DEAD or ALIVE
The heat was scorching. The sun seemed to blare down leaving the entire town of Deadhaven sweltering and miserable. She pulled her hair to the side of her neck as she watched Edmond Lestrange throw yet another paper wad at little Teddy Lupin's head. Teddy turned around and shook his chubby fist at Edmond, swearing vengeance.
She sighed. She wished that this heat would let up. The windows in the schoolhouse had been painted shut, and she had spent the better part of the day tugging up on them uselessly, all the while dodging the occasional projectile aimed at her, and trying to calm the children that didn't understand that she in fact was not capable of controlling the climate.
It was only half past one, hardly the appropriate time to let her students go home, but after several hours of trying in vain to cool down the building, standing at the front door and fanning it in an attempt to pull a breeze in, pulling at the windows until she was on the frustrated verge of either cussing or crying, and reminding the students that they couldn't go play in the lake, because the herd was currently feeding in the fields, she had finally given up. These summer months simply were not a good time to have school.
And, she knew, that if she were to let them go early she might have time to-
It was decided and decreed. All of the younglings of the Western town of Deadhaven were dismissed. They scampered down the sidewalks, wishing her a happy weekend as their feet clattered on the wooden roof-lined walkway that ran up the sides of Main Street. The shoppers and pioneers and ranchers all watched them skip and holler with wistful smiles. Everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing: 'Ah what it would be like to be young yet again.'
As the final child disappeared into the distance—Teddy Lupin, the slowest of the group, was lugging his rather impressive stack of books back home—Hermione watched the citizens mill in and out of the bank, the saloon, the butcher's, and the sheriff's office. All of them had a place to be and a plan for the day. The western expansion was well underway. Ever since the passing of the Homestead Act, settlers destined for the Nevadan desert had been passing through their quiet town regularly. Deadhaven had become a stop for the settlers that were on their way to their new homes.
The sleepy town had welcomed the new folks warmly, allowing them a night's rest at the inn, feed for their horses, and a couple of drinks and grub down at the Leaky Saloon. Ole Tom, the bartender, always had a story to tell, and that seemed to keep the liquor flowing and the money pouring into the town. Life truly was sublime.
Well—except for the unyielding heat.
She sighed loudly, pulling at her stiff collar. The linen pleats of her pressed shirt seemed to trap the warmth against her skin, turning her body into an oven. She could feel the sweat clinging to her brassiere—it was uncomfortable and sticky. There was not a breeze to speak of, and she felt nothing but pure overheated misery washing over her. Her body felt sluggish and dull. She wished that the Texan sun would have just a little bit of mercy on them all.
She gathered her long, curly brown hair up, and pulled it away from her neck. She glanced around her desk, looking for a pin or some twine that might be able to hold it.
"My, it is a lovely summer day, wouldn't you say, Darlin'?" a teasing voice called out behind her.
He tipped his white hat in her direction politely.
She smiled despite her discomfort. "Certainly. I daresay I needed to lose a few pounds. This heatwave is simply most convenient."
His bright blue eyes held hers compellingly. "Water? Who needs it? I challenge anyone who wishes to speak of its benefits. 'Essential to life'? – I declare 'hogwash'." He leaned against the wooden posts of her porch and wagged his finger in the air. She took a moment to take in his gorgeous red hair and his chiseled stubble ridden jaw. His wide shoulders were covered in a navy dyed linen shirt, the top of which lay open, exposing the freckled skin beneath. His suspenders were attached securely to his dark brown trousers, and his boots looked worn and comfortable with his legs crossed at the ankle.
Many devices hung at his waist: His gun- a nickel quickdraw revolver that hung right at his fingertips, his compass—a dented but trusty brass apparatus that always pointed true north, and his leather satchel, carelessly slung on his shoulder, that was fighting its seams with hidden treasures.
He was a man of many tools- tinkering and inventing devices, hoping to ease the worries and troubles of the ones that he loved.
"You know, I have been saying for years that the human race needed to rid themselves of such a needless dependency," she quipped.
"I always knew you were smarter than the rest of these imbeciles," he whispered the last part and looked down his nose towards the other members of the town. "Can you believe them? Partaking in 'agua'. Uncouth if you ask me." With that final word, he stepped quickly across the threshold into the school house, kicked the chair that Hermione had used to prop open the door to the side, and shut it soundly.
"Fred," she whined, "leave the door open, it's boiling in here."
"Privacy," he explained. He tugged his hat off of his head, laid it on a students' desk and then stepped up directly in front of her. His boots were just barely touching her own. She had to crane her neck back to meet his eyes as he towered above her. "Hello." He smiled.
"Hi." She lifted her head up towards his.
He kissed her soundly on the lips with a loud SMACK that made her roll her eyes.
He was a clown—grinning and joking and pulling laughs out of her that she didn't even know she had.
"Saw the kids scurrying up past the well. I figured you'd let 'em out, and I could make my way over here a little early," he explained himself, tugging on his suspender nervously.
"Good call. The hope that you might turn up was part of the reason why I let them go."
His grin was wide and relaxed. "I have a present for you." He whispered conspiratorially.
She raised her eyebrows. "A present? I like presents." She beamed at him.
He laid his leather bag down on the table. "Wonderful." He reached his fingers up to her neck and began to undo the buttons of her stiff, cream shirt deftly.
She quickly slapped his hands away. "What do you think you're doing? What kind of present is that?"
"The best of kinds," he insisted, pouting slightly at her outrage.
She narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously. "Someone could see." She looked at the windows nervously.
"What? Do you not trust me?" he whispered, his words meaningful—a challenge if she ever heard one. His eyes held hers, and she felt her body heating up to even greater temperatures.
She knew she would eventually combust into ashes if this were to keep up.
"Of course I trust you," she breathed back at him.
His ever-present carefree smile spread across his face again- as if it had never left. He returned his callused fingers to her prim buttons and unhooked them from their confines until her blouse was opened down to the dip of her brassiere.
She watched anxiously as he reached into his satchel and procured a small glass bottle that was wrapped in a dark piece of fabric. He quickly uncorked it and dumped its contents into his hand. He brought up to her collar bone and touched it to her skin.
She sighed loudly.
He was caring, always prodding her to relax.
Always going out of his way to make her comfortable.
"Are you happy you trusted me?"
"Yes, that feels wonderful," she groaned as he brought it lower, skimming it across the swell of her breasts. "Where on Earth did you get ice?"
"Off of a traveling merchant earlier today on the mountain trail." He slid it along her skin, up behind her neck. His other hand slid down her side and pulled her waist closer to his own.
She cut her eyes at him. "In the mountains? You shouldn't be going up there, Fred," she scolded him, "You're going to get hurt." She knew that she was sounding like a nag, but every other month there would be another tale of tragedy striking some poor soul in the hills.
"It's not like I was alone, Granger. I was with George. Besides, the natives only bother you if you don't have an understanding about what's theirs and what's ours. They don't pay me and George no nevermind," he explained, waving his other hand as if it were an insignificant detail.
"And the brigands?"
"They aren't up there anymore. I told you, they've moved on, Hermione. They'll go where the settlers go—where there's more gold to be had."
"I just think that it's needless to take the risk is all," she huffed, gasping slightly when Fred drew the ice cube down between the dip of her brassiere.
"We have to finish the map, 'Mione. You know that we have to." His expression was open, vulnerable even.
She sighed and looked down at the floor. "Fred," she started warily. "The treasure, it's just a legend—"
How many times had they had this conversation? He and George were constantly putting themselves in unnecessary danger over a story that mothers told their children to make them fall asleep—of the high seas tossing a solitary Spanish ship in its brutal waves—God's attempt to capsize it before it could reach the New World. It was a story of a conquistador that wanted to hide his King's gold in a place where no one would dare look, a place where the King could not find him or his treacherous crew. Others would have accepted it for what it was—a fairy tale, but they were—he was—
He was a believer—kind and gentle and determined.
She paused suddenly as he pulled his ice from her skin and narrowed his eyes playfully at her. "Ah-ah-ah, Miss Granger." He tutted. "If you don't believe in my work, then you don't get to reap its hard earned benefits." He dragged the precious frozen treat across his own neck teasingly.
"Fine," She said stubbornly.
His grin was lopsided. "You know I'm only jokin'." He held the melting shard to his lips and watched her with a wide, deliberate gaze.
She furrowed her brows and tilted her head, waiting- whimpering when he lunged forward and let his cool mouth caress a rather delectable spot at the base of her jaw. It chilled her to the bone. She clutched at his shoulders, relishing in him.
"My oh my, now don't you feel better?" His voice was soft and teasing against her skin.
She hummed her response as his teeth began to nip at her tender flesh.
He pulled her blouse quickly from her long cotton skirt and slid his hand up her back, easing the tension in her heated skin. She caught his mouth with hers and kissed the everlovin' daylights out of him, slanting her mouth across his own repeatedly—breathing against his lips and running her tongue delicately against his mouth. He pulled her even closer and hummed a groan from deep within his throat. His wide frame made her feel small and safe. There was something about knowing that he had carried that little bottle all day for her—that he had probably bargained with the salesman for her, possibly even traded one of his painstakingly drawn out maps just so that she would be given a reprieve from the harsh summer sun, that made her want to demonstrate her affections.
He was hers.
He growled gutturally into her mouth as her hands began to wander. A moment later he sighed and murmured against her lips. "Better stop this now. Damnit." He cursed quietly.
She didn't slow at all. "Why?" She breathed against his skin.
He pulled away from her and held her in front of him. "George only promised to keep the townspeople's noses out of our business for fifteen minutes. I reckon they know he's not really having a heart attack at this point." He admitted.
She laughed loudly and covered her face.
"You can only fake one for so long, you know?" He explained.
She grinned widely, and tucked her blouse back into her skirt.
"Lord, it is hot in here. You weren't lying." He pulled a red handkerchief out of his pocket and drug it across his forehead.
"The windows are stuck." She said, propping the door back open. She could see citizens gathered in the middle of the sandy road of Main Street, presumably drawn there by George Weasley and his cardiac event. Her father, the town's only doctor was rushing forward to attend to him with his black bag of medical equipment clutched at his side.
"I'll take care of that for ya, Darlin'." He sat his satchel down on a desk and rummaged for a wedge, which he held up triumphantly. Then he reached into his trousers and pulled out his trusty pocket knife.
He sliced at the paint that had cemented the windows in place, then jimmied the wedge in and gave a nice hard tug. They screeched as they slid open and a second later the two of them sighed in relief as a breeze poured in. He flashed her a smug grin.
"Darlin', there's a bar of paraffin in my bag, mind grabbing it for me?" He set to work on the next window.
"Of course," she quickly rummaged in the satchel and pulled out a block of wax, handing it to his outstretched arm. As she went to close his bag, a large scrap of paper caught her eye. She glanced over her shoulder at him. He was intensely rubbing the sides of the window frame with the wax, lubricating the window track, and then moving onto the next window the repeat the process.
She snuck the paper out of his bag and spread it across a wooden desk. The map itself was smaller pieces of paper that he had pieced together over time. It was made up of a large grid that had been sketched very precisely. Each section represented a block of land. It had topographical detail of the surrounding mountains that included dashed lines that represented known mines and caves. Blue rivers wove in and out of the mountains. The town was most detailed of all, but most of the surrounding area had been filled in over time. Some blocks were just empty white space that was waiting to be explored. Two sets of handwriting were scrawled in the margins: ("Would he have stuck close the river? Or strayed as far from it as possible?", "Snakeskin Gorge—miles and miles of it. We need a better lantern for future explorations.", "Natives seem to have a legend that is similar to our own.")
She squeaked when arms snaked around her from behind. "Sneaky, Hermione. Going through my bag," he whispered his accusation teasingly in her ear.
"I wasn't snooping," she pouted at him. "I just haven't seen the map in ages."
"What do ya think?" She could hear a tinge of vulnerability in his voice.
"I think it's beautiful." She lightly brushed her fingers across the page, careful to not press hard enough to smear the ink.
"It won't be long now, Darlin'." Fred swayed the two of them in a slow silent dance from behind.
She smiled. "And these areas?" She gestured to the blank spaces.
"The rest of the mountains, the gorge, and the middle parts of the desert," he said. "That's all that's left."
"So the most dangerous parts?" she sighed.
"Yup. We put them off as long as we could." He kissed gently at her ear—something she recognized as an attempt at diverting her attention from her concerns. She shivered and leaned back into him, pushing it from her mind. Today wasn't the day to have this discussion again. To do so would only upset him. His ambitions were important to him and so was her opinion of them.
He had plans—long lists of things that he wanted out of life. Treasure, adventure, and a life with her.
She didn't mind his mapping. It would one day be useful to the whole community. She only worried about losing him in the process.
Sometimes he and his twin, George, would be gone for days at a time, out in the wilderness, plotting points and scouting across the land in attempts to finish their lives' work. Her friend Harry, the town's sheriff, had sent out able bodied men to search for them on two separate occasions when they were gone for an unusually long stretch.
"I love you, Fred," she said suddenly. The thought had filtered through her mind and spilled out of her mouth before she had even realized she had thought it.
He chuckled, spun her around, and leaned closer to her. "I love you too, Darlin'." He kissed her and smiled against her lips.
"Break it up, you two. Good ole Doc Granger is on a war-path again," George called out as he plopped down on a desk beside them. Hermione jumped. She hadn't even picked up on his presence until he was directly beside them. The twins were sneaky as hell—they always had been. George ran a hand through his red locks, clearly agitated. He leaned back, using his laced fingers behind him to cradle his neck and stretched his legs out languidly, propped them up on the table, and crossed them at the ankle.
She recovered quickly, stepping a respectful distance away from her beau and leaning against a table. "That might have to do with you scaring the tar out of him with a heart attack, George."
"Poor old feller doesn't know a joke when he sees it, I reckon." He pushed against the desk and lifted the front two legs of his chair off the ground.
Fred chuckled. "Take us through the course of events, Georgie."
"Yes. Enlighten me on how you've tormented my father." Hermione tried to keep the smile off of her face.
George grinned widely. "Well, if you outta know—I grabbed my chest and started yellin' for help. When the doc got there, I fell to the ground and started holding my breath. Really confused him, I think," he cackled for a moment before he turned serious. "He said he's not going to help me next time I need him. That might come back to bite us in the ass, eh, Fred?"
Hermione shook her head.
"We'll deal with it when we get there. You could always tell him that you're me."
"You're datin' the man's only daughter Fred, that'd be like askin' him to kill me," George insisted.
Fred glanced at Hermione. "Well that can't be true."
She shrugged. "I have no idea."
He pulled out his handkerchief and started wiping the wax off of his hands as best as he could. "Hope you've watched your father enough to know the basics, Darlin'. Not sure what I'll do if I get shot," he joked.
"—Yeah, 'Mione. How good are you at stitchin' a feller up?" George jumped in.
"Hey," she scolded them. "There is no joking about bullet wounds in my schoolhouse, are we clear?" She glared at them.
"Absolutely," they said together, identical smiles of mischief. If not for her rather extensive knowledge of the particular constellations of freckles that lined Fred's skin, she would have been wary of dating a twin. However, after years of knowing them, she knew that she could tell them apart blindfolded. She cared for both of them, but she could feel a tether between her and Fred—and that feeling could never be replicated.
Fred pulled out his pocket watch- it was made of brass. She had had it engraved for him the year before for his birthday. "My fool, my love. –Hermione" was etched on the back. "It's just about lunch time. And I have another surprise for you."
"Of course you do." She held both of his hands and ignored the largely animated eye roll that George sent their way.
"I have a picnic planned in the meadow. It was meant to be for later on today, but we might as well go now," he beamed at her, looking proud of himself. "Mother packed it for us. What do you say?"
George's jaw dropped. Hermione could tell he was holding his tongue. She shook her head at Fred. "Only if George gets to come as well." George jumped to his feet and pumped his fist in the air.
Fred sighed dramatically. "I should have known. It's like havin' a leech sucking the life outta me, I'm telling you."
"Hey!" George called out behind them. Fred held out his elbow for Hermione to take, which she accepted with an amused smile.
She loved moments like these—moments with him. Ever since her father had moved the two of them to Deadhaven, Fred Weasley had been a very central figure in her life. What started out as an older boy in her class teasing her for always having her head in a book had turned into something quite different as they grew up. By the time she was sixteen, she was head over heels in love with the redheaded twin. Before long she had made memories that she was certain she would cherish for the rest of her life—swimming in the deeper parts of the creek and being dared to jump off an old rope swing, sneaking out of her house at night to listen to Fred lecture her about the ideas behind astronomy and navigation, the summer when Fred taught her how to shoot a gun—and all of the stolen kisses in between.
Fred spread a blanket out on the grass on the hill above the meadow. The herd was grazing down below—occasionally calling out to one another. Calves scurried after their mothers. The blossoms were blooming atop the hill. She pushed the largeness of her dress to the side so that she could sit comfortably on the plaid blanket. George plopped down beside her, grinning roguishly before being shoved out of the way by his twin. Fred shook his head at him in a playful annoyance. "Can't take you anywhere."
"Hey! If you recall, I gave the two of you a very ample amount of smoochin' time earlier. The least you can do is let me help myself to Ma's Pot Roast and cornbread." George threw himself back on the grass and stretched his arms out above his head.
"Yeah, yeah." He reached into his basket that he had lugged there and pulled out three ceramic plates covered with cotton cloths. He looked at George pointedly when he handed him his, smirking.
"You scoundrel!" George sat up quickly and glared. "Mother sent me a helping all along," he huffed and dug into his meal heartily.
Fred laughed loudly.
Sometimes, he was a liar—ready to pull someone's leg if it would earn him a laugh.
She stared out across the pasture, watching the clouds shift and break apart. She watched the afternoon hues stretch across the skies, oranges blending into blues and purples. The light cast a warm glow across the landscape. The breeze caught her hair as she smiled gently at a calf in the distance that galloped awkwardly towards its mother.
Fred held one of the plates out to her with a fork balanced on it. He had an odd sort of expression on his face—a look of sudden realization, as if he had just solved an intricate puzzle. Her eyes widened as she watched his chest heave.
He licked his lips and smiled lopsided at her. "What do you suppose your Pa is doing tomorrow?" he blurted out breathlessly.
Odd. That wasn't really what she was expecting.
She shrugged. "My father? He'll probably be puttering around his office tomorrow afternoon. Why do you ask?" She examined him closely.
"I just have something I need to talk to him about," Fred confessed, his eyes holding a twinkle as he continued to watch her, smiling openly and earnestly.
George clinked his fork loudly on his plate, staring at Fred wide-eyed.
She watched the two of them curiously as they began exchanging a series of pointed looks. She helped herself to the slab of pork, carrots, and potatoes that Mrs. Weasley had sent for lunch. The boys were sharing a private conversation with their eyes. They did this quite often, and Hermione always felt frustrated when they would leave her out of the loop. Why would Fred want to talk to her father? Didn't they just say earlier that they were going to avoid him since he was sore with them for pretending like they were keeling over?
Finally George nodded, sat his empty plate back in the picnic basket and leaned over, giving Fred a hug. "I'll see you two lovebirds later on. I'm off to pester our dearest little brother into going out with me to the saloon tonight."
"Bye," Hermione called out quietly to him. When he was out of an earshot, she turned towards Fred and eyed him suspiciously. A slow, wide grin spread across his features as he watched her trying to piece together whatever information she had gleamed from the past couple of minutes. "What is that smile about, Fred Weasley?" She couldn't help but return his smile in kind. It was infectious.
"Nothing, Darlin'. You are just looking exceptionally lovely today." He swept her hair off of her shoulder, took her plate out of her hands and sat it next to his own. "I'm just realizing what a lucky man I am."
She blushed as he leaned them both back on the blanket, her head resting on his outstretched arm. He sat his white hat to the side, and leaned in to kiss her forehead. "Now, what do you suppose that there cloud looks like?" He pointed to the eastern sky. "I think it's an old mangy cat - like your Crook."
She laughed and leaned up to kiss his stubbled jawline.
Fred nervously glanced down at his watch again.
"Do you have somewhere you need to be?" she teased him as they neared town hand in hand.
"'Course not, Darlin. There ain't no better place than right here with you." His smile dazzled her yet again. He had been so peculiar ever since lunch. She kept catching him staring at her with a look of amazement on his face- or fidgeting nervously, pulling on his suspenders or readjusting his hat. Earlier, while on the marked path that led back to town from the meadow, he had suddenly grabbed her around the waist and kissed her until she was shaky and gasping into his mouth.
"Okay, stranger," she nudged him with her shoulder. "What have you done with my Fred?"
They were interrupted by a commotion stirring up ahead. The sheriff, her dear friend Harry Potter, was addressing a large crowd of citizens while his deputy, Ron, nailed posters up on the town's bulletin board.
DEAD OR ALIVE
FOR MURDER, ROBBERY,
RAPE, AND TORTURE
Fred pushed his way through the crowd to Harry, keeping Hermione's hand firmly in his. "McNair? I thought the brigands had moved on, Fred," she whispered to him.
"I did too," he said quietly. "Harry!" he called out as Harry turned to go back into the Sheriff's office as the crowd began to uneasily make their way back home.
Harry looked tired. His hair was sticking up at all angles, his face was unshaved, and his eyes were bloodshot—and almost haunted as he spun around. He drug a hand through his hair and readjusted his glasses as they caught up with him. "Just the man I was looking for, Fred. Come on in, guys." He held the door open for them as they walked into his office. They could hear Ron hammering more signs up around town. It sounded deafening against the silence of Main Street. People were silent- They were silent, and they were scared.
Harry collapsed into his chair as soon as the door clicked closed. He opened a large drawer and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and a tumbler. It was clear that this situation was not being taken likely by him. He gestured with the bottle towards the two of them, offering them a drink.
They both shook their heads.
Hermione let Fred sit her down in the only chair opposite Harry's desk, his hands never breaking contact with her. "McNair, Harry. Walden McNair... Where was he spotted? What did he do?" She had nothing but questions. They were spilling out of her at an alarming rate. McNair was a known affiliate and follower of... She screeched to a halt in her thought. She didn't to even think his name.
"The Stanley's, up in the mountains. He killed them," Harry said, downing his drink in one gulp and slammed the glass back on the amber wood in front of him. "All of them," he finished quietly.
"Oh my Lord," she held her chest, her heart aching for that family. She knew them. She had had their little girl in her class room not so long ago before they had moved up near the county border. Myra. Oh God, poor little Myra.
Fred's hands tightened on her shoulders. "How do you know it was McNair? If the family died, then who saw him?"
"No one saw him. He left a note." Harry reached in his desk, but then hesitated. "You were up there this morning, right? You and George?"
The door creaked open and the three of them jumped, tension filled the room. Ron walked in, dejected and slumped down at his desk across the room.
Fred nodded. "Yeah. We were up there this morning."
"And did you hear anything? Gunfire? Shouting?" Harry picked up a pencil and pulled out a small black notebook.
"Nothing. It was pretty uneventful really. We were mapping the western cliffs at daybreak. Never even went over near the Stanley's cabin."
Harry scrawled down what Fred was saying for a moment. "And did you see anything? Maybe a heavier amount of horse tracks than usual?"
"We met a merchant traveling on the trail," he responded.
Harry's head snapped up from his notes and he eyed him warily. "And what was his name?"
Fred sighed and closed his eyes, as if in a deep concentration. "Uhh… Fletcher, I think? Said he was from outta the city."
"I'll pass it along to the next town." Harry drug a hand through his already tussled hair.
Hermione suddenly leaned forward. "You said there was a note—that McNair left a note."
"Yeah, I did," he said quietly. "You might not want to see this, 'Mione. Maybe Ron should walk you on back home, and I should talk to Fred alone." Ron rose to his feet and went to pull his hat back on and strap his gun back around his waist.
"No, Harry. Don't you treat me like I'm made of glass? She was my student, damnit," she said heatedly, but even as she said it, she could feel the fight start to drain out of her - every part of her turning weary. "She was so small. Six years old, Harry," she whispered and then looked up at Fred. "So small." Ron sank back into his chair, and unhooked his holster once again.
Harry sighed and reached into his desk hesitantly. He pulled out a folder that had a playing card inside. Along the edge of the card there were reddish brown splatters. Hermione felt her stomach turn at the sight of it. Whose blood was that? Was it little Myra's? He turned it towards them and laid it flat on the desk so they could read over it. It was the Ace of Spades.
"Potter, Raise or Fold.
It's your call. –W. McNair."
In the corner of the card he had crudely drawn a skull with a snake emerging from its mouth. It was the mark. Itwas his mark.
She gasped and covered her mouth. "Oh no," she whispered. She could barely form a thought at the sight of Copperhead's mark. He was a murderer—cold and relentless. Years ago he had massacred many in Deadhaven; their throats would be surgically—precisely- slit open as they lay in their beds at night. What made him even more dangerous than simply being a killer and having a loyal band of rogue followers willing to do his bidding was that no one –not one single person alive—knew what Copperhead looked like.
He could be anyone.
"He's back, then?" Fred kneeled near her chair, one shin flat against the wooden floorboard, his arm rested on the other.
"It would appear so," Harry said, his eyes glazed over, glistening even, in what Hermione was sure were ghosts of his past. "And here I thought I'd killed him."
"Everyone thought you'd killed him," Ron called out from across the room, never looking up from his desk. His gun had long since been abandoned in front of him. He was staring at it anxiously.
"So other than this Fletcher feller—you can't remember anything else suspicious in the mountains from this morning?" Harry's eyes flickered back at the bottle of whiskey. Hermione was also slowly starting to agree it was looking particularly enticing at this point.
"Nothing," Fred said, defeated and visibly straining to try to remember something that could help. "Maybe George'll think of somethin', but like I said, we were nowhere near their cabin, Harry. Maybe if we had been…" he trailed off.
"'S not your fault, Fred." He took the card back and put it in his folder, and shoved them back in his desk. "You two should get on home," he started before pausing. "Might not want to stay all alone tonight, 'Mione. Just in case."
She nodded, wondering if her father wouldn't mind if—
"She won't be alone, don't worry," Fred said suddenly.
"Fred," she started, "you know that I can't—"
"Because everyone in town will think you're some kind of scarlet woman?" he asked incredulously. "I don't give a damn what they think. I want you to stay with me and George tonight, Darlin'."
She looked at Harry, hoping for his assistance on the matter. He just shrugged. "I think that's a good plan, Fred." He agreed.
"But, the church—the pastor, they'll—"
"They'll get over it," Fred said. "I'm not having some faceless killer cut open your throat in the middle of the night, Darlin'. At least if you're with me, we'll go together." To the grave—together, she thought.
"You're right." She complied, rising from her chair and taking his hand in hers.
"Do you two want us to walk you home?" Ron offered, his voice cracking a little.
"We'll be alright, baby brother," Fred replied earnestly, reaching out and ruffling Ron's hair. "You guys have got bigger things to worry about than us." Ron smiled weakly at him.
"If you see anyone, Fred -" Harry called out to them just as they were about to leave the Sheriff's office. "If you see any of them at all—shoot 'em dead in the street. Don't hesitate. Pull the trigger, got it?"
Fred's jaw clenched. "Absolutely."
They walked in silence for the half mile to the twins' cabin. The sidewalks and storefronts were empty, and the sun was starting to set. It was like a ghost town, silent and eerie. Their lantern cast shadows that looked like figures in the black. More than once Hermione had felt her heart beat rapidly and stepped closer to Fred. He had his holster unclasped and his hand on the grip of his pistol.
"Fred!" The two of them whirled around, Fred drawing his gun as Hermione gasped loudly, but it was only George, running towards them. His hair was a mess, and his eyes were watery. He ignored Fred's drawn weapon, pushed it to the side, and tackled him in a hug. "I just heard. It's awful, isn't it? We were up there this morning." He said it all very fast, never letting go of his twin. "We were up there, and we could've ran into them. We could've been killed."
"I know, George," Fred said, his body never relaxing. Even as his twin sobbed into his shirt, he still watched their surroundings with the eyes of a hawk. They darted back and forth across the landscape, seeming to take in its every detail. "But we weren't. We're gonna be fine," he assured his shaking brother.
"They could have killed us and dropped our bodies in one of those caves," George whispered. His eyes darted to Hermione and he jumped visibly. "'Mione," he gasped, "I didn't even see you there." He pulled back from Fred and threw his arms around her. "Thank God that you're safe." He held her tightly.
"Let's get on home, Georgie." Fred patted him on the shoulder. "Got your gun on you?" he asked as they walked the short distance across the field to the cabin. Fred positioned Hermione between the two of them, with his pistol on his other side, at the ready.
"'Course I do," George said, calming down in Fred's presence.
When they got to the cabin, Fred made Hermione wait with George on the porch while he swept the perimeter and checked inside. The house was thankfully empty. When George asked if either of them were hungry, they all three agreed that they couldn't bear the thought of eating on their unsure and nervous stomachs.
They pulled their window shutters closed tightly, brought their hound dog, Grimace, in from outside, and got ready for bed. George bunked down on the couch without being asked, his Remington rifle loaded and resting in his lap. Grimace sat beside him, vigilant and poised staring at the door—as if he knew that he needed to be.
Their house had only one bedroom, which the twins shared. A bed was pushed against each of the walls with a small nightstand in between. There were piles of clothes in the floor, strewn here and there. Stacks of books set along the floor, some had been knocked over and were haphazardly lying about. It was easy enough to tell whose books were whose. Fred's were centered on cartography, woodworking, and navigation. They were well worn, with slips of paper sticking out here and there—likely marking ideas that he had found interesting or useful for his endeavors. A glance at the right side of the room told her that George was much more interested in Spanish explorers and surprisingly enough—metal smelting practices and blacksmithing.
When they were alone, Fred hugged her tightly for a moment. She was thankful for his presence. He helped her out of the larger parts of her dress as she discarded everything except for her slip and slid into his bed without a thought. It wasn't a night to be proper. Fred sat his gun on the nightstand, dressed down to his long johns, and then sank down into the bed beside her, placing himself between her and the door. He pulled her closely to his chest and held her close against him.
She felt a drowsy haze sweep over her almost immediately. A thought occurred to her, and she whispered it into the darkness. "So, I guess I was right about the mountains being a dangerous place to go to."
She heard him chuckle. "You're always right, Darlin'."
He was who she needed, who she wanted—no matter what.
The next morning did not dawn a more hopeful day.
Hermione put her dress from yesterday back on, braided her hair quickly at her side before joining the twins in their small dining area.
They sat around in an uneasy silence as Fred fixed them a quick breakfast of fried eggs and cured bacon in a cast iron skillet and toasted bread over the open flame of their wood cook stove. Hermione nibbled at the corners of her toast, but ended up setting her plate in the floor for Grimace, who looked ignorantly appreciative.
Fred insisted immediately after the plates had been scrubbed clean that the three of them go back to town so that George could give his own statement to Harry as early as he could. The walk back to Main Street took half the time that the same trip had taken yesterday in the dark. The sun cast light all around the boulders and trees that had looked like rogue killers the night before.
However, as soon as they stepped foot along the short road the ran between the few public buildings of Deadhaven, they saw a crowd gathered in front of three men. The first two were Sheriff Potter and Deputy Weasley; they stood on either side of the mysterious mayor of their sleepy town—Tom Riddle.
He was just as Hermione had always seen him. His black silky hair was polished and wavy. His thin, naturally red lips were pulled into a charismatic and warm smile. His dark eyes swept across the crowd. They were dark and hollow—almost black. He chatted with the sheriff while he waited for all of the town's people to settle down. She could hear the clamor all around her.
"The poor Stanleys. I told them that moving up to the mountains was a bad idea—" A gruff old man said to her left.
A rancher chimed in, "Slit their throats right open, I hear—while they were sleepin'. That's how it always is, isn't it?"
"That's the dress that she—did she come here with those Weasley boys'?"
Her breath caught in her throat as she turned her ear in the direction of what she'd just heard.
"She must have spent the night with them. I always knew-" The speaker was, without a doubt, Old Lady Umbridge making her feelings about sinful young folk very clear once again.
Honestly, there was a killer on the loose. People had died. Hermione wondered incredulously why her sleeping arrangements from the night before was even an appropriate topic of conversation.
"You don't suppose she was with both of them, do you?"
She could hear the shrill whispers of the ladies of the church gossiping about her in unconcealed judgment. She kept her eyes forward as Fred slipped his hand into hers and squeezed. She tried to think about the night before—when all hell was breaking loose and Fred's comforting words at Harry's office. "I don't give a damn what they think." "At least if you're with me, we'll go together." Yes, she decided. She had nothing to be ashamed of. Umbridge and her snooty followers were hiding under the guise of the church and making something out of nothing just to so they could openly look down on others. There were more important things to worry about.
"If I could have everyone's attention," Mayor Riddle's deep, silky voice washed over the crowd, commanding obedience. Hermione was thankful that at least for now all of the gossiping about her had come to a standstill. "I know that you are all scared of the recent rumors that have been flying around." The sheriff stiffened visibly, clenching his fist.
"However, I want to assure you that whoever may have committed this terrible—barbaric- atrocity, will be brought to justice." Riddle's face slipped into an expression that could be described as earnestness. "Now, I'm afraid that our very competent sheriff – And I am not blaming him in the least," Riddle insisted. "But I'm afraid that he jumped the gun a little bit yesterday. Had I known at the time, I would have never allowed those wanted posters of McNair to be put up—because you see, my dear people, there is simply not enough EVIDENCE to warrant the panic of an entire town." He glanced pointedly at Harry, who was holding his jaw tightly clenched.
"I can assure you—Walden McNair and most certainly Copperhead are not in the area. Mr. Potter himself has testified for years that he is positive that he killed Copperhead eight years ago."
The crowd visibly relaxed. Hermione heard people sighing, some hugging their children to them tightly. But she knew—what Riddle was saying didn't make any sense. Walden had left a note—he had confessed to the crime. He had put Copperhead's mark on it. What was Riddle suggesting?
"For now, in the investigation of the murder of the Stanleys, we do have a few persons of interest. There were townspeople up in the mountains on that day, and we are currently trying to track down a respectable business man that rumored to have passed through. So don't you worry. We'll find out who did this. And in the meantime—just relax." He smiled widely at them. "This is my town," he said, gesturing to the crowd. "You are my people, and you are all safe as long as you are here."
The crowd roared. Tom stepped down from his position above the crowd and began shaking the hands of his grateful constituents. Hermione could feel her face getting paler. He had mentioned that the persons of interest INCLUDED the citizens that were in the mountains, which she knew was only Fred and George. Were they suspects? Surely, he wasn't suggesting that either of the twins could have done something like this. Surely, he was just blowing smoke for the crowd. Harry's eyes caught hers across the people celebrating in the crowd. He shook his head subtly.
She narrowed her eyes at him. Was he warning her off? What did that gesture mean? She needed to talk to -
"Mr. and Mr. Weasley." She jumped. Riddle was standing directly in front of them. Hermione had a fleeting thought occur to her about the mayor's youthfulness. For as long as she could remember, he had been mayor of their town, but even after the thirteen years that she had lived Deadhaven—he had never seemed to age a day. "I understand that the two of you were in the mountains yesterday morning." His voice was smooth and dripping with kindness.
Fred stood a little taller. "Yes, sir. Yes, we were," he said honestly.
George gulped. "You don't think that we had anything to do with this… Do you?" George asked carefully.
Riddle laughed. "Oh no, no dear boy. I would never think that. I know the two of you." He clapped his hand down on George's shoulder. "Knowing a man's heart means much, much more to me than the circumstances surrounding him. You two have nothing to worry about. You're completely innocent," he insisted.
Fred smiled gratefully. "Thank you, Sir. I'll admit, you had us worried."
"I actually just wanted to touch base with the two of you about your map." Riddle's eyes flickered with something that Hermione couldn't quite place.
"The map?" George laughed. "Well, I'll be—I had no idea that you were interested in our chartin' and mappin', Sir."
Riddle chuckled. "Of course, I am. After all, I've heard the story of Francisco de Leon's courageous journey to the New World my entire life. The idea that the two of you are making such great leaps and bounds to find the remnants of his conquest has always been of particular interest to me."
"Well, that's fantastic. I assure you, Mr. Mayor, if that treasure is out there, my brother and I are going to find it. I'm sure of it." Fred's eyes glimmered in the way that they normally did when he discussed the legend. They were sparkling and their color was shifting into one of Hermione's favorite shades of deep aqua blue. "I'm afraid for now, though, the map will be put on hold."
The kind smile melted off of Tom Riddle's face. "And why, might I ask, would you do a thing like that?"
"I promised my girl here that I wouldn't put myself in any unnecessary danger." Fred slung his arm over her shoulders. "The mountains and caves aren't safe anymore with a murderer on the loose, so we'll be stickin' close by until this matter has been solved." George nodded as Fred spoke for the two of them.
Tom's eyes flickered to Hermione, almost as if realizing she was standing with them for the first time. "I see," he said shortly.
An odd tense silence passed over the four of them, even as the rest of the town jostled about happily.
Tom cleared his throat. "Of course, but Miss Granger here heard my announcement though, didn't she? Copperhead is not a concern anymore. McNair's presence was merely an unproven and hasty decision that was made by Sheriff Potter." He raised his eyebrow at her accusingly.
She stood perfectly still. The look in his eyes was unnerving. Fred spoke up for her. "Whether the two of them were involved or not, Mayor Riddle, it don't change the fact that someone's killin' up in those hills. And I won't be leavin' my Darlin' here on God's green Earth any sooner than I have to."
Tom stood unnaturally still, his eyes darting over them quickly. They narrowed slightly at the sight of Fred's arm wrapped around her. "Certainly," Tom said charmingly, his voice losing all of the hatred that it had held only moments before. "I can understand why Miss Granger would be frightened for you, my friend—probably frightened even more for herself, I'd say." He leaned toward Hermione. "You live in the small house beside the school, do you not, Miss Hermione?" he said silkily, eyes penetrating her own.
"Yes, sir," she nodded.
"You must be horribly scared at night, without a man there to take care of you." His nose flared slightly.
"I'm rather independent, Mister Mayor. I can take care of myself." Contrary to what she was saying, she took a little bit more of a step towards Fred.
"Ah, don't be offended, little lady," Tom smiled. How could she not take offense when his words were soaked in a patronizing undertone? "I merely wanted to offer you a little comfort in the moments when you cannot escape your fears of masked murders." He took a very decisive step towards her. "If you should find yourself needing a man around, you need only ask. My door is always open to you, Miss Granger." His eyes swept down her form, analyzing every curve and dip that her body had to offer. "Day or night."
Fred's arm dropped from her shoulder. She was of course appalled at the Mayor's suggestion, but Fred was completely furious. His skin had turned a deep red and his fists were clenched at his side. He pushed his body between the two of them and glowered at the older man. She felt George tug at her hand and ease her away from them, but she never took her eyes off of the scene that was playing in front of her.
"You should mind your tongue, Riddle," Fred spat at him.
"Whatever do you mean, Mr. Weasley?" Tom smiled widely, a maniacal glint in his eyes.
"I think you damn well know what I mean. I think that we both know what you were just suggesting—and I better NEVER hear you say anything like that her ever again," Fred threatened. George stepped forward to stand at Fred's side. People all around them were watching warily as the two Weasley boys glared their mayor down.
Tom watched the crowd in delight before leaning forward. He whispered. "From what I hear, Mr. Weasley—this macho protectiveness is hardly necessary for a girl like her." His eyes flickered towards her again. He watched her over Fred's shoulder as he continued. "She's not exactly innocent, now is she?"
It all happened so fast, she didn't see Fred raise his fist, but she did hear the sound of skin slapping harshly against skin. Tom grabbed at the front of Fred's clothes before he was thrown to the ground. He was clutching his bleeding lip from his spot in the dirt. His smile never left his face; it only grew more eerie as his teeth gleamed red with his own blood. Fred was standing above, his knuckles a deep red and his eyes blazing aggressively.
Harry pushed towards them through the crowd as George grabbed Fred by the shoulders and held him back from following Tom to the ground and turning this into an all-out brawl in the dirt.
"Oh yes, hold him back, Mr. Weasley." Hermione could see George's hands loosen slightly on Fred's shoulders as Tom laughed at them from the ground.
"Sonovabitch," Fred growled at him, fighting to break free.
"You're lucky that I don't want my brother sullying his hands with your blood, you bastard. You deserve to have your ass beat for insinuatin' that 'Mione was—"
"I thought that the two of you were upstanding civilized men," Tom drawled. "It would appear that I was wrong." Tom stood up and dusted the dirt off of his suit, his nose turning up in disgust.
Harry finally made it to them. "Now, Fred, you settle down," he commanded. Fred huffed and stopped fighting against George's grip. "Are you pressin' charges, Riddle?" Harry sighed as he asked.
"Well, Mr. Potter, do you think that Fred here is going to hit me again?" Tom's eyes watched Harry, a small smirk on his face.
"No, sir, I do not think that he's going to assault you again," Harry insisted. He turned and looked at Fred in the eyes as he finished the rest of his thought in a hard whisper, "-in front of the whole damn town on the steps of the sheriff's office."
"Then I defer to your judgement on the matter, Mr. Potter. I see no need to press charges. We've all had a lot on our minds, and tensions are running high. I'm sure Mr. Weasley just needs some time alone with his girl so that he can calm down." Tom eyed Fred with a calculated look. "I forgive you, Fred." He smirked.
Hermione reached out and pulled Fred back away from the mayor. He was clearly goading him, and Fred's temper couldn't be trusted to not fall for it again. Fred's eyes met hers, ashamed of what he had just done. She saw her father rush forward with his medical bag and start to fuss over Tom's lip.
Riddle waved him off. "Not to worry, Doctor Granger. This isn't the first time a disgruntled and disturbed citizen has taken a cheap shot at me, and I doubt that it will be the last." With that, he walked away from them, towards his large house at the end of Main Street.
Her father whirled around and glared at them harshly. "The three of you get to my office right now."
Harry spoke up. "Actually, I need to borrow George for a little while." He rubbed his neck. "I need to get your statement, George."
He nodded and wished them luck before following Harry into the jailhouse.
Her father narrowed his eyes at her and Fred, and they quickly scampered off to his office. His welcome bell dinged as they entered the small medical building, and they each collapsed into the wooden chairs that her father had set up as a waiting area for his patients. The both jumped as the door slammed behind her father. "Now, Daddy—" she started off warningly.
"No, Hermione. No. You go wait in my study," he told her firmly.
"But, Daddy, it wasn't like that—"
"You go on. Right now." Her father glared at her. "We'll have our discussion later."
"It's alright, Darlin'," Fred told her, putting a hand on her shoulder. She sighed loudly and walked around the corner to her father's office. Her father's desk was just a simple as he was. It was made of a sturdy wood and had scratches on it from years of use. He may have been a doctor, but he was still a man of the time. He only needed what he had and only wanted what he needed. His walls were lined with bookshelves, some were medical texts and some were fiction. His rifle was leaned against the corner. A percolator sat on the corner of his desk and used coffee cups were scattered across the room haphazardly. Some sat atop stacks of books, others lined his desk, and one mug was even on the window sill. There were two doors in the scarcely decorated room. One led to his waiting room and the other led to his examination room. She quickly pressed her ear to the door and waited for her father to blow up at Fred.
"Let me see your hand, boy," her father told Fred. She heard them shuffle his footsteps, and she quickly—and silently—rushed to the other door and cracked it just slightly. Just behind the cover of a tall cloth partition, Hermione could see her father setting Fred down in a chair and pulling his hand towards his eyes to examine it. His knuckles were cracked open and bloodied from the rather well aimed punch to Tom Riddle's jaw. She didn't consider herself to be an uncivilized person, but Hermione felt a pleased sense of pride swell inside of her. Decking the mayor in front of the whole town surely wasn't the smartest thing to do by any means, but he had done it for her—for her honor—and for that she loved him even more.
Her father puttered around his many glass cabinets and pulled out a large brown bottle of antiseptic. He sat Fred's hand over a basin and got out cotton swabs. "I'm disappointed in you, Fredrick," he said gruffly.
Fred hung his head. "I'm sorry, sir. I really am. I know I wasn't using my head last night—"
"Last night?" her father narrowed his eyes on to Fred.
"Yes, sir," Fred nodded. "Last night, when we heard about the murders, I begged Hermione to stay at the cabin with me an' George. I didn't want anything to happen to her, and I know that the town is talking now. It's just—"
Her father laughed. "That's not what I'm mad about, boy." He poured a large dose of medicine over Fred's hand. Fred hissed loudly as Doctor Granger dabbed it with cotton. "I'm mad about you haulin' off and hitting the mayor, for Heaven's sake."
"You're not mad that she spent the night with me?" Fred asked, eyes wide.
"Certainly not." Her father pulled out a long rope of gauze and started wrapping Fred's hand up in an intricate pattern. "I decided a long time ago that if I couldn't be the one to protect her then you're the only one that I would trust to do it. I'm getting old—it's about time I passed on that responsibility to someone I can count on," he explained.
Fred smiled brightly at her father. His eyes had that look in them again—that strange look that she wasn't quite sure about. "I'm so happy to hear you say that. Listen, I've been meaning to ask—"
Her father finished up his bandage and patted Fred on the arm. "You can't punch a man like that and not expect any backlash, boy. Riddle is an influential feller."
"Did you hear what he said though? Did you hear what any of them were saying—about her?" Fred was troubled.
"I heard them gossipin' about the two of you, sure. That's just what people do around here. There's not much else to do than stick their noses where it doesn't belong," he said gruffly.
"What they were saying—about me and her, I mean—not all of the other stuff... but about the two of us—," Fred rambled uneasily.
Her father laughed. "Out with it, boy."
"I won't lie to you about it, Sir. I love her. I've loved her for years."
"You two have been together for five years—been of age for 3 of those years. There's really not much I could do to stop you two from being intimate, if that's what you're getting at." Hermione felt herself turning a deep red. Her father was not having this conversation with Fred. It was absolutely mortifying. "I'm happy that you wouldn't see fit to lie to me about it, because I did not fall off the wagon yesterday."
Fred grinned. "I respect your opinion, Doc."
"You better." Her father rubbed a tired hand across his forehead. "Now then, what did Mr. Riddle say that had you deck him one?"
Fred's jaw tightened up. "Invited her over to his house—like I don't know what that means. When I called him out on it, he implied that it didn't matter because she was- because she was a whore," Fred finished. "Can you believe that? Hermione's one of the best people in this town and- well... I just couldn't stand to hear it."
Doctor Granger nodded silently for a moment, rubbing his chin. "I guess I'll forgive you then. He deserved it, at least. But my advice still stands: You're not going to be able to protect her from inside a jail cell, so you need to watch what you do. Riddle's crafty, he always has been."
"I'll try to keep my temper under control, sir," Fred said solemnly. "You really trust me with her?"
Her father nodded. "I most certainly do. There's no one on God's green earth I would ever trust more. That being said, for the sake of poor old lady Umbridge and her sensitive soul, I think maybe Hermione should spend the next couple of days in her old room at my house."
Fred looked dazed for a moment before he jumped up suddenly. "There's something I have to do. Will the two of you be safe tonight? Do you want me to have George bunker down on your porch? I could have him keep a lookout for guys."
Her father chuckled heartily. His deep belly laughter echoing off the walls. "No thank you, boy. Let me make something very clear to you—I may be old and frail, but I assure you that I can rip a man to pieces just as well as I can sew him back together. You go do what you need to do."
Fred nodded and Hermione saw him rush out of the room. She quietly clicked the door shut and swiftly crossed the room to the other just as Fred wretched it open. He pulled her close and crashed his mouth into her own without preamble. If she had had the presence of mind to think, she would have been a little irked that she was currently in her father's office while her boyfriend kissed her like there was no tomorrow - but all she could think about was his body so very close to hers and the desperation that she felt behind every slant of his mouth over her own.
He pulled back from her, breathing deep lungfuls of air and untangled his hands from her hair. Her loose braid was thoroughly lopsided, but she didn't care. "I have an errand to run, but I will be back here for you tomorrow morning," he assured her. His chest was heaving and there was that look again—that look that stirred something deeply within her. "Tomorrow, Darlin'," he repeated with an air of certainty.
"Tomorrow," she whispered back. "I'll see you then."
He leaned in and caught her lips for one more heated moment before smiling wildly and rushing out of her father's office. The welcome bell dinged loudly.
Her father appeared a moment later. She quickly tried to make her hair look neater and control her heartbeat, which was running rampant. "You, uhm—"she stammered. "You wanted to speak with me, Daddy?"
"I believe you already heard everything I needed to say," his mouth quirked as his eyes darted to his examination room door. She was caught.
"So everything is okay?" she asked him.
"Everything is perfectly fine."
Just as Fred said, he didn't come back that night. Her father had taken her by her small house beside the school and let her gather up her clothes and scoop her cat up out of the yard. That night, she slept in her old bedroom with a pistol on her nightstand. Her father had insisted that she keep it in the room with her just in case. Crookshanks, her cat, was snuggled at her feet and dozing easily, but she slept fitfully the whole night.
She dreamed of a large snake chasing two twin boys through a cave, across rivers, and through their town. The boys were clever and cunning, and they would outsmart the snake at every turn. It would coil itself up and be poised to strike, just to have one of the boys grab onto a rope swing like it was a jungle vine and swish up out of its reach. Or it would chase them down Main Street, and the twins would hide under wagons while it slithered by. It chased them across fields and valleys. Across the mountains and the desert, but it could not catch them.
They were out of its reach, smarter than the beast. But then her heart sped up—and she realized that they were deep in a ravine and that there was no way out—no place to hide or sly way to escape. And one of the twins—the one with a twinkle in his eye that was meant only for her - stepped in front of the other boy to protect him. And then he—
She gasped as she sat up in her bed shaking. The morning light was cascading across her room. Her curtains were swaying in the breeze, which was suspicious because her window wasn't supposed to be open. Her eyes darted around the room. She knew that it had been closed the night before—
Crookshanks meowed at her and tilted his head.
She was alive and there was no one in the room with her—she was sure of it. A white rose sat on her nightstand, beside it a very familiar dented brass compass was pointing its way to true north.
She smiled widely and quickly got ready for the day. She pulled her favorite dress out of the closet.
She tried to push the dream that had frightened her to the depths of her consciousness. It was just a dream. It didn't mean anything. Fred was fine.
As she was strolling to the market, with her father at her side—she heard a hammer echoing once again. Ronald Weasley was standing at the bulletin board again. Harry stood at his side looking older than she had ever seen him look. His eyes found hers almost magnetically, and he looked chest fallen.
When she caught sight of Ron, his eyes were red and teary. He kept wiping his nose on his sleeve. He was distraught.
She quickly rushed forward towards them. Was it McNair? Had he killed again? Oh god, Fred. Fred and George—what if something had happened to them while she was cuddled in her warm bed sleeping the night away?
And then she saw it. Two identical photographs of two identical men.
FRED AND GEORGE WEASLEY
DEAD OR ALIVE
FOR THE MALICIOUS MURDER OF 7 HORSES
SUSPECT IN THE KILLINGS OF THE STANLEYS
IF YOU KNOW OF THEIR WHEREABOUTS,
PLEASE CONTACT THE DEADHAVEN SHERIFF'S OFFICE
She couldn't think. What had happened to the world that she had known while she had slumbered? Was this a joke? A prank? Who would do this? Fred wouldn't do this.
Harry caught her as the ground came rushing towards her. He pulled her and her father into his office just a crowd started gathering. Tom Riddle sat in a chair in the corner, looking sick. His sleeves were soaked in blood. Ron hammered away outside.
Harry sat her down in his chair and wiped her face with a wet towel. "Calm down, Hermione."
"They're suspects in those murders?!" She felt it all pouring out of her as hot angry tears ran freely down her face. "You found a NOTE from McNair—a confession. And you want to blame the twins? They wouldn't do something like that!"
"Would they not?" a silky voice came from behind them. Tom Riddle was pale as a ghost, his jaw set. "Just like they wouldn't brutally murder all of my horses in the middle of the night?"
No. They wouldn't.
"They did no such thing," Hermione insisted, searching Harry's eyes. "Tell him, Harry. Tell him that the twins wouldn't do this."
Harry sat reached behind her and solemnly pulled out a little metal box. He opened it and took a step back.
Inside was a small brass pocket watch, a deep red was smeared across the facade. On the back, blood had seeped into the engraving, which read "My fool, my love. –Hermione"
"I found it myself this morning, 'Mione."
"No," she whispered.
"Tom came to me at the crack of dawn, told me that he had found all of his horses with their throats slit open. When I got out there—God, Hermione, there was blood everywhere. Some of them must have been stabbed fifty times. And I found his watch up under one of 'em."
"No." She repeated herself. "He wouldn't—"
"He certainly was mad at me yesterday, was he not?" Tom said quietly.
"He was angry because of what you said. That doesn't mean he would do something like this—Harry, he had calmed down. He came with me to my father's office and—" she turned quickly to her father. "Tell Harry, Daddy. Fred was happy. He was over it."
Her father nodded. "He had calmed down. Just said he had some errands to run and that he would see us today," the doctor said firmly. No matter how sure he sounded, Hermione saw a flicker of doubt in his eyes, and she felt betrayed.
Hermione glared at all of them. What they were saying was crazy. Fred wouldn't hurt a horse—and he certainly wasn't capable of murder. He was kind… and gentle. He wouldn't. No.
"We'll go talk to Fred," Hermione insisted. "We'll go talk to him and George, and they'll tell all of you how crazy you're being. To even think such a thing—it's preposterous," she nodded.
Harry took her hands and kneeled down in front of her. "Yesterday evening, Hermione-" Harry looked hurt—broken. His chest heaved as if the words were difficult for him to say. "Fred went to the bank, and he and George withdrew every dime from their bank accounts."
Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in anguish. "Why?" she whispered.
"We think it's because they knew what they were going to do," Harry said carefully. "He knew that he was going to go to Tom's house, knew that he'd probably get caught—so he took everything he had with him."
Her mind stuttered.
"What do you mean 'with him'? Where did he go?" Her voice was small and trembling.
"I don't know, Hermione, but he's gone. Him and George are both gone."
"I rode out there as soon as I found the watch to ask him about it. Their place is empty—abandoned. The only thing left there is what they couldn't carry. Every book, every tool, every thread of clothing is gone. They took their dog and their horses… I'm so sorry, Hermione."
"They had us all fooled, didn't they?" Tom whispered behind them. "They were the only ones in the mountains the day of the murders. I've always said they were unhinged—messed up in the head, Potter. You should have arrested that boy yesterday."
He was her whole world.
He was morning and night. He was her reason for breathing and living and caring.
He was a lover and a friend and a confidant.
He was a cartographer, an inventor, and a troublemaker.
He was mayhem, chaotic and playful—his aquamarine eyes always twinkling with some newfound mischief.
He was improper invitations and bashful smiles of feigned innocence followed by a sly, slow, and wicked grin that made her insides squirm and tighten and contract and ignite.
He was starlight—dazzling and enduring and mysterious. A constant spark of ingenuity—of inspiration and know-how.
He was a slow, raw burn that left her gasping, always needing just one more caress of deliberate, searing fingertips that engraved fiery tracks in their wake.
He was the sole purpose of her affections, and she had never wanted anyone different. She had never wanted a single other person to consume her in the ways that he had, to kiss her or love her or have her.
And then he was suddenly something that she never thought that he would ever become—that he even could become—
Without hesitation or a single uttered goodbye-
He was gone.
A/N: So this might be the longest one chapter that I have ever written in my life. Actually, I'm positive that it is. Thank you to Courbeau for discussing this story with me for the past month (or more), hashing out the plot points, and then betaing it well into the night so that it could be posted today. Also, thanks to my sister, who has an almost unhealthy obsession with the West, which I have exploited (and will continue to exploit) during the course of this story.
Please leave a review, because I'm just dying to know what you think about it!