The Small Print
Author's Note: So, I already wrote out the last chapter of this, and most of the next chapter, so I promise it will – unlike my other fics – be complete in a reasonable amount of time. You can all thank the infuriatingly talented and annoyingly cunning moor for putting the idea of a whodunnit-type story in my head.
Disclaimer: the HP universe does not belong to me; I am just borrowing.
Just five short minutes ago her life had been comparatively simple, stressless; easy, even. Hermione Granger despaired at the creased light blue memo that had come from the Auror Department she now held in her hands, which sealed her fate for the next two and a half months.
Harry didn't quite know how to feel as he approached Malfoy Manor, which loomed over him like a storm cloud in the grey morning. Reporters from the Prophet and other news outlets had already arrived on the scene, flashbulbs going; Quick Quotes Quills scurrying; low, frantic voices creating a dull din of noise. Off to the side, Pansy Parkinson was hurling herself at the Aurors who were patrolling the edge of the scene, making unrealistic demands at the top of her lungs.
"You'd think they'd be able to keep a secure crime scene," Ron was snorting behind him. Privately, Harry thought it prudent for Ron to keep his mouth shut on the Auror Department's choices and skills - he'd only passed the Auror test a few months ago because Harry, who had already been an Auror for a few years and thus was allowed to be present at Ron's exam, had Confunded the proctor of the test. Though no one knew that this had occurred, it was in general agreement throughout the department that Ron was a liability more than an asset.
"Yeah," said Harry vaguely, though his belly gave a queasy, swooping lurch as he alighted the front steps into the manor. Another junior Auror named Whelkes who had a severe widow's peak took Ron aside, leaving Harry to enter the manor alone.
"Potter, can you tell us-"
"Potter, how does it feel-"
He slammed the door shut behind himself, drowning out the reporters' questioning.
Inside the manor was eerily quiet, save for low voices coming from the other room.
Awash in unwelcome memories and thus momentarily paralyzed, Harry stood in the front hall, which, with all its cold marble, felt more like a tomb than the entrance of a home. Over the years he had been forced, due to his occupation as well as the natural course of life, to face many unpleasant memories from the war, but Malfoy Manor was perhaps the last place that had remained untouched in his locked-away memories. He forced himself to walk onward, wincing at the sight of an all-too-familiar crystal chandelier, and a door leading to the holding cells in the basement.
"We'll put Potter on it."
"Absolutely not." Harry froze once more, hearing Kingsley's grim voice. Thank Merlin for small miracles - Ron was still outside. "He's too reliant on Potter - can't think independently."
"Too independent," Kingsley countered, more darkly than before. Harry let out a small breath of relief that he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Alphard Black, newest addition to the Aurors, was the last person that he wanted to be paired with for this particular mission - or any mission, for that matter.
"Potter," greeted the Auror Kingsley had been talking to: a stringy-looking middle aged man named Furness, with a bushy straw-colored mustache and very little hair on top of his shiny pate. Harry had rounded the corner and entered the library, which was taped off now.
Malfoy's body had been removed, though nothing else about the scene had been altered. It was all too easy to see what had happened - there had been an assailant, judging by the ripped carpet near the entrance; the assailant had caught Malfoy unaware, and the proof was in the nearly-black splotch of blood, which fanned out towards the fireplace. According to the report, Draco Malfoy's wand had been resting on the mantle. He'd gone to grab it, but had been too late - and so his assailant had pushed his head into the fire, Hexed him once more (a bloody one, at that) and then killed him - though they were still waiting on St Mungo's magical forensics team to determine whether it was the fire or a curse that had officially caused his death.
But who would do such a thing? Malfoy had been lying low for the seven years since the war. All of his enemies were dead or locked in Azkaban, aside from Harry himself - and his own personal grudge against Malfoy had faded with his own connection to Voldemort a long time ago. Whatever bitterness he had left for Malfoy felt tired, like a song he'd heard too many times. In the last few years, particularly, it had felt like work to drum up any sort of energy to his animosity for the pale blond man. Mostly, he could not help but feel pity for how pathetic Malfoy's once-grand life had been turning out to be.
"Leaving Black out of it is a waste," Furness continued fervently, apparently deciding Harry was beyond help. "He's a bit of a wild card, I will admit-"
"He killed his last charge, in spite of specific instructions."
"It was a necessity!" sputtered Furness. "It was self-de-"
"I think not," cut in Kingsley coldly. "Furness, Black may be your favorite, but I was an Auror not too long ago and I haven't forgotten what it is like. Black is an adept dueler - his only rival is Potter, in that way - and he could have easily subdued his opponent. You saw his test scores, you know he's got a worrying tolerance for the Dark Arts."
"Well, we've already disciplined him for that, and you know he went to Durmstrang; it's not his fault," snapped Furness, his face reddening. "We've got Granger from Magical Law to tail him on his next few missions, at any rate."
"Hermione?" Harry asked, whirling around in surprise. Furness looked testily at Harry, as though Harry should not have been listening in. Kingsley was biting back a smile that Harry could not help but slightly mirror.
Black wouldn't be able to get away with a thing ever again, if Hermione had anything to say about it - and he was certain she would.
She looked up from the seemingly-innocent memo, which had somehow burst into flames upon her desk, up at her intruder.
He was Harry's height, and of a similar build, but his hair was what got her every time. Out of the corner of her eye, she could almost mistake him for Sirius - and indeed he was a very young cousin of Sirius'. His hair, a bit longer than most men kept theirs, and unruly in precisely the right way, and black, had given her a pang of sadness and regret every time she caught him out of the corner of her eye for the first few months he'd been working in the Auror department. He had the trademark Black family deep brown handsome eyes, rebellious and boyish dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose, and that sly grin that she had spotted so often lurking about Sirius' handsome thin lips, or threatening to break on Bellatrix's sensuous full lips.
Alphard Black, former expat, Durmstrang attendee, and most notoriously reckless Auror to date - yes, even more so than Harry himself - was leaning against the doorframe of her office now, looking annoyingly impressive in his navy blue Auror robes.
"So, you're to be my nanny, then," he greeted in a surly tone, nodding to her. Behind him, Parvati intentionally sauntered by in what Hermione recognized as her best robes, and Alphard shot her a wink and a grin before looking back to Hermione again almost reluctantly. Hermione inwardly (and perhaps outwardly a bit, too) seethed.
It wasn't just that Alphard was a complete rake. It was that he mercilessly flirted with every single female creature in the ministry - except for her.
She was used to feeling like an unattractive sexless amoeba in comparison to girls like Ginny or Parvati, but when she was cast aside even for Umbridge, she had to admit that it hit even her own otherwise fairly solid sense of self-worth.
What's so horrible about me?! she always wanted to roar, each time she was forced to bear witness to such deliberate and baseless rejection from Black. She really couldn't see that her frizzy hair or admittedly-not-size-six arse were so terrible that even Umbridge, who was hideous inside and out, was more appealing.
Then invariably she'd pull her head out of her arse, filled with shame at such poorly-placed jealousy, and she'd be fine, at least momentarily.
"Apparently. I'll be having a word with Kingsley about this," she finally said, looking down at the ashes on her desk. Alphard quirked a dark brow at her. "What in the name of Merlin did you do to warrant surveillance?" And why has it got to be me, went the unvoiced question, hanging in the air between them. Alphard offered a one-shouldered shrug.
"Stupid, really. Look, why don't you just forget about it, and we'll prete-"
"We'll do no such thing," bristled Hermione. "Whatever it was, Furness certainly would not assign surveillance to you for no reason."
Alphard's mouth was a thin hard line. Immense dislike for her burned in his eyes, then it was gone, and he offered a would-be charming grin.
"You know, this is why you're such a brilliant Jurator, Granger. You follow the rules - even the stupid ones - to a T."
At that, he turned on his heel and marched off, slamming the door to her office. Ooh, temper. Should I be scared, I wonder? thought Hermione, rolling her eyes and mimicking his words to herself.
Unfortunately, she sneezed, scattering the ashes of that fateful memo all over her scrolls of parchment. With a sigh, she muttered, "tergeo," and siphoned them off boredly with one hand, her head held up in the other, as she inwardly cursed Alphard Black.
"This is absurd."
Hermione heard Blaise Zabini's disdainful, cold drawl on a daily basis, so it affected her arguably less than it might others. Their offices were side-by-side, so she saw him several times each day, and she even got along relatively well with him at this point in their lives. In spite of her blood status, she had somehow, along the way, earned his respect.
"Yes, I know," she said absently, scanning the parchment which contained the facts leading to his status as a suspect in Draco Malfoy's murder. "But you're the prime suspect at this point, and you've got to respect the facts." She set down her parchment and looked up at Zabini. His arms were crossed and he was regarding her with arched brows, as though he could not believe she would stoop to such idiocy.
Somehow, he managed to retain a certain masculinity, in spite of wearing cornflower blue silk robes that brought out his enchanting blue eyes and set off his dark-toned skin. He was mesmerisingly lovely. Luckily, she'd grown desensitized to that too, over the years.
"The facts," he spat, "are that I am a Pureblood and hold Malfoy in far too low regard to ever put such effort into murdering him."
"Yes, but it sort of looks bad that you were the last person seen entering his manor, within an hour of what the team at St Mungo's has placed as the time of death," she said uncomfortably.
Still, she had to agree with Zabini on a certain level - it was absurd that he'd murder Malfoy. He'd just been promoted over Malfoy - if anything, Malfoy ought to have murdered him. That, and she had gotten to know Zabini well enough to know that he was far too cunning - and lazy - to ever murder someone like Malfoy.
The crime scene was too messy, too spattered with blood. She knew, intuitively, that he'd never make such an inelegant job of it. Then, in addition to that, was the solemn fact that she knew they were both in shock and mostly unable to comprehend that Draco Malfoy, after everything that had happened, was dead. She was certain Blaise shared that same disbelief that kept her so calm and blase about the matter - at least for the moment. It simply could not be real.
"Wrong place, wrong time."
"Then why were you there, Zabini?"
"That's private," he said, looking uncomfortable for the first time. Hermione sighed, rolling up her parchment and pushing it aside. She knew Harry and Furness were surveying the conversation on the other side of the mirror on the wall - a Muggle influence - and Blaise, judging by the sly sidelong glance he sent at the window, seemed to know it too. She wondered what they were thinking.
"I'm afraid it's either you relinquish that bit of privacy or relinquish your rights as an innocent citizen," she said grimly. Blaise's lips twisted; he was evidently suffering some sort of inward struggle.
"It's private," he at last said once more, after a moment's consideration.
"Then I'm sorry to say I can't help you further." She rose from her seat. "You know the drill: you will be escorted to a private holding cell by Furness and another Auror and await trial."
Blaise remained impassive.
"Whatever. The truth will come out," he spat. Hermione sent him a look of empathy, then turned and was led out of the interrogation room by the guard.
Ron and Harry were out in the corridor. Harry looked weary; Ron looked irritable.
"You didn't exactly break your back to get anything out of Zabini," he said acidly. Hermione sighed.
"He's not the perpetrator, Ron," she said wearily. "Can you really see Blaise allowing that much blood on his robes?"
"Not the cerulean, no, but perhaps he's got a nice dark red set that hide bloodstains." Alphard was striding towards them, smirking.
"Har har," said Ron flatly; Harry rolled his eyes while his back was still turned to Alphard. Hermione met Alphard's gaze archly; in spite of it she felt her cheeks flushing slightly. Behind him, Furness exploded out of the observation room, and towards their little group.
"Granger, good thing you're here," he said in a harried tone. "We've just gotten an owl in about an ex-Auror on the run; I'm sending Black, so you'll go with him."
"Oh, Furness, about that-" she began gamely, but was silenced by a wave of Furness' scarred hand.
"I've already spoken to your superiors, Granger. They're willing to work around it." He shot a sharp look at Black, who returned the look easily. "It shouldn't be for too long, at any rate." There was a warning to Black in there, but Black seemed supremely unimpressed with Furness. Hermione wondered what could have changed - Black was famously favored by Furness, and had all but been poached from Germany's Auror department on Furness' orders.
She deflated slightly.
"Fine. Let me just change, and we'll be off." She paused, then looked at Furness again. "By the way, Zabini's not your perpetrator."
"I think I'll be the judge of that, Granger," he said coldly. He gestured for Harry and Ron to follow him back to the Auror department, leaving Alphard and Hermione together.
For a moment, they stood in awkward silence. Alphard raised his brows at her, and for a moment, she hoped - no, thought - that he might say something flirtatious, might finally treat her like he treated all other women. Then, as always, she was ashamed with herself for wanting to be trivialized, to not be taken seriously by a man based on gender alone.
"Robes, then?" he prompted, looking a bit impatient, and unusually businesslike. Hermione pasted on a rather fixed smile.
"Yes. Of course," she said mock-sweetly. "I'll just be on my way now, sir," she muttered darkly.
"You do that," he said absently, apparently missing her sarcasm entirely, whilst rooting around in his pockets for something and walking in the direction of the Auror department. "I'll be in my office."