The Small Print

Chapter Fifteen: Follow Me

Two Years Earlier

Theodore despised Black so much that he found it difficult to look at the man, let alone spend time tailing him. But as he had no choice, he did as he had always done: he set aside how he was feeling, and focused on what he must do.

For weeks, he tailed Alphard Black at every opportunity that he had. But between visiting his mother, working at his job, researching with Quirke, and catering to Amundsen's demands, Theodore was overwhelmed, and there were only a few minutes left each day to tail Black. He'd never been this busy in his life.

At first, Black was extremely dull to tail, and, so tired from all the other responsibilities in his life, Theodore had to struggle to pay attention. He left his flat, which was so pristine even Zabini would have approved, on time each day for work. He went straight to the Ministry. After work, he often went running through Muggle London, attracting admiring looks with his raven hair and lean physique. Most nights, he met up with Pucey and the others to drink heavily, though Black himself rarely overindulged. He would go home, occasionally accompanied by a witch, and be ready for work just the same the next morning. On his weekends, he either rode a motorbike out of London and into the country, driving aimlessly, or else he obsessively cleaned his flat.

Black was far more of a loner than he would have expected. His main pursuits were solitary, he had no steady girlfriend, and Pucey seemed to be his closest friend, though their friendship lacked any sort of depth. Alphard Black lived a shallow life—not entirely unlike Theodore.

Often, when Black went into Muggle London, Theodore noticed a middle-aged woman, likely Muggle, also tailing him. It was clear that Black either didn't notice her or was entirely unconcerned about her. She would be posted in cafes across the road, or lingering at nearby crosswalks. She seemed satisfied to simply get a glimpse of Black, and then she would be on her way. She didn't look anything like him, though she looked too young to be his mother, but then, too old to be a former lover or girlfriend.

At work, on the rare occasion that they ran into each other, Theodore had to exert himself to behave normally around Black. He had become extremely well-acquainted with Black's habits and lifestyle over the past few months, to the point where he felt like he knew the man rather well, and it was easy to forget that this was only due to his stalking efforts. But as far as Black knew, the number of conversations they had had could have been counted off with one hand, and all had been utterly in enmity.

But Theodore had developed a perverse interest in the man, and long after Malfoy and Amundsen had agreed that Black appeared to pose no immediate threat to them, Theodore found himself still tailing him.

It was habitual; almost comforting. He lost countless hours to tailing Black, and when he wasn't tailing him, he found his mind wandering to Black irresistibly, like a riddle he had not yet solved.

Black made him think of a former prisoner, or one who is atoning for past sins: like he was intentionally keeping his life small, barren. Theodore knew what that was like. The similarities he found between their lives was eerie: he wished he could talk to Black. His animosity melted away, to be replaced by an odd protectiveness. Black was sad. After months of tailing him, he knew this for fact, though Black never showed any outward signs of sadness.

And then, one day, Theodore followed Black to a place called Grimmauld Place, out in Muggle London. Black had Disillusioned himself and so the two men hung about the square, invisible, with Black clearly waiting for something.

Theodore almost gasped. Potter, and his girlfriend the Weasley girl, left number twelve, bundled up in their coats, evidently caught up in some sort of debate.

As soon as Potter and the Weasley girl were gone, Black seemed unable to contain himself: he melted back into being, and it now occurred to Theodore that his hair seemed shorter, his clothes a bit scruffier. To the casual observer, it could easily have been Potter, going back into his house.

Black was a professional: he didn't look around, didn't hesitate as he went to the door, and opened it like the place belonged to him.

Theodore couldn't follow him inside, but for weeks, he observed Black follow this routine. He'd enter the house, and leave just in time to not be caught by Potter returning.

What was he doing? Why was he there?

One day, Black took something. Theodore didn't even know what he had taken until Black returned to his flat, and left it on his kitchen table. Black changed into his normal clothing and then left, likely to meet up with Pucey, and Theodore could freely enter the flat, as he sometimes did, and inspect what Black had taken from Potter's home.

It was an old photograph, or rather, a copy of one. In black and white, three people smiled and laughed back at Theodore: a woman with long, gleaming hair that was likely dark red or brown, wearing a white dress; a man with untidy hair and glasses askew who looked strikingly like Potter; and then, Alphard Black next to him...?

It couldn't be.

Theodore picked up the photograph. No, though the likeness was shocking, this was an old photograph—likely from the seventies—and was one of someone else.

The man in the photograph threw his head back and laughed, so roguishly. The pieces fell into place. The timelines added up. Everything made so much more sense.

I had someone I've been dying to meet.

At the time, Theodore had assumed that this was a thinly-veiled threat. Now he knew the truth.

He placed the photograph back on the table as a heaviness set into his limbs. He had never felt so close to Alphard Black as he did now.

The weeks passed. Often, Theodore found himself imagining conversations, hearts-to-heart, between them. He imagined comforting Black, or becoming a confidante of Black. He imagined Black talking to his friends about their conversations... He's really insightful, you know, he could almost hear Black saying to Pucey. Really gets me like no one else does. He imagined Black reluctantly dragging him out into Muggle London, showing him how to dress, how to talk to girls. He imagined having a friend to eat lunch with at work; Granger and Zabini would be so shocked that he, of all people, had befriended the coolest person at the Ministry...

He should have known he had been silly, for all of this. He was such a fool.

It happened outside the Leaky Cauldron. Theodore had gone there to drink, alone, certain that none of his crowd would deign to show themselves at such a Mudblood-filled gathering place. As had become his habit, he had been drinking Firewhisky and musing on the few facts he had collected about Black, examining each one of them with the art and romance that might grip Borgin poring over rare antiquities.

As though he'd summoned Black—and that was always the danger of Firewhiskey, for things started to seem not coincidental but instead all interconnected—Adrian Pucey walked in with Alphard Black, with a few girls and some of Pucey's other friends—ones not from Hogwarts—trailing them.

The whole pub seemed to turn to look at them. They were laughing loudly, their faces flushed. They were all a bit tipsy already. Theodore realized suddenly that they were all dressed in Muggle clothing. They must have been out in Muggle London, then.

None of them saw him, or so he believed. He could watch his charge in peace. He had spent so much time around Black that he wondered if they had become accustomed to each other's magical signatures, the way people became accustomed to each other's scent. We are all animals in the end, he mused drunkenly. Smell or magic, doesn't matter, we just want to be in a pack.

As was Black's habit, he begged off early that evening, even though there was a rather attractive witch drunkenly clinging to his arm. He gracefully extricated himself from the group, and almost the instant he turned to go out the door, his face seemed to fall back into its natural repose: a haunted look. But, to Theodore's surprise, Pucey followed him, and the two men left their friends.

Theodore didn't really understand what he was doing. The world was moving too fast; he simply set a number of Galleons on the bar counter, and seemed to slide from his barstool out the door after Alphard Black, like water inexorably rushing to the sea.

The night was cold. Christmas was approaching. Black's posture was tight, his leather jacket zipped up. He'd gotten a haircut, recently, Theodore noted absently. He imagined poking fun at Alphard for it; imagined them making jokes about Alphard's obsessive attention to his hair.

Pucey and Black were laughing about something, their voices low and adolescent in their energy. They were making fun of someone.

"-See him just staring?"

"I tried not to," Black said grimly, but he laughed. "Could he be more obvious? He looks like a fucking ghost."

"Like the Bloody Baron," Pucey guffawed, then paused. "That was the Slytherin ghost at Hogwarts. Always banging about the towers, clanging around miserably. He'd just hang about, tragically, all the time," he explained. "Cept, the Bloody Baron was rather handsome in his time, I'd wager."

"Can you imagine him as a ghost?" Black suggested gleefully.

"He'd haunt you," Pucey agreed, chuckling. "He'd show up over your bed, just as you're about to shag a witch. I am the ghost of Theodore Nott." Pucey waved his hands spookily as he spoke.

Theodore froze. His belly was in his throat and his eyes were burning. He thought he might be choking.

"Ugh," said Alphard disgustedly. "Can you imagine any better birth control than Nott's face?"

"Took the urge right out of me," agreed Pucey. "I'm not sure I'll ever get it up again."

"It's the way he stares at me. He does it at work, too," Alphard said now, a little more seriously. "I just pretend not to notice, but..."

"Well, you're a handsome bloke. Sometimes I stare at you too. Can't help it, mate," Pucey sniggered, pretending to bat his eyelashes at Alphard. Alphard made noises of protest and punched Pucey in the shoulder; they dissolved into tipsy, sloppy laughter.

"It's no wonder he's got no friends," Alphard continued, more briskly now. "Fucking creep."

"He never had friends at Hogwarts, either," agreed Pucey dispassionately. "If it weren't for Zabini, I don't think he'd get invited anywhere. For some reason Zabini seems to like him."

"Paid him, probably," snorted Alphard, and Pucey was guffawing again.

"No, no," he countered, sniggering, "his mum paid him."

Theodore thought of the Alphard Black who obsessively mopped his kitchen floor three times in a row, in the Muggle way, his movements panicked as though only scrubbing could save him from death. He thought of the Alphard Black who went home each night and lay in his bed, staring at his ceiling and never seeming to sleep. He thought of the Alphard Black who had been slipping into Potter's house, regularly, for hours at a time.

It wasn't just that they were saying such things about him: that was painful, yes, but it was nothing he hadn't heard before. Really, the analytical part of his mind was merely disgusted at the lack of originality.

But the emotional part of his mind was on fire.

This felt like a betrayal.

I know you, Theodore wanted to scream. I know you better than any of your so-called friends. I know everything there is to know about you. I've been keeping your secret.

He felt like crying. He couldn't quite say why.

I'm such a fool.

And so, that Monday, Theodore went directly to Kingsley Shacklebolt's office, and told him that Alphard Black had regularly been breaking and entering into Harry Potter's home.

Present Day

"Before you try to kill me, let me say that I didn't want things to come to this."

Hermione opened her eyes and watched as the owner of the voice slowly came into focus before her. Bill Weasley was slouching next to her cot, looking at her like she was a highly unpredictable zoo animal and he was in her cage. Wary, but still confident.

Her head throbbed with her quickening pulse, reminding her how she'd got here in the first place. She'd seen Alphard's name in Bill's notes, and then he'd attacked her and she had fallen.

Bill Weasley, a man she had once thought she would call brother-in-law, had attacked her.

Hermione edged backward.

"Kill you? You're the one trying to kill me," she said levelly, her mind racing as she struggled to control her voice. For one shining moment back in the Department of Mysteries, all of the pieces had (roughly) fit into place, and she was frantic to recapture those puzzle pieces before she lost them. She needed to see Alphard. She needed to see Harry.

And she really, really needed to talk to Pansy Parkinson. How had she not seen it before?

I refused, she realized, as she and Bill stared each other down. I refused to see what the evidence was all pointing to. I was so certain I had the measure of Pansy... Just like with Bill.

She would have bet her wand that Bill would never attack her, before. She would have lost that bet.

The idea of being wrong had never been too comfortable for her.

"I would never be able to kill you—unless you stood in the way of justice, of course. I know you understand, because you're the same way," Bill said now, just as levelly. "And Hermione, I know you don't mean to, I know you think you know better; but right now, you're standing in the way of justice."

"You're a cursebreaker for Gringotts. That job doesn't really lend itself to delivering justice," Hermione began. She spied her wand, laying on the countertop behind Bill. Without her magic, she was too vulnerable. She couldn't overpower a garden gnome in a physical fight, let alone Bill Weasley—even if he did look rather the worse for wear right now. "You don't even belong inside the Ministry."

"I belong in the Department of Mysteries far more than you do. I haven't worked at Gringotts since the war." He paused meaningfully. "And if that fact leaves this room, you and I are going to have a problem."

"It seems to me like we've already got a problem," she said acidly. "Why are you researching the Veil, and why does it have anything to do with Alphard?"

Bill hardly seemed concerned that she'd seen Alphard's name. His eyes glimmered with something like amusement.

"Yes, you're right: Alphard Black is connected to that Veil," he conceded. "You already saw his name so it's not like I can hide that from you. ...Though I highly recommend you don't confront Black about this. You might not get the response you are expecting."

"I know Alphard's father was pushed through the Veil. I happened to be there myself when Sirius Black fell through the Veil—not that I was conscious for it, of course. But—"

She stopped short as Bill let out a barking, caustic laugh.

"Sirius as Alphard's father? You seriously believe that, Hermione? I was told you were clever—use your head!" He rose to his feet. "Look, I don't know why you were in that room. I'm assuming you're trying to hunt down Amundsen. I can't stop you from that, either, and I know better than to try Obliviating you. Obliviating is a risky business in the best of circumstances and it leaves far too much evidence, so it'll just come back to bite me in the arse."

"So what will you do then?"

"I will do my job. And I'll leave you to do your job," he said simply. Bill turned on his heel, away from her, but Hermione wasn't done with him yet.

"My job is to hunt Amundsen—"

"No," he said coolly, turning back to her. "Your job is to supervise Alphard Black in case he uses another Unforgivable Curse, in which case you will report it to Furness and Kingsley immediately—as Kingsley has been looking for an excuse to get Alphard Black out of this Ministry for some time—and also to perform your Jurator duties, which have been abbreviated to allow you to concentrate on supervising Black. However, once his period of probation is over, you will likely go back to full-time Jurator, as the Ministry has now lost its other two top Jurators and needs you now more than ever."

"I suppose you've read some file on me?"

"Of course I have." Bill paused in the doorway. For a moment, his posture seemed to sag, and he looked older than his years. Like Lupin. "It would kill my mother to know I don't work for Gringotts anymore," he said simply, and then, at long last, he left.

Bill left her there, and Hermione sat in stunned silence for a long moment.

She didn't know what to do. All of the pieces had just been fitting together, but Bill had effectively thrown a Diffindo at her puzzle that she had so carefully fitted together, and blown it up.

You believe that, Hermione?

The only possible conclusion she could draw here was that Bill strongly believed Alphard had come from the wrong side of the Veil—and not from a union between Sirius and a woman. And though she felt she had a mountain of evidence to prove that Alphard was Sirius' son, Alphard's obvious fixation on Sirius, and therefore on Harry, did nothing to actually prove that: it merely demonstrated that he knew of Sirius in some way.

He didn't have to be his son.

There were other explanations.

And the ancient runes on his back—the ones that were likely from the same period as the indecipherable runes carved into the Veil, the ones that were likely of the same class as the anastasis—did not help matters.

Sirius had had an uncle Alphard. Hermione had just assumed that Alphard had been named for that uncle.

She'd never considered the possibility that he was that uncle. Or any other possibility, for that matter. She had refused to see those possibilities, too.

He did look an awful lot like Sirius. It was so much more than familial resemblance. It was enough to make Harry attack him, enough to make the Weasleys gasp every time they saw him, like they'd never get used to it.

She was keenly aware that all the while that she pondered this, her chances of getting to Pansy—who had been so elusive thus far—were growing ever slimmer. She needed to make a choice, needed to take action, even though her more imaginative side—the side that could empathize with House Elves, the side that could cry at the drop of a hat, the side that was in love with Harry and always had been—was pressing her to chase down Alphard, to investigate this.

Pansy, Alphard, or Bill.

She got up out of the bed, on weak legs. She knew which one she would choose.

The question, she pondered as she took her wand and steeled herself, was this: would she keep making the mistake of seeing the world the way she wanted to see it, the way that was easiest to see it?

She hadn't had this problem as a child. As a child she had easily perceived the various turns of events and twists of character that all wove together to create the passage of time, as easily as if these things had been laid out before her on a roadmap. When had she stopped questioning things; when had she become so single-minded?

She thought of Harry, of doors shutting forever, of forks in the road, options that fell away forever once you passed them by. Oh. That was when. Sometimes, being able to see other possibilities, to be able to easily perceive how things could be, rather than how they were, was too painful.

You run away from your feelings. Alphard's words beneath the mistletoe came back to her now. At the time it hadn't quite rung true, because she had thought she knew herself and thought herself to be uncontrolled by her fear. But now she was realizing that she had known who she had been—but not who she had become. She'd changed, and somewhere along the way she'd forgot to check to make sure she was still going in the right direction. She'd been running so blindly from what might have been that she no longer knew what could be.

And not only that, but she'd not even chosen the road she'd begun to traverse: she had let herself be pushed along it by other forces. Standing there in the infirmary, alone, she could see that plainly: nothing about her life right now, from her job to her romantic choices, had been explicitly chosen by her. She had not arranged her own life. Everyone else had arranged theirs, and she had fit herself in the spaces in between.

How had she become so passive? All her life she'd been the squeaky wheel, the annoying hand in the air, the persistent force that didn't care whether she made people uncomfortable. It had been painful, it had been lonely, but it had been her. That was who she truly was.

Alphard jerked backward. The Pensieve wobbled on the console table as he fell back against the wall behind him. After the darkness of the dungeon, the light of the foyer was jarring, and he had to shield his eyes from the brightness of the space.

Alphard stumbled to the powder room and emptied the contents of his stomach into the toilet. He then sank to the floor, clammy and vulnerable, just as Weasley—poor timing, per usual—exploded into the powder room.

"You alright?" he asked breathlessly, as Alphard hastily flushed the contents of his stomach down the drain, ashamed that Weasley was seeing him like this.

"Yep," he said shortly, as he crawled to the wall to lean against it. In an unexpected display of tact, Weasley wordlessly handed him a wad of toilet paper, and Alphard accepted it with shaking hands and wiped his mouth. "Just found a Pensieve."

Weasley's eyes widened.

"Harry's been in those loads of times, but I've never been," he said jealously. "What did you see? Anything good?"

Alphard wanted to laugh. It was an unfortunate turn of phrase. Anything good? Weasley went to the sink and wet a hand towel under it and passed it to Alphard.

"Look at the state of me, Weasley. What do you think?" he scoffed, and Weasley looked sheepish. "Anyway, ever notice anything odd about Zabini and Malfoy? Back in school, I mean."

"Is that a joke? They were nothing but odd," Weasley snorted. He put the toilet seat down and sat down on it. "Let me explain: Malfoy was the ringleader of the Slytherins of our year, but then after You-Know-Who's rise and fall, things went a bit south. His dad was thrown in Azkaban and died there, and Voldemort had used up lots of his inheritance, apparently. So the Malfoy you knew was a bit...humbled, shall we say, compared to the Malfoy we all grew up with."

"What about Zabini? Specifically, Malfoy's relationship with him."

Weasley considered this carefully.

"Zabini always had an air of mystery. No one knew him too well, honestly. He didn't stand out in any classes, didn't play Quidditch, didn't really get involved in either the Dark or the Light side... I know he interacted with Malfoy a lot, and Malfoy accepted him into his group, but Zabini doesn't really stand out in my memories of Hogwarts. I mean, obviously, he was a good-looking bloke, and known for that, but beyond that he wasn't really noteworthy. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever even spoke to Zabini," he realized. He looked surprised. "Hermione always respected him, though—after Hogwarts, I mean. Apparently he was a brilliant Jurator; she always said he was better than her and can imagine it took a lot for her to say that," he chuckled.

Alphard pondered, as he often did when in the company of Hermione's oldest friends, if any of them truly knew her at all. It didn't surprise him an ounce that Hermione thought Zabini more talented than her.

And as always, he could hardly resist pushing it a bit...

"Well, it wouldn't surprise me that she felt she wasn't the best Jurator, as it isn't really the best fit for Granger, career-wise," he said carelessly, watching Weasley's face out of the corner of his eye. To his surprise, Weasley just nodded.

"Yeah, she and Harry were told by Mad-Eye Moody—course, that wasn't really him, but anyway—that they both would make great Aurors," he said almost gloomily. He chuckled wryly now. "She would be an excellent Auror. Merlin knows we all did enough of it, back then. He didn't say that to me, though. I'd so love to rub it in his face that I'm the Auror now."

The two men paused as Alphard mulled over what he had learned. "...So? What did you see?" Weasley prompted now. "In the Pensieve."

"Well, Zabini..." The words hovered in Alphard's mouth; he couldn't quite spit them out.

He thought of all the people who had so admired Zabini—Granger, particularly—and how Zabini had represented, in the Slytherins' circle of friends, a different kind of morality: one in which he remained detached and impartial, able to evaluate each set of circumstances individually and in context, rather than based on iron-clad morals. No one had any problem with Zabini; rather like Adrian Pucey, he had evaded both the taint of the Dark and the hardships of the Light.

But none of that mattered. Much as Alphard knew that every crime had its context, and that no one perpetrated violence without their own reasons, Zabini had done something very wrong. Being well-liked or good-looking could not save him in Alphard's eyes. "Zabini raped Malfoy," he finally said bluntly. "Looks like it happened when you all were about sixteen or seventeen. Zabini and Malfoy had a rather complicated relationship, and it's unclear how things evolved after the rape, or why these things were left in the Pensieve. I don't even know if Zabini intended for Granger to find the Pensieve or not."

Weasley didn't look shocked; he scratched his chin, instead looking thoughtful, and Alphard was almost annoyed to feel a flicker of respect.

"Didn't you associate with them? At parties, and stuff. I know you're best friends with Pucey, and he's—"

"—friends with everyone, yeah," Alphard finished for him. "I certainly interacted with Malfoy and Zabini at parties, and heard about them peripherally, but honestly, I never got the slightest hint of anything untoward between them. They seemed basically like friends. Only bit of trouble between them was Astoria Greengrass—"

"—isn't she quite fit? She's Daphne Greengrass' sister, who went to Beauxbatons?"

"Yeah, Daph's sister. She's alright, a bit dull. But Malfoy was certainly pursuing her—as were plenty of other blokes—and it seemed like she and Zabini were in a relationship. Nott was always obsessed with her, too. I even confronted him about it, once."

Weasley shuddered.

"Creep," he muttered, unknowingly earning another point in his favor in Alphard's mind. "So you actually saw the rape, then?"

"Yeah...and so did Nott."

"How?" Weasley looked disgusted. "You mean he watched?"

"I guess he was spying? I don't know how much he saw. He confronted Zabini afterwards, but Zabini sort of just ran off—"

"It makes sense," Weasley said suddenly. "I always thought that Zabini was a bit weird with Nott—nowadays, I mean. He always stuck up for him and was weirdly...considerate of him. It seemed out of character for Zabini," Weasley was saying, almost excitedly. Alphard noted that, perhaps, he was excited to have been right about something. "So now we know that Nott had something on Zabini, and I bet you anything Nott never let him forget it...How sick do you have to be, to just watch something like that happen, and not stop it? Then again, I guess he could have been scared of what Zabini might do."

"That is the likeliest explanation, but it doesn't tell me anything new about Zabini's death. Nott's too clever to kill Zabini if he had something over him; he wouldn't want to waste the opportunity to wheedle a favor out of him later, particularly in terms of their careers."

Alphard fell silent, thinking hard.

Malfoy had been raped, by Zabini.

And he knew Astoria had been raped—likely by someone who was already dead, as Daphne had implied that it would be impossible to get justice for what had happened to her sister.

Had Zabini raped Astoria, too? Had Alphard had the wrong end of that relationship, too? There were love letters between Astoria and Zabini, but that didn't prove anything. She might not even have written those. ...And even if she had, Malfoy and Zabini's odd relationship was enough to prove that just because someone hurt you didn't necessarily mean you stopped loving them.

"You're right," Weasley agreed, breaking into Alphard's thoughts and shaking his head and getting to his feet. "Come on, let's look around the house a bit more. We probably don't have much time before we're caught."

He offered his hand and Alphard took it a bit reluctantly, and Weasley pulled him to his feet.

"Thanks," Alphard muttered.

They began searching the bedroom together, mostly wordlessly.

"It's too bad you and Harry can't get on," Weasley suddenly said, pausing in his searching. "You both have a lot of insight into others. You'd work well together." Alphard had been rooting through drawers, and he looked back at the redhead in surprise.

"Don't know if you've noticed, but Potter's not exactly my biggest fan," he said wryly. Weasley chuckled.

"Yeah. It's funny how when you first turned up I hated you, 'cause I thought you and Harry'd become best mates and I'd be odd man out."

"It'll be a cold day in hell on the day that Potter stops being your best friend, Weasley." Alphard resumed his search, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. But Weasley continued.

"It's hard for him, you know. I know you never met Sirius, and I'm sure you're getting sick of hearing this, but you're so like him. It's not just how you look, it's...everything. How you say things. How you make people feel. And you can't know what Sirius was to Harry. They had this bond that went beyond whatever you'd expect of godfather and godson," Weasley explained.

He was rifling through dozens of gloriously-coloured silk robes, clearly not paying attention to the search. "I never realized it when we were kids, but Harry went through hell in his childhood. I mean, he was actually abused by the Muggles who raised him. He never talks about it, of course, and if anyone brings it up he just shrugs it off or makes a joke, but he was abused...and it never wore him down, you know?

"Most people, if they went through that, they'd lose themselves. But it never really hurt him. It only made him stronger. And Sirius was the same way. He was in Azkaban, and sure, it changed him, but he was still clearly himself. Who else could survive more than a decade in Azkaban? I think not many people are like that. And I think that sense of self...they saw it in each other. I think it was the first time Harry really felt understood, you know?"

Alphard had to bury his hands deeper in the drawer to hide how they trembled, and he lowered his face to conceal himself and his feelings from Weasley.

"You seem like you have a lot of insight into others, too," he said lightly.

"I've been thinking about it a lot, is all," Weasley replied a bit sheepishly. "You're like Sirius, in that you get a reaction out of people, no matter what you do. I hated you when you first showed up, yeah; but I was also desperate for you to think I was cool."

"It's the hair," Alphard joked. The room felt airless. "Long hair always does that. Trust me, the minute I get a haircut, you'll think I'm a total knob."

"What I'm trying to say is," Weasley said, ignoring Alphard's joke, "it's taken me some time, and I'm stubborn as hell, but I came around eventually. Harry will too."

"Came around?"

"I'm okay with it," Weasley said, his face partially obscured by the wardrobe, "if something...happens...between you and Hermione."

"Wow. Thanks for bequeathing Granger to me. I hope she's got a decent dowry." Alphard paused. "And I'm not really sure when you got this into your head, but there's nothing between me and Granger. I...have a girlfriend. So, really: there's nothing between me and Granger."

"Sure there isn't," Weasley snorted. "I know you think I'm an idiot, but I'm smarter than I look." And then the rack of robes fell down on top of him.

Where was Pansy?

Hermione was beginning to realize that this would be harder than she thought. She had tracked down Pansy's flat, but the Slytherin girl hadn't been there.

The only choice, then, was to go to Malfoy Manor. It was where she had seen Pansy last, and, judging by her own theory, where Pansy was most likely to be. Reluctant though she was to leave the Ministry, she had no time to carefully plan her next move: she needed to act now. She went back to Nott's office, but his notes that she had discovered were gone.

I'll deal with you later, Bill, she thought almost vengefully, as she snapped her bag shut and left the Ministry. She hoped he wasn't so foolish as to really think this matter closed, but then, she would not so foolishly underestimate him ever again.

She wouldn't underestimate anyone ever again. Bill, Pansy, Nott, even many people had she completely underestimated?

She Disapparated, and reappeared at Malfoy Manor. It had been freshly cordoned off, and the air was thick with detection spells. The Auror presence was opaque enough that she already knew Pansy wouldn't be here.

"Jurator Granger," came a voice, small in the high wind. Whelkes melted into being before her, his face flushed and his glasses slightly fogged. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for Pansy Parkinson, whom you were supposed to be tailing," she said bluntly, wasting no time. "Where is she?"

"No one knows. It's like she disappeared off the bloody map. W—" he halted, consciously. "Another person asked me to tail her, actually. So is she a prime suspect again?"

"Did Bill Weasley ask you to tail her?" Hermione countered coolly. Whelkes looked startled.

"Bill Weasley? He doesn't even work for the Ministry, Jurator Granger."

His lie fell flat. Hermione smiled a little sadly at Whelkes. She'd never been much of a liar, either.

"Harry told me," she began gently, "that if you're a bad liar, it's generally best to say nothing at all. It's better to let people wonder than to confirm their suspicions."

She turned on the spot, leaving a stunned Whelkes behind.

Hermione only had a few possibilities for where Pansy might be, but even with Apparition, traveling to each of these places would take forever—it would be a waste of valuable time.

And thus Hermione found herself back at Pansy Parkinson's flat.

She was going to be breaking and entering into Pansy's flat.

She liked to think that this sort of behavior was unlike her, but she knew that nothing was off-limits when she needed to achieve her goal. Unfortunately, Bill had been correct in that regard: nothing would stand in the way between her and justice. At least, it won't ever again, she thought determinedly.

Pansy's flat was in Knockturn Alley, not far from Alphard's flat. The old building loomed up in front of her, a collection of heavy blackened stone and darkened, diamond-paneled windows.

Hermione entered the building. The wooden door was heavy, with an ancient, twisted knocker in the shape of a serpent. The hall, though plushly decorated with silk walls and thick carpeting, had clearly seen better days. The sounds of Knockturn Alley had been blocked out, leaving a ringing in her ears, reminiscent of being in an empty church. It was a lonely place.

Pansy didn't live on the top floor, as Hermione might have guessed. Rather, she only lived one storey up. Bags of rubbish had been left out on the landing, and even from here, Hermione could smell Pansy's strong perfume lingering in the air. She murmured a few detection spells under her breath, but Pansy hadn't left any defenses or wards up. The girl, clever though she apparently was, was obviously unused to having to protect herself.

The heavy door came open with a simple Alohomora and swung inward with a groan, revealing Pansy's flat. Hermione hastily shut the door behind her, and looked around.

Pansy was a slob, perhaps moreso than even Harry. Shopping bags—even from Muggle stores; she recognized a few rather glossy names—were strewn about the room, with items still bearing tags tumbled out of them, mixed in carelessly with dirty laundry. Judging by the number and quality of shopping bags, Hermione couldn't help but surmise that Pansy was likely in a decent amount of debt. The idea didn't surprise her. Pansy had always seemed impulsive and undisciplined.

Half-finished food sat on the side table next to the sofa, and the kitchen area was a veritable pigsty. Beyond her disgust, she felt pity: this was the flat of a person who desperately pursued material happiness; who had little that she could call her purpose. This was the flat of a deeply unhappy person, possibly consumed by her own grief.

Hermione left the kitchen and went to the bedroom, which was surprisingly bare, aside from all the clothes. The wardrobe was overflowing with cheap, brightly-colored robes and designer handbags, but beyond that, it was empty. There were no pictures on her bedside table, no signs of a life beyond her clothes.

In a flat overflowing with things that had clearly failed to give Pansy any meaning, what could Hermione possibly use to track her?

Alphard would be good at finding something, but she didn't have the time to go and find him, and truthfully, thinking of him was painful right now. The seeds of doubt that Bill had planted were improbable, but he'd planted them nonetheless. To see Alphard would mean being confronted by profound doubt: doubt in her friendship with Alphard (however precarious it often felt), doubt in her own abilities to discern falsities and lies; doubt in her knowledge of life, death, and the Veil.

She combed through the wardrobe, looked beneath the bed, opened drawers in search of anything that did not appear to be carelessly discarded to where it now lay. She searched for anything that seemed beloved, special.

At last, in the wardrobe, she came upon something.

It was a heavy black velvet dress; even Hermione could tell that the quality was higher than anything else in the wardrobe. The velvet was plush and had the peculiar sort of depth one only saw in the night sky: that it seemed to have no back to it, no end.

Hermione didn't really care for clothes, particularly dramatic dresses. Her life really had no place for such things. But even her breath was stolen away by the sight of this dress. It was hanging in the very back of the wardrobe, sitting properly on its hanger, clearly separate from the other robes and dresses. It didn't look like it had been worn more than once. Hermione held up the dress and could only think that the cut, with its daring, plunging neckline and narrow waist, looked triumphant.

It was the best she was going to get. Nothing else in this entire flat seemed to be worth a damn to Pansy Parkinson. Hermione tugged it off the plush hanger and, though the dress was made of heavy velvet, it felt light as air in her hands.

She held up the dress and cast the tracking spell, and watched a little burst of light come forth from the dress.

"Got you," she whispered, and she discarded the dress and chased after the light.

Alphard and Weasley left Zabini's flat. Alphard knew he ought to owl Hermione, but he didn't know how to put into words what he had seen in the Pensieve. He couldn't just write something like that in a note; he wasn't even sure what words one might use.

He returned to his own flat and took a long shower, avoiding what he knew he must do. Without speaking to Astoria or, at the very least, Daphne, what he had seen in the Pensieve held little implications for Zabini's or Malfoy's deaths, or Nott's involvement in the Amundsen case. He knew he had to talk to Daphne, either way: either to discuss with her what she knew, or to gain access to Astoria.

Perhaps he was feeling a little rebellious because he dressed in Muggle clothes, even though he strongly suspected that Daphne was bothered by the sight of them. He ought to have played to her preferences, but after being so immersed in all of the ways that these people held onto their bigotry like precious talismans, he couldn't bring himself to.

That, and maybe, some part of him was just looking for trouble.

He Apparated to the alley outside of the Greengrass' flat. He'd been here a number of times, of course, but it seemed unfamiliar to him today. He recalled finding Zabini's handkerchief in Astoria's purse, and wondered even more about whether he had once again presumed too much; once again got the wrong end of the stick.

But as he stood in the alley, gathering his courage, he saw Astoria breeze past him, wearing a tailored pink Muggle coat, with her hair a mess. He forgot all about Daphne, and the inconvenient conversation they must have, and immediately decided to tail her.

Unfortunately, he did not see Daphne watching from her window, who had heard him Apparate into the alleyway, and had watched as, yet again, someone had chosen Astoria over her.