"So… Any idea what we are doing here?" Harry Potter asked his two best friends as he waited in front of the office of the Minister of Magic himself.
"Not really, no," Ron answered. "But it'd better be important if I have to wake up this early on my day off."
"Oh for Merlin's sake, Ronald, will you stop complaining? It's nine in the morning!" Hermione huffed. "I just hope this isn't another ridiculous ball we have to attend, because I can assure you I am not going to any more."
Harry grinned, "I sincerely doubt Kingsley summoned us all to his office for a ball, Hermione."
"Yes, well you never know," she grumbled under her breath.
At that moment the door of the office opened, and the Minister let them in. "Harry, Ron, Hermione," Kingsley Shacklebolt said when everyone was seated and the office was warded against possible eavesdroppers. "It's good to see you. Thank you for being able to come upon such short notice."
"No problem," Harry answered. "What's this about, Kingsley?"
The Minister sighed deeply, wishing he had something nice to say, like that there was going to be a ball or something similar. "I'm afraid I have bad news."
"And now you've got us worried," Hermione said (although she was just a teensy bit relieved that it was not about dancing and titles and positive publicity and whatnot). "What is it?"
"Yesterday night, there was a massive breakout from Azkaban. Almost all the Death Eaters we had locked up managed to escape. This means people like the Lestranges brothers and the Carrows are walking free as we speak. They seem to have vanished without a trace, and even though I'm putting practically all our Aurors on the case, I don't think they will be caught anytime soon."
"So why contact us, Kingsley?" Harry asked, surprised. It made no sense that he was the one sitting there and not his boss, the head of the Auror Department. Surely both he and Ron, being Aurors, would've heard of it soon enough.
"Because all evidence points towards the fact that they're coming after you. Think about it, the one who killed Voldemort, a blood-traitor and the most famous Muggle-born. You're bound to be targeted."
"Oh." Yes, oh. What else was he supposed to say when he'd just heard that some of the world's most dangerous criminals had it out for him? (Again!)
"But don't worry, your safety is top priority right now. I need you to listen carefully and not get mad at the decisions we've made. I assure you, we have thought this through and I trust it is for the best."
"Of course," Hermione said. "What did you have in mind?"
"First of all, you will be separated. I know this will be hard for you, considering you're practically attached at the hip, but it is only until we've found the Death Eaters."
The Golden Trio exchanged shocked looks. This was something they had not expected. If Hermione was being entirely honest, she had expected the exact opposite, that they would've been dropped off at a safe house, all together. She was a bit relieved that that was not the case; as much as she loved her boys, living with them was not something she wanted to be subjected to again. It was true that they still saw each other a lot, even four years after the war. They all worked at the Ministry and they ate lunch together almost every day, not to mention the Sunday morning brunches at the Burrow and the Friday evening dinner dates at the Potter's (Ginny was an excellent cook).
"Harry, you and Ginny currently live at Grimmauld Place, am I right?"
"Yeah, we do."
"The house itself is well protected. We are going to put the Fidelius Charm back on it, with either you or Ginny as the Secret Keeper. Also, another Auror is going to come and live with you. That way, you won't have to go to work alone, and if you need something he can go and get it for you. I realize it will be weird to have someone live with you, but it's a big house. You should be fine."
The Boy-Who-Lived looked rather annoyed, but nodded. "I hardly think that that will be necessary. However, if you think it's wiser then I won't complain. Which Auror will it be?"
"Terry Boot." Harry smiled. He had worked with the Ravenclaw on several occasions, and both he and Ginny liked him. This wouldn't be so bad.
Kingsley seemed relieved that his proposition was accepted without protests. One down, two to go. "I'm afraid the both of you are going to need to be temporarily relocated. Your flats do not offer enough protection. Ron, Bill and Fleur have agreed to take you in. Their cottage is still under the Fidelius Charm and Bill, being a member of the Order, will be able to protect you."
Ron seemed relieved. "Great, but what about the rest of my family? Are they safe?"
"We believe your mother might be a target too, as she is the one that killed Bellatrix. She and your father will be staying with Charlie in Romania for now."
Kingsley then turned to Hermione, "Hermione, as for you, one of our best Aurors has most graciously offered to take you in. His house is one of the best protected places in England. You will be completely safe there."
It did not escape Hermione's notice that he failed to mention the name of said Auror. She was the brightest witch of her age after all. This couldn't be good.
"Who is she staying with?" Harry asked, suspiciously. He must've drawn the same conclusion.
Kingsley Shacklebolt, former Order of the Phoenix member and current Minister of Magic, was obviously a bit nervous. He might have been a brave man, but Hermione Granger, kind as she was, was not to be underestimated when she was angry. And she was going to be angry.
He breathed in deeply and dropped the bomb. "Draco Malfoy."
The Golden Trio's reactions did not disappoint. Both Harry and Ron stood up with such vigor that their chairs fell loudly on the ground, and they started shouting about Kingsley being mad and Malfoy being an evil ferret. The witch in question merely stared at him, mouth wide open.
After a few minutes, the boys finally quieted down and Hermione had the chance to talk.
"Kingsley, with all due respect, this doesn't make any sense. First of all, the Lestranges have already been to Malfoy Manor. Secondly, I have been to Malfoy Manor and I was tortured in their drawing room," (Kingsley cringed a bit at that.) "And thirdly, there is no way Malfoy would ever allow someone like me in his house, unless he has some kind of evil plan behind it."
"Tssk, Granger, so quick to make assumptions! You haven't even given our dear Minister the chance to explain everything."
Somehow, Draco Malfoy himself had managed to get in the room without any of them noticing. He was leaning against the doorframe, hands in his pockets, looking every bit the handsome aristocratic git she had expected him to become.
Wait what, handsome?
Well yes, she begrudgingly admitted to herself. Her school nemesis had become quite the looker in the years she hadn't seen him.
She turned back to Kingsley. "Is this really the best idea you've had? And why can Harry and Ron stay with friends and family while I'm…"
She didn't finish that sentence, but they got the idea.
"Well, it seems rather obvious to leave Ginny and Harry where they are, and it seemed a bit safer to have you work with Draco. No offense, Ron, but you're quite a hothead sometimes. Hermione, I was counting on your maturity and professionalism to overlook past slights, and to get along with the man that so generously offers you protection."
Oh great, now he was guilt-tripping her.
"Not to mention, you're the Muggle-born that helped defeat Voldemort. You stand for everything they hate. They will come after you, and I need you safe."
Hermione shivered. Even though she could have figured that out by herself, it was not exactly reassuring to hear it said out loud.
"How do you know he really wants to help? Maybe he'll hand me over on a silver platter," she said, crossing her arms petulantly.
Malfoy snorted. "That would be the most idiotic thing I could ever do. If you disappeared under my watch, everyone would think it was me and I'd be in Azkaban in no time. And I may be many things, but stupid is not one of them. Give me some credit, Granger. I can assure you, nothing will happen to you as long as you stay in the Manor."
"Let me remind you that Mister Malfoy has been working for the Ministry these past years, and has proven to be a trustworthy and capable Auror. I wouldn't let him do this if I wasn't absolutely certain about were his allegiances lay," Kingsley added.
The girl sighed deeply, starting to realize that none of her objections would make a difference. She still gave it one last shot. "How about the fact that the Lestranges know where the Manor is?"
Once again, it was Malfoy that answered. "When my father died, I became the head of the Malfoy family. No one can enter the house without me giving him permission first, and I'm very picky about the people I invite into my home." He gave her a look that clearly expressed she should feel honored she was one of them. She really didn't.
After Kingsley had managed to calm Harry and Ron down enough to make them see reason, it was time to say goodbye.
"But for how long?" she asked. "Surely it can't be that hard to find them? We can't stay locked away forever!"
"Locked away? Malfoy Manor is hardly a prison. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's…" Malfoy never got to finish that sentence; he was interrupted by the Golden Trio telling him to shut up at the exact same moment, without even having to look at each other.
"Creepy," he mumbled.
"All I can say is I'll keep you up to date," Kingsley answered her. "You can still write to each other and if it lasts too long I promise I'll try to make it possible for you guys to meet up. If you want to write to Hermione, send the letter to me. I'll make sure it gets to Malfoy Manor. Nobody knows where Hermione is going to stay, and I want to keep it that way, is that clear?"
"How about my job?" She worked in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, attempting to defend the rights of house-elves, werewolves, goblins and centaurs.
"You will get the documents you need delivered to the Manor. We will tell everyone you're on a trip to Russia to talk about the rights of non-humans, and that you might stay there for a few months."
She looked at him in horror. "Are you telling me I'll have to stay put all the time? That's the worst idea ever. I'll go crazy!"
"You'll get further details later. You need to leave now, before people see you."
One quick hug to her best friends, who both told her to be careful, and she was gone. Hermione and Draco went by Floo to the Manor.
"There are only four people who can get in here," Malfoy informed her, sounding almost bored. "My mother, me, you and Blaise."
At her surprised look, he sighed deeply. "And no, Blaise won't betray you either. Not all Slytherins are evil, you know."
"I was merely wondering why Kingsley was not on that list," she answered. "No need to get all defensive."
"The fewer people that can get in here, the safer," he said, shrugging.
She nodded, looking around. They were standing in some kind of drawing room, decorated with good taste. There was nothing gloomy or dark about this place, no traces of blood on the expensive carpet. She felt a bit foolish to expect any differently, and yet she was surprised at the elegance of the place. And relieved she didn't recognize anything.
Malfoy was watching her curiously. "We're in the West Wing of the Manor. It's the only part that's been inhabited since... well, since the War. The place that... er the place you've been before is on the other side of the house."
Hermione just stared at him. She had not expected his thoughtfulness.
"Okay then," he said, when the silence became awkward. "I'll have a house-elf show you to your room. Your stuff's already there. Polly!"
With a resonating 'pop', a tiny house-elf appeared. "Yes, Master Draco?"
"This is Hermione Granger, the girl I talked to you about. Show her around, will you?"
"Yes, Master!" the little elf squeaked happily. "Follow me, Miss!" She grabbed Hermione's hand and practically dragged her along. Hermione barely had time to look at Malfoy, who was obviously laughing at her.
"Careful Granger, Polly tends to get a bit overexcited. Try not to fall over your own feet."
She was so shocked at hearing him laugh that she didn't pay attention to whatever Polly was saying in the beginning. It was only in the third room they entered that she started to listen because damn, it was a nice, albeit slightly scary room.
The most prominent thing in the room was a huge wooden table, long enough for at least 30 people.
"And this is the dining room, miss," Polly said, proudly. "The table and chairs are hand-carved, and there used to be paintings of the old masters and mistresses, but Master Draco asked Polly to bring them out because they talked too much. Now they're all in the attic! And..."
"Polly, please tell me we won't actually eat here? I mean, it's a bit... big, don't you think? For two people?"
"Mrs. Malfoy takes breakfast and lunch in one of her sitting rooms, and Master Draco comes to eat in the kitchen, but dinner is served here, Miss."
Once again the little elf dragged her along, and the next door she opened made Hermione squeal with joy.
It was a library. A huge library.
She practically bounced inside, that is until she saw Draco Malfoy himself standing by the fireplace. He snorted.
"Figures it's a library that turns you on, Granger."
"Oh. I, er, didn't know you'd be here." She blushed, embarrassed to be caught acting so childishly.
"Well this is my home, you know. I can go anywhere I want to. However, considering the fact that you're going to be... how was it you put it? Oh right, locked up, here, you can work in here. No one will bother you."
"Thank you," she said, once again wondering at his attentive behavior. But then again, they were both stuck here for Merlin knows how long, so it'd be much easier if they managed to be civil.
He nodded, and made to leave the room. "Oh, and Granger? Mother expects you at dinner tonight. Polly will come and fetch you when it's time. Try to wear something nice, will you?" He shot a disdainful look at her plain black robes.
She bristled in anger. "What's wrong with my clothes?"
He merely raised an eyebrow, not bothering to answer.
Never mind being civil. He was still the arrogant prick he had always been, she thought, almost relieved. This was the Malfoy she knew, the Malfoy she could handle.
"Why did you take me in, anyway? And don't say it's out of the goodness of your heart, because we both know that's a lie."
At once, his whole demeanor changed. She could pinpoint the exact moment he schooled his features into a neutral expression, making it impossible to know what he was thinking. She stared at his face, fascinated.
Most of her friends were Gryffindors. They were brave, a bit reckless, but above all honest. Whether that was because they could not lie to save their lives, or that they could not lie to save their lives because they were so honest that they didn't bother trying, she never knew. She was not familiar with people who could pretend so easily, and for some reason, instead of feeling disapproving, she felt intrigued.
Not to mention, the git had a face worth-looking at.
Oh boy, not even an hour in the Manor and she was going crazy already. She was in serious trouble.
"Well I didn't agree to it for the pleasure of your company, that much is for sure. To be honest, I'd rather have you than the Weasel, though that doesn't say much."
"That's not an answer, Malfoy," she said, refusing to be riled up by his insults.
"Not that I have to tell you, but you won't stop annoying me until I do, so I might as well get it over with." He sighed. "You see, after the war, things weren't so good for my family. Even though my mother and I got off easily thanks to Potter's testimony, almost everyone looks at us as if we're still Death Eaters. The Malfoy name has a bad reputation now, Granger. Nobody cares that my mother saved the Boy-Who-Lived, or that I have been an Auror, and a good one at that, for the past three years. I figured that if the world knew I kept their favorite little war-hero safe, we might regain some respectability. Is that a good enough reason for you?"
"Yes, quite. How very noble of you."
"Seven o'clock in the dining room, Granger. Don't be late!" With that, he turned around, leaving Hermione to her thoughts.
Her thoughts weren't very happy, unfortunately. The fact that she might spend months in this place was starting to dawn upon her. She would have to spend months, with only a boy that used to hate her for her blood and a woman that had watched her get tortured in her own house as company.
It seemed that the little house-elf noticed her distress. "What is wrong, Miss? Is the room not to your liking? Polly is terribly sorry, the Master said that–"
"No, no, Polly, it's okay!" Hermione forced a smile. "I'm just a bit overwhelmed. Could you take me to my room?"
"Yes, Miss, follow me, Miss!" And once again the little elf practically dragged her along.
Well, at least she had Polly, she thought with a smile.
Her room was absolutely gorgeous. It was about as big as her entire flat, with light-blue walls and a plush carpet that made her want to take off her shoes. Her bed was big enough for four people, and one of the walls was actually a window with a beautiful view of the gardens.
She had her own bathroom (also huge) with a bath that reminded her of the prefect bath at Hogwarts.
She fell down on the bed, marveling at how comfortable it was. I could get used to this, she thought.
"Miss Granger?" Polly appeared next to her with a pop.
"You can call me Hermione, Polly."
The little elf started bouncing excitedly. "Thank you, Miss Hermione! You is very nice to Polly! Master Draco said you would be!"
Hermione laughed at the enthusiasm of the little thing. Where on earth had Malfoy found her? Most house-elves were very reserved, no matter how nicely they were treated, with Dobby as the big exception. It struck her as very out-of-character for Draco, to have a servant like that. Not to mention Polly wore a pretty little dress, which meant she was a free elf.
How odd. She would have to ask him about it at the next opportunity.
"It's time for lunch! Polly can bring it here, if you'd like!"
"Actually, could you bring it to the library? I am going to eat there."
"Yes miss, Polly will do it at once!" And with another pop she was gone.
She spent the entire afternoon in the library, even though she didn't have to work yet. But there were so many books to discover! She had already found a few that could help her with her current research (how to help werewolves be a part of society). There were also very old books that were probably worth more than the Hogwarts library in its entirety.
She was still a bit giddy about some of her findings when Polly came to tell her she ought to change for dinner, and her high spirits remained when she entered the dining room.
Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. She had a magnificent library to keep her busy, Draco seemed to be really trying to be civil, Polly was a very funny elf and Narcissa did save Harry's life, so surely Narcissa wouldn't be too mean, right?
Dinner was terrible. In the beginning it was simply awkward. They were seated at the huge table, and the silence was so heavy it was almost tangible. Draco Malfoy managed to look perfectly at ease and bored out of his mind at the same time, and didn't say a word. His mother looked thoroughly displeased at having a Mudblood at her table and merely stared at her plate without eating anything.
After ten very long minutes, Narcissa finally deigned to speak.
"So, Miss Granger, what is it you do again?"
Hermione almost choked on her food but managed to swallow it with an inhuman effort and tears in her eyes. Out of the corner of her eyes she noticed that Malfoy was trying to suppress a smile.
"I work as a researcher in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. "
"That's a rather high function postition for someone as young as you are, isn't it?" Narcissa couldn't have sounded more disapproving if she tried.
"It is, yes. The Head of the Department, Eric Longten, offered me the job when he heard I did most of the research that destroyed Voldemort," she said defiantly. The Malfoys shuddered at his name. "Not to mention that I created S.P.E.W. in my fourth year."
"Well, I've always known Longten was overly... sympathetic. Your father never much liked him, Draco."
The young man merely grunted in response, not willing to get involved.
"But then again, my Lucius didn't like many people..." Narcissa sighed. "It is fortunate he never had to live through this." She looked at Hermione, making it very obvious what she was talking about. "He is probably turning in his grave right now. It is a shame how fast the world changes."
At this, Hermione Granger found herself unable to remain silent and ignore the woman, as she had been doing until now.
"A shame? I'm afraid I must disagree with you, Mrs. Malfoy."
"Well of course you disagree, it serves you rather well after all, doesn't it? If the world wasn't so different, no Malfoy would have lowered himself by letting a Mud...Muggle-born in his house."
"That's one way of looking at it, I suppose. But let's not forget that I wouldn't have to hide at all if some crazy people believing in the 'old ways' weren't after me in the first place!" With that, she stood brusquely and left the room without another glance backwards.
She had barely managed a few steps before the door opened once again.
"What do you want?" she said, without stopping.
"It's quite rude to leave the table in the middle of a meal, you know."
At this she turned around, a furious look in her eyes.
"RUDE?" she shouted. "You want to talk about rude? Because I'm pretty sure your mother has managed to insult me in every single sentence she said! I refuse to be some charity case, Malfoy! You better tell your mother that my being here benefits you as much as it helps me, because if she ever talks to me like that again I'm leaving, no matter what crazy Death Eaters are running around!"
She had gotten herself so worked up that her cheeks were bright-red and her hair seemed to have actually come alive.
"Look, Granger, I know my mother was not exactly... er, welcoming right now, but you've got to give her some time. She's still very bitter about my father's death, she blames everyone that has anything to do with the Ministry. Just don't take it personally."
As soon as he said it he knew he made a mistake.
"Not take this personally? Are you joking?" And now she looked ready to explode. Good job, Draco.
"Okay, that was a stupid thing to say. What I actually meant is that I'm sure she'll be nicer once she gets used to you. Just ignore her when she's mean and it won't be so bad?" He didn't even sound convincing in his own ears.
"I'll do better than that, Malfoy," she said, spitting out his name as if she could poison him with the word. "Just tell Polly I'll eat in my room from now on, and if you and your mother stay out of the library we can all joyfully pretend none of this is real." At that, she turned on her heel and disappeared up the stairs.
"Polly!" Draco called. The elf was next to him in a second. "Make sure Granger finds her room, and give her everything she asks."
"Of course, Master Draco!"
When Draco came back to the dining room, he was surprised to see his mother still sitting there, and with an amused look on her face at that.
"What's so funny, mother? Or are you merely proud you managed to chase off our guest after barely half an hour?"
Narcissa did not bother to answer his questions. Instead, she just said: "She's quite a spitfire, isn't she? Not at all what I would have expected from someone with her ancestry."
"Yes, I guess if there is one thing we all can agree on about Hermione Granger is that she never fails to defy our expectations," he answered drily.
"I must say, Draco, that is something I admire in a girl – backbone. I remember when she was being tortured by Bella." A shadow passed over his mother's face. "She didn't give away anything. Quite brave, really. Even your father was impressed."