he felt much closer, larger. It was like staring into the sun.

“Ms. Granger. I’d forgotten you were joining me this afternoon. Thank you for remembering for the both of us.”

She wasn’t sure why she felt a wave of disappointment wash over her at his words. She should be relieved he’d nearly forgotten about her. And besides, she’d nearly forgotten about the task herself. She pushed the feeling aside, not wanting to dwell on it.

“Of course. How may I assist?”

He held papers in one hand and a thin magazine of some sort in the other.

“This place is a bit of a mess at the moment. It appears little was done to maintain its upkeep. I am busy reviewing and organizing patient files and haven’t been able to unload the supplies you purchased yesterday.”

She nodded lightly. “I am happy to put them away.”

He lifted the hand holding the papers, pointing to a large cabinet at the wall. “The basket is beneath my desk, you may unload it into the pantry.”

She walked briskly to where he pointed, hesitating slightly at seeing the chaos exploded atop the tabletop. She was a very meticulous person, seeing such disarray caused her skin to itch.

“I feel the same way.”

She stopped dead, eyes snapping up, his deep voice alarmingly close. He stood a few feet away, eye firmly upon her and small smirk in place. “I can see the disquiet in your eyes. I had a similar reaction when I saw what awaited me. I assure you, I am normally a very organized person.”

Her frayed nerves settled, mouth curling upward of its own accord. “I understand. I can only imagine the work that has to be done after the post sat derelict for so long.”

He nodded, then his eyes flickered down, to her mouth.

“Do you have any allergies, Ms. Granger?”

She blinked, brows drawn. “No, none that I know of.”

“Interesting. Your lips look particularly swollen.” His storm cloud gaze shot up and latched onto hers once more, a knowing glint in their depths. She flushed hotly, heart stuttering in her chest beneath the penetrating stare.

“I- I sometimes bite them when I’m distracted.”

She blinked again.

Bloody hell, did I really just say that?

He arched a dark brow, his presence swelling, consuming, eating up all the oxygen in the room. “I see.”

She swallowed.

“That’s a rather unbecoming habit. We’ll have to curb the urge by giving you something more interesting to hold your focus.”

She swayed on her feet, the room was sweltering, some invisible heat source pumping steam directly into her lungs, she worried she may faint-

And then he glanced away, stalking casually to the bookcase and sliding the thin magazine atop a stack, seemingly oblivious to the trembling girl at his back. She released a slow breath and then inhaled sharply, closing her eyes as she regained her bearings.

What’s the matter with me?

Her eyes snapped open at the sound of his steady tread resuming.

“You may begin any time.” He spoke over his shoulder, gazing at one of the papers in his hand, her presence already a background distraction.

She nodded mutely, walking around the desk on shaky knees and leaning down to grab the Apothecary basket, fingers stiff and clumsy as she carried it to the large cabinet.

Upon opening its doors she blinked, frozen for a few moments by the chaos inside.

What self-respecting physician would allow their stores to become like this?

He took advantage of those assigned to his care. He had no respect for anything.

She shook her head, eyes scanning the many littered shelves, trying to ascertain where to start. She jolted lightly when she saw the labels on a few jars, swallowing numbly and carefully fishing them free from the pile.

She glanced over her shoulder, hesitant to interrupt him, to draw attention to herself once more, but afraid to assume anything either.

“Doctor?”

“Hm?” He didn’t glance up from whatever he was reading.

“Aside from any expired contents, may I do away with such things as these?”

He glanced up sharply, gaze narrowed and honing in on the ivory pot in her hands.

She knew the moment he read the label, eyes darkening. “Toss it.”

She nodded, shoulders sagging in relief as she set the container labeled LEECHES on the corner on his desk, happy to see it go. After the awful ordeal so many suffered, including Ada Lovelace, one of Hermione’s great idols, she saw no benefit in the archaic practice that couldn’t be accomplished by more modern and efficient means.

She also dispensed with the pot labeled ARSENIC, knowing the powder had many purposes but seeing far greater risk than reward by keeping the compound accessible to the residents. She imagined most of the young women would attempt to use it as a beauty agent, slowly poisoning themselves from the inside out all for the sake of a pale complexion.

She became lost in her work, navigating bottles and setting things up according to the cabinets she’d seen in her father’s stores, as well as the hospitals around London she visited with her mother on rotation. She wasn’t aware nearly an hour had passed before the Doctor walked up behind her, breaking the resounding silence and her concentration.

“I see the Madam was finally right about something.”

She jumped, spinning around too quickly and nearly losing her footing, catching herself against the desk as his arm shot out and steadied her, pulling her forward and back to her upright position. She flushed hotly beneath his amused stare.

“You really do have a background in medicine.”

She blinked, nodding lightly. “Yes, my parents both worked in the field.”

She realized he still had a hold of her arm as his fingers released her. She unconsciously brought her own hand to the same spot, mimicking his touch.

“Was your father a doctor?”

She bit her lip, talking about parents was still an emotionally trying exercise, but she found herself excited to share their history, their accomplishments, with someone who would actually appreciate their work.

“He attended medical school but wasn’t a practicing physician, not in the traditional sense. He researched and developed cures for infectious diseases. He spent most of his career working with the military, studying foreign ailments to ensure soldiers didn’t get sick while abroad.”

The Doctor raised a dark brow, eyes lighting. “Impressive.”

Hermione felt her chest swell. She stood a bit taller.

“And your mother?”

“She was a nurse. She worked on a voluntary basis after I was born so she could focus on raising me herself. But before they married she trained under Florence Nightingale at St. Thomas Hospital.”

He tilted his head, eyes roaming her face. “Equally impressive. That’s a notoriously difficult program to gain acceptance into.”

Hermione couldn’t help but smile. “She was a very impressive woman.”

There was a thick silence that permeated the room, his gaze holding her frozen, suspended. He took a step closer but she was so transfixed by his eyes she didn’t notice.

“What happened to them?”

She blinked, swallowing thickly. She opened her mouth but there was a long pause before the words worked their way free from her tightened throat.

“They died in a house fire.”

His eyes flickered between hers, as though searching for something. She had no idea what he could be looking for, but couldn’t look away.

Finally, his gaze settled, her racing heart stilled.

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

She nodded, used to the generic condolence, the obligatory statement that was meant to follow such a confession. She was slightly disappointed to hear him utter the words but also knew there was little else he could say.

Until he followed up with a question that tilted her world on its axis.

“How does it make you feel?”

She blinked, shoulders drawing back. “What?”

“Their deaths. Are you merely filled with sadness? Or do you feel anger?”

She shook her head, stepping back on instinct. “I- I don’t understand-”

“Yes you do. It’s a simple question, Hermione.”

She froze, the sound of her given name on his lips rendering her motionless, transporting her back to the night they first met. She was huddled inside his wardrobe, heart in her throat, trapped between fear and intrigue.

She held his gaze with fascinated wonderment before slowly wetting her lips.

“I feel so angry I can’t breathe at times.”

He watched her, the air around them thickening, electric. And then he nodded, the same gesture as when she first told him her name, as though he already knew the answer before she delivered it.

“Good.”

She swallowed, pulse thrumming.

“Sadness cripples. Anger motivates.”

The world around them grew hazy.

“Your anger will take you places, Hermione. You must learn to control it, but never eradicate it from your arsenal.”

She felt something brimming beneath the surface of her skin, desperate to tear through, render her in half...

And then he stepped back, sliding his hands in his trouser pockets and turning his focus to the cabinet, shattering the glass dome that encased them a moment before.

She blinked, feeling dizzy with her own admission, turning to face the cabinet as well, eager for a distraction, a return to normalcy.

His words still rang in her head, haunting and subversive, yet louder than any of the other voices rattling around. She already knew she’d never be able to purge his advice from her mind. Years from now she would recall this moment in perfect clarity, for better or worse.

“The cabinet looks good. I appreciate the help. I’ve taken you away from your scheduled chores long enough, I can finish up.”

She deflated. “Oh… alright.”

She wanted to see the project through, finish what she started, that was the only reason she felt disappointment. Certainly.

She also knew the moment she walked out those doors she’d be overwhelmed with thoughts of Draco, their earlier encounter, and would have little to focus upon to block out the torrent of emotions.

She wrung her hands together, eyes darting about the room, looking for something, anything-

She noticed that the Doctor held a medical treatise in his hand, part of the title blocked by his fingers but she was able to see the author’s name in full. Her heart skipped a beat.

“My father was once a student of Dr. Snow.”

Dr. Riddle blinked, head snapping back to her. “Pardon?”

She gestured to the journal. “Dr. John Snow, he taught my father the ins and out of cholera when he was starting in the field.”

He raised the journal, gazing upon the cover before glancing back to her, his expression pure intrigue.

“I consider the man a true pioneer in the field of medical study.”

She nodded enthusiastically, feeling that familiar thrill seize her.

“Without a doubt. His breakthroughs in environmental health science are renowned. If not for him we may still be treating people for miasma. It’s bizarre to think how readily the masses accepted something on the grounds of absolutely no evidence for so long, especially when the practical solutions were right under their noses.”

His eyes radiated heat, washing her in warmth as they scanned her face once more. “Tell me something, Hermione…” her heart skipped a beat. “What are you doing here?”

She exhaled sharply. “I told you, my parents died-”

“But why are you here? Do you have no other family? Surely your parents left you the means with which to survive outside of a place like this?”

She swallowed, swaying on her feet, a whirlwind seizing her.

“I…”

She hoped her obvious unease would deter him, a true gentleman would politely desist from his line of inquiry. But not Dr. Thomas Riddle. He held her captive beneath his eyes, his imposing stance which was situated a touch too close to be deemed entirely appropriate.

She knew he wouldn’t relent, and while she normally would hold true to her secrets, take perverse pleasure in denying the demands made of her, she found herself yielding, unable to tamp down the torrent of words.

“My parents were both only children, all of my grandparents died when I was very young, I don’t remember them at all. And because I had just turned eighteen when the fire struck I wasn’t eligible for adoption by my friend’s family. He still offered to house me but it would be deemed terribly inappropriate and do irreparable damage to his reputation. He has a bright future ahead of him and I refuse to compromise him in any way.”

She stopped for breath, feeling drained. The Doctor didn’t blink, his stare so intense it became eerie, sparkling beneath the rays of sunlight cast across his face.

“That’s very selfless of you.”

She responded on instinct, her mouth working before her mind. “It’s not selfless, it’s love.”

He raised a sharp brow, lightning flashing in his irises. “Love?”

She nodded. “Yes. Which is perhaps the most selfish emotion of all.”

There was a heavy beat before the corner of his mouth turned up. “What a fascinating outlook. You are very wise for your age, Ms. Granger.”

She blinked, feeling bereft of hearing him say her first name but infused with warmth at his compliment.

“It sounds like your father led a successful career. Did he not leave you a sum in which to care for your upkeep?”

Talk of finances was an extremely taboo topic, even among those with existing ties. That the Doctor was asking her such a question was both highly inappropriate and yet completely within the realm of realism, for she was fast discovering he knocked convention at every turn.

She quite liked that.

“Yes, he did. Unfortunately, the Property Act only protects married women from losing their fortunes to their husbands. Apparently, those of us who are single are not to be trusted to manage our own finances. Everything my parents left me is tied up with-”

She broke off, body going rigid, breath evading her once more.

“Hermione?” He stepped closer, arm reaching out as she felt herself tip slightly. “You look faint, do you need to sit down?”

She blinked rapidly, the sound of her name gaining her attention, the feel of his hand on her arm tethering her to present, keeping her from falling headfirst into the spinning black vortex at her feet. She wet her lips, shaking her head.

“No... I’m fine. I just haven’t talked about these things with anyone in a while.” She hoped the lie was edible.

He seemed to gnaw on the edges, but ultimately spit it out.

“You seemed remarkably composed speaking about their deaths a moment ago.”

Damn. He’s relentless. Why won’t he let me be?

As much as his tenacity frustrated her it also gave her a sense of twisted pleasure that someone saw through the veil of her unease. No one else pushed her for answers, real answers, not even Harry, always afraid of pushing her off some invisible cliff’s edge. But the Doctor couldn’t seem to care less about how far or how hard he pushed.

“Sadness cripples. Anger motivates.”

She released a slow breath, arm burning beneath his lingering touch, spine straightening.

“My funds are being controlled and managed by my parent’s solicitor. He allots me a monthly allowance. Unfortunately, he doesn’t deem to allot me enough to live independently.”

She swallowed thickly, trying desperately to keep her mind focused, away from the shadows, the darkness. She held his gaze, using it as a homing beacon as she pushed on.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, women of any marital status can inherit land and the property built atop it. But our home burned down to the foundation, nothing is left but the acres beneath. They’re currently awaiting auction. Due to the fire damage, the soil is untillable, so it’ll likely sell at a fraction of its original worth. Still, the money will be completely mine, and then I’ll be able to venture out on my own.”

He tilted his head, fingers lightly squeezing, she wondered if it was on purpose. “And where will you venture to?”

She licked her lips. “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Of course you have.”

She bit her lip as his hand squeezed harder yet, biting into her circulation. She didn’t mind. She was used to inflicting a bit of pain on herself to keep her mind grounded in the moment.

“I want to travel, see the world. Go everywhere. Experience every culture I can. I want to live life so fully that I turn old and grey before I’m thirty. I want my face to be filled with wrinkles from all the things I’ve seen and done. I want to reach the end of my days with no regrets. Because my only real regret would be allowing fear of the unknown to hold me back.”

His eyes seemed to glow, lit from an internal light source. She found it mesmerizing, the edges of the room blurring, the only thing in perfect focus and clarity was his face, the intensity of it.

“That is quite a large order, Ms. Granger.”

She smirked. “What’s the point in dreaming otherwise?”

His eyes flickered between hers before he mimicked her expression, but something about his countenance looked too pleased, too satisfied to be in simple reaction to her words. She shivered, pulling gently at her trapped arm.

His hand fell away immediately. He blinked, stepping back.

“It’s been a delight speaking with you,” his words sounded rehearsed, hollow, lacking the edge of passion and intent from moments before. “I thank you again for your assistance. You are free to go now.”

She nodded quickly, stepping away, limbs shaky though she managed to keep her breathing even. She made it halfway to the door, practically sprinting, before he called her attention, stopping her in her tracks.

“Ms. Granger, on your way out would you be so kind as to post the appointment schedule to the outside of the door?”

Her heart raced as she slowly turned and approached, gazing upon the sheet of paper he held aloft.

She knew her name would be upon it.

She halted some distance away, extending her arm out fully to grab it from him, blinking when his hand didn’t release the other end.

Her eyes snapped up, locking with his. He stared at her for what felt like a short eternity, or perhaps it was merely the space between heartbeats.

“Thank you.”

He released the sheet to her hand, their arms falling away like a severed vine.

“You’re welcome.”

She stood frozen a moment longer, clutching the paper with white knuckles before forcing herself to walk away, slow and calm and normal. She was having to remind herself to act normal a lot more often these days. Usually in this man’s presence.

She had such a strong desire to glance at him one last time over her shoulder that she nearly got a neck cramp from tensing, forcing her gaze to remain ahead as she slipped out of the clinic.

Once the heavy door closed behind her she gasped as though coming up from water. She leaned against the wood, eyes closed, heart beating erratically.

What is happening?

She sighed, the crinkling of paper drawing her focus down, eyes locking onto the forgotten appointment log.

She scanned the names. It was as Umbridge said, he was starting with the newest girls first, those who hadn’t been to see the previous doctor.

Thank god.

She was terrified to imagine what may have transpired had she arrived during the last physician’s tenure.

Her eyes stopped upon her own name, the black ink of Dr. Riddle’s script elegant and precise, exactly what she would have expected. The letters in her name held no more flourish or design than any of the others listed, she was one in a sea of many, nothing special, nothing but a space on a page.

That’s for the best.

Yes, yes it was for the best.

She was better off steering clear of the man. He stirred up thoughts and emotions that should be left to rest.

Still, it seemed she wasn’t free from his clutches yet. Her appointment was tomorrow.

The last one of the day.


Hermione lingered outside the clinic door for several beats, still gazing upon her name, heart in her throat, before she forced herself to turn around and face the long empty corridor.

She really wished she hadn’t.

Because on the stone floor directly in front of her was a sight so ghastly, so terrifying she was rendered mute in abject horror.

Bloody footprints.

Leading down, down, down…

She closed her eyes, body trembling.

It’s not real. It’s not real.

The temperature dropped rapidly, her next sharp breath full of ice crystals, her lungs expelling a plume of frozen air.

It’s not real.

She stepped forward, eyes still closed, arms held aloft at her sides to keep her balance. But she was shaking so bad she almost lost her footing.

She nearly fell over completely when she heard the haunting whisper.

“Hermione…”

Tears spilled over her cheeks, face crumpling, hands covering her mouth to keep the scream at bay. Her eyes shot open at the sound of approaching footsteps. But they weren’t normal footsteps. No, they sounded like the broken gait of Filch, but worse yet.

Thump. Draaaag.

Thump. Draaaag.

Thump. Draaaag.

Hermione stood frozen, trembling, eyes wide and fixed on the end of the hall, the right corner where the wall ended, waiting, waiting, waiting for It to appear…

Thump. Draaaag.

Thump. Draaaag.

It stopped. She swallowed thickly, vision hazy with tears.

Suddenly an arm curled around the wall, flesh torn, shredded, shiny with blood and exposed bone. The fingers were claw-like, grasping desperately at the stone, reaching out, out-

Reaching for Hermione.

She reared back, mouth opening, prepared to release a blood-curdling scream, when a new voice joined the fold, rendering her mute with shock.

“Hermione!”

She blinked, breath caught in her throat, halfway between scream and sob. Footsteps rapidly approached, familiar, normal-

“Hermio- oh, thank god, you’re still here!”

Parvati rounded the opposite corner at a jog, dark braid swinging behind her. Hermione leaped forward, reaching out, desperate to protect her, warn her-

She glanced at the other end of the hallway.

The arm was gone.

She froze, glancing behind her. The footsteps had disappeared.

She released a shaky breath as Parvati came to a stop before her.

“I was hoping you’d still be- Mione? Are you okay?”

Hermione wiped quickly at her eyes, mind too frazzled to form words. She nodded sharply.

“Are you crying?”

She inhaled a slow steady breath, eyes closing briefly, willing the terror at bay. “I’m fine, what is it, Parv?”

Her roommate didn’t look convinced but she let the subject drop, no doubt in light of the news she had to share.

“We have a problem.”

You have no bloody idea…

Hermione was pulled from her daze by the intensity shining in her friend’s dark eyes.

“What’s wrong?”

Parvati swallowed, looking nearly as shaken as Hermione felt.

“Lavender is missing.”

Chapter Text

Begin at the beginning,
And go on till you come to the end:
Then stop.
.   .   .

“What do you mean we’re not going to do anything? She’s been missing since yesterday afternoon!”

“You will do well to remember who you are speaking to, Ms. Patil. I do not appreciate the tone in which you address me. I also do not recall requesting your presence in my office.”

“This is utter bullshite!”

Hermione stepped forward, pulling her friend back as she lunged towards the desk.

“I think what Parvati is trying to say is that we’re concerned about Lavender’s welfare, considering the time frame in which she’s been missing.”

Umbridge glared daggers. “I don’t need you to translate simple English, Ms. Granger. Nor do I recall asking for you to come here either. But seeing as you both lack the most rudimentary of manners I find myself unsurprised. However, I refuse to entertain such wildish antics. Ms. Brown is not missing, she is a runaway, and most importantly, she is prohibited from ever setting foot within this institution ever again.”

Hermione’s eyes and mouth widened, shock running through her. Parvati thrashed in her grip. “You vile, loathsome-”

“Thank you, Ms. Patil, for further illustrating what a model of propriety you are.”

“Screw your propriety! My friend is missing! She’s all alone on the streets of bloody London because you’re too busy dusting cat sculptures to send out a search party!”

“That is enough!”

“Parvati,” Hermione hissed, still restraining her. “Stop, this isn’t helping.”

“What’s it matter? She isn’t going to help us or Lavender no matter what we say or do. She hates her, hates all of us. She’d be happy to see us all disappear.”

Hermione’s lips pressed into a thin line, unable to articulate an argument when she knew the statement was true.

“Are you both quite done? Leave this office at once and I’ll consider only giving you each a week’s worth of house arrest.”

Hermione blinked, releasing Parvati in order to step closer to the desk herself. “What? You can’t do that!”

Their Matron’s smile was sweet and venomous. “I think you’ll find that I absolutely can, Ms. Granger. You might be used to being a big shot in your old life. But here you’ll find you’re merely a resident living under this roof due to my good graces.”

“You receive a monthly stipend from my solicitor.”

Umbridge’s smile fell. “It’s hardly worth the burden of your upkeep, I assure you.”

Hermione clenched her fists. Parvati stepped beside her, planting both hands on the desk and leaning in menacingly.

“You won’t get away this you disgusting toad!”

“That’s two weeks house arrest for you both!”

Hermione exhaled steam through her nose, gripping her roommate's arm and forcefully pulling her towards the door.

“We can’t leave!”

“We can and we will, we’re not doing Lavender any good by lingering here any longer.”

“But-”

“Parvati!” she hissed, willing the girl to look at her. “Trust me, we need to leave. Now.”

Parvati blinked, expression stricken. Hermione held her gaze steady, trying to convey the message silently. Finally, her friend relented, allowing Hermione to lead her the rest of the way to the door.

“Have a wonderful, productive day girls!” Umbridge called in their wake, voice high and gleeful.

“That bi- umfh!” Parvati squealed into Hermione’s palm.

“Shh! We’re already under house arrest for two weeks thanks to that mouth of yours! Now keep quiet until we get back to the dorm!”

Parvati shook the muffling hand away, stepping out of Hermione’s grasp. “I’m not going back to the bloody dorm! I’m going to look for Lavender!”

Hermione crossed her arms. “Obviously. We both are.”

Parvati blinked, tense shoulders lowering. “You’re coming with me?”

Hermione raised a challenging brow. “Who snuck out two night ago to drag her back to the room before Filch came round?”

Parvati swallowed, nodding. “Thank you, Hermione. I need all the help I can get. I’m really worried. This isn’t like her. Something is wrong. I know it.”

Hermione shared the same sentiments but felt it better left unsaid. Hope was their greatest weapon at the moment.

“We’ll find her. But we can’t rush off into the city on a whim. We need to figure out a plan. And thanks to Umbridge we’re going to be watched like a hawk by Filch and her other minions. We need to be clever about this.”

“In that case, I’m really glad you’re helping.”

Hermione smiled, but the expression lacked the warmth it usually conveyed. They were both too worried to find any shred of amusement in the situation.

“Come on,” Hermione started down the hall. “Let’s get to the dorm so we can strategize in private.”


The large oak door of Grimmauld Manor rattled on its hinges, the frantic pounding echoing through the vaulted entryway, across the marble flooring and up the grand staircase, which Harry currently jogged down, scowl firmly in place.

“Bloody hell, I’m coming!”

The noise continued to reverberate through the Manor, he was amazed the wood didn’t splinter beneath whatever battering ram was on the other side.

He was too angry at the unexpected interruption to bother looking through the front windows to see what awaited him on the other side.

“Alright! Jesus Christ!”

He swung the door open, nearly toppling over as a body charged in, broad shoulders knocking into his, making him stumble back.

“Your friend is a vicious harpy, Potter!”

Harry’s eyes narrowed, rubbing his sore muscle from their point of impact. “Please, come in, Malfoy.”

“I can’t abide her! She’s mad! Utterly insane! She needs to be officially diagnosed so they can admit her into a proper hospital!”

“Good day to you as well. I’m great, thanks for asking.”

“I don’t know what’s triggered the madness, some latent hysteria or that destitute domicile she insists on staying at. Maybe there’s something in the water affecting their cognitive function.”

“Sounds like the most rational explanation.”

“You have no idea-”

“Correction, I don’t care. Now get out.”

Draco stopped his rapid pacing of the entryway, blinking, as though noticing Harry for the first time despite his venomous ramblings.

“Did she say anything to you?”

Harry rubbed at his eyes. “Draco, it’s barely 9 am, when would she have spoken to me?”

“Yesturday.”

“No, idiot. I haven’t spoken to her since the cafe. And if I had, I wouldn’t tell you anything she confided in me. Now get out.” He gestured to the open doorway.

“I need a whiskey.” Draco strode past him towards the front parlor.

Harry sighed, slamming the door shut. “It’s barely nine in the bloody morning!”

“I’ll mix it with coffee!” Draco called over his shoulder.

“Fucking hell…” Harry pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closing, only to snap back open at the sound of something crashing to the floor from the next level up.

Draco stopped mid-step, glancing at the ceiling, then to Harry. “Do you have company, Potter?”

Harry tucked his hands into his trouser pockets. “It’s a cat.”

Draco raised a pale brow. “You don’t own a cat.”

“It’s a poltergeist.”

Draco tipped his head. “A poltergeist cat?”

“Precisely. The feline met a rather violent end after it woke me up to complain about another cat that continuously avoided its company.”

Draco turned towards the window. “I didn’t see another carriage out front.” His mercurial gaze swept over Harry from top to bottom, eyes lighting on the details of his ruffled appearance that he overlooked upon first entering.

“Which means your guest had to of arrived in your carriage last night.” He smirked, eyes fastening to Harry’s narrowed emerald gaze in pure delight. “Who are you fucking, Potter?”

“I am deeply offended by-” he was interrupted by the sound of floorboards creaking loudly overhead. Draco’s smirk grew into a full-fledged grin. Harry sighed deeply, shaking his head.

“Fantastic.”

“Who is it, Potter? Some bird from Holywell? You have to be careful with those, half of them carry a bawdy pox that’ll make your prick snap off.”

“Is that what happened to yours then? I wondered how Hermione came to carry it around in her purse next to your bollocks.”

Draco’s amused expression fell like a dead weight, eyes narrowed to slits. “At least I don’t have to pay for sex, Potter.”

“At least I’m having sex, Malfoy.”

Draco blinked, smirk returning. “You admit it then? You have a kept dame upstairs?” His eyes flickered to the landing above.

“Don’t even think about- goddammit!” He sprinted after Draco, tackling him halfway up the stairs.

“Bloody hell you lunatic!” Draco groaned in pain as the hard unforgiving wood bit into his shins and side.

“You aren’t even welcome downstairs, Malfoy!”

“Is she missing an eye or something?”

What?” Harry dodged an elbow that flew at his face, barely clipping his jaw.

“A bum leg?”

Harry landed a shot just below the blonde’s kidneys, causing him to hiss in pain but unfortunately not shutting him up.

“Or does she have a set of hairy boys dangling down low?”

“Fucking hell. Get. Out!” He managed to twist the blonde’s arm behind his back, yanking him up with him as they stumbled to their feet, trying to keep balance against the railing.

“I just want to see, I promise, I won’t say a word.”

“And a horse won't shite in a stable.”

He hauled the blonde back down to the first floor, grunting in exertion.

“Do you kiss her with that mouth?”

“Goodbye, Malfoy.”

“Wait- is it someone I know?”

Harry struggled to open the door and keep Draco in his grip. The blonde’s eyes narrowed, then quickly widened. “Oh god, it is, isn’t it?”

He thrashed wildly, nearly slipping free before Harry managed to tackle him to the ground once again.

“It’s too early for this bullshite!” Harry yelled, trying to pin the flailing figure beneath him to the marble.

“I agree, so just tell me who’s upstairs and I promise I’ll leave.”

Harry glared, jaw ticking. “Fine.”

Draco blinked, body going still as he panted. “Really?”

“Do you actually promise to leave if I tell you?”

Draco wet his lips, nodding eagerly. “Yes, I’ll go and never return.”

Harry raised a brow, alleviating the man of his weight as he pulled into a sitting position. Draco held his gaze a moment longer before rolling his eyes. “Okay. I promise not to return this week.”

“Even if Hermione does something to drive you crazy?”

“I promise to take my violent frustrations out on her instead, yes.”

Harry sighed, running his fingers through his wild mane to settle the dark locks. “Good. We both know you enjoy it when she slaps you around.”

“Stop stalling. Who’s upstairs, Potter?”

Harry exhaled slowly, stealing himself, finally bringing his gaze up to meet the blonde’s. Draco held his breath, muscles tense with rigid anticipation. Harry swallowed tentatively, finally opening his mouth.

“Alright… it’s… your mum.”

Draco blinked. Harry held his serious and somber expression for another full beat before his face split across the middle in a shite eating grin.

“You bloody pillock!” Draco lunged forward, toppling Harry onto his back while the man laughed wildly.

“You asked!”

“We’ll see how hard you’re laughing when I break your bloody arm!”

“Why don’t you try growing a sense of humor along with a new cock, Malfoy?”

Draco glared, swinging a fist at Harry’s face, which he narrowly dodged. They were ten years old again, wrestling in the backyard of Malfoy Manor while their fathers talked business and their mothers watched in amusement.

“I’m going to-”

He stopped short at the sound of horses approaching, their fervent keening and rapid pounding growing louder.

“Another guest, Potter?” Draco glanced down casually, forearm still lodged against Harry’s neck.

Harry tipped his head back, gazing upside down at the door. “It’s nine in the bloody morning!”

“Closer to nine thirty now, I’d say.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Get off me.”

“Is that how your mistress says it when the hour’s up?”

Harry reared his knee upward, Draco rolled away just in time to avoid being hit square in the groin.

“Hey! Penalty!”

“Idiot,” Harry hissed as he pushed to his feet. “Try acting like an adult.”

“You’re just bitter I got more shots in,” Draco straightened out his rumpled cravat as he stood.

Harry bit back a reply, striding to the window and pushing the sheer curtain away to gaze out at the circular drive. Draco meanwhile inspected his reflection in the entryway mirror, adjusting his tie and running long deft fingers through his pale locks.

“I admit, I thought my day was going to be pure hell when you first arrived,” Harry said, still looking through the pane. “But now it’s quickly shaping to be the best day of my life.”

Draco blinked, shoulders going tense, head snapping to the side. “No.”

Harry smiled, letting the curtain fall back into place as the carriage outside came to a stop. He turned to face the blonde, face alight with glee. “Yes.”

Draco backed away quickly, hands fisted at his sides. “What the hell is she doing here? Did you know she was coming?”

“I promise, this is solely the universe rewarding me for putting up with your unbearable presence my entire life.”

“Potter, she can’t see me.”

“She’s already seen your carriage, she’s staring at it right now,” he peeked past the curtain again. “Oh, nevermind, now she’s walking to the door.”

Draco swallowed, glancing about desperately. “I can’t- Potter, I-” he inhaled sharply. “Harry, please.”

Harry sighed, shoulders dropping. “Fine.” He tipped his chin towards the back of the house. “Use the servant’s entrance, sneak around front. I’ll cover for you.”

Draco nodded, eyes bright with appreciation and panic. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Draco spun on his heal, sprinting down the hall and disappearing around the corner just as a delicate knock sounded behind Harry. He shook his head, eyes lingering on the landing above. So much for his quiet morning in.

He turned around, opening the door for the second time that day, this time to much more enjoyable company.

“Hello, Milady. To what do I owe the pleasure?” He stepped aside, allowing her to walk past.

His easy grin faded when he saw the expression on her face. He quickly shut the door behind her, stepping in and placing a hand on her arm. “Mione, what’s the matter?”

“Is he here?”

Harry blinked, his mind taking a moment to catch up. “Oh, Malfoy?”

“His carriage is out front.”

“He’s out back looking at something, he’ll be gone in a minute.”

“He’s out back looking at something...” Her flat tone and raised brow told him all he needed to know about the state of her mind, despite the blonde’s earlier insistence otherwise.

“Alright, caught me. He’s hiding from you, sneaking around the Manor like a burglar trying to evade the police.”

She sighed, shaking her head. “I’m sorry he came to you again.”

Harry shrugged, pulling her into his side and walking her through the entryway towards the parlor. “It’s not your fault he’s a whiny little wanker, luv.”

“Harry.”

“I’m sorry, are we pro-Draco this morning? You came to the wrong house if you want to sing his praises.”

He released her, walking to the settee and sprawling back with a groan, muscles still sore from his early morning tussle on the stairs. She hovered in the middle of the room, shoulders tense.

“I’m in the right place, I just didn’t expect to see him here,” she glanced about the familiar space before her gaze fell upon him. “Harry, I need your help.”

He blinked, leaning forward with his arms on his knees. “What’s wrong?”

She swallowed lightly, shifting on her feet. “One of the girls at the Home has gone missing. My roommate, Lavender. She’s been gone since yesterday morning and the Matron won't do anything about it. She thinks she’s runaway but I know that’s not the case. She has nowhere to run to, and even if she did she’d never-”

“Wait, Mione, slow down. Here, come sit by me.”

Hermione took a deep breath, doing as bid, sitting next to him and slumping against his side as his arm wrapped around her middle, pulling her in. She rested her head against his shoulder, closing her eyes.

“Harry, I’m so scared for her. Lavender isn’t… she doesn’t... “ She sighed, pausing to find the right words. “She’s very pretty. Vivacious and carefree. She’s the type of person you want to be around, so full of life and energy. But the wrong person would target her for all those qualities, hurt her. I’m terrified something awful’s happened but I have no means of finding out where she is.”

Harry rested his chin atop her head, inhaling deeply. “It’s alright. I’ll ask around, send word out. We’ll find her.”

She pulled back slightly to glance up, meeting his emerald gaze. “Thank you, Harry. I knew I could count on you.”

He smiled, dropping a quick kiss to her forehead. “Always.”


Twenty minutes later Hermione was getting back in her carriage, pockets lined with cash that Harry had to practically force upon her to pay the driver and fill her coffer in between her measly monthly allowances from the solicitor.

He used to send her money every week while abroad only to learn the Matron opened everyone’s mail before allowing messages to pass in or out, and Hermione never saw a farthing of what he sent. So he showered her with funds when he was back in London to ensure the bills made it directly into her hands, however unwilling she was to take it.

In exchange he took the name and description of the missing girl, promising to do everything in his power to find her. He didn’t like the thought of Hermione running around London by herself, speaking to members of society’s underbelly who were most likely to know the girl’s whereabouts.

He wanted her to stay with him the remainder of the day, the remainder of her life if she saw fit, but she staunchly refused his pleas, as always. This time insisting she was under house arrest and was skirting a more severe punishment if caught off grounds. A part of Harry wanted to lock her away upstairs, forcing the Matron’s hand, making it so Hermione had no other choice but to stay. Here. With him. Where she’d be safe.

But he knew better than to try and clip her wings. She’d only end up resenting him. Hermione was a grown woman and as much as it frustrated him to no end, he couldn’t force her hand.

He watched her carriage pull away, disappearing up the drive, grinning as she leaned out the side window, waving farewell to him before disappearing around the corner, as was tradition since they were children.

“Are all your mornings so eventful?”

Harry sighed, stepping back and closing the door.

“As of late, apparently.”

“I had no idea you were in such high demand.”

Harry smirked, glancing over his shoulder at the figure leaning against the upstairs banister.

“What can I say? I’m a popular guy.”

“Hm. I can’t imagine why.”

Harry raised a dark brow, eyes gleaming in the sunlight streaming through the large bay windows and reflecting off the crystal chandelier.

“Perhaps you’d like a personal demonstration?”

“I thought I already had one of those last night. And two this morning.”

Harry licked his lips. “Those were just warm-up exercises.”

The figure sighed, rolling their eyes to the vaulted ceiling. “Bloody hell, Potter. Do you want to keep making terrible metaphors or do you want to fuck me?”

Harry flashed a wolfish grin. “Believe me, I want nothing more than to bend you over that railing. But unfortunately, I have to run to the city and find Mione’s missing friend.”

“You’d do anything for her, wouldn’t you?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

“Should I be jealous?”

Harry tilted his head, eyes roaming their figure from bottom to top. “You’ve never been jealous a day in your life.”

They laughed without humor. “You’d be surprised, Potter. Not everything was sunshine and roses growing up in my house.”

Harry’s expression sobered. “I know.”

“I can’t abide such heavy subject matter this early in the day,” they turned, heading for the bedroom. “You go play knight in shining armor, I’m going back to bed.”

Harry watched his lover disappear down the hall, taking a deep breath as the sound of a closing door followed.

Yes, his mornings were far more eventful as of late.


“Stop here, thank you.”

“I can drop you off at the front, Miss.”

“I’m afraid that will only ensure my imminent demise. The corner is fine.”

The driver pulled the reins, the horses slowed their pace and came to a stop along the crosswalk. Hermione pulled a few bills from the hidden pocket in her skirts and handed them to the man as she descended the carriage.

“Thank you, Miss, have a good day.”

“You as well.”

She navigated around the newsstands and trolleys lining the sidewalk, weaving between throngs of morning shoppers and people heading to work. She gazed ahead, heart lurching in her chest as her destination came into view.

The Home dominated the block, the tall and imposing structure a testament to gothic architecture, equipped with stone gargoyles along the buttress, their menacing eyes turned downward, watching the street, following her every movement.

She followed along the tall rod iron gates, hood drawn over her face, keeping her eyes averted to the pavement as she slipped through a set of loose bars near the back, at the far end of the makeshift garden that existed for the sole purpose of deluding pedestrians into thinking the Home well managed. The squeezing maneuver was a tight fit that few residents could fit through, and even fewer knew existed. Leave it to Lavender to know every in and out of the building.

The adventure-seeking girl was only too excited to share her vast knowledge with Hermione, no doubt in the hopes of enticing her new roommate to sneak out with her one night. Hermione had always refused, but now she wished she hadn’t been so adverse to Lavender’s lifestyle. Perhaps she would have confided more in Hermione had she been more accepting. At least then Hermione may have a handle on where Lavender skipped off to yesterday afternoon, where she may be now.

Instead, Hermione was utterly in the dark, rendered all but helplessly reliant on Harry’s ability to lead the investigation. She couldn’t abide feeling powerless, and yet it seemed it had become the running theme of her new life.

She dashed behind the privacy shrubs as she made her way to the kitchen doors, hoping Luna had left them unlocked as promised. She and Parvati enlisted the help of a handful of residents they trusted to help cover for them as they launched the search for Lavender. Luna had been an easy selection and even easier sell, eager to assist however she could.

Parvati had recruited Hannah, who was also eager to help in the wake of her misplaced guilt, feeling responsible for Lavender’s disappearance as Filch had assigned her the task of keeping an eye on the girl while they shopped the market. Hermione tried to assure her that there was nothing she could have done to stop Lavender once the girl got an idea into her head, but Hannah’s eyes still looked plagued when they parted her company that morning.

Hermione was almost to the door when a sharp sound drew her attention, rendering her still, head searching out the source of the noise.

A frantic birdsong.

Hermione blinked, eyes landing on a black-billed magpie, larger than most, markings utterly beautiful, perched atop the lowest branch of a silver birch.

Her heart raced wildly as the bird’s chest heaved, equally frantic, head cocking to the side, gaze locking onto Hermione’s. It had golden irises, like an eagle. She swallowed, feeling some electrical current in the air snap along her skin as she held the bird’s penetrating stare.

And suddenly, one thought surfaced above the rest, echoing off every corner of her mind.

It’s a warning.

As soon as the words took root the bird fell silent, launching into flight, wings flapping effortlessly. She squinted, trying to follow it’s ascent but losing sight almost immediately, as though it disappeared into thin air.

Unease seized her by the throat, cutting off her airway. She spun around to face the door, muscles tensed. She slowly pulled the handle and let out a short sigh of relief when it gave way beneath her touch, opening silently. She slipped inside, closing the door behind her carefully, standing on tiptoes, doing her best to make as little noise as possi-

“There ya are!”

A large hand gripped her shoulder, whipping her around. She cringed, recognizing the grating voice before she saw the equally grating face.

“Knew someone was up to somethin when blondie snuck down ere earlier,” Filch said with malevolent glee, releasing her shoulder to seize her wrist in an ironclad grip, bruising her pale flesh and grinding her bones. She bit her lip to prevent herself from crying out in pain, unwilling to give the vile man the satisfaction.

“Wait till Madam sees ya! Yer in fer it, girly.” He pulled her along behind him as he limped rapidly through the kitchen and towards archway leading to the hall. She reared back, twisting her arm, but he pulled harder, nearly taking her off her feet.

“Stop that! Yer good and caught, no point fightin me now!”

“Precisely, so release me this moment!”

“What are ya on about?” He scowled over his shoulder.

She scowled back. “I’m already caught, there’s no point in running, so there’s no point in you detaining me like a criminal, I’m not going anywhere!”

“Ha!” he barked without humor. “I don’t trust a single one of ya ta do what ya says ya gonna do, so shut up and keep walkin!”

She bit back a scream of frustration, digging in her heels as he hauled her down the large open corridor, residents stopping along the way to watch the spectacle with varied expressions. A few looked gleeful, amused, but most looked concerned, flashing Hermione looks of sympathy. She avoided their gazes, not wanting to encourage anyone to try and help, not that they would, but nevertheless she didn’t want to implicate anyone else in her crime.

“Stop doin that!” he yelled, voice echoing down the now silent hall, everyone giving up the rouse of focusing on anything else but their parading figures. “Walk!”

“Let go of my arm and I will!”

“You stupid little trollop, I told ya I-”

“Mr. Filch.”

The smooth baritone seemed to surround them from all sides, rendering them both still in their mutual struggle, heads swiveling to find the source. Her heart leaped into her throat as the gathered crowd at their back parted to make way for the tall, darkly clad figure to emerge.

“Perhaps you can explain to me why you’re abusing one of my charges?”

She blinked, warmth suffusing her chest as he referred to her as his.

“Dr. Riddle…” Filch’s yellowed, sallow skin turned even clammier, throat bobbing as he swallowed audibly. “I… I caught er, see… she were sneakin around when she’s sposed ta be-”

“Unhand her at once.”

Filch’s expression pinched in abject annoyance but he slowly released her, circulation flooding back into her hand as his calloused fingers gave way. She instinctively backed away, towards the Doctor. He, in turn, stepped forward, placing himself between them. An impenetrable wall. She tipped her head down, hovering at his back, her face half hidden by his broad shoulder.

“Is this how you normally treat the residents?”

There was an excited murmur among the girls, a wave of whispers echoing off the walls as they watched the exchange with eager eyes.

Filch shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “She was caught breakin the rules!”

“I don’t care what she was caught doing, if I ever see you place your hands on one of these girls for any reason whatsoever I assure you, I will throw you out on the streets myself. Do I make myself clear?”

Hermione swallowed, breath lodged in her throat, eyes fixated on his beautifully enraged profile. His tone was lethal, brokered no argument, gave no ounce of leave. Filch physically wilted beneath the treacherous storm in the Doctor’s eyes.

“I… I…”

“It’s a simple yes or no.”

Filch’s eyes flickered to Hermione, narrowing once more. “Yes.” He bit out, jaw ticking.

The Doctor glanced down at Hermione as well, turning to face her so sharply she drew back, cringing on instinct as his hand reached for her bruised wrist. He paused, arm held aloft, eyes alighting to hers, still bright with emotion but his expression no longer deadly.

“May I?” he asked softly, for her ears alone.

She swallowed lightly, nodding, lifting her arm for his examination. His touch was light, fingers cold, but the moment his fingertips moved from the fabric of her sleeves to the bare sensitive skin of her inner wrist she felt the lightning strike, following the path of her spine. She rocked on her feet, gasping.

“Does it hurt?”

She felt a flush steal her cheeks, mortified, tempted to feign greater injury to cover for her reaction to his touch. But she knew he’d be able to detect a sprain or fracture easily, and furthermore, she didn’t want to lie to him. So far their interactions had been based in raw, naked honesty, and she didn’t want to change that now.

“No.”

His eyes held her steady, one hand supporting the weight of her forearm and the other gently encircling her wrist in stunning contrast to the way Filch held her moments before. She felt her pulse thrum madly against his thumb, his skin rapidly warming against hers, becoming a scalding heat.

“You’ll bruise.” Their gazes remained firmly locked. “But your hand is still attached, despite his valiant attempt to rip it off.”

She blinked, brow pinching until she saw the flash of dark amusement ripple across his face. And just like that, the suffocating weight left her lungs, the stress of the last day, the last week, the last year, melted away in that brief instant.

“That’s too bad. A severed appendage would surely qualify me for disability services. I could have earned up to ten shillings a week.”

His pupils expanded rapidly, his mouth curving into a secretive smirk. “Dare to dream big.”

Her heart skipped a beat, the rest of the world falling away around them until someone giggled sharply and the resounding murmurs echoed through her skull, pulling her from the smoky abyss and back to the crowded hall. She drew her arm away at the same moment his hands released her, both taking a sharp step back from the other.

Hermione glanced down as the Doctor turned to face Filch once more.

“I will have to report this incident to the Matron.”

Panic seized her but she forced her limbs to remain still.

“As you bloody well should! I told ya, I caught er sneakin about, she needs ta come with me ta see the Madam right now!”

“And where exactly did you catch her sneaking about?”

She bit her lip at the Doctor’s clipped tone, terrified he’d turn his ire on her for breaking the terms of her house arrest.

“The back garden, comin in through the kitchens like a common thief!”

“And between discovering her entrance and hauling her down the hall like a cow to auction did you stop to ask her why she was in the garden?”

“It don’t matter why she was-”

“Precisely. Because had you taken but a moment to make such an inquiry you’d know that Ms. Granger was merely taking inventory of the herbs, as I requested.”

Her heart nearly burst from her mouth. Filch blinked, gaze flickering rapidly between them. “But- I- you never told me she was-”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Filch,” Dr. Riddle folded his arms. “Am I to understand that I must inform you of every task needed to perform my function as the primary physician?”

Filch swallowed again, the girls whispered more sharply, the crowd steadily growing in number.

“She didn’t say nothin bout any inventory.”

“Perhaps she was a bit distracted by your violent efforts to wrench her arm from the socket.” He released the man from his lethal stare to glance at Hermione once more. “I will take care of the matter, Ms. Granger. You may go.”

She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t blink, too shocked to move.

His eyes narrowed, darkened. “Go.”

She snapped out of her daze, nodding quickly and spinning on her heal, only to face a wall of onlookers blocking her path to freedom.

“All of you!” The Doctor shouted, voice reverberating off the walls and ceiling like the voice of God Himself. “The show is over! Get back to where you need to be or I’ll summon the Madam to repeat the instructions!”

That was all the threat needed to break apart the sea of girls like an icepick. They scattered in every direction, laughing, shouting, eager to spread the gossip.

Hermione hesitated a moment longer, glancing over her shoulder at the image of Filch and Dr. Riddle speaking in low voices, the former hunched and defensive and the latter towering and lethal, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying.

She took a deep breath, still shaken to her core from the last ten minutes, and hurried down the hall towards her dorm.


Harry walked along the busy campus of the Royal Polytechnic Institute, eyes scanning the crowd outside the School of Engineering.

“Oi, Boot!”

The lanky man turned from the group he was standing amongst, chatting near the main stairs.

“Potter! Long time no see, mate. What are you doing here?”

“Good to see you. I’m looking for the old man, he around?”

“Yeah, he was in the last lecture with me, ended about ten minutes ago, he should be out anytime.”

“Thanks, mate.”

“So you’re on leave?”

“That I am.”

“Kill any pirates?”

Harry laughed. “Unfortunately not.”

Terry shook his head. “Too bad. Come close to killing any?”

“So far I’ve only come close to killing my friends. Let’s hope I have the strength to curb my homicidal urges.”

“What’s the fun in that?”

“Good point. Oh, I see him now. I’ll talk to you later, mate.”

“Alright then, goodbye, Potter.”

Harry smiled, tipping his head in farewell as he strode past the milling crowd to the edge of the building.

“Nev!”

Neville halted his rapid pace down the walkway, glancing up from the open book in his hands. “Harry?”

“In the flesh.”

Neville laughed, snapping the book shut and stepping in to embrace him. “Blimey, I thought you weren’t getting back until next week.”

“Last minute change of plans.”

“No one tells me anything,” he said without heat, slipping the book into his leather satchel.

“How is Cambridge?”

Neville smiled. “It’s fantastic. I’d stay there year round if not for Gran. Luckily the Institute offers summer programs so I can stay on track.”

“On track for what? To graduate in half the time?”

“I’m doing a double major.”

Harry shook his head. “It’s astounding we share the same blood.”

“Barely. Remember when Mione made us trace our entire family trees for her genetics project?” His eyes were bright with amusement, but it quickly faded, expression sobering. “How is she? I’ve written a few times but haven’t heard back. I don’t know if she gets regular mail or not where she is.”

Harry sighed, clamping a hand on his friend's shoulder and directing him down the path.

“Actually, Mione’s the reason I paid you a visit, I need to ask you a favor.”

Neville raised a brow. “A favor for you or her?”

Harry smirked, a knowing glint in his eyes. “Does it matter?”

Neville swallowed, blushing lightly. “No, of course not. I just... I just worry about her is all.”

Harry nodded. “Me too, Nev. Me, too.”


Hermione checked both ways down the corridor before sliding inside the room, still a bit frazzled from the morning’s encounter.

Luna immediately stood from the bed and crossed the room. “Hermione, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know Filch saw me sneak into the kitchen-”

“It’s okay, it’s not your fault.”

The blonde nodded, though her eyes still look burdened. Hermione was about to reassure her further when her gaze lighted over her shoulder to the room’s third occupant. Hannah sat on the foot of Parvati’s bed, looking equally anxious.

Hermione sighed. “Does the entire Home know?”

Hannah sent her a sympathetic look. “It’s all anyone can talk about.”

Hermione trudged past Luna, shaking her head. “Lovely. Umbridge is sure to catch wind of it then.”

“But didn’t the Doctor step in?”

Hermione chewed on the inside of her cheek. “How much did you hear?”

Luna walked over, sitting beside Hannah. “Girls are saying the Doctor defended you to Filch. Defended all of us. Said he wasn’t to place hands on anyone ever again.”

She nodded, wondering if they also heard that the Doctor claimed she’d been working in the garden on an errand for him. The other residents wouldn’t have cause to doubt the lie but Luna and Hannah knew the truth, and would likely read more into his assistance than Hermione was willing to face at the moment.

“Were you able to talk to the others?” She thought a change in topic best.

“Yes, the other girls agreed to keep an eye out and ask around when they’re able to go on market runs. No one has any idea where she could be. They haven’t heard anything.” Hannah provided, eyes sorrowful.

Hermione deflated. “Thanks, girls. I thought it prudent to ask but I wasn’t expecting much. Lavender didn’t hang out in the typical places, I doubt anyone here knows exactly what she got up to outside these walls.” She paused, saddened. “Not even me.”

A somber silence filled the room before she was pulled free from her daze by a memory. “I spoke with my friend, he’s going to help us search out a lead. He knows practically everyone in London through family, friends and the Navy. I think he’ll be our best bet.”

Luna nodded. “I think Parvati's connection will be useful, too.”

Hermione swallowed nervously. “She isn’t back yet?”

Both blondes shook their heads. She sighed, dropping onto her own mattress in a graceless heap.

“Shite.”


Harry came to a stop outside the red painted door in the alleyway.

“You didn’t have to come here with me, Nev. You’ve already done plenty by spreading word around the campus.”

Neville shrugged. “I don’t mind. I didn’t have any plans for the day beyond studying. At least this gets me out of the house.”

Harry raised a dark brow. “It certainly does. I feel I should warn you again-”

“Bloody hell, Harry, I’m not a child, I know what goes on in these places.”

Harry nodded, smirking as he rapped his knuckles against the door. “Gird your loins.”

Neville shook his head in amusement as a small window at eye level slid open, revealing the top half of a man’s face. “Password?”

“Egbert.”

The window slid closed, the sound of clicking locks quick to follow.

“How did you know that?”

Harry flashed a silver grin over his shoulder as the door opened. “I have my ways.”

They stepped over the threshold and past the doorman into the smoke-filled hall. Neville immediately started choking on the bitter cloud surrounding them.

“Careful,” Harry hit him on the back a few times. “It’s opium. Try not to breathe in too much of it or I’ll have to carry you out.”

“How the hell am I supposed to do that?” He hacked another breath. “The air’s filled with it!”

Harry shrugged, walking further along the hall, past several sheet draped doorways. “I’m sure you’ll figure something out, you always were the smart one.”

Neville wiped at his tearing eyes as he followed in Harry’s wake, covering his mouth with the crook of his elbow, gaze narrowed. Harry stopped at the last open doorway, this one covered by a beaded curtain that glimmered as he pushed past. Neville swallowed tentatively, immediately coughing anew.

They stepped into the main room of the opium den and emerged in a fresh haze of white smoke. As it settled around them the details came into view. A large oriental rug covered the floor, a massive hookah at its center, pillows scattered about the ground with sprawled bodies atop. Men and women, all looking to be under the age of thirty, eyes red-rimmed and hooded, no one bothering to even look in their direction.

Harry scanned their faces, shaking his head. “I don’t see him.”

“What does he look like again?”

“Our age, blonde, smug.”

“And what does smug look like exactly?”

“Handsome and punchable.”

“Got it.”

Harry backed out of the room, Neville turned to follow but jolted still when he felt something wrap around his ankle. He peered down, blinking as he was met with the face of a smiling young woman lying on the ground, long dark hair spilling across the carpet.

“Hello…” her voice was raspy, eyes dim and lifeless. “Stay and play with me.”

Neville’s brows drew together as he gently pulled his leg away from her outstretched fingers. “Not today, luv.”

She giggled, unaffected by his rejection. “Tomorrow then?”

He swallowed, heart beating unsteadily in his chest. “Sure.”

He looked away, though he could still see her vacant eyes in his mind. The brief encounter had a profound effect upon him, taking root in his chest. He started to take a deep breath but caught himself before he choked on another lungful of smoke.

By the time he made it back into the hallway, he saw Harry stepping away from a sheet, moving onto the next room and peeking in, shaking his head as he pulled back. Neville was about to ask what they planned to do if he wasn’t here when Harry peaked into a third room, emerald eyes gleaming.

“Got you.”

Harry stepped inside, the sheet falling back into place behind him, leaving Neville alone in the hall with a thrumming pulse and throbbing head. He was starting to feel the effects of the second-hand opium. His vision hazed at the edges, thoughts slowing.

He walked to the white sheet in a half-trance, slowing extending his hand out to push it aside. He had to blink several times to process the image within, a fresh plume of smoke filling his vision.

“Hello there, McLaggen.” Harry’s voice sounded deep and sinister, causing Neville to freeze in the doorway, the sheet draped over one shoulder.

There was a short gasp, feminine.

“And what’s your name, luv?”

Neville squinted and the forms took shape, a man sprawled over a chaise lounge, a girl lying across his lap in nothing but a shift, seemingly asleep, and another scrambling to put her corset back on.

“Potter? Is that you, mate?” The man asked, barely rousing.

“I’m not your mate.”

The girl trying to redress was clumsy, wobbling on her feet, and tripped over the chaise leg. Harry shot forward and caught her before she hit the ground. She blinked up at him with wide, glossy eyes.

“Careful,” he murmured, eyes scanning her face closely. “Your name wouldn’t happen to be Lavender would it?”

She swallowed and shook her head. He sighed, tipping her upright so she could regain her footing and releasing her.

“Wrong hair color. What about her, what’s her name?” Harry pointed to the sleeping figure on Cormac’s lap, curled up like a kitten. The girl at Harry’s side shrugged. “I don’t know.”

He sighed, shaking his head and directing his focus to the man on the chaise. “How long have you been here, McLaggen?”

Cormac blinked slowly, eyes narrowing. “Potter? Is that you?”

“Bloody hell.” Harry groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. He glanced over his shoulder at Neville. “Do me a favor, Nev? Go back to the main room and see who’s coherent enough to speak. See if any of them have seen or heard of Lavender Brown.”

Neville nodded, eyes lingering on the sleeping girl on Cormac’s lap before he backed away into the hall, unsteady on his feet. Harry groaned, suspecting he’d be carrying his friend out after all.

He turned back to the girl at his side, watching as she pulled her dress over her shoulders. “You know a Lavender Brown?”

She pulled her long brown hair free from the collar. She shook her head, glancing to the doorway with obvious desperation but seeming frozen in place, as though waiting for Harry to dismiss her.

He narrowed his eyes, wondering if she was a paid companion or merely looking to supply her habit for free by hanging out in these places. He didn’t know which would come as the bigger insult if he asked. So instead he tipped his head towards the exit.

“You’re free to go. I need to ask your friend some questions, you can have him back after.”

Her eyes darted down to Cormac’s drowsing form, eyes narrowing slightly. “He’s not my friend.”

Harry nodded. “I share in your sentiments. In that case, would you like to stay, watch me rough him up a bit?”

Her eyes snapped back to his, a look of confusion melting away into amusement. “Could I help?”

Harry barked out a laugh, tipping his head back. “Sorry, luv. I’m afraid I don’t have time for that, but I like your way of thinking.” He tilted his head, examining her more closely. “What’s your name?”

Her cheeks flushed. “Susan.”

“Susan,” he repeated slowly, watching her blush spread down her neck and decolletage. “I’m looking for a missing girl by the name of Lavender Brown, blonde, your age and just as pretty.” Susan shifted on her feet, swallowing lightly. “Would you mind keeping your eyes and ears open for me?”

She blinked, watching half dazed as he reached into his coat lining and extracted his calling card, name on the front and address on the back. “If you hear anything give that to the coach driver and they’ll take you to me.”

Her eyes darted back to his.

“No worries, I only want information, nothing more.”

She bit her lip as she slowly took the card, studying the letters along the front as though decoding them. He blinked, realizing she may not be educated.

“I’m Harry.”

She glanced up sharply, eyes narrowed. “I know how to read.”

He smirked at the scorn in her voice. “My apologies.”

“For the record, I’m not what you think I am.”

“I make no assumptions, I assure you.” That was a lie, he assumed he’d enjoy conversing with this woman under different circumstances. She obviously had pluck brewing beneath the surface, reminding him a bit of his best friend. He liked women with backbone, regardless of their circumstances.

Susan slipped his card into the pocket in her skirts, backing away to the door. “I’ll keep an ear out.”

She darted away behind the sheet before he could bid her a thank you or farewell. He sighed, turning back around and scowling as the sound of snoring filled the room. Cormac was passed out, head tipped back against the top of the chaise, a thin line of drool cutting a path down his chin and neck. The girl in his lap was so still she didn’t seem to breathe.

Harry hunched down, shaking her lightly and sagging in relief when she murmured sleepily, eyes slowly blinking awake. He already knew by her hair color she wasn’t the girl he was looking for, and the vacant expression she wore told him she wouldn’t be providing him any worthwhile information.

So he gently helped her off Cormac's lap, holding her arms as she swayed heavily on her feet. “Hello, luv,” he said softly, feeling like he was handling a fawn learning to walk. “I need you to head into the main room for a little while, can you make it there on your own?”

She nodded while her eyes drifted closed once more, her frail body slumping into his.

“Fucking hell,” he murmured, sweeping her into his arms and laying her gently on the floor, out of the way. She immediately curled up into a ball and fell back asleep.

Harry backed away, focusing the full beam of his fury at Cormac who was currently passed out, snoring so loudly it reverberated off the walls.

“Wake up, idiot!” Harry kicked him in the shin, boot colliding hard with bone.

“Ah fuck!” Cormac sprung to life like a snapping bear trap, his body folding in half as he clutched at his abused leg and tipped to the side, head against the cushions. “What the hell- Potter?”

“We’ve already established that. Sit up. I’m tired of this bullshite.”

Cormac blinked rapidly, still slumped over. Harry growled, grabbing him the suspenders and yanking up upright.

“Bloody hell what’s your-”

“Now listen good, because I’m only going to ask you this once before I resort to more drastic measures,” Harry hissed menacingly in his face. “I’m looking for a girl by the name of Lavender Brown. I know you’re intimately familiar with her. Where is she?”

Cormac swallowed, expression pinching. “All this for a strumpet? She’s used goods mate, you’re better off- Ow! Fuck!” His head snapped back from the impact of Harry’s fist.

“You didn’t follow instructions, McLaggen. I asked you a question. Where is she?”

“You bloody bastar- Jesus okay!” He cringed back as Harry drew his fist back once more. “Alright! She’s up at the Girls Home on Bromley!”

Harry’s eyes narrowed. “That’s where she’s supposed to be,” he ground out, jaw ticking. “She’s been missing since yesterday.”

Cormac wiped at his bloody lip, blinking anew. “I don’t know anything about that, mate.”

Harry shook his head, taking to his full height. “I’m not your mate.”

“Obviously.”

“Where else could she be?”

“How the bloody hell should I know?”

Harry scowled. “You run around with her at least once a week, where do you take her?”

Cormac drew his brows together, still pressing against his rapidly swelling lip. “How do you know about that?”

“I have my sources.”

“Who? I pay good money to keep people quiet.”

“I’m asking the questions here, Mclaggen.”

Cormac scowled in return. “I have no idea where the stupid bint is! If I did I would tell you, she isn’t worth getting my face split open.”

“What a gentleman,” he glanced to the girl sleeping on the floor. “And what about her, do you even know her name?”

“These places aren’t for sharing names, Potter.”

“Just drugs and disease.”

“Get off your high horse you smug prick.”

Harry’s knuckles cracked as his fists clenched anew.

Five minutes later he was helping Neville down the hall, his friend’s arm slung over his shoulder as he half supported half dragged him towards the exit.

“Sorry, Nev, didn’t mean to take so long.”

“S’fine… did you get whatdya needed?”

Harry smirked at the man's slurred speech. He wasn’t happy Neville was high as a jackdaw but he couldn’t help but find twisted amusement in seeing the most straight-laced of his friends decidedly unlaced.

“I got a possible lead, as well as the opportunity to blacken his eye. So, all in all, I’d say our excursion into sin was quite successful.”

Neville hummed, eyes heavy. “S’good. Let’s get some cake.”

Harry chuckled. “Alright, Nev. Let’s go get some cake.”


Hermione spent five minutes hovering at the end of the hall that led to the large clinic doors.

Her vivid hallucination from yesterday still haunted her. She only found the courage to progress when the doors opened and a girl slipped out, another newer resident who was several years younger than Hermione and therefore housed in a different dorm.

The young girl paused briefly in her tracks upon seeing Hermione standing like a suit of armor at the head of the corridor. Hermione woke from her dark trance and forced herself to smile. It felt strained and grotesque on her face. The girl smiled meekly in return before quickly ducking her head and darting past.

Hermione let out a slow breath, stealing her nerves and proceeding down the hall, eyes fixed on the doors, terrified to glance down and see bloody footprints dotting the stone…

Stop that.

She bit her lip as she came to a stop at the barrier, debating whether to knock or simply walk in. She decided it was a public clinic, meant for anyone’s use, not the Doctor’s private office.

Does he have a private office? Or was the desk in the clinic where he intends to work from?

She shook her head of the thoughts, quickly pulling open the door before she could talk herself out of it. Between her last encounter within this hall and her interaction with the Doctor earlier that morning, she had every desire to flee.

Yet she stepped inside, accepting her fate, eager to meet it even. The anticipation was often worse than the experience itself. Unless it wasn’t.

Her stomach somersaulted as her eyes immediately fell upon him. He stood at the front of the desk, writing something on a clipboard, his back to her and head tilted down. She blinked, his presence still jarring to her even as she knew what to expect.

He was dressed in fine black trousers and a charcoal vest that reminded her a little too much of Draco’s suit from their last encounter. She swallowed, noticing his rolled up shirt sleeves, forearms exposed. He wasn’t wearing a medical jacket, she wondered if he turned his nose up at that convention as well or was merely trying to appear less intimidating to the residents.

Most of the girls here had never been to see a doctor beyond their initial admission to the Home. And Hermione had a sneaking suspicion the previous physician wore his full medical garb in their presence, anything to seem more authoritative and controlling. The thought gave her a chill.

“Ms. Granger. Right on time. I should expect no less.”

She stood at attention, his back still facing her as he focused on whatever he was writing. She began to fidget. She expected him to mention her earlier encounter with Filch, ask her questions, perhaps scold her a little. At the very least she expected him to mention his role in saving her from a dark fate at the hands of the Matron.

Instead, he kept his focus upon the papers before him, addressing her without an upwards glance.

“There’s no need to hover at the door. You’re more familiar with this place than most.”

She released a nervous breath as she stepped deeper into the large room, closer to the windows, peering out at a row of privacy bushes lining the rod iron gate. Night was descending, the sun quickly fading. She tilted her head as she saw a small figure dart past, barely discernible through the gaps in the leaves.

She wondered if it was Colin on his rounds to ignite the gas lights. Soon the street would be awash in the soft glow of moonlight and flame, turning the city into another creature altogether. A dangerous creature perhaps, but Hermione longed to stroke her fingers through its sleek dark fur nonetheless. She was so cooped up, so restless-

“Ms. Granger.”

She spun on her heel, blinking rapidly. She’d almost forgotten where she was. For just a moment her fears were forgotten.

But her nerves rattled full force as Dr. Riddle’s attention was directed solely upon her. He’d stepped no closer, but his eyes rendered her motionless.

“Given your background, I’m sure you know what to expect, to an extent at least.”

She swallowed, throat dry, and nodded.

“Good.” He released her from his thrall, glancing once more at the clipboard in his hand. “I need you to remove your dress and corset. You may leave your shift and everything beneath it in place. Use the privacy screen to your left.”

She took a deep breath, hands clenching at her sides as she cut a path to the standing screen, taking shelter behind it as she was relieved of his presence for a few blessed moments.

Stop this madness. There’s nothing to fear. You’re acting like a juvenile.

She tried to swallow past the constriction in her throat as her clumsy fingers pulled at the stays and binds at the front of her dress, loosening the top enough to pull it down her waist and over her hips, letting it fall like a corpse around her feet. She closed her eyes as she started unlacing her corset.

Her ivory shift came to her knees, her bloomers and camisole beneath. She wore black stockings up to her mid thighs, the only flesh truly exposed was her arms which were already visible thanks to her cap sleeve dress. But being without the additional layers made her feel wildly bare, vulnerable. She couldn’t abide the feeling. Not in the presence of a stranger, no matter his profession.

She hesitated behind the curtain for several beats. Her movements had stopped, the Doctor no doubt knew she was done undressing, but he made no comment, no urge to hurry her along.

Finally, with great resignation, she emerged from behind the curtain. The Doctor still gazed upon his clipboard but his eyes didn’t move, his body looking tense, rigid, much as she imagined she appeared.

She bit her lip, hovering outside the screen, shifting from stockinged foot to foot, before his eyes slowly shifted upward, locking onto her. She froze.

“Excellent.” His voice sounded deeper, but surely she was just imagining it, frazzled as she was. He blinked, drawing back and lowering his clipboard. “Please, take a seat on the table.”

She turned her head until she saw a raised table in place of one of the cots. It had thin padding and a clean sheet pulled over the top. She took a deep breath and walked over, hoisting herself up. He approached, every step sending her heartbeat higher in her throat. As he stood before her their heights were slightly more level, though he still gazed down at her.

She held her breath, wondering if now he’d mention the incident from earlier when she was raw and exposed before him, less likely to formulate lies.

“I pulled your medical file from the records. Your previous physician was Dr. Murrow at St. Bartholomew's?”

She blinked, once more thrown off pace by his purely professional demeanor.

“Yes.”

He glanced at the clipboard once more, lifting a page.

“You were hospitalized for three days following smoke inhalation.”

She didn’t respond, seeing as he held her medical chart in his hands and bore all the answers anyway. He glanced up sharply. “You failed to mention you were in the fire as well.”

She tentatively wet her lips. “I was…” she glanced away, picking at the fabric of the sheet with her blunt nails. “I was downstairs when it broke out. They were able to drag me out in time.”

She didn’t bother to go on, detailing that her parents were upstairs, trapped in the burning bedroom, the hallway a river of hungry flames. She didn’t mention that she could still hear them screaming her name, not for help, but in a desperate plea for their daughter to flee, to get out.

“You suffered no burns?”

She shook her head, throat drawing to a close once more.

He examined the papers. “This is rather outdated, I need to ask you some questions to modernize it as well as determine the necessary course of exam.”

He seemed to be speaking more to himself than her so she remained still and silent until his questions prompted her to speak.

“Do you drink or smoke?”

“No.”

He scribbled along the margins with a pen, the scratching of the nib the only sound beyond her chaotic heartbeat.

“Do you partake in at least thirty minutes of physical exercise per day, such as walking or performing manual labor?”

She blinked, his voice was flat, toneless, almost unnerving in contrast to the passion he normally spoke with.

“Yes.”

His eyes darted up, scanning her body, making her rear back on instinct.

“You are underweight. Unfortunately, the clinic lacks a scale. Not that I’m surprised.”

She wet her lips. “Perhaps it’s for the best.”

His gaze snapped back to hers, narrowed. She swallowed, almost afraid to continue but speaking purely on adrenaline. “Some of the older girls here are preoccupied with their image, they may abuse the scale and resort to drastic measures to obtain a more favorable weight.”

Something in his eyes flashed. “Is that what you’re doing?”

She flushed. “No, I-” she broke off, unsure how to continue. “I don’t care about my appearance, I mean, I do, but it’s not- I don’t- I wouldn’t-”

“Take a breath, Ms. Granger.” She inhaled sharply, head a whirlwind. “Yesterday you told me your greatest dream is to turn grey and wrinkled before the age of thirty. I don’t deem that as someone obsessed with outward appearance.”

She flushed deeper at his recollection of their earlier conversation. It felt somewhat sordid to think about now, in this clinical setting. She was having trouble equating the man from yesterday, from this morning, with the man who stood before her now, eyes emotionless and flat.

“I may lack a scale but I do have my other tools to obtain vital readings. Please extend your right arm.”

Her brows drew together in confusion, but she did as bade. He smirked lightly as she held her arm at a ninety-degree angle from her body. His hand gently clasped her wrist, pushing it down to forty-five degrees. Her heart skipped a beat at his touch and softened expression.

“Like that,” he murmured, releasing her and stepping away to his desk where a black medical bag sat open. She watched with great curiosity as he emerged with a stethoscope in one hand and a foreign looking device in the other.

“What is that?”

His smirk widened. “I wondered if you’d seen one before. It’s called a sphygmomanometer, it’s a new invention out of Austria. It measures the pressure of one’s blood flow.”

She tilted her head, eyes alight. “Truly? What a remarkable invention!” She bounced lightly in her seat. “How does it work?”

His smirk transformed into a pleased grin. “If you sit still, I’ll show you.”

She nodded eagerly, her earlier discomfort forgotten in the wake of such a learning opportunity. She never got exposed to anything new these days. Little less in the field of medicine.

“This is a pneumatic cuff, it wraps around your bicep and is controlled by the manual pump on this end,” he held each piece aloft for her to view. “I will constrict blood flow through the brachial artery.” He wrapped the two-inch band around her upper arm, she watched with rapt fascination.

“I will then loosen the band and release the blood flow in a controlled manner. The mercury manometer will measure the pressure of release for me. I just have to use the stethoscope to determine at what pressure the blood flow is starting and at what pressure it’s unimpeded.”

She shook her head, hanging on every word. “This is incredible. May I watch?”

He laughed shortly, eyes no longer flat and lifeless but bright and endlessly deep. “That is up to you. The procedure does not require you to close your eyes.”

She smiled as well, too excited to feel embarrassed. He tightened the cuff into position and began squeezing the pump. “Remain still and silent.”

She nodded, watching the dial on the end change, not understanding the readings but no less intrigued. She jumped slightly when she felt the cold sensation of metal pressing against her chest, tugging at the neckline of her shift. She glanced up, eyes fixed on Dr. Riddle's look of concentration as he listened to her heartbeat.

She had no doubt he was being subjected to a cacophony of sounds, her heart beating wildly at his new medical device and close proximity, his upper thighs lightly grazing her knees.

She bit her lip, too overwhelmed to move, to blink. After a few long moments, he released the valve and the air started to hiss free, the pressure slowly easing around her arm. His eyes darted to the meter and then he promptly slid the band off her bicep.

“You’re at one twenty over eighty, which is within the healthy range but right at the cusp of hypertension. No doubt due to the stress put on your heart because of your size.”

She blinked, shifting awkwardly at his casual reference to her slight form but her curiosity burning brighter. “What do those numbers mean?”

“The first refers to the amount of pressure in your arteries during the contraction of your heart. The second refers to the pressure of blood between beats. I have a chart I can show you later listing the ranges. Data is still being collected of course, given the rising popularity of this method.”

“It’s amazing. And I thought the stethoscope was an ingenious bit of design.”

His smirk returned. “Are you familiar with the history of the stethoscope?”

An electrical current ran up her spine, words emitting before she had a chance to think. “It was invented by Dr. Laennec in Paris, its original design merely a wooden tube for listening through one ear. He created it because he was uncomfortable placing his head to women’s chests to listen to their heart.”

He shook his head, walking back to his desk and depositing both items back into his black case. She wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or embarrassed by his silent reaction, his expression a cross between pleasure and amusement. She chewed on the inside of her cheek as an admonishment for rambling like a school girl eager to please the tutor.

“Alright,” he headed back towards her. “Now I’m going to examine your lymphatic and thyroid systems, as well as check the condition of your spleen and liver.”

She nodded, rendered mute as he came to stop directly before her, heat radiating from his form. Or perhaps it was radiating from her. She couldn’t be certain. She sucked in a sharp breath as his hands lifted to her face, blinking rapidly, thinking he was going to touch her cheeks when his fingers slid beneath her jaw, tilting her face upwards lightly.

“Tell me if you experience any discomfort or pain.”

She swallowed thickly, closing her eyes. His fingers were just as cool as they were in the hall this morning, wrapped around her wrist. But now they slid beneath her jaw, pressing into her skin, then around the back of her neck, tipping her head forward as they pressed the sensitive skin at her nape. Gooseflesh rose along her arms. She bit her lip, willing her reactions to calm.

“Lift your arms.” His voice sounded closer, deeper.

She opened her eyes, gasping lightly at seeing his face so close to hers. She lifted her arms on instinct, holding her breath as his hands pressed the glands beneath, only to continue pressing into the skin, skimming down her sides. One large hand splayed casually along her right hip, his other gently prodded at her spleen. Her breath hitched.

“Does that hurt?” She could feel his breath along her face, it was cool, just like his touch, smelling of spearmint.

“N-no.” She blushed hotly at her broken speech. She swallowed, trying again. “No, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Hm.” He hummed low in his throat, rendering her silent once more. He checked her liver next. “Everything seems to be in order.”

She stared fixated at his shoulder, unable to meet his eyes. He was a doctor, she knew this rationally, and had received many medical examinations throughout her life, as paranoid as both her parents were about their daughter falling ill to disease. But having this particular man touch her so felt nothing like the past exams, despite the fact he hadn’t variated from the norm.

“I need to ask you some rather personal questions now, Ms. Granger.”

Her heart thumped painfully in her chest as he finally took a step back, grabbing up his clipboard once more and writing along the margins before pinning her beneath his intense gaze, which was perhaps the only thing that kept her rooted to the table as he spoke.

“Are you intact?”

She felt herself separate from her body, watching someone else answer the questions in rigid stillness.

“Yes.”

He didn’t blink, eyes carefully focused upon her. “Are you sexually active in other ways?”

She released a slow breath. “No.”

His eyes darted between hers before briefly flickering to her mouth. Her heart lurched. His eyes snapped back up. “You don’t engage in any form of physical congress with members of the same or opposite sex?”

The question threw her, unused to such phrasing. She wondered if anyone would openly admit to engaging in sexual acts with their own gender. It was technically an arrestable offense, if not merely swept beneath the rug to never be referenced openly. But she supposed as a physician he was entitled to such information from his patients. She didn’t think he’d use it against them.

You don’t know this man, Hermione.

She swallowed tentatively. “I… I don’t… not with women.” She blushed furiously, shifting uncomfortably in place.

He raised a dark brow, eyes glowing. “With men?”

She thought her entire body would burst aflame. She prayed for it to happen, to put her out of this awkward misery.

“I don’t… I mean I don’t normally. I just recently, nothing sordid. I mean-”

“Ms. Granger.”

She fell silent, inhaling sharply.

“I am your physician. You don’t have to be embarrassed. But I must know what type of activities you engage in so I know how to best treat you.”

She swallowed, stealing her nerve. “I’ve never been with a man, I’m intact. The most I’ve engaged in is kissing.”

And heavy pawing…

She bit her lip, hands curling into the thin padding beneath her.

“And how recently have you engaged in kissing?”

Her brows furrowed.

“Is that important?”

“Yes.”

She blinked. “Um…” Oh god, she really didn’t want to say it… “Yesterday morning.”

Something in his eyes flashed, rendering her motionless, caught. But then he merely gazed down, writing more along the margins.

She felt sick to her stomach, though she didn’t understand why. She’d done nothing wrong. Despite what society might try to instill within her, Hermione considered her body her property and her property alone. She was free to do whatever the hell she wanted, with whoever she wanted, whenever she wanted.

Her embarrassment quickly turned to anger, thinking that the Doctor stood in silent judgment of her. As though she disappointed him somehow. Like he expected better of her. Like engaging in mere kissing made her less of a person, less of a woman-

She blinked, thoughts scattering like feathers to the wind to make room for the memory of Parvati's speech from lunch the day before.

Bloody hell, is this how I made Lavender feel all those times I lectured her about Cormac?

She felt doubly sick, this time with guilt. She desperately hoped she got the opportunity to apologize to the girl in person.

Don’t think that way! You will see her again-

“In light of your admission, I see no reason to refer you to a gynecologist for an internal exam.”

She didn’t even know such a thing had been a possibility. She sagged in relief.

“However I will be performing an external one.”

Her relief flew out the window like a frantic bird.

“Lie back. I will inspect your dermis as well, there have been recent cases of infection spread through vermin and I need to check your limbs for bites or abscesses.”

She blinked, in a numb stupor, slowly drawing her legs up and pivoting around, trying to maintain her steady breathing as she laid flat on her back, gazing at the high ceiling but seeing nothing beyond the thick cloud overtaking her vision.

Breathe. Just breathe. This is perfectly normal. You’ve reached majority, it’s only natural for your reproductive health to become a part of the exams.

She swallowed thickly as he approached, standing at her side.

“Will I be the first to perform an external exam on you?”

Something about his phrasing caused her pulse to throb harder.

“Yes.”

She cringed at the blatant apprehension in her voice.

“There’s no need to worry,” his voice sounded softer now, less clipped. “I will simply press along the outside of your pelvis to check for any lumps or abnormalities. I can also check your inguinal nodes for swelling. Let me know if you feel any discomfort.”

She nodded mutely, feeling tears form along the corners of her eyes. She was too far gone in her anxiety to be embarrassed. His hands hovered above her for a moment. She shifted slightly, wondering the cause for his delay when she felt his eyes alight upon her. She glanced up, locking gazes, utterly helpless to hide.

“Were you aware physicians in medieval times believed a woman’s womb could move about her body?”

She blinked, his question so unexpected she barely noticed his hands make contact with her lower abdomen. His eyes remained firmly locked with hers as he pressed gently. “They called it wandering womb syndrome, and affiliated it with a myriad of afflictions, such as irregular cycles, sore arms, stiff neck, cramped feet, even anxiety and nerves. Basically, anything that caused discomfort was attributed to a displaced uterus.”

She tilted her head, studying his profile as he glanced down, eyes tracking his hands as they lighted upon her. She became mesmerized by his voice, her earlier unease pushed steadily aside.

“Naturally, the prescribed treatment for such an ailment was regular sexual intercourse,” the corner of his mouth tipped up in dark amusement. “Only with one’s husband of course, because the female body would know the difference and only be set right by her husband’s touch.”

She tentatively wet her lips. “I had no idea the uterus was so astute.”

“Astuter than the human brain, it would seem. Luckily the doctors of the time were on top of such things. And as for unmarried women, the cure was strict diet and prayer.”

“I think they got the better end of the deal compared to their married counterparts.”

His face alight with a wry smirk. “I am inclined to agree with you.” His fingers pressed lower, lower, causing her breath to catch. “Thank goodness we’ve come so far in women’s health, wouldn’t you agree?”

Something in his voice spoke volumes far beyond his words, as though he didn’t actually expect her to agree. She suspected he was trying to distract her, and she knowingly took the bait, desperate for the escape.

“I hardly consider us far removed from medieval times in that regard. Women’s reproductive health and mental health are still synonymous. The London Surgical Home continues to perform a ghastly amount of clitoridectomies each year to address any condition they deem to label hysteria. God forbid a woman be branded a nymphomaniac or, worse yet, guilty of masturbation. She’s liable to be locked away from society for the duration of her life.”

Her impassioned speech was cut short by the sensation of his fingers tracing the contours of where her thighs met her pelvic bone. She swallowed heavily as his heated touch lingered, pressing gently, then firmer, igniting warmth through her shift and bloomers and skin, all the way to her core. Her reaction frightened and confused her.

“I take it you aren't a proponent of modern hysterical theory?”

She exhaled slowly, willing her mind away from his touch and back to his words. It was difficult. “I consider all three of those words nothing but a long oxymoron when used in conjunction.”

He startled her with a sharp laugh, deep, genuine and delighted, setting her nerves aflame. He shook his head, wry grin back in place. “I’ve never heard it put that way, but now I shall never be able to think of it as anything but.”

She felt a blush spread across her cheeks and found herself rambling to distract from the fluttering sensation within her chest. “After the trial of Lewis Payne in America, the legal definition of insanity was addressed publicly for the first time. Its definition has nothing to do with the female condition, its source considered one of the mind, not the body. And yet the medical field still operates under the archaic belief that the uterus is a powder keg set to blow at the slightest provocation, turning half the population into raving lunatics at a moment’s notice.”

His hands slid along her hips, seeming to grip them slightly before releasing her all at once. She bit her tongue, startled by the coldness that settled across her skin absent his touch. His eyes met hers, burning bright.

“You speak quite passionately about such things. Do you have any interest in upending the system, Ms. Granger?”

She blinked, heart racing. “What do you mean?”

The corner of his mouth tipped up, eyes narrowing slightly, darkening at the center. “You know exactly what I mean.”

She wet her lips. “I planned on training to become a nurse. Like my mother. But then we heard about the Medical Act that was being pushed steadily through Parliament. My parents told me to hold out and wait for it to pass so my father could back my admission to medical school when the time came.” She swallowed lightly. “It’s being presented in the next few months for final voting. But even if it passes, female applicants need a licensed doctor to recommend them to the board. Without my father’s backing, I won’t qualify regardless of my test scores.”

Something in his eyes flashed. “Surely one of your father’s associates would vouch for you?”

She smiled sadly. “To do so would be putting their reputation on the line. Though the Act may pass, it will not be met with open arms. The proponents will still face great onslaught to their careers. Anyone considered a supporter will be targeted by those against the reform. My father may have been willing to put his name on the line, but I couldn’t ask anyone else to do so for me.”

His eyes studied her, rendered her motionless. “You are far too caring for your own good, Hermione. It will only lead you to ruin.”

She blinked, pulse thrumming at hearing her first name from his lips at long last. He stepped closer to her head, leaning in slightly, stealing the breath from her lungs as he gazed down upon her.

“Some things in life are so important they must be taken, no matter the cost to others. Sometimes it’s okay to be selfish. Necessary even.”

She felt dizzy despite her prone position beneath him. She swallowed twice before finding her voice.

“It’s never necessary to be selfish.” Her voice sounded frail, weak, young. She hated it.

He watched her in the thick, ominous silence that followed, she worried her frantic heart would leap right out of her chest. Then he slowly raised to his full height, stepping back. The spell was broken, the lights lifted, the rest of the room was brought back to stunning clarity.

“I will examine your skin for worrisome blemishes now.” He spoke as though the previous exchange hadn’t occurred.

She blinked, dazed as he walked to the foot of the table.

“I’m going to remove your stockings.”

Her breath caught in her throat. She hesitated, replaying the words in her head though she was certain she heard them correctly. He didn’t ask permission, didn’t request that she remove them…

She gasped as she felt his hands slide under her shift, dragging the thin barrier up above her knees as he grasped the dark fabric of her stocking, fingertips grazing the sensitive skin of her mid-thigh. She swallowed thickly, rendered limp as he pulled the fabric down one leg, over her knee, past her calf, and then a hand cupped the back of her ankle, raising her foot to remove the scrap of fabric entirely.

She let out a sharp breath, blinking rapidly as the cool air danced along her heated, exposed flesh. She braced herself, tamping down the urge to gasp anew as he repeated the motion on the other legs, this time his fingertips seemed to skim a trail down the back of her knee and calf, making the muscles tense reflexively.

Once both legs were bared to his eyes he proceeded to rake them with his gaze, though he didn’t touch them. Still, his eyes burned at hot as a physical touch. She averted her own to the ceiling, trying to regulate her breathing once more.

“I see no bites or abscesses, no moles,” perhaps she imagined his brief pause, “No flaws.”

Her heart skipped a beat and then thudded so painfully she jolted lightly. He stepped away from the table.

“I’ve seen your arms already to know they are the same. But I would like to examine your wrist more closely. You may sit up.”

She worried she wouldn’t be able to, rendered as nerveless as she was. She bit her lip and slowly pulled herself into an upright position, keeping her knees together as she slid them around the side of the table to dangle off the edge.

She slowly gazed up and met his eye as he held a hand out expectantly. She took a deep, grounding breath, and raised her arm, placing her hand palm up in his. His fingers curled around the appendage, ensnaring it. He rotated it slowly in either direction.

“Pain?”

She shook her head.

The fingers of his other hand grazed along the faint blue and purple tracks along her pale flesh, deeper in hue than this morning.

“Bruising looks to be the worst of it. Lucky for Filch.”

She blinked at his casual statement, detecting the note of hostility brewing beneath the surface. She nervously wet her lips, deciding to take the plunge rather than skirting the edge any longer.

“Thank you for defending me against him this morning.”

His eyes snapped back to hers, silence in their wake. His gaze was steady, intense, expectant.

She pushed ahead, every vein in her body throbbing.

“I don’t usually- I don’t normally break the rules or sneak about.”

He raised a dark brow, something in his stare igniting. “Such as hiding in stranger’s wardrobes at three in the morning?”

She swallowed. “It was two in the morning actually.”

The corner of his mouth tipped up. He still held her wrist captive.

“Semantics. Why were you sneaking out of the Home in the first place?”

His eyes flickered to her mouth and back, she realized with a jolt he probably thought she had run off to meet up with a man, the man she admitted to kissing yesterday.

She couldn’t afford to think that man’s name at this given moment or she’d surely implode.

“I was searching for my missing roommate,” she blurted out, equally desperate to explain and to quell her traitorous thoughts.

His fingers tightened their hold on her arm, she cringed. He blinked, releasing her so suddenly her limp arm smacked into her knees.

“Missing roommate?” His tone had changed to something new. Something she didn’t recognize, not as the intensely passionate man or the staunchly professional doctor. Whatever this new persona was seemed darker, intenser than the others.

“When did this occur?”

She pulled out of her reverie. “Yesterday morning. Lavender went with a few others to pick up groceries at the market and disappeared. They lingered behind to search for her for several hours before returning. My other roommate and I tried to coordinate a search party but Umbridge refused. She claims Lavender ran away and is expelled from the Home. But I know that’s not the case. I don’t know what happened, but I know that she didn’t run away. Not without saying goodbye.”

She found it immensely cathartic to discuss such things with someone other than Harry. She wondered if the doctor would care about her plight.

“So you took it upon yourself to go searching through London for her yourself?” He didn’t sound accusing, merely curious.

She debated on how much to tell him but decided she owed him at least some of the truth in light of his help this morning.

“I visited a good friend who I thought might be able to help get the word out and organize a search outside of Umbridge’s control.”

Mentioning her intent to undermine the Matron seemed to intrigue him, his expression pulling free of the shadows enough for his eyes to gleam in the weening sunlight. “You’re certain she didn’t run away? Or skip out to bed down with friends for a few nights?”

Hermione didn’t hesitate. “I know with every fiber of my being that Lavender would have returned to the Home if she had the power to.”

She blinked, deflating at her own declaration. She already knew the truth in her heart but had been unwilling to face it, unwilling to break hope or resolve. But in his presence, she had only the naked truth at her disposal.

“I know that something bad has happened.”

He held her gaze, expression unreadable, before finally breaking the tense silence like a rubber band. “I will speak to Umbridge.”

She jolted, rearing back. “Really?” She couldn’t keep the excitement out of her voice. Of all the reactions she’d been expecting, that hadn’t been it.

He looked slightly amused by her outburst, then his expression sobered. “We are tasked with protecting those assigned to our care. She went to the market on an errand and disappeared. It is no different than if she disappeared from under this very roof. Allowing her to go without at least attempting a search is unacceptable.”

She swallowed, throat tight. She felt her eyes burning and blinked, desperately fighting the tears. Her relief was so overwhelming she could only manage to whisper a small, “Thank you.”

He tilted his head, eyes roaming her body. But this time it didn't seem to be in a purely clinical fashion…

Before she could process the moment fully his eyes met hers once more and he nodded. “You’re welcome.”

Several minutes later she was stepping out from behind the partition, fully clothed, feeling overly dressed for the first time in a long time. While laying about in her underclothes and shift had seemed mortifying and awkward at first it somehow felt like a second skin by the time Dr. Riddle told her the appointment was finished.

She was disappointed to find him seated behind the desk, deep in paperwork by the time she emerged. He didn’t glance up at the sound of her footsteps. She rocked awkwardly on her heels, unsure what to say, settling on a simple farewell.

“Good evening, Doctor.”

His head snapped up, eyes flat and emotionless. Her least favorite persona. “Good evening, Ms. Granger.”

Se hesitated a beat, hoping he’d tell her to sleep well, a cheeky allusion to their first encounter. But he merely glanced back down to his work, dismissing her.

She swallowed down the sour emotion that brimmed within her and started for the door, ready to escape.

“Ms. Granger.”

Her heart leaped, she spun on her heal, eager, alert. He continued to gaze at his paperwork as he spoke.

“You will do wise to heed my advice. Stay within these walls unless given explicit permission otherwise. The Madam seems particularly keen on expelling residents, and I won’t always be there to save you.”

She blinked, something in his words making her blood run cold beyond the everyday threat of Umbridge’s scorn. She nodded silently, then realized he wouldn’t be able to see the gesture with his gaze averted.

“I understand.”

“I was hoping you’d agree. But alas, I cannot control your actions, merely attempt to influence them.”

She intertwined her fingers before her, looking down. She could easily promise to stay confined to the Home but she knew it would end up being a lie. She didn’t want her first promise to him to be something she knew she couldn’t keep.

“I’ll take your advice to heart,” she settled on instead, gazing up at his deep chuckle.

He was looking at her now, eyes bright despite the rapidly darkening room. “See that you do.”

She was about to turn and leave when he called her attention once more, sending a thrill through her limbs.

“Hermione…”

He held her gaze for several beats, the setting sun casting the clinic into long shadows, his face transforming into a beautiful and lethal mask.

“I assure you, your missing friend will turn up.”

She held her breath, sensing something dangerous in her midst, watching, waiting...

“One way or another, they always turn up.”

Chapter Text

Down
Down
Down
Would the fall never come to an end!
.   .   .

Hermione walked along the corridor leading to the clinic, body numb, pace steady.

The walls vibrated all around her, a deafening hum of whispers echoing off every stone, sharp but unintelligible to her ears. Her mind felt heavy and slow, thoughts slow to process, senses dulled.

She looked in either direction, searching for the source of the voices, doing a double take as she glanced over her shoulder and spotted a long trail of bloody footprints in her wake.

Strange.

Was she bleeding?

She looked down but couldn’t see her feet. The floor was filled with smoke, black and opaque. It hovered around her knees, rising no further.

She glanced back up, the doors were in front of her now-

And then she was drifting through them. Into the clinic.

Only... she wasn’t inside the clinic.

She was in an office.

A very familiar office.

Blind panic seized her.

No! Please no!

She couldn’t speak, couldn’t unleash the scream that was tearing through her mind, burning through her chest, her vocal chords as useless as the rest of her. She couldn't blink, couldn’t flinch, couldn’t take control of her limbs-

Her heart thudded painfully against her ribcage as the tread of slow, steady footsteps sounded behind her, louder and louder, closer and closer…

Turn around!

Run!

Her body burned with exertion as she strained every muscle, desperate to regain mobility. But it was to no avail, she remained frozen in place, standing in the middle of the opulent office, facing the large windows, sunshine streaming in but not quite reaching her, leaving her suspended in shadows.

The footsteps stopped.

Directly behind her.

Her senses became overwhelmed by the sweltering presence at her back, the warm breath on her nape, causing the fine hairs along her arms to stand on end. Her entire being vibrated with unbridled terror. Every nerve ending raw and exposed, every vein throbbing, set to burst at the slightest touch-

“Hello, Hermione.”

Her first instinct was to close her eyes, separate herself from this moment, but she had no eyelids, no means of escape.

A large hand wrapped around the back of her neck, thumb pressing painfully against her frantic pulse, a searing brand.

“Don’t you look lovely,” he purred against her skin, teeth nipping at her flesh. “What a pretty little dress, did you wear that just for me?”

Her throat was on fire, whether from the forcefully tamped scream or the rising bile she wasn’t certain, but she was unable to emit any sound or find release. A second hand wrapped around her arm, wrenching her back-

And then her vision was filled with Him.

He leered down, stepping into her body, filling her nasal passage and lungs with a toxic cloud of expensive cologne and liquor. He pressed her back, back, back, she was floating, suspended in mid-air by the force of her terror, heels dragging along the floor, and then her body hit the hard, unyielding door, her head ringing with the collision.

She wasn’t breathing and yet she remained vividly conscious. He dipped his head in, scraping his lips and teeth along her neck, his stubble leaving a burning rash in its wake.

“That’s it, luv, scream for me.”

She wanted to, so desperately. But she couldn’t get her lungs to function.

“That’s a good girl,” he moaned, grinding his lower half into her skirts, sending ripples of fear and revulsion through her trembling limbs. “Now say my name.”

Suddenly the door gave way and she was torn from His grasp, falling backward in a fit of terrifying weightlessness, down, down, down… the hole had endless sides, no bottom, no end in sight-

And then her body collided with solid warmth, a wall of muscle, hands gripping her arms from behind, a chest pressing along her spine.

“Hermione,” a new voice whispered into her ear, spearmint breath chasing along her neck, once more bringing her nerve endings to startling life. “You are far too caring for your own good. It will only lead you to ruin.”

She gasped as she felt his arms encase her, pressing her so tightly against him she wasn’t certain where she stopped and he started. She tried to turn her head to gaze upon his face but could only stare ahead into the vast darkness before her.

“Some things in life are so important they must be taken…”

She swallowed thickly, surrendering to his hold, melting into his embrace. And then his velvet lips were grazing along her bare shoulder. She couldn’t see her body but somehow knew she was wearing only her shift.

He put his mouth to her ear once more, his breath giving life to her own.

I will lead you to ruin...”

She shuddered as his hands pressed along her abdomen, sliding down, across her hips and tracing the crease of where her thighs met her sex-

“Hermione.”

A new voice. Painfully familiar. Intimate. Angry.

She jolted, Riddle’s touch falling away at once, the darkness still surrounding her on all sides but a recognizable figure took shape within the center…

“Draco.” Her heart leaped into her throat, dread and shame washing through her veins, filling the chambers of her heart. She tried to cross her arms to hide her meager coverings but they wouldn’t cooperate.

His expression was lethal. “I offered you the world, and this is how you repay me?”

“No, I didn’t-”

“Why do you want to hurt me?”

She shook her head desperately. “I don’t!” Her gaze widened as he started to fade from view, turning translucent before her eyes. “No, wait! Draco-”

Her cry fell short when a new figure blinked into existence, appearing before her all at once. She swallowed thickly.

“Lavender?”

Her friend hovered in the darkness, long blonde hair blowing in an invisible breeze.

Hermione tried to step forward but her feet were stuck in place, so she reached her arm out instead, straining desperately but unable to reach.

“Lavender!” She screamed, sensing something terrible in their midst. The swirling darkness was alive, churning, set to swallow them both whole.

The blonde tipped her head, expression beatific, radiating an inner light.

“Hermione…”

Lavender held her gaze for a short eternity before she spoke again, voice calm, detached.

“Run.”

And then the bottom dropped out, the endless abyss taking them both.


Hermione awoke gasping for breath, feeling her limbs crash into the mattress, the fall finally coming to an end. She was soaked in sweat, heart thrumming so rapidly she feared it may give out entirely.

“Bloody hell.”

She gasped anew, jolting against the headboard at the sudden voice, a figure appearing beside the bed.

“I am both desperate and terrified to know what you were dreaming about.”

She swallowed, closing her eyes and running a hand along her face.

“Parv-”

“At first I thought you were having another night terror, but then I became convinced it was a wonderfully filthy dream… and then you started screaming Lav’s name, so it could really be either I suppose.”

Hermione shook her head. “Hilarious.”

“What? You’ve never had an erotic dream about one of us?”

She sighed, slumping back into the pillow.

“There’s no shame in admitting it, luv. I’ve had plenty starring you.”

Hermione closed her eyes, willing her nerves to settle in the new reality she found herself in. She felt the mattress dip down, a delicate weight settling beside her.

“I’m okay,” she said, voice strained, eyes still closed.

“I know.”

Hermione took a deep breath, tipping her head back and laying her arms flat at her sides as Parvati settled back against the mattress.

“Really, Parv, you don’t have to-”

“I said I know. I’m here for me if you must know.”

Hermione’s eyes snapped open, head turning to the side.

“Are you alright?”

There was a tense silence, her friend’s face masked by the heavy shadows cloaking the bedroom.

“I’ve been up most the night, thinking about every worst-case scenario in startling detail.”

Hermione turned onto her side, allotting the girl her full attention. “Don’t do that.”

“Easier said than done.”

“It’s going to be okay. She’s going to be okay-”

“Don’t say that just to say it, Hermione. You don’t know what happens to young women out on the streets. I do.”

Hermione blinked, the loaded statement weighting her limbs, sinking her lungs. She wet her lips tentatively, treading along the edge of the swirling whirlpool of Parvati’s past.

“Is that...” she hesitated, then braced herself, jumping off the ledge. “Is that what happened to Padma?”

She swallowed heavily, the tense silence that followed making her shift awkwardly. “I’m sorry, you don’t have to answer that, I shouldn’t have-”

“No, it’s alright,” Parvati’s voice was thicker than moment’s ago. “I don’t talk about her with just anyone. But I trust you.”

Hermione felt warmth blossom within her chest at the statement. She had been painfully curious about Parvati’s twin since she first learned about her, though it was Lavender who let the fact slip one day months ago after Hermione awoke to find the brunette sleeping beside her.

Lavender explained that Hermione had been thrashing about in her sleep and they’d been unable to wake her. Not wanting to alert the Matron or Filch, Parvati had laid next to her in a desperate attempt to calm her. Lavender said she got the idea from sharing a bed with her sister growing up.

She’d then warned Hermione to wait for Parvati to volunteer the information herself. Hermione had waited patiently but finally accepted that the time may never come. She only broached the sensitive topic now because of the dark circumstances surrounding them.

She suspected Parvati was being haunted by more than just Lavender’s disappearance, and that speaking about it may be cathartic. They were both in desperate need for release, the pent-up fear and anxiety eating away at their already frail sanity.

“Padma and I lived with our parents just outside of Haggerston, near the timber yard. Do you know the area?”

Hermione fought to keep her expression neutral, nodding slowly. Despite the darkness, it seemed her roommate saw right through her ruse.

“Yes, it’s one of the roughest neighborhoods north of the Thames, I’m well aware. Lots of gangs, lots of violence. But there’s also a lot of families, jam-packed, living on top of each other in squalor and disease.”

Hermione listened so closely she was afraid to breathe.

“There were lots of youths running about, getting into trouble, desperate to make a few notes, anything to get out of there,” she continued, voice suddenly swelling, full of pride. “Padma didn’t let any of the boys give her the runaround. You should have seen her. She was utterly brilliant. Starling so. All the intelligence went straight to her in the womb. And she was so level-headed, no matter the situation. But also passionate. You could listen to her talk about anything, she always made it sound so interesting.”

She paused.

“You remind me of her, actually.”

Hermione swallowed, reaching out on instinct, taking Parvati’s hand in her own. The girl gave her fingers a gentle squeeze, continuing in a more somber voice.

“Disease ran rampant, given the living conditions, obviously. We lived in one big room, and the walls separating us from the next family over were thinner than a tea filter. Our mum contracted the sickness first. We thought it was typhoid, we had no doctor to diagnose her, little less offer treatment. We isolated her as best we could, hoping to minimize the risk of it spreading. But it was typhus, and Padma fell ill not long after.”

She swallowed, the air around them charged and tense. “After mum died and Padma was bedridden my father and I became desperate. He was earning less than minimum wage because of his immigrant status, and as a woman and an immigrant I was practically unemployable.”

Hermione’s body tensed. She knew what she wanted to ask but she was afraid to give the thoughts voice.

“Desperate times and all that... I did what I had to do to get the money for her treatment. We managed to scrape enough together for her to be admitted to an en masse clinic. But it didn’t do any good. She was too far gone at that point. I visited her everyday, stayed as long as they’d let me. And then one day I came round and her cot was filled by someone else. They didn’t let me see her body. Didn't let me say goodbye. They just threw her on the back of a wagon with the rest of the diseased corpses and drove her off.”

Hermione blinked, tears dropping off her chin to her chest, soaking into the fabric of her nightgown.

Parvati swallowed thickly, the only betrayal of emotion. “After that, dad lost it. Lost everything. Including his will to live. He developed consumption within weeks and died soon after.”

Hermione wiped at her wet cheeks, trying to hide her reaction, not wanting to upset the girl who obviously suppressed her own emotions so masterfully.

“Parvati… I-”

“I know.” Her voice was an iron barrier, the message clear. “I know, Mione. It’s okay.”

Hermione longed to say the words anyway, communicate the depth of her sympathy, her love for the girl lying beside her who she had only known such a short while but had developed such a strong kinship with. But she also knew Parvati didn’t process tragedy and loss the same as she did, and that forcing the matter would do more harm than good. Parvati obviously said all she intended to say, and Hermione was grateful for even that much.

“Alright,” she agreed reluctantly. “I’ll just say this… I’m glad you told me.”

Parvati inclined her head, a stray beam of moonlight hitting her across the eyes, illuminating their dark depths.

“So am I.”


Draco entered the bright dining room with narrowed eyes, his head a throbbing blister set to burst. He cringed at the unforgiving clink of silverware against fine china, the rhythmic sawing of a knife against the plate. His father had impeccable table manners, his mother even more so, which meant whoever sat at the table was no doubt making great effort to annoy him.

He averted his squinted gaze at the head of the table, the blurry form at the end taking shape. Draco scowled, then grimaced at the sharp screech that followed from their meticulous hands.

Thank you for that.”

“You’re quite welcome,” Lucius said with a bright grin, voice loud and boisterous, filling every corner of the room and ringing off every edge of Draco’s pulsating skull. “How did you sleep, son?”

Draco swallowed lightly, fighting the urge to spew across the expensive table linen.

“If you deem to grace this room with the contents of your stomach you will find yourself without carriage privileges for a fortnight.”

Draco rolled his eyes- or tried to, stopping halfway as a wave of vertigo swept over him- and hastily pulled a chair free, slumping gracelessly atop the seat, leaning his head against the back and gazing blearily at the ceiling mural, an oil paint rendition of the birth of Venus.

“Dare I ask what you got up to last night, or the many hours preceding it?”

It took several regulated breaths through his nose before Draco felt confident words would be the only thing emitted from his mouth.

“I paid patronage to Crockford’s.”

Lucius shook his head, sawing into his sausage link with added gusto, making Draco cringe anew. “And how much of my money did you award the filthy fishmonger?”

His father’s words rang through his head once more, but this time for their content versus their volume.

His father’s money…

“He’ll cut you off, Draco. You may say you don’t care now, but trust me, you will.”

He swallowed past his rapidly constricting throat, his airway closing off.

“Honestly, Draco. Must you turn green in the dining room of all places? I’m trying to eat.”

“It’s my money as well.”

“Excuse me?”

Lucius raised a pale brow, his regal, statuesque features so greatly mirrored in his son. Draco was unnerved at just how alike they were starting to look, every year the differences becoming less and less…

It was enough to send his treacherous stomach over the edge. He quickly forged ahead, desperate for any means of distraction.

“I’m your sole heir. The Malfoy fortune is as much mine as it is yours.”

Lucius chuckled, averting his gaze to his plate as he continued to cut his food into perfectly shaped bites.

“I beg to differ, my dear boy. As the head of this family, I assure you that I have absolute control of where every pence is allotted. That includes how many show up in your pockets.” His mercurial gaze snapped up. “But I have a feeling you aren’t interested in a lesson on gentry inheritance laws. So why don’t you tell me what drove you to the rat-infested gambling den in the first place?”

“It’s not rat infested. It’s thriving.”

“Of course it is. Crockford’s is frequented by the black sheep of every aristocratic family in the commonwealth. I never expected to count my son among them.”

“I’m happy I could live down to your expectations.”

“Very funny. So do you plan on telling me what’s the matter?”

“Nothing’s the matter.”

“I’ve heard from my contacts that you’ve made two visits to Grimmauld in as many days.”

Draco scowled. “Spying on me.”

“Hardly. I assure you, I sleep far better at night not knowing the extent of your vices. However, I do keep an eye on my business associates and extended family alike. I need to be alerted to any potential scandal. And Sirius warrants twice the watching.”

“I wasn’t visiting Black.”

“I’m aware.”

“Then why bother mentioning it?”

“Because I am interested in knowing why you find it so important to visit the Potter boy so soon after his return.”

“I wanted to ask him about enlisting.”

Lucius tipped his head back and laughed, the sound deep and melodious, making Draco’s hackles rise.

“Forgive my reaction,” he said without a hint of sincerity. “I admit you would cut quite the dashing figure in uniform. But you are far better suited to Parliament.”

Draco’s eyes narrowed to slits. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Just as it sounds. You are far too intelligent to be a simple cog in Her Majesty’s Royal militia.”

“You think I’m too weak to be a soldier.”

“I never said that. Nor do I think it. Any idiot can fire a gun. It takes special skill to sway a room of politicians and lawyers to your side of an argument. There is no greater esteem than serving in the House of Lords, that is where the Malfoy men belong. That is where you belong.”

Draco swallowed heavily, averting his gaze.

“We both know your father will never allow you to marry me.”

He closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“I’m not marrying Tori.”

Lucius blinked, obviously caught off guard by the abrupt change in subject but quickly finding his footing, an experienced politician.

“Is that so?”

“Yes, it is.”

Lucius pushed his plate away, tossing his napkin to the table and leaning back in his seat.

“Alright. I’d assumed you’d prefer waiting until you didn’t feel like death warmed over, but if you insist on having this out now then I certainly won’t stop you.”

Draco scowled, fists clenching on his lap. “There’s nothing to have out. I’m not marrying her. That’s the end of it.”

He maintained his glare but harbored a great sense of unease as he watched his father calmly lace his fingers before him on the table. He performed the same movement before tearing his adversaries to shreds in Parliament and the courtroom.

“And is there something that brought on this passionate disposition?”

Draco did his best to keep his mask of indignant anger in place, knowing any crack in the facade would prove fatal. His father could smell blood in the water from kilometers away.

“I just don’t want to be subjected to an arranged marriage. You weren’t.”

Lucius smirked. “You know full and well I was contracted to your aunt Andromeda since we were both in swaddling clothes. The contract was rendered null and void after she ran off with a chimney sweep.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “He runs a publishing house.”

“He certainly didn’t at the time. Regardless, I was only given leave to marry your mother because it still united our families.”

“But you were in love by then.”

“Yes, we were.”

“You weren't saddled with someone you didn’t want.”

Lucius raised a brow, a knowing glint igniting in his molten gaze.

“Is there someone else you want, Draco?”

Draco’s fists tightened further yet, the knuckles turning white.

“Do you really think he’d be fine with you marrying me instead?”

His jaw ticked. “I didn’t say that. Merely that I don’t want to be forced into a union without affection.”

“And what makes you so certain affection won’t develop later in time?”

“I’ve known Tori since we were children.”

“I’ve known your mother since she was born.”

“Yes, and you knew you wanted her even when you were promised to her sister. Astoria and I have had ample opportunity to develop such an attraction and so far none has blossomed.”

“Perhaps it simply needed the proper encouragement.”

“Neither of us are encouraged. She doesn’t want this union any more than I do.”

“Her father has voiced no objections.”

“She’s a dutiful daughter, she’d never oppose his wishes openly.”

“How fortunate for him to be afforded such obedience.”

Draco shook his head in annoyance as Lucius smirked. “I’m merely poking fun, Draco. You know I appreciate your rebellious streak. You remind me so greatly of myself at your age it’s scary at times.”

Draco seethed. “We aren’t as alike as you’d think.”

Lucius arched an intrigued brow. “Please, illuminate me.”

It’s a trap. He’s trying to lead me somewhere…

Does he know?

The thought gave Draco pause.

If a number of his friends knew about him and Granger then it wasn’t impossible that word may have led back to his father.

He swallowed tentatively, forging ahead as best he could with a throbbing skull and churning stomach.

“I don’t see why I have to get engaged right now. I’m twenty-one, shouldn’t I get a reprieve before I’m tied down with a bunch of screaming rugrats?”

“So you’re opposed to marrying anyone at this point in your life?”

Draco swallowed.

He’s definitely leading this somewhere…

“Yes,” he deflected. “Of course I am.”

Lucius nodded, though there were wheels turning behind his eyes that were greatly unsettling.

“I see. Well, if I had multiple sons to spare then you could whore about at your leisure. However, given the fickle thread of life, the family line must be secured as soon as possible in the event you and I meet our gruesome ends sooner than expected.”

Now it was Draco’s turn to raise a brow. “We’re expected to meet gruesome ends?”

“They run in the family, I’m afraid.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Fantastic, something else to look forward to.”

“You’ve been afforded more than most could ever dream of, Draco. You will do well to remember that when it comes time to finally make a sacrifice for the sake of your family’s well being.”

Draco’s face pinched in annoyance, a sharp barb at the ready, but he managed to tamp it down at the last minute, averting his gaze and pushing back from the table.

“You’re right, I’d rather wait to have this conversation when I don’t feel like death warmed over.”

Lucius smiled indulgently. “A wise decision.”

Draco channeled his huff of annoyance through his nose, expelling steam. He stood and began to leave, but as he reached the doorway his father spoke once more.

“Oh, and Draco?”

He stopped short, one hand resting on the maple frame as he glanced over his shoulder with raised brows.

Lucius’s smile fell away, his face transforming into lethal repose.

“Stay away from Hermione Granger.”


Luna slid into the bench beside Hermione with easy grace, her mannerisms light and effortless, lacking the rigid lines Hermione felt within her own posture most days.

“Good morning,” she greeted serenely, smiling as always. “A messenger pigeon visited the garden earlier today.”

Hermione quickly spun in her seat. “For me?”

Luna nodded, slipping a narrowly folded piece of parchment into Hermione’s hands beneath the table.

“Dennis says hi.”

Hermione smiled. The Creevey brothers were well known throughout the Home for providing goods and services to the residents under the Matron’s radar. They passed the gates twice a day to maintain the gas lights, and hid notes and small parcels in secret nooks for a small fee, though Dennis was quite taken with Luna and did anything she requested for free, despite her every attempt to pay him.

Hermione clutched the paper tightly in her palm, glancing over her shoulder at the head table. Umbridge sat with her back ramrod straight, a regent holding court, narrowed gaze sweeping along her disloyal subjects. When they alighted upon Hermione they somehow narrowed even further, flames in their depths.

Hermione held her stare with a steady calm, unflinching. Umbridge scowled and then glanced away, continuing her eager search for any punishable offenses.

Hermione briefly wondered if the Doctor took breakfast in the public hall or in his rooms. The thought of him dining while reclined in bed, the bed she had seen in person that first night, made her flush brightly.

And then her dream came back to her…

She swallowed thickly, facing forward once more.

“Tell me if she looks this way,” Hermione whispered. Luna leaned forward slightly, nodding as she kept the Matron in her gaze.

Hermione carefully unfolded the parchment, smoothing it across her lap with nervous fingers, recognizing the messy handwriting immediately and smiling. The message was short, direct and signed with love, a perfect reflection of the author’s personality.

“Is it from your friend?” Luna asked lowly, eyes still trained on the head table.

Hermione nodded with a smile. “Yes, Harry says they have a possible lead, he’s following up on it today and will let me know what he finds via Colin.” She bit her lip, eyes lingering on another sentence within the message. “He also says our friend Ron is arriving home tomorrow on leave. He wants to see me.” She sighed, briefly closing her eyes. “Which will be virtually impossible thanks to my house arrest.”

Luna tilted her head. “Will he still be in London when the arrest is lifted?”

Hermione smirked, sending her a sideways glance. “Ron isn’t known for his patience. If I don’t find some way of breaking free to see him for a few minutes I fear he may break in…”

Luna smiled. “You have many people that care for you. That’s wonderful, Hermione.”

Hermione’s expression sobered. She reached out without thinking, grasping the blonde’s hand in a mirror image of the moment she shared with Parvati in the wee hours of the morning.

“So do you, Luna. I care about you.”

Luna’s smile grew, her face angelic. “Thank you, Hermione. That means a lot.”

Hermione swallowed, Luna’s innocent words filling her with a great weight instead of the lightness she’d expected.

She held the girl’s guileless blue gaze, realizing for the first time with perfect, stunning clarity that she was responsible for Luna, just as she was responsible for Parvati, Hannah… and Lavender. These girls had become her new family.

And Hermione refused to lose any more family.


Dolores was having a terrible day.

Between finding a way to make the meager funding they received from the Crown stretch across the multitude of bills the Home accumulated and the general antics of the misfits she housed, she was in dire need of a strong cup of tea with just a dash of brandy. A thimble full wouldn’t be deemed too illicit, surely.

Furthermore, she had been informed by Mr. Filch last night that Ms. Granger had been caught out in the garden, which at first had inspired a great sense of excitement and anticipation. Granger had been nothing but an ongoing thorn in her side since her admission, challenging her decrees at every turn.

The girl thought she was superior to everyone around her, just because she grew up in a fine neighborhood and was afforded private tutors. But her current circumstances proved just how utterly ordinary she was. No better than anyone. No different than Dolores.

Except Dolores wasn’t ordinary. Not anymore. She was the Head of a Girls Home that was afforded great attention from the Crown. She was a someone, powerful and relevant at long last.

And she wouldn’t let these witless harlots deter her from her mission.

So when she’d heard about Granger’s blatant skirting of her house arrest, mere hours after it had been set down, Dolores had been eager to make an example of the nuissant girl once and for all...

… Only to be met with crippling disappointment when Filch had informed her in his next breath that the girl had been acting on instructions from the Doctor.

After the bristling anger had faded she’d been met with a great unease. What was the Doctor doing undermining her orders?

Surely it was a misunderstanding. Doctor Riddle was utterly brilliant, a man of conservative reform, if his stunning recommendations had anything to say about it. It was such a relief to have a like-minded individual on the premises, someone to hold an intelligent conversation at long last.

And it didn’t hurt that he was superb to look upon, utterly beguiling in his perfection…

Not that she would let it interfere with their professional relationship. She was his boss, after all, she must maintain a healthy distance for propriety's sake.

She wondered if he was unattached.

Just then a knock sounded on her door. She blinked, pulling out of her treacherous thoughts and glancing sharply to the door. Her heart raced, hands beginning to sweat.

“Come in.”

The door opened swiftly, a tall lithe figure emerging.

“Madam.” He dipped his head, voice sending thrills along her limbs. “You beckoned?”

She swallowed. “Oh, why yes, I did.” She fought back a cringe at the heightened octane of her voice. “Please, do come in.”

He held her gaze for a moment longer, something about it unsettling, but before the emotion could fully take root he stepped inside her office, closing the door behind him without prompt.

She sat back straighter, pleased he made the assumption, that he wanted their exchange to be private.

She couldn’t help her grin from spreading as he cut a path to her desk, coming to a stop on the opposite side with his hands folded behind his back, awaiting her leave to sit.

What superb manners. The mark of a true gentleman...

She tittered nervously as his storm cloud eyes seemed to drill holes straight through her, leaving her a bit breathless and scattered.

“Oh, um, please, do sit.”

He pulled out the chair and gracefully folded into it, still gazing down upon her from his impressive height. His face was expressionless, at least of any emotion she could discern, but his eyes looked expectant. She cleared her throat, trying to pull her thoughts together.

“I merely wanted to discuss the incident that occurred yesterday with one of the residents. A Miss Granger.”

“Hermione.”

She blinked, his automatic response pulling the pleasant smile right off her face.

“Um… yes. Hermione Granger. You met her in my office on your second evening here-”

“I recall.”

She swallowed lightly, shifting in her seat. “Yes, well, she is a known troublemaker, you see. Always running wild, doing as she pleases. She isn’t to be trusted.”

He tilted his head. “This is the same girl you enlist to transport the bulk of the Home’s medical supplies, is it not?”

Umbridge felt a flush of heat steal across her neck and across her cheeks. “I- that’s not-” she blinked twice, heart leaping. “That isn’t what I mean. She runs errands just fine, but she has no regard for the rules. She thinks she is above them, superior to the other girls here.”

Her eyes flickered between his, looking for any sign of agreement, an acquiesce. But all she saw was lightning flicking through the dark clouds. She leaned back, unconsciously putting more distance between them.

“I only mention this in light of my recent discovery that you assigned her the task of collecting herbs from the garden-”

“I had her run inventory.”

Dolores’s jaw snapped shut. No one interrupted her. She tentatively tried again.

“Right, well, regardless of the task itself, she was under house arrest for a prior offense, you see, and was not to leave the premises for any reason whatsoever. I realize that you didn’t know about my punishment, and therefore didn’t know the task you assigned her went against the-”

“You punish students by taking away their outdoor privileges?”

She blinked anew, jaw ticking. She really hated being interrupted, even by someone as handsome as he.

“It’s very effective, I assure you.” Her tone was clipped, precise.

He merely tipped his head. “And may I ask, what is Hermione being punished for?”

Dolores saw a flash of red in her vision, quickly blinking it away, disturbed by her own visceral reaction to hearing the man speak the trollops given name once more. The way it effortlessly rolled off his tongue, like he spoke it all the time-

She quickly shook the thought away. What nonsense. A man like this would never tarnish his good reputation with any of the filth residing within these walls. Especially that girl.

“She stormed into my office yesterday morning, making outlandish claims and demands, using vile language and causing general disruption for the mere sake of causing a stir.”

She furrowed her brow in confusion as his face transformed into a look of amusement. She swallowed thickly, shoulders drawing back.

“As I said, she is a menace, and her filthy dark-skinned friend is even worse, I don’t know why I even still house that one-”

“What was she demanding?”

Dolores blinked. “Pardon?”

“What was she demanding of you, when she stormed into your office and caused such a stir?”

Something about his tone sounded too light, almost mocking, as though he didn’t grasp the severity of the girl’s offense. Dolores huffed in annoyance, desperate to make him see just how unbearable the little chit was.

“She claims that her roommate is missing. I calmly tried to explain that the girl simply ran away.”

“And you’re certain that’s the case?”

“Yes!” she was getting angry now, more animated. “The missing girl is a known hussy, loose and immoral, hardly worth-”

“I thought you said she wasn’t missing.”

Dolores deflated, heart stuttering in her chest. “I... “ she swallowed lightly. “That’s merely a turn of phrase. As I said, she ran away, that’s what they all do.”

He held himself with such an eerie stillness he hardly seemed to breathe. She released a sharp breath as his face seemed to transform from idle curiosity to something lethal, sharp as a dagger, eyes bright and malevolent.

“There have been others.”

It wasn’t phrased as a question but she was compelled to speak regardless, feeling as though she was being forced to dance along a floor filled with broken glass, each step more dangerous than the last.

“Of course, this place is filled with the lowermost rungs of society, discarded for their indecency. They run wild. And then they run away.”

He raised a dark brow. “Is that so? I thought the majority of residents were admitted due to unfortunate circumstances leaving them without a legal caregiver. I would think they’d be desperate to remain sheltered from life on the streets.”

She blinked rapidly, feeling awash with heat from head to toe, convinced a furnace was situated directly overhead.

“That isn’t- I mean, perhaps a few of them, the younger ones maybe, but the older girls I assure you are no good and run away all the time.”

He watched her with easy grace, complete calm and indifference, tilting his head once more, pinning her helplessly still.

“Do you keep track of those numbers?”

Her mind went blank. “What numbers?”

“The number of runaways,” he supplied patiently, unblinking. “I would be curious to see the turnover. It will help me get a handle on how much inventory to keep on hand. I was expecting many more residents based on the medical files awaiting me in the clinic. I was quite surprised when three of my patients didn’t show up for their appointments, only to discover they’d already come and gone from this place within the span of a few months.”

She squirmed, the air pulled from her lungs but the intensity of his watchful gaze.

“It would help if I was kept apprised of such events, to keep accurate records as well as maintain the health facility in accordance to the changing population.”

She swallowed nervously. “I don’t, that is, we don’t track such things. It’s impossible to know when girls leave if it’s not reported then-”

“Surely you must keep a running list of residents to provide the solicitors and Crown attachés?”

Sweat pooled along her temples and neck. Where was that blasted heat coming from?

“I… I mean yes, of course, we do, but-”

“And certainly you audit the list regularly to keep your records above board?”

Her mouth was running dry, forming words became a struggle.

“Well, yes, we provide quarterly updates-”

“Excellent,” he grinned, broad and beautiful and ice cold. It was unsettling but sent a blessed chill up her spine, a momentary reprieve from the internal oven baking her organs and setting her blood to boil. “I shall use those as a means of keeping my logs up to date. Please have them delivered as soon as possible.”

She blinked. What just happened? She scrambled to find the upper hand once more.

“That’s… that’s fine,” she relented, unable to think up a valid excuse otherwise on the spot. “But that isn’t the purpose of this meeting. I wanted to warn you about Miss Granger, she is duplicitous and conniving and not to be trusted.”

If his methodical intensity unnerved her before, his wry smirk sent her firmly for a loop.

“She may be all of those things, Madam, but they in no way impeded her ability to organize the medical cabinet more precisely than most doctors I’ve known.”

Dolores inhaled sharply through her nose. “As I said, she has a medical background, but outside of that she’s completely useless-”

“I think I may have a solution then.”

Her mouth hovered open, lost mid-thought by his casual declaration.

“I still need help setting the clinic to rights, getting all the paperwork sorted. You say that she’s running wild outside of her prescribed errands.” He paused, eyes gleaming like a cat in the dark. “Give her to me.”

Her heart skipped a beat, his words profoundly unsettling.

He wanted the girl?

Her hands curled into fists atop the armrests.

Unacceptable.

Before she could articulate a response he continued, swift, precise, flawless.

“It’s just as you said, idle hands are the devil’s plaything. Quite a brilliant sentiment. I couldn’t agree more.”

She pursed her lips, confused. Perhaps she had it wrong, maybe he really did just want an aide to perform the grunt work… but the thought of the filthy trollop spending her nights working in such close proximity to the man seated before her made Dolores’ stomach clench.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, given her new work schedule.”

Something flashed in his eyes, distinctly predatory, there one instant and gone the next. She was certain she’d imagined it.

“Work schedule?”

Umbridge drew in a deep breath, spine straightening. “Yes. The owner of the local apothecary has requested her assistance in his shop.”

Dolores made a mental note to send a letter to the pushy, off-putting man at once. She’d outright refused his request when he first presented it, taking great joy in denying the girl a chance at escape. Surely the stupid bint would love to work at the shop, use it as yet another means of setting herself above those around her.

But if Dolores had to choose between sending the errant girl across town to work in a stuffy store all day or sequestering her in the clinic with the Doctor, the choice was an easy one.

She pasted on a sweet smile. “I’m afraid she’ll simply be too busy to assist you in the clinic.”

He didn’t blink, didn’t move for several long beats. The silence around them was thick and sweltering, pushing down on her chest and expelling the breath from her lungs. Her smile faded, heart racing anew before he finally released her from his thrall.

He tilted his head, eyes roaming her face and making her distinctly uncomfortable before he nodded, once.

“Very well. I shall have to tackle the project on my own then.” His voice was light and unaffected, worlds away from the intensity he radiated moments ago. “Is there anything else you’d like to discuss, Madam?”

She shook her head, more than ready for this overwhelming exchange to end, eager to collect her bearings in the privacy of her secluded office.

“I shall take my leave then.”

He stood, tipping his head in a polite address before striding casually for the door.

“Good day, Madam,” his tone was cordial, but his eyes burned brightly as he directed his gaze upon her one final time.

“And I look forward to receiving those resident logs.”


Harry took a deep breath as the carriage came to a stop outside the large structure, the air filled with excited shouts. He paid the driver and deftly descended, shaking his head as he gazed up the main stairs of the entrance.

He hadn’t been here in many years, since his father took him as a boy and taught him the ways of betting.

The horse track.

Yet this was where McLaggen’s instructions led, much to Harry’s confusion and intrigue. Just what the bloody hell was this Lavender chit involved in?

There was only one way to find out.

He headed up the stairs, taking them at a steady pace, wanting to avoid drawing any attention to himself. The horse track was a respectable establishment, frequented by members of every sect of society. However, the man Harry was meeting with was anything but.

He entered the lavish doors, the sounds of heavy screams growing even louder as they echoed along the vaulted ceiling and tiled floors of the main lobby. He swiveled his head in either direction, chest seizing as the memory of his last visit came flooding back.

“Are you excited, Harry?”

“Yes! Where are the horses?”

His father smiled indulgently, eyes warm as he gazed down upon the miniature version of himself. “They’re outside, did you think they ran around indoors?”

Harry smirked, green eyes tipping up. “It would be a lot more exciting if they did.”

James threw his head back and laughed, the sound rich and lustrous, comforting and familiar.

And forever just a memory in Harry’s mind.

He blinked, pulling himself out of the momentary stupor and proceeding to the door labeled TRACK at the other end. Once he emerged onto the stands the noise was deafening, people crowding the seats and gesturing wildly as the horses barrelled past beyond the barrier.

He maneuvered around a man jumping on top of the seat, screaming animatedly at the top of his lungs. The woman beside him laughed so hard she nearly toppled over. Further down was a man in a finely tailored suit, fully equipped with top hat and monocle, hands resting atop his ebony cane. Harry shook his head in amusement, wondering what sight awaited him next.

Apparently, it was a brawling pair of men, both faring poorly if the blood and sweat marring their faces was any indication. A few people attempted to hold them back, but their efforts were half-hearted, everyone in the group looking drunk off their rockers. Harry paused in his tracks as they barreled past, toppling over seats and crashing to the ground less than a foot from where he stood, gazing down with disinterest.

“Excuse me, gents.” He stepped over them, barely free when they staggered to their feet, swinging clumsily at each other once more.

He started up the stairs zigzagging along the side of the stands. If memory served correctly the lower levels were the rowdiest, the more gentile and tame clientele occupying the upper floors. He emerged on the second level, peering along the crowd, wondering if there were any private booths up here. No, they must have been at the very top-

“Harry, m’boy!”

His spine went rigid at the sound of his name. So much for a low profile…

“What a pleasure! C’mere! Let me look at you!”

He slowly spun around, resigned as soon as he recognized the voice. There was no escaping his fate.

“Hello, Dr. Slughorn.”

The short, rotund man beamed up with glassy eyes, face red and lips parted into a genuine grin of joy. Harry tried to affect the same expression but fell widely short, already thinking up an exit strategy.

“How many times must I tell you, outside of the hospital it’s perfectly fine to call me Horace. We’re friends, you and I! I’ve known your parents and godfather since-”

“They were in diapers, yes, I know.”

Slughorn laughed, the sound a bit hysterical, and a pungent cloud of whiskey and body odor wafted over Harry, it was all he could do not to gag.

“It’s so good to see you! I thought you weren’t getting back until next week. Is Sirius with you?” He teetered on his tiptoes, peering around Harry’s tall form as though he’d find the sole member of the Black family and reigning patriarch ducked down behind his godson.

Then again, if Sirius were here he would be likely doing just that, desperate to avoid getting sucked into the endless void of monotonous pleasantries and brown nosing. Harry sighed, then replayed the man’s words in his mind and raised a brow.

How did he know I was supposed to be back next week?

He shook his head, deciding he was likely better off not knowing. Slughorn had been obsessed with sidling up next to the last two members of the powerful Black and Potter lines, relentless in his pursuit. Harry wouldn’t be surprised if the man kept a journal detailing their tea preferences.

“Sirius is outside Malta, he gets back next week. I got released early for good behavior.”

The simple joke elicited an explosive reaction from the stocky man, who promptly doubled over, seized by a coughing fit, Harry gazing down in equal parts amusement and revulsion.

“That’s…” he hacked up half a lung. “Hillari-” he gasped for breath, “ous.”

Harry took a step back. “Well, it’s been great seeing you, Doctor-”

“Horace!”

Harry feigned a smile. “Horace. But I’m afraid I’m meeting company and must be going.”

Slughorn visibly deflated, expression forlorn. “Oh, yes, of course, a busy man you are. I expect everyone is eager to see you now that you’re back.”

Harry nodded, continuing to back away to the stairwell. Slughorn stepped closer, eyes wide and arm reaching out into the air.

“Do come by Mungo’s sometime, before you depart, I’d love to hear about your travels, catch up-”

“Certainly,” Harry interrupted, stepping onto the landing and starting to turn. “I’ll talk to you later, Slughorn. Enjoy the races.”

“Horace!” he heard the man shout in his wake as he quickly flew up the stairs.


Hermione groaned as she flexed her sore fingers, the knuckles cracking. She’d been scrubbing the kitchen floors by hand for several hours now, another punishment from the beloved Matron in retribution for yesterday's antics. For having the audacity to worry about Lavender’s welfare.

Hermione suspected it was more than that however, she wouldn’t be surprised if Umbridge had caught wind of Hermione’s excursion into the garden and the Doctor’s subsequent involvement in the chaotic ordeal, ultimately saving her from the woman’s evil clutches. This was the Matron’s way of sending a silent, sinister message.

I know what you did, and I’ll get you one way or another.

She sighed deeply, scooting back against the wall and giving her strained spine and shoulders a momentary reprieve. She was beyond exhausted, unable to fall back asleep after Parvati crawled into bed beside her before dawn, plagued as she was with fear for Lavender, sadness in the wake of Parvati’s revelations, and the lingering shame and terror of the dream…

The dream.

Her memory was foggy, the details fading away as the hours progressed. But she recalled with stunning clarity how it began.

In the office.

The hands on her neck, her arms, the foul breath in her face…

She closed her eyes, swallowing thickly.

She remembered the environment changing, the company changing… the Doctor appearing. His hands touching her as well, but even more intimately. However she hadn’t been afraid then, wasn’t a cornered animal desperate for escape. No. She’d been fraught with nothing but tortuous anticipation…

She shook her head, willing the images away.

Things got a bit murkier after that. She couldn’t recall where the next transition came in but she knew Draco made an appearance. She couldn’t recall anything he did or said, but his presence left a definite impression in her psyche, the outline of a leaf on the pavement after the rain.

She couldn’t remember anything after that except for a sense of panic. Parvati said she was shouting Lavender’s name but she couldn’t recall seeing her missing friend in the eerie sequence. Maybe it was for the best. Given the state in which Hermione awoke, whatever she’d experience in the dream plane couldn’t have been good.

She imagined her subconscious was desperately trying to work out her tumultuous personal life, thanks to Hermione’s age-old practice of suppressing things until she felt better equipped to deal with them. She just didn’t feel up to task these days, so the pile of unresolved mental and emotional conflicts steadily grew, teetering on the edge of a major collapse.

She was pulled from her musings by the sound of fast-paced footsteps treading up the outside hall. She blinked twice as they changed direction, coming straight for her. Her heart rate increased, mind a whirlwind, trying to sort out who it could be before they appeared.

She knew the click of her Matron’s heels from a kilometer away, Luna barely made a sound when she walked, as though floating on air, Parvati tore up the stone like a Clydesdale, purposefully stomping about to grate at Umbridge’s nerves, so perhaps it was Hannah…

No such luck. The footsteps swiftly entered the room and the face that appeared was already scowling, eyes narrowed.

“Ugh. You look like a drowned rat.”

Hermione glared in turn, wiping away the sweat on her forehead with her forearm.

“What do you want, Marietta?”

“To be anywhere but here. Unfortunately, Umbridge wants to see you so I’m stuck escorting you to her office.”

Hermione sighed, setting aside the soap drenched scrub brush.

“I don’t need an escort, I’m perfectly fine walking there myself.”

“She told me you’d try and shake me, and not to fall for anything you said.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, pulling to her feet using the wall as support. Her knees felt as sore and weak as the rest of her.

“Fine, then. I really couldn't care less.”

Marietta’s slitted gaze narrowed, and then to Hermione’s great trepidation the corner of her mouth turned up in a sinister smirk that in no way boded well. The girl glanced to the side where a few stores sat perched along the countertop.

She walked over to the bag of flour and before Hermione could so match as blink she upturned it in her hands, a heaping pile of finely milled powder exploding across the damp floor and arching out in every direction like blood splatter, a giant mushroom cloud of white extending upward, blocking Marietta’s malevolent glee from sight for a few seconds before it settled.

Hermione’s mouth worked open and closed, eyes wide and locked onto the mess at their feet, but no sound emitted. Marietta tilted her head, glancing down casually.

“Hm. Seems you missed a spot.”

Hermione found her voice.

“You bitch.”

Both girls blinked. Hermione never resorted to name calling. Her roommates had finally worn off on her. She felt a swelling of pride in her chest. Marietta snapped out of her momentary daze, grinning anew.

“I’ll be sure to tell Umbridge you think so.”

“I’ll be sure to tell her you wasted an entire five-pound bag on purpose. You know how tightly she manages the food budget. I imagine she’ll make you clean the floors with your tongue.”

Marietta’s smile fell away, her face turning white. “I… I’ll just tell you knocked it over.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, stepping around the mess and past the idiot girl.

“Yes, I knocked over the flour and then called you a bitch, what a masterful cover story. No wonder you’re her favorite.”

Marietta sputtered in outrage as Hermione started cutting a path up the hall, towards the office. Marietta had to jog to catch up, her face twisted in anger but remaining silent for the duration of the journey, an unspoken agreement that they’d both keep the kitchen incident to themselves.

Halfway there Hermione was able to push her brimming annoyance to the side long enough to wonder what in the hell this was about. She couldn’t imagine why Umbridge wanted to see her, unless it was in inflict yet another punishment-

“I will speak to Umbridge.”

She stumbled on her feet as his voice invaded her mind. In light of her chaotic morning and busy day, she’d nearly forgotten the Doctor’s words. She wondered if he was able to sway the fat toad into searching for Lavender.

The idea made her hopeful, eager to reach their destination, which was surreal as she’d never approached the Head Office with anything but sinking dread in the past.

When they finally made it to the door Hermione bit her lip, anxiety setting in. What if it was about something else? What if her solicitor decided to stop making payments, what if she was being thrown onto the streets?

“Did you forget how to knock?” Marietta bit out from behind, leaning past to bring her own fist against the wood.

“Enter!”

Hermione cringed at the sing-song voice. Umbridge sounded happy as a clam. That definitely didn’t bode well.

She tentatively turned the knob and pushed open the barrier, stepping over the threshold and hovering in place, locking gazes with the Matron from across the room.

“Jesus, you’re so daft!” Marietta forcefully shoved both her shoulders, jolting her forward and nearly knocking her off her feet as she stumbled to the middle of the room.

“That will be all, Marietta. Thank you.” The toad’s eyes sparkled with amusement, her face delighted as she directed her attention to her favorite lackey.

“Of course, Madam,” Marietta dipped into the worst curtsy Hermione had ever seen. Her old governess would have fainted at the sight. “Have a good evening.”

“You as well, my dear.”

Marietta had the audacity to wink openly at Hermione before spinning on her heel and practically prancing into the hall, closing the door behind her.

Hermione’s pulse kicked up a notch. She hated closed doors. Hated being locked in a room, any room, but especially a room with undesirable company.

She slowly faced forward, shifting awkwardly as she noticed Umbridge’s eyes upon her, roaming her body as if looking for something in particular.

“Such an ordinary thing, aren’t you? No great beauty, no grace, nothing to offer the opposite sex.” Hermione’s blood ran cold as the Matron spoke, slow and reflective, as though speaking to herself. “I just don’t see it.”

Hermione glared, spine straightening, shoulders drawing back. “See what?” She clipped, voice laced with steel.

Umbridge blinked, registering Hermione’s presence. Her face pinched in annoyance.

“I hope you are enjoying your cleaning duties, Ms. Granger. I have plenty more for you tackle once you’ve completed the kitchen.”

Hermione fought the urge to roll her eyes. Was that the purpose of this meeting then? To continue her threats in person?

Lovely.

Umbridge interlaced her fingers atop the desk, her signature smile playing across her thin lips, making Hermione’s blood pressure rise.

“Alas, that is not the matter I mean to discuss. Please, take a seat.”

Hermione didn’t move a muscle. She’d never been afforded a seat within the office before and didn’t trust the offer now.

She recalled the story of Pirithous and Theseus, the ill-fated adventurers who traveled to the Underworld to abduct the Queen goddess herself, Persephone, only to become permanently bound to the first stone they sat upon to rest. She didn’t trust this place, and she didn’t intend to get comfortable within its walls.

“I’d rather stand.”

The Matron’s smile immediately fell away, eyes flashing. Her mouth opened and closed in outrage before she finally spoke.

“Fine. You look filthy anyway, I don’t want the upholstery ruined.”

Hermione crossed her arms, tongue pressing into the roof of her mouth to fight back a quip.

“I merely want to inform you that you’ll be starting part-time work at the Apothecary. Starting immediately.”

Umbridge seemed bristled by her own words, eyes narrowing as though Hermione had tried to argue the point. For her part, Hermione felt a bud of excitement take root, but she masked her reaction, terrified Umbridge would take the offer away if she knew how greatly it pleased her.

“I-”

“I didn’t give you leave to speak!”

Hermione clamped her mouth shut, heart racing.

Umbridge cleared her throat, sweeping nonexistent stray hairs off her face. “As I was saying,” she continued calmly, voice light and airy. “You will be assisting at the shop part-time, and will return to the Home directly after your shift ends. If you make any stops along the way I assure you, I will know. And your position will be terminated, along with any hope of setting foot in the outside world ever again. Do I make myself clear?”

Hermione was hesitant to speak, but tentatively wet her lips and muttered a low toned, “Yes.”

“Good. You begin tomorrow morning, 8 am, the owner will be expecting you and will provide the remainder of your schedule for the week. Now go.”

Hermione blinked, stepping back.

That’s it?

Something about this entire encounter seemed… off. She chalked it up to her disappointment over there being no mention of Lavender or continuing the search. She took a deep breath, forging ahead despite knowing it was a futile effort.

“Madam… about Lavender-”

“If I hear you speak that name in this office again I will terminate your position at the Apothecary before it begins!”

Hermione deflated, hands curling to fists at her sides. “I just-”

“What is the matter with you? You just can’t help yourself! I don’t understand what he-” she cut herself short, eyes bugging momentarily, veins throbbing in her neck and forehead before her expression pinched once more.

Hermione blinked, replaying the brief outburst in her head.

Did she say ‘he’?

She opened her mouth but before she could utter a word Umbridge held her finger aloft, gaze lethal.

“That is enough, Ms. Granger! You will not mention Ms. Brown within these walls ever again, you will not rile up any of the others girls into finding Ms. Brown, and if I catch wind of you violating either of these orders then I will make you rue the day you were ever born, do I make myself clear?”

Hermione swallowed thickly, limbs rigid with fear and disbelief. She’d never seen the Madam explode in such a way, over so little instigating no less.

She nodded, voice evading her. Umbridge inhaled sharply, leaning back in her chair. “Good. Now leave before you do or say something else to make me think even less of you.”

Hermione was only too eager to escape. She was almost to the door when Umbridge spoke again, addressing Hermione’s back.

“One more thing, Ms. Granger.”

Hermione swallowed, glancing over her shoulder.

Umbridge smiled, her eyes two black voids of despair.

“Stay away from Doctor Riddle.”


Harry emerged on the upper level of the viewing stands, the volume much quieter up here in wake of the thinning crowd. Half the floor was comprised of private viewing boxes, one of which was Harry’s ultimate destination.

He walked behind the row of seats, his eyes alighting on a closed door ahead, the plaque displaying the number 5 in bold black.

“He’ll be in box 5,” Cormac said, wiping away blood from his lip and glaring out of his good eye. “You fucking wanker.”

Harry smirked at the memory. He wasn’t a violent person. At least he didn’t think of himself that way. He was a bit of an adrenaline junkie and often put himself in harm’s way, but he certainly never sought to inflict damage to others.

However, he was more than happy to make an exception for McLaggen. He detested everything about the man, and the mere thought that he was creeping about the dark hallways of Hermione’s home at night made his blood boil. When he’d asked her point blank if the man ever laid hands on her she’d assured him he hadn’t. Harry was good at seeing through her lies, just as she saw through his. He believed her, and that was the only reason Cormac was able to walk out of the opium den on two functioning legs.

He was distracted from his thoughts as the door to Box 5 swung open and a figure darted out, heading quickly in his direction.

Harry stopped dead, blinking once, twice-

“Daph?”

She came to a dead stop, glancing up with wide, tear stained eyes. The rest of her face was hidden behind her gloved hands but he could hear the muffled gasp. She blinked as well, her look of shock mirroring his own. She quickly removed her hands from her face, briefly wiping the wetness from her cheeks and taking a deep, shaky breath.

She was clearly trying to gather herself and was doing a very good job, any ordinary onlooker would see nothing amiss in her beautiful dress or perfectly styled blonde hair, but Harry had known this girl most his life and learned to see past the outer layer of perfection to the person trapped beneath.

“What’s the matter? What are you doing here?”

She drew her shoulders back, expression closing off. “Everything is perfectly fine, Potter. It’s lovely to see you. But I’m afraid I must be going-”

“Let’s try that again,” he said, stepping closer, eyes unyielding. “What wrong, Daphne?”

She huffed in annoyance, face pinching. “Harry, please, I can’t be seen lingering here.”

“Too late. You’ve been seen. By me. Now what the bloody hell are you doing in a bookie’s office?”

Her eyes flared. “You…” she swallowed, face paling even further. “I don’t- I-” She shook her head, looking frantic. “You can’t tell anyone, Harry. No one, do you understand?”

He tipped his head, studying her appearance. Nothing looked amiss other than her face when she first emerged, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. “Did he hurt you?”

She blinked, then realization dawned in her pale eyes. “No, of course not.”

“Then why were you crying?”

“Shh!” she hissed, glancing around in either direction. “Stop that! You can’t tell anyone what you saw-”

“I’m not worried about the bloody gossip rags, I’m worried about you-”

“I’m fine, I promise,” her voice was sharp, urgent, angry. “I don’t need you stepping in and playing the bloody hero because you have nothing better to do, I need you to forget about what you saw!”

He scowled. “Not until you tell me why you were meeting with-”

“It’s none of your business!”

“If there’s something-”

“I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”

Harry’s mouth snapped shut, heart lurching. He blinked, watching as she stepped in closer, barely an inch between them.

“I’m sorry to do that, Harry. Really I am. But my life will be ruined if you breathe a word about this to anyone.” She nervously wet her lips. “I know you would never do so to hurt me, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and you’re absolutely filled with those.”

Harry’s throat felt thick, scratchy. He cleared it, trying to regain his voice.

“I- I don’t-”

“I know, Harry.”

His airway closed off entirely, spots appearing before his eyes. She placed a staying hand on his arm.

“I won’t tell anyone, I promise. Even if I think you’re both bloody idiots sneaking around like you’re doing. But I won’t breathe a word of it, if you can make me the same promise.”

He swallowed heavily, dazed, and nodded slowly, hardly aware of his actions. She tipped her head, gaze sad, and then rose on her tiptoes to peck him lightly on the cheek.

“Thank you.” She whispered into his ear, and then quickly stepped past, disappearing in a flourish of silk skirts.

Harry stood stock still, blood frozen in his veins for several more minutes before the sudden roar of the crowd below awoke him from his stupor. He blinked several times, flexing his fingers at his sides, willing his circulation to resume, for his heart to start beating again.

Then he proceeded slowly to the open door.

He paused at the threshold, gazing in a the tiny, jam-packed office beyond.

“Knock knock,” he said without inflection, causing the thin, graying man seated behind the overcrowded desk to glance up sharply, posture stiff and defensive.

“I’m sorry, kid, I’m not taking any-” he stopped short, eyes widening and shoulders dropping. “Wait, you’re the Potter boy.”

Harry fought back a scowl, exhausted by his reputation always proceeding him, and not because of his own accomplishments but rather his father’s. He felt like a thief, an imposter, everytime someone gushed over his surname.

“I am. And you’re Bagman.”

The man’s face stretched into an obscene grin as he dropped his pen to the desk and pushed to his feet.

“What an honor to have you here, Mr. Potter! Please, come in, come in!”

Harry stepped inside, his stomach still in knots from his brief encounter with Daphne, and closed the door behind him. The office felt even more claustrophobic with the entrance blocked off.

“Sit, please,” he gestured wildly to the chair, like a showman. “What brings you to my office? Placing a bet? I can provide all the insider’s knowledge you need, my friend-”

“I’m not interested in horses,” Harry said, slipping his hands in his trouser pockets and gazing down upon the eager face. He chose to remain standing. “I’m interested in another service you provide.”

“And why the hell am I visiting a horse track bookie?” He asked in annoyance, pulling the man upright as he slumped to the side once more.

“Just tell ‘im I sent you, he’ll give you what you need,” Mclaggen said slowly, eyes heavy and lolling as the opium overtook him once more.

“If she’s anywhere, that’s where she’ll be…”

And then he passed out.

Harry hadn’t been able to find out exactly what Bagman was supposed to give him, McLaggen had been unrousable at that point. But Harry had been thrust into chaotic situations completely blind before, and if anything the mystery only added to the excitement.

“Er… I’m not sure what you mean.” Bagman’s joyous expression pinched. But he didn’t look confused… no, he looked hesitant.

Harry felt a thrill seize him.

“I think you do,” he held the man’s nervous gaze steady, the corner of his mouth lifting as he delivered the death blow. “Cormac McLaggen sent me.”

Bagman’s eyes flared, his posture changing, going rigid and then loosening, as though he couldn’t decide whether to stay or run.

“Oh… I… he’s not supposed to, I mean... I’m not really supposed to hand them out to just anyone.”

Harry fought to keep his expression neutral, blank, though curiosity burned a tortuous path through him.

“But I ‘spose you’re not just anyone, are you?” Bagman grinned, eyes hopeful, desperate for approval. Harry despised that look, especially when it was directed upon him, but he played along to further the bizarre transaction.

“No, I’m not. And I’d be ever so appreciative if you could help me out. I won’t forget it.”

He knew his last sentence held the most weight among men like Bagman who lived and breathed balance books, favors owed, debts collected.

As expected the man’s eyes gleamed hungrily, no doubt already fantasizing about how he’d cash in. “Oh, well, alright, you’ve twisted my arm!” he laughed excitedly, darting to a standing safe in the corner of the room, hidden beneath piles of paperwork.

“Did he tell you the price?” he asked over his shoulder as he spun the dial.

Harry scowled internally.

Fucking McLaggen…

“He didn’t have the opportunity, what’ll it cost me?”

Bagman opened the safe door but his body blocked the contents, much to Harry’s annoyance.

“Er… sixty pounds,” he said nervously, eyeing Harry with trepidation.

Harry blinked.

Sixty pounds? Bloody hell, what was he buying, a gold-plated carriage?

He fought past his surprise and nodded. “Done.”

Bagman’s apprehension turned to joy once more. He grabbed something off the top shelf and stood, cutting a path to Harry with obvious pep in his step. Harry’s eyes remained transfixed on the small package in the man’s hands. Whatever it was appeared box-shaped, wrapped heavily in newspaper. He wet his lips, desperate to tear into it.

Bagman began to hand it over, then pulled the package back to his body. “Remember, don’t open it inside, no one is supposed to see it.”

Harry nodded, heart beating through his chest in anticipation. “Of course.” He flashed a silver grin. “Do you take cheques?”


Ten minutes later Harry was in the back of a carriage, the mysterious package balanced atop his knee. He told himself he’d wait until he got home to open it.

But he knew resistance was futile. The temptation was far too great. He took a deep breath, gazing out the window at the passing scenery, as though making sure there were no stowaways hanging off the side of the car, peeking in, and then slowly lifted the bundle.

It was lightweight, startling so. He’d questioned on his way out of Bagman’s office whether he’d just been swindled, sold a bundle of old newspapers and nothing more.

But his fingers slid along the wrapping and felt the rigid shape of a rectangular box beneath, half the length of his forearm. He took a deep breath, wasting no more time and quickly tearing the paper away, revealing the plain brown box inside.

He licked his lips, slowly lifting the lid, eyes transfixed. He peered at the contents.

And blinked.

He reached inside, extracting the sole item lying atop a white velvet cushion.

A long, solid black skeleton key, intricate scrollwork at the head, block teeth at the base.

A blood red satin ribbon attached to the end, tied in a delicate bow.

He held the key to the light, then examined it in his palm, looking for some hidden message, some clue as to its meaning, its purpose.

The longer he stared upon it the larger it seemed to grow, taking on a sinister life of its own. And suddenly a feeling of dread seized him, inexplicable yet unshakable. The key was a mystery, but one thing he knew for certain.

“This can’t be good.”

Chapter Text

She generally gave herself very good advice,
Though she very seldom followed it.
.   .   .

“I cannot in good conscience recommend a blood purifying agent to you, Madam. There is no fundamental research on which to base the manufacturer’s claim that it remedies any of the underlying symptoms it is prescribed for.”

Hermione bit her lip, peeking through the gaps in the shelving to watch the exchange at the front of the shop. She was learning a great deal listening to Snape interact with the customers.

She already respected the man before starting the job but seeing him give up the opportunity for a sale in order to steer the customer in the right direction filled her chest with warmth. She was proud to be working for someone with strong moral fiber.

Even if he was unbearably rude and cynical, barking commands at her as though trying to housebreak a mutt.

“Oh bother…” the older woman muttered, then sighed. “I purchased a case of them at Bloomberg's last month, they sold it to me without issue.”

Though Hermione couldn’t see his face she could practically hear the scowl in his voice.

“Unfortunately the staff at Bloomberg’s care more about their bottom line than the welfare of their clientele. Furthermore, if their detoxifying agent worked as promised then a case worth would have been more than sufficient to cure your husband of his ailment. The fact that you are seeking more of the product only proves that they sold you snake oil in a pretty bottle, knowing you would be gullible enough to believe whatever idiocy they scratched along the label.”

Hermione shook her head. Bloody hell. Snape was teaching her a great deal about medicine, about the different manufacturers and brands, but perhaps she could teach him how to take a softer hand with customers. Women especially. Though he never swore outright, he could be openly callous at times.

Hermione didn’t mind his scathing remarks, she’d learned early on he never said anything without purpose, without cause. The more biting the remark the more serious the issue. But customers didn’t appreciate being spoken down to, especially the high born members who strolled in from time to time.

The woman scoffed, stepping back with an affronted expression, but before she could utter a word Snape spoke again.

“Based on what you’ve told me of your husband’s condition I believe he has an ailment of the liver. I can recommend products to assist with nausea and fatigue, but if his skin is starting to yellow and abdominal pains persist, you must take him to a doctor immediately. His life could be at stake.”

The woman swallowed. “Oh my…”

Just then the door opened, the bell above ringing. Snape glanced over his shoulder.

“Welcome.” His voice was clipped and rather unwelcoming. “Granger!” He called suddenly. Her heart leaped into her throat. She scrambled out of her hiding spot where she’d been watching him for the last several minutes under the guise of stocking the shelf. “Please assist this gentleman.”

She swallowed nervously, nodding quickly and smoothing her hands down her skirts. Snape didn’t so much as spare her a glance, turning his attention back to the woman standing before him. The fact that he was trusting her to handle a customer directly, on her own, on her first day of employment no less, filled her with both excitement and dread.

She so desperately wanted to impress him, but she also wanted to avoid selling someone the wrong product, causing more harm than good…

“Today.” He clipped with obvious annoyance, still not looking at her.

She blinked, flushing lightly and crossing the small room to the door.

“Hello,” she said, voice a bit higher than normal. She cleared her throat. “How may I assist you?”

The newest customer was a short man, well dressed but shifty looking. He squirmed nervously, eyes darting about the shop before fixing on her. His expression changed from a general sense of awkwardness to full-blown panic.

“Oh… I…” he wet his lips, taking a step back. “I shouldn’t…”

She raised a brow. “I’m sorry?”

He shook his head quickly, darting back out of the shop.

She blinked.

What just happened?

My first customer and I sent him running for the hills. Literally.

She looked nervously to Snape but he didn’t seem the least bit upset. In fact, it looked as though he was fighting back a smirk, his focus still directed upon the woman. Hermione turned back around, glancing through the window pane and watching the man run down the street, kicking up dust in his wake.

Fantastic.

She resumed her shelving duties as Snape sold the woman soothing salts and ginger root, as well as writing down the name of a hepatologist he recommended she contact. She was positively gushing praise by the end of their exchange and he had to practically push her physically from the shop. He sighed deeply, shaking his head at her retreating figure before slowly turning around-

“Bloody hell!” He stepped back, Hermione directly in front of him, nervously wringing her hands. “Must I put a bell around your neck like a common house cat?”

She swallowed tightly. “I’m sorry about that man earlier. I don’t know what I said to scare him away.”

He rolled his eyes, stepping past her without preamble. “You did nothing wrong.” He walked behind the counter, grabbing a stack of parchment from beneath. “At least not where he was concerned. I have yet to inspect your stocking abilities. I never knew it took twenty minutes to line up ten items.”

She shifted nervously. “I’m sorry if I lost you business-”

“What did I just say?” he glanced up sharply. “You did nothing wrong. He will be back.”

She blinked, watching him resume his writing. “He will?”

“He has little choice.”

“I don’t-”

“Are you always this incessant?”

She tilted her head, considering. “Yes.”

He groaned, rubbing at his eyes. “The man took off running like a gaping buffoon because you are a woman, and he was too embarrassed to request his monthly course of treatment from you.”

She furrowed her brow, confused. What was he…

Realization dawned on her, heat blossoming up her neck.

Snape sighed, focusing once more upon the parchment. “I did not recognize him at first. He usually comes in the presence of another man. Had I known who it was I wouldn’t have requested that you assist him.”

She swallowed thickly, shoulders drawing back. “I am more than capable of discussing such matters.”

The corner of his mouth tipped up, barely discernible to her eyes. “You are capable of discussing any and everything to a bloody pulp. However, not everyone likes to disclose their condition so openly, Ms. Granger. You will do well to remember that in this line of work.”

She watched him in silence for another few moments before nodding. “I will remember that.”

She started to walk back to the shelves when the door flew open once more, so hard it nearly crashed into the opposite wall. Snape glared at the new customer, Hermione spun around, startled-

And immediately felt her chest wrench open with joy.

“Mione!”

The newcomer stepped inside, not bothering to close the door, holding his arms out expectantly, face split in half by an open-mouthed grin.

She stood frozen for another heartbeat, eyes roaming his tall figure, his dashing uniform, still processing his sudden appearance. Then she was grinning as well, pulled free from her daze and launching herself across the floor.

“Ron!”

She leaped into his arms with little concern for propriety. She imagined she may have reacted differently had there been customers in the shop, but in all honesty, she probably wouldn’t have cared, considering the outside world fell away as soon as he appeared before her.

She hadn’t seen him in nearly three months, which might as well be three centuries for how greatly she missed him. As he wrapped his arms around her he lifted her off her feet, spinning her in a circle and drawing a childish laugh from her throat.

Ron had that ability with her, one of the few who did. He could coax out her most youthful, carefree side no matter the situation. He was like an overgrown child himself, despite his towering height and broad chest, despite his clean pressed Naval uniform, all Hermione could see when she looked at him was that gangly, awkward prepubescent boy she met all those years ago.

She adored him.

“Welcome home!” she managed to say before once again squealing in delight as he spun her around.

“It is now. Look at you, darling, you’re utterly smashing.”

She laughed anew, rolling her eyes and gently pushing at his shoulders. “Put me down, you dolt!”

“Not until you give me a kiss hello,” he winked, puckering his lips and closing his eyes, squeezing her tighter as she wriggled in his hold.

“You’re an idiot,” she admonished without heat, even as she reached out and turned his head to the side, pecking him lightly on the cheek. “There. Now put me down this instant.”

“I don’t think so, I’ve been gone for ages, surely I’ve earned a better present than that-”

“Perhaps the two of you could move this nauseating reunion to anywhere besides the open door of my store.”

Ron’s eyes flared and his arms released her at once, causing her to yelp as she thudded ungracefully to the floor.

“Ronald!”

“Oh, sorry, Mione.”

She rolled her eyes, then smoothed her wrinkled skirts, flushing lightly as she glanced over her shoulder at Snape, having forgotten where she was in the wake of her excitement.

“I’m-”

“Spare me. I’ve heard enough of your drivel to last me two lifetimes.” His dark eyes flickered up to Ron, expression pinching further. “A Weasley, I take it?”

Ron blinked, face turning brighter than his hair and he swallowed audibly. “Y-yes, Sir.”

Hermione bit her lip to stop from laughing.

“Hm.” Snape’s gaze scanned his tall form for another few seconds. “I see the resemblance to the rest of your brood. Ill-mannered and confounded. But your mother is a good customer. Inform her I received a new supply of alphozone tablets if she’d like to reserve a few boxes.”

Ron swayed on is feet. “Oh… um, yes, I-I will. Thank you, Sir.”

Now Hermione had to cover her mouth with her hand, delicately coughing to disguise her laugh. His lethal gaze shifted back to her, absorbing any lingering amusement and causing her to fidget nervously.

“You may take your fifteen-minute break, now, Ms. Granger.” His eyes narrowed. “Outside. I will not be subjected to any more of this emetic display.”

She nodded quickly. “Of course. Thank you, Sir.”

She grabbed Ron’s arm, pulling his stiff frame towards the exit, pushing him through as his legs locked up. As soon as she shut the door behind her she glared at him. “What’s the matter with you?”

“You work for Snape?” He asked without preamble, eyes wide.

She raised a brow. “You know him?”

“He’s a notorious arsehole. Made Charlie and Bill deep clean his supply closet years ago. Scared the piss outta them.”

She blinked. “What? Why would he do that?”

Ron shrugged, starting a path up the sidewalk, shortening his normally long stride so she could keep pace beside him.

“I dunno. I was really young at the time. I think they accidentally broke his window or something.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, is that all that happened?”

Ron narrowed his gaze but his expression lacked any real heat. “He’s still an arse!”

“An arse that could have easily charged your family for the cost of repairs. I dare say your brothers got off easy if all he made them do was clean his cabinet for an afternoon.”

Ron shrugged, facing forward as they maneuvered around a trolley. “I just know he put the fear of God in them, and no one has ever been able to inspire that kind of terror since, not even mum.”

Hermione smirked. “It’s good to have you back, Ronald.”

“I love it when you call me that.”

She laughed lightly, shaking her head and stepping in close, weaving her arm through his. “It’s been so dreary without you and Harry. I’m so happy you’re both home, at the same time no less. It’s like Christmas come early.”

“If only other women found such joy in my presence.”

She tipped her head up, staring at his profile. “No romances on the high seas?”

He laughed loudly, without care for the startled glances he received from nearby pedestrians.

“You realize I’ve been on a ship with three hundred other gents for the last three months, right?”

She shrugged. “You have to go ashore to refuel and restock eventually. With your dashing good looks and terrible jokes I thought you’d have wooed girls in every major port city by now.”

He sighed deeply, dramatically tipping his head back. “I try, Mione! Really I do! But I’m terrible with the birds in the Mediterranean. I get all clammy and have no idea what to say. It doesn’t help that most of them don’t speak a lick of English.”

She burst into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. He shook his head as though annoyed by her reaction but his smirk betrayed his own amusement. She finally settled down enough to catch her breath, peering up through teary eyes.

“Oh, Ron! You poor thing. But does it matter what you say if they can’t understand you anyway?”

He smiled. “That’s true. For all they know I’m a Navy surgeon.”

She exploded into another fit of laughter.

“What? I could pull it off, how hard is it to pretend to be a doctor anyway?”

His words were spoken in jest but they caused a visceral reaction in her. Her laughter ended abruptly, a vivid image taking root in her mind.

Dr. Riddle stepping out from behind the privacy screen, sunlight at his back, illuminating his tall figure like a creature descended from the heavens…

She swallowed thickly, releasing Ron’s arm and leaning away.

“Mione? You alright?”

She blinked, gazing up with a forced smile. “Yes, of course.” She tucked a fallen curl behind her ear. “I want to hear everything about your travels!” She mustered as much enthusiasm as she could, trying to redirect his focus.

Ron always meant well and cared for her a great deal, but he wasn’t as observant as Harry, to her great relief. She couldn’t handle if both her best friends were frustratingly astute.

Sure enough, he took the bait, launching into a story with animated hand gestures, making her smile anew.

Ron loved to speak about his Naval career. He was the only member of his family to enlist in that particular branch, his oldest brothers electing to join the Army while Percy trained to be a magistrate. Fred and George were the Weasley wild cards, the jack of all trades, still living at home and trying to forge their own path.

But Ron had discovered his, and she was so very proud of all his accomplishments. She knew growing up in such a large family, among so many brothers no less, caused him to be overlooked quite a bit. Not to mention the fact that their family had a bit of reputation amongst the gentry for being low on their means.

They were descended from two very prestigious lines, Weasley and Pruitt, both names going all the way back to Henry II, the first Plantagenet monarch. But over the last few generations, the Weasley name fell from prestige as their wealth diminished, whereas other families rose to power in their place, like Parkinson and Greengrass-

Hermione blinked, her heart skipping a beat. Even thinking the name Greengrass made her nauseous.

Astoria is so beautiful. So rich. So well bred.

They’ll make a perfect couple.

She shook her head forcefully but the dark fantasy still took root in her mind… an image of the flawless heiress standing beside Draco on the balconet, hand in hand, as Lucius proudly announced their engagement. She felt light headed.

She forced her attention back to Ron, who was still rambling away, oblivious to her mental anguish.

“-and I said to him, ‘You can try, mate, but I promise, you won’t be seeing the last of me.’ And the whole room exploded, it was bloody hilarious, Mione, you should have seen it-”

She blinked several times, trying to focus upon his words but finding it frustratingly impossible. The longer he talked the further she slipped away. She needed a distraction to keep her grounded, keep her sane.

“Ron-” she interrupted, stepping in closer. “How did you know I’d be at the shop?”

He cut off abruptly, blinking down at her.

“What? Oh. Harry told me.”

Now she blinked. “When?”

“This morning. I stopped by Grimmauld first, didn’t want Fred and George dousing my uniform with pomegranate juice before I had a chance to sweep you off your feet.”

She tilted her head, thoughts a swirling cyclone. In his message to her yesterday Harry had said he was following up on a lead and would fill her in on his findings. She’d assumed he meant later that evening when Colin did his nightly rounds. Hannah had slipped out to the garden and checked the hiding spot but found no missive.

Hermione wondered if he’d been able to follow through or if Cormac’s information had been a bust. She wondered if Harry would even tell her the truth, terrified as he was of ever disappointing her.

She hated being reliant on someone else for information. She loved Harry and trusted him completely, she knew he’d see this through for her no matter what, but she hated sitting on her hands, waiting on updates. She was used to being self-reliant and this forced dependence was torture.

“Speaking of Fred and George, they’re talking about renting a townhouse near Regent Square.”

She blinked, pulled from her inner ruminations. “Really? That’s a decent area. How are they going to afford it?”

“You know how they like to invent things…”

She laughed shortly. “I know how they like to destroy things.”

Ron shrugged. “No argument there. Well during one of their experiments they figured out some way to… well, they tried to describe it in a letter but I really didn’t have any idea what the hell they were talking about. You’d probably get it. It’s something mechanical with a news press. I think. Anyways, they’ve got a patent and licensing deal pending. If it all goes through they’re going to turn the bottom of the Townhouse into a shop and live out of the top.”

Hermione bounced on her heels. “Ron, that’s incredible! I’m so happy for them! They always were brilliant, I’m not surprised they created something-”

“Yeah, yeah,” he rolled his eyes dramatically. “Mum won’t shut up about it. If their heads get any bigger they won’t be able to fit through the bloody doorway.”

She laughed.

“The reason I mention it is...” he paused, rubbing the back of his neck. She tilted her head, studying him curiously. “I only bring it up because once they’re gone, it’ll just be mum, dad, and Gin living there.”

Her heart lurched.

He swallowed, glancing at her sideways. “I want you to move into the Burrow, Mione.”

She released a deep breath, facing forward, remaining silent.

“I know the reason you said no before was that Fred and George were still there, and it would be scandalous or some such nonsense, despite the fact you’re practically our second little sister.”

She glanced at him sharply, mouth opening, but he held up a staying hand. “I get it, okay, I know public image is a bigger deal for you birds than it is for us gents. But now that they’ll be out of the house there’s no excuse for you to stay in that hovel.”

Hermione sighed. “Ron-”

“Mum and dad agreed, were adamant about it, actually. You know they love you like a daughter. And Gin would be ecstatic to have you there-”

“Ron-”

“I already know you’re going to say no, I can see it in your eyes. Just think about it, okay? Please? For me?”

The sincerity in his blue gaze made her chest ache. She clamped her mouth shut, jaw ticking. Then she nodded lightly, already knowing her answer would remain the same but not wanting to have this loaded conversation so soon after his return.

“Thank you,” he said, expression remaining stoic for another beat before transforming into his signature carefree grin. The familiar image lightened her heavy heart considerably.

“So what are we supposed to wear to this bloody thing tonight anyway?”

The question took her off guard, so much so that she stumbled on the sidewalk. Ron’s arm shot out and caught her.

“Whoa, careful, luv.”

She gazed up at him. “What thing tonight?”

He blinked. “You’re not going?”

“Going to what?”

He helped her regain her footing, stepping away and sliding his hands in his pockets. “I’m not sure, some fancy party. Something to do with the Scotland Yard. I got roped into it by Harry. I assumed you were going.”

She shook her head. “I had no idea it was happening. I don’t get invited to such things anymore.”

His gaze narrowed. “That’s bullshite. You’re the smartest person I know, they should be chomping at the bit to have you.”

She smiled, but it reflected a sadness she couldn’t mask. “The last thing powerful men want in their company is an intelligent woman. Little less a woman who has the nerve to display that intelligence.”

“It’s ridiculous. The night’s going to be a bust without you. Come as my guest. Or Harry’s, whichever will piss ‘em off more.”

She laughed, stepping close to grab his arm once more, directing him back towards the shop, her break coming to an end.

“As fun as that sounds, I am under house arrest for the next two weeks. I couldn’t slip away if I wanted to. And I must admit, I have no desire to be in the company of the Scotland Yard by my own free will. I’ve had my fill of police.”

He sighed. “I know. I’m just looking for an excuse to linger in your company. I can't abide sneaking about like this.”

She raised a brow. “You, Ronald Bilius Weasley, can’t abide skirting the rules for your own amusement?”

His answering smile gleamed in the sunlight. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, luv. I’m a model citizen.”

She shook her head with a laugh, leaning her head against his arm. “If you want to convince those foreign beauties you’re a surgeon you’ll have to learn to lie better than that.”


Tom was a patient man.

At least, he considered himself to be.

Others may have labeled him obsessive. Demanding. Controlling. Possessive.

He didn’t disagree with those monikers. He was all of those things as well.

But above all else, he was patient.

He had to be, in order to see through this mission. This calling. And now that the fruits of his labor were finally within sight, he couldn’t afford to jeopardize it all by being too eager. By showing his hand too soon.

By being… distracted.

No, distractions simply wouldn’t do.

He didn't anticipate encountering any diversions here. He hadn’t allowed himself to grow attached in the past. The residents here were pawns, nothing more. Just a means to an end.

That was all they could be.

He’d dealt with patients for years. The sick and dying. Young and old alike. Men, women, children. They were just bodies housing complex systems requiring regular maintenance and upkeep, and on occasion, invasive repair. There was nothing meaningful attached, no identifying markers. No faces, no names, no stories.

It was easiest that way. Made him the most effective. Made him into the brilliant, if not cutthroat, doctor he was today.

He came here with the same mentality. It was the only way to see this through. If he saw any of these girls- no, these residents- as anything but pieces on the chessboard then he would certainly get distracted. And that was not an option.

He’d come too bloody far.

Nothing, nothing, would stop him now.

He found himself having to remind himself of that more often than not these last few days. It was troubling, but he wouldn’t let it overcome the greater objective.

His eyes moved rapidly along the document in his hand, speed reading the information presented. He’d been surprised to find the stack of resident logs awaiting him that morning, stacked neatly on the center of his desk with a note attached from the beastly Matron. He’d expected her to skirt his request until he all but had to ransack her records room for the information himself.

After discarding her note to the floor and opening the first file he quickly discovered the reason for her immediate acquiesce.

The records were doctored.

Pitifully so. They’d been altered with an obvious heavy hand, going so far as to scratch out data to write new information over the top. Even more obscene was the fact that these were old records that had already been reviewed and signed by a solicitor. Someone court-appointed had read this farce of a report and given it the stamp of approval.

His eyes narrowed on the signature at the bottom. The flourish of swoops and swishes spelled out a name he recognized well. His heart swelled.

Though he already knew he was in the right place, the document in his hand guaranteed it with absolute certainty.

He stood in the heart of the demon’s lair.

At long last.

He snapped the file shut as a thrill of adrenaline seized him. He wanted to grab his scalpel and cut something open, see the crimson bead of liquid swell beneath his hands, feel the power and control of rendering something naked and exposed beneath his touch.

Soon.

Soon, he’d have them.

And then he’d have his revenge.

But first, he needed to see the records dating back further. He needed to go back as far as possible, from before the Madam’s appointment.

He tossed the folder to his desk, striding to the clinic doors and marching into the empty corridor, intent on requesting the remaining documents from the Matron directly. He couldn't abide being in her presence, knowing just who she was, exactly what she was, but what nauseated him the most was her blatant interest in him.

It wasn’t just a matter of physical attraction, or in this case, the lack thereof. He didn’t fault people for things beyond their control, physical appearance among them, but he always found it repellent when his prey willingly exposed their throats to his fangs.

It was one thing for the residents to be drawn to his palpable air of danger, a natural draw to their youth and inexperience. He was unable to mask it fully, not for long stretches of time. Which is why he stayed on the constant move. When bodies started to surface he knew his good looks and easy charisma would only shield him for so long.

But it was another matter entirely for the head of the Home to be so blatantly obtuse about the danger she let past her doorstep. Then again, she wasn’t exactly keen on protecting her charges, was she? He certainly wouldn’t be the first predator she beckoned inside.

He looked forward to making her rue that decision with her last gasping breath.

He turned another corner, his mind focused on the task at hand, aware but indifferent to the whispers and tittering laughs he elicited from the girls he passed. In the few days since he’d been here, he’d garnered five explicit propositions and a handful of more inconspicuous offers from residents within.

He was almost impressed by their confidence, their bravado, unhampered by their circumstances. He’d politely turned them all down, too amused to be properly disgusted. Most of them had been of age anyhow, so in their view, it probably wasn’t an obscene proposal.

However, such a thing was so outside the realm of possibility that it didn’t even register in his mind. He’d never touch one of these girls.

You already have…

He forced the thought away with narrowed eyes. His expression turning unknowingly lethal, causing his crowd of onlookers to glance away nervously, scattering like mice in the midst of a hungry cat.

No.

He’d allow for no distractions.

No matter how tempting.

As he moved past the doors leading to the garden he did a double take, noticing a girl slipping inside, head downturned, long blonde hair cloaking her face, hand clutched to her chest.

Blood dripped down her wrist and onto her pale skirts, dribbling across the stone floor.

He halted, changing course with little thought.

She glanced up, her eyes found him cutting a path towards her and they widened, blue as the sky on a clear day.

She swallowed, backing up and hitting the wall, no escape in sight.

He tipped his head, studying her as he neared. She looked familiar. He hadn’t given her an exam. Hadn’t spoken to her directly. But he knew that face from somewhere-

She was sitting beside Hermione at the breakfast table.

The thought made his stomach muscles tighten. He released a slow breath, forcing them to loosen, to regain control of his faculties.

“What happened?” he asked without preamble, eyes pinning her in place.

She blinked up at him, a cornered doe, speechless.

He shook his head in annoyance, but also a general sense of resignation. He was used to rendering people silent when he directed his full attention to them. It wasn’t always intentional. It was on his list of things to work on. After killing a few more people.

He stepped closer, reaching out for her injured hand even as she tried to pull it away.

“Stop that, let me see it.”

He grabbed her thin wrist, gently tugging it towards him, prompting her to give up the struggle, relenting her arm to his control.

He turned her palm up and she slowly unfurled her fingers, revealing a long but shallow gash across the middle.

“I need to clean this, but I don’t think it will require stitches.”

She swallowed thickly, trembling lightly. “I can clean it myself, Sir.”

His eyes snapped up, meeting hers once more. He raised a dark brow, fascinated to see pure fear in her eyes. He rarely inspired such a reaction when wearing his mask. Especially among young women. Especially among the young women here. Most of them would be eager to have him attend their wound. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of them purposefully injured themselves for an excuse to visit him in the middle of the night. It wouldn’t be the first time it happened in his career.

But alas, this girl seemed… different.

Like she had a sixth sense about him.

He tilted his head, examining her face more carefully.

“What’s your name?”

She blinked once, twice, then tentatively wet her lips. “Luna.”

He studied her in silence a few moments longer, still holding her hand in his, before releasing it and stepping back, watching her visibly deflate in relief.

“I’m afraid I can’t allow you to do that, Luna. I insist on treating the cut myself to minimize the risk of infection. It should only take a few minutes, I assure you.”

She bit her lip, eyes darting around the mostly empty hall, as though debating whether to make a run for it.

How fascinating.

He was beginning to understand why she held Hermione’s interest. She was certainly gaining his.

“The sooner you come with me, the sooner we can have it done.”

Her large blue eyes fastened to his once more. She was obviously unsettled but seemed to accept there was no way out. She stepped away from the wall, nodding.

“Alright, Doctor.”

His jaw ticked at the way she said his title, voice unsteady. A budding suspicion took root in his mind, weeds growing like veins into his cerebrum, whispering dark things that only made him more eager to get her back to the clinic.

His chessboard had a new rook.


“I feel like a trussed up lobcock.”

Harry shook his head, gazing out of the carriage window with a smirk. “However did I survive without your colorful vernacular for two whole days?”

“That’s a fancy word. Hermione teach it to you?”

“Obviously,” Harry sighed as they drew to a stop outside the large Hotel. “Bloody hell, I really don’t want to go to this thing.”

“At least you’re dressed half decent. Look at me!” Ron held his arms out to the side, displaying his rather simple and outdated suit. “I had to borrow something from Dad’s closet because Charlie and Bill never, and I quote, ‘Tressed up like lobcocks for a party’.”

“You’re dad’s hand me down clothes, your brothers’ hand me down jokes, are you wearing your own shoes?”

“Ha-fucking-ha.”

Harry leaped down to the pavement, paying the driver as Ron descended behind him, still grumbling under his breath.

Other carriages were arriving behind theirs, people ascending the grand staircase in fine suits and evening gowns, a formal affair to be certain, but certainly not the lushest event Harry had ever attended. This was an event for the Scotland Yard, the lowest rung of government employees. Money and jewels wouldn’t be thrown from the balcony as they would at a bluestocking affair.

Still, Harry had no interest in attending. He only did so because Sirius was still abroad and at least one of them were expected to make an appearance at such events, especially those relating to a public cause. Harry couldn't care less what people thought of him but he didn’t want to bring shame to the Potter name, that would only insult his parents’ legacy.

Being the sole member of a once powerful and influential family really sucked ballocks sometimes.

Ron groaned beside him, reminding Harry that he wasn’t the only one dreading this night. The Weasleys didn’t receive nearly as many invitations to events as they did decades prior. Harry envied them that, but Molly took great offense at being shunned by the ultra-elite they were once considered a part of, many generations removed.

So she made at least one of their brood attended each event they received an invitation to. Usually Percy, as he was the most well mannered and socially hungry. But every now and then she forced one of the other boys in his place. Just to keep them relevant to the vultures hovering above, desperate to nip at the heels of anyone with the slightest bit of power or influence.

Ginny wasn’t to be presented until next Season, much to her brothers’ joint dismay.

Thinking of Gin inevitably led to thoughts of Hermione.

She never got a Season. Not that she wanted one. In fact, she was rather against being presented like a horse to auction, as she so fondly put it. But had things been different, had her parents still been alive, and had she been the type of girl who enjoyed such societal antics, she’d be in the middle of her Season now. Lavished in expensive dresses, attending parties every weekend, toting a full dance card around her wrist, young men vying for her affection...

Instead, his best friend was trapped in an old, gothic prison with dozens of other hostages, subjected to the whims of the embittered crone that ran the place and, as Harry had most recently learned, susceptible prey to whatever young men decided to sneak in at night, trolling the hallways for kicks.

And to top it off, Hermione’s own bloody roommate disappeared without a trace, without a stir, without a single upturned rock…

It was madness.

“We goin’ in, mate?”

Harry blinked, emerald gaze snapping to the side. Ron tipped his head towards the ascending crowd.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love nothing more than to spend the night out here. But if we’re heading in, might as well seize the opportunity to hide amongst the crowd.”

Harry nodded, steeling himself for the evening ahead.

“Good looking out. Let’s go.”

They slipped into the throng of partygoers, following their steady path into the opulent Hotel lobby, then along to the event hall. The room was large and open, tables removed to give ample space for socializing, as the society dregs loved to do. The room was jam-packed, people filling every corner, conversation bouncing off every surface. Harry already felt a pressure headache building rapidly behind his eyes.

“Blimey. I need a drink,” Ron muttered beside him, tugging awkwardly at his sleeves, which were a touch too short for his gangly arms.

Harry nodded. “Grab me one. I’ll get the next round.”

“How bout the next seven.”

“Sounds fair.”

“I’m a decent bloke.”

Ron took a deep breath, bracing himself before disappearing into the crowd, attempting to cut a path towards the bustling bar. Harry stood by himself, feeling overwhelmed despite the fact no one had spoken to him. But he felt eyes alight upon his body, from his face down to his shiny leather shoes.

He was used to garnering attention everywhere he went, due to his name, his looks, his uniform, or some combination of the three. It was worse in London’s social scene, because everyone knew everyone so annoyingly well, the rumor mill in constant grind. He joined the Navy because it was his family legacy, a rite of passage, a way to feel closer to the father he’d lost, but also as a means of escape. Escaping himself.

When sailing abroad Harry was truly free. Free from the long history of his surname, from societal expectations, from his own youthful misdeeds. He could be anyone he wanted, every new assignment was a chance to start fresh, to try out a new identity for a while. He even went so far as to change his first name when meeting locals at port cities, truly breaking the chains of his past.

It was thrilling, a tingling rush that satisfied the adrenaline lover dwelling at his core. He created his own adventures on his own terms, answering to no one but his Captain. Who also happened to be his godfather. And while it was frustrating at times, given their close relationship outside the ranks, having him on the ship was also a source of comfort. Sirius and Ron were a piece of home away from home that chased away his melancholy when he went long stretches away from Grimmauld. Away from Mione. Away from-

He swallowed heavily, pushing the notion aside, his chest tightening at his near mental slip up.

They agreed it was only casual. Nothing serious. Nothing to dwell upon outside the bedroom.

Harry had nodded along at the time, not wanting to seem needy or desperate. Not wanting to push them away. He always felt like they were precariously balanced in his hands, one wrong move and he’d lose them. It had felt that way since their first encounter. It felt like that a year later, several encounters later.

Stop thinking about it. Not now. Not here.

He took a deep breath, swiveling his gaze around the room, eager for any distraction. His eyes fell upon a cluster of finely dressed debutantes, batting their lashes at him from behind their fans. He smirked, inclining his head politely but making no move in their direction.

He’d gone down that route before, desperate to rid himself of his obsession with the unattainable. He had no desire to formally court anyone, his Naval career kept him too busy to take a wife, that was his excuse anyway, when nosy busybodies ultimately asked at every public event he attended.

It was a solid excuse in his opinion. Sirius had never settled down. He was married to the sea, as he liked to say, with a roguish grin and wink that sent the birds swooning by the masses. There had been great pressure on his godfather to sire an heir to the Black fortune, but he’d remedied himself of the burden by formally adopting his godson when he was barely a teen, freshly orphaned.

Harry became to sole heir of the massive Potter and Black fortunes, and the pressure to marry and start a family doubled in turn, weighing his shoulders down with such crushing weight he found it difficult to put one foot in front of the other, to walk into events such as this where he knew he’d be the prey of every social climber and gold digger alike, eager to parade their daughters, sisters and nieces before him like cattle.

He understood why it disgusted Mione so. It disgusted him and he wasn’t even the one being dolled up and forced on display. It made him see red when families put forth girls so young they weren’t even formally presented, biologically not a woman yet. Harry knew that after he turned down their father’s offers the girls were being pushed off onto the next man, and the next, until they found one willing to take a child bride.

It was perverse. Deranged. And the social norm.

Harry found himself longing for the high seas more than ever.

He found himself longing for his bedroom at Grimmauld.

Longing for the warm body pressed against his, the mattress a private island of bliss, solitude. Escape.

He averted his gaze from the group of twittering young women, only to land upon the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and a sickly pale girl at her side, both with their eyes firmly upon him. The Dowager looked hungry, focused, a predator tracking its prey through the tall grass. The girl looked resigned, already dreading the interaction to come. Harry sighed, having only a split second to decide upon his course of action.

Stay or run.

He bolted.

Darting into the crowd to his left, going so far as to hunch down a touch, allowing his thick shock of black hair to disappear beneath the many talking heads. He was too relieved at his narrow escape to feel embarrassed or give two shites about the curious glances sent his way as he pushed steadily through the masses, aiming himself at the far corner of the room.

He emerged from the sea of bodies, gasping for breath as though he truly broke free from the turbulent ocean. A deep snicker caught his attention. He didn’t have to turn around to recognize the owner of the amused voice. But he did so anyway, eager to engage in conversation with someone who wasn’t trying to trap him in a marriage contract.

“Having fun, Potter?”

Harry sighed, unfolding to his full height but keeping his back to the massive crowd at his back.

“The time of my life. What are you doing here, Zabini? This isn’t your usual scene.”

Blaise shrugged indifferently, handsome face slipping into its natural repose; supreme boredom, with an underlying derision that made his dark eyes gleam, ever watchful of the milling guests, always on the lookout for something.

The man normally made Harry uneasy, with his shrewd gaze and lewd speech, eager to unsettle those around him. For what purpose, Harry was never certain. He found it easier to avoid the strapping Italian altogether, which was simple enough considering he and Zabini maintained very different social calendars. Harry only went to events if dragged, held at gunpoint or otherwise guilted into attending. And he left as soon as he paid the host or hostess a polite hello.

Zabini loved lavish parties, the gaudier the better, throwing several out of his mother’s estate himself. He was always at the center of the action, the heart of the gossip, otherwise the opposite end of whatever venue Harry found himself forced to be in.

So the fact that the man stood in the same corner now greatly perturbed Harry. He glanced around, wondering if there was something he’d missed, some great scandal playing out beside them, media reporters watching nearby, anything to draw the man away from the crowd.

“I was forced to come to this, much like you, I presume,” he finally spoke, taking a sip of whatever dark liquid filled his lowball glass, eyes still tracking the talkative faces.

“Forced? By whom?”

“By whom else? The only woman with any sway over me.”

Harry nodded, slowly turning to face the crowd, feeling safer with them in his sights rather than at his back.

“How is the Countess?”

“Happily sandwiched between two lovers half her age in Nepal.”

Harry shook his head, fighting the urge to cringe at the mental image. “That’s your mum, you know.”

“I was aware, yes.”

“And why does she want you to come to an event for the Scotland Yard?”

Blaise smirked, taking another sip of his drink. “She just buried husband number five. I imagine she wants to show her support of the new criminal investigation unit to avoid being the subject of their first case.”

Harry blinked, glancing sideways at the man. “The new what?”

“Honestly, Potter, do you often show up to events without knowing their purpose?”

“Most the time.”

Blaise swirled the glass in his palm, the liquid creating a tiny vortex as he flashed a grin. “How can I forget, you enjoy the element of surprise better than the present itself.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Get on with it, Zabini.”

The man chuckled. “The police formed a new branch within the London Office. The CID unit, they’re calling it. Its main purpose is to break apart large-scale crime rings with plainclothes detectives using more subversive measures.”

Harry raised a dark brow. “And you know all this how?”

“I slept with one of the detective's secretaries. And one of their wives. They were both surprisingly chatty afterward. Kept talking to each other even after I left.”

Harry blinked, peering sideways at the man’s stoic profile, finally relenting with an amused smirk.

“Blaise, there you are, I ran into-”

Harry went rigid as the new voice joined the fold, a familiar face appearing from the crowd, pausing at the edge, eyes fixed upon Harry in surprise, then panic.

Blaise raised a brown, glancing between them, lips curving into a wry grin.

“Well isn’t that interesting.”

“Do shut up, Blaise. No one enjoys hearing your voice as much as you.”

“Ouch,” he cringed in mock pain, pressing a hand to his chest. “What’s gotten into you, Daph? Aren’t you going to bid Potter a hello?” His eyes danced with malevolent glee.

Daphne glared at the Italian, then she slid her mask of proprietary indifference into place. “Hello, Harry. It’s wonderful to see you.”

Harry swallowed, folding his hands behind his back to keep from flexing his fists.

“Daphne,” he bowed his head in polite greeting. “The pleasure is all mine. It’s been a long time.”

She blinked, shoulders relaxing a touch. “Yes, yes it has.”

“This is very interesting,” Blaise muttered over the rim of his glass, eyes darting between their rigid forms.

Daphne glared at him once more but remained silent. Just then Harry’s eye was drawn by a familiar sweep of white blonde hair bobbing along the sea of guests, steadily heading in their direction. He breathed a sigh of relief. He knew he was in dire straights if he took comfort in Malfoy’s arrival.

“Draco, bloody hell, what are you doing here?” Blaise said at full volume as the man emerged into their small pocket corner of the room.

The blonde straightened out his pristine jacket as though it were amiss, eyes sweeping along the three people standing before him, pale brow raised.

“Well isn’t this a sinister looking gathering.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Blaise said, winking at Daphne as she huffed in annoyance.

“And I’m sure I don’t care,” Draco drawled, gazing over his shoulder at the crowd. The group of young, attractive aristocrats hiding in the corner were starting to attract a concerning amount of attention. Harry feared he’d have to find a new refuge soon.

“I’m afraid I lost your sister to a pit of hissing vipers, Daph.” He turned to face her. “I would attempt to save her but I fear I’d only exacerbate the problem.”

Daphne sighed, shaking her head in annoyance. “Let me guess, the Carrow sisters?”

“They have a surprising obsession with the marriage market considering they’re both dried up spinsters.”

She scowled. “Their niece and nephew are a far cry from anything you’d consider remotely eligible, they have to live vicariously through other families.”

“I heard Alecto and Amycus have eyes and hands only for each other,” Blaise said casually, tipping his head to inspect a woman in a particularly tight corset.

“That’s vile, Blaise,” Daphne said, face pinched in disgust.

“I didn’t say I agreed with it luv, merely that I heard it.”

“You shouldn’t repeat such tasteless rumors, they’re liable to spread.”

He raised an amused brow, gaze snapping back to hers. “Do you even know who you’re talking to?”

She rolled her eyes, folding her arms and sidling closer to the wall.

“This party if worse than I imagined,” Draco said, turning to scan the room. “And that’s really saying something, considering I fantasized about setting the building on fire.”

“You too, huh,” Harry said before he could stop himself, earning an amused laugh from Blaise and an appreciative smirk from Draco.

“What are you doing here, anyway?’ Harry asked, posture finally easing over the shock of seeing Daphne again so soon. He tucked his hands into his trouser pockets, effecting a casual stance.

“Father said one of us was obligated to come, and that it was too low budget to garner his attention.”

“He isn’t wrong,” Daphne said, glancing around the room. “A blind nun must have been in charge of decorating. I didn’t even know they made brown table runners.”

“At least they aren’t wasting our tax dollars on fancy cutlery and window treatments,” Harry said. “An extravagant ball would send the wrong message.”

“And what is the message?” She asked in annoyance.

“I’ve no bloody idea.”

“I’m bored,” Blaise interrupted. “Have Pans or Theo arrived yet?”

Harry’s heart lurched so violently he swayed on his feet, covering the gesture with a sudden cough, averting his face away. He felt eyes upon him and knew they belonged to the sole female of their group. Color stained his cheeks. Damn.

“Alright there, Potter?” Draco asked over his shoulder, blessedly oblivious to the nature of Harry’s outburst.

“Never better,” he said in as level a tone as he could manage.

He wanted to ask follow up questions, like why the hell they were coming to this event in the first place, but he feared the men would read into his questioning, and he was still too wound up by the confirmation that Daphne definitely knew about his tryst.

Double damn.

He supposed it was only a matter of time before someone became suspicious. Harry noticed Mione and Draco sneaking off to secluded balconies right away. He noticed their budding attraction, disguised as mutual jealousy and hatred, even before they did. He shouldn’t be surprised Greengrass put the pieces together.

After all, she was best friends with-

“There they are! About bloody time. Finally, someone with a bit of excitement.”

Harry swallowed heavily at Blaise’s boisterous announcement, his eyes fixating on the main entrance where the newest couple emerged into the room. His heart skipped a beat, palms starting to sweat. He blinked rapidly, stepping back, glancing at Daphne on instinct.

She stared back, holding his gaze steady, the intensity making his body quake. His lungs felt weighted, he couldn’t draw a proper breath. He glanced back to the crowd, his eyes finding theirs like a homing beacon. They burned like twin sapphires, such a deep blue they appeared violet in the soft lighting.

He tore his gaze away but could still feel their eyes upon him like a physical touch.

He couldn’t do this.

“It’s been an absolute delight,” he said, affecting a bored tone, but his voice sounding unsteady to his ears. “But I’m going to find Ron. Enjoy your evening.”

He took off before they had a chance to register his departure. It was a terribly rude and abrupt exit, he should have paid his respects to each of them in turn, taken Daphne’s hand and kissed it farewell, but he couldn’t afford to linger there a moment longer.

Besides, he doubted any of them expected Harry to adhere to social custom anyway. He was known as the rebel aristocrat, the reluctant prince, skirting convention at every opportunity.

He was just fine with those assumptions if it earned him a reprieve.

He dived headfirst into the crowd, heading towards the bar, glancing around for the familiar shock of red hair.

Luckily, Ron possessed an equally recognizable laugh. Loud, carefree and joyful, eliciting either a grin or scowl from all those nearby. Harry sighed in relief upon hearing it, darting in the direction of the boisterous noise.

He spotted the man beside the bar, deep in conversation with a young woman, his freckled face alight with whatever story he was telling her. Harry slowed his pace, smirking in amusement. He never failed to be entertained by his best friend’s escapades with the opposite sex. It rarely ended well.

Harry raised a brow as his emerald gaze fell upon the woman, only her back visible. Something about her seemed... familiar. Though he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. He knew practically everyone in London. Unfortunately.

Ron’s blue gaze met his from over her shoulder and his smile widened.

“Oi, Harry! C’mere! Meet the new police commissioner's daughter!”

Harry fought back a cringe as a few people glanced around in annoyance. Whereas Harry purposely skirted the rules of etiquette, Ron was outright oblivious to them.

However, the mystery girl didn’t seem to mind his jovial outburst, tipping her head back and laughing, the sound making Harry stop short a few feet behind her, heart leaping into his throat.

He knew that voice… but from where? He felt like he’d heard it quite recently, fresh on his memory, but he hadn’t been around any women except for-

“Harry, meet Susan Bones.”

The girl spun on her heel, bright smile melting into a look of abject shock, eyes widening to comical size.

Harry blinked.

Bloody. Hell.

Ron glanced expectantly between them, brow raising at their prolonged silence.

“Um,” he rubbed his neck. “Have you already met?”

Susan took a deep breath, eyes desperately pleading. Harry shook himself of his momentary stupor, grinning wildly and stepping closer.

“Not at all.”

He reached forward, grabbing her stiff hand and bringing it to his lips.

“Hello, Susan. A pleasure to meet you.”

His mouth hovered above her knuckles, curved into a silver grin, eyes gleaming beneath the chandeliers.

“I’m Harry.”


Hermione returned to the Home from her first day of work in a buzz of excitement. She’d been exhausted when she first left the establishment, her skirt filled with extra coin from Snape. She’d looked at him in confusion when he first handed it to her.

“The Madam informed me she will be taking half your wages off the top as overhead and to send your bi-weekly cheques directly to her.”

Hermione blinked. Snape shook his head, eyes narrowed as he opened the till.

“I had a strong inkling the remaining funds would never make it to your hand, so I told her you were earning half the actual amount. I will pay you the difference directly if you have no objections.”

She blinked again, emotion swelling within her.

“That’s… very kind of you.”

“Paying my employees isn’t kind, it’s the law.” He withdrew a bag of coins and made a note on his ledger, sliding the money across the counter. “Take it and leave. You’ve given me enough of a migraine today.”

She’d accepted the payment with another round of thank-yous before he’d banished her with a scowl, telling her to report back at the same time in two days. She reflected on the events of her day during the carriage ride home, feeling overwhelming pride that she was finally employed, and in a medical-related field, no less. She imagined what her parents might say…

She pressed a hand to her chest, shaking her head and gazing out the window as they rounded the corner and the imposing structure of the Home came into view. She had the driver drop her off directly in front, knowing Filch would no doubt be waiting up to report her arrival immediately to the Matron.

As she paid the driver and spun around to face the main gate she felt a cold chill steel past. She blinked in confusion, gazing around as it blew stray leaves and sticks along the pebbled driveway. It was still summer, unseasonably sunny and warm at that, so the sudden drop in temperature startled her.

She quickened her pace to the front door, some force compelling her to glance up at the gargoyles. She swallowed thickly, feeling their hollow eyes upon her.

Then her gaze flickered down, to the large circular window of the attic, sealed off from the residents. Supposedly it was nothing but storage space, caked in dust and cobwebs, easily forgotten.

So the sight that met her eyes caused Hermione to stop dead in her tracks.

A girl stood at the window, deathly pale, cheeks gaunt, eyes dark and sunken.

And fixed squarely upon Hermione.

She released a slow breath, too transfixed upon the stranger to notice the cold plume of air it created. Her heart thumped painfully against her breastbone. She closed her eyes. Counted silently backward from five.

And then opened them.

The girl was gone.

The summer air once more warmed her chilled flesh.

She bit her lip, staring blankly at the door ahead.

It’s getting worse.

What am I going to do?

She fought back tears as she resumed her rapid pace inside.

The hallucinations started after she joined the Home. She thought they were just an extension of the night terrors that plagued her since her parents’ deaths. But they didn’t align with her nightmares, having nothing to do with the fire or her family.

No, instead she was plagued by ghastly visions of bloody, animated corpses, torn flesh, gaping wounds, severed limbs… all belonging to strangers she was certain she’d never laid eyes upon before.

It disturbed her to no end that her mind could concoct such horrific images of its own accord. She’d never been exposed to such sights before, her parents never even allowed her to gaze upon cadavers in the morgue. She had no idea where her subconscious derived such bloody imagery, or why it did so in the first place.

But one thing was certain, she couldn't tell anyone.

The only thing more terrifying than being diagnosed with hysteria was being diagnosed with insanity. Though they were more or less treated as one in the same, at least hysteria held the possibility of a cure.

Instead, the insane were locked away in padded rooms for the duration of their short lives, subjected to the most barbaric of practices to break their minds of the madness. From what little she’d glimpsed in her parents’ medical books, the treatments were more likely to induce madness than to cure it.

She didn’t want to even think about what they’d do to her if they knew she was experiencing such violent hallucinations. She’d never see the sunlight again.

No, she was better off suffering in silence. At least then she could maintain her mediocome of freedom. She’d rather be plagued by the haunting visions out in the open than continue to experience them alone in a cell, strapped to a bed, imprisoned within a straightjacket.

She was so overcome by her panic that she didn’t notice the figure walking down the hall in the opposite direction, their eyes downturned upon a bundle in their arms.

“Oh!” Hermione gasped, catching herself against the wall, gazing down at the sprawled figure before her. “Luna! I’m so sorry!”

She quickly knelt down, reaching for the girl’s hand to help pull her up, then gasping anew at the thick bandage covering it.

“What happened?”

Luna smiled, serene as ever, slowly lifting to her feet. “Oh, it’s nothing. I had an accident pruning a rose bush. Lauma startled me.”

Hermione blinked, remembering the frantic sounding magpie she’d encountered the other day, moments before Filch caught her sneaking into the kitchens. She wet her lips, eyes bright.

“Was she singing to you again?”

Luna tipped her head, leaning down to grab whatever she’d drop during the collision. “No, she was a chocolate lop this time. She leaped on my foot. She didn’t mean to startle me, she apologized so profusely afterward.”

Hermione examined the items in her hand, raising her brow.

“Where did you get the bandages?”

Luna peered down at the stack in her hand. “The Doctor was kind enough to provide me with extras. I told him I preferred changing the dressing myself.” She glanced at the floor once more. “But the iodine is a lost cause.”

Hermione glanced down as well, seeing the pool of plum colored liquid spread across the stone, an unturned bottle on its side in the center of the mess.

“Oh, Luna, I’m so sorry! I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”

“It’s quite alright. I lose focus all the time, especially after conversing with spirits.”

Hermione reared back, heart racing. “What?”

Luna knelt down and collected the empty bottle with casual grace. “I said I often lose focus as well, especially after conversing with-”

“Spirits?”

The blonde stood upright and gazed upon her, blue eyes as calm as a placid lake.

“Yes.”

Hermione opened and closed her mouth a few times, shaking her head, trying to pick a single question in her chaotic mind to give voice to.

Luna tilted her head once more. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just assumed that’s what you were doing.”

“Wha-” Hermione stopped short, mouth dry. “What are you talking about, Luna? Why would you think I was talking to spirits?”

Her blue gaze shifted to some point just beyond Hermione’s shoulder and lost focus. “Your aura’s been touched.” Her eyes brightened once more, snapping back to Hermione’s. “Why? Were you doing something else? My injury might be affecting my sight.”

Hermione leaned against the wall, overwhelmed.

“Luna…” she ran a hand over her face. “I think I’m going insane.” She sighed deeply, shaking her head. “And the scariest part is insanity may be the preferable option.”

The blonde stepped beside her, leaning against the wall as well, their shoulders touching.

“Why is that scary?”

Hermione glanced sideways at her, seeing no trace of humor in her expression, which in turn caused Hermione to burst into a fit of hysterical giggles. Luna smiled as well, though it seemed to be in amusement of Hermione versus the situation itself.

“I’m-” she gasped, caught somewhere between laughter and sobs, “I’m losing my mind.”

The girl reached out with her uninjured hand, brushing fallen curls away from Hermione’s face.

“You aren’t losing your mind, Hermione. You have the most solid grasp on your mind of anyone I’ve ever known. With the exception of one of daddy’s old colleagues. He was an Egyptian doctor who performed self-trepanation and actually touched his brain.”

Hermione blinked, staring at her for another heavy beat, then started laughing anew. But it was calmer this time, born from a sense of release instead of a steady build. She took a deep breath, tipping her head to the side to rest on her friend’s shoulder.

“Thank you, Luna. I feel better now. I think.”

“You’re welcome. I am very good at making people laugh.”

Hermione’s eyes narrowed briefly, imagining her friend was used to being the butt of cruel jests, a source of mean amusement. “You are very good at seeing the good in all things. I envy you that. I would give anything to find a silver lining to these hallucinations.”

She felt Luna gaze down at her. “What if they aren’t hallucinations?”

Hermione blinked, pulling back. “Of course they are, Luna. I’m seeing…” she swallowed heavily. “I’m seeing horrific things, I can’t even describe them to you without feeling sick to my stomach.”

Luna tipped her head. “Why are you so certain they aren’t real?”

“Because no one else can see them.”

“Maybe that’s because they only want your attention.”

Hermione’s blood ran cold. She stepped away from the blonde, gooseflesh spreading up her arms.

“I-” she took a deep breath, “I don’t think so, Luna. I don’t believe in those things. If something were trying to communicate it would be better off reaching out to you.”

She felt like she was going to burst out of her skin, a storm brewing just beneath the surface, even more unsettling in the wake of Luna’s completely composed demeanor.

The blonde shrugged one shoulder.

“Maybe you’re the only one who can help.”

Hermione closed her mouth, certain her heart would spill free as it steadily climbed up her throat. Luna glanced casually to the bottle in her hand, unencumbered by the crippling dread and anxiety pressing against Hermione’s chest.

“I have to go get more iodine from the clinic, the Doctor will be leaving soon-”

“I’ll go.”

Hermione blinked, taken aback by her own declaration. Luna glanced at her with a smile. “That’s alright, I can-”

“No, really, let me.” Hermione stepped forward, gently taking the bottle from her loose grip. “I caused you to spill it, it’s only fair I fetch you a new one.”

Luna’s eyes flickered between Hermione’s, making her feel even more unsettled. With Luna’s jaunts into the fantasy world, it was easy to forget how astute the girl was, how sharp-witted. Hermione felt warmth blossom across her chest and neck as Luna’s searching gaze settled, as though she found what she was looking for.

“Alright then.”

They stared at each other for another heavy beat. Hermione broke away first, stepping back on shaky knees, forcing a smile.

“Okay, I’ll bring the bottle to your room before bed.”

Luna stared at her silently as she started to walk away. But after she took a few steps her friend called her attention back.

“Hermione.”

She stopped, spinning around with a nervous jerk. Luna’s voice held an uncharacteristic weight, sinking Hermione’s feet into the earth, trapping her in place.

“Please, be careful.”

Hermione blinked, spine going rigid. She knew she should ask the other woman what she meant by the warning, but on some level she feared she already understood. She didn’t want to think about it too deeply. She didn’t want to think about it at all. She just wanted to feel. To escape this harsh reality for a few blessed moments.

She swallowed, nodding once. “I will.”

And then she slowly spun on her heel and resumed her path, pulled along by some invisible thread to the last place she knew she should be headed.

Yet the one place she longed to be.

The clinic.

Chapter Text

A secret is only a secret when it is unspoken to another.
.   .   .

“Hello, Susan. A pleasure to meet you.”

Harry’s mouth hovered above her knuckles, curving into a silver grin, his eyes gleaming beneath the chandeliers.

“I’m Harry.”

She blinked, jolting out of her panicked reverie. She dipped down into a half curtsy, swaying lightly.

“Hello, Harry.”

They held each other’s gaze a moment longer before he released her. She took an automatic step back, shifting awkwardly. Harry held her steady in his sights, mind rampant with churning thoughts.

What were the chances?

He met the police commissioner’s daughter in a smoke-addled opium den, half dressed, sprawled beside Cormac Fucking McLaggen two bloody days ago.

And now she stood before him, adorned in a fine silk dress with her hair immaculately styled, a creature from another world.

His assumption at the den had been accurate. She was fascinating, brimming with secrets, just like him. He imagined she’d offer superbly interesting conversation.

And he knew just where to start.

She must have read the look in his eyes, for her next words were directed to the man still glancing awkwardly between them.

“Ron,” she smiled over her shoulder. “Would you mind grabbing me a wine from the bar?”

He blinked, spine straightening. “Oh, um, yeah, of course.”

He glanced at Harry, eyes bright and hopeful.

Christ.

Ron liked her.

Harry didn’t have a good feeling about this.

He watched his best mate spin on his heel, heading into the throng of bar patrons. Susan sighed, gaining his attention.

“Please, don’t say anything.”

“I didn’t intend to,” he pinned her with an intense stare. “But don’t lead my friend on. He’s a good guy, he doesn’t deserve to be strung along if you’ve got something going on with McL-”

“Shh!” She burst forward, stepping close. “Don’t say his name! You just said you weren’t going to mention it!”

“I won’t, but I need to ask you a few questions first.”

She narrowed her gaze, glancing around nervously. “About what?”

He tipped his head towards the outside balcony. “Let’s step out if you want to avoid anyone overhearing.”

She bit her lip, stepping back. “And if I refuse?”

Harry raised a dark brow. “You have every right to do that. I won’t force you.” He stepped forward, his chest nearly bumping hers. “But on this particular occasion I’m seeking information on behalf of my friend, concerning a missing girl no less, so I’m extra motivated to get answers. If you don’t have them, then my next stop is your father-”

“Are you threatening me?” She seethed through her teeth.

He smirked. “Not at all. Your father is the new police commissioner, head of the criminal investigation unit, yes? It only makes sense I report a potential crime to him.”

She blinked, setting back on her heels. “You bloody wanker…” she muttered, glancing around once more.

Harry fought back a laugh.

Okay, she was growing on him…

“Alright, come on.” She grabbed a handful of her skirts and began a quick path to the double doors. He followed in her wake, glancing over his shoulder as well, feeling a sudden thrill along his spine, as though he were being watched…

He didn’t see any eyes fixed directly upon him, but he didn’t really care if anyone witnessed him walking outside with Susan. It was easy enough to brush off with as innocent an excuse as they needed fresh air. What was that thing doctors claimed women got in crowded rooms? It drove Hermione batty… oh yes, vapors.

He slipped outside and shut the door behind them, glancing up to see a few people milling about, hushed conversations taking place in the darkened alcoves. They paid the new arrivals no mind.

Susan stormed into an empty corner, skirts swishing violently, before spinning on her heel in a huff of annoyance. “Listen here,” she began without preamble, “I told you when we first met, I’m not what you think I am-”

“And I told you I make no assumptions.”

She stopped short, blinking. “No one can know about me and McLaggen, got it?”

Harry nodded. “Got it.”

Her eyes flickered between his for a few more moments. “I’m not-” she stopped, swallowing lightly and glancing away. “I’m not some immoral floozy.”

He tilted his head. “I didn’t think you were.”

She scoffed. “Sure.”

“I think you’re an addict.”

Her eyes widened and snapped back to his, face paling. “What?”

“But it’s really none of my business, so I don’t care either way.”

She blinked rapidly, gaping in outrage, but her eyes held a hollow sadness that was all the answer he needed. Still, he could sense a battle royale on the horizon, her anger set to boil. He held up a staying hand.

“I just need to ask you a couple questions and then I’ll be out of your hair for good. You don’t have to worry about me offending you any further.”

She clamped her mouth shut, eyes narrowing. He pushed ahead before she stormed off entirely.

“Do you know where I can find him?”

She blinked, looking thrown for a moment. “Find… McLaggen?”

He nodded. She shook her head, looking more outraged than before he asked. “No, I don’t. I’m not with him-”

“Okay, but do you have any idea where I can find him?”

She stewed for a few seconds more before forcing out a bitter, “No.”

He sighed, running a hand through his hair, making a few piece stand completely upright.

“Alright…” He shook his head. “My next question may sound a bit off the wall unless you know what I’m talking about, which will be bloody fantastic, but my hopes aren’t high.”

She raised a brow, her eyes betraying a look of intrigue though her expression remained guarded.

He reached into his inner coat lining and withdrew the skeleton key, holding it in his palm before her, his eyes carefully cataloging every minute facial movement, gauging her reaction carefully.

She blinked, tilting her head and examining the ornate key from a distance before glancing up. “What is that?”

He deflated, her curiosity seemed genuine.

“You’ve never seen anything like this before?”

She shook her head. “No. Should I have?”

He wet his lips, slipping it back into his coat. “Probably not.”

“Do you know what it is?”

“No.”

“But McLaggen does?”

Harry shrugged slightly, leaning back against the balcony ledge. “Yes, but I can’t find the stupid shite.”

She sighed, glancing away. He assumed she storm off now and was surprised when she stepped closer, voice low. “That girl you asked me about, Lavender something?”

His heart rate increased. He leaned in. “Lavender Brown.”

She bit her lip, looking hesitant. Harry felt a thrill seize him, something important within grasp.

“She’s still missing?”

“Yes.”

She fell silent again. Harry was getting impatient. “Susan, do you know Lavender?”

She shook her head quickly, eyes snapping to his. “No. I don’t. But I think, maybe, I’ve heard her name before… at the-” she stopped short.

He nodded sharply, indifferent to her embarrassment or shame, the information too vital. “You think you heard her name at the opium den?”

She cringed but nodded. “I think I heard one of the other girls mention her, saying she was chosen, that she was lucky.”

Harry blinked. “Chosen? Do you know what she was talking about?”

Susan glanced down. “A lot of those girls are companions. They’re there for a different reason than I am. They don’t confide in me much. I just overheard that bit, I think anyway. I don’t know anything else.”

Harry swallowed, taking a deep breath and leaning back again. “Thank you, Susan. Any information is better than none. I appreciate it.”

She glanced up, her hesitant expression a far cry from the outspoken woman who ordered him around a few minutes ago. “You won’t tell anyone about what you saw?”

Harry held her gaze steady. “I won’t. You have my word.”

She released a small breath and stepped back.

“Thank you.”

And then she was darting away, skirts trailing behind her before disappearing back into the main room.

Harry sighed, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes.

This was just great.

He’d lost track of his one viable lead and now he had a key burning a hole in his pocket and no bloody idea what to do with it.

He put his glasses back on, watching the only remaining couple on the balcony head inside as well. He basked in the peaceful solitude, nothing but the bustling street below and the moon and stars above.

He turned around, leaning against the ledge to gaze at the buildings ahead, the carriages milling around between them, as he tried to decide what the hell to do next.

The door opened behind him, followed by the sound of footsteps. Harry stepped away from the railing, reluctantly turning back around to head inside-

His heart skipped a beat, muscles turning to stone as though he had locked eyes with Medusa herself.

“Potter.”

Harry blinked, releasing a short breath.

“I didn’t know you were coming tonight.”

“I have appearances to keep as well, social obligations.”

Harry’s eyes flickered between theirs. “You came with a date.”

“As I said, appearances to keep.”

His jaw ticked. “Is it serious?”

They tipped their head, eyes roaming his body from bottom to top. “Is it serious between you and the girl you snuck out here with?”

Harry raised a brow. “Susan?”

Their eyes flashed. “Who is she?”

“She’s not important.”

“Whatever you were talking about looked important.”

“It was. But she isn’t. Not to me.”

The silence that followed was deafening, sweltering, all-consuming. And then it broke.

They leaped at the same time, a perfect harmony of two desperate bodies in motion, closing the chasm that divided them and colliding in a fit of grasping hands and hungry mouths. They staggered into the shadows, out of view of the balcony doors, and battled for dominance over the other.

Harry lost track of time, lost track of reality. All that existed was the warm body before him, the throbbing pulse beneath his tongue, the salty expanse of taut skin-

The door swung open.

They sprung apart.

Harry swallowed heavily, spinning on his heal and facing the street, straightening his lapels, his cravat, running a shaking hand through his hair.

“Bloody hell, there you are,” spoke a familiar voice, heavy footsteps sounding behind him. “Already hiding? Oh, didn’t see you there Potter. You hiding, too?”

Harry tried to regulate his breathing, glancing over his shoulder at the new addition.

“Guilty.” His voice sounded thick, foreign to his ears. He cleared his throat, turning around fully. “Actually, I have a question for you Zabini.”

Blaise raised his brow, as well as his newly filled glass to his lips.

“A question for me? This should be good.”

Harry reached into his coat once more, his emerald gaze flickering to the other person on the balcony, casually leaning against the railing, face flush and eyes gleaming.

“I have a question for both of you.”

He pulled the key free, dangling it by the red ribbon before their eyes. He knew he hit gold when they both went rigid, gazes firmly locked on the item in question. Blaise blinked, then to Harry’s great surprise and dismay, he started to laugh, the sound rich, deep and ominous.

“Fucking hell, Potter. You can’t just pull that out in the middle of a party, for the Scotland fucking Yard no less-”

“I take it you know what this is then?”

Blaise tipped his head, laughter fading but his smirk remaining. “Yes, do you?”

“No, I don’t. But you’re going to tell me. Right now.”

Blaise sighed dramatically, shaking his head. “Only you, Potter…” then glanced over his shoulder. “You want to take this one, Theo?”


Hermione took a deep breath as she came to a stop outside the clinic door. She clutched the empty iodine bottle so tightly in her hand she feared the glass would break.

Her Matron’s words rang through her head, as clear as if she stood within the whimsical office of doom across from the she-beast herself.

“Stay away from Doctor Riddle.”

Hermione had no idea why the woman felt compelled to instill such a warning.

Such a command.

But she’d stayed up late into the night replaying the encounter over and over in her head, searching out some hidden meaning, some deeper message.

By morning all she knew for certain was she desperately wanted to rebel against those orders.

Is that what I’m doing here?

She bit her lip, shuffling on her feet.

I should have let Luna come to replace the bottle.

But you spilled it. It’s only polite you fetch her a new one.

Is that really your justification?

She swallowed thickly, closing her eyes.

I shouldn’t have come…

And yet her arm raised of its own volition and pushed the door open.

She opened her eyes. The interior was masked in low light, the gas lanterns along the walls burning dimly. She held her breath and stepped inside. She heard no movement, saw nothing but the dancing shadows.

She stepped inside, hovering just past the threshold for a long moment before turning and closing the door behind her.

The click was deafening. She placed her palm against the wood for a moment, swallowing again.

“May I help you?”

She spun around, facing the desk. But she didn’t see the owner of the deep voice.

She blinked, glancing around, and then she spotted him, facing the windows at the far corner, once again with his back to her while he read something in his hands.

She wet her lips.

“I-” she stopped short, taking a deep breath.

Her one syllable seemed to have a strange effect upon him. His spine straightened, shoulders drawing back, his entire body tensing before her eyes. He glanced up sharply from whatever he was holding, staring straight ahead at the foggy window pane.

She felt frozen as well, heart climbing up her throat as he continued to face away.

“I’m sorry to bother you so late…” she swallowed lightly, feeling inexplicably foolish. “I need a bottle of iodine.”

The world was static, all its inhabitants moving in slow motion. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears at half speed and her breathing slowed as she watched the Doctor turn around frame by frame, like a film strip being fed through a praxinoscope.

“Ms. Granger.”

His voice was deeper than usual. Her entire body throbbed. She was disturbed by her reaction.

“Yes.” She briefly closed her eyes, mortified by her response.

“I have a feeling the bottle is not for your own personal use.”

She stared at him once more, heart beating fast as she saw he’d turned around, awarding her his full attention.

“No, it’s for my friend.”

“Luna.”

She blinked. Then flushed at her own stupidity. Of course he knew Luna, he’d treated her hand for goodness sake. She felt like her mind was slipping the longer she lingered in his presence.

“Yes. I accidentally knocked her bottle to the ground and spilled the contents. I’m terribly sorry, I am happy to have the expense added to my account-”

“Are you always this contrite?”

She blinked again, flushing deeper. “Yes.”

He smirked, the low light casting most of his face into shadow but his eyes burned brightly.

“Another thing you must work on. Come, let us fetch you a new bottle.”

She couldn’t prevent her lips from curving into a smile. She was used to receiving admonishments from most everyone in her life, from the advice of well-meaning friends to Snape’s blistering remarks, and of course Umbridge’s hateful derision.

But Doctor Riddle’s comments affected her differently. She didn’t take them as an insult and she didn’t brush them off. She found herself cataloging each one, storing them at the forefront of her mind for later reflection, later obsession.

She took a deep breath as she forced her legs into motion, cutting a path towards the cabinet, following in his wake. He opened the large doors and reached inside without hesitation, grabbing a bottle from the pit of darkness. She was impressed he’d already memorized the inventory layout. The layout she’d designed.

He turned around, a cloud of his scent wafting over her. She blinked rapidly, trying to discern the different notes. She smelled a heady arrangement of earthy wood and fresh citrus. And suddenly her mouth was in motion without permission from her brain.

“Do you wear cologne?”

She blinked, face aflame in embarrassment.

Bloody hell, I did not just ask him that!

She swallowed convulsively as he raised a dark brow, his expression betraying great amusement, either at her question or her obvious reaction to it.

“I just- I smell bergamot and sambac, and I’m used to more medicinal scents in the clinic.”

She clamped her mouth shut, willing the ground to open wide and swallow her whole.

His smirk merely grew. “You have a keen nose, Ms. Granger. I was mixing tonics earlier. Bergamot is good for lowering fever and sambac can be used as an antiseptic and sedative. I also ground up plums and cedar leaves.”

She bit her lip, his scent invading her nasal passage further at his words. Yes, she could smell the clean and sweet notes now that he’d mentioned them…

It was a divine combination.

She swallowed lightly, still plagued by a full body blush. “I didn’t realize you made your own tonics.”

“I like to have alternative options on hand for those who are either sensitive or allergic to typical medicines.”

She nodded slowly. “That’s a good idea.”

His eyes gleamed brighter than the lanterns at their backs. “I’ve been known to have those on occasion.”

The entire exchange was so mortifying that she came out the other side, immune to any additional embarrassment at this point. She laughed, shoulders relaxing.

“I think I’ve met my quota for the day, only poor decisions for the remainder of the night.”

He tipped his head, eyes rendering her motionless. “Is that so?”

“Yes. After I leave here I think I’ll climb up to the roof, gaze at the stars. Perhaps invite Filch to join me.”

He tipped his head back and laughed, the sound beautiful and deadly all at once, for it caused her heart to seize in her chest, dimming her vision at the corners.

“I think there is far more appealing company to share such an adventure with, but to each their own, I suppose.”

She smiled, chest swelling at his teasing banter. This was her favorite version of the Doctor. For she had a feeling very few were allowed to witness it. She felt a strong sense of pride at being able to coax it out of him.

Such a feeling was dangerous, she knew, but she couldn’t find it within herself to care. Not right now. Not in his company.

And suddenly she found her mouth moving of its own accord once more, hardly aware of what she was saying.

“One night, when I was young, my father woke me in the middle of the night. He was so excited to show me something, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. He took me outside and pointed to a ladder leaning against the side of the house. My mother nearly had a conniption but he convinced her to allow me to climb it. When we got to the roof he pointed into the sky and-”

She stopped short, heart lurching painfully. She swallowed, shaking her head. “I- never mind, I don’t know why I-”

“What did you see?”

She blinked, gazing up at the Doctor. His eyes were a raging storm. She stood in the eye of the hurricane, the walls around her trembling, set to tumble down any moment.

“I saw an explosion of color. Greens, blues, purples and reds, crashing like waves over the stars. I thought I was seeing the gateway to heaven. I asked my father if that’s what it was.” She smiled fondly, remembering the way the lights reflected in her father’s gleaming gaze, making him seem an otherworldly creature kneeled at her side.

“He explained geomagnetism to me. I was quite tired so I retained only half the information, I’m sure. But I remember him saying there was an intense disturbance that caused a low latitude aurora. He said it could be seen all over the world, that there was a little girl standing on her roof on the opposite end of the globe watching the event just as I was.”

She swallowed thickly. “It was such a profound moment. I was too young to comprehend it fully. But I still think about it every time I gaze into the night sky. Wondering how many others are staring at those very stars at that very moment, feeling just as I do.”

She took a shaky breath, coming back to reality, the force of his gaze weighting her limbs, quickening her pulse and slowing her thoughts.

“And how do you feel?”

Her entire body pulsated with the next throbbing heartbeat.

“Tiny. Inconsequential compared to the vast cosmos above and below.” She wet her lips, afraid to blink, afraid to lose whatever magic held them firmly in this moment.

His presence seemed to swell, his spine stretching and limbs lengthening, chest expanding until he filled every corner of her vision, blocking out the flickering glow of the lanterns, the steady beam of moonlight, and casting her world into darkness. Her entire existence centered on his next breath, his next word.

“Frightening, is it not?”

His simple question was tinged with hidden meaning. A private message for her alone to decode. She responded on instinct.

“No. It’s liberating.”

She didn’t feel herself move, didn’t see him move, but suddenly they were standing so close to one another she could feel his steady breath on her face, causing loose strands of hair to dance along her neck and chest.

Heat radiated from his body. She absorbed it hungrily, soaked it in greedily, basked in it.

He tilted his head slowly, face tipping down, eyes studying her carefully as their mouths aligned, separated by a narrow abyss.

“You don’t belong here, Hermione.”

His low spoken words triggered a great transformation within her. Her skin split at the jagged seams, tearing apart and falling away in shreds. She burst through, shedding the outer layer that kept her trapped and dormant for so long. She stood before him, dripping the remnants of her old self like blood onto the stone floor.

“Neither do you.”

His eyes flickered between hers, the conviction in her voice brokering no room for argument.

“You don’t know the first thing about me,” he whispered, words glancing off her lips and spilling down her chin.

“I don’t know the circumstances that led you to take this job. But I know you’re not happy here. No one is happy here. And therefore you don’t belong anymore that I do.”

His eyes turned wild, feral. She could see lightning striking within their depths, could count the bolts.

And then he surged forward.

She gasped, head tipping back to maintain his gaze. She braced herself for impact, for attack, for whatever came next…

He inhaled sharply, his entire body jerking back as though an invisible leash ripped it away. He blinked rapidly, running a hand over his face, Adam's apple bobbing heavily as he swallowed.

She staggered back, the force of his reaction awakening her from whatever dark trance took root within her.

It took him several moments to collect himself, shoulders tense, eyes guarded and narrowed as though presented with some great problem. She blushed hotly beneath such scrutiny, this new examination unsettling.

“I… I’m-”

“Your iodine.”

She blinked, eyes alighting on the bottle he held out between them. His posture remained stiff but he’d regained his composure, the invisible wall erected between them once more, solid and impenetrable.

She took the bottle mutely, eyes averted down, chest quaking with remnants of the storm. She swallowed before attempting to speak.

“Thank you.”

There was a beat of silence that prompted her to glance up, nervous, hopeful.

“It is late, Ms. Granger. You should head to your dorm.”

She nodded but remained frozen in place, feet not obeying her commands. He stepped back, putting more distance between them.

“Allow me to escort you out.”

His clipped words triggered the deep ache within her chest. She fought the urge to press her hand against it as she slowly followed a few feet behind as he led her to the doors. He gripped the handle but didn’t pull. Instead, his entire body went taut as a strung bow, gaze fixed firmly ahead, expression hidden from view.

“We are both interlopers, brought to this place because of circumstances beyond our control.” His words deepened the ache. “That doesn’t mean we have to play the role of passive bystander.”

She swayed on her feet from her place just behind him. And then he released the handle, turning to face her once more. His eyes were glowing, magnetic, sweeping her out to sea, pulling her beneath their depths.

“If the walls refuse to hold you, tear them down. Build a new fortress atop the ruins, with your name carved into the very foundation.”

He made no move in her direction and yet seemed to tower above her. She forgot how to breathe.

“Do not compromise. Take it all.”

Her heartbeat reverberated in every limb, vision becoming cloudy. She felt him all around her, yet he remained miles away.

And then he opened the door.

“Goodnight, Ms. Granger.”

She moved jerkily towards the threshold, hands trembling, the full bottle nearly slipping from her grasp.

“Goodnight, Doctor,” she managed to force from her tightened throat before darting away, out of the clinic, cheeks aflame.

But not with embarrassment.

No, Hermione burned with something else entirely.

And it frightened her.

Because she enjoyed it so.


“How the hell did you come by that, Potter?”

Harry cringed at the derision in Theo’s voice, the flatness of it, so different in public than behind closed doors. He pushed past the tightening in his chest.

“What the hell is it?”

Theo glared, unamused. “It’s a ticket into a very exclusive club.”

Harry blinked, staring down at the key dangling from his fingers.

“Fucking Christ, put it away,” Blaise hissed, his smile fading. “You want the entire party to see you holding that?”

“I don’t even know what that is.” Harry slid the offending item back into his coat.

Blaise shook his head, rolling his eyes toward the sky. “You really do accept invitations without having a bloody clue what they’re for.”

He narrowed his emerald gaze. “Will one of you tell me what the hell you’re on about?”

“First tell us how you came by the key,” Theo said, stepping away from the railing, closer to Harry and Blaise.

Harry made a concerted effort to feet his feet in place, his natural instinct to step closer or put more distance between them so he wasn’t tempted to step closer.

“I purchased it off a bookie. Nice guy.”

Theo rolled his eyes and Blaise laughed. “Never knew you had it in you, Potter,” the latter said, taking another swig of his drink.

“Why the hell did you purchase it if you don’t know what it is?”

Harry took a deep breath, letting it out through his nose, gaze locked with his sometimes-lover. Theo raised a challenging brow, shoulders tense, a look Harry recognized well.

He knew he wasn’t getting answers from the man until he provided a few of his own. He trusted Theo, he just wasn’t sure about Blaise…

“Come on, Potter, you can’t hold out on us now,” the man in question teased. “How did the Golden Boy himself come to own such a sordid little trinket?”

Harry’s spine straightened, not appreciating the mocking nickname or the implication about the key. His worst fears were starting to find solid ground.

“I’m looking for someone.” He held Theo’s gaze steady. “A missing girl.”

He saw the spark of recognition ignite in the depths of his sapphire eyes. Theo no doubt recalled Hermione’s visit to Grimmauld a few days prior, her plea to Harry regarding her missing friend.

“And your search led you to that?” He gestured at Harry’s chest, to the item hidden within.

“The key is the end result, yes. I had no idea what the hell I was buying, only that it leads to the girl.” He paused, glancing between the men, matching expressions of intrigue clear on their face. “Now tell me what the hell it means.”

Just then the doors to the balcony sprung open.

“Fucking hell…” Harry muttered, rubbing his eyes, the sounds of new footsteps joining the chorus of voices emerging from the main room.

“Talk about shite timing,” Blaise laughed under his breath. “Oh, what are the chances, hello Drake.”

Harry’s eyes snapped open, Draco’s scowling visage filling his vision.

“What the bloody hell is this? Some great meeting of the minds I’m not privy to? Are you all out here discussing the global ramifications of India joining the British Empire?”

Harry pinched the bridge of his nose. “For the love of God, Malfoy shut the fuck up.”

Blaise choked on his heavy swig, doubling over.

“Pardon my interruption, Potter. Please, proceed with your discussion. It looks positively riveting.”

“Draco?” A new voice joined the fold, emerging through the open door. “What are you- oh, what the hell is everyone doing out here?”

“For the love of Christ.” Harry groaned, shaking his head as Pansy stepped outside, closing the door behind her.

“Good to see you, too, arsehole.”

“Don’t be offended, Pans, Potter is only talking to us because he needs something,” Blaise said, voice strained and eyes red from his coughing fit.

She raised a dark manicured brow. “Is that so? This should be good.”

“Can the two of you go back inside, please?”

“Are you serious?” Draco laughed without humor. “I’m not going anywhere now you sodding Shanker.”

“Bloody hell,” Theo snapped. “Will everyone shut the hell up for two goddamn seconds?”

Everyone glanced at him in surprise.

“Harry, if you’re really trying to find this girl then you need all the help you can get. Besides, you know as well as I do that telling one of us is the same as telling all of us. Especially where Blaise is concerned.”

“I reflect that comment.”

Theo didn’t spare the man a glance, holding Harry’s emerald gaze steady for several heavy beats. Harry finally blinked, nodding once.

“Fine then.”

“Wait, find what girl?” Draco asked, earlier derision forgotten.

Harry sighed, facing the others. “Someone went missing from the Girl’s Home on Bromley-”

What?” Draco stepped forward, causing Harry to step back instinctively. “Is Granger okay?”

Pansy scoffed loudly, rolling her eyes. “Bloody hell, you pathetic wanker. If she wasn’t, do you really think Potter would be here tonight? He’d be out tearing the city apart by hand like a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.”

Theo cocked his head to the side, gaze roaming Harry’s face. “True enough.”

Draco’s expression looked no less tense. “She’s okay?”

“Yes, Mione’s fine. Physically at least.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Bloody hell, Drake, calm down-”

Draco snapped his head around, silencing Balise with a lethal glare before facing Harry once more.

“What’s happened?”

“For Christ’s sake, Malfoy. Step back and I’ll tell you.”

Draco blinked, face and body taut, but he took a reluctant step back. Then another. Harry sighed, glancing at the group in turn.

“I wasn’t keen on this information spreading, I don’t want to bring harm to the missing girl or make the situation any worse. What I tell you tonight must remain between us, do you understand?”

“We understand, now fucking talk-”

“I know that you understand, idiot. But not everyone here is motivated by their obsession with Hermione.”

Draco reared back, eyes bright with flame. He opened his mouth but before he could spew venom Pansy elbowed him in the side.

“Fucking hell, we won’t spread any gossip, Potter. I doubt it’s even interesting enough to share.”

“I don’t know about that, luv,” Blaise shot her a wink. “He has a Black Key.”

Pansy blinked. Then her head snapped round to Harry.

“No bloody way.”

Harry’s pressure headache was really gaining momentum.

“Will someone please tell me what the hell the Key is all about?”

Theo sighed deeply. “Harry, tell us how you came by it and we’ll tell you what we know,” He pinned Blaise with a meaningful look. “We all agree not to breathe a word about this to anyone.” He glanced at Harry once more. He was standing close. Too close. “And then we’ll help you as best we can.”

“Um, I never agreed to that-”

“Shut up, Pans.”

She scowled, crossing her arms but falling silent. Harry swallowed heavily, nodding to Theo.

“Mione’s roommate went missing from the Home a few days ago. No one knows where she is and they’re not searching for her, the Matron’s labeled her a runaway. But Hermione swore to me that’s not the case, and the more shite I uncover the more I believe her.”

“What has that got to do with a Black Key?” Pansy asked, her annoyed tone doing little to undermine the curiosity brimming in her narrowed gaze.

“Mione told me about a guy she runs around with.”

Draco jolted. Harry rolled his eyes.

“Not Mione, you fucking knob. He messes around with Lavender, her roommate, the missing girl.”

“And this guy led you to the Key?” Theo prompted.

“Yes. But now I can’t find the idiot to question him about it. Hence this unbearably frustrating conversation.”

“I didn’t think I’d be saying this, but I am so fucking glad I came to this party.”

Harry scowled. “Enough bullshite, Zabini. You and Theo obviously know what the key is, I take it Parkinson knows about it, too.”

“You really have a Black Key?” she asked, tilting her head, inspecting his person as though it would materialize out of thin air.

“Yes, I really have one. Now someone fucking talk!”

“The Key grants you access to Amortentia,” Theo said, gaze intense.

Harry blinked. “Amort-what?”

“Amortentia,” Pansy repeated, looking far more intrigued than she had moments ago. “A private Club in Knightsbridge.”

Harry glanced between them, preparing his next question when Draco cut him off.

“You’ve got to be bloody kidding me.”

“Why?” Harry raised a brow. “Have you heard of it, too?”

Draco shook his head, glancing between the group, his eyes landing on Theo.

“Since when are there Keys?”

Theo rolled his eyes. “There’s always been Keys, you fucking ponce. Not everyone is related to the owner.”

Harry’s heart lurched. “You’re related to the owner?”

Draco scowled at him over his shoulder. “So are you, thanks to your bloody adoption.”

Harry paled, taking a step back, as though distancing himself from the truth. “Wait, don’t tell me-”

“Dear Aunt Bella and Uncle Fucking Rod are part owners, yes.”

Blaise started to laugh anew. “I am so bloody happy I came tonight.”

“Shut up!” Harry and Draco shouted as one, glaring at the man.

That was disturbing,” Pansy muttered, straightening her skirts without a care in the world. “So are we going or not?”

“What?” Draco asked, glancing sharply at her.

She shrugged. “Why wouldn’t we? Potter has a Key, you have a blood relation, surely that’s enough to get the rest of us in.”

Theo shook his head. “That’s a bloody terrible idea, tell them, Potter.” He glanced at Harry, then scowled. “Fuck. Don’t even say it-”

“I need to get a look at the place,” he said, eyes gleaming in the moonlight. “I need to see if Lavender’s there.”

“Excellent!” Pansy said with exuberant cheer, clapping her palms together. “It’s settled then. We’ll all head over-”

“That’s not what I said-”

“Honestly, Potter,” Blaise cut in, “You can’t expect to just leave us here.”

“That’s exactly what I can expect to do-”

“This Lavender chit,” Draco interrupted, voice steady and loud, silencing the quartet. “She’s important to Granger?”

Harry held his gaze. “Yes.”

Draco was silent for a long beat before finally backing away towards the door.

“I’m coming with you.”

“Malfoy-”

“Just try and stop me, Potter.”

“If Drake’s going then I’m definitely going.”

“If Blaise is going then I’m coming!” Pansy snapped, spinning on her heel and marching towards the door in Draco’s wake.

As the three disappeared back into the main room Harry rubbed at his eyes once more, groaning.

“What the fuck just happened?”

He heard footsteps slowly draw near, stopping just to his right. Then a hand was pressed to his shoulder, fingers lightly squeezing. Harry glanced up.

“See what happens when you play knight in shining armor, Potter?”

Harry stared at his mouth as he spoke, heart thudding painfully.

“I can’t seem to help myself.”

“I know. That’s what I like about you.”

Harry sighed, pulling his gaze up to meet Theo’s.

“You’re coming, too, I take it?”

He arched a dark brow, a coy smirk transforming his face into something devastatingly beautiful. “Potter, God himself couldn’t prevent me from witnessing this shit show play out.”


Hermione knocked gently on the door, still a scattered mess from her earlier encounter with the Doctor.

“Come in.” The pleasant voice rang out, a soothing balm to her raw nerves.

Hermione opened the door and slipped inside the dimly lit room, the gentle flicker of a candle flame the only light source.

“Hello, I brought you the iodine,” Hermione half whispered, glancing around the room for the second occupant.

“Where’s Hannah?”

“She should be coming to bed soon.” Luna tucked her knees beneath her from her spot on the bed, marking the page of whatever book she held and setting it aside. “She was kind enough to finish pruning the rose bushes after I injured myself. It put her behind on the rest of her chores.”

Hermione sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, setting the bottle on the side table.

“How is your hand?”

Luna held it aloft, turning it over as they both gazed upon it.

“It’s fine.”

“May I take a look?”

Luna smiled. “Of course.”

Hermione turned to face her fully, smoothing out her skirts and patting her lap, prompting Luna to lay her palm in the center facing up.

Hermione began to gently unwind the gauze bandages.

“My mother taught me to treat cuts when I was very young. She took me with her to volunteer at the hospitals when I got older. She let me change dressings for cuts and burns.” She glanced up, meeting Luna’s gaze. “I promise, I know what I’m doing.”

Luna tilted her head. “I trust you.”

Hermione smiled in response, turning her focus back to the delicate hand in her grasp. “I should have asked Doctor Riddle for honey…” she muttered, inspecting the gash as the dressing was removed.

“Honey?”

“Hm? Oh, yes. Honey has been used to promote healing since before Van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria. It reduces the chance of infection and inflammation, as well as helping dressings stay in place. Perhaps I can run down to the kitchens later.”

Luna tilted her head the other way, watching Hermione work.

“Did your mother teach you that as well?”

Hermione nodded, reaching for the iodine. “Yes. Between her and my father, there was hardly a medical fact that went unknown in our household. It could be quite overwhelming at times.”

“What do you mean?”

Hermione shrugged lightly, uncorking the bottle. “I wanted to make them both proud, I studied night and day, trying to absorb as much knowledge as I could. I was so terrified of not meeting their expectations. Not that they’d ever be disappointed in me. Perhaps I feared disappointing myself.”

She swallowed lightly, a sense of hollowness taking hold. “I suppose in the end it was all for naught. They won't see what becomes of me either way.”

“That’s not true.” Luna reached out with her uninjured hand, resting it atop Hermione's knee buried under the mounds of skirts. “I’m sure they’re still watching you, Hermione. They would be so proud of you.”

Hermione smiled sadly. “That’s sweet, Luna.”

“You don’t believe me?”

She sighed. “I don’t know what I believe anymore.”

There was a heavy beat of silence before the blonde spoke again. “I never knew my mother.”

Hermione glanced up sharply, the gentle admission taking her off guard. She’s never spoken to Luna about her past. She found herself immensely curious.

“No?”

She shook her head. “She died giving birth to me. Daddy said that I look just like her. A mirror image.”

Hermione held her breath, filled with emotion but not wanting to interrupt.

“He had a photograph of her he kept on his desk. It was taken just after they married, the day they found out they were expecting me. She said it was the happiest day of her life. He paid to have her picture taken so he could capture the emotion on her face. He said it was the most radiant she’d ever looked. The most beautiful. Like an angel descended from heaven.”

Hermione struggled to breathe normally, her throat tightening. Luna’s gaze became unfocused, drifting slightly.

“I like to think that they’re together now. Even if they aren’t watching me, that’s okay. As long as they get to be happy wherever they are.”

Hermione blinked, biting her lip. “May I ask how he died?”

Luna looked remarkably composed, but her eyes betrayed an emotion Hermione wasn’t used to seeing on the persistently happy girl.

“He was shot.”

Hermione reared back. “Shot?”

“Yes. With a gun.”

“I-” she stopped short, shaking her head. “Who, I mean, why?”

Luna shrugged lightly. “I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. Daddy was working late one night and never came home. I went to the office to see if he was alright and found him lying in a pool of blood.”

Hermione clutched the hand resting on her knee. “Luna, I’m so sorry. That’s terrible. You being the one to find him is even worse.”

Luna’s eyes came back into focus. “It was very difficult. But if I hadn’t of seen it with my own eyes I don’t think I’d have believed it. That he was really gone, that is. I’d still be waiting for him to come home.”

Hermione swallowed thickly. “There were no suspects?”

“No. Daddy was an editor at the London Chronicle. They think it could have been a disgruntled reader who disagreed with some of the articles he published. They have a heavy liberal slant. But there were no witnesses, no clues, nothing was stolen or disturbed. The investigation never could gain momentum.”

Hermione shook her head. “The police are bloody useless.”

Luna shrugged once more. “I suppose in this case they really didn’t have much to go on.”

Hermione bit her tongue, feeling it wasn’t the appropriate time to go off on an angry tangent. She was so upset on behalf of her friend she expelled steam with every breath. But she also knew there was the large possibility she was projecting her personal feelings onto the matter due to her own unsolved case file sitting deep within the basement of the Scotland Yard.

Hermione brought her attention back to Luna’s hand, trying to distract herself from the swelling of emotion within her. She dripped fresh iodine over the gash, tipping her head to inspect it at an angle.

“The cut is clean. That’s fortunate, considering it was made with gardening shears. He did a good job of irrigating the wound.”

Luna tipped her head in turn, studying Hermione as Hermione studied her hand.

“He is a good Doctor. That is fortunate.”

Hermione nodded, still focused upon her task. “Yes, it is. Especially considering the last physician was a-”

She blinked as Luna jolted lightly, her hand pulling away.

“Does it hurt?”

Luna shook her head, quickly putting her hand back in Hermione’s lap. “No, I- I’m sorry, it’s fine.”

Hermione blinked. “Luna,” she wet her lips. “Are you okay?”

The blonde nodded once more, perhaps a bit too quickly. Hermione’s heart started to beat faster, recognizing the guarded expression, the averted eyes. She’d seen it in the mirror countless times. She took a slow breath, treading carefully.

“Luna, you can tell me anything, you know. I promise to never repeat anything you confide in me, not to Parvati, not to Hannah, not to anyone.”

Luna was still and silent for a long beat before smiling once more, but it looked strained and out of place on her pretty face.

“I know that, Hermione.”

Hermione swallowed lightly, slowly returning her focus to the hand in her lap. She wanted to ask more, to dig deeper, but she couldn’t justify doing so when she too kept a dark secret harbored within the depths of her soul. If Luna wanted to confide in her, she would do so in her own time.

Hermione set the bottle back onto the side table, grabbing up the stack of fresh bandages in its place, and began wrapping Luna’s wound once more.

“There,” she said, tying off the end. “I’m sure the Doctor told you, but do try and avoid using this hand if at all possible, preferably for the next week. Keep the dressing clean and dry, and change it at least once a day. I’m happy to do that for you if you’d like.”

Luna pulled her arm back, nodding. “Yes, I would appreciate that.”

Hermione held her gaze, opening her mouth to reply when the door behind them burst open.

“Bloody hell, there you are,” Parvati said, sounding winded. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

Hermione blinked. “I was just-”

She stopped short as another figure entered the room just behind Parvati.

“Whoa, are we having a slumber party?” Hannah asked, gazing around the tiny room.

“I have a lead on Lavender,” Parvati said without preamble, stepping towards the bed. “But we have to go right now-”

“Wait,” Hermione held up a hand, heart skipping a beat. “Slow down, Parv, what are you-”

The girl shook her head, reaching out and grabbing Hermione’s arm, pulling her up. “No time! We have to haul ass.”

Hermione dug in her heels. “We can’t leave! If we’re caught-”

“If we’re caught what, Mione?” Parvati pinned her with an intense look. “Umbridge won’t expel you and you know it, you’re one of the few who pays a monthly stipend, she’s too desperate for cash to kick you to the curb. I’m the only one really at risk.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better!”

“Um,” Hannah said loudly, eyes flickering between the struggling pair. “Maybe I have a solution?”

Hermione blinked, pulling her arm from Parvati’s tight clutch. Hannah shrugged lightly. “Filch doesn’t inspect our floor too closely. He spends most his time scouring the upper dorms, where the troublemakers are.”

Hermione opened her mouth to argue the point but Parvati spoke first, tossing her braid back with a raised brow.

“Damn straight. And proud of it.”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “As I was saying, if he even comes down our hall he never bothers to open our door. As long as there’s no noise disturbance. So…” she glanced to the bed. “Luna and I could sleep in your beds tonight. That should keep you covered when he peeks in.”

Hermione shook her head but was once more prevented from voicing her argument.

“That’s bloody aces, Hannah. You sure you don’t mind?”

“Hey, a bed’s a bed.”

“It sounds exciting,” Luna added, smiling serenely.

“It’s too risky,” Hermione finally added, glancing at each girl in turn. “If we’re discovered then we’re all going to punished severely. Being expelled may be the least of our worries.”

“Worse than disappearing without a trace and having no one even bother to look for you?”

Hermione sighed, gazing back at her roommate. “Parv, you know I want to find Lavender, but-”

“Then come with me, Hermione. I’m leaving with or without you, but I could really use that giant brain of yours.”

Hermione groaned, shoulders drooping. “Jesus… this is going to go terribly.”

Parvati squealed, leaping forward and throwing her arms around her, nearly knocking her off her feet. “You’re the best, Mione!”

“Okay,” her friend drew back, grabbing Hermione’s hand in her own. “Let’s go.”


“Oi, Ron!” Harry called from the opposite end of the bar, stealing the man’s attention away from the woman he was talking animatedly to. Another guest moved aside and she came into view.

Susan.

Harry groaned.

Ron bid her to wait and maneuvered his way through the crowd to Harry’s side.

“Hey, mate! Where the hell have you been?”

Harry sighed. “It’s a long story,” he paused, debating how much to reveal. Then his eyes flickered over his friend's shoulder and met Susan’s narrowed gaze. His jaw ticked. “Having a good time?”

Ron beamed. “Harry, you have no idea, this girl’s amazing. She’s laughing at all my jokes, she’s really smart too, I mean, not Mione smart, but certainly smarter than me-”

“Maybe you should slow down a bit, yeah?”

Ron blinked. “What do you mean?”

Harry shook his head. “I just, I mean, you just met her. And she’s the commissioner’s daughter.”

Ron shrugged. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

Bollocks.

“Nothing, mate. Never mind. Forget I said anything.”

He didn’t have time for this now. He’d sort it out later.

“Listen, I gotta head out-”

“No fucking way!” Ron said a bit too loudly, earning surprised glances and glares from nearby guests milling about the bar. His ear’s tinged pink. “I mean, you can’t just leave me here,” he hissed more quietly.

“You can leave, too.” He hoped he would, but he already knew the answer he’d receive.

“No, I think I’m going to stick around, see if I can hit it off with her. But I’m still pissed you’re flying the coop so soon.”

Harry clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll make it up to you, mate. I gotta run.” He stepped past Ron, heading down the bar and passing Susan on his way to the exit.

He slowed his tracks, keeping his gaze averted forward but speaking clear enough for her to hear. “If you hurt him, our deal’s off.”

She blinked, eyes narrowing slightly, but then she glanced away and nodded lightly.

Harry released a long breath through his nose, making a dash for the main lobby.

He was relieved to see Pansy and Blaise standing near the doors, the former glaring daggers at him and the latter bouncing on his heels. “About bloody time!” Zabini said as he approached.

“Where’s Malfoy?”

“Ditching his fiancé.”

Pansy elbowed him in the side. “They aren’t engaged, you bloody moron.”

Blaise smirked down at her even as he rubbed his sore rib. “Still holding out hope, Pans? You know if he doesn’t marry Greengrass you still have to get through Granger.”

Pansy scoffed. “Do shut up.”

“Why don’t you both shut up. You’re giving me a migraine.”

Pansy turned her derision upon him. “Have you ever heard the phrase don’t bite the hand that feeds, Potter?”

He groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“You’d have no idea Amortentia even existed if it wasn’t for us.”

He shook his head. “Does she ever stop?”

Blaise smirked. “Never.”

Before Pansy could respond a new voice joined the fold. “What are all you wankers still doing here? Hail a bloody carriage!”

Blaise rolled his eyes. “Theo has one waiting for us, your Majesty.”

Draco seethed, stalking past them and pushing open the door before the doorman had an opportunity.

Pansy rolled her eyes, following in his wake. “Always so dramatic.”

Blaise pushed away from the wall. “I don’t understand what you see in him.”

“Sodding idiot.”

Harry shook his head, reluctantly heading up the end of the procession.

They all piled into the carriage, Harry and Draco sharing a seat while the other three smashed into the one opposite.

“Fucking hell, Pans, you could fit twelve arses into that skirt.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, Theo.”

“Why don’t you sit on my lap, luv? Give us more room.”

“Not in this life or the next, Blaise.”

“Will everyone just shut the fuck up and tell the driver where to go!”

Harry blinked, glancing sideways at Draco. “You don’t know the address?”

Draco rolled his eyes, ignoring Harry and glancing across the tight space to his friends.

“Who’s?”

Theo shook his head. “Not mine. Father’s home.”

Harry felt his blood run cold at the simple pronouncement.

Pansy pulled him from the dark reverie as she sighed dramatically, slapping Blaise’s hand away as he played with the copious excess of her skirts. “Same here.”

“What are you talking about?” Harry asked, scowling in annoyance as they continued to ignore him.

“Alright, mine then,” Blaise said with a casual shrug. “Lord knows I have plenty to go round.”

“Plenty of what? God dammit, I really hate being ignored.”

“Jesus, Potter, you’re giving me a headache.” Pansy’s cruel smirk made his blood boil.

Before he could respond Blaise was thumping the roof of the carriage, shouting through the narrow window to the driver.

“Lancaster Gate, good Sir!”

Harry blinked as the carriage lurched into motion, gently rocking its inhabitants from side to side.

“Why are we going to your house?”

Blaise settled back into his seat, idly playing with Pansy’s skirts once more, his eyes gleaming in the fading moonlight.

“Honestly, Potter. You can’t go to a costume party without a costume.”


“Where are we?”

“Outside Trafalgar Square.”

Hermione stuck her head back inside the carriage. “Why are we here again?”

Parvati rolled her eyes. “I told you, we’re meeting one of my old friends, she thinks she has a lead on Lav.”

“She thinks?”

“On occasion.”

Hermione’s jaw ticked. “We broke curfew and house arrest for a hunch?”

“No, we did it to find Lavender, and this is the best lead we’ve got, unless you’ve heard back from that friend of yours?”

Hermione’s mouth clamped shut as she deflated in her seat. She was upset Harry hadn’t sent any word to her yet, even just to tell her he wasn’t able to track down Cormac. She hated being in the dark, and she suspected Harry was keeping her there for a reason, which only frustrated her further.

She was tired of other people controlling her life, thinking they knew what was best for her.

She drew her shoulders back. “Alright, let’s do this.”

Parvati smirked as the carriage came to a halt at the corner. “Thatta girl.”

Hermione paid the driver with coins from the bundle Snape provided her earlier that day, she’d yet to remove them from her skirt. Then she steled herself, following in Parvati’s wake along the sidewalk, dashing quickly through shadows with their heads downturned from the illuminating pools of the lamp posts.

White Horse Lane ran along the west side of the Square, a dividing line with the middle class on the west and lower income families on the east. They turned right at the corner, heading east, deeper and deeper until they passed the low income sector into border line squalor.

Shouts could be heard from a nearby tavern, along with the screams of children running along the street, faces and hands caked in filth, toothy smiles wild with abandon. Hermione lept to the side to avoid a small boy from plowing head long into her.

“Sorry, Miss,” he said with a cheeky grin, removing his threadbare cap and dipping into a low bow.

“That’s quite alright-”

“Enough of that!” Parvati snapped, aggressively shooing the boy away. “Common thief, ain’t ya? Saw you trying to feel up her skirts a mile away. Find another mark, kid.”

She grabbed Hermione by the arm, pulling her along, the boy scowling in their wake before darting back into the shadows.

“Parv, was that really necessary?”

“He’s a little pickpocketer, Mione. Would rob you blind and not bat an eye about it. Keep your head down and eyes open, don’t trust anyone.”

“Not even the children?”

Especially not the children.”

Hermione rolled her eyes.

“Don’t give me that look. I grew up in a neighborhood even worse than this one. I know all the tricks. All the cons. Kids learn to rob from the time they’re old enough to walk. It’s the only way to survive. I don’t fault ‘em for it. I just don’t want to have to walk home because your bleedin’ heart gave away our last pence.”

Hermione tilted her head, studying her friend at an angle.

“Your accent is different.”

She sighed. “Always happens when I’m back on the streets. I can’t help it.”

Hermione smirked. “I like it.”

Parvati laughed, quirking a brow. “Want me to talk dirty ta ya, luv?”

Hermione joined in the laughter. “Maybe later, after we meet with your friend.”

“I’m gonna hold ya ta that.”

Hermione shook her head, knowing the girl was purposely throwing her voice for amusement sake now.

They passed a multi-unit complex, falling apart by the looks of it, the balconies over run with clotheslines and junk. Stray cats darted between the trash filled alleys. Hermione pulled her cloak tighter to her person, keeping close pace beside Parvati. For her part, Parvati walked with an air of authority, shoulders back and chin up, eyes gleaming in the dim lights.

She looked as much a predator as the wily felines, hunting after their midnight meal. Hermione felt a wave of comfort being at her side, feeling as though Parvati could navigate her through the worst of the city and out the other end.

She just hoped they didn’t encounter any rowdy tavern patrons or other obstacles. Parvati told her once that she knew how to throw a mean right hook, but she doubted the thin girl would prove any real challenge to a full grown man. Hermione knew she herself would be little to no help should something occur, other than to try to talk or reason their way out of it. But somehow she highly doubted keen intelligence was the traded currency on these streets.

“Who is this friend we’re meeting?”

“An old chum from the Timber block. Grew up a few units down from us. I’ve known her since we first came to London.”

“She’s your main contact on the outside?”

“One of them. But I trust her. If she says she has something for us, I know she has something.”

Hermione nodded, remaining silent the rest of the short haunt until Parvati came to a stop outside an old brownstone.

“This is it. She’s on the top floor.”

Hermione followed her up the rickety staircase, clutching the railing with white knuckles as one of the steps groaned so loudly she feared her foot would burst through the slat.

“Watch your step, nothing here is up to code.”

“I can see that.”

They ducked beneath a stained sheet hanging on a line between the second and third level, finally coming to a stop outside a matte black door. Parvati stepped forward and knocked softly, in a distinct pattern that made Hermione burn with curiosity.

“No one opens their door for just anyone out here,” the girl said over her shoulder by way of explanation.

Hermione nodded, as though that made perfect sense, as though she wasn’t questioning her sanity for agreeing to traipse through the dredge of London streets in the middle of the night with no means of protection.

Her earlier indignation induced bravado was rapidly wearing thin.

But she was distracted from her rising panic as the door creaked open just a touch, forming a narrow gap just large enough for a set of golden eyes to peer through.

“That you Parv?”

“It’s me, luv. And company.”

“I was worried something happened. Hang on, let me take the chain off.”

The door closed once more before opening all the way, revealing a tall, lean young african woman with a striking face and long braids tied at her back. She smiled widely, gesturing inside. “Come on then, don’t want pretty birds lingering on my doorstep attracting all kinds of attention.”

Parvati laughed lightly, stepping into the room with Hermione following nervously behind.

“Mione, this is Angie, Angie, this is Mione.”

“Mione, eh? That’s a bit unusual, no?”

Hermione grinned. “Tell me about it. It’s lovely to meet you, Angie. Thank you so much for-”

She stopped short as the other girls burst into sudden laughter.

“See?” Parvati said, gesturing to Hermione at large. “I told you she was somethin’.”

“That you did, but I admit she’s even better in person.”

Hermione crossed her arms, eyes narrowing. “Excuse me?”

They burst into another fit of laughter. Hermione huffed in annoyance, not liking being the butt of anyone’s joke, especially when she didn't comprehend the punchline.

“Sorry, Mione. I just have trouble explaining your perfect manners to other people sometimes. They hafta see it in person to really get the full jist of it.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “My manners are far from perfect. For one, I wouldn’t be standing here if-” she stopped short, eyes widening. “I mean, pardon, I didn’t mean any offense-”

“Take a breath, luv,” Angie waved a hand. “I assure you, I’m not easily shocked or offended. Not by the likes of a delicate little thing like you.” She smiled as Hermione’s eyes flashed. “But maybe you aren’t so delicate, eh? That’s good. You gotta have a spine of steel to survive in this world.”

She winked at her, then turned to face Parvati. “Alright, let’s get to it then?”

Parvati nodded. “You have enough for us both?”

“Of course. She’s a tiny little thing but it’s easier to take the clothes in than let em’ out.”

Hermione blinked. “I’m sorry?”

Parvati glanced at her over her shoulder. “Oh. Right…” she glanced away, making alarm bells ring loudly in Hermione’s head. “So, the thing is…” she trailed off once more, shifting on her feet.

Hermione inhaled sharply, stepping forward. “Parvati Patil, what did you do?”

Her friend bit her lip, glancing up through her lashes. “I knew if I told you you’d never agree to come.”

Her heart leapt into her throat. “Tell me what?”

Angie glanced between them, smirking. “Parv, you really didn’t tell her where we’re going?”

Hermione’s eyes widened. “Going? We’re going somewhere?”

“We’re going to look for Lavender,” Parvati said, reaching out to her.

Hermione stepped back, dodging her hand. “I thought that’s what we were doing here.”

“Well, we are, technically-”

“Just tell me what’s going on!”

Parvati sighed, shoulders dropping as she relented. “Angie works at a Club on the upper West side. She’s seen Lavender there before. Lots of times, actually. Cormac brings her. Angie’s going to get us in so we can look for ourselves.”

Hermione blinked, paling. “I… that’s… we can’t-”

“We can and we will. We’ve already come this far.”

“You brought me here under false pretenses! Why can’t Angie go and look for her on her own?”

“Because Lavender is our friend and it’s our job to find her!”

They stared each other down, gazes narrowed. Angie stepped forward, clearing her throat.

“So, not that this isn’t immensely entertaining, but I’m going to be late for work if I don’t start getting ready. Are you dames in or out?”

“In.” “Out.” They spoke at the same time.

Angie nodded her head. “Right then. I’m going to start getting dressed. Let me know what you decide. Just decide quick.”

She turned and disappeared through a curtain divider, the flat one giant room that afforded them zero privacy as their argument commenced.

“I can’t believe you lied to me!”

“I didn’t lie, I just withheld a tiny piece of information-”

“Oh stop, Parv, you know you misled me on purpose-”

“Of course I did! How else was I supposed to get you here?”

“There is no way I’m going into some random Club! What if we’re spotted, reported to Umbridge?”

“Trust me, no one there will know who we are, little less where we come from.”

“Yes, I’m greatly comforted by the fact it’s some place McLaggen often frequents. It’s probably some-” she glanced sharply at the curtain, at the silhouette of Angie getting dressed. She threw her voice low, hissing. “It’s probably some scandalous sex den or something!”

Parvati blinked, mouth remaining closed. Hermione’s eyes widened as she reared back.

“Are you bloody kidding me?”

“Listen-”

“You want to walk into a brothel?”

“It’s not a brothel, it’s an entertainment parlor-”

“Calling it that doesn’t make the business any different!”

“Well, it’s where Lavender is most likely to be, Mione, what do you want me to do?”

Hermione opened and closed her mouth, blinking rapidly. She shook her head. “I want to find her, Parv, I really do, but…” She trailed off, still shaking her head.

“But what, Hermione? This is our best shot at finding her or at least picking up her trail. Like I said before, I’m going, with or without you. I’m sorry I lied. But I was desperate.” Her voice thickened. “I’m desperate and scared. I don’t know what else to do. If you have a better idea, please, tell me.”

Hermione swallowed, holding her gaze for a long while. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest. Her jaw ticked, a long sigh of resignation marking the turning point in her resolve.

“Bloody hell. I was joking before.”

Parvati blinked. “About what?”

“When I said I was only going to be making poor decisions from here on out.”

Her friend looked confused for a moment before her expression transformed into a wry smirk.

“You haven’t even seen the outfits.”

That didn’t sound good.

“Outfits?”

“The Club has a very strict dress code,” Angie called out from behind the curtain. “For guests as well as employees. I can only sneak you in through the back if you’re wearing a uniform.”

Hermione felt light headed, sensing something truly awful about to be unleashed upon her.

Angie’s hand appeared around the curtain, pulling the excess folds of fabric back.

“Trust me, once you put it on you get used to it.”

She pulled the rest of the barrier away, revealing her outfit to their eyes. Parvati cringed, glancing sideways at Hermione.

“Did I mention that I’ll owe you for this?”

Hermione shook her head, eyes still fastened on the dark skinned girl before her, who looked far too amused for the situation.

“Parvati,” her hands curled to fists at her sides. “You’re going to owe me into your next life.”

Chapter Text

But, I nearly forgot.
You must close your eyes.
Otherwise... you won’t see anything.
.   .   .

“This is ridiculous.”

“Don’t knock it til’ you’ve tried it, Potter.”

Harry narrowed his eyes, the only part of his visage visible through the white Venetian mask.

“I don’t know what’s more disturbing, that we’re required to wear this awful getup or that you have a walk-in closet full of it.”

Blaise smirked from his spot on the opposite seat. “It’s my mother’s collection, if you must know. And thank god for her perversions, otherwise we wouldn’t be making it through the front door.”

Harry shook his head, gazing out the window at the passing scenery, a blur of shadows against the backdrop of foggy London night.

“I hope she remembers to wipe the masks down before putting them away,” drawled Theo from his spot beside Zabini, eliciting a dark laugh from the latter.

Draco and Pansy were in a second carriage following theirs. Pansy’s change in outfit required a seat all to herself, the skirts more obscene than her previous dress. The moment her eyes landed on the costume she insisted on wearing it, no matter that it took three maids and thirty minutes to get her properly suited, much to the boys’ annoyance.

Harry had spent their forced time waiting in the large parlor of Countess Zabini's London home badgering the other men with questions, trying to construct an accurate image of what to expect.

“What type of place is this exactly?” he had asked, inspecting his velvet jacket with gold brocade and over extended ducktales at the back. “I take it we aren’t going to a Renaissance fair?”

“It’s a place to escape the constraints of modern day life and societal expectations,” Blaise had said with a Cheshire grin, sprawling back on a tufted sofa. He’d elected the most colorful of the costumes, constructed of a fine gold fabric that glimmered every time he moved. His velvet cape was blood red, a striking combination.

Harry was indifferent to what he wore, all the options equally appalling to his eyes. He’d grabbed for something dark and simple at the back of the closet, only to have Theo thrust an outfit into his chest, stopping him short.

“Wear this,” the man had said, eyes burning a hole through him. “It goes with your eyes.”

Then he’d walked away to select his own garment, leaving Harry blinking stupidly in his wake. The overcoat Theo had selected for him was a deep green, almost black, with an emerald lining that was almost an exact match for his gaze. Beneath it he wore a plum colored undervest and black trousers that stopped mid way down, his calves covered in black knee-high tights.

He felt like an idiot.

Draco looked equally disturbed by his own costume, though Harry thought it suited him well, preening aristocrat that he was. The blonde’s overcoat was a deep charcoal, his vest a gleaming silver that matched the cape at his back, clasped to his lapels by intricate silver dragons.

When Theo stepped free of the changing room Harry had done a double take, earning a knowing smirk from the man. His velvet coat was a deep, midnight blue that paired perfectly with his sapphire eyes. It made Harry’s chest ache to stare at him for too long, so he averted his gaze and started asking questions instead.

“That doesn’t answer my question, Zabini. If you’re this excited to go I can only imagine the types of services they offer.”

Blaise tipped his head and laughed, offering no other information. Harry turned to Draco, currently pouring himself two fingers of whiskey. “You’ve been there before, Malfoy? Outfit and everything?”

Draco scowled over the rim of the glass, taking a deep swallow before responding. “Once. Theo and I went on my eighteenth birthday.”

Harry fought the urge to glance at the other man, currently seated with a bored expression at the front of the room.

“Only once?”

“It’s not really my scene.”

“I take it they don’t have a gambling hall then?”

“Very funny.”

“Perhaps someone can tell me what they do have.”

“Of course, Potter. They offer a variety of-”

“Someone other than Zabini.”

Theo leaned back in his chair, casually inspecting his nail beds. “It’s an anonymous sex emporium, Potter. How you haven’t worked that out yet is beyond me.”

Harry rolled his eyes, reluctantly turning to face the source of the voice. “Well excuse me, I didn’t realize there were brothels in the upper west side.”

“It’s not a brothel,” Theo glanced up, locking gazes. “At least not the kind you’re imagining. It’s a high-end members-only club that caters to the wealthy and elite. How much did that key cost you?”

Harry straightened, jaw tensing. “Sixty pounds.”

Blaise whistled low under his breath. “Bloody hell, I can’t wait to get inside.”

“You’ve never been there?” Harry had a hard time believing that, the man seemed the target customer for such a venue.

Blaise shrugged. “I tend to only visit such establishments on holiday. Better not to piss where you eat.”

Harry cringed, dismissing the man and turning back to Theo. “So it’s an upscale gentlemen's club-”

“I didn’t say that either.”

Harry’s confusion obviously bled through. Theo smirked. “They have many wealthy female members as well, at least they did when Draco and I attended years back.”

Harry blinked. Sex dens with a female clientele weren’t unheard of, there were certainly a few on Jermyn Street, renowned for its underground population of rent boys and female on female eroticism. But it was rare to hear of a Club catering to both men and women, in such an upscale location no less.

“It’s a modern-day Hellfire Club then?”

Theo’s smirk broadened. “Now you’re on the right track. Except it’s a touch classier. People don’t screw out in the open. The back portion of the building is comprised of private rooms.”

Harry swallowed, forcing down the burning question within him.

Did you use one of them?

Theo seemed to read the look in his eyes, his smirk rising. “Not that I visited them myself. Draco and I spent the majority of our evening getting sloshed at the bar.”

Harry released a breath, forcing his gaze away, terrified of being too obvious.

“The people who work there, they’re paid employees?”

Draco raised a brow, pouring himself another glass. Harry had half a mind to tell him to slow down but suspected it would only spur the man to drink more out of spite.

“Why are you asking me, Potter? How the bloody hell should I know? My deranged aunt and uncle own the place, not me.”

“You’ve never overheard them talking about the Club?”

Draco sighed. “A few times, but nothing in depth. They hardly discuss their bustling sex business at the family dinner table.”

“But it might be possible this Lavender girl took a job there?”

Draco rolled his eyes. “As I said, I wouldn't know.”

Harry’s lips pressed into a firm line, annoyed, eager to get going, to find out something useful.

He recalled Susan’s words from earlier that night.

“I think I heard one of the other girls mention her, saying she was chosen, that she was lucky.”

A chill raced along his spine.

He had a sinking feeling Lavender wasn’t as lucky as they thought.

Then Pansy came down the main staircase in a grand entrance, causing Harry’s thoughts to scatter.

He blinked.

Then blinked again.

“You are not going in that.”

“Just try and stop me, Potter.”

“At least take off the headdress.”

“The headdress is the best part! You don’t know anything about fashion.”

“You won’t fit through the bloody door.”

“Then I’ll have to climb in through a window, won’t I? Are we going or not?”

Harry rolled his eyes for the umpteenth time, barely tamping his frustration as she did, in fact, struggled to get her massive skirts and obscene feathered headdress through the doorway. Blaise laughed uncontrollably, helping shove her through, Theo shaking his head and Draco ignoring them all, climbing into a carriage with an obvious air of impatience.

At least they had that in common, bound by their tie to Hermione, for better or worse.

Fast forward twenty minutes and they were pulling into the front of the venue, a massive baroque inspired structure with a crimson carpet rolled down the steps.

Since the reign of Victoria brothels and sin dens had taken on a lower profile. Prostitution was as legal and widespread as ever but it was kept hush hush in the richer communities, no one in the gentry wanting to earn a sordid reputation that put them in the Queen’s bad graces.

So Harry was quite gobsmacked to see the outlandish opulence of Amortentia, its extravagant entrance and finely clad doormen, the fact that they required a costumed dress code, a mark of their influence and control over society’s elite.

Only Bellatrix and Rodolphus Lestrange would have the nerve to so openly subvert the Regent’s prudent orthodoxy.

Harry braced himself for the madness he was sure to face inside.

He emerged from the carriage with a heavy sigh, hands itching to remove his mask. He was no stranger to hiding his identity, but this felt more stifling than liberating.

“Come on,” Draco said, voice muffled by his own white mask, stepping forward to lead their little group up the red-carpeted steps to the main entrance.

“Hello, gentlemen, lady,” the doorman said with an oily smile, bowing at the waist to Pansy. “Welcome. May I see your invitations?”

Harry had brought the key with him but Draco had claimed he wouldn’t need it, not with him in tow.

Draco lifted his mask. The Doorman’s eyes widened. “Oh, excuse me, Mr. Malfoy. I apologize for not recognizing you sooner.” He stepped aside, opening the large gold inlaid door. “I hope you and your guests enjoy your evening.”

Draco replaced his mask with a look of derision, walking past the man without a word. Harry followed suit, not wanting to speak and risk being recognized as well. He was just as well known among this crowd.

They walked down a wide hall to another set of doors, which were promptly opened by another set of doormen, these men clad in Venetian themed wear and masks, standing rigid and silent as the Queen’s Guard.

And then they emerged into the main room.

Harry stopped dead.

“Fucking hell…”

The space was huge, the ceilings vaulted with a wrap-around viewing ledge above, white masks gazing down upon them from behind the banister.

There were sofas and chairs, loveseats and settees, clusters of people gathered around various… demonstrations. The house girls were clad in distinctive uniforms, red ribbons wrapped around their bare wrists and necks, same as the one tied to the key in his pocket.

Harry spun in a slow circle, the crowd was huge, everyone clad in a mask, decked in costume, making each into an anonymous stranger.

How am I supposed to find the girl in this mess?

“Is that my boy?”

Harry’s heart lurched at the familiar sound, he spun around just in time to see Malfoy jolt with an entire body cringe. A broad-shouldered body appeared before them, pushing through the milling crowd. They wore a mask but their voice was easily recognizable.

“Little Drakey finally pays another a visit to my humble establishment. About time, boy. I was beginning to wonder about you.”

The man seized Draco with a muscled arm, pulling him close.

“What brings you here?” He glanced up at the rest of the group, everyone watching with guarded eyes. “Having a party? What are we celebrating?”

Draco jerked free of his grasp. “Hello, Rodolphus. How kind of you to pay me a personal greeting. But I’m sure I’ve pulled you away from your business long enough-”

“Nonsense. I always have time for family. Speaking of which, I need to pay the Manor a visit soon, talk to your father about a few things regarding the new Bill his party is-”

“No offense, Rodolphus, but I’d rather not discuss politics at the moment.”

The large man laughed, shoulders bouncing with the force of it. “Of course!” He glanced around the group once more, his eyes narrowing through the holes in the mask as they lingered on Harry. “Wait a moment… is that Potter with you?”

Harry’s jaw ticked, fists tightening anew.

Rodolphus laughed once more, something dark taking root in his eyes. “What kind of party is this, Draco?”

“The kind better left undiscussed.”

“Hm. Intriguing.”

Draco stepped back further. “Where’s your wife?”

His question served its purpose, pulling Rodolphus’s gaze away from Harry. “Your aunt isn’t here this evening. She’s going to be incensed she missed seeing you. She won’t believe me when I tell her you showed up with Potter in tow.”

“Perhaps we can keep this encounter between us men?”

“I think it’s too late for that,” the man’s gaze cut past Draco’s shoulder. “Lovely costume, luv. I know of only one young woman who would brave such adventure. Parkinson, I presume?”

Pansy dipped into a perfect curtsy, despite her copious skirts and massive headpiece.

“Lord Lestrange, a pleasure to see you this evening.”

“The pleasure is all mine, luv.” His gaze moved back to his nephew. “Alright, I can tell when I’m unwanted. I’ll leave you and your guests to your evening. Enjoy the festivities, children.”

He dipped his head, eyes lingering on Harry once more, before clapping Draco heartily on the shoulder and departing. The group breathed a collective sigh of relief as soon as he disappeared into the crowd.

“Well that was a warm and tingly reception,” Theo deadpanned, eyeing the crowd with little interest.

“What can I say. We’re a tight-knit family.”

“We need to split up,” Harry spoke, eager to move past the unsettling encounter. “Everyone take a-”

“I think I’ll go search the private rooms,” Blaise said, flourishing his cape as he strode past, tossing a wink over his shoulder. “I promise to be very thorough in my investigations.”

Harry shook his head, turning to face the others. “Parkinson-”

“I appreciate your attempt to take control, Potter, but I’m not into being dominated. I’ll see you boys later.” And then she too was slipping away into a nearby group gathered around a half-dressed young woman.

Harry sighed. “Fantastic.” He turned. “Theo-”

“Will be investigating the bar.” Theo smirked and back away slowly, holding Harry’s annoyed gaze before disappearing from sight.

“Bloody hell.” His emerald gaze snapped to Draco. “Do you intend to actually be of assistance?”

“Calm down, Potter. I wouldn’t have insisted on coming here if I didn’t mean to help you find the missing chit.”

“Good. There’s a lot of ground to cover. I need all the help I can get.”

“Admitting your inadequacy is the first step to recovery.” Draco glanced about the room. “We’ll split up. Take opposite ends. You take the front half of the venue, I’ll take the back half.”

Harry nodded. “Alright. We’re looking for a girl about Mione’s age named Lavender Brown. She’s blonde and very pretty.”

“Well, that should narrow it down. I spot at least a dozen young blondes from where I’m standing. And Granger thinks everything’s pretty. Does the girl have any distinguishing marks?”

“Like a massive scar running down the side of her face or a missing limb?”

“Precisely.”

“I think Mione would have mentioned it.”

Draco shook his head, backing away into the throng of people. “Happy hunting, Potter.”

Harry watched the man depart before turning in another slow circle, the low hum of conversation and tinkling glass filling his ears.

Time to get to work.


Hermione pulled her cloak tighter to her body, fidgeting nervously as she followed the girls up the narrow walkway leading to the back entrance of the Club.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

“Shh!” Parvati hissed over her shoulder. “Don’t let anyone hear you say that, you’re supposed to be an employee.”

“If I were employed here I’d be ranting and raving every moment of every day. No offense, Angie.”

“None taken, doll.”

“I can’t believe I’m wearing this-”

“Didn’t you complain enough at the flat?”

Hermione clamped her mouth shut, eyes narrowing. She felt completely within her rights to continue but decided maybe now wasn’t the best time. After all, she’d committed to seeing this insane task through and wasn’t going back on her word now. Not when her friends were counting on her.

But in her defense, the outfit was atrocious.

She wore a black corset and shortened bloomers that stopped mid-thigh, with see-through stockings pulled up to meet them, the edge of her garters visible. She had no shift or dress, the only bit of coverage the black half skirt attached to the base of her corset. It was missing the front panel, leaving her minimally-clad legs entirely on display from every angle but directly behind. The underside of the fabric was blood red, as were the ribbons wrapping her wrists and neck.

The outfit was scant and shocking, meant to provoke. It certainly did its job, she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Parvati shrugged her costume on without hesitation, barely batting an eye as she waltzed out of the flat, bare arms and cleavage on display. Hermione had rushed after her to throw the cloak around her shoulders, blocking her naked limbs from view until they arrived inside the venue.

Amortentia. It sounded elegant. Hermione had a sinking suspicion it would be anything but.

“Oh, I nearly forgot!” Angie said, stopping in her tracks and spinning around. She pulled on the drawstring of the velvet bag in her hands. Hermione hadn’t paid the satchel much notice until now. Her heart rate increased. “You have to wear these as well. Lucky really, seeing as you don’t want to be recognized by anyone.”

Hermione swallowed audibly as Angie pulled out two black masks that covered the top half of the face. “Employees wear black, the customers wear white.”

Hermione took hers with numb fingers, trembling lightly.

“It’s going to be okay, Mione,” Parvati said, resting a hand on her arm. “We’ll be in and out, hopefully with Lavender in tow.”

Hermione took a deep breath, nodding. “I’m okay. Let’s go.”

Parvati squeezed her arm lightly before releasing her, continuing their journey to the door. A man standing guard ran his eyes over their mask-clad faces.

“Evening, Bastian,” Angie said, walking in front of them.

“Hey, Ang. Who’ve you got here?”

She shrugged. “A couple new girls, I’m saddled with showing them the ropes.”

He tilted his head. “I don’t remember hearing about new hires.”

Hermione’s heart was beating through her chest, blood pounding in her ears, drowning out the sound of the city around her.

“That’s really interesting, Bastian. You want to call Lord Lestrange out here or can I get on with my shift?”

Hermione rocked back on her heels with the force of her shock.

Lord Lestrange?

Oh my god.

Her vision dimmed at the edges.

“Alright, alright,” the man said with a smirk. “Have a good night, ladies,” he said with a wink as he opened the door.

Once it shut behind them Angie spun around, pulling off her cloak. “Alright, I have to run to a private booking but I’m going to leave you with a friend of mine, she’ll take care of you. Drop your cloaks in the closet and follow me.”

Hermione unclasped her cloak with shaking fingers, still reeling from the revelation moments ago.

“Angie, do you know Lord Lestrange?”

The girl furrowed her brow. “Of course, he’s one of the owners.”

Hermione blinked. “Rodolphus or Rabastan?”

“Rodolphus. Why, do you know him?”

She released a sharp breath. “You could say that. Shite.”

“What’s the matter?” Parvati asked.

Hermione shook her head. “If he spots me here I’m done for. Umbridge will be the least of my worries.”

Parvati nodded. “Then we’ll make sure he doesn’t spot you.”

Hermione was reluctant to part with the shield of her cloak, feeling utterly exposed without it. She crossed her arms over her exposed cleavage as they followed Angie down a narrow hall. Other girls appeared, wearing matching corsets and half skirts, masks hiding the tops of their faces.

They turned a corner and entered a changing room, vanities set up along the walls and racks of clothing at the other end. Hermione blinked at some of the items dangling from the hangers.

Perhaps clothing was putting it generously.

“What is that?”

“Hm?” Angie turned around, following Hermione’s perturbed gaze. Then she laughed. “It’s a harness, luv.”

Hermione blinked. “Oh.”

Parvati and Angie exchanged a look before they both smirked. Hermione put her shoulders back. She wasn’t a prude, at least she never considered herself one before. She just hadn’t been exposed to these types of things before.

“It looks really big.”

“That’s because it’s designed for a man. Makes them easier to ride.”

Hermione fought back a blush, a plethora of mental images flooding her mind like spilled ink across a page, staining everything in its wake.

“Oi, Ang!” A girl called from one of the vanities. Angie spun around, sighing with relief.

“Allie, thank god.” she started cutting a path across the room. “These are the girls I mentioned, you still good to take them?”

“Sure thing,” the young woman stood from her stool, smiling. “Hi there, I’m Alicia.”

“Hermione,” she stuck her hand out. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Alicia glanced down at her extended hand and laughed lightly, taking it gingerly in her own and shaking. “This is going to be fun.”

“You have no idea, luv. I’m Parvati.”

“Ang has talked about you before. It’s good to finally meet you. You’re looking for a friend?”

Parvati nodded. “A blonde by the name of Lavender, usually hanging off the arm of Cormac McLaggen.”

Alicia raised a brow. “A lot of girls hang off his arm, I’m afraid.”

Hermione scowled, opening her mouth but Parvati beat her to it. “They weren’t exclusive.”

Hermione rolled her eyes.

“Okay, well I haven’t seen her in a while but I haven’t been to work since last week. I hope you’re able to find her.”

“I gotta run, ladies,” Angie said from behind them. “Good to meet you, Mione. Parv.” She leaned in, exchanging a lingering hug with the girl. “I missed you,” Angie whispered. “I miss Pad, too.”

Parvati swallowed. “So do I.”

Hermione glanced away, affording them what privacy she could. Alicia seemed to be doing the same. Finally, they broke apart, Angie sparing them one last wave before dashing out of the room.

Hermione bit her lip, looking to Parvati. She wasn’t surprised that her friend was stoic as ever, emotions already buried somewhere in the recesses of her resilient mind.

“Okay,” she said, expression hardening. “Lead the way, Alicia.”

Alicia rubbed her palms together with a smile, eyes bright beneath her half mask. “Follow me, my sweets.”

Hermione couldn’t help but smirk, the woman’s remarkably bubbly personality in light of their surroundings a balm to her nerves.

“Alright,” she spoke over her shoulder, leading them to the same door Angie had disappeared through. “I’m assigning you both to drink duty. Walking around with trays will give you an excuse to mingle with the crowd without having to worry about being groped. Well, not groped too badly anyway.”

Whatever brief relief Hermione had felt died in her chest, heart seizing painfully. She swallowed thickly, willing her rising panic back down. It was as futile as trying to stop the ocean tide from coming in.

“If someone tries to deter you into a private room just tell ‘em your shift is almost up and you have to ask the manager for permission. That’ll give you an excuse to slip away.”

Hermione took a deep breath, nodding quickly, trying to pretend this was just another lecture hall she was sitting in on, listening to someone discuss a new medical breakthrough or scientific theory. Just another learning opportunity. Nothing to worry about.

She clasped her hands together to stop them from shaking.

They emerged into a small room with a long narrow table at the center, covered in trays of champagne flutes.

“This room is behind the bar, one of the staff keeps it stocked with trays, the guests drink like fish so you should be okay with this cover while you’re here.”

Hermione followed Parvati’s league and grabbed a tray, nearly dropping it right away.

“Oh!” Alicia sprung forward and helped her balance it out before she lost her hold entirely.

“Sorry!” Hermione said, flushing brightly.

“It’s okay, they can be tricky to balance when you’re not used to them.”

Hermione nodded, dazed with fear and adrenaline.

Alicia cocked her head, studying her. “You alright, hon?”

She swallowed, nodding. “Yes, fine, thank you for asking.”

Alicia smiled again, though her expression held some inner sadness that tore at Hermione’s chest further.

“It’s a sweet thing you’re doing, searching for your friend like this.” She placed a hand on Hermione’s bare shoulder. “Most people would sit back and be sad without trying to do anything about it. You’re very dedicated.”

Hermione held her gaze for a heavy beat before sharing her own saddened smile. “I know she’d do the same for me.”

Hermione glanced over her shoulder, meeting Parvati’s dark gaze. “We’re going to find her.”

Alicia dropped her arm and stepped back. “I’m sure she’ll turn up.”

Hermione blinked, smile fading in lieu of a jarring memory.

“One way or another, they always turn up.”

She shook her head, willing his voice away. Thinking of their exchange would only rattle her further.

“Okay, you girls are set. Good luck. And if you need anything feel free to ask. I’ll be around.”

“Thank you, Alicia,” she said, taking a deep breath and steadying her tray.

Alicia winked, smiling once more and leading them to the exit, a butler’s door that swung both ways.

The three girls emerged into the main room.

Hermione gasped.

Her immediate instinct was to turn around and run back into the galley. She became hyper-aware of every inch of her exposed flesh, a full body flush taking over. She shifted awkwardly on her heels, feeling off balance, sure to fall.

“Just breathe, Hermione,” Parvati whispered to her sharply. “You look like you’re going to pass out.”

Hermione tried to take a deep breath, to steady her racing heart. Her eyes scanned the crowd before them, the room packed with men and women dressed in extravagant Venetian costumes from the Renaissance period. A sea of white masks, they all seemed to be staring at her, closing in rapidly-

“Mione!”

She gasped, blinking rapidly.

“Is she okay?”

“She’s fine. Thank you, Alicia, we can take it from here.”

Alicia looked hesitant, glancing between the girls before nodding reluctantly. “Okay… please, come get me if you need anything.”

Hermione was in a stupor, barely registering the girl’s departure. Parvati shifted her tray in one hand and placed her other on Hermione’s arm, gently squeezing. “Hermione, please, I need you.”

Her words shook Hermione from her trance. She bit her lip, closing her eyes briefly and stealing herself.

Get a grip. You aren’t locked in a room. You aren’t pinned against a door. You’re in control. Just breathe.

She swallowed.

Lavender needs you.

She opened her eyes.

“I’m okay. Sorry, I just-”

“Don’t apologize. I understand. Thank you for doing this, Mione. I know it’s asking a lot of you.”

Hermione shook her head. “I meant what I told Alicia. I know you and Lavender would do the same if I was missing. I’m going to see this through.”

Parvati held her gaze, nodding slowly. “Let’s find our girl.”

They both turned to face the bustling room, Hermione did a double take as a girl wearing red ribbons climbed onto a table, methodically unlacing her black corset as the crowd around her clapped, creating a rhythmic beat she swayed her hips to. Hermione watched in a half-trance, knowing what was coming but still feeling her mouth run dry as the girl’s naked breasts came into view.

If there was any pretending she was in the middle of a crowded lecture hall, the moment had surely passed.

She glanced away sharply, pushing past her unease and trying to formulate a plan of execution. Thinking was her strong suit, her prime contribution to this mission. She took a deep breath and opened her mouth to speak, but before she could utter a word a new voice emerged.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

A man burst through the crowd, marching straight for them. He was in costume, face entirely hidden by a mask, but his frame and voice were unmistakable.

Rendering her numb with terror.

Rodolphus.

She went rigid, helpless to run, to hide, panic rushing through her veins and displacing her blood, filling her heart with pure adrenaline.

“How did you get here? Did he bring you?”

Hermione opened her mouth but her brain couldn’t form any words.

He was upon her now-

And then he marched past her, seizing Parvati by the arm.

“Oi! Watch it!” her friend snapped, jerking out of his grasp, barely maintaining her grasp on the tray.

Rodolphus reared back, blinking behind his mask.

What did you just say to me?”

Hermione glanced rapidly between the pair, too shocked to form words.

“I said, watch it. Don’t you dare lay your hands on me again.” Her voice dripped venom, eyes licked by flame.

Hermione shook her head, trying to send a silent warning, but Parvati was lost to her anger.

“I don’t care what kind of place this is, you can’t just-”

“Who are you?”

She fell silent at his question, gaze turning hesitant. He stepped closer and reached for her mask. Hermione held her breath. Parvati ducked out of his reach, holding out the tray between them, blocking his path.

“I’m Carmen,” she said, voice radically subdued from its earlier intensity.

Rodolphus lowered his arm, staring at her hard.

“Carmen.” He repeated, not sounding the least bit convinced. Hermione took a deep breath, fighting through her rising panic for a way to get them out of this bizarre interaction.

“My apologies, Carmen,” he said suddenly, standing to his full intimidating height. “I thought you were someone else. You look just like a friend of mine.”

Hermione swallowed, eyes briefly meeting Parvati’s before her friend locked gazes with him once more.

“Some friend.”

Hermione cringed. But Rodolphus merely tipped his head back and laughed. Parvati looked as disturbed by his rapidly changing mood as Hermione.

“No,” he said eventually, shaking his head. “I see now that you’re nothing like her.”

He stared upon Parvati for another long moment before taking a step back. Hermione sensed he was about to turn around and face her. Panic seized her by the throat. She quickly spun on her heel and dashed to a small gathering of men, holding her tray aloft.

“Beverages?”

The men stopped their conversation, glancing at her. “Why thank you, darling. What a pretty thing you are.”

She smiled, adrenaline surging through her every pore, dispelling every last remnant of hesitation. She’d venture into a private room if it meant getting Rodolphus off her tail.

Actually, that isn’t such a bad idea…

Her mind raced as the men grabbed flutes of champagne, a few trying to engage her in conversation. She nodded along, not listening in the slightest, shoulders sagging in relief as Rodolphus walked past. She swallowed heavily as he glanced once more over his shoulder, his gaze sweeping across the area in which she stood.

She ducked her head down, loose curls falling over her mask, obscuring her vision.

She blinked, slowly peeking up.

The coast was clear.

She abandoned the group of men without preamble, oblivious to their heated looks of longing. She darted to where Parvati still stood, confused and shaken.

“Are you okay?”

Parvati nodded slowly. “Yeah. That was…”

“Weird.”

“I was going to say fucking nuts, but that works.”

“Do you know Rodolphus?”

Parvati’s eyes widened. “Wait- that was Lord Lestrange?”

Hermione nodded quickly. “Yes. I was trying to signal you but I was afraid to speak. He’d recognize my voice.”

“Why the bloody hell did he grab me?”

“I’ve no idea. He thought you were someone else apparently.”

Parvati rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe that any more than he believes my name is Carmen. He’s part owner as well as a manager, he probably knows every girl who works here.”

“I know, but I’m glad you didn’t give him your real name. I think we’re better off if we both avoid crossing paths with him again.”

Her friend sighed. “Agreed. But the stakes are higher for you if you’re caught.”

Hermione bit her lip. “I was thinking of heading to the back, looking at the private rooms. I think I’ll be able to keep a lower profile that way.”

“That’s a good idea. I’ll stick to the main floor.”

“You sure you don’t mind?”

Parvati shook her head. “No, it’s fine.”

Hermione set her tray down on a nearby table, briefly touching her friend’s hand with her own. “You sure you’re okay?”

Parvati took a deep breath. “Yeah. At least I didn’t punch him.”

Hermione couldn’t help but smirk.

That would have made this entire evening worth it.”

Parvati mirrored her expression.

“The night’s still young. I’m sure I’ll be hitting someone in the face before it comes to an end.”


Harry shook his head as he passed another blonde clad in a black mask and red ribbons.

So far none of the girls he asked were named Lavender or had heard of the girl. Unless someone was lying. Perhaps they were skilled at hiding the truth. Given their profession, it was a likely possibility.

He wanted to run his hand over his face in exhaustion but the damn mask prevented him from doing so. The costume was as imprisoning as it was ridiculous.

He groaned in frustration until his sweeping gaze fell upon a shock of familiar feathers. He crossed the distance to where Pansy stood.

Then he slowed his approach, seeing what held her focus. Two girls sat on a couch in the center of a small crowd, pawing and kissing, slowly removing each other's already limited clothing. His jaw tensed, eyes alighting upon their hair. Neither were blonde. His shoulders dropped.

He came to a stop beside her. She didn’t glance in his direction.

“Giving up already, Potter?”

His spine straightened.

“Not at all. Just had to take a look over here since it seems you aren’t offering any assistance.”

“You made fun of my outfit, why would I help you?”

He rolled his eyes. “I see. Is that what has you in such a mood.”

She finally averted her gaze, glancing at him sharply.

“What does that mean?”

Harry met her eye. “Are you sure you’re not upset that we’re here on a mission for Hermione?”

Pansy raised a dark brow, staring at him for another few seconds before bursting into a fit of laughter.

“Is that what you think? That I’m jealous? Oh, you’re such a bloody idiot. No wonder you can’t find the missing girl.”

His chest burned.

“So you’re over Malfoy then?”

She laughed anew, shaking her head in some private amusement he couldn’t begin to comprehend. “I was never under Malfoy, Potter. Despite popular belief.”

Harry swallowed. “So you’re under Theo then?”

His question seemed to take them both off guard. He hadn’t meant to voice it aloud, though his curiosity had been burning a hole inside his lungs since watching them arrive together at the party.

Her laughter faded, eyes bright.

“I find it curious you refer to the rest of us by our surnames, but never Theo.”

Harry blinked.

She slowly smirked.

He glanced away, staring blankly at the kissing girls, white closing in around the edges of his vision.

“Do I? I hadn’t noticed.”

“Hm.”

She faced forward as well. His heart was pounding through his chest. He swayed with the force of it.

“No. I’m not under Theo either. But I think someone else is.”

Harry released a slow breath, unable to look at her.

“I’ve no idea who, but I can tell he’s fucking someone.”

His hands flexed at his sides. “Does that upset you?”

She tilted her head, still watching the show before them.

“Why would that upset me?”

He wet his lips. “Aren’t you an item?”

“We’re chess pieces in our parent’s elaborate game,” she said with a roll her eyes. “Something you’d understand if you actually had parents. Lucky bastard.”

He shook his head.

“So no. I don’t care that Theo’s fucking someone else. Just as he doesn’t care I’m doing the same.”

He finally looked her way, studying her masked profile. He drew in a breath but she spoke first.

“Don’t even think about asking me who it is. A lady doesn’t kiss and tell.”

Harry chuckled lightly, the tension melting away in light of her confession. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind when I encounter one.”

“Don’t you have some damsel in distress to rescue?”

Harry smiled, knowing she couldn’t see it and backed away slowly.

“That I do.”


The private room section of the venue was divided from the main hall by a set of blood-red velvet curtains that hung from the vaulted ceiling, a rather difficult sight to miss.

As Hermione slipped past them she came to a standstill. She stood at the head of a short hall that ran perpendicular to another. When she came to the intersection and looked left and right she found the same intersecting points at either end.

A maze.

She turned right, feeling her pulse thrum rapidly as she finally passed by a closed door. A black key was sticking out of the lock, a red ribbon tied to the end. She paused, the sight giving her chills.

She stepped closer and swallowed heavily as the sound of muffled moans met her ears. She stepped back quickly.

She’d come back to that room later.

She continued her journey, following the twists and turns of the narrow halls, passing door after door with the same ghostly looking key hanging from its lock. She bit her lip. Perhaps she didn’t really think this through. How was she supposed to find Lavender behind a closed door?

And what’s the alternative? Knocking? Peeking my head in and interrupting the festivities to ask about my missing friend?

Hermione sighed, turning yet another corner, wondering if she’d be able to find her way back out-

Just then the sound of laughter jolted her. It was loud, unmuffled. She spun on her heel, glancing about, looking for the source of the noise.

A door stood ajar at the end of the hall.

She looked around once more, as though expecting to find someone lingering past her shoulder.

The hallway was empty.

She returned her focus to the open door, the sound of whispered voices and melodic laughter continuing to filter out, and slowly approached.

I’m only going to glance in, just to see if Lav’s there.

Her hands curled at her sides, limbs rigid with anticipation.

She hesitated at the opening, body blocked by the wall. The voices were hushed but distinctly male and female. She took a deep breath and leaned forward, glancing inside.

A man and woman sat sprawled on a chaise lounge, perched at opposite ends. The woman was wearing a white mask, her outfit tight and just as revealing as Hermione’s. The man leaned forward, shirt undone, saying something that caused her to erupt into another fit of wild laughter.

Hermione was relieved they weren’t on top of each other, as she’d been expecting.

But then the man tipped his head back and joined in the laughter as well, and Hermione stumbled back in shock.

She knew that voice.

Fucking hell, am I going to run into Harry and Draco while I’m at it?

Tonight was turning out to be a rather obscene reunion of sorts.

She held her breath as the noise stopped abruptly. Her adrenaline spiked, she was poised to run but barely had time to blink before the door was being thrown open.

“Who’s there? Oh, hello, poppet.”

She continued her retreat until she collided with the opposite wall.

“Shy, are you? I like that.”

He doesn’t recognize me.

“Who is it, Ami?”

The man glanced over his shoulder. “A tasty morsel. Perhaps we should invite her inside?”

This isn’t happening.

He focused upon her once more, stepping aside, beckoning her forward. “Come in, little one. We won’t bite. Hard.”

The woman sat up from the chaise, lifting her mask to get a better look. Her eyes narrowed as she examined Hermione’s face. She felt her knees weaken.

Then the woman slowly smiled, sliding her mask back down. “She’s fantastic. Come in, dear, we’ll take excellent care of you.”

Oh my god. This is happening.

Hermione swallowed convulsively, desperately trying to get her vocal chords to work. She prayed they wouldn’t recognize her voice, that her heightened nerves would throw it to a distorted pitch.

“I- I’m sorry,” she said, pressing harder into the wall. “I can’t. My shift is nearly over.”

The man laughed. “We’ll pay you double your hourly rate to stay.”

She swallowed again, mind firing rapidly. What else had Alicia told her to say? Oh, yes...

“I’ll have to ask my manager.”

The woman scoffed. “I know the manager, luv. Quite well. Trust me, he won’t mind.”

Hermione wondered if she could get out of this by feigning a seizure.

I may not have to fake it…

“Now, now, Alecto. I think we’re scaring the poor thing.”

Alecto rolled her eyes. “Bloody hell. Go check with Roddy if you must. But do hurry back.”

Hermione nodded, pushing away from the wall on shaky legs and sprinting down the hall, so desperate in her need to escape that she had no idea if she was heading in the right direction.

By some miracle she found her way to the exit, bursting through the red curtain with a gasp, as though emerging from the sea after a shipwreck.

She glanced around, looking for Parvati, looking for anything to grab onto for balance.

She didn’t see her friend anywhere, just a sea of white masks broken intermittently by red and black. A blurred mess, smudges on a canvas. She darted to the place she left her tray but it was gone.

Shite.

She bit her lip, glancing up as an employee darted past, heading for the galley room with a wine bottle in hand.

“Excuse me?”

The young woman stopped, glancing at Hermione.

“I can take that for you.”

She glanced down at the bottle.

“It’s empty.”

Hermione shrugged. “I’ll take it anyway.”

The woman quirked a brow but ultimately relented, handing her the item and walking back in the direction she came from. Hermione held the bottle tightly in both hands, pressing it to her abdomen like a shield, and slowly slipped into the crowd.

Only to stop dead at the sight before her.

A house girl in nothing but her bloomers was at the center of a gathering of spectators, bound and gagged. Her face was pressed into the expensive oriental rug, back arched and bottom up. Hermione blinked as another woman walked up from behind and proceeded to flog her.

Perhaps I’ll go this way.

She spun on her heel, her head turned down and eyes desperately searching the crowd.

She had to dodge a drunken man stumbling in her path, causing her to knock into a table, something hard prodding against her lower back.

She glanced over her shoulder and felt the blood drain from her face.

What on god’s green earth…

She blinked rapidly, backing away from whatever bizarre contraption sat on display. She stared at it in morbid fascination until her eyes drifted down to the plaque situated beneath.

She gaped openly as she read the short excerpt.

I’ve truly seen it all now.

A steam-powered dildo.

The massive rubber phallus protruded out of the wooden base, a medley of mechanisms stationed behind it.

Leave it to the Lestranges to find such an invention worthy of a pedestal.

She spun around once more, mind a muddled mess, and bumped shoulders with a tall gentleman with his back to her. She gasped lightly, stepping away, an automatic apology forming on her lips.

And then she looked upon him.

The perfectly styled coif of white blonde hair was unmistakable.

Her heart leaped into her throat, stomach clenching painfully.

It can’t be…

He didn’t spare her a glance, merely straightening his velvet coat and holding out his empty glass. “How fortunate you should bump into me, I’m in desperate need of a refill.”

She blinked. Then blinked again.

And then she got angry.

What was he doing here?

She clutched the neck of the bottle so tightly she was certain it would grind to dust in her hands. She glared at his profile, hidden behind the mask, the force of her emotions giving rise to her voice.

“I’m sorry, Sir.” His spine went rigid, shoulders tensing. “I’m afraid the bottle is empty, however, I’m happy to break it over your head.”

He spun around, nearly losing his grip on his glass, eyes burning brightly from behind the narrow cutouts. He staggered back, shock palpable as he took in her appearance from bottom to top. And then his gaze narrowed and he surged forward, capturing her arm before she could flinch away.

She opened her mouth to demand he unhand her but gasped instead as she was pulled fully into his body. She blinked up at him, swallowing heavily at the lethal look he pinned her with, somehow more malevolent when accompanied by the neutral visage of the mask.

“I don’t want to hear it,” he hissed, voice ferocious and unyielding. “You’re coming with me now.”

And then he was dragging her back towards the red curtains.


Harry’s patience was wearing thin.

He’d tried to spark up a conversation with a few of the guests on the floor but it was shaping out to be a study in self-torture. Every attempt was a reminder of why he loved sailing abroad so much. London’s high society was grating, unbearable, a foreign world at this point.

He sought momentary refuge at the bar.

Perhaps he’d overhear snippets of conversation that were more worthwhile than the useless banter on the main floor. He could also ask the bartender about Lavender.

Yes. It was purely strategic.

It had nothing to do with the handsome young man seated at the end of said bar, nursing a glass of burgundy wine, mask discarded on the counter.

But while Harry was headed in that direction anyway…

It only made sense to ask Theo whether he’d learned anything relevant.

He took a deep breath, approaching with a forced air of calm, spine straight. He slid into the seat beside the man, eyes carefully averted towards the bartender.

“Whiskey sour, mate.”

The bartender nodded. Harry rapped his knuckles against the glossy wood, unable to quell his urge to fidget. He removed his mask with the other hand, sighing in relief as the cool air swept across his face, free at last.

He didn’t see the knowing smirk that overcame his lover’s face as he watched Harry from the corner of his gaze.

“How goes the search?” Theo finally asked, bringing the glass to his lips.

Harry released a slow breath, turning to face him. “Utter failure at the moment.”

“Hm. Is that so.” Theo took another long swallow, eyes dancing with humor over the rim.

Harry’s emerald gaze narrowed. “What’s so funny?”

“I didn’t say anything.” He set the glass back down, licking his lips. “I’m just sitting here enjoying my drink.”

“I can see that. I was hoping you’d be a bit more helpful.”

Theo arched a dark brow. “Did you now? And why would I break character?”

Harry rolled his eyes, leaning his forearms against the counter. “I forget, you have a role to play.”

“We all have roles to play, Potter.”

Harry took a deep breath. “Parkinson noticed that I address you by your first name.”

Theo drummed his long fingers along the counter, an elegant imitation of Harry’s more nervous gesture.

“And what did you say?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Avoidance is the most telling response of all, Potter.”

Harry glanced away. “It made me realize that you never use my name.”

“I don’t think Areshole is appropriate in mixed company.”

Harry fought back a smirk, holding tight to his serious resolve.

“Even when we’re alone, you never use my first name.”

Theo leaned forward. “Tread carefully, Potter,” his voice was low, ominous. “This isn’t exactly an ideal setting for such a conversation.”

Harry traced the wood grain detail of the veneer with his fingertips. “You would avoid this conversation if we were stranded on a desert island.”

“Of course I would. I’d be far more concerned with getting an even tan while you slaved away at building a raft.”

Harry lost the battle, the smirk breaking free.

Damn.

Theo always found a way to subvert his moods, making it all but impossible to have a meaningful conversation with the man. Theo leaned back once more, taking another sip of his wine as the bartender returned, sliding Harry’s drink across the hardwood.

“Cheers, mate,” Harry said by way of thanks, eagerly taking a swig as the man once more departed.

Harry savored the burn down the back of this throat, the pool of warmth ignited in his stomach. He stared into the glass a few moments more before continuing.

“The point is, you keep your distance.” He wet his lips, gaze still averted to his drink. “Even when there’s nothing between us.”

They sat alone at the far end of the bar. He didn’t fear being overheard, but he kept his voice low anyway, providing the man at his side one less deterrent.

Theo sighed, face pinched in annoyance as he glanced over his shoulder at the crowd. Harry deflated in his seat, convinced he wouldn’t respond, jolting when he did.

“I don’t know what you expect of me, Potter. What you think this is. It can only ever be one thing.”

Harry glanced up, searching his sapphire gaze. He sensed the answer in the man’s closed off expression but needed to hear it spoken aloud.

“And what is that?”

Theo didn’t blink.

“A secret.”

The silence that followed thickened the air, made it difficult to breathe, coating his lungs with an invisible film.

Harry nodded, facing forward once more, both hands wrapped tightly around his lowball glass.

“Don’t do that,” Theo said, brows drawn. “I hate it when you do that.”

Harry glanced at him in confusion. “Do what?”

“Mope like a sad puppy with big green eyes and its fucking tail between its legs.”

Harry blinked. “I don’t-”

“You do. All the bloody time. And it drives me fucking insane.”

Harry’s jaw ticked. “I’m sorry I annoy you so badly.”

Theo rolled his eyes. “I didn’t say it annoys me, idiot. I said it drives me insane.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Yes. I avoid things that annoy me. I’m driven insane by the things I can’t.”

Harry swallowed, blinking rapidly.

“You’re doing it again! God dammit.”

Harry smirked. “I’m not trying to. Driving you insane must come naturally.”

“I’m not surprised.” Theo finished off the rest of his wine in a large gulp. Harry watched his throat convulse as he swallowed. Heat crept up his neck as he realized Theo watched him steadily over the rim.

“I think I prefer that look much better.”

Harry released a slow breath, eyes flickering between Theo’s, searching for something he couldn’t begin to understand, finding something wild and chaotic that blossomed within his own chest.

“Come to Grimmauld tonight.”

He didn’t phrase it as a request, didn’t see the point. He knew Theo liked it when he took command.

Sure enough, he watched his lover melt back into his chair, limbs loosening.

“I can’t.” He pushed the empty glass away with two fingers on its base. “Father is home. He’ll get suspicious if I disappear all night so soon after the last.”

Harry bristled. “How long is he back for?”

Theo shrugged one shoulder, his posture one of calm indifference, but his averted gaze held a rigid hardness that made Harry’s stomach clench.

“Is he…” treading lightly was never his strong suit. “Is he being a total fucking arse?”

Theo smirked, the darkness in his eyes receding at the edges as he glanced up. “You’ve met him, Potter. When is he not a complete fucking arse?”

Harry leaned in towards him, just a touch, just enough for Theo’s pupils to expand beneath Harry’s steady green gaze. “All the more reason for you to escape that prison. Come to Grimmauld. Who gives a fuck what that tyrant thinks.”

Theo’s tongue darted out as he wet his lips, mouth parting on a sigh. “Unfortunately I’m forced to care. Privileges of being the only child and sole heir of a powerful elitist and peer of the realm.”

“Exactly why you shouldn’t give two shites. He won’t cut you off or disown you. You’re his only chance at keeping the Nott empire intact. He can’t do anything to you.”

Theo glanced away once more, shadows cast across his face.

“You’d be surprised what he’s capable of doing. I’d rather not incur his wrath. At least not on this particular night. I’ll already have a hell of a time explaining this god awful get up to him.”

Harry glanced at Theo’s deep blue jacket. “You wear it well.”

“Trading barbs now, are we?”

“I mean it. The color suits you.” He smirked. “It goes with your eyes.”

“Hilarious.” Then his gaze roamed Harry’s figure. “I chose well, though. You look rather decent, all things considered.”

“High praise coming from you. Trying to butter me up for something?”

“I have much more effective methods of bending you to my will, Potter.”

His body pulsated with desire.

“I’m well aware.”

The heated moment was punctured, deflating rapidly as a familiar voice invaded their private space.

“I need all the girls who aren’t with guests to search for him.”

Harry and Theo glanced over their shoulders, eyes latching on Rodolphus’s tall form as he cut a path to the red curtains marking the private rooms. A sea of house girls in tight corsets and bloomers trailed in his wake, disappearing behind the barrier.

“What the hell is that about?”

“I don’t know,” Harry replied, gaze narrowing. “But I have a bad feeling about it.”

“Let me guess, you’re going to dive head first after that bad feeling?”

Harry spared his lover a wink as he reached for his mask.

“You know me so well.”


“What the bloody hell are you doing here?” Draco hissed as he dragged her down the maze of hallways, searching out an empty room.

“I could ask you the very same question!”

He glared over his shoulder. “You seriously think I came here for sex?”

“Oh silly me, you’re obviously here for a meeting of the minds. Are you discussing the practical applications of the combustible engine?”

“Such a brat,” he grumbled, facing forward once more. “For your information, I’m here looking for your missing friend.”

Hermione blinked, body going lax in her surprise. She stumbled into his back, losing her footing and nearly falling. Draco spun around and steadied her with his hands, fingers gripping her narrow waist. She swallowed heavily, hyper-aware of his burning touch through the thin fabric.

He didn’t release her, merely glared down through his mask. She reached up on instinct and removed it, needing to see his face.

She expected to see a scowl. Instead, she was met with another painfully familiar expression.

Desire.

Mixed with a hearty helping of anger.

It always went hand in hand with Draco.

She pressed a hand against his chest, trying to put distance between them, to get her thoughts sorted, but he merely grasped her tighter, holding her in place.

“I… how…” she swallowed. “Harry told you?”

“Yes.” Her face must have betrayed her dismay. “We forced it out of him, he didn’t want to divulge the information.”

Her brow furrowed. “We?”

“It’s a long story.”

“You came to help Harry?”

His eyes flickered between hers.

“I came to help you.”

Her heart thudded painfully. She wet her lips. “Draco, I-”

“Shouldn't be here.”

Her gaze narrowed. “I have every right to be here, she’s my friend.”

His fingers pressed harder against her corset. “What do you think will happen if you’re seen within these walls? In that outfit? Rodolphus is on the floor tonight, what if he’d recognized you?”

She sighed. “I already saw him. It was a close call but I slipped away.” She bit her lip. His eyes tracked the movement. “That’s not all,” she began tentatively. “I saw the Carrows as well. It’s a miracle they didn’t recognize me.”

His eyes snapped back to hers and his face transformed into a sneer. “Lovely. Half the pervert population of London is here. What a superb night to throw your reputation to the wind, Granger.”

She tried to emulate his look of pure derision but found it an impossible task, the expression a finely crafted visage inherited from generations of aristocratic disdain.

“Are you deaf or dumb, Malfoy? I told you what I’m doing here, I couldn’t care less who’s in attendance as long as I find Lavender!”

“Shh!” he hissed, pressing harder against her, pushing her into the wall. “Keep your voice down you stupid bint.”

“You’re the only idiot here!”

Voices could be heard in the distance from one of the connecting halls.

“I’d have to disagree, it seems you’re itching to be discovered.” She huffed but he cut off her seething response. “You are leaving, immediately, and maybe I’ll consider not telling Potter what I saw. Lord knows he’ll tear the roof off this place if he knows you’re here.”

Her heart jolted at the realization that Harry was here. Of course he was, he’d never allow Draco to come on such a mission alone.

“I’m not leaving, Draco. Not until I find what I came for.”

“Potter and I will search.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You don’t get it, I’m not leaving this one to the boys. Not this time. Besides, I didn’t come here alone.”

His hands clenched along her waist.

“Who are you with?” His voice was low and lethal. She furrowed her brow, confused by the sudden wave of hostility.

“My other roommate, Parvati.”

His expression softened considerably. She shook her head, too overwhelmed by the night’s events to try and decode his rapid mood changes.

“I need to go back out there-”

“Are you insane?”

“Stop questioning my mental faculties!”

“I’m not letting you out of my sight. I’m starting to debate whether to even let you return to that hovel on Bromley, they obviously have shite security if you’re able to sneak out dressed like a tart.”

Her eyes widened to saucers, reacting on instinct, forgetting that she held a similar reaction upon first seeing Angie in the tight revealing uniform.

“This may come as a shock to you, Malfoy, but I don’t need your permission to live my life.”

“Live your life?” he repeated, face alight in malicious mirth. “I apologize, Granger, I didn’t realize you were making a career of working in a brothel. At least you chose an upscale one, I’m sure you’ll find it very lucrative, men just love to discuss politics before fucking.”

She cringed. “Don’t be crass, Malfoy.”

“I’m only giving you pointers to help you earn better tips, luv. Try debating the Franco-Prussian war, that’s sure to get their blood boiling.”

“It certainly had an effect on you that night in Albert Hall.”

His smirk faded, eyes scorching. “Are you really bringing that up now?”

“You brought it up!”

“You’re insufferable.”

“Then walk away, you seem to be good at that.”

They stared each other down, chests heaving, racing hearts aligned through their tightly pressed bodies.

And then the ribbon broke, chaos unleashed. Their claws descended, mouths connecting with a powerful magnetism that forced her entire body along his, as though trying to merge into one being.

Hermione gasped as he ground his lower half into her thin bloomers, feeling the outline of his manhood with stunning clarity. The sensation was frightening and exhilarating, she moaned as his hand wrapped delicately around her throat, thumb tipping her chin back so he could feast upon her rapidly thrumming pulse, his other arm wrapping around her middle and holding her firmly in place against his body.

She blinked dazedly at the ceiling, clutching at the velvet fabric of his charcoal coat, losing herself to the sensation, oblivious to their surroundings-

“Well I’ll be damned, is that little Drakey?”

They both lurched but stayed firmly attached, the voice recognizable to their ears. Draco’s face hovered just above hers, eyes burning a hole through her mind, a silent warning. She nodded, light-headed in the wake of their wild kiss and the resounding shock of the interruption.

Draco swallowed thickly, holding her gaze as he composed himself, carefully crafting his signature scowl and casting it over his shoulder.

“Fuck off, Carrow. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Amycus laughed. “I can see that. And I’m impressed. I didn’t think you had it in you.” His eyes flickered to her, then narrowed. “Wait a minute…”

Draco moved slightly, blocking her from view, hands dropping to firmly grasp her hips as he continued to glare daggers at the man.

“I know you.”

Hermione swallowed so loudly she heard it echo off the walls.

“You’re that bird from earlier, aren’t you? I thought you were going to ask Roddy about staying a while longer.”

Draco raised a pale brow. “She did. And she’s staying with me.”

Amycus tipped his head back with a dramatic sigh. “Oh come on, Malfoy, be a gent and share! Alecto and I had our eye on this one.”

Hermione fought back a cringe, averting her face behind Draco’s shoulder.

“I am sure you will find another bird to share.”

“But we want that one,” he whined like a petulant child. “I’ll take her when you’re through, I don’t mind waiting. Hell, I’d love to watch.”

Draco’s fingertips dug painfully into her flesh, she bit her lip and stifled a gasp.

“I don’t share, Carrow. You know that. Now fuck off.”

“You’re such a stick in the mud, Malfoy. What about letting Alecto join in, two on one? What bloke can say no to that?”

Her pulse thrummed rapidly, hands clutching at the fabric of Draco’s undershirt.

“The only person interested in screwing your sister is you, mate.”

Amycus’ face turned lethal. “Fuck you! I’ve never laid hands on her. We like to have fun is all, you could stand to learn a few things from us.”

“I’m sure the treatment for syphilis is top among them.”

“You little prick!”

“Ami, darling, what’s the matter?” A feminine voice joined the fold.

Bloody hell, this can’t get any worse.

Alecto rounded the corner, mask off, concern marring her expression. Her eyes fell on the trio in the middle of the hall.

“Oo, a party, may I join in?” she smiled lasciviously, winking at Draco. “Good to see you, darling. Don’t you look handsome.” She tipped her head. “And who do you have pinned to the wall?”

Great. It’s worse.

“Don’t bother, Allie. He’s being a little twat, as usual. Let’s go.” Amycus grabbed her arm and dragged her along the hall. Hermione sighed in relief, then scowled as Alecto slipped her hand along Draco’s shoulder blades as they passed.

“I’ll see you later, Draco,” she blew him a kiss and giggled as her brother angrily jerked her forward, the twins finally disappearing around the corner.

Hermione inhaled sharply, starved for oxygen.

“That was close.”

He glanced down, eyes bright. “Now do you understand the risk? You can’t stay here, Granger. Too many people may recognize you.”

She closed her eyes, head falling back to thump against the wall. “I know. I just don’t know what else to do. We have no other leads on Lavender.”

“Let me and Potter search for her.” Her head sprung back down, eyes narrowed. “I know,” he continued, “you want to contribute, I got it. But there are other ways to do so without risking your reputation.” His eyes slowly flickered down, resting on her cleavage. “Among other things.”

She flushed. “For the record I wasn’t keen on the idea of coming here, little less wearing this. But it was the only way to get inside. I’ll do anything to find her.”

His eyes latched onto hers, holding her gaze steady for several heartbeats before his hand rose to her face, knuckles skimming her cheek and thumb tracing her bottom lip.

“I know,” he said lowly, the rumble of his voice reverberating through her own chest. “You’ve always had more concern for others than yourself.”

She unconsciously leaned into his touch, eyelids heavy.

“Draco.”

“Hm.”

“I’m scared for her.”

He tilted his head.

“I know.”

His hand left her face to wind around her waist. “Let me help you.”

She sighed deeply, resting the side of her face against his chest, the steady pound of his heart against her temple.

“I thought you wanted nothing to do with me anymore.”

She felt his face press into her hair, his chest rising on a deep inhale. He stood silently with her in his arms, holding her scent in his lungs, before releasing a long slow breath.

“I was angry. I still am.”

Hermione nodded against him. “I’m so sorry, Draco. I never meant to hurt you. I would never seek to hurt you.”

She felt the bob of his Adam's apple as he swallowed. “I know. We’re just-” he stopped short. Hermione pulled back, tipping her head back to gaze at him.

“We’re just what?”

His eyes held a sadness that stabbed at her heart.

“We’re just a mess. We’ve always been a mess.”

She searched his gaze. “You’re just now realizing that?”

She meant it in jest but couldn’t bring herself to smile. She didn’t expect him to either.

“You were right.”

“I usually am. To what are you referring?”

“My parents would never accept us. My father told me to stay away from you.”

Hermione felt a burning behind her eyes. She made to pull away from his grasp but he clung to her tightly.

“I don’t care what they think, Hermione. I know you don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. I’ve answered their beck and call my entire life. I’ve done everything they’ve ever commanded of me. I attended Eton and Oxford like my father, joined Parliament just like my father, so why wouldn’t I marry who they want as well?”

She blinked, vision blurred by tears.

“But I’m done. I’m done living my life for them. I want to live it for me.” His eyes turned molten. “I want to live it with you.”

She swayed on her feet, his arm the only thing keeping her upright. His hand returned to her face, thumb sweeping beneath her eye, coming away wet.

“Draco… I-”

“Split up. Find him. Tell him I need to speak with him immediately.”

Hermione's eyes widened at the thundering voice emanating from just around the corner, a chorus of footsteps quick to follow.

“Rodolphus,” she whispered, face paling.

Draco’s jaw ticked but he set his emotions aside and burst into action, grabbing her by the hand and pulling her along the hallway at a sprint. She struggled to keep up, sighing in relief when he found an open door, practically tossing her inside the empty room before sliding in behind her.

He put a finger to his lips and braced his hand against the knob. She nodded, shifting anxiously from foot to foot as the sound of footsteps passed by. She swallowed heavily when another set stopped just outside their door.

A delicate knock sounded.

Draco scowled.

What?” He bit out, still braced against the wood.

“Sorry to bother you, Sir,” spoke a soft feminine voice. “My mistake. Please have a good evening.”

The footsteps proceeded further down the hall, the muffled sound of knocking and conversation filtering through from the other rooms.

“What was that about?” Hermione whispered, stepping closer.

“They’re looking for someone.”

“I got that.”

He shook his head, slowly stepping away from the wall. “The girls must recognize the voice of whoever they’re searching for.”

“Who would Rodolphus be trying to find?”

“I honestly couldn’t care less, as long as it isn’t me or you.”

Hermione sighed. “We can’t hide in here all night, Draco, I have to check on Parvati.”

“If she was able to convince Hermione Granger to show up to an upscale brothel in nothing but a corset and bloomers I have no doubt she’s more than capable of handling herself.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’ve already made your opinion of my outfit perfectly clear-”

“I’m not complaining. Not now at least.” He started to slowly stalk towards her. “I can’t abide other men seeing you like this. But I don’t mind when I can have you all to myself.”

Hermione wet her lips nervously, pulse quickening at his approach. Yet she didn’t move, arms falling away from her chest as his reached out to grab her once more-

The door burst open.

Hermione gasped, leaping behind Draco to hide from view, but it was too late, the newcomer had already seen her.

“What the bloody hell is this?” They demanded, voice enraged.

Draco’s spine straightened, hands curling to fists at his sides. Hermione cringed, willing the ground to open and swallow her whole for the second time that evening.

“I said,” they stepped inside the room fully, eyes narrowed. “What the hell is this?”

Draco released a heavy sigh through his nose, glancing over his shoulder at her crouching figure.

“We’re fucked, luv.”


Harry carefully maneuvered through the crowd, hot in pursuit of Rodolphus and his harem.

He made it past the red curtain and down the short hall before reaching the intersection, glancing both ways and seeing a girl turn a corner at the end. He turned left and dashed after her.

“Hey!” She stopped dead in her tracks, spinning around, her half skirt fluttering around her bare legs. “Wait for a second, luv.”

“Can I help you, Sir?”

“Yes, I’m looking for a friend of mine, she often comes as a guest. Lavender Brown, the name ring any bells?”

The girl blinked, taking a step back.

“I- I don’t- I’m not supposed to-” she stopped short, swallowing nervously.

Harry took a step forward, heart racing. “You know her?”

She shook her head, a bit too frantically. “No, I’m sorry, I have to go.”

She started to turn but Harry reached out, catching her arm. She flinched and he released her. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to frighten you. But I’m worried about Lavender, I think she might be in trouble. If you know something about her, anything at all, please tell me.”

The girl gazed up at him with raised brows. “You’re her friend?”

Harry nodded. “Yes, a very close friend, she’s practically a sister to me.” He pictured Hermione’s face in his mind as he spoke, giving his words the conviction they needed.

The girl bit her lip, looking hesitant, and then she glanced over her shoulder with an obvious longing to escape. His fists curled at his sides, frustration setting in, but he resisted grabbing her again.

“Please.”

His one syllable plea held a great weight he felt all the way to his marrow. She faced him once more, eyes filled with such a stricken sadness it scattered his thoughts.

“I’m sorry.”

Harry blinked, blood rushing through his ears.

“What?”

She took a step back.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I can’t help you.”

And then she disappeared around the corner.

Harry stood there for several beats, something painful twisting in his chest, wrapping around his heart and squeezing.

The girl hadn’t said she didn’t know Lavender. She said she couldn’t help him.

The distinction was his first true lead.

He hated to chase her, to make her feel like cornered prey, but this was too important to let slip.

He removed his mask and headed after her, rounding the same corner and drawing short.

She was gone, but he could hear the faint conversation in the next hall, the sound of knocking. He followed the noise, realizing belatedly that they were looking for someone. He recalled Rodolphus’s words from earlier, wondering who the man was searching for.

He noticed black keys sticking out of several doors, the faint sound of murmurs and moans emanating from within. He finally spotted a closed door without a key and darted for it, hoping to hide inside and wait for the girl to walk by, perhaps he’d have a better chance of intercepting her if she didn’t see him coming.

He started to enter but reared back as he realized the room was already occupied. He was readying an apology when his eyes processed the scene before him.

Malfoy.

Pressed tightly against a girl in scant uniform.

“What the bloody hell is this?”

Malfoy came to his full height, body tense as he spun around.

“I said,” Harry took a menacing step closer, chest tight with a torrent of emotion. “What the hell is this?”

Malfoy merely sighed, face resigned as he glanced over his shoulder at the girl cowering behind his tall frame.

“We’re fucked, luv.”

Harry’s jaw ticked, the casual intimacy in the man’s voice making him see red.

“You backstabbing louse! I thought you cared about Hermione, that you wanted to help find her missing friend. But you came to dip your quill in a bit of ink. You pathetic excuse for-” Harry stopped short, brows drawing. “What the fuck are you laughing about?”

“Should I tell him or should you?” the blonde asked the girl with a smirk that only served to frustrate Harry further.

“This night can’t get any worse,” spoke an all too familiar voice from behind the man’s back, dainty hands appearing on his biceps as she gingerly stepped out from her hiding spot.

Harry’s jaw fell open, mind rapidly trying to process what he was seeing.

She cringed.

“Harry, I can explain-”

“This should be good. Hold on a moment.” Draco sat down on the chaise, leaning back with his arms over the backing and his legs crossed at the ankles. He smiled widely. “Proceed.”

Harry’s mind finally moved beyond the initial shock.

He exploded.

“Hermione?!”

She cringed again, leaning away with the force of his volume.

“What the bloody hell is going on here? Why are you-” he blinked rapidly, face crumpling. “What are you wearing?”

She opened her mouth but he continued unabated.

“Jesus Christ, why are you in a uniform, Hermione?”

She stepped towards him with her hands up, mouth opening once more.

“Fucking hell, are you kidding me? I can’t-”

“Why don’t you try letting her get a word in, Potter.”

“Shut up, Malfoy!”

Draco laced his fingers behind his head. “Pardon my interruption. Please, continue to rant and rave like a lunatic, it’s immensely entertaining.”

Harry’s jaw clamped shut so hard his teeth clinked audibly. Hermione closed the distance between them, placing a hand on his chest.

“Harry, I came here to look for Lavender. Draco told me you came here for the same reason. We’re both-”

“You’re pretending to be a House girl, Mione? Are you fucking daft?”

Draco smirked. “And it gets better.”

Hermione’s eyes narrowed, hand falling away. “I’m going to give you a pass on that one because I know you’re still in shock. But the next insult will cost you.”

Draco scowled. “I didn’t get a free pass!”

Hermione glared over her shoulder. “That’s because you’re an arrogant arse. Now hush.” She faced Harry once more. “Did you find out anything about Lavender?”

Harry shook his head. “What? Are you serious? I’m not past the fact that you snuck in here!”

Hermione rolled her eyes, groaning. “Can we please skip over the inevitable argument regarding my welfare? I’m exhausted.”

His eyes narrowed as he shrugged out of his jacket, stepping close to drape it over her shoulders.

“We’re not skipping it, but we can delay the argument until the ride home, which is happening now.”

Draco chuckled behind them.

“Good luck with that, mate. I’ve been trying to drag her out of here since she threatened to break a bottle over my head.”

Harry pinned him with a sardonic look. “You dragged her to the back of the Club into a private room looking for an exit.”

Draco shrugged. “I was getting round to it.”

“Stop it, both of you!” Hermione snapped. “I am tired of everyone telling me what’s best for my life! I am looking for my missing friend and I’ll do whatever the bloody hell it takes to find her! If that means dressing up like a- a-”

Draco raised a pale brow, smirking as she struggled to find the word. She shook her head, pushing on.

“If that means dressing up and sneaking into a brothel then that’s what I’m going to do!”

Harry blinked, dumbfounded.

She heaved a breath. “Besides, I’ve met the girls who work here. They’re kind and intelligent and hard-working- stop laughing, Draco! I’m serious! They are good people and I’m not ashamed to pretend to be one of them. They stuck their necks out sneaking me in here and I’m not leaving until I find out something useful!”

She locked gazes with her best friend, the air around them charged with the force of her conviction.

Harry knew a losing battle when he saw one, on sea and on land, especially when it came to Hermione. She was a formidable opponent, easily talking circles around educated men twice her age. If they were lucky she left them licking their wounds, nursing bruised egos. Others she eviscerated entirely.

He didn’t feel like being skewered through the middle, at least not while wearing tights.

“Bloody hell…” he sighed, running his fingers through his hair, grabbing a handful and tugging in frustration. “I don’t think this night can get any w-”

“Ah ah ah!” Draco shouted from his prone position on the chaise. “Don’t be a dumb shite and jinx us any further, Potter.”

Harry sighed, dropping his arms at his sides. But it was too late.

The night got worse.

“Bloody hell, you broke my nose you crazy bint!”

“Damn right I did! Teach you to keep your paws to yourself you fucking- oi! Did you just pinch my arse? Want me to break your arm as well?”

Everyone turned to face the open door, the hallway beyond empty but for the loud voices bouncing off the walls.

“Zabini?” Harry asked, glancing to Draco with a raised brow.

Hermione rushed past them, dropping Harry’s coat to the ground and flying out of the room.

“Shite!” Harry shouted, sprinting after her, Draco springing off the chaise just behind him.

“Goddammit, Potter! She’s ninety bloody pounds and a foot shorter, fucking grab her!”

Harry reached out but she slipped around the corner before he could make contact. He and Draco crashed into the wall, unable to check their momentum in time.

“Ow! Fuck!” Draco groaned, grabbing his shoulder as Harry cursed under his breath, pushing off the wall and dashing down the hall.

Hermione came to a dead stop in an open doorway and Harry stumbled behind her, nearly falling face first onto the runner to avoid toppling into her.

“What the hell are you- Mione?” She darted into the room, Harry leaping after her. He blinked at the sight within.

Blaise was leaning over in an upholstered chair cradling his face, blood seeping out from between his fingers. A girl stood a few feet away, poised in a defensive stance, fists clenched.

“Parvati, are you alright?”

“Is she alright? I’m the one fucking bleeding!”

Hermione blinked. “Zabini?”

He blinked as well, sitting upright. “Granger?”

“You know this tosspot, Mione?” Parvati asked, hands perched on her hips.

Draco entered, panting lightly. “What the bloody hell is...” he trailed off as he gazed about the room. “...going on.”

Harry shook his head. “We’ll sort it out in the carriage, we’re leaving.” No one moved. “Now!” he shouted, making everyone jolt.

Hermione crossed the room and reached for the other girl, everyone ignoring Blaise who continued to scowl as he took to his feet.

“I’m fine, thanks for asking.”

Harry tipped his head, inspecting the man’s bloodstained upper lip and chin as his hands fell away.

“I don’t know what happened, but I’m sure you deserved it.”

Blaise glared, stomping past Harry and a laughing Draco. Harry turned his attention to the girls, ushering them into the hallway as quickly as possible. If they heard the commotion from two halls away it was only a matter of time until more people showed up.

“Did he hurt you?” Hermione whispered to her dark-haired friend. The girl shook her head, eyes narrowing.

“No. The wanker made a pass when I was walking down the hall looking for you. Then the idiot had the nerve to pinch my arse after I punched him! Cheeky bastard.”

Hermione smirked, intertwining their arms as they headed down the hall.

“On the bright side, you got to hit someone in the face before the night was through.”


Approximately forty-five minutes later and a rather hurried explanation to Pansy and Theo, which left them both laughing outright at Blaise’s bloodied appearance, the carriage was pulling alongside the corner of Bromley and Wade, the drop off point Hermione had insisted on to ensure they weren’t seen.

The ride had been a tense one, the car’s four occupants all brimming with exhaustion and stress in the wake of a chaotic evening.

Hermione had confessed to the boys that she and Parvati had made a pit stop outside Trafalgar Square to change clothes, leaving their garments at Angie’s flat. They were none too pleased to hear the girls had been running around the backstreets of London but agreed there wasn’t time to swing by and collect their belongings before the sun came up.

Which meant the girls were not only sneaking into the Home after curfew but were also doing so in their corsets and bloomers. The boys had given them their coats to help shield their arms, but their legs were still woefully exposed beyond the flimsy half-skirts.

Hermione could only imagine Umbridge’s reaction if she caught them in such a state. She took small satisfaction picturing every blood vessel in the toad’s face bulging with the force of her outrage, her head bursting like an overripe plum.

But her brief humorous interlude was squashed as Harry made good on his promise and proceeded to have out the argument about her welfare. It was mostly one-sided as Hermione was too exhausted to put up much fight.

She was also despondent that the night had turned up no additional information on Lavender. While Hermione had been subjected to a revolving door of close call discoveries, Parvati had actually been able to ask around the floor and speak to some of the house girls. While a couple claimed they’d seen Lavender before, none of them had any handle on her current whereabouts.

It had all been for naught. They were back to where they started, empty-handed and clueless.

Meanwhile, Draco, who’d insisted on accompanying the girls home as well, hadn’t spoken a word throughout the duration of the ride, which was immensely frustrating. He didn’t come to her defense when Harry lectured her, didn’t even speak up to agree with the man. He also didn’t spare her a single glance beyond helping her into the carriage initially.

Was this the same man who claimed only an hour ago that he longed to spend his life with her?

It felt as though a stranger was seated across the carriage.

Did he regret what he said in the hall? Did he wish he could take it all back? Was he pretending she didn’t exist in the hopes of erasing it from her memory as well?

Then why would he insist on seeing us home?

Hermione sighed as the carriage lurched to a stop, her mind overtaxed and unable to work out the oddity that was Draco Malfoy any further this night.

Harry was seated by the door and opened it, leaping down and reaching up to help the girls find their footing. Parvati exited first, extending her thanks as Harry grabbed her hand and helped keep her balanced on the dismount.

Hermione bit her lip, sliding along the seat waiting for her turn. She glanced over to Draco with trepidation, the unease that steadily built up throughout their ride overflowing from her lips.

“I’d say goodnight, but I don’t think it’s fair to call it that.”

Draco glanced away from the window and locked gazes. A stray beam of moonlight filtered through and illuminated his eyes. They looked surreal, glowing otherworldly from his shadowed corner of the carriage.

“We’ll speak soon, Granger.”

His words rattled her, sounding more like a threat than a promise. She blinked.

“Are you angry with me?”

Parvati was fully on the ground now, Harry reaching up and waiting for her to exit.

Draco cocked his head. “Furious.”

Her heart leaped into her throat. She didn’t want to end their interaction on such a note. Not again.

“Draco…” She trailed off as she noticed the glimmer in his eyes, the soft upturn of his lips. She tipped her head back with a sigh, relief pouring over her like warm water on cold skin. “Hilarious,” she groaned. “You make me want to scream my bloody lungs out sometimes.”

“We’ll turn that desire into reality the next time I see you.”

Her head snapped back down, a flush overtaking her body in the wake of his heated words. She opened her mouth but before she could formulate a response Harry popped his head in.

“Planning to stay the night in here, luv?”

She blushed deeper. “Oh, sorry,” she took his offered hand and leaped down to the pavement, glancing over her shoulder one last time but unable to see Draco through the shadows.

“So, this is where we exchange heated barbs or makeup, I’ll leave the decision up to you,” Harry said with a small smile.

She rolled her eyes. “Come here, idiot.”

His grin widened as he stepped forward and wrapped her in his embrace, speaking softly against her hair.

“I’m sorry I didn’t send word to you sooner. I was afraid of what I might find at the Club and didn’t want to upset you.”

She nodded against his shoulder. “I know. But I’m not a child, Harry. I deserve to be kept in the loop, especially since it involves someone close to me. How would you like it if I left you in the dark about Ron?”

He went suddenly rigid in her hold. Hermione glanced up. “Harry?”

He cleared his throat. “Um…” he shook his head. “I was just thinking how disappointed Ron will be that he didn’t get to see you in this outfit.”

Hermione arched a brow, not entirely convinced that’s what he was thinking but allowing him to divert the conversation in light of the circumstances.

“It’s a small blessing you were the one to find me. He’d never let me hear the end of it.”

Harry smirked. “Don’t think you’re getting off that easy. I plan on throwing this evening in your face for many years to come.”

“I would expect no less.” Her eyes moved past Harry to Parvati who shifted from foot to foot, glancing around the empty street warily. “Well, we should probably go.”

“Are you sure I can’t escort you inside?”

“We’re going to have to sneak back in, better if we’re not accompanied by a man when we do so.”

Harry sighed. “I can’t stand this place. I really wish you’d take Ron up on his offer.”

Hermione blinked. “He told you about that?”

“Gin told me he was going to ask you to move into the Burrow when he got back, knowing Ron I assume he brought it up in the first five minutes.”

She glanced away. “I can’t, Harry.”

“Fred and George will be gone soon-”

“It’s not that.”

Harry arched a brow. “What is it then?”

She shook her head, swallowing lightly. “I don’t want to go into it right now, we really have to get going, the sun will be up in a few hours and Filch sleeps hanging upside down from the rafters as it is.”

Harry sighed deeply, releasing her from his grasp and stepping back.

“Send word to me in the morning so I know you weren’t caught and flogged within an inch of your life.”

Hermione blinked, an image of the girl being flogged in the Club coming back to her in stunning clarity. She cleared her throat. “Of course.”

Harry’s expression turned somber. “I won’t stop looking for her, Hermione.”

She smiled sadly.

“It’s alright, Harry. There are no more leads to go on.”

“I’ll find McLaggen.”

“I don’t think he knows anything more, he’d have told you if he did.”

Harry’s jaw ticked. “I’ll knock him around some more, shake something loose from his memory.”

“As wonderful as that sounds I think the only thing you’ll knock loose is his already limited brain function.”

They held each other’s gaze a while longer until Parvati’s soft shuffling broke the trance.

“Goodnight, Harry.”

“Mione,” he caught her arm as she started to walk past. She glanced up, brow raised. “Please, don’t run around London looking for her. Whatever she was involved in…” he exhaled slowly. “Whatever she was involved in isn’t the type of stuff I want you getting tangled with. Let me keep searching for her. I’ll keep you informed of everything I find, I promise.”

She gently pulled free from his hold. “I love you too much to lie to you, Harry. I’m not going to stop searching for answers. But I’ll keep you in the loop as well so that there aren’t any more surprises like tonight.”

He didn’t look happy about that response. “You’re the most stubborn person I know.”

She smirked. “Funny, I was thinking the very same thing about you.”

Five minutes later she and Parvati were slipping through the gap in the back gate, carefully maneuvering through the garden beneath the bright moonlight.

“I like him,” Parvati whispered over her shoulder.

Hermione smiled. “Everyone likes, Harry.”

Her friend gazed upon her again, a coy smirk playing at her lips. “I wasn’t referring to Harry, though I like him, too.”

Hermione blinked. “I don’t-”

“No need to pretend, luv. I was in the carriage. Sexual tension was thick in the air. It was delicious.”

Hermione flushed, opening and closing her mouth but finding her usual lies inaccessible while pinned beneath the girl’s knowing stare.

“How did you figure that out?” she finally asked, resigned to the truth. “He didn’t spare me a word the entire ride.”

Parvati chuckled quietly, creeping past the freesias. “Exactly. It’s all about body language, not what a bloke says. Blondie was tense the whole ride, hands clenched at his sides to keep from reaching for you. He studied the window frame like it held the meaning of life.”

Hermione chewed the inside of her cheek. “He’s a whirlwind. One moment he’s burning hot and the next he’s ice cold. I don’t know what to think anymore.”

They carefully stepped around the hawthorn bush.

“Then don’t think. Feel.”

Hermione tipped her head, examining Parvati’s face in the darkness. “I wish it was that simple.”

“It can be simple. You just like to complicate everything.”

“Says the girl who tricked me into spending the night in a sex club.”

Parvati smiled. “I tricked Hermione Granger. This is a huge milestone in my life, you’re sarcasm won’t ruin it.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, fighting back a smile and failing miserably. “The kitchen door will be barricaded, thanks to my earlier escapades. We’ll have to use the old servant’s entrance.”

“The one Filch uses all the time?”

“Unless you feel like scaling the side of the building to find an open window.”

“Not in these shoes. Alright, let’s meet our fate.”

They were able to slip inside without issue. But their luck ran out as they entered the first-floor corridor that led to the stairs.

A shadow appeared on the far wall, illuminated by a swinging lantern.

The broken gait that followed was unmistakable.

They both dodged behind a tapestry, crouching low.

“Shite!”

Hermione nodded her agreement. “We have to find a way around him. Remember, we’re heading to Luna and Hannah’s room, they’ll still be asleep in ours.”

“How the hell are we going to get past him? He’s blocking the stairs!”

Hermione bit her lip. “One of us will have to create a diversion so the other can slip past.”

“That’s great for the person who doesn’t get trapped on the first floor.”

“They can lead Filch around in a circle. We’re both faster than he is. We can be under the covers by the time he makes it back to the dorms.”

Parvati shook her head. “And you accuse me of being the reckless one.”

“I thought you’d be proud.”

“I’m so proud I could burst into tears. Perhaps I’ll use that as the distraction.”

Hermione held her gaze. “No. I’ll create the distraction, you head upstairs.”

“What? No! I’ll-”

“Listen, Parvati,” she whispered sharply, reaching out and grabbing her hand. “It’s like you said earlier, if we’re caught Umbridge it less likely to kick me out. She needs my monthly stipend. She’ll lock me in the cellar for the rest of my life, but she won’t put me out on the streets.” She sighed. “We both know she’ll happily evict you in a heartbeat.”

Parvati looked stricken, her mouth opening and closing before she deflated. “If you’re caught I’ll never forgive myself.”

“If I’m caught then you’ll be obligated to slip me bread and water through the narrow slot in my cell.”

“Don’t joke.”

“Sadly I wasn’t. Okay, I’m going to head to the west end and make some noise. Don’t leave this hiding spot until he rounds the corner.”

Parvati squeezed her hand. “God’s speed.”

Hermione nodded.

“What’s one more poor decision, right?”

She took a deep breath, releasing her hand and creeping out from behind the tapestry. She carefully removed her shoes to minimize sound and then took off at a sprint down the hall.

Bloody hell, this night…

Her heart was pounding through her ears, body alive with the thrill of the rush. Her earlier fear and anxiety was pushed aside, her entire being possessed with the adrenaline surging through her veins.

She turned the corner so fast she skidded on her hose covered feet, catching herself against the wall.

Good going, idiot! Do you want to sprain an ankle before Filch even starts chasing you?

She collected herself and continued down the passage to the kitchen with steely determination. She grabbed a lantern off the wall before pushing open the butler door, eyes skimming the counters and cabinets, considering her options.

Best to keep it classic.

She set the lantern down and walked to the opposite wall, carefully removing a large metal pot from the hanging rack above. She bit her lip, eyeing the soup ladle hanging beside it. She started to reach for the instrument but then drew her hand back, shaking her head.

Classic and simple would do.

She crept back to the door, starting to push it open, but then remembered something and spun around.

She took the lantern to the store pantry and grabbed a small jar of honey, sliding it into the pocket of Harry’s velvet coat. It carried his scent, a small source of comfort. She lingered a moment longer, staring blankly at the items within before shutting the doors and exiting the kitchen, light and shoes in one hand, pot in the other.

She inhaled deeply, raising the pot high over her head, holding the air in her lungs until they burned, closing her eyes…

She opened her fingers and the dead weight dropped, crashing to the stone floor with a mighty roar, an explosion of chaos.

The immediate silence following the storm was unsettling.

But then she heard it.

“Bloody ‘ell!”

Muffled, distant cursing, followed by the shuffling footsteps of the caretaker.

She wasted no time, taking off at a run down the hall, passing the entrance to the dining hall as she made a large circle around the first floor, hoping Filch would be distracted by the abandoned pot long enough for her to make it to the stairs-

She gasped, stopping dead in her tracks, eyes widening at the sight in front of her.

She dropped her shoes and the lantern, the glass breaking and scattering along the ground.

Her heart skipped a beat as her mouth formed the name.

“Lavender?”

But no, it couldn’t be.

The girl stood at the end of the darkened hall, cast in shadows. She wore a plain white shift and nothing more, feet bare and dirty, blonde hair limp and stringy, hanging in a solid curtain over her face, blocking her identity from view.

The unnatural chill in the air was Hermione’s first indicator.

The girl’s utter stillness was the second.

She wasn’t breathing.

Hermione blinked back tears of terror.

“Who are you?”

The figure remained frozen.

Hermione couldn’t see its eyes, but she knew it was watching her.

Waiting.

“What do you want?”

Silence. All-encompassing, drowning out her rapid heartbeat, her nervous swallow.

“Are you in my head?”

She blinked again and the tears fell, dropping silently to her chest and carving paths along her skin.

And then the figure moved. The head tipped up, the hair parted, the face became visible.

Hermione brought a hand to her mouth to stifle a scream.

The eyes were missing. Gouged out, bloody holes left behind, jagged sockets aimed upon her.

The terror was overwhelming, shorting out her other senses, muting her thoughts.

She ran.

She had no idea where she was going, Filch was long forgotten, her mission to return to the dorms a far away memory.

She sobbed openly, oblivious to her surroundings, mindless of the noise she was making.

She had to get away.

Away away away-

An arm emerged from the shadows and grabbed her, pulling her into a darkened alcove.

She gasped, preparing to scream-

A large hand clapped over her mouth. “Calm down, Ms. Granger, unless you’d like to bring Filch running.”

She blinked. Then blinked again. The figure before her slowly taking shape through the tears.

She swallowed nervously as the hand slipped away. She licked her lips, tasting salt.

“Doctor?”

His eyes narrowed. “Don’t look so relieved. What are you doing out of-”

He trailed off, eyes roaming her figure. “Ms. Granger, are you in your underclothes?”

His neutral tone made her glance down in confusion. She’d forgotten she was barely dressed, her body still quaking with latent terror. She pulled the coat closed, shielding her torso, and then glanced over her shoulder with wide eyes, searching the darkness beyond for a white slip, blonde hair, the nightmare visage.

“I saw- there was a- I thought it-”

“Breathe, Ms. Granger.” His hand was still upon her arm, the other was filled with a thick stack of papers. She shook her head, inhaling sharply, feeling light-headed. “You’re having a hysterical reaction. Come with me.”

“I don’t- I shouldn’t-”

“You can and you will. Focus on maintaining your breath and follow along.”

She swallowed thickly, nodding as she fell into a numb stupor, the adrenaline dissipating rapidly from her system.

She followed him blindly, assuming he’d lead her to the clinic.

But they walked steadily in the opposite direction.

She gazed around in confusion when he led her down a darkened corridor she recognized only too well. It was where she sought refuge the night she discovered Lavender in the closet with McLaggen. The night she met the Doctor for the first time. Another lifetime ago.

The corridor led to his bedroom.

Her heart skipped a beat, yet she continued to follow without opposition. Without rational thought.

But he didn’t take her to his room. Instead, he stopped at a door on the opposite wall directly across from his chamber. The door was partially open, soft candlelight flickering within. He held his arm out, inviting her to enter. She stepped inside without hesitation.

The room was small, startling so. Barely more than a storage closet, yet it managed to fit a desk, chair, and small bookcase. Every surface was covered in papers. Endless stacks of it lined the walls. It was overwhelming to look upon, making her heart race anew. She stepped back instinctively and gasped as she met something warm and unyielding.

She spun around, the Doctor directly at her back, eyes narrowed and fixed upon her.

She opened her mouth but her words fell short as his hand reached out, lightning fast, and grasped her neck.

Her pulse thrummed madly, mind going blank in this fresh wake of terror. She was hypnotized by it, a rabbit falling into a death trance as the python coiled around and around, pinning it limbs, squeezing the breath from its lungs-

Only the Doctor didn’t put any pressure on her neck, he merely tipped her head back with his thumb while his fingers grazed the delicate flesh, his eyes transfixed upon her throat.

Then she realized he was tracing the red ribbon adorning her neck like a choker.

His eyes flashed with hellflame. She watched in mute fascination as a dark transformation overcame him. It rendered her boneless. She remained upright merely by the magnetism of his hand upon her.

“You’ve been somewhere you shouldn’t be.”

She blinked, pulse throbbing wildly against his lingering touch. His fingertips burned her flesh, the fire in his gaze emitting black smoke that filled her lungs and stole her breath.

His eyes flickered up, meeting hers.

“What have you done?”

His gaze was unnatural, his body too still. Instinctual fear took root within her. She was in the midst of a predator. She understood that now.

But it was too late.

He stepped closer.

And closer yet.

His shoulder blades split down the middle, monstrous wings expanding, made of shadow and smoke, filling the room, blocking the candlelight, casting her into a dark abyss.

What have you done, Hermione?”

She swallowed, feeling the movement against his resting fingers.

“I made a series of very poor decisions.”

His eyes flickered down once more, she couldn’t tell whether he stared upon her mouth or the ribbon.

“I can see that.” He tipped his head, the casual gesture unsettling. “You snuck out.”

She inhaled.

“Yes.”

“You changed clothes.”

She wet her lips.

“Yes.”

He stepped closer.

“You went to Amortentia.”

She blinked, a deep flush overtaking her. Part of her senses returning upon hearing the name spoken by his voice.

“You know about Amortentia?”

“I know a great deal about it.”

She flushed hotter, eyes flickering between his.

“No, I’m not a client.”

She released a slow breath. He was standing so close her chest grazed his on her next inhale.

“But I know all about it just the same. These ribbons,” his thumb grazed across the fabric, “I know what they signify. Which leaves me immensely curious as to why you’re wearing them.”

She opened and closed her mouth, his proximity too much for her frazzled nerves to endure.

He held her gaze for several beats more before stepping back, his hand dropping away, her lungs decompressing.

“Take your time. We won’t be disturbed in here.”

His comment did nothing to alleviate her stress.

“I was looking for Lavender.”

“At Amortentia?”

She nodded slowly. His eyes flickered to her body, lingering on her hose clad legs.

“You pretended to be an employee.”

It wasn’t a question. She bit her lip, averting her gaze to the ground.

She braced herself for the scorn, the lecture, the punishment.

“Did you find anything useful?”

Hermione blinked, glancing up. She stared at him in wonderment before shaking her head.

“No… we didn’t.”

She cringed at her inadvertent use of the term ‘we’. She didn’t want to bring Parvati down with her. She knew the Doctor caught her turn of phrase, the man didn’t miss anything. But his next words startled her further.

“That’s unfortunate.”

She took a deep breath, shoulders dropping.

“Yes, it is.”

“Why were you running down the hallway like hellhounds were at your heels?”

She glanced away once more.

A part of her wanted to tell him the truth. Craved it desperately. To share this burden with another person, someone who may have the answers she sought, not the supernatural speculation that Luna provided.

But she knew she couldn’t. She didn’t know this man, not well enough to place her fate in his hands. He would have the grounds to have her admitted to a mental asylum if she confided the details of her hallucinations.

She couldn’t risk it.

“I was trying to escape Filch.”

He tucked his hands in his trouser pockets, gaze steady.

“Why were you crying?”

She swallowed lightly, glancing up. “I was… I was scared.”

He raised a dark brow. “Scared? Of Filch?”

“Yes,” she nodded. “Of being caught. I know the trouble I’d be in if Umbridge found me in such a state.”

He tipped his head, as though studying her at a different angle revealed something new.

“I see.”

Perhaps it did.

She bit her lip once more.

He knows I’m lying.

She ran her finger beneath one of the ribbons on her wrist, fidgeting anxiously, and tugged too hard. It broke beneath her touch, falling to the floor. She stared upon it for a few tense seconds before forcing her gaze upward.

“Are you going to report me?”

A heavy beat.

“No.”

She breathed slowly, daring to ask the question burning inside her.

“Why?”

“You will go to any lengths to find your friend. I cannot bring myself to punish that which I admire.”

Her heart lurched, body rocking with the impact of his words.

“You seem surprised. I am not the head of this establishment, nor am I the disciplinarian. I am the Doctor. It is my job to ensure your welfare, which is why I strongly discourage you from visiting Amortentia or such establishments again. But I will not punish you after the fact.”

More of her fear fell away in light of the mystery before her.

“You aren’t like most Doctors.”

His face transformed once more, a dark humor setting in, lifting the corner of his mouth.

“That I am not.” His eyes gleamed. “You aren’t like most young women.”

Hermione’s hands curled at her sides. “No. I’m not.”

His gaze remained steady, unyielding.

“You seem to have recovered from your episode. I think it’s safe for you to return to your dorm now.”

“Safe is a pretty relative term.”

He nodded, head turning as he glanced at the door. “I will deter Filch in order for you to head upstairs.”

She jolted, trying to make sense of his offer but finding no logic to be had. She normally loved puzzles.

But not this one.

“Why…” she gathered the meager remnants of her courage. “Why are you helping me?”

He looked to her once more, his mask of calm detachment back in place.

“Because, Ms. Granger. You’re in need of my help at the present moment, and I’m in a position to provide it.”

Then he smiled, and the mask cracked.

His fangs descended.

She blinked and they were gone, his next words pulling her from the haunting reverie.

“And perhaps one day our positions will be reversed… and you’ll be able to help me.”

Chapter Text

Forgetting's just forgetting,
Except when it's not.
Then they call it something else.
.   .   .

Hermione didn’t fall asleep that night.

Her mind was too restless, her heart refusing to return to its normal pace.

After she’d slipped into the darkened dorm she’d been immediately accosted by Parvati, her friend standing guard at the door waiting for her. She said she’d been on the verge of searching for Hermione herself, convinced Filch had discovered and dragged her to some hidden dungeon beneath the Home.

They’d shared Hannah’s bed for the first hour, staring at the ceiling silently in the dark, until Parvati was finally slipped under the sweet veil of unconsciousness.

Hermione wasn’t so lucky. And lying beside the slumbering girl had only made her feel more anxious, more nervous. So she’d padded quietly to Luna’s bed and slipped beneath the covers, the mattress her own private den of solitude, an island all her own.

She was a castaway, separated from civilization, trapped in the center of an endless ocean.

“... perhaps one day our positions will be reversed… and you’ll be able to help me.”

Of all the chaos that had ensued over the last twenty-four hours, the utter mess that was her night, those were the words that stayed with her until the sun broke the horizon, bathing the room in a pale orange glow.

They unsettled her greatly, though she couldn’t fathom why. The comment was harmless enough. But the manner in which it was delivered, the man who delivered it…

It all amounted to something more.

But what?

She had such a headache, brought on by utter exhaustion and rampant overthinking as she tried to analyze every beat of her night.

By the time Parvati stirred Hermione was already sitting on the edge of the bed, staring out the window with a haunted gaze.

They borrowed clothes from their friends’ wardrobe and slipped downstairs to breakfast for appearance’s sake, neither girl hungry but needing to see the aftermath of Hermione’s midnight run. She’d meant to leave a pot for Filch to find but also ended up leaving behind her borrowed shoes and a broken lantern.

She had no doubt he’d be out for blood, desperate to find the person responsible for giving him the runaround and making him look like a fool in a wily game of cat and mouse.

Hermione slid in beside Luna on the bench, stomach clenching at the mere sight of toast on the girl’s plate.

“Good morning,” the blonde said with a bright smile. “How did you sleep?”

“Like the dead,” Parvati responded from her spot across the table. “And you?”

“Your bed is really hard, Mione,” Hannah said, taking a bite of eggs. “I had to move to Lavender’s. I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course it is. Someone needs to keep it warm for her,” Parvati said automatically, filling her glass with water from the pitcher.

Hermione glanced away.

“Your bed is quite comfortable, Parvati,” Luna said pleasantly. “I find it much more enjoyable than mine.”

“Any time you want to crawl in beside me you come right on over,” Parvati flashed her a saucy wink. Luna tipped her head, buttering her toast.

“That’s very kind of you to offer, I shall keep it in mind.”

Parvati snorted, shaking her head and taking a drink.

“So…” Hannah said lowly, leaning forward. “Don’t leave us in suspense, did you find anything?”

Hermione glanced at the head table, narrowing her gaze when she saw no sight of Umbridge. She swallowed nervously, wondering if her absence had anything to do with last night.

Did the Doctor end up turning me in?

But she asked the question with little anxiety, already knowing the answer in her heart.

He wouldn’t turn her in.

He needed her for something...

She felt a steady pressure build rapidly behind her eyes everytime she thought on it, the more she tried to solve the puzzle the more her head felt like it would split down the center, her brain spilling onto the floor.

She snapped her gaze back to her friends.

“We should avoid talking about it in public if at all possible, just in case.” She bit her lip, shoulders dropping. “But the short answer is no, we didn’t find anything.”

Hannah deflated as well, sighing. Luna on the other hand merely tipped her head. “Don’t be discouraged. You’ll find something.”

“Any chance you’ve had a vision, luv?” Parvati asked her in all sincerity. “Anything is better than nothing at this point.”

Luna shook her head, hair shimmering in the sunlight. “I’m afraid not. I haven’t had one in a long time, and I’ve never been able to induce them myself.”

Hermione rubbed her palms against her borrowed skirt, feeling a blossoming sense of anxiety in the wake of such a discussion. When she first met Luna she’d been gobsmacked by the girl’s claims, that she actually thought she had such supernatural abilities.

Then she’d gotten to know Luna and fell utterly in love with her kindness, selfless nature, and bright outlook on the world at large, no matter the situation.

And the more time went by, the closer they became, the less strange it all seemed. Hermione certainly didn’t believe in any of it, but she came to understand that Luna did, so she learned to accept it as a part of the girl’s personality, what made her the unique and compassionate individual she was.

But now Hermione was starting to develop a different outlook on the matter.

With these ghastly hallucinations she was plagued by on nearly a daily basis at this point, her own sanity in question, she found such paranormal discussion unnerving.

“Are you alright, Hermione?” Luna asked, blue eyes upon her.

Hermione nodded quickly, trying to effect a more casual posture. “Yes, I’m fine. Just tired.”

Luna held her gaze, her expression all too knowing, but the moment was interrupted by a new presence at their back.

“Granger.”

Hermione cringed.

“What do you want, Edgecomb?” Parvati snapped.

“Is your name Granger?”

“Something looks different about you today, Rhetta. Are you normally this bloated or are you just getting fatter?”

Marietta’s hands clenched to fists at her sides, even as a malevolent smirk appeared on her face. “I won’t stoop to your level today, Patil. Besides, I know you’re just sore over the fact your dirty slut of a friend took off without you. Trouble in paradise?”

Hermione leaped at the same time as Parvati, but she flew towards her friend, while Parvati flew towards Marietta’s throat.

“Parv, stop!”

Hannah sprung to her feet as well, helping restrain the flailing girl as best she could.

“You stupid bitch!”

Diners at nearby tables stmid-conversationsation, setting down utensils to watch the show.

Marietta stepped back, laughing. “Struck a nerve, did I? I was joking about her running off, you know. I assume she’s dead in a gutter somewhere, whored herself out to the wrong bloke.”

Hermione clenched her jaw, barely tamping her own raging desire to strike the girl down. Instead, she clasped Parvati’s face in her hands, forcing their eyes to meet.

“Don’t listen to her, Parv. She’s trying to provoke you. She knows if you hit her you’ll be kicked out. Don’t give her the satisfaction.”

Parvati’s eyes were unfocused, wild.

“Parvati, please, calm down!”

“She’s not worth it, Parv,” Hannah added, glancing nervously to Hermione.

Parvati came to her senses in stages. She slowly deflated in Hannah’s hold, blinking a few times as she seemed to awake from a stupor.

Her eyes met Hermione’s.

“I’m okay.”

Hannah kept her grip on her arms a few moments longer, finally releasing her.

“Well that was fun,” Marietta deadpanned. “But I really don’t have time for such base diversions. I came to fetch Granger.”

Hermione spun around, still seething.

“Fetch me?”

“Umbridge wants to see you immediately.”

Her heart leapt into her throat. She glanced sharply at Parvati and shared a loaded look. Then she felt something brush her fingers, making her jump. She looked down and met Luna’s gaze.

“You shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

Hermione blinked, something in the blonde’s eyes blanketing her in a wave of calm.

“I’ll see you girls later.”

“Hermione-”

“It’s fine, Parv.” She gave her a meaningful look, trying to convey the silent message. Her friend nodded, albeit reluctantly, and then Hermione was exiting the dining hall, limbs stiff and mind blank as she followed in Marietta’s wake.

“I really do think she’s dead, you know,” the girl said over her shoulder as they walked down the mostly empty corridor.

Hermione took a deep breath, muscles tensing.

Marietta’s eyes narrowed, annoyed she was unable to elicit a more satisfying response. Hermione braced herself for her next attempt.

“Probably for the best. Lord only knows the disease she was spreading everytime she opened her legs.”

She scowled as Hermione remained silent, eyes averted straight ahead. Eventually, she seemed to accept that Hermione wasn’t going to play along, facing forward with a huff.

Finally they stood outside the office door. Hermione never thought she’d feel so relieved to arrive at this particular location, but she didn’t think she could bear to remain in Edgecomb’s presence for another moment.

“Good luck,” she said in a sign song voice, laughing as she left Hermione to her fate.

She paused outside the door, taking a deep breath and willing her mind to stay calm. She pictured Luna’s steady blue gaze, which led to images of a calm blue lake.

After last night she had limited remaining capacity for fear. She raised her arm and knocked solidly against the wood.

“Enter!”

The sugary sweet voice turned her stomach.

“Oh, yes. Ms. Granger.” Was the lackluster greeting she received upon entering the whimsical office.

Hermione stood numbly in the middle of the floor, relieved to see there was no one else inside. She presumed if she were being punished for last night then either Filch or the Doctor would be in attendance.

Or perhaps I’m being punished for breathing the wrong way.

Also a possibility.

“I received word last night that your solicitor will be paying his inspection this afternoon. This will be the first of his quarterly visits, as you know, and I expect nothing less than-”

The rest of the Matron’s words faded away beneath the deafening hum that echoed through Hermione’s ears.

She swayed on her feet, the blood draining from her body and pooling on the floor, creating a great river that spread along the stone and climbed up the walls, coating every surface in bright crimson.

She blinked, vision fading. Her entire body went numb.

“Ms. Granger! Are you even listening?”

Hermione opened her mouth but no sound emitted.

“Lord help me, it’s barely sun up and you’re already driving me mad. If only you applied such dedication to being a-”

“He’s coming here. Today.”

Umbridge blinked.

“Was that a question? Did you hear anything I just said?”

She wet her lips, blinking again, eyes drifting to the red stained walls, bloody handprints appearing over everything.

“Ms. Granger!”

Hermione blinked again and the room was clean, bright sunlight spilling in through the large windows, no trace of red in sight.

“Honestly, what is the matter with you?”

She took a shaky breath, swallowing thickly.

“My solicitor is coming here today.”

Umbridge scowled. “We’ve already established that. Now listen good because I will not repeat myself again. He is arriving at noon to conduct his inspection of the premises and to ensure your welfare is being provided for. You are to escort him around the grounds and answer any and all questions in a satisfactory manner. If you try and portray me or this institution in a bad light then-”

“Why is he coming here today?”

Umbridge’s nostrils flared.

“Bloody he-” she caught herself before completing the curse. “Are you daft? Do you suffer from an ailment of the mind? That would explain quite a lot.”

Hermione briefly closed her eyes, a strong wave of vertigo overcoming her. She stumbled on her feet, opening her lids to regain her balance.

“If you’re ill then I won’t have you spreading it to the other girls-”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re white as a sheet.”

She swallowed again, her throat full of jagged rocks.

“I’m fine.” She forced herself to meet the Matron’s hostile gaze. “I’m fine.” She repeated, voice steadier.

Umbridge hardly looked convinced, but she clenched her jaw and relented. “This meeting is very important to your continued relationship with this institution. You will arrive at this office at precisely twelve o'clock, not a moment later. And you will conduct your meeting as a proper young lady, none of these wild antics you are so keen on. If you do anything, and I mean anything, to embarrass me or the Home then I promise you-”

“I’ll be here at noon.” She didn’t mean to interrupt, Hermione knew the woman hated it more than anything, but she was having trouble staying upright and was desperate enough to leave that she was willing to incur the Matron’s wrath.

“Very well,” Umbridge finally bit out, eyes narrowed to thin slits. “You may go. I suggest having a lie down until he arrives. I won’t have you emptying your stomach contents all over his shoes.”

Hermione nodded, barely registering her words, and fled the office before given proper leave.

She managed to turn the corner to the next hallway before she collapsed.

She slid bonelessly down the wall, wrapping her arms around her knees and burying her face in her skirts.

She had been wrong.

She still had plenty of capacity left over for fear.

And right now, she was utterly terrified.


Harry opened his eyes, blinking away the last remnants of sleep, his lids still burning with utter exhaustion.

He’d managed to somehow find a few hours of rest after arriving back at Grimmauld right at the cusp of sunrise. It was surprising, considering his mind was an utter mess. He was plagued with fear and anxiety for Mione, the usual stress and confusion that Theo induced, and the newest overwhelming emotion, great trepidation where this Lavender girl was concerned.

Something wasn’t right. When Harry had first been presented with the missing person case he hadn’t taken it all that seriously, assuming she’d shacked up with a bloke or a few friends and neglected to tell Hermione.

But after speaking with Susan and the frightened girl at Amortentia, Harry was starting to suspect something much larger at play.

And he knew Hermione wouldn’t let it rest. Which meant he couldn’t either if he had any hope of shielding his best friend from whatever monsters lurked in the shadows, hidden beneath the bed and deep inside the closet. The greatest dangers were always those situated closest to a person. And Harry would never forgive himself if something happened to her.

He’d lost enough already at his young age, he couldn’t bear to lose Hermione, too.

Which is why he’d chosen to withhold the information he’d garnered at the Club. The mysterious house girl who fled from his questioning obviously knew more than she was telling. He just needed to figure out how much. Which meant finding her again.

If he told Mione about the strange encounter then she’d set out to find the stranger as well, leading her only deeper and deeper into this tangled mess.

No, Harry would follow up on the lead alone. She may be frustrated by his constant need to shield her from every danger in London but he couldn’t help it. As far as he was concerned she’d been through enough tragedy to last several lifetimes. He would protect her at all costs.

So he rubbed his bleary eyes and gazed up at the vaulted ceiling, trying to formulate a plan.

Planning was always Mione’s strong suit. Execution was his. It’s what made him an excellent Naval sailor but an inept strategizer, something his godfather was steadily trying to develop in him. He constantly told Harry he needed to think before he acted, plot things through before jumping in head first.

Sirius went easy on him because he claimed he was the same in his youth, always relying on James to be the big idea guy, the one to spend the night before a mission planning out every step while Sirius climbed the walls desperate to get moving.

But with age brought life experience and Sirius had been forced to develop a keen sense of strategy, especially in the wake of James’s death. Sirius had been tasked with filling his best friend’s shoes as Lieutenant. Fast forward nearly ten years later and he was Captain of an elite warship, first of her kind.

Harry knew his godfather wanted Harry to follow in his footsteps, to become the man James never had the opportunity to become.

Harry wanted to make the man proud, to honor his parents’ memory.

He just felt like he was living someone else’s life sometimes.

Suddenly there was an echoing slam of a door from downstairs.

Harry blinked, sitting up quickly.

He sat still for several moments, listening hard to the noises that followed, the steady thud of boots on the hardwood, the creaking of the baseboards.

And then-

“Get up, you lazy arse!”

The echoing voice made Harry’s heart jolt.

And then he smiled.


Hermione took refuge in the water closet.

She was terribly nauseous but hadn’t eaten in nearly twenty-four hours and her empty stomach twisted painfully as she dry heaved for several minutes.

She was breathless by the end of it, sitting on the floor without a care for how filthy it probably was. Cleaning duties for the room were assigned as a punishment and the girls saddled with the responsibility, often times Lavender and Parvati, didn’t usually put much effort into making the tile shine.

She leaned her head against the wall, gazing at the floral wallpaper with hooded eyes.

What a terrible thing memory was.

How it could plague a person so, twisting and turning, manipulating itself into endless shapes and sounds, distorting reality into a new, terrible truth.

Hermione didn’t recall many of the details of that day. She had replayed the events over and over in her head so many times she’d lost track of what was real and what her mind had fabricated in the wake of her terror and shame.

Only the bare bones of the transgression had survived unscathed.

She couldn’t remember getting ready for the appointment, nor could she recall the ride to his office or walking up the steps that led to his door.

She remembered the dress she wore. She remembered because he loved it so, tugging and pulling the fabric. She remembered because she destroyed the garment afterward, too disgusted to look upon it. Unable to wash the blood out.

She didn’t remember the conversation leading up to the attack.

The crux of the memory began the moment he locked the door.

She recalled the endless echo of sliding metal as he twisted the deadbolt, the way the sound pulled the air from her lungs. She remembered the look he flashed her over his shoulder as he stood there. The way her body screamed at her to run even as her mind went stunningly blank.

The next few moments were a blur. There was more talking. He stood behind her, hand on her neck, hand on her waist, hand on her hip, hand in her hair- hundreds of hands, thousands of fingers, searing hot breath scorching her flesh.

She couldn’t recall running. But suddenly he was chasing her around the desk. She remembered carrying her beating heart in her mouth, tasting the blood on her tongue, feeling the stuttering beats against the back of her throat, her veins and arteries pulled taught, pure adrenaline giving rise to blind fight or flight instinct.

But he’d captured her.

A wire net cast over her flapping wings, ripping her from the sky.

And then…

… and then...

“Oi!”

A rapid pounding on the water closet door.

“Come on, you’ve been in there for half an hour!”

Hermione blinked, lurching away from the wall and climbing shakily to her feet.

“Sorry.” Her voice was hoarse. She cleared her throat, trying again. “I’ll be right out!”

A muffled groan.

“Hurry up or I’m going to have to use the garden!”

Hermione swallowed, running a hand through her curls, trying to tame the loosened strands. She gazed upon her pale complexion in the mirror, pinching her cheeks to add a hint of color, the illusion of life, and took a steadying breath.

She opened the door, stepping out tentatively.

“About bloody time- Oh. Hello, Hermione. Didn’t know it was you in there.”

“Hello, Fay. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“It’s alright, didn’t mean to get so snippy with you but I’m fit to burst.”

Hermione nodded. “No offense taken, please, don’t let me keep you any longer.”

The brunette gave a quick smile and dashed into the small room, slamming the door behind her in her haste.

Hermione bit her lip, lingering in the corridor for several moments trying to work out where to go next.

She still had a few hours before…

Before she had to arrive at Umbridge’s office.

She recalled the woman’s words, her instruction to lie down.

Hermione knew she wasn’t ill, and she knew she’d never be able to catch up on sleep in her current state, but hiding away in her dorm sounded wonderful at the moment. She didn’t think she’d be able to fake her way through morning chores and congenial interactions.

She clenched her fists at her sides and took off at a quick stride to her room.


Harry threw on his clothes haphazardly and galloped down the stairs, feet bare and shirtfront hanging open.

He saw the bags in the center of the floor, a coachman exiting the entryway and closing the door behind him.

Harry leaped the bottom two steps, landing in a pounce on the finely woven rug, spinning in a circle looking for-

“You’ve been drinking all my good whiskey, I see.”

Sirius.

Harry laughed, entering the parlor.

“You have Malfoy to thank for that, you know I’m more partial to your secret brandy stash.”

The man rolled his eyes, setting the mostly empty crystal decanter down. “Not much point in calling it secret then, is there?”

Harry crossed the room. “What are you doing back? I wasn’t expecting you till next week.”

Sirius sighed, wrapping an arm around his godson and embracing him. “I lost my mind and blew up the ship. Decided to lie low for a bit. Don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me.”

Harry shook his head, pulling back from the hug. “No can do I’m afraid. I stand to inherit a lot in the event of your death or life imprisonment. I’ve been dying to buy a home on the coast of Santorini.”

“You good for nothing louse.”

“You knew that when you adopted me.”

“True enough. Now, what’s this about Malfoy polishing off half the decanter?”

Harry rolled his eyes, backing up and sprawling on the sofa.

“It’s a long bloody story, and far too early to dredge it up.”

Sirius knocked Harry’s feet off the cushion and took a seat at the opposite end.

“You’ve been home for three days, how much could I have missed?”

Harry pinned him with a sardonic look.

“It involves Mione.”

Sirius rolled his eyes. “Say no more. Poor kid’s got it bad.”

“Yes, please say no more,” Harry groaned, rubbing his eyes. “I can hardly stomach the thought of her with anyone, little less the Ferret King himself.”

“Alright, I’ll drill you for the information later. What else has happened since you’ve been back?”

Harry shrugged, fighting back a yawn.

Oh you know, Hermione’s friend went missing and she asked me to help find her so I pummeled the shite out of McLaggen in an opium den and was led to a shady bookie who sold me an even shadier key for a small fortune which led me to a sex den owned by the Lestranges where I discovered Mione dressed like a high-end prostitute and barely managed to sneak her out in time and now I’m trying to figure out how to continue the investigation because there’s obviously something sinister at play.

“Nothing really.”

Sirius raised a dark brow. “Is that so?”

“Pretty tame, all things considered.”

Sirius held his gaze for a moment longer before relenting. “How boring.”

“Story of my life.”

“Yes, what a simple life you’ve led, Harry Potter.”

Now Harry rolled his eyes. “So what are you doing back, really?”

Sirius sighed, tipping his head back into the couch. “We brought the ship to port early for the celebration.”

Harry blinked. “Celebration? For what?”

Sirius closed his eyes. “My promotion to Admiral.”

“What?!” Harry leaned forward. “Are you serious?”

He groaned, catching his slip too late. The other man smirked.

“You’re spared. I’m too exhausted to grab such low hanging fruit.”

“Hardy har har. But honestly, you’ve been made Admiral?”

“Honestly, I have.”

“Why aren’t you more excited?”

“Because I just got off a fifteen-hour shift and am starting to hallucinate.”

“Don’t brag.”

Sirius chuckled, opening his eyes. “I’m honored by the promotion.”

“I’m sorry, do I look like a reporter for the London Tribune?”

“Alright, I’m bloody ecstatic. And scared shiteless. And fucking anxious as hell.”

“That’s more like it.”

“That’s not the only bit of news.”

Harry leaned back. “Burying the lead, I see. Are we getting new window furnishings as well?”

“Not unless you set fire to them again.”

“For the last time, that was Ron. He was drunk and tipped the candles over.”

“You’re getting Lieutenant.”

Harry’s smile fell, heart stuttering a staccato beat.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

He opened and closed his mouth like a gaping fish. “What- I-” he swallowed. “When?”

“It’ll be announced at the party this weekend. I wasn’t supposed to say anything, but I wanted to give you ample time to process the information, prevent you from saying something stupid in front of the boss.”

“I’m touched you have such faith in me.”

“The last time you were caught off guard you referred to the Dowager of Kent as a cleaver in front of a room full of Peers.”

“She accosted me between the legs at the dinner table. Besides, I was only repeating your words!”

“I never said that. And if I did, I was drunk.”

Harry ran a hand through his hair, mind reeling. Sirius leaned forward and patted him on the leg.

“It’ll be alright, my boy. There are worse things in life than getting rewarded for your hard work. You’ll survive this yet.”

“I’m not- I just-” he fell short, shaking his head in frustration.

“It’s okay, kid. If anyone gets it, I do. Which is why I told you ahead of time so you can get those chaotic thoughts in order before you’re expected to walk the stage.” He sighed, pushing off the couch. “Now, I’m going to go collapse face first into the mattress for no less than twelve hours. Disturb me at risk to your own life.”

Harry nodded, barely hearing the words as his godfather made his way for the exit.

“Oh, and before I forget,” Sirius spun around in the doorway. “The family’s coming by for dinner tonight. How they managed to find out I was heading back early is beyond me, but Andy sent a letter last night informing me there was no way out of it.”

Harry groaned, scrubbing his hands over his face.

“Fantastic. Anything else you want to tell me?”

“Yes.” Sirius started heading for stairs, speaking over his shoulder. “Refill my liquor cabinet before this evening. We’re going to need it.”


Hermione sighed into her pillow, regretting her decision already.

She’d chosen to hide out in her dorm to avoid interacting with anyone.

She didn’t think through the consequences of total solitude.

Like being trapped with nothing but her dark thoughts for company.

She groaned, pressing the heal of her palms into her eyes, counting the bursts of light against the back of her lids.

The door opened.

Hermione gasped, jolting into an upright position.

“Oh! Sorry to scare you, Mione, didn’t know you’d be up here,” Hannah said, slipping inside the room and closing the door behind her. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

Hermione took a deep breath, heart rate settling. “No, I wasn’t sleeping.”

Hannah smiled. “Good. I mean, good that I didn’t wake you. I just came to grab my journal. I left it in here this morning.”

Hermione blinked. “Oh. Of course.” She glanced to her side table, then to Parvati’s. “I don’t see it.”

“I left it in Lavender’s drawer.”

Hermione swallowed, watching Hannah cross the small space and slide open the top drawer on the dusty night table.

“Got it.” She pulled out a small black leather journal, the edge of the pages marred and warped. Hermione tilted her head.

“I didn’t know you kept a diary.”

Hannah glanced to the item in question. “Oh, I don’t. It’s a sketchbook.”

“Really?” Hermione sat up straighter, leaning back against her headboard. “May I see?”

Hannah bit her lip. “I’m not very good-”

“Stop that this instant. I’m sure you’re brilliant. Besides, I can’t draw a straight line. I won’t give you any criticism.”

Hannah laughed lightly. “I just… it’s not very, I don’t really think you’d-”

“Hannah.”

The girl glanced up, warm brown eyes meeting Hermione’s hazel gaze.

The blonde sighed, shoulders relaxing. “Alright, but I’m telling you, they’re absolutely awful.”

Hermione smiled, patting the empty space beside her on the bed. She was excited to see her friend’s talent, her passion, to learn more about the girl she’d been sharing a Home with all these months.

She was also desperate for a distraction, anything to pull her from the swirling vortex of her thoughts.

Hannah flopped down beside her, curling her legs beneath her and slowly opening the book, letting it rest between their laps.

Hermione blinked. Then she smiled, lifting the book for a closer look.

“You draw architecture.” She gazed at a detailed rendition of a Georgian style building. “Hannah, this is fantastic.”

“No it’s really not.”

Hermione raised a brow, glancing up. “Please tell me you’re being obscenely humble. This is incredible. The detail is amazing.” She flipped a page, gazing at an interior drawing. “Look at this scrollwork on the columns and ceiling. It’s breathtaking.”

Hannah picked at the quilt, eyes averted down. “I don’t know about that. It’s just a standard Neoclassical design.”

Hermione shook her head, turning page after page, more impressed the further along she went.

“Are these real places or designs you’ve created in your head?”

“A bit of both. The front of the journal is mostly real places. The more recent stuff is my own designs.”

Hermione shook her head, studying the drawing of an outdoor courtyard complete with landscaping, fountains and an ivy-covered gazebo.

“You’re gifted.”

Hannah laughed.

“I’m serious! Don’t sell yourself short, Hannah. I was honestly expecting sketches of flowers and rabbits and heart doodles. But this… this is professional level work. It has as much detail as the blueprints on display at the V&A.”

“Ok, now I know you’re laying it on thick-”

“How did you learn to draw like this? Are you self-taught?”

Hannah met her gaze. “My father was an architect and draftsman.”

Hermione’s mouth fell open.

“Blimey, don’t look so shocked, do I really come across like such a charver?”

Hermione laughed, reaching out and squeezing her hand. “No! Of course not! I’m just surprised I didn’t already know this. It’s my own fault for not asking sooner.”

Hannah shrugged, leaning into the headboard as well. “It’s not that big a deal. Most of us aren’t keen on sharing our backgrounds and history as it is. It’s not a topic of conversation to be had over dinner.”

Hermione tilted her head, studying her in a new light. “So did you have a governess growing up?”

Hannah smirked. “No. Our family had means but were far from conventional. My father traveled a lot for his work, all over the world really. He met my mother in Paris while on assignment. She was a street artist.”

Hermione smiled, resting the open sketchbook in her lap. “Two gifted parents. It’s in your blood.”

“I suppose so.”

“Why do you say they weren’t conventional?”

Hannah gazed ahead, as though staring at the memories as she described them. “My father took my mother and me everywhere he went. He said he didn’t see the point in marrying for love and having a child if he had to leave them behind every time he worked.”

“He sounds like a great man.”

“He was.”

Hermione bit her lip, brimming with more questions but waiting patiently for her friend to continue at her own pace.

“Some of his projects lasted a few years, some a few weeks. We moved around constantly. It was a bit overwhelming as I got older, unable to form ties with any one place because we were already packing to leave for the next. I can’t complain, though. I got to see a great deal of the world from a young age. That’s more than most can say, especially those living here.”

Hermione nodded. “It must have been difficult though, especially as an only child.” She blinked. “Were you an only child?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Then I know from experience how lonely that can be, and I lived in the same house my entire childhood.”

Hannah sighed, grabbing for the sketchbook, running her fingers along the edges of the page. “You’re right. It was lonely. The only people I was close to were my parents. After they died I had no one.”

Hermione took a deep breath, diving into the unknown waters. “How did they…?”

“Marsh fever. They contracted it in Essex of all places. Right here in England.”

Hermione shook her head. “Hannah, I’m so sorry.”

She shrugged. “So am I. I’m sorry for me, for you, for Luna and Parv. For everyone here. We all have a story. Otherwise, we’d be anywhere else.”

She closed her sketchbook with a snap, glancing down. “Anyway, I better get back to the kitchens. I’m on plate scrubbing duty. Filch is making the rounds. Seems scalier than usual.”

Hermione’s heart leaped into her throat.

“Have you heard anything about last night?”

Hannah rose off the bed. “What do you mean? About you and Parv?”

“About someone being downstairs after curfew.”

“Oh. No. Why? Did you almost have a run in?”

Hermione released a slow breath. “Something like that.”

“Well, you must have given him the slip up because I haven’t heard anything, and you know he’d run to the Frog Queen right away if he had anything solid, in which case you’d be the first to know.”

Hermione nodded, absently pulling a loose thread on the pillowcase. Hannah tipped her head.

“What are you doing up here anyway?”

Hermione blinked. “Oh, I was sleeping.”

She raised a blonde brow. “I thought you said you weren’t sleeping.”

“I was trying to fall asleep.”

Hannah nodded, holding her gaze.

“I’m sorry you didn’t find her last night, Mione. But don’t give up hope. Hope is all any of us have anymore.”

Hermione felt the familiar ache in her chest.

Hannah’s eyes turned bright and hard as marbles.

“And when that goes, we have nothing to protect us from the monsters.”


Hermione spent the remainder of the morning sitting in the dorm staring out of the window watching the street below.

She spun wild fantasies in her head.

Various means to escape her fate.

She considered faking an injury. Then she graduated to actual injury.

She imagined throwing herself down the garden steps. There weren’t enough of them to do serious damage but she’d certainly twist an ankle or even break a limb if she angled it just right…

She imagined scalding her hand on the stove, or perhaps the steam from the kettle…

Then she really let loose and imagined running into the street and letting the horses and carriage wheels do their worst.

It was oddly gratifying.

And yet at precisely five till noon Hermione stood outside the Matron’s office, an empty husk of her former self. Her soul had left her body, her sensibilities abandoning her mind.

Her limbs were animated by the force of mechanical springs in her joints, the beating of her heart fueled by a coal engine, triggering a series of switches and gears that set her into motion.

Hermione was no more.

Whatever happened would happen to a hollow shell.

So it didn’t matter.

The sun would rise tomorrow, the moon would chase it away, and nothing that occurred within these walls would prevent either of those events from occurring.

She lifted her arm and knocked.

“Come in!”

Umbridge sounded especially cheery and bright. Hermione closed her eyes, opening the door.

She’d known what faced her on the other side.

Expected it.

Braced herself for it.

But seeing his face, his person, standing there with his hands clasped behind his back, eyes fixed upon her from across the room…

The world tipped on its axis.

She scrambled to find purchase on the stone, the floor became the wall, the wall became the ceiling, the ceiling became the floor, and round and round the room spun.

“Ms. Granger!” Umbridge’s voice was laced with malice, though she kept a thin-lipped smile stretched taught across her face. “Do come in, my child.”

Hermione stepped over the threshold on wobbly legs, feeling as though she was walking on stilts.

“Come in all the way,” the Matron bit out, eyes narrowing, then laughing lightly and glancing to the third occupant in the room. “Silly girl, she wasn’t feeling well this morning, poor thing. I do hope she’s recovered.”

The man smiled, silver grin reflecting the sunlight.

“Is that so?” His eyes never left Hermione. “I’m sorry to hear that. Perhaps my visit will brighten her spirits.”

“Yes, I’m sure it will. The two of you go way back, you were saying?”

Hermione’s eyes burned, desperate for her to blink, but she refused, terrified to lose sight of him for even an instant.

“That is correct, Madam. I was a very good friend of Mr. and Mrs. Granger.” His eyes flashed. “God rest their souls.”

Her heart sprung a leak, the blood draining rapidly from her head, pooling at her feet.

Such a tragedy,” Umbridge said with a stricken look. “Poor things, to burn alive like that, no way to go.”

He finally glanced away, eyes latching onto the Matron. “An absolute loss to the world. Both were skilled healers.” He tipped his head. “Luckily they were able to pass on those skills to their daughter.”

Umbridge’s face pinched in annoyance for the space between heartbeats, then she was smiling again. “Yes, Ms. Granger is a brilliant girl, an absolute delight. We’re so thrilled to have her here.”

She cleared her throat, making Hermione cringe. “And of course we’re doing our best to develop her into a strong, capable young woman. I took it upon myself to arrange for her to work part-time at the local Apothecary. It’s so important to me that these girls discover and follow their passions.”

His eyes flickered back to Hermione. “Ms. Granger is full of passion.” His knowing grin made her stomach drop. “I am happy to hear you have found part-time work in the field of medicine, Hermione.”

Hearing him address her properly made her knees quake and throat close.

“Perhaps you can recommend an ointment for this,” his expression darkened as he gestured to the left side of his face. She finally blinked, unable to force her lids open any longer, but the burning sensation only increased, tears forming.

“Oh, my…” Umbridge said with exaggerated sympathy, bringing a delicate hand to her mouth. “I’d noticed of course but wasn’t certain how recent the injury was. May I ask how it occurred?”

His pupils expanded, drawing Hermione in with a powerful gravitational force.

“I was thrown from my horse while riding. A wild and stunning filly, not properly broken.” Hermione swayed on her feet. “I cut my face on the rocks.”

“How dreadful! I do hope the mark isn’t permanent.”

He brought his hand up, fingertips tracing the long narrow strip of raised flesh that bisected his eyebrow and grazed his high cheekbone.

“I don’t mind scars, Madam. The memories they invoke are often quite thrilling.”

Umbridge pursed her lips, glancing between them, as though finally noticing the silent turbulence in the room.

“I see…” she narrowed her eyes on Hermione. “You’ve been very quiet, Ms. Granger. How unusual.”

Hermione released a breath, slowly turning her head to face the woman.

“My apologies, Madam. I think I’m still a touch out of sorts from this morning.”

“I can tell. What a shame you aren’t always so afflicted, it makes you quite amicable.” She glanced quickly at him. “I merely jest, of course!” She laughed nervously as he raised a dark brow. “I like to have fun with the girls, it fosters a sense of kinship between us.”

His tipped his head. “Certainly, Madam. I can see why they appointed you as head of this fine institution, you obviously have a great deal of affection for your charges.”

Hermione swallowed the black bile that threatened to spew forth as Umbridge preened beneath his saccharine praise.

“I would love nothing more than to linger in your engaging company all day, but I’m afraid I have a schedule to keep and the grounds to inspect.” He flashed his white teeth. “Business never ends. You understand.”

Umbridge’s spine straightened. “Of course, of course! I’ve enjoyed our conversation but I’ve kept you long enough, please, proceed as you’d like. You have the complete run of the Home. If you need anything, anything at all, simply inform Ms. Granger and it will be yours.”

He turned his head to Hermione, eyes gleaming feral. “Wonderful.”

“Ms. Granger.” Hermione tore her gaze away, looking upon her Matron with empty detachment. She knew there would be no reprieve found in the other woman, no help offered. “Do well to remember our discussion from this morning.” She pinned Hermione with a meaningful look. “And enjoy your afternoon.”

Hermione merely blinked, stepping back and heading to the exit on numb legs. As she pulled open the door she heard the unmistakable sound of lips pressing flesh. She didn’t need to glance over her shoulder to know he was kissing the back of the Matron’s hand.

The perfect gentleman. High bred. Gentile.

“It was a true pleasure to make your acquaintance at long last, Madam.”

Umbridge tittered.

“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Dolohov.”


Draco emerged from his family carriage and proceeded up the opulent steps to the Greengrass Estate with a set jaw and hardened gaze.

He was on a mission.

And would not be deterred.

He knocked, his unannounced arrival taking the butler off guard, causing the man to blink silently for several moments before stepping aside and beckoning the young Malfoy heir inside.

“My apologies, Sir, but I’m afraid Lord and Lady Greengrass have stepped out for the afternoon. They are not expected back until later this evening.”

“I’m well aware. They’re at the same event as my parents. I’m here to see Astoria.”

The man blinked, the color draining from his face.

For Draco to request the presence of Astoria without her parents present was terribly uncouth. For them to be alone in the same room without a proper chaperone was absolutely scandalous.

Still, it would be even more unacceptable for the butler to deny the request of a Peer, no matter how reckless that request may be.

“Of course, Sir,” the man said, bowing at the waist, face pinched. “I shall fetch Miss Daphne as well.”

“There’s no need for the elder Greengrass’s attendance. Please fetch me Astoria and only Astoria.”

The man swallowed, obviously unsettled, but ultimately nodded, departing swiftly from the marble entryway.

Draco walked into the receiving room, a large oil painting of the sisters hanging above the hearth, their pale gazes fixed upon him.

Draco took a deep breath.

He was on a mission.

And would not be deterred.

After a few minutes footsteps could be heard on the main stairs, light and clipped. Draco closed his eyes as she approached, running through the lines in his head, the prepared speech he’d thrown together during the carriage ride over here.

The footsteps neared, entered the room, coming to a stop behind him.

He turned around-

And scowled.

“Fucking bastard. I told him not to fetch you.”

Daphne perched her hands on her hips. “It’s not Leopold's fault. I saw your carriage from the balcony.” Her eyes narrowed. “What are you doing here, Draco?”

“I came to speak to your sister.” He matched her glare. “And only your sister.”

“Whatever you have to say to Tori you can say to me.”

“I fell for that last time and it got us all nowhere. We’re still unofficially engaged, it’s only a matter of time before our families announce it publically, and then we’re officially fucked.”

She sighed, arms dropping and eyes glancing away. “I tried speaking to father-”

“A lot of good that did.”

“Well, at least I’m trying! What have you been doing to help the situation?”

He seethed. “This is a conversation I intend to have with Astoria. She’s a big girl, Daphne. Christ, she’s about to be my bloody wife. I think she can handle speaking to me without a chaperone present.”

Daphne’s beautiful face turned lethal. “You have no idea what it means to be responsible for another person, Draco. You’re an only child and a male of privilege. The world bows down to you. It’s not the same for us women born into families such as ours. I’ve protected Tori since we were children. She’s all I have and I’m not going to leave her to face this alone.”

His brows drew together. “Face what? Me?” He scoffed. “Christ, Daph, we’ve known each other since before we could walk. Do you really think I pose any threat to her?”

“I’m not talking about you,” she crossed her arms. “At least, not just you. I’m talking about the world at large. Tori and I are constantly at the mercy of another person’s whims. Be it our father’s or our future husband’s-”

“Don’t even get me started!” He rolled his eyes, shaking his head in disdain. “You preach to me about how god awful you have it when you’ve been allowed to marry for love-”

“I was told who I was to marry when I was nine years old, Draco! I happened to be lucky enough to fall in love along the way, but if I hadn’t it wouldn’t have made any difference! I’d be forced to marry whoever my father said just as Tori is now-”

“That’s what this is all really about, isn’t it? You feel guilty you’re actually fond of your fiancé while your sister has to be forced into an arrangement she doesn’t want.”

Daphne’s eyes narrowed to slits. Silence permeated the room, hostile and heavy.

“You’re only going to make this worse, Draco,” she finally said, voice resigned.

His jaw tensed. “I’m trying to make this right.”

“You’ll never be given leave to marry her.”

Draco blinked, heart seizing, knowing immediately that they were no longer discussing Astoria.

“That’s not-”

“You’ll only start a feud between our families and leave Tori’s reputation damaged. She’ll be tarnished on the marriage market and pinned with a man twice her age.”

He swallowed thickly. “What are you saying? You actually want me to marry your sister?”

“Of course not. I’m just telling you not to make a public spectacle. It will only prevent you both from getting what you really want.”

Draco narrowed his eyes. “And what does Tori want?”

Daphne sighed, glancing away and stepping back from the entrance.

“She’s in the upstairs drawing room.”

He opened his mouth to repeat his question but stopped when he realized she had relented, giving him her unspoken blessing to speak to Astoria alone. He reluctantly closed his mouth, deciding not to press his fate.

He started to exit, pausing before he entered the foyer.

“I’m not going to hurt her, Daphne.”

She nodded, meeting his gaze with hardened eyes.

“I know. But you aren’t going to protect her, either.” She stepped away. “I’m the only one who protects her.”

And then she turned her back on him.

Draco lingered a moment longer, a great burden weighing upon his shoulders.

Fucking Christ.

He shook his head, marching for the stairs, refusing to dwell on this new emotion swelling within him.

Guilt.

He made it to the second level, pausing outside the drawing-room door, closing his eyes, trying to wipe his mind clear and return to his earlier resolve.

He was on a mission.

And would not be deterred.

He opened his eyes and the door, stepping inside without invitation-

And stopped short.

Astoria sat on a low settee, doubled over, hands covering her face, quietly weeping.

Fuck.

Draco pinched the bridge of his nose, unable to stand the sight of crying women.

He was thoroughly deterred.

She glanced up sharply, red-rimmed eyes going wide.

“Oh! Draco? What are you doing here?”

“I came to speak with you.”

She blinked, looking dumbfounded, then quickly recovered, wiping at her cheeks and sitting straighter, running her palms along her voluminous skirts.

“Of course, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Draco sighed, stepping into the room and starting to close the door, then thinking better and leaving it open. Best not to send the blasted butler into complete heart failure.

“You don’t have to talk like that when it’s just us, Tori. I’ve told you that.”

She blinked again, obviously hesitant. He crossed the room and sat down across from her.

“You don’t have to impress me or please me. I’m not your father, I’m not some random suitor come to pay you a visit. I’m your friend.”

She deflated in her seat. “You’re also my fiancé.”

He ran a hand through his hair and over his face. “Not yet. But if we don’t think of something, it’s going to happen bloody soon.”

She glanced away, picking at the folds of her skirt. “I don’t know what you expect of me, Draco. I told father I’d like to have another Season and he refused, told me it was the end of the discussion and not to bring it up again.”

His jaw ticked. “Another Season won’t save you, Tori. It’ll only delay the inevitable. If it isn’t me you marry it’ll be some other random bloke. Your father won’t give two shites whether you like him.”

She swallowed lightly, gaze still averted down. “But Daphne has a love match-”

“Daphne had over ten years to make the most of her situation and fell in love with Greg along the way. You think if they hated each other your father would call off the contract?”

Astoria sighed. “No.”

“Exactly. You don’t have a decade to get to know whatever man you’re saddled with after me. You’ll be forced to marry right away and then you’re in it for life. We need to think of a solution that is more permanent.”

Her pale brows drew together, eyes finally flickering up. “What are you saying? What could possibly prevent me from having to marry against my will?”

Draco wet his lips, sitting across from her and resting his forearms on his knees.

Thinking about the welfare of others was a foreign concept to him. He didn’t think of himself as a selfish person, but perhaps he was. What Daphne said downstairs was technically all true. He was an only child born to privilege, he never had to protect or think about someone else. Nothing stood in the way of him getting what he wanted.

He could easily leave Tori to the wolves, let her fend for herself after he turned his back on her.

But he didn’t want that. She was more a victim in this mess that he was. At least Draco could broach the topic of marriage with his father, not that it led anywhere, but he wasn’t shut down entirely.

Lord Greengrass considered his daughters nothing more than ornaments to hang on the mantle to brighten the room. They weren’t people, they were bargaining chips, void of emotion and desire.

No. Draco couldn’t leave her alone in this.

But his mind drew up few viable alternatives.

“Alright, hear me out…”

She raised a pale brow, face turning guarded. “I already know this is going to be awful.”

His eyes narrowed. “I said hear me out. So I was thinking about ways for you to avoid the marriage market entirely, and on the way to your Estate I passed by several churches, and I-” he stopped short as Astoria burst into a fit of hysterical laughter. It was wild and deep, she even snorted as she tried to get herself under control.

“Oh dear god, I was right! This is unequivocally awful!” she gasped between breaths.

“You don’t even know what I was going to say!”

She laughed harder, tears streaming from the corners of her eyes. “You were going to suggest I join a convent and become a nun.”

Draco blinked, sitting back. “Well… I mean…”

She nearly toppled out of her seat.

“I didn’t realize the prospect was so amusing.”

She took a deep breath, finally coming to a calm, face flush. “That’s because you’re a man.”

He scowled. “Well excuse me for trying to think up solutions!”

She mirrored his expression surprisingly well. “You consider locking me away in a church for the remainder of my life a solution?”

“You wouldn’t be locked away, they have gardens, and food drives and they travel-”

“Yes, it’s always been my dream to travel to the world’s most poor and destitute villages to spread the holy gospel while sporting a black potato sack!”

“Well, I don’t see you coming up with any alternatives!”

“Christ, Draco! I never said I didn’t want to get married! I just said I didn’t want to get married to you!”

“I’m not keen on marrying you either! You’re practically a little sister to me, annoying as f-”

“Is everything alright in here?”

Draco growled, glancing sharply over his shoulder. “You just can’t help yourself can you?”

“Your yelling is carrying through the entire house!”

“I wasn’t the only one yelling!”

“Daphne,” Astoria said, voice calm and even. “It’s alright, thank you for checking on me but I don’t need any help.”

“I know that. I heard his nunnery suggestion and came to see if you’d stabbed him yet.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Hilarious. I’m glad that I can provide such past time amusement to you both.”

“You obviously have no concept of how highly offensive such a suggestion is-”

Why are you still here, Daphne? Didn’t Tori dismiss you already?”

“You pompous arse!”

“Both of you, stop!” Astoria rose to her feet. “Fighting like this solves nothing.” She directed her gaze to him. “I appreciate that you are trying to find a long-term solution for me, Draco, but I am not going to enroll in a convent.”

“You’ve made that quite clear.”

She sighed. “If someone sees your carriage out front and tells my father then we’re both done for. You should go.”

He bristled. “I didn’t even get to say what I came to say!”

“Consider it said and go,” Daphne snapped, stepping into the room with crossed arms. “As usual, you provide nothing but flash and drama. Tori and I will find a solution that works for her. You just worry about yourself.”

Draco stood as well, towering above them in his rage. “Worry about myself? Are you daft? Whatever comes of this marriage contract affects me just as much as it does her!”

“Worry about yourself, Malfoy. It’s what you’re good at.”

Astoria stepped forward, looking stricken. “Daphne, he was only trying to-”

“Don’t defend him.” She stepped back, gesturing to the doorway. “It’s time for you to leave.”

“You’re both mad.” He bit out as he stormed out of the room.

“And a good day to you as well!” Daphne shouted after his retreating form.

As he reached the stairs he heard her address her sister. “A nunnery… why didn’t you stab him?”

Consumed by anger, it wasn’t until the carriage pulled free from the circular drive that he realized he never asked Astoria why she had been crying in the first place.


Hermione walked down the corridor with her arms motionless at her sides. Dolohov’s resounding footsteps at her back put her on edge, but she refused to walk beside him, as though they were friends or lovers on a midday stroll.

As unnerving as it was to not have him in her sights, it was also a relief. She tried to pretend it was someone else at her back, but then he spoke, ruining any illusion she may have formed.

“I have missed you, Hermione. Terribly so. Have you missed me?”

She kept her gaze straight ahead, walking briskly for the door to the gardens. She’d show him the outside first. She needed air. And witnesses.

“Do slow down, you’re practically sprinting.”

She swallowed heavily, keeping her quick stride.

“Hermione. Slow down.”

Fingers wrapped around her wrist and she pulled back violently, spinning on her heal and colliding hard with the wall.

“Don’t touch me!” she hissed, spitting venom.

His eyes narrowed as he leaned in.

“Do not think for one moment I will entertain such hysterics, Hermione.”

Stop calling me that.”

He tilted his head, face moving closer still. “Is that not your name?”

Her chest heaved with the force of her rapid breathing, as though she’d just ran circles around the property line.

“You may address me as Ms. Granger or nothing at all.”

He smirked. “Such spirit. I am relieved to see it has not diminished during your stay in this abysmal place. I was worried you’d changed. Turned meek.”

His dark eyes flickered between hers. “But you’re too strong to let such a thing as circumstance change who you are, isn’t that right? Such a determined girl. So very clever.” He raised a hand, the backs of his fingers grazing her cheek. “So very beautiful.”

Hermione turned her head away so sharply a muscle in her neck strained. She squeezed her eyes closed, a tear tracking down her cheek, meeting his fingertips.

“I love to watch you cry. Nearly as much as hearing you screa-”

Suddenly a group of girls rounded the corner, the resounding chorus of giggles and sharp laughs bouncing off the walls. Dolohov stepped back, hands at his sides as he glanced upon them, smiling politely.

“Good afternoon, ladies.”

They nodded and whispered behind their hands with smiles, skipping off with parting glances over their shoulders.

Antonin Dolohov was old enough to be their father but remained a remarkably striking man with a tone physic and full head of dark hair, salt and pepper strands flecked through the temples. He sported a West London accent and fine bespoke suits... always charming, always disarming, and always searching for a tender bit of flesh to sink his fangs into.

His eyes found hers once more.

“Come now, Hermione.” He smiled deepened. “We mustn’t delay. I must inspect the entire grounds to ensure you are in a safe environment.” Fire ignited in his eyes. “I must see where you sleep.”

Hermione blinked, dazed by fear, her mind overwhelmed with it, driving out rational thought.

“I…”

“How do we get to the dorms?” He glanced around, starting to pivot, the main staircase leading to the bedrooms just behind him.

Hermione stepped away from the wall, a sudden bolt of inspiration striking within her. She had no idea where it came from, what triggered it, but she didn’t stop to ponder, merely spoke the words as they formed within her throat.

“The dorms are this way.”

He turned to face her once more, brow raised, as though surprised she gave in to his request so easily. Hermione swallowed, afraid he’d see through the ruse.

“Perhaps I can show you the garden first?”

It took every ounce of strength left within her to hold his gaze, to maintain her delicate mask of demure reluctance, hoping beyond hope he’d accept the easy victory without question.

His eyes narrowed briefly before the corner of his mouth lifted. “No need. I saw it from the street on my way inside. We fell behind schedule thanks to your rather desperate Matron.” He wet his lips. “Show me your room.”

She inhaled deeply through her nose, forcing her neck to obey her commands and nod her head. She proceeded down the hall, around the corner, past the entrance to the dining hall…

Deeper, deeper, deeper.

Just a bit further…

“Are you certain this it the way? From the outside, it looked like the dorms were on the opposite side of the building.”

Shite.

Hermione bit her lip, briefly closing her eyes and desperately searching for a viable excuse.

Her eyes snapped open. She glanced over her shoulder.

“This is a shortcut.” She held his gaze. “A private shortcut.”

She knew she’d successfully hooked him as his pupils blew wider. “Is it now?”

She wet her lips, too far gone with adrenaline to feel proper disgust.

“Yes. I want to avoid the younger students. Is that alright?”

“By all means,” he held out his hand. “Proceed.”

She clenched her jaw, facing forward once more and continuing her journey.

Hoping like hell her bet paid off.

Because if she was wrong, then she really was leading the beast to a secluded alcove.

And there’d be no escaping his clutches.

She swallowed heavily, pushing past her heart in her throat.

And then she saw it.

The oasis in the desert…

The double doors that signified solace.

Asylum.

Safety.

Or her doom.

“What is this?” He slowed his tracks.

Shite shite shite! I need to get him inside!

Hermione blinked, trying to maintain an air of calm.

“It leads to the stairwell.”

He tilted his head. “Are you certain about that?”

“Which of us has been living here for the last three months?”

She delivered the cutting remark with more force than intended, but it seemed to please him immensely.

“My apologies, sweetling. I will trust your direction.”

Her skin crawled at the intimate endearment. Her father used to call her sweetling.

Dolohov knew that.

She glanced to the double doors with such longing she was amazed they didn’t pull open by the magnetism of her gaze alone.

And suddenly they were within reach-

And she was grasping the handle like a life raft, pulling it with such force it banged off the opposite wall.

She leaped inside, wild, madly searching, searching-

“Ms. Granger?”

Hermione nearly collapsed with the power of her relief, her entire body deflating with the intensity of it.

“Doctor!” Her voice was too high, too eager, eyes half crazed in desperation.

And then she saw him, standing by the bookcase, frozen in his signature repose of papers in his hands, a look of concentration upon his beautiful face...

He was the most magnificent thing she’d ever seen.

Her savior.

Radiant light spilled from his limbs, illuminating him in a halo of otherworldly splendor.

She wanted to fall to her knees in worship, in gratitude, in sheer exhaustion.

His eyes narrowed, sweeping over her from bottom to top. Then they were flickering past her shoulder to the man standing just beyond. Lightning flashed in their depths. For once she found it immensely reassuring.

“I’m sorry, mate,” Dolohov said with forced cheer. “Seems Ms. Granger and I got turned around a bit. We’ll be out of your way.” He pinned Hermione with his dark gaze, still hovering at the threshold.

Hermione stepped further into the room, closer to the Doctor.

He set the papers aside, closing the distance between them.

Only to pass by entirely...

Coming to a stop between her and Dolohov, spine elongating to his full imposing height.

She clenched her fists, resisting the urge to cower behind him, remaining frozen and breathless in the middle of the room.

“Hello, there. My name is Doctor Thomas Riddle. I don’t believe we’ve met.”

His voice was pleasant enough, but Hermione had interacted with the man enough to know it now sounded more clipped than usual, harder at the edges.

“Yes, hello…” Dolohov glanced between her and the Doctor, his frustration at being misled showing through. But then he slipped his mask back on, resuming his impeccably mannered facade.

It was surreal to watch them interact, knowing what she now knew about both men- or at least what she suspected of the Doctor.

They were both dangerous predators.

Stealthily hunting after prey.

She knew what Dolohov sought.

And though she didn’t have the first clue what Doctor Riddle was after, she knew it wasn’t her. And that simple truth was enough information for Hermione to formulate a clear preference and pick her side.

She made her choice known, staying safely situated behind the Doctor’s back.

“I am Antonin Dolohov, Ms. Granger’s solicitor.”

There was a shift in the air, the sunlight dimmed behind a cloud, the shadows became tangible, sentient, spread like dark pools over the walls and floor.

The Doctor’s hands clenched at his side before loosening, such a quick movement she wasn’t certain whether she’d seen it at all.

“I believe Ms. Granger has spoken about you before.”

Hermione blinked.

Then she recalled her brief mention of Dolohov days ago, in this very clinic, after she’s stocked the medical cabinet.

What cruel irony the man himself now stood within this sacred space, polluting the air with his toxic breath.

The predators shook hands.

The ground rumbled.

Their grips tightened, lingered, eyes locked. And then she sensed it…

The moment they drew the same conclusion that she had, the moment they recognized the beast dwelling within the other man’s eyes…

Their hands fell apart.

The cloud moved away from the sun, light spilling back into the room, blinding in its relentless invasion. Hermione squinted, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the bright rays.

“And what brings you to the Home today, Mr. Dolohov?”

She blinked rapidly, unable to see the Doctor’s face.

“I am conducting my quarterly visit of the grounds. As the executor of Ms. Granger’s estate it is imperative I ensure her continued welfare.”

Her eyes adjusted to the light, their shadowy figures came back into view.

“Then it is a good thing you are here. What a beautiful day to pay a visit. Perhaps Hermione can show you the outdoor grounds?”

Dolohov went rigid at the Doctor’s casual use of her first name. Hermione swallowed as his dark gaze flickered to her and back again.

“That would be lovely. But first I must finish our inside tour. And we really must be going, I’m afraid we’re already behind schedule.”

She swayed on her feet, desperate and hopeless, no other escape plans coming to mind in the wake of her unbridled terror.

Dr. Riddle stepped back, closer to Hermione, turning to face her while tucking his hands in his trouser pockets.

“I’m afraid I can’t permit that.”

She blinked, heart leaping into her throat.

Excuse me?” Dolohov’s fists clenched at his sides.

The Doctor smiled, utterly beautiful and lethal, gazing at the other man with indifference.

“She is clearly ill. Look at her complexion. She appears to be suffering from the stomach sickness that has been going around.” He looked to her once more, eyes cast in shadow, gleaming from the darkness. “Have you been sick today, Hermione?”

His continued use of her first name made her entire body throb. She wet her lips, nodding.

“Yes. I spent half an hour in the water closet prior to Mr. Dolohov’s visit.”

His eyes narrowed, searching hers, and then the shadows passed, his expression once more masked in blank disinterest.

“There you have it. Another case of the stomach flu. As her physician, I cannot permit her to expend any more energy today. I’m afraid she will not be able to lead you on your tour of the grounds.”

She felt like she was separated from her body, watching the scene from the ceiling, hovering against the corner of the walls. Dolohov’s mask cracked, an enraged scowl overtaking his handsome features for a flash, the haunting visage emblazoning on her mind, familiar and unmistakable.

“Well, far be it for me to argue with a physician's orders,” he said slowly, gaze warring with the Doctor’s. “I’ll simply have to reschedule for a day when Ms.Granger is feeling more herself.”

“There’s no need.” The Doctor tipped his head with a smile. “A busy man such as yourself shouldn’t have to make two trips up here just to ensure the ceiling isn’t leaking and the floors aren’t filled with holes. I am happy to show you around the rest of the building.”

Dolohov opened and closed his mouth, then sent Hermione a rather accusing glare, the message clear.

You planned for this.

She stepped back, crossing her arms over her chest and glancing down.

“I appreciate the kind offer, but I wouldn't want to pull you from your duties as sole physician. Surely you are more needed here than as a tour guide.”

“It is the residents’ lunch hour, as well as mine. The clinic is closed right now. If there’s an emergency one of the girls will summon me. The grounds aren’t that large.” His teeth gleamed. “It doesn’t take long to find what you’re looking for.”

Dolohov released a slow breath, the sound becoming music to Hermione’s ears. The melody of surrender.

“Well, I suppose I am grateful for your hospitality, then.”

The Doctor nodded, then glanced at Hermione. “Go to your dorms and lie down, Hermione. Drink plenty of fluids.” His eyes flashed. “And stay there for the remainder of the day.”

She nodded quickly, stumbling for the door in such haste she nearly tripped.

“Goodbye, Ms. Granger.” Hermione stopped dead, spine straightening as Dolohov addressed her back. “It was a pleasure seeing you again. I look forward to our next visit when you are feeling better.”

She swallowed, slowly glancing over her shoulder and meeting his dark gaze, the black tar pits of hell contained within, and felt her throat seize up.

She merely nodded, staring into the endless void for another rattled heartbeat, his purple scar standing out in stunning contrast from his tan skin.

And then she tore her gaze away, bursting through the double doors like the devil himself was in pursuit.


Tom watched Hermione flee the clinic in much the same state as she entered it.

Terrified out of her mind.

Before her spectacular arrival, he’d been cross-referencing the medical files of those deemed ‘runaways’, looking for connections, markers. Something that stood out, made them stand out…

His nights were filled with much the same thing, his newly appointed secret office fit to burst with stolen files from the records room.

Only it wasn’t such a secret anymore, was it?

He’d let the girl inside.

Foolish really.

But he’d been so shocked to find her racing along the halls, a sobbing mess, he’d sprung from his hiding spot just to see if she was gravely injured, missing a limb or some other calamity. When she’d appeared physically fine other than her frazzled mental state and lack of proper attire he’d been even more intrigued.

Luckily she’d hardly noticed the contents of his office, badgering him with no questions, more concerned with fleeing than staying to investigate.

Still, he shouldn’t have taken her there. It was only a matter of time before an inquisitive mind such as hers grew curious. Worse yet, she had a bold streak a mile long that would only instigate her need to meddle.

She’d gone to Amortentia.

She’d gone as a house girl

Yes, the girl certainly had a core of steel.

She’d left one of her crimson ribbons behind. A smear of blood upon the floor.

He’d picked it up. Wrapped it around his finger. Traced the edges with his thumb.

And now for some inexplicable reason, he carried it in his pocket.

It was simply a reminder. A reminder of all that was at stake.

Nothing more.

And then the doors had burst open in a small explosion, the girl herself emerging in a cloud of smoke as though his thoughts alone had summoned her into existence.

First, he saw her eyes. Wild, desperate, searching.

And then he’d seen the creature lurking at her back.

And he’d understood.

This would simply not do.

It had been a natural instinct to insert himself between the doe and the wolf. He’d faced down predators such as this many of times. It was almost as second nature as wielding a scalpel or taking a pulse.

Men like Dolohov had shaped Tom into the man he was today.

He’d find a way to show his unending gratitude.

Once the doors closed behind Hermione’s abrupt departure the curtains lowered over the stage, the play ended, the masks came off.

“So tell me, Doctor Riddle, what brings you to this establishment of all places?”

Tom’s eyes narrowed, mouth lifting into a lethal grin.

“I find I am able to accomplish a great deal of work here. The post sat abandoned for so long, the residents were in desperate need of care.”

Dolohov raised a sharp brow. “Still, a young man such as yourself surely has loftier dreams than being confined to the clinic of a girls’ shelter for the duration of his career.”

Tom slid his hands into his pockets, smoothing the satin ribbon between the pads of his fingers.

“I assure you, my dreams are very clearly defined. This is merely a stepping stone to the ultimate goal.”

Dolohov tilted his head.

“And what is that?”

Tom held his gaze steady. Several heartbeats passed, and then he stepped back, gesturing to the doors.

“I’ve distracted you for too long. Shall we proceed with the tour?”

Tom felt his teeth elongate behind his lips, desperate to tear into the creature before him.

Dolohov blinked. “I don’t really think that’s necessary. I’ve taken up enough of your time today, and I’ve seen enough of the building to know it’s in good standing. I think I can conclude with today’s visit.”

His sharpened teeth receded, the surrender taking him off guard.

Perhaps he wasn’t as subtle as he’d intended.

Another thing to work on.

He nodded. “Certainly. I will escort you out.”

He couldn’t have the fox sneaking into the hen house upstairs.

“That’s not necess-”

“I insist. I’m in need of a mild excursion myself, I’ve been cooped in this room for too long. Come, I’ll take you through the garden gate, you really must see the flowers.”

Most of the residents were dining. Less prey lingered outside.

Dolohov’s jaw ticked, but he pasted on a congenial smile and tipped his head. “Certainly, lead the way, Doctor.”

Tom led the forward march out of the clinic, fingers still intertwined with the ribbon as his senses rose to high alert, ever aware of the presence at his back. Once they emerged in the corridor he altered his pace, allowing Dolohov to fall in step beside him.

The better to see his reactions.

“How did you come to be Ms. Granger’s solicitor?”

The man blinked, spine going rigid. “I was her parent’s solicitor before their untimely deaths.”

“And now you control their estate?”

“As the law dictates, with no male heirs to take control I am entitled to controlling rights until such a time as Ms. Granger marries or produces a legal male heir.”

“How antiquated that an infant boy is entrusted with rights and property denied to an adult woman.”

Dolohov laughed, a dark glimmer in his eye. “I admit that Ms. Granger is a clever girl, but I have met enough women to know that entrusting the majority of them with large sums of property and cash would only lead the world to ruin.”

“Is that so?”

“They are spiteful things, led by their emotions rather than their sensibilities. In my line of work I have seen many a man, business and even government laid to waste by a woman’s fickle fancy.” He shook his head. “Trust me when I say men are better off maintaining controlling rights, for the good of the fairer sex.”

Tom gazed sideways. The smile on Dolohov’s face was inviting, bidding Tom to agree. Instead, his focus lingered on the raised line of purple flesh across his eye.

“And how did you come by such a scar?”

“Hm? Oh,” he gingerly touched the mark. “This old thing?”

“It looks fairly recent.”

He laughed shortly. “I wasn’t paying attention while riding and was thrown from my horse.”

Tom studied the mark. Dolohov shifted uncomfortably.

“You must have hit a very sharp rock. Minimal trauma to the surrounding skin suggests the cut was made with a narrow point. Like a blade.”

Dolohov blinked, averting his gaze forward as they walked the wide corridor. “Just my luck, I suppose.”

Tom smirked, eyes still fixed upon him. “Luck has a way of always running out, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, unfortunately, it does.”

Dolohov increased his pace. Tom’s long legs easily kept stride beside him.

“Here we are.” He gestured to the doors that led outside. “This will take us on the scenic route.”

“Delightful.”

Tom held the door open, allowing the other man to pass by first, eyes flashing with malevolent glee as Dolohov kept his gaze averted forward, obvious tension in his limbs.

“So tell me, Doctor, where have you practiced medicine before? I know many physicians throughout the city. I’m curious if we share any acquaintances.”

We most certainly do.

“I transferred here from St. Mungo’s. Before then I spent years practicing medicine on the continent, mostly throughout eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East.”

“How fascinating.” He sounded anything but. “Did you attend school abroad?”

Tom’s eyes narrowed. He knew what the seemingly harmless question implied.

Men like Dolohov, the privileged elite, measured other men’s worth first by pedigree and second by education. Tom had no doubt the man considered any school outside the UK subpar. He clearly thought Tom was saddled with this position because he couldn’t qualify for work elsewhere.

“I graduated from Cambridge before attending the Royal College of Surgeons. I placed at the top of my class and transferred to a teaching hospital in London. After being made the head of the surgical division in two years time I was offered a coveted spot on the St. Mungo’s medical team.”

Dolohov blinked, mouth opening and closing as he struggled to find words.

“I… that’s… quite impressive, Doctor.” He wet his lips. “May I ask… whatever are you doing here?”

Tom’s eyes gleamed beneath the bright sun. “I’ve spent my entire life searching relentlessly. I’ve yet to find what I seek. This place is merely another rock to uncover.”

Dolohov’s brows drew together, obviously unsatisfied with the vague response, but before he spoke he seemed to become distracted by something over Tom’s shoulder. Tom blinked, turning to follow the wolf’s dark gaze.

His jaw ticked.

The garden was empty of residents.

Except for one.

His Rook.

The ethereal blonde was on her knees, bent over and digging at the roots of a large hawthorn bush with a small spade.

Dolohov stood transfixed by her for several long moments before Tom shifted his stance, blocking the girl from view. The man blinked, eyes narrowing and locking with Tom’s.

“I’m starting to understand why a man might be willing to forgo his mighty reputation to work in a place such as this.”

Tom’s spine elongated, rising to his full height. The ribbon wrapped around his finger so tightly it cut off the circulation.

A scathing response was burning on the back of his tongue, but he inhaled sharply, tucking it away. There was an opportunity here, one that would require him to tread carefully. But if he was able to strategize ahead, perhaps he could advance along the board even faster.

“Yes. It certainly has its benefits.”

Dolohov smirked, eyes alight as he clapped Tom heartily on the shoulder. “Damn straight! Ha! I knew the moment I saw you that you were an intelligent bloke.” His eyes shifted past him, focusing once more upon the girl.

“So tell me…” he spoke in a low voice, leaning forward. “Just between us men, do you get to examine all the girls?”

Tom’s eye twitched.

“I am the sole physician here. Every resident is under my care.”

Dolohov nodded eagerly. “And do you get to... “ he wet his lips. “Examine all parts of them?”

Tom was silent for several beats, focused on the thrumming pulse in the man’s neck, vivid imaginings of spurting red fluid filling his mind’s eye, keeping him calm, grounded.

“I conduct all external examinations. I refer patients to a specialist for anything more invasive.”

Dolohov leaned back. “Damn. Too bad, eh?” He winked, smirk transforming his face into something wicked.

“You know,” he continued slowly. “I heard a rumor, about the last doctor to hold your post.”

“Have you now?”

“I heard that he got a bit, hands-on with the girls. A bit too hands on, if you catch my meaning.”

Tom inhaled slowly. “I heard similar rumors.”

And then he’d heard the truth from the horse’s blood filled mouth.

“Such a shame that a man of high standing and esteem is made a victim by the whims of a few errant school girls.”

Tom raised a brow. “You don’t believe the rumors?”

Dolohov’s expression sharpened. “I have no doubt he only did what those girls wanted him to. They’re all desperate for a handout, for a golden ticket, they’ll do anything to better their station in life. And that goes for the high born females as well, just as ruthless and cutthroat as their downtrodden counterparts, if not more so.”

“And do you hold Ms. Granger in the same regard?”

Dolohov blinked, drawing back. Then a slow smile curved his lips. Tom’s fists tightened in his pockets. His reaction perturbed him. He forced his hands to loosen.

“She is special.”

Tom’s eye twitched again. The silence continued, Dolohov electing to say no more. Then his dark gaze averted to the blonde.

“I see there are many special cases here.”

Tom couldn’t keep the beast inside him chained down much longer. His resolve was wearing thin. He gestured to the gate. “It’s been a true delight to make your acquaintance, Mr. Dolohov. But I hate to deter you from your day any longer.”

“Oh, yes. Of course.” He stepped back, examining Tom with a tilted head. “I like you, Riddle. If you don’t mind me speaking so informally.”

“Not at all.”

The man smiled. “I’d like to get to know you better, learn more of your background. I have a feeling you and I share many common interests.”

You have no idea.

Tom’s answering smile wasn’t feigned. “I have no doubt our paths will cross again.”

Dolohov nodded. “I do hope so. Perhaps I shall forward an invitation to a gathering with other like-minded individuals, help you reintegrate yourself into the proper social scene now that you’re back in London.”

Tom wet his lips, the taste of victory sweet.

“I would be honored.”

“Excellent. Well, I bid you good day, then.”

“To you as well.”

He watched the beast saunter past the flowering bushes and through the gate, finally disappearing around the side of the building.

And then he felt eyes upon him.

He glanced to the side, locking gazes with the garden’s other inhabitant.

She was still perched on her knees, gloves caked in soil, long braid draped over her shoulder.

Such a placid, angelic looking thing.

Such a delicious meal for the wild creatures lurking just outside these walls.

His gaze lingered, considering…

No.

She was too sweet, too demure. The perfect bait but the worst kind of trap. She lacked the metal teeth needed to ensnare the stealthy fox or disembowel the hungry wolf.

Tom nodded to her, once, and she nodded back, removing her gloves and taking to her feet, quickly heading back inside the building.

She’d proven helpful so far. She’d prove even more helpful yet, he had no doubt.

But she could never be more than his Rook.

Tom inhaled the warm summer air, letting the floral and wood notes linger in his lungs, and slowly withdrew his hand from his pocket.

He gazed down at his fingers, the line of bright red pressed deep into his flesh, turning his fingertip blue. Squeezing the life from the tissue. He tilted his head, slowly loosening the ribbon, savoring the sharp pang of needles as the blood rushed back into the appendage.

“She is special.”

Yes.

That she was.

She survived the flames of hell, only to be reborn edged in steel.

Meeting the beast she had scarred only solidified what he already suspected upon finding her hiding in his wardrobe, a burning omen of the battle to come.

He’d laid out his chessboard many years ago, steadily gathering the pawns and knights needed to bring the enemy to its knees.

And now, at long last, he’d found his final piece.

The most vital one of all.

Hermione Granger would be his Queen.


Harry was battling his bath dampened hair with a comb when a thunderous rumbling occurred downstairs.

He quickly descended, half wondering if Malfoy was once more beating a dent into the door, when the melody of voices on the other side of the barrier met his ears, making him shake his head in amusement.

He opened the door-

And promptly had the air knocked from his lungs as a small and sturdy figure darted forward, crashing headfirst into his body and driving him back.

“Uncle Harry! You’re back you’re back!”

“Teddy! What did I tell you about leaping on people like a dog?”

“It’s alright,” Harry laughed, stepping back and hoisting the boy into his arms. “As long as he doesn’t pee on my leg I can’t complain.”

The woman entering behind the boy rolled her eyes, stepping inside. “Don’t give him any ideas, Harry.”

“Hello, Dora,” he leaned in, allowing her to kiss him on the cheek. “You look lovely.”

“I look like I’ve crawled out from beneath a ton of bricks. I’ve spent the last two days unpacking. Why do we own so much shite?”

“Language!”

Dora rolled her eyes. “Sorry, mum. Why do we own so much bloody shite?”

Harry fought back a smile as his Aunt entered the residence, eyes narrowed upon her daughter but lacking any real heat.

“It’s wonderful to see you, my dear, welcome home,” Andromeda said as she placed a hand on his shoulder, kissing him on the cheek as well.

“It’s good to be back. How is the publishing house doing?”

“Splendid. Ted couldn’t come tonight, he’s waiting on a delivery and sends his love.”

“Where’s Rem?”

“Forced to the back of the line, as usual,” the man in question said with a smile, entering the Manor and shutting the door behind him. “Hello, Harry. Christ, you look more like James everytime I see you.”

Harry swallowed thickly, leaning into the man’s embrace as he clapped him on the back. As they separated something hard prodded into his chest, he glanced down and saw the toy clasped in Teddy’s hands, a wooden ship with white sails. Harry smiled.

“Still want to be a sailor like your godfather and Uncle Sirius?”

Teddy nodded enthusiastically, holding his toy aloft and dipping it through the air like it was sailing the raging seas. “I’m going to be a Fleet Admiral!”

Harry tipped his head back and laughed even as Remus shook his head in exasperation. “Any hopes of turning the boy into a scholar have been dashed, thanks to you.”

Harry smirked. “No one can accuse him of setting small goals.”

“At least he doesn’t dream of becoming a pirate,” Andromeda said, unfastening the buckle on her cloak. “Like his mother did.”

“Who says I still don’t?” Dora winked.

Harry set his godson down, stepping towards his Aunt. “Let me take your cloak.”

She raised a dark brow, shrugging out of the garment. “You have no butler?”

“Sirius let him go a while back. Said he was judging him with his eyes. And watering down his liquor.”

Andromeda sighed. “Of course he did. And where is my mongrel cousin?”

“Passed out upstairs. I’ll go fetch him.”

“Why don’t we let Teddy do the honors? He’s quite capable of waking the dead, Sirius should pose little challenge.”

Harry smiled. “Brilliant.” He glanced to the boy hanging from his leg. “I have a mission for you, Teddy, official orders set down from the Queen herself.”

Teddy’s eyes widened, glimmering in the light. “What does she say?”

Harry fought to keep his earnest expression. “You are to go upstairs and wake up Uncle Sirius by any means necessary. Just don’t damage the furniture or injure yourself. Sirius is fair game, do whatever you like to him.”

Teddy’s face split in half with a wide grin. “Mission accepted! It’s an honor to serve her Majesty!” And then he was taking off at a sprint, galloping up the stairs with a five-year-old’s determination.

Harry turned to his Uncle. “How long are you back for?”

“Until the end of August, classes start on the first of September.”

“You’re still teaching Anthropology?”

“Yes-”

“They’re making him head of the Department,” Dora cut in, leaning her head against his shoulder. “The youngest to ever hold the title.”

“That’s fantastic, mate! Congratulations.”

A flush stained Remus’s cheeks as he glanced away. “Thank you, Harry, but it’s not that big a-”

“If you say it’s not a big deal I’m going to smack you upside that brilliant head of yours.” His wife threatened, eyes narrowed.

He chuckled, shaking his head. “Alright, my love. It’s a very big deal. Are you happy?”

“Always.” She perched on her toes and pecked him on the lips, making him blush deeper.

Harry smiled. Andromeda sighed. “Please refrain from intimate displays of public affection in the entryway, it’s uncouth.”

Dora spun around, hands on her hips. “I’ve seen you and dad kissing all over the house. Scarred me for life as a child.”

“Then think about what you're subjecting my poor grandson to.”

“Speaking of which,” Harry interjected, glancing up the empty staircase. “I thought we’d have heard the roof caving in by now-”

Right on cue, a thunderous roar issued from the second floor, following by childish squeals of delight.

“You little hellion! Come here, I’m going to toss you out the window!”

“No!” Teddy screamed with laughter. “Uncle Sirius don’t!”

“I’ve got you now!”

Everyone glanced to the upper level as heavy footsteps sounded, followed by Teddy’s hysterical giggles. Sirius emerged from the hallway, toting the boy upside down over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

“Perhaps I’ll toss you over the banister instead so the neighbors don’t see...”

“No!” His short limbs thrashed, Sirius keeping him easily pinned in place.”I’m sorry! Uncle Harry told me to!”

“You little tattletale!” Harry called up.

“I see, my ungrateful godson is the real culprit! I suppose I’ll have to toss you both over the banister.”

“No! Uncle Harry, help! Help!”

Dora laughed, shaking her head. “Why don’t you ever call mom for help? You don’t think I can take Sirius in a fight? I’d have him laid flat in two seconds.”

Sirius huffed, eyes narrowed. “That’s only because you fight dirty, you lawless heathen.”

“I learned from the best,” she winked.

“Thank you, luv,” he smirked, shifting the flailing boy on his shoulder.

“I wasn’t referring to you, dolt. Mum taught me everything I know about throwing a mean right hook.”

“Dora, honestly,” Andromeda shook her head. “Don’t forget I also taught you how to shoot.”

“Trust me, she hasn’t forgotten,” Remus chimed in, wrapping an arm around his wife’s waist. “She’ll shoot the glass right out of my hand when she’s ready to leave a party.”

Dora rolled her eyes. “That only happened twice.”

Teddy let out another high pitched squeal as Sirius began to tickle him.

“Please don’t get him riled before dinner, Sirius,” Andromeda called up. “He barely sits still as it is, I don’t want him running amok in the restaurant.”

“He’s a boy, Andy! They’re meant to run wild. Besides,” he glanced to his longtime friend. “He’s a Marauder by blood. There’ll be no hope for getting him to obey the rules.”

“I wasn’t that bad,” Remus said, arching a brow. “I kept you and James in line, didn’t I?”

“Your technique needs some work, my dear,” Andromeda said as she cut a path across the floor to the parlor. “I seem to recall the three of you sitting in a jail cell on Christmas Eve, one pair of pants among you.”

Remus flushed bright red. Harry’s ears perked up, smile forming. “I’m sorry-” he glanced up to Sirius, who looked equally red-faced. “I haven’t heard this story. Please elaborate.”

“Yes, please do, mother!” Dora gripped her husband’s arm in excitement, bouncing on her heels.

“Don’t you dare, Andy!” Sirius shouted, quickly trotting down the stairs with Teddy flopping from his shoulder, laughing all the while. “You swore yourself to secrecy!”

She smirked over her shoulder. “I recall making no such agreement, Sirius Black. And as the only sober person involved in the debacle, I believe my memory is the one to be trusted.”

“Don’t leave us in suspense, Aunt Andy,” Harry started to follow her, laughing at his Uncle and godfather’s mortified reactions. “You have to tell us the story.”

She sat gracefully on the settee, arranging her skirts in a pristine flourish, living proof you could take the woman out of the aristocracy but you couldn’t take the aristocracy out of the woman. Sirius put Teddy down and the boy promptly darted into his grandmother’s lap, her arms wrapping around him.

“I suppose we have time for one quick story before supper-”

“Andy, I swear to god, don’t tell this story.”

“You have to, Mum!”

“Please, Aunt Andy,” Harry bade. “I’ve never seen Sirius this embarrassed, and I’ve caught him in compromising positions without pants before.”

“Oi! Remember one thing, kid, I’ve changed your diapers.”

Harry laughed, opening his mouth to respond but before he could utter another word there was a sharp knock at the front door. Everyone fell silent, turning their heads to gaze upon it.

“Expecting someone?” Dora asked.

“Only you lot,” Sirius replied, then glanced to Harry. “Unless you’re expecting someone?”

Harry shook his head. “Maybe it’s Ted?”

“No, he’s running inventory after the shipment arrives,” Andy supplied, running her fingers through Teddy’s sandy blonde locks. “He’ll be at the business all evening.”

Harry shrugged. “Well, only one way to find out.”

He departed from the group and crossed the entryway, peeking through the pane to see who it was, spotting only the street carriage parked behind the Tonks’. He raised a brow, curious, and opened the door a crack, peering out and meeting a set of familiar light brown eyes.

His heart dropped into his stomach.

He blinked, staring at them blankly.

“Well, are you going to invite me in or not?” She glanced over her shoulder. “The longer I stay out here the better chance I have of being seen.”

Harry wet his lips, glancing over his own shoulder at his family, currently watching him with blatant curiosity.

Fuck.

He sighed.

There was no way around this mess. He couldn’t very well speak to her outside and risk some random passerby witnessing their exchange. Which left only one alternative…

He opened the door fully.

“Come on in.”

She gathered her skirts and darted past, making it halfway across the foyer before coming to a dead stop, eyes wide and fixed upon the small gathering in the adjoining room.

“Oh…” she trailed off, blinking several times and glancing nervously at Harry. “I didn’t realize- I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Harry closed the door. “You aren’t interrupting.” He placed his hands in his trouser pockets, trying to affect an air of calm indifference, knowing his family was watching the interaction like nosy hawks.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Susan. Welcome to Grimmauld.”

She wet her lips, glancing between Harry and his family. Sirius smirked, stepping into the foyer.

“Hello there, luv. The name’s Sirius Black, how do you do?” He reached out for her hand, placing a polite kiss on the back.

“Yes, I know who you are, Lord Black. It’s an honor to make your acquaintance.” Her voice sounded nervous. “My name is Susan Bones. I do hope I haven't disturbed your evening.”

“Not at all.” His eyes darted to Harry, filled with humor. “And how do you know my godson?”

“Oh, well, we…” she looked to Harry once more.

Jesus Christ. This was looking more sordid by the second.

“We met at a function for the Scotland Yard. Susan’s father was just appointed Commissioner of a new investigational unit at the London precinct.”

“Ah, I thought your name sounded familiar,” Remus said from the other room, smiling at her. “The CID is a much-needed asset to the police department. We wish your father all the best in his new position.”

She nodded. “That’s very kind of you to say, Sir. I shall pass your good wishes onto my father.”

“So,” Sirius raised a brow. “What brings you here this evening?”

“Oh,” she wrung her hands together. “Well… I…”

Dora laughed lightly from her spot beside Remus. “Bloody hell, give the kids some privacy!”

“Dora!” Andromeda scolded. “Do mind your language in front of guests!” She glanced at Susan. “I apologize for my daughter’s colorful outburst, my dear. Perhaps you and Harry would like to move your discussion to the billiards room?”

Harry nodded, relief flooding his system. “That’s a great idea,” he tilted his head towards the opposite hall. “Please, follow me, Susan.”

Sirius sighed. “No one ever lets me have any fun.”

Harry shot his godfather a glare as he escorted Susan into the hall, the curious and amused gazes of his family disappearing behind the wall.

Susan released a deep sigh as they entered the expansive billiards room. “Shite,” she whispered as he shut the door. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you’d have guests over. Ron said it was only you at Grimmauld.”

Harry blinked. “It was. Sirius got back this morning, the family just arrived for dinner.”

She looked stricken. “I was hoping my visit would remain a secret.”

“Why are you here?”

She bit her lip, reaching into her bag and withdrawing a familiar slip of paper.

Harry’s calling card. The one he’d given her at the opium den.

“You told me to come here if I had any information that could be relevant.”

His heart leaped, body jolting.

“You’ve heard something about Lavender?”

She swallowed, eyes darting down. “Maybe… I’m not sure.”

He tilted his head, stepping closer. “What is it, Susan?”

“I…” she sighed deeply, shoulders dropping. “I overheard one of the officers telling my father about something they found tonight.”

His blood rushed through his ears, pulse thrumming madly. She finally glanced up, meeting his intense gaze.

“They’ve pulled a body from the river.” Her brows drew together. “A girl.”

The air was pulled violently from his lungs, the gaslights seeming to dim at once. The silence pressed against him from all sides, finally broken by his low spoken curse.

“Shite.”

Chapter Text

How long is forever?
Sometimes, just one second.
.   .   .

For the first time in a long time, despite all odds, Hermione was enjoying a blissful night’s rest.

Sheer exhaustion brought on by blind terror and forty-eight hours of restlessness finally gave way to death like sleep, her mind too spent to fabricate its usual haunts.

No fire, no blood, no wandering hands, wanted or unwanted… just endless, all-consuming darkness.

She was suspended in the black pools of eternity, drifting steadily down a river of ink that weighted her limbs, invaded her lungs and saturated her vision.

And like all good things, it came to an end far too soon.

Hermione awoke to the sound of a click.

Her eyes sprang open, body fully alert, mind startling clear, as though she’d never fallen asleep in the first place.

She blinked, turning her head.

And saw what had pulled her from her serene slumber.

The door opening.

And the person walking in, clad in a sheer nightgown.

The new entrant closed the door behind her, head downturned, blonde hair obscuring her face.

Hermione rolled her eyes.

She always snuck in after curfew, always waking Hermione in the middle of the ni-

Hermione blinked again.

And stared.

Realization set in like a heavy blanket over her mind.

She watched in dumbfounded shock as Lavender tiptoed to her bed, pulling her quilt back and slipping beneath the sheets, silently lying down with her back to Hermione.

Hermione closed her eyes. Opened them.

Then sat up and scrubbed a hand over her face.

This is a dream.

Only, she was awake. Of that she was certain.

But this couldn’t possibly be happening. There was no way.

It’s Luna. You mistook Luna for Lavender…

But she knew deep down she’d never mistake her friends. They were different heights, different builds, different shades of blonde.

And Luna wouldn't sneak in unannounced. She’d be more likely to crawl into bed beside Hermione or Parvati if she came up here. She’d never slip into Lavender’s bed.

Hermione swallowed heavily. Then she worked up the courage to finally get up.

She slowly drew her covers back and swung her legs over the side, bare feet making the floorboards creak like old bones. She cringed at the noise, standing frozen beside her bed.

But Lavender didn’t stir.

It’s not Lavender.

Her hands began to shake at her sides.

Please… please don’t let this be what I think it is…

She felt tears well in her eyes as she slowly crept forward.

Please… God, I know you haven’t answered me in the past, but please, just this once, please let this be real…

She hovered beside Lavender’s bed, currently filled by someone, something

She started to reach out a hand but quickly withdrew it, fear taking root within her so solidly it froze her in place.

She stood there for a short eternity, staring at the same back she’d spent the last three months gazing at each night. The same river of honey blonde hair, the same pale nightgown with lace detail around the edges…

She wet her lips, closing her eyes and stealing herself in the temporary blindness.

Please let this be real.

She opened her lids and reached out her hand.

And touched the girl’s shoulder.

They slowly turned to face her.

Hermione was so overwhelmed with fear and anticipation her mind had a hard time processing the image that was revealed.

Lavender.

Staring up through her deep brown eyes.

Expression calm and serene and beautiful.

Hermione lurched forward, hand clamping down on her friend’s flesh, nails digging into her skin, leaving behind crescent-shaped indentations.

She swallowed again, throat closing up, tears streaming.

They stared at each other for a short eternity. And then Hermione burst.

“Lavender!” she cried, throwing herself down and clutching the girl tightly. “Oh my god!” she sobbed. “Where have you been? Do you have any idea how terrified we’ve been? Christ, I’m so glad you’re back I don’t even care!”

Hermione was so wracked by tremors it took her a moment to realize that Lavender lay limp in her hold. Hermione blinked rapidly, pulling back to examine her friend more closely, the usually talkative girl’s silence deeply unnerving.

“Lavender, are you okay? Are you hurt? What’s happened?”

Lavender held her gaze, but at this close proximity, with their faces mere inches apart, Hermione saw just how blank her stare was. Paired with lifeless limbs, it was as though she was a life-sized doll.

Such a pretty doll…

The words were whispered in her mind by another’s voice, one she’d never heard before and yet recognized all the same.

Hermione shook her head frantically, heart stuttering.

“No…” she swallowed thickly. “No!” She clutched her shoulders, shaking her.

“Parvati!” Hermione screamed, mindless of waking the entire floor. “Parvati get over here!”

She glanced frantically to the other bed, the brunette’s outline beneath the covers clearly defined, her steady breathing never breaking pace.

“Parvati wake up!”

Her third roommate didn’t stir.

Hermione sobbed harder.

“No… no, no, no!” She gazed at Lavender again, clutching her tighter. “Please don’t do this to me. Please, not her!”

She fell to her knees beside the bed, arms still wrapped around the limp form. Her violent shaking had caused Lavender’s blonde hair to obscure half her face. Hermione reached out a hand to smooth it back. The girl’s face was cool and silky, like a porcelain mask.

And then Hermione noticed the red at her throat.

A perfect, gleaming line of red.

A choker.

Hermione’s heart stopped beating. Lungs stopped breathing. The world stopped turning.

She reached out a hand to caress the familiar satin ribbon.

And then blinked in confusion when her fingers drew away wet.

She stared at them, the dark ink staining her skin. She held her hand aloft in the moonlight, the liquid shimmered crimson.

Hermione’s face crumpled as she brought both her hands to Lavender’s throat, desperately trying to pull the ribbon away, but it was adhered to her skin, flush against her neck, ingrained to her flesh.

And seeping blood.

Hermione was beyond words, lost to terror and madness. She clawed futilely at the fabric but it wouldn’t budge. Her hands were slick, nail beds caked in red.

She met Lavender’s blank stare.

“Please, Lavender, please wake up.”

Her desperate plea was met by deaf ears. Lavender’s glassy doll eyes remained fixed with Hermione’s, a silent scream of terror locked in their depths.

Hermione gave up the struggle, collapsing forward and burying her face in her friend’s still chest as she cried.

“I’m sorry, Lavender. I tried. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

“Mione?”

Hermione reared back, eyes wide.

“Lavender?”

But the bed was empty.

“Mione, what are you doing down there?”

She lurched away as a hand gripped her shoulder.

“Whoa! Calm down!”

She gazed up from her sprawled position on the floor, Parvati hovering above her with raised hands.

Hermione glanced rapidly between her friend and the empty bed.

“What…” she swallowed, scrambling forward. “What happened?”

“That’s my question.”

She shook her head. “I… I was dreaming.”

She spoke the words more for herself than Parvati. The ache in her chest intensified.

“I’ve never seen you sleepwalk before. Shite, it was creepy. Here.” Parvati offered her hand and Hermione accepted, fingers trembling. Her entire body twitching with latent adrenaline.

“I’ve never sleepwalked before.”

“Well, you certainly did tonight. Not just that but you were carrying on a conversation as though someone else was there. Like I said, creepy as shite.”

“I was talking?”

Parvati nodded.

Hermione’s eyes burned. She rubbed them.

“Was I…” she sighed. “Was I talking to Lavender?”

Parvati stared at her with a guarded expression. “I don’t know. I had trouble understanding you. But you were leaning against the side of her bed. What were you dreaming about?”

Hermione took a deep breath, glancing away. She wanted to confide the details of her haunting reverie to Parvati, but she was also desperate to forget. And the easiest way to forget something was to keep it buried deep within the recesses of her mind, an easier feat to accomplish when fewer people knew the disturbing truth in question.

“I don’t remember.”

Parvati raised a dark brow, looking supremely unconvinced. “It’s alright, you know. You can just say you don’t want to tell me. I won’t be offended.”

Hermione blinked. “It’s not that-”

“My bigger concern is you getting out of bed and crossing the room without waking up. What if you make it into the hall next time and fall headfirst down the stairs?”

Hermione’s jaw clamped shut so tight it ached.

“I know you hated the medicine, Hermione, but at least it kept you in your bed at night.”

“It kept me in bed all day. I became useless and exhausted all the time. I won’t take it again.”

Parvati sighed, shaking her head. “Well, maybe the Doctor can suggest an alternative-”

“I don’t need sleep tonics, Parvati, I need-” she stopped short, mind reeling.

I need an exorcist.

The thought was so random, so ludicrous it made her burst into a fit of hysterical giggles.

Parvati’s dark brows drew together. “Mione? What’s so funny?”

Hermione shook her head, unable to control her laughter. She shook with it, was consumed by it, and soon it transformed into uncontrollable sobbing.

“Mione…” Parvati stepped forward, wrapping her arms around her as her knees gave out, both girls slowly crumbling to the floor. “Mione, what’s wrong?”

Hermione felt the wetness stream along her heated face, snot, tears, Lavender’s blood, she couldn’t discern one sensation from the next anymore.

“I haven’t the first clue,” she gasped between breaths.

“I don’t understand.”

Hermione swallowed, struggling to regain control. “Neither do I, Parv. I have no idea what’s happening to me.”

Her friend pulled her closer, Hermione tipped her head forward and rested it against her chest, just as she had done with Lavender moments ago.

The thought made the ache in her chest fester and rot, spreading outward to destroy her body one cell at a time.

They sat in silence while Hermione regained her breath, until the raging waters settled into a bubbling brook. And then Hermione came to a decision.

She couldn’t keep it inside anymore.

The only thing more terrifying than telling someone was not telling someone. She couldn't go another day, another hour, another minute, living this awful truth alone.

“Parvati…” she began, voice broken and strained.

The girl in question smoothed a hand over Hermione’s head, pushing the curls from her wet eyes.

“What?”

Hermione wet her lips, eyes drifting closed.

“There’s something I need to tell you.”


Draco awoke in a foul mood.

He hated waking up in a foul mood.

He supposed no one cared for it a great deal. But he especially detested it, usually because it signified he was at the mercy of something beyond his control. His schooling, his career, and now his future marriage.

All things dictated to him by his father.

But on this particular morning, Draco awoke to a feeling of guilt. And he hated guilt most of all, which led to this slow deterioration of his day.

He banged his fist against the door once more, the metal knocker rattling in its holder.

“Come on, open up! I know you’re in there!”

He set his jaw, eyes narrowed as he looked about the decorative shrubs for anything he might launch through the window.

Then the door swung open.

“You fucking ponce, what the hell do you think you’re- Hey!” she shrieked as he barged past her into the entryway.

“Draco! You can’t just storm in like this, what if I’d had company?”

“I appreciate your attempt at humor but I’m hardly in the mood for a laugh.”

She scowled, tying the sash of her silk robe. “Congratulations, you’ve been here all of thirty seconds and are already getting kicked out. That’s a new land speed record for you.”

“I need to talk.”

“Clearly you came here to take your foul temper out on me. I’m not interested.”

He sighed, slowly turning to face her. “I’m sorry, Pans. I didn’t mean to imply you never have company. If anyone was hoarding a harem of lovers in her private abode, it would be you.”

She crossed her arms, drawing to her full, if limited, height. “It’s too late for flatteries.”

He smirked, stepping closer. “Come on, luv. I need a woman’s perspective on something. Consider it a public service for the rest of your gender, to keep me from offending any more of you.”

She raised a manicured brow. “Now this has the potential to be interesting. Who did you piss off?”

He ran a hand over his face. “Can we sit? And drink.”

“I don’t drink hard alcohol before noon. Except on weekends. And holidays. And Tuesdays. Tuesdays are simply intolerable.”

He took off for the front parlor. “Then you can watch me drink.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t partake in anything. Pour me a glass of champagne.”

“Good girl.”

“So what great tragedy have you unleashed this time?” She followed him into the room, sitting on an overstuffed armchair and tucking her legs beneath her.

Draco strolled to the liquor cabinet, eyes narrowing at the selection. “This is pathetic, Pans. What’s the point in owning your own house if you don’t keep the bar properly stocked?”

“First of all, my father owns the house and everything inside it, including me, as you’re well aware.” Draco rolled his eyes. “Furthermore, he has no idea I’m here, and if he did, the last thing he’d be worried about was keeping the bar properly stocked for my guests. If you’re disappointed you’re welcome to do some shopping.”

“I’ll make it work.” He unstopped a decanter, sniffing the contents. “Who lived here again?”

“Mrs. Devereux,” Pansy replied boredly, weaving her long dark hair into a plait.

Draco poured the amber liquid into a low ball glass. “She’s no longer his mistress I take it?”

“She started sleeping with his business rival. You know how my father gets when it comes to competition. I’m surprised he didn’t have a contract put out on her. Actually, he might have. I haven't heard anything about her in some time.” She began wrapping the braid in a loose bun. “More spoils for me. The last house I was using was commandeered by Lestrange.”

Draco blinked, glancing over his shoulder. “Rod?”

She shook her head. “The other one.”

Draco sighed, facing forward and reaching for a bottle of champagne. “Great. Do I even want to know what he’s using it for?”

“Decidedly not.”

Draco popped the cork and tipped the bottle into a crystal flute, the sound of bubbling foam filling the room.

“Alright, I’ve let you into my hideaway after you insulted me, and now I’m letting you drink the rest of my cabinet. You better have something good for me, Draco Malfoy.”

He handed her the flute.

“I suggested Tori should join a monastery.”

Pansy blinked, halting her sip. “To her face?”

“Yes. And Daphne overheard and threw me out.”

He sighed as Pansy erupted into the same hysterical laughter that Astoria had, only she looked far more pleased. She doubled over at one point but managed to keep her glass level all the while.

“I have no idea why that’s so bloody hilarious.”

“That’s because you’re a man,” she gasped for breath, wiping at her eyes.

“Tori said the same thing. I’m well aware, thank you.”

“You’re also a pompous arse with no regard for the welfare of anyone but yourself. But I’m sure you’re well aware of that, too.”

He blinked, the statement hitting him square in the chest.

“That isn’t true.” Even as he said it, he felt an underlying sense of unease unfurl in his gut. He wondered what it could be, he hadn’t eaten anything yet today. It certainly couldn't be shame. He never felt shame.

He refused to feel it now.

“I only made the suggestion for Tori’s sake. It wasn’t as though I demanded she became a nun! I was just trying to think of a permanent solution. I didn’t know it would send the female population into such a conniption or I wouldn’t have said it!”

“The fact that you didn’t know it would elicit such a reaction is exactly why you’re a pompous arse.” Her smile widened at his scowl. “It’s alright luv, what other way could you have turned out with the upbringing you had?”

“So my circumstances are to blame, then.”

“When are circumstances not to blame?” She took a sip from her glass. “Honestly, why would anyone ever take responsibility for something when there’s always the perfect scapegoat sitting in the wings?”

He ran a hand through his hair, groaning. “I take it that I said the worst thing possible?”

“Not quite. The worst thing would be suggesting she leap to her death from the roof her home. Wait a moment,” she tipped her head, gazing upward. “Actually, now that I think about it, for someone like Tori I think death would be preferable to a nunnery. So yes, you said the absolute worst possible thing. And you did so without even trying. Impressive.”

He shook his head, taking a seat across from her and setting his drink on the low table.

“I don’t understand why she threw such a fit. It’s not my fault there are so few alternatives for women besides marriage. If I could ship her off to Paris and put her up in a castle filled with everything she’s ever wanted I would, but unfortunately the only way to do that is by making her my wife. The only refuge offered to single women is the church.”

“Notice that in both those examples you dream of locking her away, whether in a castle or a nunnery, you want her behind closed doors.”

He blinked. “That isn’t- I didn’t mean it like that. I simply meant providing for her so she doesn’t have to be roped into another marriage contract.”

“Would you suggest locking Granger away in a castle or church?”

Draco reared back, nearly dropping his glass. “She has nothing to do with this.”

“Doesn’t she have everything to do with this?”

His jaw ticked. “I would be trying to find alternatives to this contract regardless.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, goddammit! Tori is like a sister to me, I’ve known her since the day she was born!”

“Alright then, let’s say you find a way out of marrying her. What about the next contract your father tries to arrange? And the next, and the next? The gentry extends well beyond London, Draco. There’s plenty of viable options to be had if your only reservation is marrying someone you’ve grown up with.”

He scowled, leaning back into the couch and crossing his arms. “This isn’t about me. I came here to discuss Tori. Daphne more or less banned me from the house, meddlesome witch that she is, and obviously I need help coming up with an alternative for her sister.”

Pansy set her flute on the table, leaning back in a casual sprawl. “Why are you so worried about Tori? Not to beat a dead horse, but concern for others isn’t your style.”

He ground his teeth together, hands clenching. “Stop saying that. I’m fucking caring.”

She smirked. “Yes, you’re a regular Saint.”

“At least I’m trying to change, then! What do you want from me? Would it be better if I left Tori to the clutches of her father and the rest of the vultures that want a piece of her fortune?”

Pansy sighed, her expression taking on a rare seriousness that few got to see.

“I think it’s honorable if your intentions are truly to help her. If you’re merely trying to assuage your guilt then I’m less inclined to assist.”

“What do I have to feel guilty over?”

She raised a brow. “If this arrangement falls by the wayside you know as well as I do Tori stands to suffer the worst for it. Passing her up to marry outside the gentry will leave her reputation in tatters. She’ll be a laughing stock, her father will be merciless, and I shudder to think of the man she’ll finally be saddled with.”

Draco leaned back, heart stuttering in his chest. He’d never thought through the full ramifications of his desires, at least not in terms of how it might affect anyone besides him and Hermione.

“Shite,” he whispered, tipping his head back against the cushion.

“Precisely,” she picked up her glass and took a delicate sip.

“What am I supposed to do?”

Pansy shrugged, the silk robe falling off one shoulder. She didn’t bother pulling it back in place.

“Have you ever considered just marrying her and keeping Granger for a mistress?”

Draco’s head snapped down, eyes narrowed.

“Clearly that’s a resounding no, got it.” She rolled her eyes. “Well, the bottom line is if you don’t marry Tori, someone else will. She’s blue blood. Her father is a traditionalist. There’s no escape for women like us.”

Draco blinked, her final statement catching him off guard. He raised a pale brow.

“So you and Theo…”

She groaned, tipping back the rest of her glass in a few convulsive swallows. “Yes.” She set the empty flute down with extra force.

“I think a refill is in order.”

“You aren’t as stupid as you look.”

“My perfect hair is misleading.”

“That’s one word for it.”

He made his way back to the bar. “When will it be announced?”

“I’ve no idea. My father hasn’t even told me officially. I oversaw the contract in his office the other day.”

“How is Theo taking it?”

“I haven’t discussed it with him either. You’re the first.”

Draco stopped mid-pour, gazing over his shoulder. “Are you… alright?”

She groaned. “Why did you have to choose today to develop empathy, Draco? Lord knows you have limited stores of it, better to save it all for the next time you see Tori.”

He set his jaw. “I don’t think she wants to speak with me for a while.”

“Well, unfortunately, neither of you have a while.”

“What should I do, Pans?”

She sighed, taking the newly filled glass from his hands.

“The next time you see her, try listening.”

He blinked.

“You have heard of listening, yes?”

He rolled his eyes, falling back into the cushions with a groan of resignation.

“Men are always so busy attempting to find a solution they don’t even understand the problem. Let her do the talking next time. You might be surprised what you learn.”

He tilted his head, studying her profile in the morning light.

“You know something.”

She smirked. “I know many things. I’m quite brilliant.”

“About Tori.”

“If I did I most certainly wouldn’t tell you. Woman’s code and all that.”

“Pans-”

“If you want to know her secrets try talking with her instead of to her. That’s all I have to say on the matter. Now,” she swung her legs over the side, rising to her feet, “I’m going back to bed. Feel free to drink yourself into a stupor. Just don’t disturb me.”

She strode past him, robe billowing around her legs, completely at ease in her scant dressing. As she neared the doorway Draco took a deep breath, calling her attention without looking at her.

“Pans.”

He heard her footsteps slow.

“If you do ever want to talk about it, I’m here.”

The room was silent for several beats. Then she laughed, light and airy.

“Why, Draco, perhaps there’s hope for you yet.”


Hermione took a deep breath, eyes narrowed in concentration as she examined the form resting on the counter between her and the dark figure at her side.

“Inventory is divided into five categories,” Snape said, voice clipped. “Tonics, Purifiers, Cathartics, Oxygenators, and Stimulants.”

She nodded along with his words, tilting her head and he drew a finger along the parchment, pointing out specific product listings.

“I do not sell the purifiers in their natural form, there is no evidence they cleanse the blood. However, the active ingredients are useful in certain mixtures I sell for other purposes. We keep the stock behind the counter, away from customers. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now-” he stopped short, scowling. “I cannot tell if you are suffering from indigestion or a thought. Nor do I care, as long as you keep either to yourself.”

Hermione sighed, fighting the urge to roll her eyes. His expression pinched further.

“Obviously you will continue to sulk until you give voice to whatever meaningless notion is rattling about in your head. Speak.”

She gazed up. “Do you consider oxygenators worthy of your shop?”

His dark eyes narrowed. “I take it you do not?”

“Well, I…” she drew back, cheeks tinging pink. “Nevermind, please continue.”

He raised a brow. “You are no shrinking violet, Ms. Granger, do not act like one now. You presented this topic for discussion, so we shall discuss it.”

She swallowed lightly, feeling like a frog being dissected beneath his penetrating gaze. “There’s no evidence that oxygenators increase blood flow to the brain. The only medical studies sanctioned by the board were conducted at St. Martin’s Hospital several years ago and returned inconclusive results for increased cognitive function or well being.”

He pulled to his full height, staring down his prominent nose at her.

“Your ability to prattle off useless information without taking a breath should warrant a study in oxygenation itself.”

Hermione lost the battle, eyes rolling of their own accord.

“While your skills at memorizing random facts are unparalleled, I had hoped you possessed critical thinking capabilities as well. Alas, it seems my expectations were too high.”

She bristled, shoulders drawing back. While his passing insults usually glanced off her shoulders, this one felt personal, an attack on her most prized possession, her intelligence.

“If you have a point to make, I’d greatly appreciate if you simply made it.”

He cocked his head. “Your temper is shorter than usual today, Ms. Granger. Perhaps it is also clouding your ability to see the most rudimentary of solutions staring you in the face.”

She blinked, shoulders deflating.

What was he on abou-

She blinked again, realization dawning. She sighed, tipping her head back, frustrated with herself.

“Oxygenators pull blood to the surface. They can be mixed with salves and pastes to promote healing of the dermis and increase circulatory function.”

The corner of his mouth lifted even as his eyes narrowed. “That took you long enough.”

She glanced away. “I’m having an off day.”

“An off day,” he made the words sound sordid. “I don’t know what that means, but I’ll chalk it up to women’s troubles and insist you never speak of it again.”

She fell silent, fighting back a groan of exasperation. Her nerves were still rattled after last night’s… episode. She still wasn’t certain what occurred. She just prayed it never happened again. And given her award-winning streak of bad luck, she had a sinking suspicion things would only get worse from here.

She spent the remainder of her night confiding the details of her haunting hallucinations to Parvati, sitting on the foot of her friend’s bed and wringing her hands together all the while, terrified speaking the truth aloud would cause the ghastly apparitions to appear before her eyes and drag her to the pits of hell from whence they surely came.

Alas, nothing occurred, the sun slowly rising in the east and filling the room with its warm glow, erasing the shadows from the corners of the room and Parvati's tightly drawn face.

Hermione hadn’t been certain how her friend would react, but she knew without a shred of doubt that she wouldn’t turn her in, even out of concern. Parvati understood the harsh realities of the world they lived in better than most, and that reporting Hermione’s affliction meant forced confinement in a mental asylum, a fate worse than death.

But promising to keep it a secret did nothing to alleviate the girl’s fear and worry. Hermione felt guilty burdening her with even more stress. But at the same time, she felt an enormous weight lifted from her chest, allowing her to breathe properly for the first time in weeks. Perhaps in months.

She wasn’t alone anymore.

That simple fact brightened her outlook considerably. She took comfort in the fact she wouldn’t have to harbor these dark visions in solitude, even if she was the only one who could see them.

While both girls agreed whatever was happening was confined to Hermione’s mind, neither willing to entertain ideas of supernatural forces at play, the conclusion only made the incidents more frightening.

Because that meant something was wrong with her. Something that couldn’t be seen or touched or addressed in a medical book.

Sickness of the mind was still a largely undeveloped field of study. Most medical professionals didn’t give it much credence. The select few alienists in practice were typically assigned to treat only the worst cases of insanity. Even so, such modern approaches were rare, brutal physical therapies and isolation remained the most popular remedies offered to the afflicted.

Parvati had begged her to spend the day inside the Home in the wake of her sleepwalking episode. But Hermione refused to stay cooped up in her room. That would only allow her thoughts to wander, for the painful memories to creep back up from the depths from which she’d banished them. She was already having trouble distinguishing hallucination from reality, nightmare from memory. The last thing she wanted was confinement.

So Hermione bathed and dressed and showed up to the Apothecary for her second official day of work. But it seemed she’d left her good sense somewhere between her bedroom and the shop, because it certainly wasn’t in her possession.

Snape tilted his head once more, a large bird of prey bearing down upon her.

“Have you eaten today?”

She blinked. The question was so unexpected it took her several beats to derive the meaning of his words.

“Yes, I had breakfast.”

His visage fell into its natural sardonic repose. She suspected his facial muscles froze into such a mask after a lifetime of considering everyone in his midst an idiot.

And then she wondered if there was anyone Snape was fond of in this whole wide world, now or in the past. The idea of him smiling, of his eyes alight with excitement by the mere presence of another, was so obscene it made her want to laugh.

Yet she suspected he wouldn’t find the same amusement in the anecdote, so she forced the wayward thoughts from her mind.

“I suggest you take your lunch break now. Eat something with starch. Avoid the sugary concoctions the gypsies are pedaling from their carts or you’ll be passed out against the shelf in another two hours. Then again, that may be preferable for me. Eat what you will.” His eyes narrowed. “Just be sure to eat.”

She blinked again, trying to make sense of his remark even as he walked away without preamble.

After spending so much time in the man’s company she’d come to understand Snape showed his concern in a rather unique fashion. Compliments were disguised between insults and rarely paid, but when they were it meant even more to her.

Regard for her welfare was a new one, but she found herself strangely moved, despite his callous approach.

She knew better than to linger inside after she’d been so clearly dismissed. She put away the inventory list and quickly exited the shop, emerging into the bustling street with a sigh of relief.

It felt good to be surrounded by such movement and noise, so many blessed distractions, so little time to wander aimlessly through the dark caverns of her mind.

She didn’t have an appetite, but she forced herself to eat, picking at a honeyed roll from the corner bakery as she walked along the sidewalk, gazing into storefront windows.

The bread was sweet on her tongue, almost too sweet, but then she bumped shoulders with a man walking in the opposite direction and it quickly turned to ash in her mouth.

She didn’t know him, didn’t recognize him, but he had a crop of salt and pepper hair that reminded her too much of Dolohov, and her stomach clenched painfully. She released a slow breath, watching the stranger progress down the road, and shook her head at her visceral reaction.

She had vowed to never fall victim to him again, to anyone again, but within mere minutes he’d had her sequestered alone in the hallway, cornered against the wall like a terrified doe. Had she not thought to flee to the clinic she had no doubt that she’d be having a very different day.

But she had thought to flee to the clinic, her bet on the Doctor paying off. She had known on some instinctual level that he would understand her plight without the need for words. He’d looked into her eyes and read the terror, and as she expected, he didn’t bother to ask for explanations. He simply acted. He protected her.

She took another bite of bread, letting it sit on her tongue, pressing it to the roof of her mouth as her thoughts slowly trailed into the shadowy caverns…

And then someone grabbed her arm.

She shrieked, spinning around and dropping her roll to the cobblestone, eyes wide with shock.

Then she gasped.

“Harry?”

“Christ, I didn’t mean to scare you, didn’t you hear me calling your name?”

She blinked. “No, I-” she shook her head. “It’s fine.” She took a deep breath. “What are you doing here?”

“You told me in your letter you’re working at the Apothecary today. I thought I’d press my advantage and see you in person without one of us having to scale a fence.”

She smiled, senses returning as she grasped his arm, letting him escort her through the sea of pedestrian traffic.

“I’m so happy you came by, Harry. I’ve been having such a-” she paused, about to say dreadful and thinking better of it. Harry would only worry, and dig. She wasn’t ready to broach the topic with him yet. “Such a tiresome day,” she tried instead, forcing as much cheer into her voice as she could muster. “But seeing you chases the clouds away.”

Harry blinked.

“Bloody hell, Mione. Did you just rhyme? Christ, now I know something terrible’s happened.”

She sighed, barely skirting a groan.

“Everything’s-”

“Let me guess, cheery and bright, more than alright?”

“You’re an idiot.”

“I thought we were reciting poetry.” His boyish smirk pulled at her heart. “Perhaps I’ll sweep you off your feet and serenade you on the street.”

“Oh my god.”

“It’s not an easy thing to do to think these up on cue.”

“I’m two seconds away from pretending I don’t know you.”

“There was a woman from Nantucket who sat on a bucket-”

“Enough!”

Harry laughed, shaking his head. “I was running out of material.”

She rolled her eyes. “That was very impressive. I pray you got it out of your system for the duration of our friendship.”

“No promises.”

She smiled, her earlier melancholy long forgotten. “So, are you simply here to waste an afternoon serenading me, as you say?”

His roguish grin fell at the corners, the gleam in his eyes diminishing just a fraction. Most people wouldn’t have noticed anything. But Hermione knew Harry better than she knew herself most days.

“What is it?”

He forced his expression into something light and casual. “Nothing serious, I just wanted to ask you a couple questions.”

She clutched his arm more tightly. “About what?”

He glanced away, the most telling gesture of all. “Lavender.”

She stopped dead in her tracks. “What’s happened?”

“Nothing, I just-”

“Harry James Potter, look at me.”

He sighed, coming to a halt beside her and finally meeting her gaze. “Mione, really, I just wanted to ask you more questions about her, to help me continue the search.”

She tipped her head. “I know you too well to buy that. You’re hiding something.” Her eyes narrowed, pinning him in place. “Tell me.”

He ran a hand through his full locks, jaw tensing. “I just wanted to get a better idea of what she looks like. Her name isn’t ringing any bells for anyone but maybe if I had a more detailed description of her someone will recall seeing her.”

She straightened, sensing there was more he wasn’t telling her. It itched at her brain, the inaudible whisper that something was amiss.

“I thought we promised no more secrets.”

He swallowed. “I’m not-”

Harry.”

He deflated before her eyes, posture turning in as the air left his lungs in one fell swoop.

“Bloody hell,” he rubbed a hand over his face. “I wasn’t trying to hide anything, I just wanted to wait until I knew for sure-”

“Knew what? Just tell me, Harry.” She placed her hands on her hips, frustration taking the helm of her emotions.

His lingering silence was ominous, sending her heart aflutter.

“They pulled a girl from the Thames.”

She reared back.

“We don’t know if it’s Lavender,” he said quickly, raising his hands. “All they know is it’s a young woman, they haven’t been able to identify her yet. I wanted to take a look for myself, but all I know about her is that she’s blonde.”

Hermione blinked, spine going rigid, braced for the battle to come. “I need to see the body.”

As expected, Harry’s eyes hardened. “Absolutely not.”

“It’s the only way to be certain. Even if I describe her to the best of my ability you’ve never seen her, you could misidentify her one way or the other.”

“There’s no way in hell I’m letting you-”

“I’m not asking for your permission, Harry.”

He rolled his eyes, tossing his head back. “I knew you’d do this! That’s why I-”

“That’s why you misled me, yes, I’m well aware! I’m sick and tired of people thinking I’m some delicate-”

“This has nothing to do with you being delicate, Hermione! You’re talking about viewing the potential dead body of your friend! Think about it. Is that really how you want to remember her? I’m only trying to protect you from yourself.”

She drew back, chest heaving, mindless of the nearby spectators they were attracting.

“That isn’t for you to decide, Harry. You don’t get to know what’s best for me simply because you’re a man.”

His eyes narrowed. “Don’t throw that in my face, Mione! I’ve never, ever tried to exert control over you because you’re a woman!”

“You do, Harry! All the bloody time! It’s so ingrained in our relationship you don’t even realize you’re doing it! You’re so used to being the Great Protector that you assume I’m too weak to face anything on my own!”

“How can you say that? I’ve always said you’re the smartest person I know!”

“Intelligence has nothing to do with strength. You didn’t tell me about the body because you didn’t think I’d be able to handle it.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying this! I’m- This is- God! I can’t even talk to you right now!”

“Stop yelling!”

“I can’t help it!” He threw his hands out. “I yell when I’m angry!”

She crossed her arms. “You’re angry because you know I’m right.”

“I’m angry because I’m scared!”

They blinked, both taken aback by the admission.

“What?”

He sighed deeply, scrubbing both hands across his face, exhaustion in his eyes.

“I’m scared, Mione. For you. All the damn time. It’s never-ending.”

She shook her head. “I shouldn’t have involved you with this-”

“I’m not talking about Lavender. Although that certainly hasn’t helped matters. I’m talking about you. All of you. All of this.” He gestured to her with a wave of his hand. She glanced down to inspect her person, searching for something amiss.

“I don’t understand.”

“I know you don’t. And that’s what scares me the most. Because you’re the most brilliant person I know and you don’t see a problem with any of this.”

Her jaw ticked in growing frustration. “Any of what, Harry?”

“You’ve isolated yourself from everyone and everything that once comprised your life, Mione. You’re clearly not taking care of yourself. And you insist on living in that Girls Home when you have multiple friends begging you to live with them.” He raised a hand as she opened her mouth. “And don’t give me that drivel about reputations. Because I don’t believe it for a second. You accuse me of keeping secrets, what about you?”

Her heart thudded painfully in her chest as she took a reflexive step back.

“I know something’s happened. Something beyond the fire. I know this isn’t just grief. I know grief. And the fact that you won't tell me what it is kills me. Every single day. And I know if I ask, you’ll lie, and that hurts even more, so I don’t ask. And I feel like an arse for not asking. And I feel completely helpless and I hate feeling helpless. Every time I look at you I feel like a failure. As a friend, a brother, a protector. Any title I might have worn has been stripped away. So yes, I tried to keep the body a secret. Because I’m terrified it’s going to be the feather that breaks the camel’s back and takes you from me altogether.”

Hermione blinked rapidly, his stricken face obscured by the tears brimming in her eyes. Her throat had closed halfway through his impassioned speech. She tried to swallow past the constriction.

“Harry, I’m so sorry.”

She didn’t know what else to say, crippled by guilt in light of this new reality he’d set forth. She had no idea her current circumstances affected him so. She’d foolishly hoped his Naval career kept him too preoccupied to focus on what was happening back home.

“I don’t want you to be sorry, Mione. I want you to be happy.”

She glanced away, unable to stare into the raw emotion and sincerity in his eyes. Harry had been a central figure in her life for so long, the surviving foundation beneath the rubble of her old life, she couldn’t bear to see the cracks that had formed.

“I need to see that body, Harry. I have to see it with my own eyes. No matter the consequences.”

He released a long breath through his nose, embers fading in his eyes.

“Alright then. How are we going to do this?”

She was grateful for his surrender. She knew it was only temporary, that she was biding her time and prolonging the inevitable, but she would worry about that later. In all this chaos she only had the capacity to worry about what was directly in front of her, and right now, getting to the morgue was her first priority.

“I can’t leave work, it’s only my second day and I really don’t feel like explaining the situation to my boss.”

She sighed, running a hand along her neck as she thought. “If I’m late returning to the Home my Matron will have a field day. She has her henchman waiting up for me every evening. Which means…” she wet her lips, meeting his gaze once more. “I’m going to have to sneak out again.”

He shook his head. “You spend more time climbing over the walls than inside them.”

“It certainly feels that way.”

“Are you sure you can manage it again, so soon after the last time?”

She bit her lip, slowly nodding. “Yes, I think so. I’ll be careful.”

He looked reluctant to agree, but to his credit, he tamped down any remaining argument. “Alright. I’ll wait for you outside with a carriage.”

“No, that’ll draw too much attention, especially if I’m delayed leaving. I’ll have to meet you there.”

Harry blinked. “I don’t think-”

“That it’s a good idea? None of this is a good idea, but it’s happening anyway.”

He rubbed at his eyes. “Fine. I’ll meet you there.”

She hated this version of Harry, lacking the usual fire and passion that distinguished him from all others.

“I don’t want things to be this way between us, Harry.”

He swallowed lightly. “Neither do I.”

“May I…” she bit her lip, shifting awkwardly. “May I hug you?”

He blinked. And then his face transformed once more, a bark of laughter cutting the tension like a knife. “You had better.”

She smiled in relief, stepping forward at once and wrapping her arms around him, closing her eyes and relishing his hold. Harry had always been a primary source of comfort. She fought back tears as she realized his presence no longer banished away all her fears and worries.

They slowly broke apart, meeting each other’s gaze.

“I love you, Mione.”

She took a deep breath, emotions warring within her.

“I love you, too, Harry.”

Of that she was certain.

She just hoped love was enough to keep them tethered together through the storm to come.


Harry practically jogged up the steps leading to the massive black doors, an ominous omen of the danger housed within, literally and figuratively.

He knew he shouldn’t be here.

Coming here was stupid. Short-sighted. Disastrous.

But he could think of nowhere else to go following his explosive encounter with Hermione. His emotions were still caught in a whirlwind. He hadn’t been able to release the full force of his frustrations with her, his driving need to protect her too strong to be overcome by the simple heat of an argument.

So he sought out the one person he could take out his pent-up aggression on.

He banged on the door with the side of his closed fist, heart racing.

The barrier gave way to reveal the butler on the other side, eyes widening as they fell upon Harry.

“Mr. Potter, good afternoon, Sir.”

Harry nodded. “Good afternoon, Winslow. I’m here to speak to speak with The-” he stopped short, swallowing lightly. “I’m here to speak with Nott.”

“Young Master Nott is currently in his chambers, I shall fetch him for you.”

“Thank you, Winslow.” He stepped inside, passing up the parlor for the drawing room. It had only one door, easier to see who was coming.

He paced the room anxiously, circling the tufted sofa with heaving breaths, running through the last two days in his mind.

All this shite with Hermione, her missing friend, his promotion… he no longer had control over any facet of his life, everything was happening so fast, changing so fast, it was all too much-

“For Christ’s sake, Potter, have you lost your bloody mind?”

Harry glanced up sharply, so consumed by his thoughts he hadn’t heard Theo descend the stairs or enter the room.

Theo looked over his shoulder into the hall, sighing and closing the door.

“What are you- Mfh!”

Harry slammed him against the back of the door, mouth silencing the rest of his words, swallowing them with a groan of satisfaction as his tongue lapped against Theo’s, invading the warm caverns within.

Theo’s hands clutched at Harry’s shoulders, then slid down to squeeze his biceps before descending to his narrow waist. Harry held Theo’s head in place with one hand on his neck and the other clutching his dark hair in a fist, angling him just right, devouring him one ragged moan at a time.

He pressed their bodies flush, heights aligned, pelvises bumping, erections grazing. Theo mewled low in his throat, Harry growled, biting his lover’s bottom lip and jerking his head back to scrape his teeth along his exposed neck.

“Po- Potter…” Theo swallowed thickly, Adam's apple bobbing beneath Harry’s tongue and teeth. “Potter, we can’t… not here.”

Harry once again forced his silence with his mouth, hands releasing his head to grip his hips, pinning him against the door as Harry ground against him at a relentless pace.

“Fuck!” Theo gasped, eyes rolling back into his head.

“We’re getting there.” Harry’s voice sounded foreign to his ears, dark and low. Theo didn’t seem to mind in the least, hands fisting in Harry’s undershirt, dragging the material free from his pants and sliding beneath, soft fingertips and blunt nails carving paths along his back.

The world fell away. All the stress and anger and confusion melted at his lover’s eager touch. The only reality that existed was Theo’s rumbling groans and desperate gasps, the salty sweet of his skin and the searing heat of his touch.

Until those skillful hands released his back and slammed into his chest hard enough to knock the air from his lungs. Harry staggered back, bereft of the other man’s warmth.

“Fuck! Christ, Theo!”

Theo gasped for breath, leaning his weight against the door as he pinned Harry with a narrow gaze.

“That’s my line, Potter. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I thought I’d made my intentions perfectly clear.”

“This isn’t a joke.”

“Let me show you how serious I am.”

Theo held up a hand, halting Harry’s approach. “You must be insane to think I’d do this in my father’s house.”

“Your father isn’t here.”

“The staff is. The same staff who saw the two of us enter the same room and close the bloody door!”

Harry drew in a deep breath through his nose, spine straightening. “Then come with me to Grimmauld. Sirius will be busy all afternoon-”

“What’s gotten into you?” Theo raised a dark brow, eyes roaming Harry’s disheveled figure. “What happened?”

Harry blinked, fists clenching at his sides. “Nothing’s happened. Thanks to you.”

Theo swallowed, breathing finally regulated. “I’m not joking around about this, Potter. You can’t even imagine what my father would do if he suspected something, anything, like this was happening. Little less under his own roof.”

Then he wet his lips, straightening his clothing and running fingers through his dark hair. “I know you’ve never had much good sense to begin with, but you certainly have more than this. Now you can choose to talk to me about whatever’s got you in such a state or you can leave. I couldn’t care less either way.”

Harry scowled. “Fine, I’ll leave!”

Theo rolled his eyes. “Always so immature.”

“I didn't hear you complaining a moment ago.”

“At least tuck your shirt in before you go storming into the hall like a Neanderthal.”

“I doubt Neanderthals tuck their shirts in.”

Theo sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I take back what I said at the bar. You’re starting to annoy me as well as drive me insane.”

Harry’s jaw tick as he violently tucked his shirt in, taking out his aggravation on the fabric as though it was the source of all his problems.

“Fucking hell, Potter. What is the matter with you?”

“You gave me a choice, talk or leave. I’m leaving.”

Theo folded his arms, continuing to lean against the door, blocking his only exit.

“I’ve changed my mind. You’re not leaving until you tell me what the hell your problem is.”

“I’m not in the fucking mood, Theo.”

“Well, you certainly had me fooled when you were dry humping my leg a second ago.”

Harry tossed his head back with a heavy sigh. “I shouldn’t have come here.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. But you did. And now you’re going to tell me why.”

The turbulence had calmed in his chest enough for Harry to feel a touch foolish. He ran a hand through his hair, closing his eyes.

“I got into a fight with Mione. I… I don’t know why I came here.”

Theo rolled his eyes. “I should think it quite obvious. You’re terrified of wilting your delicate flower so you stormed over here to bruise me.”

Harry blinked. “I didn’t- I don’t-”

“Calm down, Potter. I didn’t say I didn’t like it.”

Harry swallowed. “Hermione said the same thing. About me treating her like she’s fragile. I didn’t think it was true.”

“For someone so in touch with his emotions you choose to deny the strangest things.”

Harry glanced away, walking to the sofa and collapsing into the cushions, suddenly feeling quite drained. Theo pushed away from the door and made his way over, sitting beside him in a much more dignified manner.

“I feel like I’m losing her. But I’m starting to wonder if I’m not just pushing her away.”

“You’ll never lose her, Potter. The two of you are thicker than thieves. Add in that ginger lap dog always drooling all over the pair of you and you make quite the quaint little image.”

Harry glanced sideways at him. “You know I love her like a sister. There’s never been and never will be anything between us.”

“Christ, I’m not jealous, no need to reassure me.”

Harry nodded. “Good. Because I can’t even reassure myself at this point. I’m watching her deteriorate and I can’t do anything about it. It’s driving me mental.”

Theo sighed, leaning back and folding an arm behind his head. “I’ve told you countless times what your problem is, but you never listen to me.”

“I do not have a hero complex.”

Theo rolled his eyes. “As I said, I’m endlessly fascinated by your denial.”

“I thought you wanted to have a serious discussion.”

Theo maintained his casual repose but his eyes narrowed dangerously. “I assure you, I’m quite serious. In fact, I’m being brutally honest. Your constant need to save others is slowly killing you.”

Harry glanced at him sharply. “Don’t you think that’s a bit dramatic?”

“Look at the state you’re in, Potter. Completely falling apart because your friend won’t let you run her life for her.”

“I don’t want to run her life! I just want to-”

“Tell her where to live, what to eat, how to spend her free time?”

Harry blinked, reeling back. “What? No! Of course not! Wanting her in a safe environment isn’t me trying to control her, it’s wanting her to be safe and provided for! And yes I want her to fucking eat more but I could give two shites what she-”

“My point is, Potter, that you think you know what’s best for her, and in your misguided attempts to push her towards those choices you’ve driven a wedge between the two of you. The good news is the wedge is completely removable. The bad news is you have to be the one to remove it.”

Harry tilted his head, studying Theo’s aristocratic profile. “How long have you been waiting to tell me all that?”

“Since we started fucking and you started droning on about your idiot friends.”

“It’s called pillow talk.”

Theo’s stoic expression was broken by a small smirk playing at the corner of his mouth.

“I suppose that’s why I prefer chairs and walls to beds.”

“I’m not complaining.”

He met Harry’s gaze. “Has your sanity finally returned, then?”

“Unfortunately. I’m sorry I came.”

“I thought I pushed you away in time.”

Harry chuckled, shaking his head. “You did. I’m sorry I put you in that position.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time you pinned me against a door.”

“It won’t be the last.”

Theo’s eyes flickered to Harry’s mouth. “Good.”

“I should probably go before the staff starts getting wild ideas.”

Theo sighed, glancing away. “Winslow will keep them in line. He looks out for me the best he can.”

Harry studied him some more, rubbing his palms on his thighs. “I knew I liked him.”

“He likes you as well. Otherwise, he’d never have let you in. Father’s wrath is not easily skirted.”

“Is he-”

“As you said, you should probably go.” Theo stood, keeping his back averted to Harry as he walked past.

Harry leaped to his feet and grabbed his shoulder, spinning him around and pressing a soft kiss to his lips, beckoning hands slow and tender in the wake of their earlier clawing and desperation.

Theo responded instantly, allowing Harry to coax his lips apart, tongues gently gliding. Then he pulled back, just enough to inhale sharply, hands clutching Harry’s waist as he rested their foreheads together.

“I’m marrying Pansy.”

Harry jolted, held in place by Theo’s strong grip. He opened his mouth but no words formed. His heart climbed into his throat, the rapid thrum of his pulse resounding through his entire body.

Theo swallowed, blinking rapidly, eyes glittering like the sapphires they so emulated.

“Say something.”

Harry's jaw was locked, his mind a barren desert, things like language and speech abstract concepts to his overloaded mind.

Theo sucked in a long, shaky breath, fingertips digging painfully into Harry’s waist.

“Please say something.” Their lips grazed, noses brushing. “Harry.”

Hearing his name on Theo’s lips at long last drove a metal spike through his heart. The blood rained down and pooled along his feet with each successive beat.

He shared his lover’s breath for a moment more before gently extracting himself from his hold.

“I have to go.”

Theo blinked, expression pinching before he glanced away sharply. Harry stepped away in a numb stupor, dripping blood all over the expensive carpets and fine upholstery. When Theo gazed upon his once more his mask was firmly in place, all trace of emotion gone.

“Goodbye, Potter.

Harry swallowed heavily.

“Goodbye, Nott.”

Theo’s eyes hardened, jaw ticking, but anything that came after that was lost to Harry as he turned around and left, desperate to find a dark, damp patch of earth to burrow into as his heart drained itself entirely.


“She’s going to kill me if she finds out.”

“She’ll understand, you’re doing this for all of us. It is a great burden to bear.”

Hermione sighed, lying back on Luna’s bed and staring at the ceiling. She felt the mattress dip as Hanna sat beside her.

“She’s right, Mione. Someone who’s seen Lavender in person has to go. I don’t think I could stomach it.”

“It’s not that,” Hermione closed her eyes. “Parv will be pissed I’m not telling her I’m going. She’ll think I went behind her back.”

“Well, you are.”

Hermione’s eyes snapped open, head turning. “Thanks, Luna.”

“But you’re doing it for her own good. Parvati would insist on coming along, and that would only risk her welfare as well as the mission itself.”

Hermione swallowed, glancing back to the ceiling. She felt incredibly guilty withholding these new findings from her roommate, but Luna was right. Parvati would insist on going, seeing the potential body of their missing friend for herself, and would only complicate matters further.

However, she knew Parvati would note Hermione’s absence, especially if the errand kept her out past curfew, so she enlisted her other friends’ help.

“I don’t want to put either of you in a position to lie for me. If she asks where I am, you can tell her the truth, just make sure she doesn’t try and take off after me.”

Hannah nodded. “Don’t worry, Mione. We’ll take care of things here. If you’re out late one of us will sleep in your bed again.”

Hermione sighed. “Thank you. Let’s hope I’m back before then, I have a feeling Filch is going to be extra obsessive with his rounds after the fiasco two nights ago.”

She’d filled the girls in about most of the evening’s events, including the pot and lantern mishap. She didn’t tell them why she’d dropped the lantern, only Parvati knew about the eyeless apparition. And no one knew about her encounter with the Doctor.

Some secrets were better kept under lock and key.

“Even if security is tightened there’s only so much he can do. He’s one person, he can’t be everywhere at once, much as he likes to pretend he’s omnipotent.” Hannah rolled her eyes. “Besides, he can’t come into our rooms, even if he suspects something amiss. He’d have to grab Umbridge.”

Hermione set her jaw. “I think I’d prefer Filch coming into my room.”

Hannah laughed. “I’d have to agree with you. So when are you heading out?”

“Soon. I need to figure out a way to get free without the other residents spotting me. The usual routes are being watched by Marietta and her gang.”

Hannah tipped her head, clearly thinking as well.

“I know a way.”

They both glanced to Luna, sitting crossed legged at the head of the bed, pulling twine around a wooden hoop. Hermione had no idea what the girl was making and didn’t bother asking, sometimes Luna was better left to her own devices.

“Really?” To Hermione’s knowledge, Luna had never snuck out before. “Where?”

“Through the clinic.”

Hermione jolted upright.

“What?”

Luna kept her gaze averted to her craft project. “The windows open and are plenty large to step through. Then you merely have to slip through the gate.”

Hermione blinked. “I…” she opened and closed her mouth, thoughts whirling. “How do you know the windows open?”

Luna halted her work, body tensing for the space between heartbeats, and then gazed up with a serene smile.

“I’ve seen them open before, last summer when the heat wave came through. We propped open the double doors to let the air flow circulate.”

Hannah’s brows drew together. “I think I remember that.”

Hermione chewed on the inside of her cheek. “That’s a good idea, Luna. I just have to break into the clinic. The doors are locked after close.”

“Then you should hurry, it’s open for another twenty minutes.”

“She can’t go while the Doctor is still there.”

Luna met Hermione’s eyes. Her blue gaze was normally calming, but for some inexplicable reason, Hermione felt unsettled by it.

“Right. My mistake.” She held her gaze for a moment longer before glancing down, threading more twine over the hoop.

Hermione swallowed, shifting anxiously on the bed. “Well…” she cleared her throat, pushing to her feet. “I should probably go change. If I don’t see you before curfew thank you both again. And if Parvati gets mad, tell her…” she sighed, shaking her head. “Never mind. I’ll tell her.”

“Don’t worry about her, Mione.” Hannah’s face held a deep concern, furthering unsettling her weary nerves. “Worry about you tonight. This is for Lav.”

Hermione nodded, taking a deep breath and slipping quietly from the room.

And then pressing her back against the wall, tipping her head to the ceiling and closing her eyes.

Shite.

Shite shite shite.

She just couldn’t avoid entangling this man in her complicated life.

I’ll wait until he leaves. Then I’ll find a way to sneak inside the clinic.

She sighed, shaking her head.

The door will be locked. How am I supposed to get a key?

She opened her eyes, already knowing what needed to be done but delaying the inevitable.

You have twenty minutes to find your courage.

He hadn’t been angry that she went to Amortentia.

“Did you find anything useful?”

Those had been his exact words. He’d understood her need to go, to find answers.

“I cannot bring myself to punish that which I admire.”

She chewed her lip, hands curling at her sides.

Perhaps he’ll understand this, too.

There was only one way to find out.

The worst he can do is say no, and I’ll be back where I started. He won't report me to Umbridge.

We’re past that illusion.

The simple truth sent a thrill through her body, animating her limbs and compelling her to make the jaunt downstairs. She braced herself outside the familiar doors, trying to keep her breath steady.

And then she pushed them open, stepping inside on a deep inhale. This place held a special meaning to her now, especially after yesterday. She would never think of it as just a clinic again.

“You spend nearly as much time here as I do, Ms. Granger.”

She spun around. He was seated behind the desk, gaze averted down on his work. She wet her lips.

“It would seem that way.”

His eyes flickered up. “How are you feeling?”

She blinked, then recalled their last interaction.

“I’m feeling much recovered. Thank you for asking.”

“I am your physician, it is my duty to ask such questions.”

She swallowed nervously, daring to take a step closer. He raised a dark brow, leaning back in his chair and pinning her with the intensity of his gaze.

“You want something.”

She froze in place, heart stuttering.

“I- well, I need to-” amusement danced in his eyes. “I need to leave the grounds.”

He tilted his head. She felt a hot flush consume her.

“Do you now.”

Her hands curled at her sides.

“And I need to sneak out through the clinic windows to do so.”

The silence was deafening.

And then he smirked.

“I’ve come to expect the unexpected from you, Ms. Granger,” he said slowly. “And yet you still manage to surprise me.”

She took another step closer. “I know this is asking a lot, but I wouldn’t dare ask if I had any other option.”

His amused expression turned unreadable. “I take it this has to do with Lavender Brown?”

Hearing her friend’s name from his lips was strangely unsettling. She nodded quickly. “Yes. I need to visit the morgue. A body washed up in the river last night and they haven’t been able to identify it.”

And then his visage changed once more. Shadows moved along the sharp planes of his face, sinking his cheekbones and darkening his brow, hardening his gleaming eyes to diamond points, until suddenly one of Milton’s fabled fallen angels was seated before her.

She knew nothing of this man, nothing of his background or motivations, but in that moment she knew with absolute certainty she was gazing upon a tortured soul. It called to her, a siren song of pain that her own heart danced to quite often.

And she knew that he would let her go.

She swayed on her feet, fighting the magnetic pull of his gaze. The shadows cleared from view, rendering him a mortal man of flesh and bone once again. He pushed away from the desk.

“Very well, Ms. Granger. Let’s go.”

She blinked, snapping out of her daze.

“I’m sorry?”

“You heard me.” He reached for his coat draped over the back of the chair. “I cannot condone you roaming through the city by yourself, no matter how noble the purpose. If something happened to you it would be my fault.”

She took a deep breath. “I won’t be alone, I’m meeting someone there.”

His movements slowed, just a touch, gaze snapping to hers. “I see.”

She swallowed, feeling the need to explain, speaking before her mind could edit the content.

“My friend, Harry. He’s the one who told me about the body. He wanted to pick me up from here but I insisted he meet with me instead. I thought a carriage parked along the street would only draw suspicion.”

He smoothed his high collar. “A wise decision. One that changes nothing.”

She bristled. “I don’t need a chaperone, it’s only-”

“You are a very intelligent young woman, Hermione. Surely you recognize a losing battle when you see it."

She was rendered mute. Not by his statement but by his use of her first name. Hearing him say it always scrambled her thoughts.

Perhaps he knew that, and used the tactic to his advantage…

“Very good.” He smirked, and then held out his arm for her to grab, further upending her mind. “Shall we?”

She stared at the offering dumbly. “I… I can’t go out the front with you. I’m under house arrest.”

“I won’t have you crawling through windows and climbing over gates like a common criminal.”

She drew in a breath. “But, Umbridge…”

His mouth curved into a Cheshire grin, lightning flashing in his eyes. “That’s not for you to worry about. I’ll take care of the Madam.” He held his arm aloft once more. “Let’s go, Hermione.”

Her name was a spell on his lips, rendering her pliable beneath his will. She stepped forward and placed her hands on his arm, feeling the ground beneath her tilt as her fingers pressed into the dark fabric of his sleeve.

After they passed through the doors into the hall he placed a hand over her own, making her entire arm tingle even as her heart leaped into her throat. He gently removed her fingers from his arm as he spun around and pulled a set of keys from his coat.

She watched as he locked the doors, biting her lip once more.

“It’s alright if you leave the Home?”

He raised a dark brow. “I am a man grown, Umbridge holds no sway over me.”

She swallowed. “That's not what-”

“I know what you meant.” He replaced the keys into his breast pocket and grabbed her hand without warning, tucking it back into the crook of his arm and resuming their path down the hall. “The Home went several months without a physician, I think they can manage one evening.”

She nodded. “I just don’t want to,” she wet her lips, searching for the appropriate words. “I don’t want to monopolize your time.”

He shook his head, eyes focused ahead. “What did I tell you about always being so placating?”

She stared at his profile in a half-trance, but was pulled into stunning awareness as they emerged into the entrance hall which was still bustling with residents, conversations silencing as they gazed upon the Doctor and Hermione striding for the door arm in arm.

She felt her face burn and had to fight the urge to hide it behind his shoulder.

And suddenly the silence was shattered by a familiar, grating voice.

“What the bloody ell is happenin in ere?”

She felt the muscles beneath her palms tighten, saw the minute shift in his posture as the broken gait sounded behind them.

“Oh… Doctor… didn’t see ya th-” Hermione went rigid as she felt the telltale signs of eyes upon her, making her skin crawl. “What is she doin’ ere?”

She heard him sigh deeply beside her before he once more touched her hand, this time pressing it firmly into his arm as he rotated them around to meet the speaker head on.

“Mr. Filch.” His voice was colder than ice, causing her to draw back instinctively. His hand tightened on her before falling to his side. “I have an errand to run that requires Ms. Granger’s assistance. We shall be back shortly.”

“Errand ta run? She can’t go on an errand!”

“She can and she will, I assure you.” His smile was death. Hermione was transfixed by it. “Furthermore, I do not require your permission to take residents off the grounds. If you’d like to take the matter up with the Madam you are more than welcome. I am happy to speak with her after we return.”

Filch opened and closed his mouth like a gaping fish, eyes rapidly flickering between them “But- but-”

“Good evening, Mr. Filch.” He glanced at Hermione. “Ms. Granger, this way.” And then they were striding through the large entryway doors and down the front steps like they owned the building and possessed naught a single care in the world.

It was beyond surreal.

As they walked down the drive to the street she felt his eyes upon her.

“Breathe, Ms. Granger.”

She swallowed heavily. “I think I’ve forgotten how.”

He wry smirk further deprived her lungs of oxygen. As they reached a carriage the Doctor offered her his hand for balance as she stepped onto the platform. She gasped as his hands then gripped her waist, helping steady her as she climbed fully inside.

She blinked rapidly as he gave the driver instructions and then entered the narrow space, taking the opposite seat and leaning back, falling into a cloak of shadows from which his eyes gleamed.

“Don’t pay any mind to Mr. Filch. I certainly don’t.”

She bit her lip, lurching slightly as the carriage started to move. “So I’ve noticed.”

His gaze was unwavering. “You shouldn’t let him intimidate you. That’s where he derives his false sense of power.”

She nodded. “I’m well aware. I’ve met many others like him before. Unfortunately, most of the residents don’t take my advice to heart.”

He finally glanced away, directing his gaze to the passing scenery through the window.

“It’s easy to see why he’s so attached to his job. Where else can he lord over so many delicate things.”

Hermione blinked, sitting up straighter. She wasn’t unsettled by his comment per se, but she didn’t like the idea that he considered her or the other residents weak.

“Women are considered fragile, but I’ve never seen anything as easily wounded as a man’s ego.”

His head turned, their eyes locking once more.

A smile slowly unfurled along his face, true and genuine, making her chest swell and ache.

“How very astute you are, Ms. Granger. My apologies if my comment caused offense.”

She shook her head. “It didn’t. Filch causes offense.”

His eyes flickered between hers for a moment longer, and then his smile slowly fell. “Are you prepared for what may come of this excursion?”

She pressed back into the seat, tearing her eyes away. “Of course.”

“If this is Ms. Brown, it may be very traumatizing.”

“You sound like Harry.”

He tilted his head. “Have you ever seen a dead body before, Ms. Granger?”

She wet her lips, slowly glancing up.

Only in my head.

“No.”

His eyes narrowed briefly, as though reading a different answer in her gaze.

“Even if you had, nothing prepares you for seeing the body of a loved one.”

She blinked, questions brimming within her. The most obvious being Who have you lost?

But she wasn’t sure if such a thing was appropriate to ask.

The moment passed, her hesitation cost her the opportunity as he continued.

“Furthermore, I feel I should warn you that what you’re about to see tonight may be deeply unnerving for an entirely different set of reasons. Depending on how long the body was submerged, it may be extremely waterlogged. This will make it more difficult to recognize common facial features. You may have to resort to other means. Did Ms. Brown have any other distinguishable markings?”

She swallowed heavily, his words inspiring deeply disturbing images to flourish within her mind. She shook her head, trying to dispel them.

“I don’t think so. Not that I know of any way…” she sighed. “I should have asked Parvati. She’d know better than I would.”

“I reviewed Ms. Brown’s medical file. She suffered a broken pelvis some years ago. If the external examination is inconclusive the autopsy should help determine whether it is her.”

Hermione’s mouth ran dry.

A broken pelvis?

She’d no idea. Her mind ran rampant with every dark possibility for how her friend had come by such an injury.

The Doctor seemed to notice her dismay.

“My apologies. I would normally never share the details of a patient’s medical file, but in these exceptional circumstances where Ms. Brown’s welfare is at stake I deem it necessary.”

Hermione nodded, staring blankly out the window. “I understand.”

She felt his gaze linger on her for a while longer but couldn’t bring herself to meet it, terrified he’d see through the stoic facade she was barely maintaining.

And then he too was glancing out the window, keen eyes watching the buildings and people pass by in rapid succession.

As they neared the river his eyes darkened.

“This is near where I grew up.”

She glanced quickly at him.

“Really?”

They were passing through a lower middle-class neighborhood, the smell of grease and fish strong in the air.

“Actually, I grew up closer to Christ Church on Watney Street.”

Hermione blinked.

She was no expert on the entire city of London, but thanks to her parents’ careers she’d been privy to the poorest, roughest neighborhoods where the majority of injury and disease came from. The area he spoke of was of the lowest class, plagued by crime and sickness and in a state of chronic disrepair.

That anyone could escape such an upbringing, becoming a Doctor no less, was unheard of.

His eyes stayed directed out the window, giant barges sailing in the distance.

“I started working on the docks when I was nine. Or perhaps I was eight. I don’t recall exactly. Just that I was small enough to fit through the confined spaces on the ships to clean them.”

She wet her lips, desperate to hear more, holding her breath.

“I mainly worked on fishing vessels. No matter how hard I scrubbed, I could never get the smell off of me. It permeated my clothes, my hair, my skin. Probably my bones as well. It followed me everywhere I went. Sometimes I still smell it to this day, when I'm in the office, or walking along the hall. And for an instant, I'm right back on the docks.”

Hermione leaned forward, unable to quell her curiosity any longer. “How did you get out?”

His head snapped around, eyes pinning her in place. “I had a benefactor.”

She blinked, not expecting such a response. “They put you through medical school?”

“They put me through Cambridge. I attended medical school on a full scholarship.”

Her eyes lit up. “I’ve always wanted to attend University. Cambridge would be my first choice, their science department is-” She blinked again, leaning back. “Apologies. Such topics always make me speak out of turn.”

He raised a brow, the corner of his mouth turning up. “I didn’t realize we were taking turns, Ms. Granger.”

Something in his voice made her swallow. It was light, playful, but the edges were sharp.

He was teasing her.

And for just a moment it filled her with such light it dispelled the darkness lurking within her heart.

"Do not stop on my account."

“Be careful what you wish for, Doctor. Once I get started I won’t stop until I’ve exhausted you completely.”

His smirk deepened, embers burning in his eyes. She reared back as she caught the sordid double meaning of her words, flushing hotly.

“I- I didn’t mean- What I meant to say was-”

“I do believe watching you stammer and blush is the highlight of my day.”

She fell back into her seat, still burning beneath his intense gaze. “I’m glad one of us enjoys it so.”

He laughed lightly, shaking his head and peering through the window once more.

His expression sobered.

“We’re almost there.”

She swallowed, nodding and closing her eyes, stealing her courage for the task ahead. When she opened her lids the Doctor was watching her, face unreadable.

“It’s rare to see such dedication to others, Ms. Granger. Especially to someone outside of one’s family.”

She shrugged, thinking of Harry, of Ron, Parvati and Luna and Hannah.

“Family takes many forms.”

His gaze was unwavering.

“I suppose it can.”

She gasped as the carriage came to a sudden halt, the driver shouting that they’d arrived. She leaned forward, peering through the window, swallowing heavily at the large grey building ahead of them.

It looked as dead as the bodies it contained.

She regained her senses as the Doctor leaped down and paid the driver, then stepped back to the open door and offer his hand. She was too overwhelmed with sudden fear to process the warmth of his touch, or how it lingered on her skin even after he released her.

She stood before the ominous entrance with wide eyes and shallow breath. And then she felt his hand wrap around her shoulder from behind. Not pulling or pushing, merely touching. Grounding her in place.

“It will be alright, Hermione.”

She closed her eyes, inhaling sharply and nodding.

And then they were walking inside.

He held the door for her as she entered the cold, barren lobby, gazing around with trepidation, as though the corpses were on display in this very room.

And then she saw the familiar shock of black hair and emerald eyes beneath. Harry stood, cutting a quick path towards her.

“About time, I was getting wor-”

He fell silent as the Doctor entered a few paces behind. She stepped back, glancing between them, Harry’s expression turning guarded while the Doctor’s remained unreadable to her eyes.

“Harry, this is Doctor Riddle. He’s the physician at the Home and was kind enough to escort me here. Doctor, this is my friend Harry Potter.”

The Doctor moved first, his smile revealing gleaming teeth as he held out a hand.

“Hello, Mr. Potter. Hermione has told me about you, it’s good to meet you at last.”

Harry seemed to come out of whatever reverie had possessed him. He swallowed, meeting the offered hand with his own. “Hello, Doctor. I’m afraid Hermione hasn’t mentioned you in turn, but I don’t get to see much of her these days.”

She glanced away, chest tightening.

Their hands fell apart, both stepping back, inclining their bodies towards her.

“Yes, the Matron certainly likes to keep the residents under lock and key the majority of the time.”

Harry’s eyes hardened for a moment but softened as soon as they met Hermione’s. “So I’ve heard.”

The Doctor’s gaze flickered between them and then the door on the opposite wall swung open as a tall, sinewy man stepped forth.

“Oh good, you’ve arrived. Mr. Potter says you’re here to try and identify the body from last night?”

Hermione nodded. “Yes.”

“Excellent. This way, please.”

The Doctor led the procession as Harry walked beside Hermione, hand on her arm.

“You don’t have to do this, Mione,” he whispered as they walked down a long hall.

She narrowed her eyes, staring at the back of the Doctor’s head.

“I don’t want to have this fight again, Harry,” she whispered sharply, painfully aware of the echoing volume of their voices in the otherwise silent corridor.

“Neither do I, I just want-”

“Enough!” She whipped her head around to face him. “I’m done talking about this. I’m going inside and that’s final.”

He sighed, shaking his head and facing forward.

She gazed ahead as well, embarrassed to have such a tiff in front of the Doctor. She had no doubt he heard every word.

The attendant came to a stop outside a door at the end of the hall, turning to face them.

“The body is through here.” His gaze fell on Hermione. “We have a separate room for the lady to wait.”

The Doctor stepped forward. “The lady is the only one who can accurately identify the body. She is the entire reason we are here.”

The man’s brows pinched together. “I can’t in good conscience allow a woman to look upon a dead body, Sir.”

The Doctor tipped his head, and though Hermione couldn’t see his expression from this angle, she had no doubt he was pinning the man with his most severe stare. The attendant shifted anxiously.

“We aren’t leaving here until you allow the lady to view the body. Do you understand?”

The man swallowed. “Yes, Sir. This way, please.”

He shouldered open the door and they followed inside.

Hermione brought a hand to her mouth and nose, the noxious chemicals in the air burning her nostrils and throat. Harry reared back, sputtering into his hand. The Doctor strode forward without any discernible reaction.

“Sorry about the smell,” the attendant offered over his shoulder, walking past several metal tables with sheet-covered corpses atop. “Embalming fluid and-”

“We get the point,” the Doctor clipped, eyes on Hermione as she tentatively stepped into the room, hand still covering the bottom half of her face.

Harry got himself under control, though his eyes watered. She blinked as the Doctor reached inside his coat and withdrew a handkerchief, holding it toward her.

“This will help.”

She nodded her gratitude and pressed the soft fabric to her mouth and nose, letting it filter out the acrid odors.

“Right, well, this is the girl they found in the Thames last night.” The attendant stood beside a table at the end of the row, the white sheet covering everything but the ankles and feet.

And judging by the sight of those, Hermione felt her entire body lock up with trepidation.

Harry stepped forward from behind her, circling the table and standing at the head, fists clenched at his sides as he too gazed upon the swollen, discolored feet.

“Mione…”

She shook her head. “I have to, Harry.”

The attendant placed his hands in his pockets, gazing at the Doctor, no doubt identifying him as the leader of their group.

“Based on the state of the corpse and the temperature and acidity levels of the river we estimate she was only underwater for twenty-four to forty-eight hours, the body is still remarkably intact, there’s just been swelling of the fat tissues as the water-”

“Thank you," the Doctor interrupted, eyes hard. "The girl we’re looking for has been missing for five days. Given the timeline, it’s a possibility.”

Hermione unconsciously saddled closer to him as he spoke, sensing something truly terrible in her midst and seeking the protection he offered.

“Alright, well, when you’re ready.”

Hermione swallowed, swaying on her feet as she nodded to the attendant. “I’m ready.”

Harry drew in a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose. The Doctor drew to his full height beside her.

The sheet was pulled back.

The face and shoulders were exposed.

Hermione gasped, backing up and knocking into the Doctor. His hands gripped her shoulders. She spun around, burying her face in his chest, trembling.

“It’s her.”

She closed her eyes, tears tracking down her cheeks in steaming rivers. “It’s Lavender,” she gasped, choking back a sob.

His arms encircled her, holding her steady against him as she shook.

She didn’t see him glance to the attendant, motioning with his head for the man to recover the body.

She didn’t see the way Harry watched them with an alert and narrowed gaze, fists tight at his sides.

She didn’t see the charged look the men shared as their eyes met over her head.

All she saw was the image forever emblazoned in her mind of the pale, waxen face of her friend, blue and purple veins bulging against the bloated flesh, mouth agape in a silent scream with sunken, shriveled lids covering her once warm brown eyes.

“Hermione,” the Doctor whispered. “Are you certain?”

“Yes.” She nodded weakly against him, her weight slumped into his body. “I know it’s h-” she stopped short, the image in her mind revealing a new detail, fuzzy but unmistakable.

She slowly pulled away, eyes wide and wet. She held the Doctor's gaze for a moment before turning around. “Let me see her again.”

“Mione-”

She held up her hand. “This is important, Harry.”

The attendant sighed, glancing over her shoulder at the Doctor, awaiting his permission before stepping forward and pulling the sheet down once more.

Hermione swallowed thickly, braced for the sight this time, but it still sent her reeling.

She maintained her clarity long enough to gaze upon Lavender’s neck.

Bruised and marked.

And cut straight across.

She swayed on her feet. She was hardly aware of the Doctor grabbing her arms, helping steady her shaky knees even as Harry lunged forward to catch her.

“She was murdered.”

Hermione heard her voice from a great distance.

“We need to get her out of here.”

Harry’s voice was also muffled and strange.

“Take her to the lobby, I’ll take care of matters here.”

She felt a strong arms slide around her waist, and then she was leaning into a warm, solid mass that bore a familiar, comforting scent.

“Come, on, Mione. I’ve got you.”

She let Harry lead her out of the room and down the long hall, back into the sterile barren lobby where he lowered her onto a bench.

“Mione, I’m so sorry.” He sat beside her, arm looping around her shoulders as he pulled her in, resting his chin atop her head. She sucked in a breath, rubbing her eyes.

“I didn’t think it would be her. I thought… I thought it was impossible. She was always so full of life.” She turned her face into his neck, saturating his shirt with her tears. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”

He sighed, rubbing small circles into her back. “I’m sorry you lost her, Mione. That you have to go through this again.”

Hermione blinked, pulling back. “It’s going to be the same thing all over again, isn’t it? They aren’t going to look for her killer. She was an orphan. They’re going to brush this under the rug just like they did with the fire.”

Harry tried to pull her close but she shrugged away, sitting straight and brushing loose hairs from her face. “I won’t let them get away with this.”

Harry placed a hand on her knee. “We haven’t even spoken to the police yet. We don’t what they’re going to-”

“I’m not talking about the police. I’m talking about her killer. I’m not going to let them get away.”

The edge in her voice made him sit back, eyes searching her face. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I know it isn’t good.”

She set her jaw, feeling the fire ignite within the empty recesses of her chest, felt her bones resolidify with metal, the urge to crush, to destroy overriding even her grief and despair.

“Someone took her. They abused her and they killed her and then discarded her in the river like a piece of trash.” She swallowed heavily, steam billowing from her mouth, nose and eyes. “And right now they’re sitting somewhere thinking they got away with it. Maybe they’re even planning to do it again. Maybe they’ve done it to other girls.” She clenched her fists, arms shaking. “And I’m going to find them and I’m going to-”

“Stop it, Hermione!” Harry leaned forward, gripping her arms and forcing her to look at him. “Please, stop this. I’m so sorry she’s gone and I promise you I’m going to make sure the police find the bastard that did this. But you have to stop. This isn’t healthy. And you’re only going to-”

“I can’t stop, Harry.” She twisted out of his grip. “I can’t go back to the Home and look my friends in the eyes and tell them that Lavender was murdered and just move on with my life. I can’t trust the police to find justice. I can’t sleep at night knowing that it could happen to someone else I care about!”

He swallowed, shaking his head, but before he could speak again the door swung open and the Doctor emerged.

They both fell silent, chests heaving with emotion, staring at him with wild eyes.

He stood still, glancing between them and raising his brow.

“I’ve provided Ms. Brown's details to the attendant. He will inform the police of her identity.”

His gaze settled on her.

“I am happy to step out and give you both some privacy.”

“No.”

She stood, Harry’s hand dropping away. She drew her shoulders back and stepped closer to the Doctor.

“I want to leave this place. Now.”

He held her gaze for several tense beats before nodding. “Certainly.”

Harry stood as well.

“Hermione-”

“I’m sorry, Harry, but I’m done talking about this. At least for tonight. I can’t think about it anymore.”

His let out a deep sigh, face stricken. “I’ll call on you tomorrow.”

“I’m under house arrest, I can’t see guests.”

“In light of the circumstances I’m sure the Madam will make an exception,” the Doctor said, voice solemn and deep. “I shall speak with her.”

Harry nodded, eyes flickering to the man. “Thank you.” He glanced to Hermione and back again. “And thank you for making sure she made it here safely.”

The Doctor tipped his head, examining Harry from a new angle. “Of course. It is my job to ensure her welfare.”

Harry nodded again, a deep sadness in his eyes. “I’m glad that someone there is looking out for her.”

Their gazes lingering for a moment more before Hermione stepped between them, fidgeting anxiously as the events of the evening started to set in fully.

“Good night, Harry. I’ll speak with you tomorrow I suppose.”

He sighed. “Come here.”

She didn’t resist his touch this time, allowing him to pull her into a hug and resting her face against his shoulder.

“I’m sorry if I upset you,” he whispered into her hair. “I’m just trying to look out for you.”

She nodded. “I know. It’s alright.” She pulled back, hands lingering on his chest. “I’ll be okay.”

She wondered if the words were for his benefit or her own.

Ten minutes later she was once more seated in a carriage across from the Doctor. They both remained silent as they were jostled from side to side along the cobblestone streets.

Since they’d been inside the morgue the sun had set, the city wrapped in a cloak of darkness, broken intermittently by bubbles of light from the lamp posts.

She wasn’t sure how much time passed while she sat suspended in a void of melancholy, but suddenly his voice pulled her from the heavy fog.

“Hermione.”

She glanced to where he sat, leaning back and completely submerged in shadow. She could only see his knees and the hands interlaced between them, long slender fingers calm and relaxed while hers twisted together like snakes in a barrel.

The carriage turned a corner and the moonlight streamed in through the window, a pale beam falling across his eyes, making them visible through the darkness.

They watched her carefully.

“I am sorry for your loss.”

She blinked. His statement reminded her of the night in the clinic when they’d discussed her parents’ deaths.

Hollow and meaningless.

“So am I.” She said simply, quite numb in the wake of this evening’s onslaught.

He tilted his head, she couldn’t see the motion, but his eyes suddenly viewed her at an angle.

“I wonder if your commitment to Ms. Brown has lessened in the wake of her death.”

Her gaze narrowed. “What do you mean?”

But a part of her already knew what he meant. That faint whisper in the back of her mind she was always so quick to suppress. The voice that grew louder every time she was in his presence.

“You stopped at nothing to find her. Would you go to the same lengths to find her killer?”

The air around them became charged, alive, making the fine hairs on her arms and neck stand on end. Hermione swallowed, unconsciously leaning forward, drawn by the hypnotic pull of his voice.

“Yes.”

He held her steady in his thrall as he leaned closer, eyes gleaming. The moonlight hit the side of his face, illuminating half his visage, transforming him into a supernatural creature, beautiful and deadly.

And she knew at that moment she was gazing upon the true Thomas Riddle.

The man behind the many masks.

Her body throbbed with the force of her heartbeat.

“Your judgment is clouded at the moment. You must process your grief.”

Her brows pinched, supreme disappointment weighting her limbs as she deflated. She opened her mouth to voice her dissent but fell silent with his next words.

“Take time to mourn.”

The carriage hit a rock, shaking hard. Their knees brushed.

“And if afterward you find that your anger still eclipses your sadness…”

She held her breath, watching his lips form the promise to seal her fate.

“I’ll be waiting.”

Chapter Text

Into the hole again
We hurried along our way,
Into a once-glorious garden
Now steeped in dark decay.
.   .   .

When Hermione and Doctor Riddle returned to the Home it was well past curfew, yet the front doors gave way effortlessly beneath his touch.

He guided her inside with one hand on her lower back, a gentle pressure urging her forward in place of her mind. She was too overcome to focus on anything as mundane as walking. She had no concept of direction. As she gazed around the dark gothic architecture she felt as though she were seeing it for the first time.

And for just a moment she lingered in the fantasy. This was her first day at the Home. She had just come from the solicitor’s office, had just signed her life away in exchange for those she cared for most. She was about to be given the tour and shown her dorm. She’d meet her roommates. All the horrors of the last few hours were a dream.

And then she heard the sound of a throat being cleared. High pitched and grating to her ears.

And the fantasy shattered. Reality hit her full force in the chest, knocking the air from her lungs.

“Welcome back, Doctor.” Umbridge stepped forth from the shadows, a vengeful demon materializing from the black pits of hell. “Ms. Granger.”

Hermione swallowed as she was pinned beneath that malevolent stare and tried to take an instinctive step back, but his hand flattened along her spine, keeping her in place.

“Good evening, Madam. I do hope you didn’t stay up simply to await our return.”

The Matron’s eyes flashed as she directed her focus upward, gazing up at the Doctor with a mixture of awe and hatred. It was a fascinating thing to behold if it wasn’t so terrifying.

“When a member of staff takes a resident off grounds for several hours without notifying me of their intent I have little choice but to await their return, Doctor.” Her eyes narrowed. “This was highly inappropriate, I can’t begin to-”

“Perhaps this is a conversation best had in private, Madam?”

Umbridge bristled, lips pressing into a thin line as she released a forceful breath through her nose.

“Fine.” She returned her gaze to Hermione, and if looks could kill, Hermione would be eviscerated on the spot. “Go to your dorm, Ms. Granger. You will do well to stay put. I have had enough of your rebellious antics. If I catch you out one more-”

“I believe Ms. Granger understands your instructions.”

Hermione released a slow breath of shock and dismay as Umbridge turned such a deep shade of red she appeared almost purple, a life-sized eggplant set to burst.

“I am the head of this institution!” she shrieked, voice sharp and lashing. “You both will do well to remember that!”

Hermione blinked, glancing up at the Doctor. His pupils were blown so wide they swallowed the grey completely, two fathomless voids that froze the blood in her veins.

“I assure you, Madam, that is a fact I won’t soon be forgetting.”

Umbridge seemed to come to her senses beneath his piercing stare, shifting anxiously on her feet. She glanced away quickly, expression pinched and flush.

“You are dismissed, Ms. Granger. Get out of my sight.”

Hermione didn’t mean to do what she did next, she made no conscious decision to turn her head, had no control over her eyes as they looked to the Doctor for confirmation, for permission.

This night had left her in tatters, shredded her outer layers until only the bare bones of instinct remained. And her basic most instinct knew quite clearly who was in charge.

The Doctor met her gaze. The air swelled. He nodded once.

She released the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding and quickly spun on her heel, walking quickly through the entrance hall until she emerged into the main corridor.

And sprinted for her room.


Harry drummed his fingers along the tabletop, eyes averted to the rim of his glass as his mind replayed the events of the night again and again beyond his control.

Hermione was so damnably stubborn. If only she had listened to him. The look on her face as she gazed upon the body of her friend would haunt him for the rest of his life.

It was almost enough to override his memory of the stranger holding her in his arms.

Almost.

The entire night was unnerving to the extreme. He hardly trusted his instincts. He needed time to process everything before making any rash decisions.

Unfortunately, he knew he didn’t have that time as Hermione would be eager for answers. And if he didn’t provide them for her, she’d hunt after them herself.

Which is why he was here, waiting to meet with one of the few people he knew would go to any length to help protect her. Even if that meant protecting her from herself.

The door to the pub opened and a familiar form slipped inside, pausing just past the threshold and flashing a look of disdain across the room. Their eyes settled upon Harry, scowl intensifying.

Harry took another long pull of ale, readying himself for the conversation to follow.

“This had better be good, Potter,” Draco said as he arrived at the table in the far corner. “If I’m seen in here my reputation will be in tatters.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “You’ve been spotted in every major gambling hall north of the Thames. I hardly think the Hog’s Head will do you any more damage.”

“Such statements make it startling clear you have no place in the aristocracy. Gambling halls are acceptable refuges for members of reputable families to dally. Filthy pubs in the back alleys of the East side are decidedly not.”

“The patrons here keep their mouths shut. That’s why I chose this place.”

Draco sighed, taking a seat across the table, crossing his arms and leaning back.

“I’m only here because your note said you have news about Granger.”

Harry took a deep breath, resting his forearms on the table.

“Her friend was found dead last night. Hermione identified her body at the morgue this evening.”

Draco surged forward. “What? How the bloody hell did that happen?” His eyes narrowed to slits. “Don’t tell me you were daft enough to let her go?”

Harry’s jaw ticked. “I hardly control her actions, Malfoy. If I did she wouldn’t still be living in that place to begin with.”

“How did she even find out about the body?”

Harry glanced away. Draco scoffed.

“You told her. Fucking idiot.”

Harry glared. “For your information, I tried to keep the fact hidden, but that went over like a dead weight. I did everything in my power to prevent her from going but she insisted, I’d like to have seen you stop her.”

“I would have stopped her because I wouldn’t have told her about the body in the first place. If our roles were switched and I was given free leave to do as I like I would have dragged her out of that den of wayward orphans the moment she stepped foot inside!”

Harry’s fists clenched. Draco was prodding him on the sorest of subjects, his inability to protect her.

“Then you really are an idiot, Malfoy. Forcing her hand is the surest way to lose her trust. Maybe that’s why she turned down your proposal.”

Draco blinked, face paling. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, shoulders tense.

“She told you about that?”

“No. Of course not. She’d never risk embarrassing you. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the two of you stopped talking for three months.”

Draco inhaled deeply through his nose, spine straightening. “Our relationship has nothing to do with you-”

“Trust me,” Harry cut in, picking up his glass. “The less I know the better. I have absolutely no desire to hear about anything that happens between you. I just care if you hurt her. In which case-”

“You’ll cut me open from neck to groin and slowly pull out my entrails, yes, I’m well aware.”

Harry took another drink, brow raising. “I was going to say I’ll kick your arse. But I like your idea much better.”

Draco glared, then his expression somber.

“How is she?”

Harry sighed. “She’s out for blood. She wants to find the person responsible and I-”

“Wait, what do you mean the person responsible?”

Harry blinked. “Oh. I forgot to mention, the girl was murdered.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Yes, such a minor detail, of course, you overlooked it.”

“I didn’t overlook it! Christ, I’ve been dealing with a lot today, I’ll have you know.”

“You aren’t the only one.”

“If you’re too busy to give a shite then just leave-”

“Did you hear me say that, Potter? You don’t own the majority share in concern for her.”

Harry leaned back, face tense. “I know that. That’s why I called you here. I’m afraid she’s keeping things from me and I can’t protect her when I don’t know what to protect her from.”

Draco’s jaw ticked. “You said she’s out for blood?”

“She wants to find the killer. She’s convinced the police won't do anything. You know how she feels about the Scotland Yard.”

“As she well should. A bunch of bumbling idiots sitting on their arses.”

Harry gazed into his drink. “There’s a new commissioner. Maybe he’ll be different, help reform the lot of them with the investigational unit.”

Draco didn’t spare the comment a moment’s thought. “I doubt it. Granger is right. They won’t waste time and resources on an orphan’s murder. The girl was obviously already forgotten about, otherwise, she wouldn’t have been living in that place to begin with.”

Harry’s gaze snapped up. “Mione isn’t forgotten about.”

“No, she isn’t.” A beat of silence. “But maybe that’s what she wants.”

Harry drew back. “What?”

“She’s distanced herself from everyone quite purposefully, Potter.”

“I’m not going to lose her.”

Draco’s gaze hardened. “Nor am I.”

Harry nodded, relieved to hear the conviction in the other man’s voice.

“So you’ll help me then?”

“Help you what exactly?”

Harry’s fists tightened anew, emerald eyes flashing. “Find the killer, of course.”


Hermione hesitated in the hallway outside of her room, lingering behind the door as she tried to get her thoughts and emotions in order.

It was of no use. Sorting it meant facing it, and she was already walking precariously along a narrow tightrope suspended over a pit of hysteria. She couldn’t afford to tip her precious balance now.

Before she could formulate a plan the door swung open.

Parvati stood before her, hands on either side of the door frame, fire in her eyes.

“How could you?”

Hermione blinked, taking a step back.

“Oh no you don’t!” She lunged forward, catching Hermione by the wrist and pulling her inside, slamming the door behind them.

“How could you take off to the morgue without me? I thought we were in this together! I can’t believe you told Hannah and Luna but went behind my back and-” she stopped short, eyes finally taking in Hermione’s somber expression and red-rimmed eyes.

Parvati blinked, deflating before her eyes.

“No…”

Hermione swallowed, taking a step forward. Parvati held her hands up, halting her movements.

“No. I need to hear you say it.”

Hermione blinked, tears welling anew.

“I’m so sorry, Parvati.” Her voice broke on the final syllable. She covered her mouth, trapping in the sob.

Parvati stared at her blankly, shoulders dropped, arms limp at her sides.

“No. I don’t… It wasn’t her, it couldn't have been-”

“It was her.” It took every ounce of strength to keep her voice steady. “I saw her with my own eyes.” She swallowed again, holding her friend’s gaze. “It was her.”

Parvati started to quake. Her body shook at a steady vibration while her eyes sharpened to lethal points.

And then she exploded.

Hermione blinked in shock as the girl stormed to the dresser and swept her arm across the top with a blood-curdling scream, sending everything crashing to the floor. Next, she attacked the side table, snatching up the lantern and throwing it full force at the wall. The glass shattered and flew in every direction, oil running down the wallpaper and pooling along the hardwood.

“Parvati!” Hermione ran forward as she started to tear her bed covering off in violent tugs, screaming like a banshee all the while.

Hermione grabbed her arm but was shrugged off, she tried again but her hands met open air as Parvati leaped over the bare mattress and launched a book at the window, sending it clear through the broken glass.

“Parvati! Please!” Hermione screamed, tears streaming down her face.

Parvati let out a howl like a wounded animal and crumpled to the floor in a heap. Hermione landed hard on her knees at her side, wrapping her arms around her quaking form.

“No! Get off me!” Parvati struggled weakly in her hold but Hermione held tight, sobbing openly, pulling her closer. “Stop! Get off me!” But as she repeated the broken command she turned her face into Hermione's neck and collapsed into her body.

Hermione pressed her cheek into the top of her head and she gently rocked her back and forth, unable to hold back the force of her own grief in the startling wake of Parvati’s breakdown.

Then the door crashed open.

“What the bloody ell is goin on in ere?” Filch bellowed from the doorway, a gathering of girls behind him, perched on tiptoes to peer over his shoulder at the chaos inside. “What did ya little vandals do?”

“Get. Out.” Hermione seethed, her voice so fueled by hate and anger it dripped like acid from her lips, scorching holes into the floor.

Filch blinked, hesitating. He glanced rapidly between the two huddled figures on the ground, then to the broken glass and debris all over the room, then back to them.

“This better be cleaned up by mornin…” he set his jaw, grabbing the handle and slamming the door shut, leaving them alone with their misery and heartache.

Hermione took a deep breath, face hot and swollen, and smoothed a hand over the top of Parvati’s head. The girl seemed hardly aware of Filch’s entrance and abrupt departure, eyes fixed to a blank spot on the wall as she shook uncontrollably.

“Parvati…” her voice was strained, cracked and distorted. “There’s more.”

She felt the girl stiffen in her hold. She didn’t respond, but Hermione knew she was listening.

She wet her lips, closing her eyes.

“Lavender was murdered.”

The silence that followed was oppressive, surreal in the wake of the explosive chaos of moments ago. And then Parvati slowly drew back, face hovering so close to Hermione’s their noses nearly touched.

“How.”

It was more demand than question. Hermione swallowed past the constriction in her throat.

“Her throat was cut.”

Parvati blinked, eyes gleaming in the low light.

“Just like your dream.”

Hermione jolted, rearing back. She opened her mouth to dissent but fell silent as the haunting images of her nightmare superimposed the very real memories of Lavender’s body.

“What are we going to do, Mione?”

Her voice was just as ragged, but it held an edge of hardness that was unmistakably Parvati.

Hermione inhaled through her nose, holding the air in her lungs until they burned, metal encasing her spine.

“We’re going to take time to mourn her properly.”

She held Parvati’s gaze but saw a very distinctive set of storm grey eyes in her mind, illuminated by moonlight, coaxing her into shadow.

“And then we’re going to get justice.”


Umbridge drew her shoulders back, stretching to her full height.

She still had to crane her neck to look him in the eyes.

Tom could see how much their gaping height differential annoyed her. It brought him immense satisfaction.

“Take a seat, Doctor.”

He fought back a smirk as he casually strode across the room and did as bade. Her jaw ticked with his slow pace, his utter lack of concern for her raging temper. If only she knew the storm that brewed within his heart and mind.

She would soon enough.

Tonight he would only give her a small taste of the venom lacing his fangs. He wouldn’t kill her.

No. Not tonight.

He still needed her, unfortunately. Her disappearance would raise too many flags and only derail all the progress he’d made.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t flex his jaws just a touch. Just enough to validate the instinctual fear that lay just beneath the surface. He’d fill her with just enough toxin to paralyze her limbs and make her pliable to his will.

His eyes gleamed with anticipation, tracking her movements as she rounded the desk and sat across, posture stiff and gaze narrowed. He held himself with an eerie stillness he was hardly aware of, the natural repose of a predator lying in silent wait.

“Well, Doctor,” she placed her palms flat on the desk. “I do believe you owe me an explanation for your callous disregard of the rules I very clearly set forth.”

He wet his lips, tasting the sweet promise of dinner in the air.

“I escorted Ms. Granger to the morgue this evening. She positively identified the slain corpse of her roommate, Lavender Brown. The girl you insisted had run away. The same one you refused to search for.”

Umbridge blinked, leaning back in her chair with wide eyes.

“I… that’s unfortunate to hear.” She swallowed, blinking again. “But not surprising. Runaways are often targeted by malicious offenders on the streets.”

He tipped his head. “So it’s still your belief she left this place of her own free will?”

“Certainly. While the events that befell Ms. Brown are most tragic they are merely a reflection of her reckless behavior. She always sought trouble while living as a resident. It was only a matter of time until she found it.”

His gaze remained unwavering. She squirmed in her chair.

“I suppose given the circumstances I can overlook this infraction,” she continued tentatively. “But as an employee of this institution, you should have sought my permission first.”

“Of course.” He smiled, teeth gleaming. “I do hope the fallout from this tragedy does not impact you too harshly, Madam.”

She blinked, face paling. “Why would it? I played no role in anything that transpired.”

Interesting turn of phrase.

“Precisely. When word spreads of the girl’s fate it may encourage someone to look into the conditions that encouraged her to run away in the first place.”

Umbridge glared. “I told you, she was a reckless tart that-”

“I’m not the one you need to convince.”

She leaned back. “What are you implying?”

“You rely on funds from the Crown as well as the estates of certain residents with the means to provide for their charge’s welfare. If this transgression comes to light on the next inspection things could get very-” he wet his lips, “messy.”

Her hands clenched atop the desk. “We’ve never had a problem passing inspection before. The Crown representative knows the type of residents we house, their exuberant dispositions-”

“And what about Ms. Granger’s solicitor?”

Umbridge fell silent.

“He was just here the other day, yes? Do you think his opinion of this institution would be altered if he knew a former resident was found murdered not a week after her departure?”

His eyes narrowed just thinking about the man, but he kept his voice level, coaxing. “And not just any girl. His client’s roommate. If he saw the distress this caused Hermione what do you think he’d do?”

Umbridge’s face pinched. “He could decide to have her transferred.”

The mere mention of Hermione seemed to disgust her.

His claws curled over the armrests, eager to tear grooves along the polished wood.

“Imagine all the money you would lose if others followed suit. You have a few other girls you receive monthly cheques for. Ms. Abbott included. Another friend of Ms. Brown, if I’m not mistaken.”

She inhaled slowly through her nose, nostrils flaring. “I see your point, Doctor. But hindsight is 20/20. What am I to do about it now?”

He slowly leaned forward, eyes flashing. “I suggest doing everything in your power to make the girls feel safe and cared for, discouraging future runaways or transfer requests.”

She scowled. “I already see to their safety and care.”

“Then you must be even more accommodating. At least until the storm passes.”

Her lips pursed, disdain clear on her face.

How he relished it.

“And to start, I think you should ensure those closest to Ms. Brown are given the resources they need during their mourning period.” He drew in a slow breath before striking for her throat. “This may also discourage them from seeking relief from the authorities.”

Her eyes widened as his fangs sank into her flesh. “The authorities?”

“Of course.” He savored the taste of blood on his tongue. “Ms. Brown was murdered after all.”

She swallowed, eyes flickering across the desk, as though searching for a solution hidden among the ghastly figurines. “Such an investigation would be nothing but a waste of valuable resources.”

He smirked. “I doubt Ms. Granger would agree.”

Contempt dripped from her lips even as his venom rushed through her veins, making her more pliable to his will with each successive heartbeat.

That girl-”

“Is less likely to raise an army if she’s properly distracted.”

Her eyes snapped to his. “I already gave her leave to work at the Shoppe.”

“Yes. But the rest of the time she’s under house arrest.”

Fire burned within her beady eyes. “I won’t lift it! She broke the rules and she must be punished!”

“I wasn’t suggesting otherwise, Madam.” His voice was soft, placating, a silk cord around her neck. “There are other means in which to keep her busy while keeping her within these walls.”

Her expression softened. “More chores?”

“She’ll only view such tasks as punishment, becoming more rebellious.”

Umbridge sighed her agreement, shoulders dropping.

He held her gaze, circling her slowly. “Allow her to assist in the clinic. She will view it as a reward and be less likely to act against you and the institution.”

“I- I don’t... “ she swallowed convulsively. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

The urge to leap across the desk and end this dance once and for all was strong. But he clenched the armrests and reminded himself of all the reasons it was too soon.

“I merely state a suggestion, Madam.” He could smell the jealousy coming off her in waves, more putrid than the odor of the morgue. He treaded carefully, leading her along the garden path to the cage awaiting her on the other side. “I am only looking out for your well being. If we distract the girl, we ensure her silence.”

He knew he’d baited her sufficiently when her eyes softened at his choice of pronoun. She leaned forward.

We… yes… yes of course.” She wet her lips. “I see that now. It’s not a bad idea, I suppose…”

He drew in a slow breath, holding it.

“Perhaps allowing her to assist in the clinic temporarily is fine… just until this blows over.”

His lips formed a slow smile, eyes heavy with satisfaction. She flushed and drew back nervously, unsure how to interpret the predatory look but hopeful all the same.

But his mind had already discarded the prey seated before him, having sufficiently drained her of her usefulness for this evening.

No, his look of supreme pleasure was derived from his budding sense of anticipation… knowing that soon, soon she would come to him.

And his board would be complete.

He licked his lips, the air thick with victory. A honeyed wine to clear his pallet. The Matron gulped, eyes transfixed.

“I think that is a very wise decision, Madam.” Shadows danced across his face. “Absolutely brilliant.”


Hermione spent the remainder of her morning in a fog, her surroundings obscured by a transparent darkness that enveloped everything and everyone, herself included.

She’d lingered for several minutes on the floor with Parvati. Or perhaps it had been several hours. By the time she managed to convince the girl to retire to Hermione’s bed, Parvati’s remaining in tatters, the sun was just breaking the horizon.

Hermione left her friend staring blankly at the ceiling while she began to slowly clean the mess all over the floor, picking up items tentatively, using the chaos of the room to distract from the chaos of her mind.

After remaking the mattress and restocking the top of the dresser she was left with mounds of broken glass and an oil spill to contend with. She bit her lip, hesitant to leave Parvati alone for even a moment, but when she informed the girl she’d be right back she received not even a blink of reaction.

Halfway to the supply closet Hermione paused and started to shake anew.

She quickly suppressed the dwelling of emotion and spun on her heal, taking off for the stairs, keeping an ear out for Filch. After their brief encounter earlier she doubted he would actively seek her out, but she wanted to avoid him all the same.

She emerged into the hall of the lower dorms and quietly slipped inside Luna and Hannah’s room, shoulders tense with resignation.

After Parvati’s charged reaction she thought nothing else could impact her so. But seeing Hannah burst into tears had been a second lance through the heart.

Luna remained the most composed of them all, not bursting into hysterics but calmly crossing the room and wrapping her arms around Hermione.

“I’m so sorry you had to be the one to see her. I know how difficult it is.” She had whispered into her hair while Hannah curled up on the bed and buried her face in the pillow, muffling her sobs.

Hermione swallowed heavily, recalling that Luna had been the one to discover her father’s slain corpse. She returned the girl’s embrace.

“Thank you, Luna.” She inhaled shakily, Hannah’s broken sounds affecting her deeply. “I feel terrible bringing you this news and leaving, but I need to get back to Parv. I don’t want to leave her alone upstairs. I just wanted you to hear it from me first.”

Luna nodded, arms falling away as she took a step back. “It’s alright, Hermione. Parvati needs you. I’ll take care of Hannah.”

Hermione searched her gaze for any signs of turmoil. “Are you going to be okay, Luna?”

The blonde tipped her head. “I will shed my tears for Lavender after I’ve burned her a candle and spoken a prayer.”

Hermione nodded, unsure how to respond.

“Alright. That sounds…” she searched her mind for the right word, lovely and beautiful feeling grotesquely out of place given the gruesome circumstances. She sighed, heading for the door instead. “I’ll see you both later today.”

She returned to her room, sweeping broken glass and scrubbing oil from the wall while glancing over her shoulder at Parvati’s huddled form every few minutes.

Seeing the strong girl reduced to this only broke her heart further. When her parents had perished Hermione had been the primary person affected, the main one to mourn their loss. This was the first time her grief was spread out among others she cared for, and while there was a perverse comfort in sharing such tragedy, it also deepened the wound two-fold.

It made her…

Angry.

She blinked, halting her ministrations and staring blankly at the stain on the wall.

“And if afterward, you find that your anger still eclipses your sadness… I’ll be waiting.”

She closed her eyes.

What did he mean by that?

She’d been in such a daze on the ride back she hardly knew what was real and what was a figment of her dark, twisted imagination.

Did he really say it?

She opened her eyes.

Yes. Yes, he said it.

Hermione dropped her scrubbing brush into the pale and slowly sank to the floor, leaning against the dresser.

His words were yet another layer to the enigma that was Doctor Thomas Riddle.

But what disturbed her the most was the thrill his words had caused versus the fear they should have inspired.

She didn’t want to sit around and watch the justice system turn its back on her plight once again. Especially since this time, it wasn’t only her plight to suffer. She was fiercely protective of those she loved and if this tragic experience taught her anything, it was that she loved the girls she called her friends in this desolate place.

She wanted answers for their sake. She wanted justice for Lavender.

And she wanted revenge for herself.


“Have another helping, dear, you look much too thin. I can’t even imagine what you’re forced to eat on that ship, and don’t get me started on the natives of those islands, eating leaves and twigs like-”

“For Christ’s sake, mum, his plate is already overflowing, let him be.”

“Ginevra Weasley! Do not use such crass language in this house! Honestly, I don’t know where you get it from-”

“Oi!” Shouted a male voice from upstairs. “Whoever stole money from my room is going to get my boot so far up their arse they’re going to be tasting my toes until Christmas!”

Ginny raised a brow, holding her mother’s mortified gaze.

“I am terribly sorry you have to hear such things, Harry, I would like to say Ron and Ginny aren’t mine, but I’m afraid the Weasley hair can’t be denied.”

Harry finally swallowed the bite he’d been chewing throughout the exchange.

“No need to worry, Mrs. Weasley, I assure you I hear far worse on the ship.”

Molly shook her head, face solemn. “You poor dear.”

Ginny rolled her eyes, perching on the edge of the breakfast table and grabbing a strip of bacon from Harry’s plate with her fingers.

“Ginevra!”

Harry hid his laugh behind his napkin.

“What? He doesn't mind, do you Harry?”

“I don’t care if he minds! It’s called etiquette, you do not eat with your hands and you do not sit on the table!” Molly threw her head back with a dramatic sigh. “Honestly, I don’t know how we’re going to get you through the next Season.”

Ginny took a large bite of bacon. “Then let’s skip it.”

Molly blinked, mouth hanging open. Harry cringed, braced for the onslaught sure to follow.

What did you say, young lady?”

The blessed sound of boots trodding down steps filled the kitchen, prompting Harry to spring from his seat so fast he nearly toppled his chair.

“Sorry, mate,” Ron said as he rounded the corner into the sunny room. “Didn’t mean to keep you waiting so long.” He pinned his sister with a narrowed gaze. “But someone raided my nightstand and stole half my shillings.”

Ginny scoffed, still perched on the table. “In your dreams. The most you had in there was threepence, you broke basta-”

“Ginevra!”

“Why am I the only one getting yelled at?”

“Because it is more unbecoming for a young woman to use such vulgar language. Although…” She walked up behind her son and smacked him upside the head.

“Ah! Jesus, mum!” He clutched his head, ducking away. “What was that for?”

Harry bit his tongue to hold in the bark of laughter desperately climbing his throat.

That was for your comment earlier, young man. Just because you are given free reign to speak like a heathen while at sea doesn’t mean you may bring such language home with you.”

Ron rubbed the back of his head, eyes downcast and shoulders drawing in as he stepped around the formidable Molly Weasley.

“Sorry mum,” he muttered, making Harry shake with the effort to conceal his amusement.

“I will forgive you this time, Ronald. Now go speak with Harry quickly, I won't have you starting your day without a full breakfast in your stomach.”

Ron beckoned Harry to follow him into the hallway with a tip of his head. Harry eagerly complied, turning to bid Molly a farewell but falling silent as she perched her hands on her plump hips and glared at her daughter.

What did I say about sitting on the table?”

Harry spun back around, seeking refuge in the hall, their squabbling growing muffled as he emerged into the living room.

“So, what’s up?” Ron asked as he flopped into a threadbare armchair, long limbs hanging off the sides, broad grin firmly affixed beneath bright blue eyes.

Harry raised his brow, crossing his arms. “You seem disturbingly chipper for a man who just realized he’s been robbed.”

Ron shrugged. “Probably Fred and George. They’re scraping together every pence they can get their hands on to move out. I’ll get it back. With interest.”

Harry tipped his head, examining him at an angle. “Doesn’t explain the sunshine on your shoulder. Something's happened.”

Ron’s smile widened, dimples appearing on either end.

“I think I’ve found the one, mate.”

Harry blinked, arms dropping to his side.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve never felt this way before!” He leaned forward, face imploring. “Susan’s absolutely incredible, I mean, I think about her all day and night, and-”

“Ron.” Harry pinched the bridge of his nose. “You met this girl two days ago.”

“So? Mum and dad fell in love at first sight. Not everyone needs years. Sometimes you just know.”

“You don’t know anything about her,” Harry snapped, eyes narrowed. “You’re just infatuated because she shows you attention. You can’t go making any major commitments.”

Ron’s expression pinched. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Harry. You’ve never been in love. You’re right, I don’t know every detail about her, but that doesn’t matter, I can find all that out later. Right now all that matters is how we feel about each other.”

“Bloody hell.” Harry shook his head, glancing away in annoyance. “I get that you like her, but you can’t possibly be in love. And if she’s telling you otherwise she’s lying right to your face-”

“Hey!” Ron stood, shoulders back. “For your information, I haven’t told her how I feel. I didn’t want to scare her off-”

“I’d say so! Christ, how many times have you seen her in person?”

Ron glared. “Three times and each was better than the last.”

Harry ran his hands over his face, groaning into his palms. “I can’t even process this. There’s been too much insanity over the last twenty-four hours.”

Ron sighed, stepping forward. “I know I just sprung this on you. But I’m taking her to the Royal Navy party this weekend. Once you meet her you’ll see-”

“I’ve already met her, Ron.”

Harry swallowed heavily, holding his friend’s gaze.

“Yeah, you met her at the Scotland Yard event, but that hardly counts. You have to really speak with her, get to know her. She’s so bloody witty it’s-”

“Ron.” Harry took a deep breath. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

Ron drew back. “What is it?”

Harry thought of the opium den, of Susan’s sprawled form beside McLaggen.

But he couldn't seem to find the words when Ron was looking at him with such hope in his eyes.

He really liked this girl.

Fuck.

Harry swallowed, changing course. He was about to detail his late-night excursion to the morgue when another realization struck him.

Susan.

She could provide a useful resource into the CID unit, help him push Lavender’s case into the right hands.

Which meant speaking to her about the newest developments. If Ron discovered their connection to the investigation it was only a matter of time until the circumstances surrounding their first meeting came to light.

Double fuck.

It was such a mess. He needed to tell Ron. But he couldn’t bear to crush him, not right now, not after the night Harry just had. He needed more time to think this through.

“Harry, what is it, mate?”

Harry sighed.

“I just… I just wanted to tell you I planned on asking Mione to the party.”

Ron blinked. “Oh, shite. You had me worried there for a moment, I thought you were gonna tell me someone died.” He laughed, Harry forced a smile on his face.

“No. Nothing like that.” Bloody hell he was exhausted.

“Well I’m glad you’re asking her. I hope she comes. I’d love for her to meet Susan, too.”

Harry was spared from having to respond by the sound of the front door opening and a familiar face appearing from the other side.

“Oh, Harry! Good to see you, my boy!”

He released a breath of relief, eager to end the previous exchange and begin a more pleasant one.

“Mr. Weasley, it’s great to see you.”

“You’re a grown man and sailor now, Harry, you can start calling me Arthur.”

Harry smiled. “That would feel too weird, Mr. Weasley.”

Arthur chuckled, shrugging out of his coat. “What brings you by the Burrow this morning?”

“Just wanted to check in with Ron.”

“Well, I’m happy I ran into you. I heard an interesting proposition brought forth at last night’s session and I’d love to get the perspective of a military man.”

“Hey,” Ron folded his arms. “What about asking your son?”

Arthur cocked a brow. “Whenever I mention sanctions and laws you make up some flimsy excuse to flee the room.”

Ron rolled his eyes. “Most that stuff’s boring as shite.”

“I’m touched you hold my career with such high regard.”

Harry nodded. “I’m happy to speak with you, Mr. Weasley. Are you just getting back from the office?”

“Oh goodness no, I managed to make it home last night. I just had to deliver some paperwork first thing this morning.”

Ron shook his head. “Fucking Lestrange, forcing you to do his grunt work-”

“Ronald, mind your language, what if your mother heard you?”

Ron rolled his eyes. “She’s already clomped me over the head once today.”

Harry blinked. “You’re still working for Rabastan?”

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Weasley sighed, stepping further into the room. “Now enough about me, how have you been? I hear congratulations are in order.”

Harry went rigid. “Um, I…”

“Congratulations for what?” Ron asked.

Mr. Weasley glanced between the two young men. “Oh, I’m sorry. I spoke with Remus last night and…” he wet his lips. “Perhaps I’ll leave you two with some privacy.” He stepped past Harry, patting him on the shoulder. “It was good to see you, Harry.”

He nodded, steeling himself for the conversation to come. “You, too, Mr. Weasley.”

As soon as his father entered the hallway Ron rounded on his friend. “What is he talking about?”

Harry took a deep breath. “I’m being made Lieutenant.”

Ron stepped back. “What?”

“It’s not a big deal-”

“Not a big deal? Are you bloody mental?” Ron’s brows drew together. Harry swallowed, shoulders tight.

“Listen, I meant to tell you-”

“It’s bloody brilliant, mate!” Ron leaped forward, nearly knocking Harry off his feet with his embrace. “Congratulations, Harry! It’s about time they promoted you!”

Harry blinked, mouth opening and closing before he finally bent his arms and patted Ron on the back.

“Uh, thanks, mate.”

Ron had always been jealous of the attention his older brothers received growing up, followed by the success of their careers as adults. Feelings of inadequacy had taken root within the man and followed him through his own career, as well as his relationships with his friends. At least according to Hermione, who seemed to have a much firmer grasp on such concepts than Harry.

He wasn’t sure how Ron would respond to the news of his promotion, and he felt a pang of guilt for expecting his longtime friend to be anything but supportive.

Ron released him and leaned back.

“That’s what you came to tell me, isn’t it?”

Harry swallowed, images of the morgue, of the dead girl on the slab, flashing before his eyes.

“Caught me, mate.” His voice sounded hoarse to his ears. “That’s what I came to tell you.”


Hermione didn’t know what was more surreal, seeing Harry within the walls of the Home or the fact that Umbridge had obviously sanctioned his visit.

She stood in shock, taking in his appearance, the rest of their surroundings coming into slow focus around him.

“Mione, are you alright?”

She blinked, coming out of her trance.

“Yeah. I just... can’t believe you’re here.”

His brows drew together. “I told you I’d be paying you a visit.”

“I didn’t mean that. I mean it’s strange seeing you in here.”

He sighed, glancing up the arched ceiling, the shadows hovering along the rafters.

“It’s a bit…” he tilted his head. “Dark.”

“That’s one word for it.”

“And creepy.”

“That’s better.”

His gaze fell upon her once more. “How are you doing?”

She blinked, starting to respond, then closed her mouth and looked over her shoulder at the girls lingering along the wall, sneaking glances at them.

“Let’s go somewhere a bit more private.”

“The Caretaker… Filch? He said I’m not to leave this room. Something about corrupting-”

“The bodies and minds of the innocent. He stole that line from Umbridge.” She rolled her eyes. “Come on, I know a secret route that will take us near the garden exit. I need some fresh air.”

“Secret route?” He asked, falling in stride beside her. “That sounds exciting. Do you use it to transport contraband through the building?”

She smiled lightly, chest loosening. “Guilty. I’m the head of a smuggling ring. Very illicit stuff.”

He smirked. “Ron would be proud.”

Hermione slowed her steps through the narrow corridor, glancing up at him.

“Did you tell Ron?”

“No.”

His answer was a bit too abrupt.

She narrowed her eyes. “Harry…”

“I didn’t. He’s a bit distracted at the moment, I haven’t seen much of him. But he deserves to know. He cares about you, Mione. He’d be devastated if he knew you were going through this and didn’t tell him.”

“I will tell him.” She glanced ahead, fists clenching at her sides. “But right now I just want to… I just don’t want everyone knowing right now. I can’t bear their sympathy. Not again. I just need to-” she trailed off, the look on his face unnerving.

“Harry?”

He glanced away. Her spine straightened.

“Harry. What did you do.”

He quickened his step. “I didn’t-”

“Harry!” She reached forward and grabbed his arm, halting his steps.

He sighed, slowly turning to face her. “I might have told Draco.”

She reared back, heart stuttering.

What? Why did you tell him?”

“Because he cares about you, Mione.”

Her jaw tensed, eyes narrowing. “Is that really the reason?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are the two of you joining forces to stop me from following through with the investigation?”

He pulled free of her hold. “What? Of course not!”

“I don’t believe you. Why else would you have gone to Draco instead of Ron?”

His gaze hardened. “Ron’s busy courting the daughter of the new police commissioner. However, at least at the present moment, you remain Draco’s main obsession. And he came with me to Amortentia, he deserved to know what happened.”

Hermione shook her head and spun away.

“I don’t see what the big deal is, Mione.”

“The big deal is Draco’s going to be kicking the door into this place!”

“Maybe he should. Isolating yourself isn’t healthy, especially after a tragedy.”

She sighed deeply through her nose. “I just need time to process things on my own before I can process them with other people.”

“Last night you were talking about seeking out the killer on your own. I think you’re processing things just fine.”

Her eyes narrowed but she remained silent. Instead, she spun on her heel and continued to lead him through the passage.

“I only told him about Lavender. I didn’t tell him about-” Harry stopped short, prompting her to glance over her shoulder in confusion.

“Didn’t tell him about what?”

Harry wet his lips, eyes bright in the dim lighting. “I didn’t tell him about the Doctor.”

Hermione stumbled, catching herself against the wall even as Harry reached out to steady her.

“I-” she swallowed, blinking rapidly. “I don’t understand, why would you keep that a secret?”

Harry held her gaze steady. She felt a slow flush inch up her neck.

“I thought it would upset him.”

Hermione glanced away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do.”

Her hands clenched at her sides. “I-”

“I don’t want to have another fight. And I don’t want you to lie to me. So I’m willing to drop the subject. For now. But we will be coming back it.”

She narrowed her eyes. “There’s nothing to come back to-”

“As I said, we’ll discuss it later.”

She pressed her lips into a thin line, something wild breaking open in her chest, the need to fight, to defend was strong.

But she resisted.

Harry wouldn’t understand. And if he knew the Doctor’s parting words after the carriage ride home he’d drag her from this place kicking and screaming. No, Harry couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to fester and rot with a darkness growing inside you, each day another piece of you consumed, forever lost.

Only the Doctor understood. Somehow, she knew he understood...

So she quelled her tongue and nodded.

“If you insist. Follow me, the garden is just ahead.”

They merged into the sun-drenched oasis, the sound of the street beyond the privacy fence breaking the unnerving silence that surrounded them in the corridor.

“This is nice,” Harry said as they walked past several of Luna’s rose bushes, hands in his pockets. “I wasn’t expecting something so vibrant after seeing the inside of this place.”

Hermione nodded, running her fingers along a stem, tracing the thorns. “Poisonous creatures always bear the most colorful skin.”

“Hm?”

She wet her lips, glancing up at him. “Nevermind.”

He held her gaze for a moment before rubbing the back of his neck. “Listen, there’s something I wanted to ask you, well, I planned on asking you before last night happened, and now I feel strange asking even though I think it’s a good idea…”

She tipped her head. “Christ, Harry, it sounds like your gearing up to propose.”

He laughed, shaking his head. “Sirius is being made Admiral.”

Her eyes widened. “That’s wonderful!”

“And I’m being made Lieutenant.”

She blinked, brow raising. “That’s … also wonderful?”

He smirked. “Am I that obvious?”

“You look like you’ve just told me you have two weeks to live.”

He swallowed lightly, averting his gaze to the roses. “Feels that way. I wasn’t really vying for a promotion. I haven’t had a chance to process it yet.”

“I know the feeling.”

He sighed, gazing upon her once more, eyes softening. “I know you do.”

She stepped closer, placing a hand on his arm. “I’m happy for you, Harry. What did you want to ask me?”

“Oh, right.” He turned to face her. “They’re having a party this weekend announcing both promotions. I wanted you to come as my guest.”

She tipped her head. “You mean as your date?”

“That’s how the majority of people will view it, yes.”

She couldn’t contain her smile. “Didn’t want to risk stringing another lovestruck damsel along?”

He rolled his eyes. “I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.” Then his expression turned somber. “But I want you to come regardless. Your friends want to see you, and I think you need to see them, especially now.”

She let her arm drop, stepping away. Before she could speak he stepped forward and caught her hand. “We’ll leave after an hour. It’ll give me an excuse, you know how I hate those types of things.” His emerald gaze pleaded. “I’m overwhelmed by this, Mione. And I’m going to have to walk the stage and face everyone. Please,” he squeezed her fingers. “Come. For me.”

She swallowed thickly, breath caught in her chest.

Dammit.

“Fine…” she relented, rolling her eyes as Harry tugged her closer and picked her up off the ground in a hug.

“Harry, you’re causing a scene,” she hissed, glimpsing the other residents pause their work to stare upon the strange sight of a man on the grounds.

“Am I? Well, I suppose I shouldn’t twirl you then.”

“Don’t you dare- Harry!” She shrieked with laughter as he did just that.

Finally, he set her on her feet, a boyish grin alighting his face that made her heart stutter, it had been so long since she’d seen him truly happy…

But soon the moment faded and reality came crashing back down, oppressive and sweltering. She pushed through, reaching for his hand once more and leading him through the foxglove and bluebells.

“Filch hasn’t discovered us yet, let’s make the most of it.”

He smiled. “I like this version of you. Wild and dangerous.”

She bit her lip.

Be careful what you wish for, Harry.

Instead, she affected a light tone, leaning against his arm as they walked.

“So, who is Ron courting?”

Harry groaned, tipping his head back.

“Funny you should ask…”


Dolores had been called many things throughout her life.

Many, to put it delicately, harsh names.

She wore each one like a badge of honor. Harsh names were often given to women with drive and ambition. Dolores had earned every scrap of every meal she’d ever eaten, every item she’d ever come to possess. She poured her blood, sweat and tears into each task she ever undertook and she wouldn’t apologize for her success.

There were no rewards, no handouts in her household. After her great misfortune of being born female to an already destitute family, she was raised to serve only one purpose in her life, to engage in an advantageous marriage.

But Dolores had been born with the double misfortune of not possessing classical good looks. Yet another failure in her family’s eyes. Yet another travesty to set her apart from the little trollops running around the street outside her window, barely dressed and eager to spread their legs for any man willing to pay them a compliment.

Dolores wasn’t jealous of them. Dolores didn’t get jealous. She had been born with intelligence and a keen sense of survival that was far more valuable than a narrow waist and big doe eyes.

She was better than those harlots, she’d made something of herself without relying on a man to lead her along with his name and fortune.

She was a bloody role model for the masses. The residents should be lined up outside her office each morning, eager to earn her favor, desperate for just a moment of her time.

She should be inundated with praise and admiration.

So the fact that she’d spent her morning pacing her office in worry over some slut that went and got herself killed absolutely enraged her.

The fact that she’d spent the previous night pacing the entrance hall awaiting the Doctor’s return made her murderous.

And all because of that girl.

The meddlesome little bitch. The ever growing thorn in her side.

Sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. Thinking she was above them all because her father had been an educated man.

But she was nothing. Just another castaway with illusions of grandeur.

And she would not, would not, jeopardize everything Dolores had built by bringing the police to their door.

Dolores wished she could discard of her like the others, regardless of the monthly stipend. No amount of money was worth the headache the girl induced on a daily basis.

But alas, such decisions were not up to Dolores and never had been.

Maybe if I make a special request they’ll make an exception for her, just this once-

She sighed deeply, leaning back in her chair.

No.

The Doctor was right. She had to be strategic about how she dealt with the aftermath of the body’s discovery. Granger was a useless swot, but she posed a threat all the same.

She would have to tread carefully with the girl for the next few days to ensure her silence.

She flattened her palms to the table, hands spread out, examining her ring finger.

The Doctor had said ‘we’.

She wet her lips.

He’d said he was looking out for Dolores’s well being.

And then he’d said ‘we’... twice.

She felt a thrill seize her.

She felt foolish for thinking he was under that little tart’s spell. Of course, he was too brilliant to be wooed by such juvenile antics. The girl was rebellious, a child acting out. Weaker men would be led astray by such trickery but the Doctor was different… he was so unlike any man she’d known before.

And his eyes.

They had a way of skewering her right through the middle, pinning her in place, yet at the same moment causing her to levitate… it was... exhilarating.

She felt foolhardy succumbing to the wiles of any man. She promised herself it would never happen. Her own success came first. Only stupid bints fell for the illusion of romance.

But he’d been so adamant about protecting her from the fallout, he wanted to work with her…

Maybe I can introduce him to the others…

She pursed her lips, eyes narrowing in thought.

The last person she brought into the fold had been a complete disaster, one she was still trying to recover from. They didn’t trust her judgment anymore. But how was she to know the man was a complete pervert? He was a licensed physician for goodness sake! She’d assumed he possessed at least a modicum of self-restraint.

But Doctor Riddle couldn’t be more different than that fool. Perhaps if they met him they’d see what she saw.

She leaned back, the early workings of a plan taking root in her mind when a soft rapt sounded at her door.

She scowled.

“Come in.”

It opened and in stepped the vile creature herself.

Dolores released a long breath through her nose. “Ms. Granger. Right on time. Do come in.”

The girl shuffled into the room, graceless thing that she was. Dolores curled her hands atop her thighs, drawing every ounce of self-control within her to maintain the ruse.

“Please allow me to express my deepest condolences for your loss. Ms. Brown was an exuberant girl and she will be greatly missed.”

The girl raised a brow, lips pressed into a thin line.

No manners whatsoever.

Dolores cleared her throat lightly, pressing on. “I apologize if I startled you last night. I was just very worried about your well being. No one notified me you were leaving the grounds.”

She remained silent, staring out through vacant eyes. Dolores felt the temperature rise within her.

“Well,” she clipped. “I do hope you enjoyed your little visit with your male companion. You should know men are not allowed within these walls under any circumstance. I made an exception to show you how very committed I am to seeing you through this difficult time.”

If the girl remained silent much longer Dolores was going to throw a figurine at her head, just to see if she was really there or merely a figment of her imagination.

“How very kind of you, Madam.”

Dolores was tempted to throw the figurine even more. The girl’s voice was clearly embittered.

How dare her! After all the exceptions that had been made simply to make the little bint happy! How hard was it to show a little appreciation?

“Furthermore,” Dolores leaned forward, raising her arms and interlacing her fingers on the desk. “I wanted to inform you that you have been given leave to assist in the clinic when you feel up to it.” The words tasted like black bile on her tongue, the mere thought of the trollop working so closely to the Doctor beyond unbearable.

Alas, sacrifices had to be made. And he had made it clear he was on Dolores’s side. The girl was merely a tool to be used and discarded.

“How does that sound?”

The girls showed her first true hint of life, eyes brightening, spine straightening.

“I... “ she trailed off, the lingering silence too much for Dolores’s wrought nerves.

Such a miscreant. Can’t even say thank you.

Dolores inhaled sharply. “We want you to feel-”

“We?”

Dolores blinked.

“I’m sorry?”

“You said ‘we’.”

Of all the things to get her talking…

“Habit. I meant myself of course.”

Something flashed in the girl’s eyes, there one moment and gone the next. It was highly unnerving.

It almost reminded her of-

“That is very kind indeed.”

Her voice sounded different. Like it harbored something… sinister. Dolores leaned back.

“I am happy to provide you with all the resources I can.” Her face like it was cracking into pieces with the effort it took to smile at the ungrateful bint. “Please, do not hesitate to come to me with any requests or concerns. Consider my door open at all times.”

The girl raked her eyes over Dolores’s face, something unreadable in her expression. Dolores’s knuckles turned white with the force in which she clenched them.

“Good evening, Madam.”

Dolores ground her teeth. “And to you as well, Ms. Granger.”

She watched the girl cross the room with narrowed eyes, sagging in relief as soon as she disappeared through the door.

The little strumpet was truly insufferable.

No matter.

Soon enough, Dolores would ensure Hermione Granger never posed a threat again.


“Master Theo, a guest is here to see you.”

Theo launched off the sofa with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm. He tried to mask his reaction by casually closing his book, setting it calmly on the side table.

“Thank you, Winslow. See them in.”

The butler bowed, spinning gracefully on his heal and returning to the hall.

Theo swallowed heavily, running his hands through his hair, gazing down at his shirt, smoothing a palm over the front.

The steady tread of boots sounded just outside the room, his heart leaped into his throat-

Then fell into his stomach as a tall blonde entered the room.

His shoulders dropped, breath leaving him in a woosh.

“Way to make a bloke feel special, Nott. You look like you just had your cock lopped off.”

Theo rolled his eyes, collapsing back into the couch.

“What do you want, Draco?”

“Can’t a friend stop round for a visit?”

“Certainly. So I’ll ask again, what are you doing here?”

Draco raised a pale brow, sitting on the opposite couch. “We aren’t friends?”

“We are when it’s convenient to you.”

Draco blinked. “That’s not true.”

“No? So you aren’t here because you need something?”

Draco scowled. “For your information, I came to check in on you. I spoke with Pansy yesterday.”

Theo’s expression fell, eyes averting down as he picked his book back up, tracing the spine. “Is that so.”

“Yes, it’s so.” Draco leaned his forearms against his knees. “And if her father told her then I’m certain you already know as well.”

Theo’s jaw ticked. “Father told me two night ago. After I returned from the Club.”

The silence was sweltering. Draco sighed. “And… are you... alright?”

Theo raised a dark brow. “Are you high?”

Draco rolled his eyes, leaning back.

“Seriously,” Theo pressed. “This is freaking me out. Since when do you drop in to check if someone’s alright?”

“Fucking hell.” Draco carded his fingers through his hair. “Am I really that bad?”

“Yes.”

The blonde sighed, shaking his head. “Why do any of you still talk to me if I’m such a self-absorbed arse?”

Theo shrugged. “Because we’re all self-absorbed arses.”

“At least tell me I’m not as bad as Blaise.”

Theo narrowed his eyes in thought. “Depends on the day really.”

Draco groaned.

“I’m just fucking with you, mate. No one is as bad as Blaise. Although you certainly have your moments.”

Theo crossed his arms and legs at the ankles.

“Honestly, what’s inspired this bout of Sainthood?”

Draco rubbed the back of his neck. “I royally pissed off the Greengrass sisters. Pansy told me I need to be a better listener.”

“What did you do?”

The blonde sighed, painfully familiar with the reaction it would elicit.

“I suggested Tori become a nun.”

Theo snorted loudly, quaking with pent-up laughter.

“Fucking hilarious, I know.”

“Please tell me you meant it as a joke.”

“I meant it as a means of escape. I was trying to help her.”

Theo tipped his head, gazing up at the ceiling. “I’m imagining Pansy’s reaction if I made the same suggestion to her.”

Draco’s sour expression melted away to a wry smirk. “She’d take a carving blade to your bollocks.”

“Hm. Sounds about right.”

Draco examined his friend across the small space. “So, have you come to terms with it?”

Theo blinked. “What’s to come to terms with? I knew I’d be saddled with someone of my father’s choosing since I was old enough to understand the concepts of Peerage and marriage.”

Draco glanced away. “Am I a fucking idiot for trying to find a way out of this?”

“Yes. But love makes people into fucking idiots.” His jaw ticked. “Or so I’ve heard.”

Draco didn’t pretend to be confused by the statement. There was no point.

“What makes me even more pathetic is the fact she already turned down my proposal.” He laughed without humor. “I’m doing all this to chase after a woman that consistently evades me at every turn.”

Theo shrugged. “Some things are worth the pursuit.”

“Perhaps.” Draco ran a hand over his face, leaning his head against the cushions. “Depends on why the person being pursued is running though, doesn’t it?”

Theo’s eyes flashed. “Maybe she’s just being realistic.”

Draco blinked. “What do you mean?”

Theo swallowed. “It’s not like the two of you can actually be together. Society would never allow it. Your family would never allow it. Imagine the look on your father’s face if he knew the truth about you. If he knew what really dwelled within your heart.”

Draco raised a pale brow, mouth opening to respond, only to promptly close when he noticed the vacancy in the other man’s eyes, lost in some dark thought.

“Wanting someone isn’t the same as love, is it? And even it it was, what does love matter in the long run? Love fades. People change. Why throw everything away for a fleeting feeling that will end up poisoning you from the inside out in a few years time?”

Theo’s breathing hitched, chest rising faster, eyes fixed on a random spot on the wall.

“Family, duty, loyalty, those are unchanging. That’s what truly matters. Not some whirlwind dalliance from your youth. It’ll be nothing but a distant memory a decade from now. A wild phase. A passing thrill. If it was actually worth something then it would be worth fighting for. But if they don’t want to fight then why the hell should you?”

Draco raised his other brow, watching Theo with unmasked intrigue. He slowly wet his lips.

“Theo.” The other man blinked, seeming to remember Draco was in the room. “Is there something you’d like to discuss?”

The brunette swallowed lightly, adjusting on the cushion. “I just think it’s foolish for you to throw away your future on someone that doesn’t want to spend it with you.”

Draco’s expression darkened. “You don’t know the first thing about Granger and me.”

“I know what you’ve told me, which is that she turned down your proposal and avoided you for three solid months, and continues to avoid you even now.” He pinned him with a sardonic look. “I may not be an expert in women, but I can certainly read the signs when they’re hanging in front of my face.”

Draco’s eyes narrowed to slits as he leaned forward. “At least I’m fighting for control of my life! Not rolling over like some dog eager to lick his master’s boots clean.”

Theo scowled. “So much for your foray into sensitivity.”

Draco rose to his feet. “My first urge was to hit you in the face. I dare say I’m making wonderful progress.”

You came here. If you were looking for blind encouragement try another house. You’ll only find realism and practicality within these walls.”

“Funny, the room positively reeks of depression and despair. I’m sorry you’ve decided to give up on any chance at happiness, but don’t condemn me for still giving a shite about mine.”

Theo shook his head. “Fuck off.”

“Gladly.”

Draco straightened his coat and headed swiftly for the door. He paused at the threshold, glaring over his shoulder.

“How could I have forgotten?” Venom dripped from his lips. “Congratulations on your engagement.”

Theo launched the book at his head, but by the time it completed its journey across the room the door was already closed, and Theo was once more alone with his blackened heart and withering soul.


Hermione exited the Matron’s office in a state of shock.

What the hell just happened?

She didn’t know what disturbed her more, Umbridge’s saccharine sweet disposition edged in poison or the fact she was giving Hermione leave to work in the clinic.

What is she up to?

Hermione didn’t trust the woman for an instant. Her sudden change in mood couldn’t bode well.

She must have some motivation. I need to think about it, it has to be somehow related to Lavender…

She started heading towards the dorms on instinct. It had been hours since she’d checked on Parvati. She wanted to afford her friend some privacy, she had taken the news the hardest of them all.

She sighed in relief when she opened their door to find her roommate asleep, breath rhythmic beneath the quilt. Hermione lingered at the threshold a moment longer before quietly closing the door and slipping back into the hall.

She felt off-kilter. There was still so much to sort through…

She wanted to see the Doctor. To tell him about her strange encounter with Umbridge and gauge his reaction.

Did he have a hand in getting the Matron to sign off on the clinic? What about Harry’s visit? How the hell did he manage to sway such a frozen heart?

She unconsciously started walking towards the steps leading to the outside of the clinic. She froze, placing a hand against the wall to steady herself.

No.

She wasn’t ready to see him yet.

His words replayed on an endless loop inside her head.

“... if afterward you find that your anger still eclipses your sadness… I’ll be waiting.”

She couldn’t decipher the full meaning behind his words, but she knew enough about the man to know he didn’t make flippant remarks.

She sensed something monumental on the horizon, large enough to block out the sun and cast the world into darkness. She just didn’t know if she was ready to look upon it.

She changed course, heading in the opposite direction and descending the stairs leading to her friends’ room. She knocked softly on the door, not wanting to barge in as she had this morning.

“Come in, Hermione.”

Hermione blinked, entering tentatively.

“How did you know it was me?”

Luna smiled, eyes averted to the item in her hands. “You have a distinctive knock.”

Hermione closed the door behind her, glancing about the room. “Where is Hannah?”

“She said she needed fresh air.”

“How is she?”

Luna tilted her head, examining her project at a different angle. “She seems better. All things considered.”

Hermione nodded, walking towards the bed. “What are you making?”

Luna glanced up finally, eyes a mesmerizing blue. “A dream catcher.”

“Is that what you were working on yesterday?” Hermione examined the hoop, now completely covered in twine, intersecting patterns webbed inside.

“Yes. I meant to have it completed last night, but I ended up sleeping in your room to dissuade Filch.”

Hermione sat gingerly on the edge of the mattress. “Are those feathers?”

Luna nodded, holding the item between them. “I collected them from Lauma. They help trap negative energy.” She traced a brown feather with her fingers. Hermione narrowed her eyes.

“What are those?” She pointed to an ivory decoration, already fearing she knew the answer.

“Bones.”

Hermione glanced up sharply. “From what?”

The blonde shrugged lightly. “I’m not sure. A rabbit I think. Perhaps a raccoon.”

“Luna, please tell me you didn’t handle an animal carcass.”

“Of course not.” Hermione sighed in relief. “Dennis extracted them for me.”

Hermione groaned, palming her face.

“I would have happily done so myself, but I didn’t want to risk irritating my wound.” Luna glanced to the thick bandage still wrapping her hand.

“The bones could carry just as much disease as the rest of the body, Luna. They could be crawling with bacteria.”

“The Doctor allowed me to soak them in a solution to kill any germs.”

Hermione blinked. “He did?”

Luna nodded, gaze averting back to her creation.

Hermione tilted her head, examining the girl. “Do you speak to the Doctor often, Luna?”

“How do you define often?” she responded without a hint of mirth.

Hermione shook her head. “Nevermind.” She ran her finger along the edge of the hoop.

“This is quite lovely. I wish I had your creativity.”

Luna smiled. “Now you do.” She held the dreamcatcher aloft. “I made it for you.”

Hermione raised a brow. “For me? Really?”

“Mm-hm.” Luna tipped her head. “I know how the dreams frighten you.”

Hermione’s face tensed.

“Yes. They do.”

“This should help dispel them. At least to an extent.”

Hermione wet her lips, glancing down, focusing upon the feathers and bones woven into the design.

“What if they aren’t dreams?”

Her question was barely above a whisper, but Luna seemed to hear her just fine.

“This is meant to capture negative energy, dream or not.” Luna placed a hand over Hermione’s. “And if you continue to have visions, perhaps they aren’t malevolent.”

Hermione swallowed thickly, nodding. “Thank you, Luna.”

“You’re very welcome.”

As Hermione made to set the dreamcatcher beside her on the bed she knocked over the ball of twine situated between them. It hit the floor and rolled beneath the bed.

“Oh, shite.” Hermione hissed, getting to her feet. “Sorry about-”

“It's okay,” Luna said quickly, scrambling to her feet. “I’ve got it.”

Hermione shook her head. “Don’t be silly, I’ll get it.”

She lowered to her haunches, reaching beneath the frame.

“Really, Hermione, just leave it, I don’t need it anymore.”

Hermione blinked as she slid her fingers along the floor, papers sliding beneath her touch.

“Oh, I think I…” she blinked again as she knocked over a stack. “What…”

She lowered her head to peak under the bed.

“Hermione, don’t-”

“What are all these?”

Luna knelt down beside her, shaking her head. “It’s just-”

“Are these resident files?” Hermione asked, pulling a paper out to examine it more closely.

“Why do you have these, Luna?”

“I…” the blonde wet her lips. “I’m not supposed to tell.”

Hermione’s heart skipped a beat.

She didn’t stop to ponder how she knew.

She just knew.

“Did Doctor Riddle ask you to steal these for him?”

Luna glanced away.

Hermione shook with the force of her reaction.

“Luna…” she reached a handout, gently squeezing the girl’s arm. “I’m not going to say anything to Umbridge, I promise. But you need to tell me why you have these.”

Luna took a deep breath, eyes still averted down. “He said he needed them.”

Hermione’s hands clenched, the paper bending in her grasp.

“Did he tell you why?”

The girl bit her lip. Hermione set the paper aside, gently grasping her chin and turning her face until their eyes met.

“What did he say he needed the records for?”

Luna blinked rapidly, tears forming in her eyes.

“He said he knew the last Doctor was a bad man.” Her voice was hoarse, broken. “He said he knew what he did to us. He said he wanted to help.”

Hermione swallowed thickly, body vibrating. “Help how?”

“He said he wanted to find out who the bad man hurt. He said the records would tell him who needed to be examined. Who needed to be tested for…” she trailed off, eyes closing.

Hermione released her, tears forming in her own eyes.

“He wanted to check for possible pregnancies?”

Luna nodded, tears dripping down her cheeks. Hermione drew in a deep breath, trying to steady her nerves.

“Luna…” she placed a hand on the girl’s knee, prompting her to open her wet eyes. “Did the last doctor hurt you?”

Luna bent her head, blonde hair curtaining her face. It reminded Hermione so much of the eyeless apparition from the hall that she reached forward and moved the pale tressed away on instinct.

“It’s alright,” she said gently. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want, I understand.” She drew closer, wrapping an arm around the trembling girl.

“We don’t have to ever talk about it, I won’t pressure you. But I want you to know that if something did happen, it wasn’t your fault, and you have absolutely no reason to feel ashamed.” She was hardly aware of the tears streaming down her own face. “You’re one of the strongest and most caring people I’ve ever met. Nothing and no one will ever change that about you.”

Luna leaned in to Hermione’s side, nodding lightly. “I’m sorry.”

Hermione wiped the tears from both their faces. “Sorry for what?”

“For keeping the files a secret. He told me it was okay because you would find out eventually.”

Hermione blinked. A thousand questions burned within her but she knew they were better directed at someone else.

She felt fit to burst.

The man played on Luna’s tragic experience to get what he wanted. He put her in an untenable position that could have very easily resulted in her expulsion.

It was deplorable.

Suddenly the door started to open. Hermione shoved the stray paper under the bed before she fully processed her actions. Hannah entered, glancing around the room and then staring in confusion at the pair on the floor.

“Hi.”

Hermione forced a small smile. “Hi.”

“What are you doing down there?”

Hermione swallowed, mind reeling for an excuse when Luna slowly pulled from her grasp and rose to her feet. “Hermione was helping me look for sprites.”

Hannah tipped her head. “Sprites?”

“Elemental fae spirits. They’re normally invisible to humans unless they’re feeling playful.”

Hannah smirked. “Gotcha. Did you find any?”

“Not yet. Maybe next time.”

Hermione stared at Luna in silent wonder, seeing the girl in a whole new light. She wondered how often she used her outlandish reputation to her advantage, steering people away from the truth.

“Right, well…” Hermione stood as well, brushing her hands across her skirt to remove the wrinkles. “I suppose I should be heading back to Parvati then.”

Hannah nodded, opening her wardrobe. “Give her our love.”

“I will.”

She glanced to Luna. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

The blonde smiled. “Don’t forget your dream catcher.”

Hermione leaned down to retrieve the item from the bed. The setting sun illuminated the ivory bones in pale orange and violet.

“I have a feeling I’ll be needing this very soon.”


Hermione stormed down the corridor.

She paid no mind to hiding in the shadows or walking on tiptoes.

No.

She was livid and wanted, needed, that rage to be felt.

The Doctor had lied to her. Misled her. Used her.

Even worse, he had done the same to Luna.

Sweet, tender, nurturing Luna.

Hermione needed answers and she would get them now.

But she didn’t march to the clinic. A face to face confrontation would only lead to more lies.

She needed to see the evidence for herself and connect the dots free from his coaxing voice.

So she stormed to the room he had taken her to after discovering her racing along the hallway after curfew.

The room across from his chambers.

The makeshift office piled high with paperwork. She hadn’t paid close enough attention the night she was brought here, too overwhelmed by the haunting apparition and his sudden appearance.

But it was all starting to come together now. Keeping a private office so far away from the clinic.

He was obviously hiding something.

She was relieved to find the door unlocked. But she wasn’t surprised. In order to lock it, he’d have to request the key from either Umbridge or Filch, which would mean tipping them off to his… extracurricular activities.

She inhaled sharply at the mess that awaited her inside, the same explosion of papers covering every surface, stacked high along each of the four walls.

She wondered how many Luna had stolen for him. The thought enraged her more.

Because something didn’t add up. If he was truly concerned about the last physician impregnating a resident why did he request files for past girls that no longer lived in the Home?

No… he was up to something alright, but he had lied to Luna about whatever it was, playing her past against her.

Hermione tore through the office, grabbing papers at random, reading the headers, her stomach twisting into knots as she started to discover a common theme…

All of these girls were listed as runaways. None of them seemed to have any family or emergency contact listed outside the Home.

And then she found the most damning document of all.

Lavender’s.

Tears filled her eyes as she read over the details in her friend’s medical file, her behavioral write-ups, all of her past transgressions listed in black and white.

And on the last page, circled many times over in red ink, was one word, bold and ominous, pulsating before her eyes.

Suitable.

Hermione blinked, setting the papers carefully aside, as though they retained some piece of the girl they detailed and reached out to grab another file.

She flipped to the last page, heart jolting as she saw the same word circled in red ink.

Suitable.

Hermione swallowed, picking up the next stack, and the next, and the next…

Suitable.

Suitable.

Suitable.

She blinked rapidly, hands shaking.

The door opened behind her.

A tall shadow appeared across the opposite wall, stretching endlessly in either direction. She gasped, spinning on her heal, papers dancing in an invisible current.

“Ms. Granger.” His eyes contained a raging storm. Lighting illuminated the room, thunder shook the floor.

It paired beautifully with the chaos brewing inside her chest. Her heart was a war drum, each deafening beat a call to battle.

He stepped into the small space, so close she could feel the heat radiating off his body.

She refused to retreat.

He pressed the door closed behind him, eyes never straying from hers.

“I’ve been expecting you.”

His voice was a silk net cast over her head. She withdrew her blade and cut through the bindings.

“You told me to come when my anger eclipsed my sadness.”

She tipped her chin up, defiant. His pupils expanded rapidly. She didn’t flinch.

Instead, she raised the papers clenched tightly in her hand, pressing them against his chest.

“I find that I’m exceedingly angry.”

Chapter Text

If ignorance is bliss, I must be ecstatic.
.   .   .

“You told me to come when my anger eclipsed my sadness.”

She lifted the papers clutched tightly in her grasp, pressing them into his chest on instinct, needing the words printed across each page to burrow as deeply into him as they had her. She felt the steady thud of his heart beneath her palm as her fingernails dug into the soft fabric of his shirt.

She wanted to claw through the thin barrier, tear into his flesh, mark him for all eternity, a constant reminder of the chaos he had unleashed inside her.

“I find that I’m exceedingly angry.”

She wasn’t fully aware of just how close they were standing until his hand shot up too fast for her eyes to process, long fingers manacling her wrist, and pressed her hand more firmly into his body.

She blinked, the sensation of his skin awaking her from the dark trance. She tried to pull away but he held her firmly in place.

“Why Ms. Granger…” the corner of his mouth lifted, a haunting accompaniment to his feral gaze. “It seems you have something you’d like to discuss.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits, stomach clenching at the mere hint of amusement in his expression.

“You’ve been using Luna to do your dirty work. You put her in danger of being thrown out on the streets. You should be ashamed.”

Each syllable was a slash of her knife, but he remained unblemished and unmoved.

“Is that really what you came to say?”

She swallowed, trying once more to pull her wrist free. His fingers tightened, bordering on painful. He covered the bruise Filch had left on her skin. She wondered if she would bear a new mark before the night was through.

The thought infuriated her.

“I came to tell you to leave her alone. Whatever you’re up to, she isn’t going to be a part of it.”

He tilted his head. “And how do you intend to stop me?”

She seethed. “I’ll expose you. Expose this office. You’ll be fired for stealing patient files, if not arrested on the spot.”

His smirk gave way to a full fledged grin, teeth sharpened to points.

“I enjoy seeing this side of you.” He leaned down, she tried to rear back but his fingers squeezed in warning, the pad of his thumb pressing in on her pulse point. “But you’re too smart for that, Hermione. I’m the Doctor. I have every right to commandeer these documents. And even more importantly, you know the authorities couldn’t care less about what happens in a place like this, as long it stays behind closed doors.”

She blinked rapidly, tears burning behind her eyes.

“Who are you?” Her voice was reduced to a meager whisper, face mere inches from his.

His eyes flickered to her mouth and back, expression transforming into something beautiful and terrifying, for it held a wild anticipation that set every nerve ending within her aflame.

“I’m the only one who can help you. The only one who can lead you to the answers you so desperately seek.” His eyes gleamed in the flickering light. “The only one who can lead you to vengeance.”

She inhaled sharply, the floor tilting beneath her feet. He didn’t release her wrist, but his other arm snaked around her waist as she tipped to the side. She fell into him, his heartbeat centered in her palm, racing up her arm and echoing through her chest.

“I think this is a conversation best had in less claustrophobic quarters.”

She was rendered mute, held captive by his hands and gaze. And then the arm around her middle fell away, the one at her wrist remaining firm as he pulled open the door and led her into the hall.

To the room directly across.

She swallowed thickly as he withdrew a familiar set of keys and unlocked the door, pushing it open and gazing at her with the same dark amusement from moments ago.

“Don’t be shy, Ms. Granger. This isn’t your first time inside my chambers.”


Harry traced his fingertip over the rim of the glass, gazing absently into the amber liquid contained within.

“Pince for your thoughts, kid.”

He sighed, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “They’re not worth even that these days.”

Sirius tipped back another swig from his own glass. “That bad, eh?”

Harry leaned back in his seat, eyes still averted away.

“Just a lot happening lately it seems.”

“So tell me about it.”

Harry wanted to. So badly. Sirius was the closest thing Harry had to a father, their bond tried and true. He knew he could trust the man with anything. Sirius would never turn his back on his godson, no matter the situation.

But he would also try to help, his need to protect overriding his need to understand.

And it seemed the more people that got added to the mix the closer they headed towards disaster.

“Just overwhelmed about this promotion.”

It wasn’t a total lie. Harry was overwhelmed by it. He was just slightly more overwhelmed by his crippling fear of losing his best friend and his utter heartbreak and despair over losing his lover. If he’d had any time leftover to reflect on his actual career, he was certain he’d be in need of Sirius’s council.

“I was your age when I got promoted to Lieutenant, you know.”

Harry swallowed heavily, well aware of the fact.

“They needed me to take the post immediately. Less than a week after your parents-” he stopped short, never able to speak the word aloud, even over a decade later. He cleared his throat, rotating his glass, watching the ice spin across the bottom.

“I had to take over when I was still half out of my mind with grief. Not to mention trying to get the paperwork sorted to get custody of you.” He paused yet again, seemingly lost to the past. “The last thing I cared about was work. The last thing I wanted was to take over James’s position… I felt like a bloody fraud.”

Harry blinked slowly, watching his godfather’s face carefully.

“Some days I still do.”

The silence that followed was thick, invasive. Harry breathed it in, choked on it.

“Sirius… you’ve made Admiral based on ten years of hard work that is yours alone.”

His godfather smirked, finally meeting his eye. “The same goes for you, kid. That promotion belongs to you. You bust your ass out there, every single day, every single time. You’re going to make a great leader one day, the boss has his eye on you.”

Harry wet his lips. “He has his eye on me because I’m James Potter’s son.”

“That’s what sparked his interest, true. But it’s not what impressed him. Your hard work did that. He wouldn’t be giving you this if it wasn’t earned through blood, sweat and tears.”

Harry laughed without humor. “Listen to us, trying to comfort one another without taking our own words to heart.”

Sirius raised a dark brow. “When did you get so philosophical?”

“As I said, it’s been a crazy week.”

“I’m starting to see that.”

The intensity of the man’s expression didn’t bode well for Harry. His godfather liked to play the role of carefree rake but in reality, he was remarkably astute, which is what made him such a skilled leader on the sea.

And right now, he was analyzing Harry with a keen eye.

“So… how’s Susan?”

Harry blinked.

Bloody hell.

“Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“You know what.”

Sirius chuckled into his glass. “Come on, half the fun of being a parent is making you uncomfortable when it comes to birds.” He inspected Harry from the corner of his eye. “For the record, I know there’s nothing going on between you. Well, nothing romantic.”

Harry’s heart sped up. “How do you know that?”

“Body language. You seemed uncomfortable when she showed up at the house, but not in a bashful way. More in a pissed off sort of way. Which I must admit, is even more intriguing.”

Harry shook his head. “Ron’s courting her. Or at least he wants to.”

Sirius choked on his swallow. “What?” he sputtered, then started barking out a laugh. “You’re telling me the chit Weasley is chasing ran to your doorstep in the middle of the night? Oh, this just keeps getting better and better.”

“She didn’t come in the middle of the night. The sun was still out, thank you very much. And like I said, he isn’t officially courting her yet. They met three days ago for Christ’s sake.”

Sirius tipped his head. “You don’t sound jealous… but you don’t sound happy for them either.”

“Did you hear the part where I said they met three bloody days ago?”

“Yes, I did.”

Harry pinned him with a sardonic look. “And don’t you think Ron is being a little hasty?”

Sirius chuckled. “That is one area I cannot speak to, mate. I know next to nothing when it comes to matters of the heart.”

“Neither does Ron. He’s barely had a conversation with a girl, now he says he’s in love. It’s madness.”

“Some say love is nothing but a form of prolonged madness.”

“I don’t want to see him get taken for a fool.”

“And what makes you think this girl would do that?”

Harry seethed, chewing the inside of his cheek to keep from revealing too much.

Sirius nodded with a smirk. “Ah… the plot thickens.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Omission is the most telling detail of all.”

Harry jolted in his seat, deja vu hitting him square in the chest, squeezing his heart painfully.

He was instantly transported to a similar looking bar, discussing a very similar topic with a very different man… who said the exact same thing.

Sapphire eyes appeared in his mind, clear as day. Harry swallowed thickly, pushing on, hoping to mask his visceral reaction.

“I just don’t want Ron to get his heart broken.”

I would never wish this on anyone.

A warm hand pressed his shoulder. “You alright, kid?”

Damn his godfather’s observational skills.

“Actually, I gotta piss.”

He was in desperate need of some privacy. The whiskey was burning a steady path through him, loosening his tongue with each successive sip. He needed to step away, clear his head before he revealed something he couldn’t take back.

“Classy.”

“I’ll be sure to keep my pinky up.”

Sirius tipped his head back and laughed while Harry sidled past and cut across the pub to the water closet in the back. He tried to open the door but found it locked. He groaned, perching up against the wall and gazing about the venue without interest.

The toilet flushed, the sound of running water quick to follow. And then the door was opening.

And a familiar face appeared.

Their eyes met.

Harry blinked.

Then blinked again.

“Ah fuck.” McLaggen looked supremely put out.

Harry pushed away from the wall, smirk forming. “Just when I thought this night was going downhill.”

“Come on, Potter,” McLaggen backed away rapidly, hands raising. “You got your shots in the last time we met.”

Harry trailed after him step for step as they neared the back exit. “That I did. It was quite enjoyable. But I’m afraid your luck has run out, I’ve been searching for you.”

The man swallowed. “I know. I heard you’ve been asking around. But I don’t know anything else about the chit, I told you everything-”

“She’s dead.”

McLaggen stumbled, catching himself against the edge of the bar, blinking dumbly.

“What?”

Harry watched him closely, studying every nuance of his expression. “I said, Lavender’s dead.”

The color drained from McLaggen’s face. He stopped his retreat, eyes flickering rapidly between Harry’s.

“I don’t… she… I just saw her a week ago…”

Harry held his gaze for several moments, finally sighing as he detected no duplicity in the man’s reaction.

“Take a breath.” He pulled a stool out from the bar. “And a seat, before you pass out.”

McLaggen sat gracelessly, slumping forward into the counter, eyes wide and perplexed.

Harry slid into the stool beside him, the liquor in his system making him much more amenable to the man’s distress.

“I shouldn’t have sprung it on you like that. I just had to see if you were involved.”

McLaggen blinked. “Involved?” His Adam's apple bobbed. “Lav was… murdered?”

Harry raised a brow. “I’m afraid so.” He tipped his head, watching him carefully. “I didn’t think you were all that fond of her.”

“I…” he shook his head. “I saw her a week ago…”

Harry nodded. “Already said that, mate.”

McLaggen’s eyes narrowed. “I thought we weren’t mates.”

“We aren’t. Doesn’t mean I can’t buy you a drink.” Harry pivoted, flagging the bartender. “Two whiskeys.”

McLaggen ran a hand over his face. “This is… I can’t…” he glanced sharply to Harry. “Are you sure it was her?”

Harry pushed one of the glasses closer to the man as soon as the bartender departed. “I’m positive. And I’m searching for the person responsible. Any idea who would want to hurt her?”

McLaggen shook his head rapidly, taking the glass and tossing it back in a convulsive swallow. Harry glanced at him from the corner of his eye as he finished his own shot.

“The last time we spoke you didn’t seem too concerned about her disappearance.”

McLaggen brought the back of his hand to his mouth, dragging it across his lips. “I didn’t think it was anything serious. Lav dances to the beat of her own drum, runs around all the ti-” he stopped short, eyes shuttering. “She danced. She ran around… fuck.”

Harry set his empty glass down. “Where did she go when she ran around? Who did she meet with?”

McLaggen blinked. “How was she killed?”

Harry rubbed the bridge of his nose. McLaggen was lost to his own twisted form of grief, questioning him would be a feat.

“Her throat was cut.”

The man almost tipped off his stool. “What?”

“It wasn’t some random street mugging or alley rough up. Someone very meticulously killed this girl and I need to find out who. Can you help me, McLaggen?”

The other man faced him slowly. “Why are you doing this? Were you involved with her or something?”

“I never met her when she was alive. But she was very important to someone who’s very important to me. And I promised them I’d find the killer and bring them to justice.”

McLaggen leaned further into the countertop. “What about the police? If she was murdered shouldn’t they be involved?”

“I know you knocked a few back before our paths crossed tonight, but surely you're not that drunk.”

The man sighed deeply, shaking his head. “So you’re the only one trying to find out who killed her?”

“I have help. But I’m leading the charge, yes. Now,” his expression hardened, “I need you to tell me everything you knew about her, where she went, who she talked to. Even the things you think are inconsequential.”

“I… right now?”

“No time like the present.”

“I didn’t know much, honestly. I mean I took her places, but she never talked about herself. Not her past anyway. The most I knew was she lived up on Bromley. But I didn’t know why.”

“That’s alright. What types of places did you take her?”

“The types of places you found me in the last time we spoke.”

“What about Amortentia?”

McLaggen glanced around sharply. “Shite, Potter! Not so bloody loud!”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Fucking hell. It’s not the holy grail.”

“It might as well be for how difficult it is to come by an invitation.”

“For the record, when you have to pay sixty bloody pounds it’s not considered an invitation, it’s a cover charge.”

McLaggen glanced away. “I thought for sure you’d find her there.”

“Why is that?”

“Rod offered her a job.”

Harry blinked, heart racing. “She took a job there?”

“No.” The man shook his head. “She turned him down. Didn’t want to work doing that sort of thing, she told me. But she was friends with one of the girls and liked to speak with her everytime we went. They knew each other from before. I think. I usually gave them privacy.”

Harry’s jaw tensed. “Do you know anything about this girl? A name, physical description?”

“They all wear masks, I never saw her face. Not anything above the mouth.”

“What about hair color?”

McLaggen scratched the back of his head. “Erm… blonde, I think? Yeah. Dirty blonde. Shoulder length.”

Harry’s eyes flashed. The girl he spoke with briefly in the hallway at Amortentia had been blonde. Could she be the friend?

He sighed, pushing on. “Was Rodolphus upset she turned him down?”

McLaggen blinked. “You mean enough to kill her?”

“I’m just trying to piece together the entire picture.”

“I don’t know, I wasn’t there when they made the offer.”

Harry tipped his head. “They?”

“She said he and his wife approached her in a private room.”

Harry’s blood ran cold. Any mention of Bellatrix inspired an instinctual reaction of dread.

“Was there anything else-” he stopped short at the sight of Sirius standing from his chair across the bar, glancing over his shoulder, eyes searching.

Fuck.

He sighed, facing the other man once more. “I have to end our conversation here, but I’d like to be able to contact you with more questions.”

McLaggen’s expression turned guarded. “You aren’t going to hit me in the face?”

“Only if you make me hunt you across the city again.”

He released a long breath through his nose, face resigned. “I’m staying at my father’s estate in Gordon Square.”

Harry nodded. “Good. I’ll pay a visit if I need you.”

He stood to leave, hesitating in light of the awkward exchange. He was just buzzed enough to feel underlying sympathy for the man seated before him, still appearing dumbfounded.

“If you really cared about her, you’ll tell me anything you can think of that may help me find out what happened.”

McLaggen’s jaw tensed. “We weren’t… it was just casual.” He swallowed. “She wasn’t someone you take home. But I hate being home anyway. We had fun together.” He met Harry’s eye. “She didn’t deserve what happened.”

Harry started to back away in the direction of Sirius. “No one deserves for that to happen to them.” His gaze hardened. “Except for the bastard that did it.”


Hermione spun around as the bell chimed behind her. She forced a smile, ready to greet the new customer when her eyes fell on the entrant.

It was the man she encountered on her first day of work, the one who took off running when she bid him hello.

She swallowed lightly as his nervous gaze settled on her. She remained frozen in place, glancing over her shoulder to where Snape stood behind the counter. He was focused on the ledger, eyes downcast. She wet her lips.

“Er… Sir?”

Snape blinked, eyes snapping up in annoyance. Then they flickered past her to the man hovering in the doorway. He sighed.

“Do come inside, Quirrell. I assure you the girl doesn’t bite. But she will talk incessantly if provoked.”

The man shifted awkwardly, slowly stepping forward and allowing the door to close behind him. Hermione bit her lip, glancing away, afraid to send him running in the opposite direction by staring upon him for too long.

And I thought I had problems.

She pretended to study the items on a nearby shelf while he darted across the floor to Snap, who started pulling something out from beneath the counter. It was wrapped in burlap. Hermione raised a brow, curiosity brimming.

Snape met her eye past the man’s shoulder, some amalgamate of amusement and annoyance in his gaze, prompting her to scurry behind the shelf completely.

The mens’ hushed voices shed no additional light on the mystery, and Hermione was once again left without distraction from her raging thoughts.

She had been offered a reprieve from work, but she’d insisted on coming in. She needed to get out of the Home. To her knowledge, Snape had no idea about the events that transpired, at least he made no indication he knew, and for that she was grateful.

The shop became her sole refuge away from the harsh realities of life. She was relieved to be in the company of someone who didn’t treat her differently in light of the tragedy.

However, her thoughts offered no such reprieve. Trapped in the quietness of her corner she was forced to once more relive the events of last night, each replay offering more details that her subconscious mind had captured as the chaos raged within her.

She started her trip down memory lane with the moment he opened the door to his chambers.

Hermione stared into the room beyond with her heart in her throat, body frozen in the hallway as a thrill of terror seized her.

“This is highly inappropriate.”

He raised a dark brow.

“I dare say we’re well past that, Ms. Granger.” And then he released her wrist and stepped inside, crossing the room without glancing in her direction.

“Stay or leave, the choice is yours. But I don’t think you raided my office like a woman possessed simply to leave empty handed now.”

Her fists tightened at her sides as she watched him open the wardrobe and remove his outer coat, images of their first encounter racing through her mind. She slowly stepped over the threshold.

“I know you harbor no fondness for closed doors, but I suggest making the sacrifice to avoid detection. I have considerable pull with the Matron, but this will be a stretch to explain even for me.”

She set her jaw, reluctantly doing as bade.

And then she blinked, staring at the knob.

“How do you know I dislike closed doors?”

“I’m an observant person, Ms. Granger.”

She slowly turned to face him. His back was still to her as he shut the wardrobe.

Her spine turned rigid.

“Is that how you manipulated, Luna? You observed an easy target and then struck?”

He leaned against the dresser, arms folding across his chest, expression lit with amusement.

“I assure you, if I wanted an easy target, the enigmatic Ms. Lovegood would not be my first choice.”

She seethed. “And yet you still managed to trick her into stealing official documents for you.”

“I didn’t trick her into doing anything. I requested her assistance in exchange for my services, she had every opportunity to deny my offer without a threat of recourse. She chose to obtain the files of her own free will.”

Hermione took a step forward, propelled by the force of her convictions.

“You lied to her. You said you needed those records for the welfare of the other residents. If that were the case you wouldn’t be sifting through charts of girls who no longer live here.”

He tilted his head, gaze flickering across her face, studying her.

“I didn’t lie to Ms. Lovegood. What I told her was true. I have every intention of following up with the previous physician’s victims and ensuring they receive necessary medical care.” His eyes flashed. “However the records serve a dual purpose, one that Ms. Lovegood was no doubt aware of but chose not to question.”

Hermione swallowed thickly, standing at the foot of his bed.

“What are you doing here? Why did you take this job?”

All traces of humor faded from his visage. His eyes hardened to diamond points.

“I should think that quite obvious by now, Ms. Granger. You’ve seen enough to put the pieces together, especially after your foray into my office.”

She blinked slowly, heart rate increasing as her mind spun the threads together, the tapestry slowly taking shape.

“Lavender was kidnapped.”

It wasn’t a question, it was a malevolent truth that had been festering within her heart for several days.

His chin lowered, the lantern seemed to dim, shadows springing to life around them.

“Go on.”

She trembled at the sinister voice that emanated from his lips.

“Her resident file…” she wet her lips, unconsciously stepping closer, drawn by a magnetism that pulled at her bones. “There was a term on the last page. Suitable. It was on the other files as well.”

His chest rose slowly, eyes tracking her movements. “You’re getting warmer.”

“She wasn’t just taken. She was targeted.”

Her heart was in her throat now.

“She was targeted from within these very walls.” Another step, and another. “So were the other girls. The other runaways.”

His eyes glowed from the darkness, the corner of his mouth tipping up, not in humor, but in supreme satisfaction.

“You’re red hot.”

Every nerve ending came to life with the thrill of discovery. This was no classroom, no medical lab, but it did nothing to deter from the excitement of solving a complex problem, watching the pieces fall into place by her steady hand.

“There’s a conspiracy going on. The residents are being taken and written off as runaways. Lavender was another victim to some underground ring trafficking girls.”

She came to a stop, eyes bright and flickering rapidly between his, desperate for confirmation, for approval.

And then his mouth curved into a breathtaking smile, teeth gleaming.

“I knew you would solve the mystery, Hermione, but I admit I am impressed by how little assistance you needed.”

Hearing her name on his lips made her startling aware of how close they were standing, how far she had traveled. She took a step back, cold washing over her.

This wasn’t a classroom, wasn’t some news story she was discussing as an impartial party. This was all very real, and the ramifications of what it meant set in like a crushing weight on her chest, expelling her breath.

“This- this is... “ she blinked rapidly, spinning around in a flurry of nerves and panic. “We have to go to the police!”

She barely made it a step towards the door when she was firmly yanked back by an iron grip on her arm. How he crossed the space between them in one fell swoop was beyond her, but as she spun around with wide eyes he was flush against her, eyes black and face lethal.

“And I was so impressed…”

She blinked, his casual statement rattling around her brain like a tin can through the streets, loud and meaningless. She tried to jerk away but an arm looped around her waist like a steel band and held her immobile. She felt the heat of his body along her own, felt his heart beat within her own chest, felt his breath across her face and neck.

“I will allow you a moment to collect yourself, in light of your recent revelation. Then I will give you the opportunity to reconsider your actions.”

She swallowed, his words finally taking root in her mind. He spoke without inflection, as though discussing the weather, but his eyes were endlessly deep, the chaos within mesmerizing.

She was too overwhelmed by her fear for the other girls to spare a thought for the threat facing her down at this very moment. She knew a predator was in her midst, baring fang and claw, but she couldn’t find it in herself to flee.

“None of this explains why you’re here.”

The arm around her waist pressed her tighter.

“Now your senses are returning.”

She narrowed her eyes, hands flat against his chest.

“My senses never evaded me. Reporting a string of kidnappings to the police is a normal response.”

“That it is, Hermione. And tell me, what do you think would be the Scotland Yard’s normal response to such a claim?”

She blinked, knees quaking as the walls started to close in around them. Lightning flashed in his gaze as he saw the realization spark within hers.

“You know from personal experience how much care and consideration is given when there’s no influential family to back a victim’s claim. When there’s no one to grease the hands of the corrupted officials in charge.”

She couldn't breathe, vision hazing at the edges. She listed into him more fully, his face the only thing in perfect clarity.

“You know, Hermione...” His voice was everywhere, echoing off the walls and ceiling, filling the empty spaces within her chest. “You know the authorities will do nothing to stop it. You saw the dates on some of those files. There’s no way they could remain ignorant for this long. They’ve chosen to look the other way and they won’t be swayed by the words of an orphan girl.”

A spark ignited within her broken chest, flames springing to life.

“If we can’t go to the police…” she held his gaze, the only thing left in the darkness of her surroundings. “What can we do?”

His slow smile returned, terrifying and thrilling.

“We stop them ourselves.”

Her gaze searched his, thoughts and emotions trapped in a whirlwind.

“This is why you came here? You knew all this time?”

He blinked, arm slowly dropping away from her middle, the warmth of his body evading her as he took a step back.

“I wasn’t positive. I am now.”

“Who are you?” She crossed her arms protectively. “Why are you involving yourself in this?”

That is not up for discussion.” The finality of his words jolted her. “I was prepared to execute this mission alone. I am still prepared to do so.” He paced across the room, shoulders back and spine straight. “You can walk away now, Ms. Granger. I will give you the same option I gave Ms. Lovegood. Turn around, walk out the door, and we can pretend this conversation never occurred.”

She reared back. Was he joking?

Walk away from this?

After everything that happened, everything she’d learned?

Not bloody likely.

“I don’t think so.” Her previous fear and uncertainty burned away in the fire coursing through her veins, setting her blood to boil. “Someone I care about was murdered, I won’t stand idly by and let it happen again.”

Her fists clenched at her sides, the flames licking up her throat and through her mind, radiating through her eyes.

“I’m going to help. Nothing can stop me. Not even you.”

He tucked his hands into his trouser pockets, eyes roaming her from bottom to top.

“I do not envy the man who attempts stopping you from anything.”

She wet her lips. “Tell me what to do.”

There was victory in his gaze, but she wasn’t unnerved by it, for she was a creature born of fire, and nothing could hurt her now.

Hermione was jolted from the perturbing memory as the bell above the shop door rang one more. She emerged from her hiding spot behind the shelf to greet the newcomer but saw no one.

She blinked, glancing to Snape in question, his eyes met hers briefly and he gestured with his head towards the aisle on the opposite side.

Hermione nodded, slowly approaching the back of the store and forcing a smile on her face. She rounded the endcap and opened her mouth to greet the customer-

Her smile promptly fell when she saw who it was.

“Parvati?” She hissed, stepping closer. “What are you doing here?”

“Do you get an employee discount on laudanum?” Her friend asked casually, examining a tin of cough suppressants with a bored expression. “I’d normally knick a bottle but I don’t want it taken from your wages if your boss is an arsehole.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, stepping closer and grabbing the girl’s arm, forcing her to turn and face her.

“Seriously, what are you doing here? You’re still under house arrest!”

Parvati sighed, pulling free of Hermione’s grasp and leaning against the shelf.

“Damndest thing happened this morning. The Toad Bitch called me to her office and said I could go on a market run.”

Hermione blinked. “Why would she do that?”

“Beats me. She went on about how she wants to support me through this difficult time, yadda yadda, bunch of pig shite. But alas, she offered a reprieve and I took it. I’ve been going stir crazy cooped up inside every day.”

Hermione crossed her arms, glancing through the gaps in the shelf to ensure Snape was still preoccupied. She kept her voice low.

“Well what are you doing here then? You’ll get put back under lockdown if she knows you snuck off.”

Parvati shrugged. “I’m impervious to her wrath at the moment. Pretty sure someone could pull a gun on me and I wouldn’t flinch.”

Hermione tipped her head, examining her friend more closely. She’d been deep beneath the covers when Hermione had returned to her room last night, as well as this morning when Hermione left for work.

She suspected her friend had some chemical help to keep her under all day but didn’t feel right prying into her drawers in search of evidence. Hermione was content to look the other way while Parvati dealt with the aftermath of her grief. As long as she didn’t put her life at risk, Hermione didn’t feel it was her place to judge.

But now she was worried her friend may be taking something in excess to avoid facing an onslaught of emotions. Hermione narrowed her eyes, searching Parvati’s gaze for signs of a tonic.

“What?” Parvati’s voice held an edge that was music to Hermione’s ears. Her attitude was subdued but not entirely absent. Her pupils appeared normal.

“Nothing.” Hermione drew back. “I’m glad you got out for a bit, but I don’t want you getting in trouble. You need to head back before Filch notices.”

Parvati sighed. “I know. I just needed to get away for a bit. Away from everyone.”

Hermione knew the feeling well.

“I was being serious about the laudanum.”

Hermione raised a brow, then saw the humor in the other girl’s gaze and smirked.

“I won’t help you get hooked on that shite. But I will bring you some soothing syrup if you promise to leave now and head straight back to the market.”

Parvati groaned. “You’re no fun.”

“I didn’t hear you complaining when we snuck into a pleasure house dressed in our skivvies.”

Parvati smiled. “We still have the outfits you know, we could pay another visit.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, fighting back a laugh. “Time to go, Parv.”

She was relieved to see traces of her friend’s lascivious humor bobbing to the surface. She started to shoo her down the aisle.

“Now get out of here before my boss gets a good look at you.”

“Embarrassed of me, luv?”

“Humiliated.”

Parvati tossed a wink over her shoulder as she rounded the aisle.

And collided fully into the nervous customer who was no longer occupied with Snape.

“Bloody hell!” Parvati hissed, nearly toppling over.

Hermione cringed, darting forward to help steady the girl. Snape came out from behind the counter as well, but before anyone else could get a word in the odd man straightened to his limited height and peered at the girls, first to Hermione, then to Parvati.

And had a full blown panic attack.

He opened and closed his mouth several times, a gaping fish, and then started to walk back towards the door, knocking into displays as he went.

Snape stopped in his tracks, watching the man with obvious irritation radiating from every pore. Hermione stared after him dumbly, too shocked by his bizarre behavior to do much else. He finally ran into the door, reaching blindly for the knob, eyes still fastened to Parvati in terror.

The girl in question raised a dark brow, finding her voice.

“What’s your problem, huh?”

He released a terrified squeak and threw the door open, spinning on his heal and darting outside in the space of a heartbeat.

The three remaining people in the shop all stood silently in his wake for several beats before Snape strode forward and slammed the door closed.

“Bloody moron,” he muttered under his breath, just loud enough for Hermione to make out. Then his black gaze darted to them.

“Are you a customer?” His severe expression told them he already knew the answer.

Parvati blinked, glancing at Hermione and then back to him, looking properly cowered.

“Um… not exactly, I-”

“Then get out.”

She leaped out of Hermione’s grasp. “Gladly!”

She darted around Snape and slipped through the door without a backward glance. Hermione stood in the middle of the floor glancing around, wondering if she hallucinated the last few minutes.

Finally, she brought her eyes to Snape, who was watching her in turn, something unreadable in his gaze. She fidgeted anxiously, unsure what to say.

“I…” she wet her lips, hands fidgeting. “I’m sorry about that man-”

“Quirrell.”

Hermione blinked. “Quirrell,” she repeated. “I seem to keep scaring him off.”

She meant it in jest, hoping to elicit a softer reaction from the brooding figure before her. Instead, he cocked his head like the bird of prey he so resembled, examining her more closely.

“Yes. It would seem you are quite skilled at doing so.” A pause. “At long last, we’ve found something you’re good at.”

She sighed, turning on her heel and heading back to the shelves, not ready to face the formidable snark of her boss just yet.

She quickly brushed the strange incident aside, her mind already drifting to her plans for the evening, and the task she had been assigned.


“What did she say exactly?”

Potter rolled his eyes. “I’ve already told you everything she said-”

“You obviously paraphrased.”

“How would you know-”

“Because I know how Granger talks! Now stop being a vacuous arse and tell me everything she said!”

Potter closed his eyes, tipping his head back.

“As fond as I am of your chronically sunny disposition, I’m afraid I have better things to do with my day.”

“Don’t you dare walk away! We agreed you could be the one to visit her if you reported back every detail of your interaction.”

Potter pinned him with the full force of his annoyance. “I don’t recall making any such agreement, Malfoy. Furthermore, it was always going to be me who went to her because I’m her best friend.”

Draco scoffed, turning away. “You’re completely useless, Potter. I’m going to see her myself.”

“I highly advise you refrain from fulfilling that urge, Malfoy.”

Draco seethed. “I need to see her.”

“Why don’t you stop and think about what Mione needs instead.”

Draco ground his teeth together, the urge to throttle the idiot standing before him strong.

He’d stayed up all night awaiting word from Potter, expecting the man to report back on his visit with Granger. When nothing came he’d assumed the worst, paying a visit to Grimmauld only to find the house empty. And of course Black was the only aristocrat to dismiss his maid and butler staff, leaving behind no one to take down a message.

Draco had been left with no recourse beyond pinning a note to the door, demanding Potter meet him at the park first thing in the morning or else face his ground splitting wrath.

They currently stood in the vibrant heart of Kensington Park just north of the Albert Memorial, the Basin pond to their backs. Children ran around the water’s edge, laughing and splashing, mothers and nannies watching with fond amusement.

The serene setting did nothing to calm the storm raging inside of him.

“I’m tired of this run around bullshite. I barely see her as it is and now I have to rely on you as a messenger. It’s bollocks.”

“She just lost her friend, Malfoy, she needs time.”

“Are those her words or yours?”

“Both.”

“So she’s fine with you paying her a visit but she draws the line at me?”

“Our relationships with her are very different.”

Draco narrowed his eyes, kicking at the grass like a petulant child.

“I need to see her.” He met the man’s stare, jaw tense. “Even for just a few minutes. I need to see her with my own eyes.”

Potter groaned, shaking his head. “You’re as stubborn as she is.”

“She doesn’t have to sneak out, I’ll find a way in-”

“I’m taking her to the party tomorrow night.”

Draco blinked, rearing back. “What?”

“I’m taking her to the party-”

“I heard you, idiot.”

Potter scowled. “You’re a piece of work.”

“She agreed to come?”

“Yes.”

Draco raised a blonde brow. Potter rolled his eyes. “I had to guilt her into it but she finally relented.”

Draco’s nose twitched. He’d been planning on skipping the party, knowing he’d be wrangled into escorting Astoria if he attended.

Now it seemed his plans had changed.

“I’ll need a few minutes alone with her.”

“Don’t look at me.”

“You can help cover for her while we slip out-”

“I don’t want anything to do with the two of you slipping out together.”

“Fucking hell, Potter, would you prefer I cause a bloody scene and abscond with her entirely?”

The other man pinched the bridge of his nose. “I only get migraines when I’m around you, did you know that?”

“The party is at Wilton Place in Belgrave Square, we can sneak out to the gardens when the old bastard is delivering his speech.”

Potter took a deep breath. “It’s like a steady building pressure behind my eyes. Feels like my skull is caving in.”

“Everyone will be distracted. I can pay off the doorman to keep guard for us.”

“I also hear a slight ringing in my ears.”

“Yes, that should work.”

Potter rolled his eyes once more. “Can I go now?”

Draco blinked, remembering the man at his side. “You’re still here?”

“Always a pleasure, Malfoy. The next time you pin a death threat to my door, leave out the swear words, it warps Sirius’s innocent mind.”

“Tell the heathen to hire a butler like a normal person.”

Potter saluted him with a smirk and took off through the hedges, whistling brightly as he went. Draco glared at his retreating figure. Bloody ponce.

As he made his way in the opposite direction he noticed a familiar carriage pull out along the cobblestone path ahead.

He swallowed thickly, dodging behind a tree.

Too late.

“Very subtle, Draco!” Came the feminine voice, laced with amusement.

Draco cringed, still hidden behind the thick trunk of the hornbeam.

“I was afraid of projectiles flying at my head!” he called back, hearing the horses come to a slow stop.

“I’m sure that’s a common occurrence for you.”

He laughed lightly, the tension melting away. He stepped out from his hiding spot, gazing up at the woman seated within the gleaming teal carriage.

“Fancy a ride?”

He took a deep breath, gazing about the park. “Such a beautiful day, thought I’d take it by foot.” He met her pale eyes once more. “Fancy a stroll?”

She smirked, then looked to her driver. “Martin, Lord Malfoy is going to escort me for a few minutes. Please wait here.”

The driver wet his lips nervously. “Miss Astoria, your father gave me strict instructions to-”

“Very good, Martin, I won’t be but a moment, enjoy the sunshine.”

She took Draco’s offered hand and gathered her copious skirts with the other, carefully stepping onto the platform and then down to the pavement.

The driver opened and closed his mouth before finally sighing, directing the horses to trot further along the road.

“I tend to cause your staff nothing but coronaries.”

Astoria smiled. “Yes, our butler is still recovering from your last visit.”

Draco swallowed. “About that…” he stuffed his hands in his pockets, eyes averted to the grass. “I’m sorry about what I said.” He forced his gaze upward, chest tight. “Truly.”

Her smile faded to a wry smirk. “Consider yourself forgiven. I know you didn’t mean it maliciously. You’re just an idiot.”

He blinked. “Your sister is rubbing off on you.”

“Don’t tell her that, she’ll get a big head.”

He studied her profile. “Confidence looks good on you. You should try wearing it more often.”

The amusement faded from her expression entirely. “Easy for a man of wealth and power to say.”

“Good point.”

He turned his focus ahead. “I’ve been wanting to speak to you again-” he stopped short, recalling Pansy’s words. “I mean, I wanted to speak with you.”

Astoria raised a dark brow. “About our pending engagement?”

He released a slow breath. “Precisely.”

“I overheard my parents talking last night.”

His head snapped around. “About us?”

“About my dowry.”

His jaw ticked. “Fuck.”

She released a nervous laugh.

“Shite. Sorry.” He cringed. “I was just speaking to someone else, still haven’t switched over my vocabulary.”

“Who were you speaking with?”

Draco blinked, his mind still reeling from her previous revelation, unable to think up a cover story.

Why the bloody hell do you need a cover story? She won’t have the first clue what we were talking about…

“Potter.”

Astoria lost her footing, collapsing into him.

“Oh! Sorry!” she shrieked as Draco gently grasped her arm, helping steady her.

“Are you alright?

She blushed profusely, nodding quickly. “Yes, there must have been a rock or something.”

Draco blinked, gazing at the smooth pavement.

“Right.”

She swallowed lightly. “So, what did you and Harry discuss?”

Draco felt a strange sensation grip him. He studied her face, flushed hot and carefully void of emotion.

No bloody way…

He shook his head. It just couldn’t be. He placed her hand in the crook of his elbow to prevent her from taking another tumble as he led them onward.

“We were just discussing the Naval party tomorrow night.”

She glanced at him with wide eyes. “You’re going to that?”

“Seems so.”

She blinked. Then her expression transformed once more, to something far too knowing.

She’s going to be there, I take it?”

Draco stumbled over the same invisible rock.

“What?”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s alright, Draco. I don’t mind that you’re in love with someone else.”

His heart leaped into his throat. “I don’t- what do you- how-”

“I do hope you’re more poetic when in her company. If memory serves correct she’s quite intelligent. I imagine you’ve got to be much quicker on your feet to hold her interest.”

Draco straightened, gaze narrowing.

“Did Daphne tell you?”

“No, she didn’t. I’m not as addle-brained as everyone likes to think.”

His eyes softened. “I never thought you were.”

She smiled sadly. “I know. You’re one of the few who doesn’t treat me like a china doll. Which is why I find your company somewhat enjoyable, in small doses anyway.”

He smirked. “Stop. You’re making me blush.”

She mirrored his expression. “So, is that the reason for your sudden interest in the Naval party?”

He chewed on the inside of his cheek, reluctant to reveal too much. But at the same time, he was enticed by the prospect of speaking about it to someone outside of his immediate group of friends. And Potter. Perhaps Astoria would bring a different perspective to the fold.

“Yes, she’s the reason I’m going.”

Astoria nodded, averting her gaze to the flowering shrubs lining the walkway. “How lucky she is to have such devotion.”

Draco sighed, glancing at her with a heavy heart, but before he could speak she shook her head.

“I didn’t mean it that way. I just envy her ability to possess the love of the person she loves in turn.”

He looked away, pain seizing his chest. He forced his free hand into his pocket to prevent from pressing it against the open wound. Astoria didn’t seem to notice.

“You know if you accept the invitation our parents are going to force us to arrive together.”

He nodded. “I know.”

“She won’t mind you attending with your prospective fiancé?”

He laughed bitterly. “She’s going as Potter’s date so I don’t think she gets much say in the matter.”

She’s also banned me from visiting her. Stubborn wench.

His fingers curled into a fist in his pocket.

He almost missed the way Astoria’s hand clenched around his arm.

“But they’re like… brother and sister, aren’t they?”

Draco nodded casually, watching her from the corner of his eye.

“They’re strictly platonic.”

She wet her lips. “So are we, and look at the situation we’re in.”

“Our families are different. Black is a proclaimed bachelor with no social ambitions. He could care less if Potter married. In fact, the man’s such an outlier he’d probably insist Potter marry for love if at all.”

She cleared her throat. “And what about Granger? Doesn’t she have to wed to regain rights to her family estate?”

Draco took a deep breath, the ache spreading out to his limbs, a festering rot.

“Yes. But she’s as unconventional as Black, if not more so. She won’t rush down the aisle for anything but love.”

Draco blinked.

I didn’t tell her I loved her when I proposed.

His jaw ticked.

Idiot.

“So… is your plan to marry her then?”

He swallowed thickly.

“Right now my plan is to see her at the party. I take it day by day.”

She bit her lip. “I’m sorry, Draco.”

His brows drew together as he glanced at her, seeing true despair in her features. “For what?”

“I thought you had it easier because you’re a man... but you’re just as trapped as I am, aren’t you?”

He held her gaze, gloom blossoming between them, radiating from their every pore.

“It would seem so.”

They basked in their shared misery for another few heartbeats before she finally glanced away, leaving him to study her delicate profile.

Pansy’s voice once more filled his head.

“... try listening… you have heard of listening, yes?”

Even in his mind, the harpy gave him grief.

“Tori.” She glanced up, eyes bright and doe-like. “What do you want?”

She blinked. “I’m sorry?”

He stopped walking, gently grasping her arm to draw her to a standstill at his side.

“If you could have any future you wanted, no matter how unrealistic, what would it be?”

She laughed. “I used to play this game with Daph when we were little-”

“It’s not a game.”

Her expression slowly fell, then hardened. “Then it’s a cruel jest.” She tried to pull away but he held fast.

“I’m serious, Tori-” he fell silent as a couple strolling in the opposite direction passed them by. Once they were out of earshot he continued, eyes narrowed. “I want to know what you want most.”

“Why, so you can buy it for me out of guilt?”

He drew back. “Guilt?”

“You plan on denying my father’s offer and leaving me in shambles-”

“Of course not!” His chest heaved, she glanced around quickly, shushing him.

“Keep your voice down!”

“I would never do that to you,” he hissed, leaning in close. “I’m trying to help you-”

“I thought I made it clear last time, I don’t want your help-”

“Dammit, Tori, work with me here! I’m fucking trying to make this right for the both of us but you won’t meet me halfway-”

“I want to be a writer, dammit!”

Draco blinked, mouth clamping shut. She swallowed, glancing around once more, a blush staining her cheeks.

He continued to stare at her. She rolled her eyes, tugging free of his grasp at last.

“Nevermind!” She hissed, marching away.

Draco snapped out of his daze, leaping forward and seizing her arm once more.

“Wait! I’m sorry, I just- I wasn’t expecting-”

“You expected me to say I want to marry a prince or design pretty dresses.”

He blinked again. “What? No… I mean, maybe…” She scoffed and tried to storm off.

“Shite, just give me a minute to process this.”

“There’s nothing to process! You asked me a question and I gave you an answer. The game is over.”

“I told you this isn’t a game.”

“Well, it might as well be!”

“Why? There are plenty of female authors.”

She scowled. “Yes, and what an easy road they’ve had getting published.”

He stood back, examining her in a new light. “I had no idea you even wrote.”

“No one does, except for Daphne.” She crossed her arms, glancing away. “Father would never approve. He’d never let me submit my work little less allow it to be published.”

Draco’s posture eased now that it seemed she wasn’t going to run off again. “What if you used a pseudonym?”

“It’s not my name that’s the problem. He doesn’t want either of his daughters to have a career. He wants us married and popping out heirs.”

His jaw ticked, wheels turning.

“Are you a novelist or journalist?”

She shifted on her feet, apprehension coloring her face.

“The former.”

“That’s impressive, Tori.”

Her blush deepened, she glanced down. “Not really. I’m locked inside most of the time, it’s not like I have much else to do.”

Her words inspired a sudden memory. “Why were you crying that day?”

She glanced up. “What day?”

“When I paid you a visit last. You were crying in the sitting room.”

She took a tentative step back. “Oh. That was…”

He raised a staying hand. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want.”

She shook her head. “It’s not that, I just… it’s not entirely my story to tell.”

His brows drew together.

Interesting.

He pushed on.

“Do you have a completed manuscript?”

She rubbed her arm absently. “Yes… why?”

“Bring it with you to the party tomorrow.”

She tipped her head. “Draco, what are you up to?”

His face split into a Cheshire grin, eyes alight.

“I have an idea.”

Her expression was caught between trepidation and humor. “God help us all.”


Harry glanced over his shoulder to make sure the coast was clear before facing the red door. He rapped his knuckles against the wood.

The privacy slot slid open, dark eyes peering out.

“Egbert.”

The eyes drew away, the sound of turning locks quick to follow.

The door opened to reveal a smoke cloud, white and bitter. Harry took a deep breath of putrid alley air before stepping inside.

He passed by the doorman with a nod and quickly descended the hall. He walked to the end, emerging through the beaded curtain and then stopping dead.

The main room was overflowing with people, the floor carpeted by sprawling bodies.

He blinked rapidly, trying to clear the hazy fog from his vision, every hose of the hookah in use.

A group of girls in the corner caught his eye, clad in only their shifts, seated upon pillows and plaiting each other’s hair.

He crossed the room carefully, mindful of stepping on hands and bare feet. A man was passed out with his shirt open, limbs askew. Harry shook his head, not envying him the muscle cramps he’d inevitably have upon waking.

The girls stopped their ministrations, gazing up through heavy-lidded eyes.

“Hello, luvs.” Harry lowered to his haunches. “You wouldn’t happen to know a pretty brunette by the name of Susan, would you?”

They shook their heads. He sighed deeply, taking in more smoke than intended, his eyes tearing. He stood and resumed his slow search of the room.

He was on the verge of giving up, ready to invade the private rooms in the hall, when he saw a familiar river of brown hair in the corner.

A girl lay on her side, facing the wall, clearly asleep.

Or dead. It was hard to tell from this distance.

Harry leaped over a few bodies to inspect more closely, walking through a cloud so thick he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, and then quickly knelt down, placing a hand on her bare arm.

She didn’t flinch. He gently rolled her to her back, brushing the long strands away from her face.

It was Susan alright.

He groaned, hovering his hand over her face to feel her breath. It was so shallow it took several moments for him to confirm she was still alive.

“Fucking hell.”

When his attempts at rousing her came to naught he leaned forward to scoop her into his arms, teetering slightly as he rose to his feet with her added weight.

He made his way to the beaded curtain once more, no one bothering to glance in their direction as he left the room with the prone girl in his arms.

He made his way down the hall and readied his excuse for the doorman. To his surprise, and great unease, the man didn’t bat an eye at the sight of the woman in his grasp, he merely stood from his stool and held open the door.

“Good day, Sir.”

Harry blinked, adjusting the dead weight in his arms. “Yeah. Same to you.”

He was relieved he had the forethought to tell the carriage driver to wait for him at the end of the alley, blocking the view of the entrance from pedestrians and traffic. He’d wanted to prepare for the worst.

Sadly he found it.

Susan didn’t stir as he carefully maneuvered her inside, laying her across one of the seats and removing his coat to stuff it beneath her head as a makeshift pillow. He slipped the driver extra money to keep his mouth shut about what he saw and instructed him on where to go next.

They pulled into the driveway of Grimmauld half an hour later, Harry was relieved to see his godfather was still out. But he could be returning at any time, and Harry wasn’t keen on explaining the situation when the man found an unconscious woman in his parlor.

So Harry carried her upstairs to his chambers, laying her upon the mattress with a sigh of exhaustion. She was a slight thing but carrying her all the way from the entrance had been an exercise.

Her expression remained completely lax, utterly lost to the coma-like sleep of the poppy.

He sat on the floor beside her, leaning against his nightstand.

Well, he thought ruefully, running a hand through his wild mane, finally got a woman in my bed.

He laughed at his own silent musings.

Ron wants to marry this one.

He tipped his head back, staring at the crown molding with narrowed his eyes, chest tightening.

Fuck love.


As the carriage pulled off Uxbridge Road into the private community of Holland Park Tom felt a pang in his jaw from grinding his teeth.

He released a long breath through his nose, watching the lavish townhomes pass by the window with narrowed eyes.

He’d wasted no time in accepting Dolohov’s invitation to attend the private gathering of so-called ‘like-minded’ individuals, as the solicitor was fond of putting it. He was surprised to receive the invitation so soon after their brief and somewhat tense encounter.

He suspected the man was after something, something he thought Tom could deliver.

Tom was only too happy to enter the snake pit to hear the man out. He was equipped with fangs as well, and was always fascinated by the company of other predators.

He descended the carriage in a leap and bid the driver farewell after handing over an extra hearty tip, his spirits already lifting at the thought of the evening to come.

While being in the presence of such opulence normally set his hackles to rise, he smoothed his sleek fur back and reminded himself that this was exactly what he wanted. The plan was going accordingly, ahead of schedule perhaps, but he would make it work. He always did.

He climbed the marble steps to the front door and raised his hand to grab the brass knocker. Before he could make contact the door swung open to reveal a thin graying butler, face pinched with perpetual distaste.

“May I help you, Sir?”

His sour tone suggested he would be happy to shut the door in Tom’s face.

Tom drew in a slow breath, instantly reminded of all the times he’d been snubbed at Cambridge and medical school for his less than spotless background, for his lack of blue blood.

Being snubbed by a member of the wait staff was always worse somehow, that the people paid to scrub chamber pots still placed themselves above him, as though they could see into his very soul and knew exactly what he was. A misfit, a miscreant, forever a filthy dock hand cursed to scrub the belly of ships until his fingers bled for all eternity.

Tom blinked, pulling himself out of his reverie. His eyes narrowed dangerously, irritated with himself for allowing his mind to drift at a time like this. He took his ire out on the man standing before him.

“My name is Doctor Thomas Riddle. I received an invitation from Mr. Antonin Dolohov.”

His tone suggested the butler was an idiot for not already knowing this.

The butler gave him a thorough once over. Tom bristled. He was in his most expensive bespoke suit, purchased at the same store all the elite shopped at. Yet he felt like a child playing dress-up beneath the old man’s shrewd gaze.

An imposter.

Tom’s jaw ticked, fists tightening reflexively. Finally, the butler stepped away, beckoning Tom inside.

“Welcome, Doctor. The others have been expecting you.”

Tom strode past the man without acknowledgment, shoulders back.

Conversation could be heard in the parlor off the main entrance, and as Tom turned to face the room a familiar voice called his name.

“Ah! Riddle! I’m so glad you were able to join us!” Dolohov crossed the gleaming wood floors with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other. “Welcome!”

Tom slid into his elitist persona with ease. He’d crafted the disguise while at University and it now fit him like a second skin.

“Of course. It was kind of you to think of me, Dolohov.”

The man smiled, eyes slightly glazed and mannerisms stilted. This certainly wasn’t his first drink.

“Come, come, I want to introduce you to the others.”

Tom fell into step beside the man, tucking his hands into his pockets as he glanced casually about the home, eyes drifting past priceless artworks and antiques as though they were nothing more than window decoration.

Once upon a time, he’d been gobsmacked by such blatant wealth, perturbed by it, even as much as he coveted it. He’d since learned to treat it with as much disregard as those born into such lifestyle if he stood any chance of assimilating.

As they entered the parlor the conversation ceased, heads turning to stare at the newest arrival.

Two men were seated in leather armchairs facing the roaring fireplace, two others stood by the drink cart, puffing away on cigars and nursing lowball glasses in their hands. Inside Tom was shaking his head at the tragically cliché image they all made, outwardly his expression remained neutral, pleasantly indifferent.

He knew the type of men these were. Business tycoons and political leaders. They were bombarded by eager arse kissing day in and day out. They’d only spare Tom a passing glance if he proved interesting, an intriguing anomaly in their otherwise normal and boring routine of running the world.

Tom wasn’t intimidated. He harbored no doubt he was the most fascinating individual in this room, mostly for reasons he couldn’t disclose without killing them all, but that was just a minor detail. He merely needed to set the stage, line them up to knock them down.

This was going to be fun.

“Men, gather round! I have someone you absolutely must meet.”

Tom raised a dark brow, intrigued by Dolohov’s grand build up. True, the man was well plied with drink, but he also was clearly trying to endear himself to Tom.

Or he’s setting me up for something with the others…

Tom’s senses came to life, instincts roaring within him as the two men standing at the drink cart closed in. His fists clenched in his pockets, he forced his fingers to relax and drew them free, resting casually at his sides.

“This is Doctor Thomas Riddle, just got back to London. He attended Cambridge and medical school in England before traveling the world. He’s a right genius and clever sort, if you know what I mean.”

Tom smirked, looking smug and appreciative of Dolohov’s concise summary. Inwardly he was sharpening his claws against the whetstone, ready for the questions he knew were sure to follow.

“Doctor, good to meet you. Jonathan Avery,” one of the men said, pulling the cigar free of his mouth and extending a hand.

Tom met it with his own, grip steady and sure. “Pleasure. And there’s no need for formalities. Call me Riddle.”

Avery nodded once, expression pleased and curious. Tom imagined they were used to most men of their caliber demanding everyone address them by their full title. The man standing beside Avery rubbed at his sandy colored mustache, eyes roaming Tom’s figure, assessing.

“The name’s Yaxley. Corban Yaxley.” He finally lowered his hand, extending it as though in challenge.

Tom fought the urge to roll his eyes. The man was obviously easily run over by his counterparts, which explained this ghastly attempt at dominance. Tom shook his hand with a smirk, already dismissing him as useless in his mind.

His focus instead went to the two men still seated on the chairs, watching the scene unfold with guarded expressions.

This was where the power lied.

Dolohov clamped Tom on the back, making him cringe internally even as his gaze remained fixed across the room.

The longer he gazed upon the seated men the more he noticed a familial resemblance.

His heart leaped into his chest.

Could it be?

He’d been expecting a foot in the door. Not to strike gold...

“Riddle,” Dolohov began, gesturing with his drink. “May I introduce you to the infamous Lestrange brothers.”

Tom unconsciously wet his lips, pupils dilating.

One of the men tipped his head, eyes roaming Tom from bottom to top.

“Riddle…” he raised a dark brow, finally meeting his eyes. “Welcome.” He smiled, teeth gleaming in the firelight. “I’m Rabastan, this here is Rodolphus.”

The elder Lestrange released a long breath of smoke, lowering his cigar. “I’m more than capable of speaking for myself, Rab. You’re worse than Bella.”

Rabastan shrugged lighting, taking a sip from his glass, watching Tom over the rim.

“So,” he continued, licking the liquor from his top lip. “How did you meet our Dolly?”

Dolohov groaned, stepping away from Tom and making his way towards the drink cart. “Must you embarrass me in front of guests, Rabastan?”

“He usually does a good enough job of that on his own,” Avery said with a smirk, winking at Tom as though it were some inside joke between them.

“Bloody hilarious, the lot of you.” Dolohov grabbed a crystal decanter, removing the lid. “Riddle, what are you drinking?”

Tom glanced over. “Bourbon, neat. Thank you.”

Dolohov waved a hand. “None of that, now. You’re among friends, Riddle. No need to be so proper.”

“Perhaps he was instilled with a bit more manners than you,” Rodolphus said, once more facing the fire.

“You’ll have to excuse Antonin,” Yaxley sidled closer. Too close. Tom’s muscles tensed but he forced himself to remain poised and relaxed. “His mother was a gypsy who convinced his father to raise him in Westminster.”

Tom’s jaw ticked.

Westminster was an upper-class neighborhood where many of the peerage kept smaller London homes.

He forced a smirk, stomach clenching in disgust.

“What a travesty. I suppose he must be forgiven.”

Yaley laughed, clapping him on the back. Tom’s eyes twitched. Avery looked pleased as well, but Rabastan gazed upon him with an unnerving shrewdness.

“We’ve gotten off subject, as usual. How did the two of you meet?”

Dolohov crossed the floor, extending a glass of amber liquid to Tom.

“We met at the Orphanage on Bromley. Riddle’s the physician there.”

Rabastan’s eyes flashed, expression transforming into something lethal. Rodolphus reacted similarly, head snapping round, eyes narrowed dangerously. It thrilled Tom to no end.

“What the bloody hell were you doing at the orphanage?” Avery asked with clear distaste.

“I was conducting an inspection for a client.”

Tom held Rabatstan’s gaze, slowly sipping at his drink, relishing the uncertainty in the other man’s eyes as Tom refused to be shaken.

“Who the hell is your client?”

“You know I can’t tell you that, Jon.”

“Well Riddle obviously knows, he can tell me.”

“He’s a doctor, idiot, he’s bound to more secrecy than I am.”

“Secrecy must be a large part of your work,” Rodolphus cut in, causing the three men surrounding Tom to fall silent, deferring to their leader.

Tom grinned slowly, gaze calm and steady. “Naturally.”

The brothers shared a charged look, Tom could practically see the wheel’s turning behind their eyes, but his attention was pulled away as new footsteps came into the room, the gait clipped and light.

A woman.

And certainly no maid.

She wore a blood red gown, the plunging neckline revealing ample cleavage and a glittering diamond necklace, her black hair drawn up with loose stands grazing her pale neck and shoulders. Her walk was positively feline, confidence radiating from every pore, and her kohl-lined eyes were fixed upon Tom, bright and hungry.

His heart jolted. She made quite the sight.

And instantly he knew... the greatest threat yet had just entered the room.

She licked her rouge stained lips, sidling up next to one of the chairs and sitting on the arm, running her hands along the elder brother’s arm.

“Roddy, darling, you didn’t tell me we were having someone new to the house. I would have dressed up for the occasion.” She had yet to take her eyes off Tom. He watched her in turn, sensing something truly wild in his midst. A feral beast, more dangerous for its unpredictability.

“You look breathtaking as always, my treasure.” Rodolphus took her hand in his, kissing her fingertips. “May I introduce Doctor Thomas Riddle.” A beat. “He works at the girl's home on Bromley.”

The woman’s gaze narrowed, red lips parting in a wide grin that revealed dripping fangs. Tom’s spine straightened.

“How marvelous.” Her eyes gleamed as she stood, sauntering across the room with swaying hips, yet he could tell the stride came naturally to her. She put on no show for him. She was the show.

“Bellatrix Lestrange, luv.” She presented herself, voice deep, chin high and hand raising expectantly. Tom didn’t miss a beat, capturing it in his strong grip and pressing his lips to her knuckles.

Her pupils dilated rapidly, as did his own.

“Utterly charmed.” He retained his grip on her fingers. “I am honored to be in your home, Madam Lestrange.”

She tipped her head back and released a throaty laugh, causing her husband to smile indulgently even as Yaxley and Avery shifted uncomfortably, as though the noise brought them great distress.

“This little shack?” She shook her head, cleavage jostling with the movement. “This property belongs to Ethan Parkinson, dear. Roddy and I would never be caught dead buying a house in this neighborhood. Not even to hide bodies in.”

Tom released her hand with a grin. His skin burned from the acid of her touch.

He knew exactly who he was dealing with now. All the characters were introduced. The play could finally begin.

“Will Parkinson be joining us?” Dolohov asked.

“He had other business to attend to this evening. As did Travers. This is everyone,” Rabastan replied, finally standing with his empty glass held aloft.

“Where is that damned butler? If I have to refill my own drink one more bloody time-”

“I’ve instructed Perry to give us some privacy,” Rodolphus stubbed his cigar out in a crystal ashtray at his side. “You are more than capable of supplying yourself with liquor, brother, of that, I am most certain.”

Rabastan rolled his eyes but made no other comment, making his way to the drink cart.

“So, are we going to stand around chatting like a bunch of hens or are we going to get down to business?”

Tom’s heart beat faster.

“Very well, might as well get to it.” Rodolphus stood as well, cracking his neck. “Riddle, you play cards?”

Tom blinked, quickly switching gears. “I’ve been known to engage in a few games over the years.”

Bella slid to his side, grasping his arm. “Fantastic. I have a sneaking suspicion you’re an expert at most things, darling.” She winked. “Escort me to the billiards room?”

“It would be an honor.”

Tom didn’t spare a glance for her husband as they passed, but he already garnered the impression the man couldn’t care less about his wife’s blatant flirtations. She did so with such ease it was obviously a regular occurrence. Tom doubted it ever came to anything of note.

Or perhaps they had an understanding. One that he would happily exploit if needed.

The billiards room was already set up with a felt lined table in the center, another roaring fireplace in the corner.

“Will you be joining us, Madam?”

She tipped her head up, dark eyes searching his face. “Most men wouldn’t bother asking such a question, Doctor.”

“Riddle,” he corrected on instinct.

She smirked. “I think I prefer calling you Doctor. You don’t mind, do you, luv?”

He shook his head. “Not at all.”

She nodded, looking quite pleased about something he couldn’t quite place. “Alas, I will leave the gambling to the boys. I merely traipse about the room and create a rather frustrating distraction for everyone.”

He held her gaze. “I have a feeling you cause a distraction most everywhere you go.”

She laughed once more, eyes bright. “Oh, I like you.”

She squeezed his arm before releasing him and stepping away.

“I’ll let you boys play.” She walked to her husband’s side, placing a hand against his chest and perching on her tiptoes to place a chaste kiss on his cheek. Her lip rouge left behind a mark. She wiped it away with her thumb.

“Have fun, my luv.”

He smirked down at her, hand gripping her waist. “I always do.”

Tom glanced away, pulling out a chair and seating himself across from Dolohov, the chairs on either side of him empty. Rabastan took one and soon enough Rodolphus filled the other.

Sandwiched between the two most powerful men in the room.

Perhaps they meant to intimidate him.

Tom couldn’t be more pleased.

“Are you familiar with poker, Riddle?” Rabastan asked, withdrawing a pack of cards from a compartment beneath the table.

“The American game?”

Yaxley laughed, twirling the ice in his glass. “Those bloody yanks may be heathens but they’ve certainly got their vices down to an art form.”

“Actually, the game derives from an ancient card game played by a tenth-century Chinese emperor.”

Everyone looked to Tom. He smirked. “Apologies. I am simply brimming with useless information.”

The men all laughed. His chest swelled.

“I find anything relating to the fine art of gambling hardly useless,” Rabastan opened the deck, shaking free the cards and beginning a skilled shuffle.

“So, tell us more about your job, Riddle. I find it remarkably fascinating,” Avery spoke around his cigar.

Tom drew back in his chair, posture impeccable, naturally mirroring those around him.

“I am sure you encounter far more interesting things in your day than tending the sick.”

“Avery owns a chain of steel mills. I assure you, he doesn’t.”

“It’s a hell of a lot more fascinating that owning a paper mill,” the man shot back defensively. Yaxley rolled his eyes, seemingly unaffected by the slight.

“Gentlemen. Behave.” Rodolphus took a drink. “Tell us, Riddle, what is it like working and living around so many young women?”

Tom took a steady breath.

This was it.

The moment that would set the tone for the remainder of the conversation.

And finalize his position on the board.

He opened his mouth, but before he could utter a word a loud knock sounded at the front door, echoing through the marble entryway and into the room.

Everyone turned their heads.

“I thought you said we weren’t expecting anyone else?”

“We aren’t.” Rodolphus pushed back in his chair, standing. “Just a moment, lads, I’ll return shortly.”

Tom’s jaw clenched.

The bloody interruption cost him the crucial moment. He’d have to carefully reconstruct the opportunity once more.

He was pulled from his seething thoughts by the sound of Rodolphus’s boisterous laughter.

“Come on, come say hello to the others.”

“I would rather not.”

“They haven't seen you in ages. Just drop in for a quick-”

“I’d rather you sign the papers so we can both get back to our evening.”

“Nonsense. I’ll sign as soon as you come inside.”

“Fucking hell.”

“That’s the spirit.”

Tom raised a brow.

The sound of footsteps followed, two sets. Rodolphus entered the room, followed by a very reluctant and irate looking young man that had the chiseled features and perpetual disdain of a true blue blood.

Tom had already dismissed the pretty creature as another useless aristocrat when Rabastan sprang to his feet beside him, quickly crossing the room with his arms outstretched.

“There’s my nephew! Where the hell have you been hiding?”

The blonde cringed but accepted the staggering embrace, glaring at the ceiling. “Under a rock.”

“Ha!” Rodolphus clapped the man on the back. “Say hi to the boys.”

The stranger shrugged out of Rabastan’s grip. “Hi to the boys.”

“Smart arse.”

“Stay for a round of cards, Drake. We’re playing poker, your favorite.”

“I really must be going. I just need Rod’s signature on these papers and I’m free from my father’s wrath for the evening.”

“I’ll sign them once you play a round.”

The blonde rolled his eyes. “You said you’d sign them if I said hello to everyone!”

Rodolphus laughed, eyes shifting to Tom.

“Riddle, I’d like for you to meet my nephew, Draco Malfoy.”

Tom nodded politely. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Malfoy looked supremely uninterested. “Mutual, I’m sure.” Then his pale gaze shifted to the man towering at his side. He shoved papers into the center of his uncle’s chest, the gesture reminiscent of what Hermione had done to Tom the previous night.

The sudden memory made his temperature rise. He shifted in his seat, pushing the thought aside, needing to maintain focus, control.

Rodolphus took the papers with a heavy sigh. “Bloody waste of youth, you are.”

Malfoy smirked without humor. “I’ll fetch you a pen.”

“No need.” Tom withdrew a pen from his inner coat lining, holding it aloft. “Use mine.”

Malfoy blinked, looking hesitant for the space of a heartbeat before crossing the room.

“Cheers, mate.”

Tom nodded, covertly examining the young man up close. He was handsome, dressed in the finest of clothing, and carried himself with the casual grace of a man raised with private tutors and etiquette coaches.

Tom detested him.

But he didn’t hate him. The difference may have been a fine one, but it was the line between life and death all the same.

The blonde accepted the pen and turned back around.

“Well if you’re not going to offer us any entertainment, we’ll have to rely on Riddle’s stories,” Rabastan said offhandedly, making his way back to the table. “He’s the doctor at the girl's home on Bromley.”

And then the most curious thing happened.

The young man froze in his tracks, shoulders going rigid.

Tom raised a brow, surely he wasn’t the only one who noticed the man’s strange reaction…

But no one seemed to pay the blonde any mind. Rabastan retook his chair, grabbing the deck of cards. Rodolphus scribbled his name at the bottom of whatever legal document he held, and Tom was left to study the boy alone.

Malfoy slowly turned around, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. His pale gaze fixed upon Tom.

“You work where?”

Tom’s body thrummed.

Fascinating.

Perhaps he isn’t an innocent child after all.

“I’m the physician at the Umbridge Home for Girls.”

The blonde blinked, drawing to his full height. His eyes darkened, expression turning dangerous, so very much like his aunt’s Tom instantly knew where his blood relation lied.

“On second thought,” Malfoy took a step forward. “I’ve got time for a quick round.”

“That’s the spirit!” Dolohov shouted, raising his glass in the air and spilling some over the side. Rodolphus shouted his enthusiasm as well, but the object of their celebration hardly seemed aware of their presence.

Instead, his eyes remained fastened on Tom, even as he slid into the chair directly opposite his. The intensity of the young man’s expression was almost enough to put him on edge.

Almost.

Instead, Tom felt his curiosity reach a new peak. This last-minute addition to the group was proving far more fascinating than all the other players combined.

Tom barely registered the cards being dealt across the table.

“Alright, gentlemen.” Rabastan clapped his hands together, eyes bright. “Let’s play.”


Harry awoke to the sound of a scream.

He jolted, banging his head on something hard.

“Oh! Fuck!”

He blinked rapidly, gazing around in confusion, senses slowly returning. He spun to face the woman on the bed as she scrambled backward with terror-filled eyes.

“Susan! Calm down! It’s me!”

He pulled himself to his feet, holding his hands up non threateningly. She finally fell silent though her mouth remained open, shock palpable.

“H-Harry?” her voice was thick, raspy. She wet her lips, blinking.

Harry reached for the glass of water beside the bed, holding it out. “Here, drink this.”

Her eyes flickered rapidly between the glass and his emerald gaze. “Harry?”

He sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Bloody hell, drink the water, Susan.”

She reluctantly took the offering, downing half the contents in one go. She gasped for air afterward, eyes more focused.

“Where am I?”

He sat on the edge of the bed, one foot still on the floor. “Grimmauld.”

Her eyes widened, but before she could respond there was a knock on the door. Harry’s heart leaped into his throat as he quickly sprinted across the room. Susan scrambled off the bed, getting tangled in the coverlet and toppling to the floor.

“Ow shite!”

“Shut up!” he hissed over his shoulder, turning back to face the door.

“Yeah?” he called out.

“I heard a woman scream. Thought I’d do my parental due diligence and check in.”

Harry closed his eyes, shaking his head.

“It was me. I saw a spider.”

He could hear the smirk in his godfather’s voice. “That I can almost believe. But I also heard you talking to someone.”

Harry rubbed his throbbing temples. “I was giving myself a pep talk before killing it.”

“I see. Well, that all sounds very reasonable.”

He glanced back. Susan covered her mouth with her hands, eyes wide and pleading.

“So…” Sirius continued from the other side. “Any chance the spider survived and will go on to press charges for kidnapping and battery?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “I already dismembered the body, I’ll bury each of the legs in a separate location, make it harder for the cops to piece together.”

“Good lad.” A pregnant pause. “Carry on then. Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Finally, the sound of footsteps retreated down the hall and to the stairs.

Harry thwacked his forehead into the door.

“Fuck. This. Day.”

“More like fuck this week, I’d say,” Susan whispered, slowly rising from the floor. “Will Lord Black say anything?”

Harry shook his head, turning to face her. “No, he may not know how to act discreet but he’s the best secret keeper you’ll ever meet.”

She nodded slowly, crawling back onto the bed after tipping sideways. He narrowed his eyes.

“How are you feeling?”

She moaned low in her throat. “Like a maggot living on an animal carcass left in the sun to rot and decay.”

He raised a brow. “Very poetic.”

“I have my moments.”

He slowly drew near, hands in his pockets. “Is it normal for you to wake up in a stranger's bed?”

She scowled. “You aren’t a stranger.”

“You know what I mean. You seem remarkably at ease.”

“I assume you brought me here from the den, arsehole.” She attempted to roll her eyes but seemed to get dizzy midway through. “Ow, goddammit…” she clutched her stomach. “Shite. I think I’m going to be sick.”

Harry’s eyes widened. “Fuck. Hang on!”

He ran to the corner and grabbed a waste tin, leaping over an ottoman and skidding to the bed just in time to shove the basket under her face.

She opened her mouth and spilled the meager contents of her stomach. Harry cringed, turning around to afford her some privacy, feeling his own stomach clench at the sound of her dry heaving.

“Bloody hell…” she whispered, panting lightly. “I’m sorry. Doesn’t usually get this bad.”

Harry swallowed thickly, glancing over his shoulder.

“How often are you smoking?”

She closed her eyes, setting the basket on the floor beside her.

“Why am I here, Harry?”

His jaw ticked, but he let her navigate around the question. For now.

“I needed to speak with you. I visited your house but you weren’t-”

“You went to my house!” She lurched forward. “Did my father see you?”

Harry shook his head. “Relax. No one was home but the maid. She told me you were out. I hazarded a guess as to where you might be.”

She scowled. “If my father finds out I had a gentleman caller-”

“I didn’t give my name. If the maid tells him and he asks just say I’m a salesman. Or better yet, a Jehovah’s witness.”

She fell back into the mattress, head plopping on the pillows. “Christ.”

“Funny, those were my thoughts exactly as I was carrying your unconscious body from the smoke-filled back alley club.”

“Don’t lecture me, Potter.”

“So I’m Potter now, huh?” He walked to the other side of the bed, flopping down beside her, leaning against the headboard.

“I can call you a meddling bastard if you’d prefer?”

He smirked. “I get enough of that from my friends, think I’ll stick with Harry if it’s all the same to you.”

She covered her eyes with her palms. “It’s so bloody bright in here.”

“Deal with it.”

“I can’t stand you right now.”

“Well you’ll have to put up with me a bit longer I’m afraid, I have some questions for you.”

“Bloody Christ.” She buried her head in the covers. “You always have questions for me.”

“What can I say, you’re a regular fountain of information.”

“I don’t know anything else, Po-

“Lavender is dead.”

She went rigid at his side, slowly peering up from the blankets. She blinked, then drew herself upright.

“I’m sorry.” She bit her lip. “That was her they found in the river, then?”

Harry nodded, shoulders heavy. “Yes. She was murdered.”

Susan closed her eyes, sighing deeply. “Shite.”

Harry studied her closely. “How did you know they found her body in the first place?”

She glanced at him in confusion. “I already told you, I overheard one of the officers telling my father.”

“At the station?”

She nodded. Harry tipped his head. “You were visiting him at work?”

She blinked. “No. I work there also.”

His heart skipped a beat. “At the Scotland Yard?”

“I’m a part-time receptionist for the CID.”

He wet his lips, leaning in.

“That’s brilliant.”

She drew back, brows drawn. “Why?”

“Because I need your help getting the investigation opened.”

She swallowed heavily. “Look, Harry, I want to help but-”

“Susan, you know as well as I do Lavender’s case is going to be swept under the rug if we don’t do something.”

She ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t know what you expect of me. I’m just a secretary-”

“Your father leads the department.”

“For large-scale crime rings, not one-off murders.”

He took a deep breath. “What if we could prove her murder is linked to something bigger, something more sinister?”

She eyed him wearily. “Is it?”

He glanced away, staring at a random spot on the wall as his mind raced.

“I’m starting to think this goes deeper than any of us can imagine.”

Susan drew her knees up, wrapping her arms around her legs and leaned into the headboard beside him.

“Are there other murders linked to hers?”

He blinked.

Bloody hell…

“Bloody hell.” He looked at her sharply, eyes bright. “You have access to records?”

She shook her head. “Oh no, don’t even think of asking me to do that, Harry.”

“The evidence is sitting right under your nose, Susan. If you can find even one case that is remotely related to Lavender’s then I can follow up on the leads and-”

“Get yourself killed.” She shook her head. “No way, I’m not getting involved in this shite. It could ruin both our lives and my father’s career if we’re caught.”

Harry narrowed his eyes, suspecting the pleading route wouldn’t sway her as it would Hermione. This girl had no emotional connection to him.

But they did share one vital connection…

“You owe me, Susan.”

Her eyes widened to saucers. “Excuse me?”

“I kept my mouth shut with Ron.”

She scoffed indelicately, rearing back. “Are you bloody mad? I brought you information about Lavender in exchange for your silence!”

“Yeah, and that was well and fine when you were just flirting casually with him, but now you’ve gone and made the idiot fall in love with you.”

She blinked, mouth clamping shut. Harry groaned, instantly regretting his underhanded tactics.

“Fuck, forget I said-”

“He loves me?’

He rubbed at his forehead, the pressure headache hitting an all-time peak.

Maybe it’s not just Malfoy that causes them…

Still, better to blame the pompous arse.

She gazed forward, face tense.

“He loves me…”

Harry dropped his head back, skull cracking against the headboard.

“Yeah.”

She sighed. “We only just met.”

“Ron’s a hopeless romantic.” He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “I take it you aren’t head over heels?”

She wet her lips nervously. “I like him. A lot. He’s sweet and always tries so hard to impress me. I’m not used to blokes being so... “ she shook her head. “I’m not used to nice guys I guess.”

Harry nodded. “I know the feeling.”

She glanced at him. “Pardon?”

“Nevermind.”

She gazed forward once more. “But we’ve only known each other for-”

“Four days.”

She blinked. “Shite. Is that all it’s been?”

“Susan.” She stiffened. “If you’re just looking for something casual, please be honest with him. He wears his heart on his sleeve and it’ll be easier to let him down easy now than drawing this out any longer.”

She rubbed at her chest. “I… I don’t want to let him down easy. I like spending time with him.”

Harry watched her carefully. “If you stay with him, I’ll have to tell him.”

She turned to face him, eyes pleading.

“Harry, please don’t. I can’t bear for him to look at me like I’m some sort of… some sort of…” She closed her eyes. “I just couldn’t take it.”

“He’s my best mate. I can’t keep this secret from him.”

Her eyes snapped open, bright with intent.

“What if I help find the files for you?”

Harry’s stomach knotted. “I don’t want-”

“I know, you’re not the type to blackmail someone.” She paused. “On second thought, you probably are, but you’re too much of a gentleman to blackmail a woman.”

Harry raised a brow. “Fair enough.”

“If I search for cases relating to Lavender's will you promise not to say anything to Ron?”

Harry sighed deeply, pulse thrumming.

“As tempting an offer as it is, I can’t take any deal that results in me lying to my friend.”

She swallowed thickly, glancing away in defeat. Harry rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“But…” She glanced up with hopeful eyes. “I suppose I can keep my mouth shut if you promise to tell him yourself when you feel the time is right.”

She bit her lip. He pinned her with an intense glare. “And I don’t mean ten years from now after you’re married with five kids.”

She blinked. “Bloody hell, that’s a bit excessive, no?”

“Ron’s got five brothers and a sister.”

She paled, glancing away. “Jesus.”

“Do we have a deal?”

She was silent for a few tense beats before nodding slowly. “Yes, I suppose that’s better than nothing.”

Harry watched her several moments longer before speaking again, muscles tense.

“I have another request for you, relating to the case.”

That part wasn’t necessarily true, but it would save him from questions he wasn’t prepared to answer.

She looked at him wearily. “What is it?”

He inhaled slowly through his nose. “I want you to see what you can find out about Doctor Thomas Riddle.”

She tipped her head. “Is he involved?”

“I just need you to tell me if there’s anything in the records about him.”

She nodded, resigned to her fate.

“You were right.” She collapsed once more against the headboard. “Fuck this day.”


Hermione rubbed at her tired eyes, vision blurry as she combed through the messy scrawl of yet another resident file.

She leaned back in the chair, shoulders tight with tension after hours of sitting in the same position. She gazed at the meager stack of completed papers to her left, then to the ominous stacks lining the four walls.

She closed her eyes, tipping her head back.

This was going to take weeks, months even.

I need to work faster…

She rubbed absently at a sore muscle in her neck.

You can’t rush this. If you miss the finer details what’s the point to any of it?

She opened her eyes, staring blankly at the ceiling while another image took shape in her mind.

The Doctor’s face looked like the cat that caught the canary as she agreed to help him in his mysterious crusade.

“Tell me what to do,” she had said, so full of righteous anger.

She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but his reply certainly wasn’t it.

“I need you to go through the records, determine which ones have been altered, which ones are classified as Suitable.”

She blinked, shoulder dropping.

“You seem disappointed, Ms. Granger.”

“I…” she wet her lips, shaking her head. “No, I just…”

“You were expecting something more radical?”

The candlelight danced in his eyes. She took a steadying breath, the fire cooling in her veins.

“It just seems you already have a handle on examining the records.”

He tipped his chin up. “It’s time-consuming. And I still have a job to do during the day. Being the sole physical of all the residents takes up every free moment. I try to devote the majority of my evenings to research but it’s been slow going.”

She nodded. That made sense, she supposed. Still…

“What exactly are you looking for?”

“Commonalities between the girls who went missing. We need to find out why they were deemed Suitable.”

Her hands clenched at her sides. “I take it the previous physician is the one who deemed them as such?”

“Yes.”

She waited for him to continue, the silence unnerving. She pushed forward, finally asking the question that was eating away inside her, echoing through her head like a bat in a cave.

“What do you plan on doing once you find the information you’re looking for?”

He wet his lips, smiling slowly. The predatory look didn’t frighten her as it once would have.

And yet her lack of fear was what caused her to take a step back.

What’s happening to me?

His answer was frustratingly vague, and yet everything she had been expecting.

“We shall cross the bridge when we come to it, Hermione.”

And here she sat, in his cramped, overfilled, makeshift office, going through file after file, eyes burning and head throbbing. The Doctor had told her he was running an errand that evening.

When she shot him an accusing glare he had simply said it was relating to the investigation and then strode into his chambers, closing the door behind him with finality. She reluctantly entered the office, taking a seat and starting her slow and diligent work.

He’d emerged from the room several minutes later, dressed to the nines. Her heart had leaped into her throat, and an inane, ridiculous thought entered her mind, louder than all the others.

Is he meeting a woman?

She blinked, mortified and angry with herself.

She justified her reaction by thinking of how irresponsible it would be for him to head out on a date while he left her the insurmountable task of painstakingly combing through each file.

She certainly wasn’t jealous. Merely curious. What part of the investigation required him to look like a member of the peerage?

She had bit her tongue as he swept past without a glance or parting word, eyes fixed ahead as he casually buttoned his expensive coat. It fit him perfectly, contouring the angles of his broad shoulders and tapering down to his narrow waist.

Hermione pulled her gaze away, blushing, and buried herself in her work.

Time went by quickly as she got the hang of things, learning what to look for, then it crept by torturously slow as it all bled together. She caught herself having to reread information twice, sometimes even three times.

She rubbed her eyes. Curfew was soon. He had given her strict instructions not to break it. Being caught in the halls after hours would risk exposing their room of stolen documents.

Hermione faced the desk once more, slowly gathering papers into a neat stack when a shadow passed by the room, causing the candle to flicker. Hermione glanced up sharply, heart stuttering.

She didn’t hear any footsteps approach and had done her utmost to remain silent throughout her work. The office was located deep in an abandoned wing, he had assured her no one ventured down this far, most of the rooms sealed for storage.

Umbridge knows about this wing. So does Filch.

She scrambled out of her chair.

Unless the Doctor is back?

She quickly dismissed the notion. He had only left a few hours ago and had assured her he would be back late, not to wait up.

But why didn’t I hear the sound of her heels or Filch’s dragging gait?

She took a tentative step forward, hoping it was merely a resident, a girl looking for a place to hide out, maybe engage in drink or smoke. Hermione could talk her way out of discovery if that were the case. Maybe bribe them if reasoning didn’t work.

She hovered at the door. It was open ajar, she couldn’t bear closing it all the way, but now she cursed her stupid phobia, no doubt the candlelight cast across the opposite wall had attracted whoever was in the hall.

I can’t hide in here forever. Curfew will be soon. Better to face whoever it is and figure out the severity of the situation.

It was strangely comforting to rationalize her way through something, the majority of her day had shaped out to be a study in insanity.

She held her breath and opened the door.

The bit of hallway directly in front of her was empty. She stepped over the threshold, glancing in either direction.

She saw no one.

But a cold breeze stole past, blowing her loose curls back and rustling her skirts.

She blinked, peering down the dark expanse of corridor to the windows at the far end.

One of them appeared to be open.

She remembered Cormac climbing out of a similar window, falling into the shrubs below.

The memory felt far away, faded, from another lifetime.

When Lavender had been alive. Vibrant. Tangible.

She pressed a hand to her chest, the familiar ache returning, and quickly made her way down the hall. She darted to the window, shutting it before the cool draft attracted Filch’s attention.

The moon was bright, a waxing crescent, the stars dimly visible through the murky pollution filling the London air. She missed her family trips to the countryside. They often went with the Potters, the two families sharing an estate near the seaside for a few weeks each summer.

At night she and Harry would lay in the grass and stare up at the cosmos, bright and clear as the midday sun. They’d trace the constellations, Hermione detailing the legends behind each one while Harry inserted clever remarks that served to frustrate and humor her in equal measure.

Their days were filled with exploring the caves and local wildlife. Harry would pick up just about any creature that didn’t outright try to kill him. Hermione would gather plants and fossils in her skirts, eager to share her bounty with her father when they returned home.

When the water was calm enough, Harry would dive backward off the cliff’s edge and she would shriek in terror until his head of soaked, messy hair would emerge, emerald gaze sparkling with mirth as he teased her mercilessly about being too afraid to jump in after him.

But she never mustered the courage to jump from the cliff, even the lower ones. Hermione was perfectly content with sitting on the dock and letting her bare feet and calves take the plunge while she read a book, hair loose around her shoulders, lightened by the bright sun.

The memory was so vivid, so real, she actually heard the sea around her, the gentle lapping of the waves, the chorus of gulls overhead, and if she held her breath she could even hear her mother’s laughter in the distance…

A floorboard creaked behind her, shattering the illusion.

Hermione spun, eyes wide.

The shadows at either end of the intersecting hall were opaque, an inky black mass that breathed and undulated. She took an instinctive step back as the darkness seemed to grow, to spread along the walls, swallowing picture frames and molding, flowing tentacles reaching out for her.

She stumbled back down the hall she came from, desperate to return to the candlelight, the familiar stacks of paper.

She froze.

The hairs on her arms and neck stood on end as she felt the unmistakable presence of someone at her back.

And then she felt the gust of breath ghost across her neck and down the fabric of her loose collar.

She closed her eyes, the rational part of her mind shutting down, giving way for the impossible to take root.

Hermione knew what awaited her on the other side, but she was too far gone with terror to even think of running.

She slowly turned around.

And swallowed thickly at the sight before her.

She had been braced for the worst. A mangled corpse. A flayed body. Another eyeless visage.

But the girl staring back at her appeared peaceful. Unmarred. Normal.

Aside from the fact she was levitating a foot off the ground.

Hermione gazed down at the girl’s bare feet, suspended over the hallway runner by some unseen force.

She was so overwhelmed with shock that she came out the other end, gazing back up at the girl’s face, level with her own, and speaking without thought.

“You’ve lost your shoes.”

Hermione blinked, her own words registering a moment after she said them, but before she had the opportunity to smack herself in the forehead, or scream bloody murder, the ghostly apparition tipped her head and smiled.

For some inexplicable reason, Hermione found the gesture comforting. Her chest loosened. The girl’s serene expression revealed just how young she was. Perhaps not even a teenager. Her long hair floated around her as though underwater, gently swaying in an invisible current.

Her skin was deathly pale, nearly translucent. The dark circles beneath her sunken eyes revealed all Hermione needed to know about her living status, in case the levitation was merely a fancy parlor trick.

Hermione wet her lips, shock and adrenaline separating her mouth from her mind.

“Are you a ghost or hallucination?”

The girl tipped her head the other way, smile still in place.

“Can you speak?”

Suddenly the girl was floating backward, further along down the hall, closer to the ominous darkness.

And for some insane reason Hermione didn’t stop to ponder but would later berate herself for, she took a step after the girl, reaching out.

“Wait! Don’t go!”

The girl stopped her retreat, still facing Hermione.

And then she lifted a frail, pale arm.

And beckoned her to follow.

Hermione’s heart skipped a beat. She felt dizzy.

The girl rotated mid-air, facing away and continue her path down the corridor.

She disappeared into the darkness.

Hermione sucked in a breath, tears in her eyes.

And ran after her.

What am I doing?

It was the last rational thought she remembered having that night.

As she entered the oppressive darkness she felt the air around her drop in temperature, gooseflesh breaking out along her arms.

She stepped forward and soon emerged into a beam of moonlight from the next set of windows.

The girl was ahead, face averted away, but she kept pace with Hermione, the distance between them remaining constant as Hermione trotted down the long hallway, plunging herself into pools of shadow and moonlight as she went.

And then the girl stopped at the wall, finally turning to face Hermione once more.

Hermione blinked in confusion, adrenaline lacing her system.

The hallway was empty, seemingly ordinary. Had she misunderstood the instructions?

“What do you want?”

The girl merely tipped her head again, eyes guileless and expression serene. She reminded her a bit of Luna. The comparison unnerved her deeply.

Hermione took a tentative step forward, opening her mouth to speak again-

And the girl floated into the wall, disappearing from sight.

Hermione reared back, gasping.

Her senses returned to her all at once, whatever strange force that propelled her to blindly follow the apparition wearing off.

She covered her mouth with her hands, horrified. She started to back away rapidly, needing to get away, go anywhere, see anyone, just as long as she wasn’t here-

She stopped mid-step, stumbling.

Then blinked rapidly before narrowing her eyes.

The wall paneling.

There was a gap.

She swallowed.

Who cares! Get. Out. Of. Here.

And yet she was stepping forward on shaky knees, breath trapped in her throat.

She ran a hand over the wood veneer. It felt cool the touch, but otherwise normal. No skeletal hand emerged to drag her through. She traced the seem in the wall, the gap was definitely there, but it was too narrow for her to get her fingers under.

She bit her lip, trying to pry it open with her nails, but it wouldn’t budge.

She stepped back, gazing at the wall, mind racing.

It’s a hidden door.

She released a slow breath as she spoke the realization in her mind.

And suddenly, a puzzle stood before her.

One she was determined to solve.

Chapter Text

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

.   .   .

Draco ran the tip of his index finger over the sharp edge of the Jack of Spades, head tipped down and eyes pinned to the man seated across the felt lined table.

The Doctor.

He took a deep breath, trying to maintain an air of calm despite his racing heart and mind.

He works at the Home.

Draco still couldn't get his head around it. What were the bloody chances?

Why is he here?

He leaned back with easy grace, his mannerisms born from generations of finely tuned idiosyncrasy.

"Place your bets, men."

Rabastan took on the role of dealer, the most adept at shuffling and maneuvering with a slight of hand that bordered on pure magic itself. Draco knew the man had a serious gambling addiction stemming from his youth, no doubt giving way to decades of harnessed skill.

Of course, the gentry would never label it such. The aristocracy refused to acknowledge such vices until they impeded on financial assets, in which case they referred to a man's hardship as the result of a poor investment or some other economic downturn.

Seeing as the Lestrange family was third in wealth only behind the Crown and Draco's own family, destitution posed no great threat. Therefore, as was publically known, Rabastan didn't have a gambling problem. He had a fervent pastime.

The fact that he was choosing to deal cards rather than engage in the actual game was quite remarkable, at least to Draco. No one else seemed surprised by the turn of events, which only perturbed the young blonde more.

Something about this entire evening is off.

Why did his father insist Draco hand deliver the legal documents to his Uncle on a Friday evening? The magistrate's office was closed over the weekend. When Draco tried to argue the point his father had sent him a bone-chilling look of finality, reminding him who was in charge of the family coin purse, and if Draco hoped to see another pence to his name he would deliver the documents without further protest.

He resented his father more each day. Always dangling a bit of silver over his head, just out of reach, taunting.

And yet Draco caved each time.

Ever the obedient son.

The loyal lap dog.

His left eye twitched at the mere thought of his father, perched in his study with a pipe dangling from the corner of his mouth, naught a care in the world.

Draco blinked as he realized the room had fallen silent. All eyes were on him.

"You with us, Drake?"

Draco's gaze narrowed. "Call."

He tossed his chips into the pot with little care. He'd picked up an unhealthy obsession with cards as well. He'd like to blame it on some hereditary dysfunction but he wasn't related to Lestrange by blood. Still, Hermione had once argued with him on the topic, scolding him for his rampant patronage to the gambling dens of the east side. She'd claimed environmental factors played just as much, if not more of a contributing factor to vices developed later in life.

She'd been so passionate on the subject, so filled with self-righteous fury. She was utterly breathtaking. He'd argued the point simply to see her cheeks flush, her hazel eyes glow from within, the moonlight reflecting off the Thames at her back as they stood beside the embankment, hidden from view of the party they'd escaped.

He'd silenced her with a kiss. He'd never admit it aloud, but he loved to hear her lecture him on one triviality or another, simply for the excuse to press his hungry mouth against hers, descending rapidly into clawing hands and snapping teeth, animals breaking free from the constraints of their human skin.

He swallowed thickly.

Bloody hell. How do I always bring it back to her?

It's like a sickness of the mind...

He adjusted in his chair, the room stifling, desperately trying to push the image of her stern set lips from his mind, flexing his hand beneath the table to erase the sensation of her soft curls gliding between his fingers.

He glanced up.

And his blood ran cold.

The Doctor was watching him with an eerie intensity, that when paired with his absolute stillness made him a disconcerting sight indeed.

And once more, Hermione's face took root in his mind.

This man lives under the same roof as her.

His spine straightened, muscles tense.

"Doctor." He tipped his head, casually examining the man from mid-torso to eye. "How long have you worked at the Umbridge Home?"

The man raised a dark brow, the corner of his mouth lifting up as though the question amused him. Draco clenched his teeth.

"Only a couple weeks now."

"And before that?"

"I was practicing medicine in France before returning to London."

"France, eh?" Avery spoke around his cigar. "I hear French women are practically begging for it in the streets there."

"Bloody hell, Jon," Rodolphus narrowed his eyes. "You're like a dog in heat."

"Just making conversation-"

"So," Draco interrupted, eyes never straying from the man seated directly across from him. "How did you make my uncle's acquaintance in such a short time?"

"He made my acquaintance," Dolohov said, eyes on his cards. "I was fortunate enough to meet the good Doctor while visiting a client."

Draco's eyes snapped to Antonin, a handsome, slimy sort that always unnerved Draco.

"I didn't realize you did pro bono work."

Dolohov threw his head back and laughed, as did Yaxley and Avery. Draco raised a pale brow.

"Come now, Drake, you know me better than that. I'm merely handling the estate of a young woman who resides there. It's my duty to check in from time to time, make sure she's being looked after properly."

"I'm sure it is," Rabastan said with a roll of his eyes. "Alright, gents, let's-"

"Who's your client?" Draco leaned forward, the game forgotten.

Dolohov knew the Grangers. Draco never discussed such matters with Hermione, but it would make sense they'd use the man as their solicitor. Draco assumed after their deaths Hermione's case was turned over to a public magistrate since she was unable to access her funds until marriage.

But if Dolohov had maintained controlling rights…

The idea of the man keeping Hermione under thumb made Draco's chest quake.

"You know I can't disclose such information, Drake."

He felt his temperature rise, blood boiling in his veins.

"Can we at least pretend we're playing poker? Everyone place your bets." Rabastan snapped.

Draco swallowed back the steam rising in his throat. He'd find out tomorrow, at the party. He'd get time alone with her, whether he had to drag her kicking and screaming-

"Fucking hell, Draco, get your head on straight, won't you? It's your bet."

His left eye twitched as he gazed upon the community cards, fighting back the base urge to flip the table over in frustration.

"Raise."

"Now we're playing!" Yaxley clapped his hands together, face ruddy with drink.

"What are you doing here anyway, Drake?" Antonin cut in, picking up his glass. "What urgent matters did Lucius need attending to on a Friday evening?"

Draco picked at the corner of his card with his thumbnail.

"Hell if I know. I'm just the future heir, not to be trusted with matters of business."

Rodolphus chuckled, blowing smoke. "Don't pretend Lucius doesn't try and groom you at every turn. You just resist him at all costs."

"Then why did he seal the envelope?"

"Because he likes stamping that gaudy 'M' on everything," Rabastan mumbled beneath his breath, causing Avery to sputter up his drink.

"It's a petition against the Medical Act if you must know." Rodolphus placed his cards down, leaning back. "Your father is leading the opposition, he's collecting support before he presents his argument before the Committee."

Draco leaned back as well, the blood draining from his face. Before he could formulate a response the Doctor spoke up, posture at ease.

"This is the Medical Act Gurney presented two years ago?"

Rodolphus nodded, sipping from his lowball glass. "Yes. It's undergone several revisions since then, mind you. But it's finally going to be laid to rest in the coming weeks."

"I take it you're all in opposition of it then?"

A general chorus of laughter could be heard around the table, excluding Draco and the Doctor.

"Women parading as doctors? Can you even imagine?" Yaxley coughed out a plume of smoke.

"You're a medical man, Riddle. Surely you find the entire idea ludicrous." Dolohov raised a dark brow, amusement etched across his features. "Women are temperamental creatures, controlled by the whims of their emotions. Not to mention their delicate constitutions. Can you imagine one of them wielding a scalpel?"

Draco blinked as something in the Doctor's eyes flashed, scorching as hell flame. Dolohov seemed to notice it as well, leaning back in his chair, putting more distance between them.

Then the Doctor smiled, teeth white and gleaming. "I imagine such a scene would end in fantastic bloodshed."

Antonin swallowed thickly, then smiled as well, a bit nervously. However, the other men at the table seemed to find his response wildly amusing. Draco felt his stomach clench in revulsion.

It was impossible to push Hermione from his mind now. This bill was everything to her. Her entire future in the medical field.

And his father was leading the charge against it.

How could Draco not have known?

Lucius had kept the knowledge from him purposefully. But why? Could it have to do with her? How could his father possibly know her desire to become a doctor?

Both her parents were in the medical field, it's not that far off to assume she'd follow in their footsteps…

Draco took a deep breath, willing himself to calm.

And realized the Doctor's eyes were once more upon him.

His open-mouthed smile had fallen into a smirk, but a shadow passed across his eyes and turned his expression truly sinister. He and Draco were the only two not laughing. Their gazes remained locked, and tension grew to sweltering proportions.

"Riddle, it's your bet."

The Doctor didn't blink, didn't glance away from Draco.

"Call."

And suddenly Draco was able to decipher the intense gaze.

It was a challenge.

Draco's spine went ramrod straight, chin tipping up.

On some instinctive level, he knew this had nothing to do with the game. He just wasn't sure what the man was attempting to lay claim to.

Perhaps my pedigree. Men always resent me for my name and title.

No.

The man's gaze held no jealousy, no covetous envy Draco was so used to seeing.

It held something more feral. More base.

Almost as if…

Draco's eye twitched once more.

You're being paranoid.

"I'm out." Yaxley threw his cards onto the table face up, leaning back in a slump and draining the rest of his drink in one heavy swallow.

"Me as well. And I need a refill." Avery followed suit, pushing back from the table.

"Oi! Get me one while you're up." Yaxley held his glass aloft only for Avery to scoff loudly.

"Get off your fat arse and get it yourself!"

Rodolphus shook his head, leveling Riddle with a sardonic expression.

"My apologies. They were raised in the stables of the West End."

"And where about do you descend from?" Draco interjected, detecting the sudden rigid lines of the Doctor's back and shoulders.

The man smirked yet again, though Draco could see a mask was firmly in place this time, erasing the vicious repose from moments before.

"Funny you should ask. I-"

A heavy knock sounded at the front door. Everyone turned their head to look.

"Bloody hell, who is it now?" Avery grumbled, pouring more liquor into his glass.

"We must have left the sign out on the front lawn inviting every wayward drifter inside. No offense, Drake."

Draco didn't spare Yaxley a glance. "Seeing as my pocket square is worth more than your entire suit I take no offense."

The object of his scorn turned red while Rabstan and Antonin burst into laughter.

The butler could be heard crossing the wood floor to the billiards room, knocking softly on the door frame. Rodolphus scowled.

"Christ." He threw his cards onto the table. "I'm out anyway. Keep going, I'll return shortly."

Draco couldn't help but watch his Uncle cross the room with a sense of rising dread. Any other additions to this little party were sure to be just as awful as the current company.

The Doctor excluded. He didn't have the lemming quality of Yaxley or Avery or the oily demeanor of Dolohov. And yet comparing him to either of his Uncles was perhaps the greatest condemnation of all.

So far, the man was wholly unique. And wholly unnerving.

Then Rodolphus's scathing voice filled the room, causing the rest to abandon any pretense of paying attention to the game.

"What the fuck are you doing here? I told you never to never seek me out in the open again-"

"I'm not here for you," a deep, gravelly voice replied. "I was summoned."

Draco tensed. The voice was hauntingly familiar.

"By who?" Rodolphus bit out, voice echoing through the entryway.

"By that lawyer ponce."

Antonin adjusted in his seat, his expression caught halfway between embarrassment and annoyance.

"You didn't," Rabastan hissed. "You aren't that bloody stupid."

"There's no cause for concern-"

"You invite that animal into this neighborhood and you don't think it's a cause for concern? How fucking desperate are you?"

Dolohov's jaw flexed. "You certainly weren't complaining when it was for you-"

"Shut your fucking mouth and go get rid of him. Immediately."

Dolohov pushed back from the table in a fit of aggravation and stormed to the doorway, Rodolphus appearing just as he was leaving.

"You have got to be joking-"

"Your brother already gave me an earful."

"Then I'll bash you upside the head."

"What was I supposed to do? Have him come to my office? Yours? Parkinson doesn't mind-"

"Shut up and get out here." Rodolphus grabbed Dolohov by the arm and pulled him forcefully from the room, pushing him into the hall that led to the foyer. And for the briefest of moments, a third man could be seen standing at the other end, his massive shoulders nearly touching either wall. His face was twisted in a scowl, yellowed teeth bared like an angry dog.

Yaxley reared back in his chair while Avery set the crystal decanter down with a clank. The Doctor tipped his head, eyes roaming the interloper from top to bottom with careful precision.

Rabastan took a deep breath, turning to face the table as the three men disappeared from sight.

"Sorry about that, gents. Let's get back to it, shall we?"

Draco leaned forward.

"I don't think so, Rab." He set his cards down, eyes narrowed. "What the bloody hell is Greyback doing here?"


 The evening was going nothing as planned.

And yet Tom found himself far more intrigued than expected.

The man standing at the end of the hallway was unmistakable, even before the Malfoy heir uttered his name.

Fenrir Greyback.

Though Tom mostly heard the man referred to as the Boogeyman of East End.

Tom had never seen him in person before, and yet he'd heard the man's description enough times he was certain he could pick him out of a lineup.

And not just for his size, though he was without a doubt the largest man Tom had ever laid eyes upon, comprised of hulking muscle that pulled at the seams of his linen shirt and trousers, suspenders stretched taut over a barrel chest, sinewy forearms wrought with coarse hair and dark ink.

No, his size was intimidating to any man, and yet it wasn't his defining characteristic. Rather, it was the sizable facial scar that made Greyback the horror of legends. The jagged mark ran the length of his face diagonally, from right temple to left molar, bisecting his eyebrow and discoloring one of his brown irises a golden amber.

It made Dolohov's small scar look neat and surgical by comparison.

Tom was barely afforded a glimpse of the man before Dolohov was shoved through the doorway with Rodolphus hot at his heels, blocking his view before they all turned the corner and disappeared into the foyer.

And then a different sight appeared.

"Sorry about that, gents. Let's get back to it, shall we?"

Tom couldn't pull his gaze away from the approaching figure. She moved like a cat, each step sensuous and fluid. Her eyes glowed within the dim light of the hallway, dark pupils gleaming as they latched onto his, holding him steady in her wake.

"I don't think so, Rab." He only half listened to the young blonde prattle on. "What the bloody hell is Greyback doing here?"

Her hand curled around the door handle as she stepped inside the room, shutting it firmly behind her, never breaking eye contact with Tom.

She smirked, something sparkling in the depth of her gaze.

Tom gripped his cards more tightly, his other hand clenching to a fist on his thigh.

"Hello, boys." Her sultry voice rang through the room like a bell, effectively quieting the table. "On behalf of my husband, I apologize for that little interruption. But please," she winked, "don't let it ruin your fun."

Tom's jaw ticked as he watched her sashay her way around the settee and head for their table.

"Are you dealing, Rab?"

"You know it, luv." The man stubbed out his cigar. "I'm sure the men would have no objections if you'd like to take over Rod's hand."

She laughed low in her throat. "Why thank you, darling. But I much prefer to watch."

She met Tom's gaze once more. Something in his chest tightened, squeezing the air from his lungs. And then her predatory gaze fell on the pristine coif of white blonde hair seated across from him.

"My, my, as I live and breathe." She wet her rouge stained lips, coming to a stop behind the boy, placing her hands on his shoulders. Tom watched the young man fight back a cringe.

This just gets more interesting by the second.

"Is it really my nephew, come to pay me a visit?"

"Hello, Bella."

His voice conveyed no ounce of affection. She laughed again, leaning down to whisper something in his ear, her ample cleavage pressing into the back of his head.

Tom couldn't make out her words, his ability to read lips hampered by her distracting presence. But whatever she said painted no amusement on the boy's face. If anything he went impossibly more rigid in his seat, head tipping away from her just a fraction, just enough to convey his deep-rooted desire to evade her touch.

She squeezed his shoulders, talons hooking into her prey, and then pecked him on the temple, a motherly gesture of affection that caused him to scowl and finally jerk free of her hold.

"Always a pleasure, Draco, my sweet. I hardly get to see you anymore."

She released him from her clutches, stepping away and running her fingertips across the chair back of Dolohov's abandoned seat. "How is the game going?"

"We're almost through. With Rod gone, it's just Riddle and Drake left."

Her eyes brightened, fastening on Tom once more.

"Is that so? Then I arrived at the perfect time. The climax is my favorite part."

Malfoy rolled his eyes, wiping away her rouge from his temple with the back of his hand. Rabastan shook his head with a chuckle.

"You're incorrigible, Bella."

"There are worse ways to be in life. Wouldn't you agree, Doctor?"

Tom forced his tense body to relax, reflecting amusement back at her with a smirk of his own.

"That depends on your definition, Madam. In philosophy, incorrigibility is a property of a philosophical proposition, which implies that it is necessarily true simply by virtue of being believed."

She blinked, then her smirk expanded to a full-fledged grin as she released a delighted laugh, resting a hand on Rabastan's back to balance herself as she succumbed to her amusement.

Avery finally returned to the table, full glass in hand.

"It's like have a dictionary at the table."

"Rather like having someone with more than half of a functioning brain," she said through her laughter, wiping absently beneath her eyes.

"Don't stop, Doctor. Tell us more."

His leaned back, tipping his head to examine her at an angle. He'd already forgotten about the others in the room. They were merely background props to their two-person play.

"Based on its original usage a common example of such a proposition is René Descartes' famous saying cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am. If we're applying this classic meaning to the word then I agree, Madam, there are far worse ways to be in life, since the alternative would be to cease one's existence entirely."

He wet his lips. She'd stopped laughing, eyes hooded, fixed upon him.

"However, as with most words deriving from a language not of English origin, the usage evolved as it was traded between foreign tongues and cultures, taking on an entirely different meaning in most modern British circles. I believe Lord Lestrange used incorrigible as a term synonymous with incurable. And as a Doctor, my one true nemesis is the incurable. In which case I would have to disagree. Incorrigible is the worst way to be."

The room was deathly silent. Madam Lestrange was still at her brother-in-law's back, barely a meter away from Tom. Her gaze radiated an intensity that caused the floor to hum, vibrating through his heels, into his legs, and through his chest.

Finally, Avery broke the eerie silence with a drunken laugh.

"Well. That certainly clears that up."

Yaxley joined in, albeit a bit high pitched and nervous. Tom spared a glance to Rabastan, who shook his head in amusement.

And then he glanced at Malfoy.

And paused.

The young man's eyes were narrowed and harbored as much potency as his aunt's.

He didn't like Tom.

Not one bit.

Which made him the smartest person seated at the table.

And that annoyed Tom a great deal. Because the Malfoy heir was a powerful player in this game, unwitting or not, and he obviously harbored some secret tie to the establishment in which Tom was employed.

But given his disdain for his family, Tom doubted he was involved as deeply as the others, if at all.

So why his intense interest in Tom's job? Why give up his evening to attempt and stealthily draw information out of a stranger?

The blonde was a mystery. One Tom would look into unraveling at a later time.

Tonight... tonight was about something else.

He drew his focus back to Madam Lestrange. She had sidled closer, placing a hand on his arm.

"May I watch you play the final round, Doctor?"

He held her gaze.

"Of course."

He faced forward once more, ever aware of her fingers curling around his shoulder, squeezing lightly, the heat of her body just at his back.

Her scent invaded his nasal passage. Sweet and poisonous. Such a contrast to the way she smelled-

Tom blinked, drawing his attention back to the young man seated across from him. Malfoy's face showed open distaste and yet it seemed such a natural repose it told Tom little about the boy's hand.

Rabastan laid the final card down.

"Alright, men. Final bets."

Malfoy's mercurial gaze flickered briefly to the feminine hand atop Tom's shoulder, then back to Tom's eyes, his own turning molten. His left eye twitched, just a fraction before a calm mask of indifference slid into place.

"All in."

He pushed his mountain of chips to the center of the table.

Avery chuckled into his glass, spilling some over the side.

"Now it's getting interesting. Finally."

Rabastan glanced at Tom.

"It's all on you, Riddle. Knock this smarmy little shite off his pedestal, won't you?"

"Hush, Rab. Aren't dealers supposed to be impartial?" Her tone was a lilting tease as she stepped even closer and curled her fingers over Tom's other shoulder, boxing him in.

Her proximity put every one of his senses on high alert, to the point he was nearly overloaded by the nuances of sight and sound, scent and taste. His jaw tensed briefly before he smirked, eyes never straying from his opponent.

"Call."

He pushed his pile into the center as well, the clay chips falling over in a cascade of color.

Yaxley whistled low under his breath. Rabastan's eyes brightened, thrilled by the stakes. They weren't even betting real money. Tom suspected the man was an avid gambler.

Yet another useful tidbit to stow away for later use.

She leaned forward, pressing against Tom's shoulder blades.

"Moment of truth," she whispered in his ear, loud enough for all to hear, yet low enough to remain dangerously intimate.

Malfoy smiled, eyes still narrowed, wicked in its triumph.

He threw his cards face up, leaning back with an air of smugness that was befitting a King upon his throne.

Rabastan rolled his eyes. "Fucking hell, every single time... "

"A straight flush," she said, hands skimming down Tom's shoulders to trace his jacket lapels. "Good fortune runs in our blood." She winked across the table. "Good job, Drakey."

The boy's look of triumph was briefly shattered by pure revulsion. Tom drew his attention back as he threw his own cards down.

"Three of a kind," Tom said, leaning back, pressing further into Madam Lestrange as her hands splayed flat across his chest. "Congratulations, Malfoy. Impressive hand."

His tone was brimming with amusement, knowing what it would do to the boy's ego. Malfoy's interest in the Home may pose a mystery, but his weaknesses certainly didn't. Youth and privilege were the boy's Achilles heel as much as they were his strength. He would be easy enough to wind up and release in whatever direction Tom wanted to point him.

Sure enough, the blonde's eyes narrowed, jaw tensing.

Then the door flew open.

"Sorry about that." The elder Lestrange strode in, chest heaving as though he'd just sprinted the distance between the foyer and billiards room. "What did I miss?"

His wife released Tom slowly, hands retracing their path back up his chest and over his shoulders before falling away completely. She turned around.

"Your nephew won the game. But the Doctor put up an impressive fight."

Her husband nodded, eyes falling on Malfoy. "Good job, Drake. Sorry I missed it. How about another round?"

"Not tonight." The blonde pushed back from the table. "I've lingered long enough, I must be going."

Tom smiled, copying his movement. "I'm afraid I must follow suit."

Madam Lestrange looked at him sharply. "But you've just gotten here."

He buttoned the front of his bespoke jacket. "I've neglected my duties long enough. I'm still getting the office in order, I need every minute of spare time I can afford to get it situated properly."

Dolohov slowly entered the room, cheeks ruddy.

"What's all this? Why's everyone standing?"

"Drake and the good Doc are leaving," Avery supplied, finishing off his glass once more.

Dolohov looked at Tom. "But you've just-"

"We've been through it already, Antonin. Why don't you pour yourself another drink and shut up."

Dolohov glared at the back of Rodolphus's head briefly before making his way to the liquor cart.

"Thank you for joining us, Riddle. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance," Rodolphus supplied, extending a hand to Tom. Tom understood the impact of this moment, this symbolic seal of approval Lestrange was offering.

Tom accepted his hand, shaking. "The feeling is mutual. It was an honor to be invited. I do hope to cross paths again soon."

Rabastan had a hand clapped atop Malfoy's shoulder, saying something that Tom couldn't hear or focus upon as Madam Lestrange flanked her husband, hanging off his arm.

"Luv, we must have the Doctor over to the Club sometime."

Rodolphus looked down, sharing a loaded glance with her. Dolohov made his way over, standing far too close for Tom's comfort.

"Riddle's a good sort, he'd have a good time." He clapped Tom on the shoulder, eyes glazed. "We can talk more there since you can't stay tonight."

Rodolphus glanced back up. "We'd love to host you, Riddle." The man paused, eyes narrowing a fraction. "Have you heard of Amortentia?"

Tom didn't flinch.

"I can't say that I have."

Bella smirked. "You'll love it, darling."

Rodolphus wound his hand around her waist, drawing her into his side. "It's a pleasure house."

He held Tom's gaze, no doubt waiting to see if any trace of disdain or judgment would surface.

Tom felt his chest swell, rib cage cracking open, blood surging.

"Sounds exciting. I'd love to join you."

Bella squealed in delight. "Perfect! Come Sunday night."

Her husband gazed down upon her with indulgent admonishment. "Bella, luv, we've monopolized enough of his weekend."

She pouted. "But-"

"It's no inconvenience. I'd be honored to attend."

Dolohov clapped him once more on the back, jolting him. Tom's hands clenched at his sides, the urge to break the man's wrist nearly overpowering his good sense.

"It's settled then! We'll pick up where we left off in a far more enjoyable setting."

Rodolphus pinned the man with a ferocious look. "Just make certain not to invite any additional guests without notifying me, Antonin. I won't have a repeat of tonight."

Dolohov paled slightly, stepping back. "Of course, Rod, I wouldn't-"

"I'm heading out now." They all turned to face the blonde at their backs. Malfoy glanced at each of them in turn, his silver gaze lingering on Tom.

"Pleasure to meet you, Doctor."

"Likewise."

Tom offered his hand, smirking in amusement when the young man seemed to debate snubbing him. Finally, he relented, accepting the offer and putting extra force behind it.

They stood level, both at impressive heights.

"I'm leaving as well, perhaps we can head that way together."

Malfoy visibly fought back a sneer. Tom's smile deepened.

"Brilliant." The blonde relinquished his grip, stepping back with a nod to his relatives.

"Good evening."

"Nice try, Draco. You might be a foot taller but you'll never be too big to give me a hug."

Tom glanced away for propriety's sake, watching the exchange from the corner of his eye. He was endlessly fascinated by the dynamic between nephew and aunt. Malfoy's face tensed as he stepped closer, allowing her to do all the work, finally leaning down at her insistent tug to allow her to kiss his cheek.

"Do send Cissy my love. I was hoping to see her this weekend but it seems our schedules leave no window of opportunity."

"Of course."

"Good boy." She wiped away the rouge stain on his cheek, tipping her head, hand lingering on his face.

"You're the spitting image of your father. It's almost frightening."

He attempted to pull back but she curled her fingers in, long nails indenting his high cheekbone, holding him captive.

"And yet you are your mother's son on the inside, where it counts. A Black. Do well to remember that, Draco."

The blonde blinked, looking unnerved. Tom tucked his hands into his pockets, absently thumbing the satin ribbon. It had been a risk to bring it here of all places, and yet he found himself adding it to his pocket at the last minute before departing from the Home. It had become a balm to his nerves.

And most importantly, a reminder of all that was at stake.

"Goodnight, Bella," Malfoy clipped, finally freeing himself. He glanced at Tom. "Shall we?"

He nodded, smiling pleasantly. "Lead on."

After a few more cursory goodbyes to the men seated at the table, Tom entered the hallway at Maloy's side, easily matching the younger man's stride.

"Excellent game," Tom said, staring ahead at the door, denying the awaiting butler even a parting glance. "You have true skill with the cards."

Malfoy smirked. "I've always been a dab hand at poker. Though it seems I always have the best cards when the least is at stake."

Tom smirked, detecting something lingering beneath the simple words. A steel tooth trap lying in the tall grass. He gracefully sidestepped the metal claws, casting his own net into the fray.

"It was a well-deserved win, even with your left eye constantly sabotaging you."

Malfoy blinked, pausing in the entryway, prompting Tom to do the same. The butler glanced between them, hovering at the door.

"You're saying I have a tell?"

Tom raised a dark brow. "Of course. All men do."

"This is the first I'm hearing of it. And I've played a lot of cards." His eyes narrowed. "If you knew I had the better hand why the hell did you go all in with three sevens?"

Tom tipped his head, eyes scanning the young man's alabaster skin, the sharp lines of his face, pinched in annoyance.

"I knew you bluffed on the turn. I wasn't sure how many masks you wore. I needed to be certain." He met his gaze once more, grey eyes gleaming. "Now I am. And in the future, I'll be able to recognize your deceit." His smile deepened, revealing his teeth. "Sometimes strategy extends beyond the table. Enjoy your evening, Mr. Malfoy. And your victory."

He nodded to the butler who quickly opened the door, still gazing upon Tom as though he were a wine stain on white linen.

But it did nothing to dampen Tom's elated mood as he swiftly exited the townhome, trotting down the marble steps with a smirk, well aware of the seething aristocrat at his back.


 Hermione tipped her head, peering more closely at the expanse of exposed skin.

"The mark is symmetrical, has a defined border and consistent coloring throughout. Have you noticed any changes to the shape or size since discovering it?"

The girl shook her head. "No. But I only noticed it last week. I normally wouldn't worry, but given the location, I thought I should have it looked at. It's not like I'm flashing my bare thigh out in the garden."

Hermione smiled. "Understandable. But moles aren't only caused by sun exposure. Genetics plays a large part. Did either of your parents have moles or freckles?"

The girl shrugged. "I never knew my pa and ma died when I was a babe."

Hermione's smile fell, expression sobering. "I'm terribly sorry." She swallowed lightly, helping lower the girl's shift over her bare legs. "I see no indicators the mole is cancerous. If you're still worried I can ask the Doctor to-"

"No!" The girl sat forward. "I only came because the girls said you were helping examine patients. I don't want a man seeing me in such a state."

Hermione nodded, placing a hand on the girl's bare shoulder. "It's alright, Mandy. I understand completely. As I said, there's nothing to worry about. But if you notice the mole change shape or color, come and see me immediately. Alright?"

The girl sighed in relief. "Thank you, Hermione."

"You're very welcome. I'll let you get dressed in privacy. Have a good rest of your day."

"You, too."

Hermione ducked out from behind the partition, walking to the desk and grabbing up Mandy's patient file. She spun around, eyes searching.

Her heart skipped a beat as she found him standing across the room, open medical book in hand, eyes upon her.

She bit her lip, rocking back on her heels before proceeding forward, trying to maintain a slow and steady gait.

Amusement danced in his eyes, lips forming a slow smirk.

"How is our patient doing?"

Hermione fidgeted with the file in her hands.

"Mandy Brocklehurst, I examined a possible melanoma, I saw no cause for concern. She's getting dressed right now."

He nodded, setting the book back on the shelf and extending his hand for the file. She passed it over, watching him flip through the pages.

"And the previous patient?"

"Oh, Sally-Anne Perks, she just stopped by for menstrual pads. She requested extras for her roommates as well, said they were too embarrassed to stop by themselves."

His grey eyes rapidly scanned the document before him. Hermione interlaced her fingers, twisting her hands.

"I was thinking…"

He continued to read, finally glancing up at her prolonged silence.

"I've noticed you rarely stop."

"Pardon?"

"Thinking."

She blinked, then smiled, a blush staining her cheeks. "Right. Well, I was thinking we could keep a supply pantry in the corridor outside the clinic stocked with menstrual pads and bloomer cloths, so the girls don't have to stop in every month to request products."

He held her gaze in silence. She took a deep breath, continuing on as her nerves rattled within her chest. "I mean, I only make the suggestion after speaking with Sally. I'm afraid that some girls will forgo their monthly hygiene because they're too nervous about asking a man for supplies. Also, before your arrival the supplies were kept on a shelf in the clinic, the girls were free to take them as needed, there was never an issue with hoarding or-"

"Relax, Ms. Granger." His smirk grew. "I was merely thinking. I agree with your assessment of the problem, and think keeping an external supply closet is a sound solution."

Her mouth clamped shut, flush spreading down her neck. The Doctor lowered the file, pinning her beneath the full intensity of his gaze.

"However, the decision will ultimately be up to the Matron, as she oversees all ordering and inventory."

Hermione felt herself deflate. "Then we can't tell her I had anything to do with the idea."

His eyes flashed even as his smirk grew into a smile. "Per usual, you are right again."

She held his stare, the air thick, sticking to the back of her throat.

A sudden noise from behind jolted her, drawing both their attention.

Mandy stepped out from behind the partition, smoothing her skirts. She glanced up, smiling and waving somewhat nervously at Hermione. Hermione returned the warm expression and bid the girl a final farewell, watching her depart the clinic at haste. Once the door fell shut Hermione turned to face the Doctor once more. His eyes roamed her face, making her fidget anew.

"So far every patient who's entered the clinic has requested you."

Hermione blinked. "No, the first girl who came in-"

"Requested you as well. However, she required a pelvic exam. I was going to ask you to stand in to keep her at ease but you were seeing to someone else."

She bit her lip. "Well, that's just because I'm a woman. And you're…"

He raised a dark brow. "A man?"

"Well, yes. That, too. However, I was going to say intimidating."

He tilted his head, expression lit by the afternoon light streaming in through the windows. "Is that so?"

She rolled her eyes. "Oh dear, am I the first to bring that to your notice?"

Deep laughter erupted from his chest. The sound was an instant balm to her nerves.

"I see. So I scare the patients?"

She bit her lip. "Well, not all of them."

His eyes continued to gleam with mirth.

"I've noticed."

She caught the double meaning of her words. "No, I didn't, I just meant-"

"I know what you meant." He put her out of her misery, setting the file aside and striding towards the medical cabinet. "And I'm well aware that some of the residents harbor no reservations whatsoever when it comes to paying me a visit. At all hours."

Hermione felt her pulse quicken. "You don't mean…"

He opened the cabinet. "I do."

She felt the heat rise within her again, this time born of a far different emotion.

"Residents have… propositioned you?"

"That's one word for it." He reached into the cabinet, grabbing a small glass bottle with a faded label.

Her mind reeled, rendering her silent for several moments before she burst.

"That's- that's ludicrous! How can they possibly think such a thing even remotely appropriate-"

"I don't think proprietary was top of their mind."

She fell quiet, cheeks aflame. He glanced over his shoulder. "I assure you, I set them straight."

She took an unconscious step forward. "Of course you did. I never doubted that. I'm just shocked they'd have the audacity to do such a thing. Especially after the last physician-"

She stopped short,