Amycus Carrow was a stocky, brutish boy. His face was almost pan flat, and his chin was weak. Pulling his robe impatiently free of a clinging bramble, he curled his lip at his sister.
"Alecto. How in Merlin's name did you get invited to this?"
Alecto subsided into a whisper, and looked to Hermione for guidance. From his casual tone, Amycus didn't yet seem alarmed.
"So how are we getting there? Do you have a portkey?"
"Actually, I'm afraid I might have told you a lie. Or two. You see I didn't actually bring you out here for a meeting with the Dark Lord. Actually I don't think he could care less about you. Really, Alecto just fancied a little chat."
Hermione watched Amycus twist her words around until they made sense to him.
"You lied to me!"
"You bitch! Alecto just you wait until we get home."
Hermione swept her arm around the clearing.
"Oh and we brought some friends for moral support."
Four figures melted into view. Hermione observed a twitch of fear before Amycus gathered himself.
"Psh. Couple fifth and sixth years."
"We've heard you want to be your usual worm-self this summer. We thought you could lay it out here - when Alecto can actually use her wand."
Alecto stuttered. "I don't think -"
Amycus's piggy eyes narrowed.
"What's to stop you lot cursing me in the back while I'm finishing her off?"
Hermione pushed Alecto forward.
"This is a family matter. Just Alecto."
Amycus stared for a moment, assessing if she meant it. Then he drew his wand and shot a jinx at Alecto.
Alecto fumbled for her wand, a painful mauve welt rising on her right cheekbone.
The others froze, their wands gripped. Rabastan's knuckles were white. They all had to trust Hermione; this was their test too. Amycus looked around, and seemed to decide to go through with things.
"Really 'Lecto? Thought your friends would help?"
Amycus moved closer to his sister, and ran a dirty-nailed finger down her cheek.
"They probably thought you'd fight back. I know better love."
Hermione could feel eyes burning into her as Amycus cut a line down Alecto's pocked cheek. Rich blood welled and dripped.
"Hermione -" Arabel tried.
"You don't care about her really. No-one does. You brought me out here to teach her a lesson, didn't you?"
Alecto mumbled. Amycus cocked his head.
"You what now?"
"These are my friends!"
"You believe 'em?"
Amycus grinned venomously, and moved into the centre of the ring of dirt.
"You're nothing. Crucio!"
Amycus slashed, and Alecto crashed to the groud. As she stumbled onto her knees, twigs and dirt clung to her torn robes.
Amycus held the spell. Hermione felt Severus move closer, and press his warm lips to her ear.
"He's going to shred her."
"Trust me," Hermione murmured, watching Alecto shudder. "She'll crush him."
"Why are you doing this?"
Hermione turned her head for a split second and caught Severus's eye. He frowned at her, and for an instant she questioned herself. Why was she doing this? Was it necessary to split another soul? Before she could follow that path she was torn, shaken from her thoughts, by another scream. No time to rethink, no time to question. Only to act.
"Help me," Alecto yelped.
"Fight back Alex!"
"She won't," Amycus scoffed. "She's useless like you!"
Unexpectedly, he switched aim.
There was plenty of time to stop the spell. Time to kill Amycus before the spell even landed, time to cast a shield, time to dodge. But Hermione did none of these things. Instead she let the curse hit her, opened her arms wide to the pain, walked into its embrace like an old friend, and barely heard the scream leaving her own throat.
Then she was on the ground with no awareness of falling, with leaves and dirt in her mouth, and it tasted of triumph because if she was right - she was so often right about people - then maybe…
Hermione snapped open her eyes, just in time to see Alecto snarl out a spell, the savagery of which surprised even her.
Amycus was flung backwards, and staggered. He howled with laughter as Alecto advanced towards him.
"She's got teeth after all! Bring it on baby."
"You will never touch me or my friends again," Alecto said, so low her voice was barely audible. Her wrist cracked like a whip, and Amycus was thrown off his feet. This time he regained his balance, but his face was cold.
Alecto screamed, and her knees buckled, but Amycus could only sustain the spell for a few moments, and she dragged herself up again.
"My whole life you have tortured me."
Hermione urged Alecto on silently. Across the circle the others were leaning forwards eagerly, with bloodlust in their eyes. Even Severus. How easily it came to the surface.
"You treated me like an animal, like your plaything. I was supposed to be your sister!"
Amycus stalked towards her.
"Don't be boring Alecto. Crucio!"
Hermione suspected it was the only torture curse Amycus knew.
Arabel turned to Hermione, her face whiter than snow.
"No, she's got this under control."
It was true. Alecto had recovered from the last bout of spasms, and with a bloodcurdling scream, charged headlong at Amycus; her wand lying forgotten in the mud.
The ferocity in her eyes was enough to make her brother stumble backwards in alarm, and Hermione saw the fear on his face as he glanced over his shoulder, and realised he had moved backwards to the very edge of the precipice.
"Shit! Wait - Alecto…"
Without pausing for words, Alecto slammed into Amycus so hard that he was almost lifted off his feet. Her thick, stocky build worked in her favour for possibly the first time in her life.
Amycus's eyes flared wide, and his mouth gaped as he fell backwards towards the edge of the precipice. His arms flailed wildly.
For a sickening instant Hermione thought he might catch hold of Alecto; might drag his sister over the edge with him. But his outstretched hands grasped empty air, and Amycus Carrow pitched backwards off the cliff in a clatter of falling rocks. He was so shocked he didn't begin to scream until he must have been a third of the way through his long fall.
Hermione didn't hear him hit bottom, but the abrupt cessation of the scream confirmed impact. The air was still, no breeze whatsoever. The sentinel oaks and pines stood as motionless as stone.
Alecto gulped, and shuffled closer to the edge. She peered over, gingerly, as though afraid of what she might see. Whatever lay at the bottom of the precipice could not have been pretty, but something - and she was not entirely sure what - prevented Hermione from intervening.
Presently, Alecto withdrew from the edge and threw up noisily into the bushes. Then she began to cry. Arabel moved forward and offered a handkerchief.
"Are you alright?"
Abruptly, Alecto began to laugh instead, snorting and giggling through her tears.
Arabel took a step back, and shot an alarmed looked at Hermione. The laughter was raucous, and lasted for only thirty seconds or so before that also faded. Then Alecto looked up and met Hermione's eyes.
"I pushed him."
Rabastan, Regulus and Severus joined the semi-circle They glanced at her for what seemed like permission, before moving over to the edge of the cliff and looking down.
Alecto made no move to wipe her tearstained cheeks, but returned to the edge and looked over it again. This time Hermione and Arabel joined her.
The body of Amycus Carrow looked small; a dark blot on the grass and stone. On his back, one arm flung out. From this height they could see no blood.
"What - what should we do?"
Alecto had begun to tremble violently, and Hermione needed to snap her out of it before the witch went into shock. Time to worry about regrets later.
"We need to deal with the body."
After a moment, Severus stepped forward, and used his wand to churn up the dirt around the clearing, erasing obvious signs of the fight.
"Hermione's right. We can't leave him lying around."
Alecto swallowed hard, visibly trying to pull herself together.
They levitated down the face of the cliff, where Regulus quickly transfigured Amycus's body into a rock, and Rabastan used magic to bury it far beneath the murky earth.
Alecto was given the job of scougifying bloodstains off the rocks, which seemed to settle her somewhat.
"Here's his wand," Arabel called.
"Do you want it?" Hermione asked Alecto.
"No. I never want to see that thing again."
Hermione nodded, stuck it upright in the ground, and set it on fire. They all turned to watch as the wood blazed with flames, crackling and spitting. There was something obscene about destroying a wizards wand, something utterly unnatural. It was intoxicating.
"Hawthorn and dragon heartstring," Alecto whispered.
The ashes caught in the breeze and began to rise.
The group watched, as the flames died down and a last puff of smoke rose from the burned out husk. This, Hermione knew, would seal them for better or for worse.
After a moment, they all looked at Hermione.
"Come on," she said at last.
They formed a protective phalanx around Alecto as they marched back through the forest, not speaking but in silent mutual understanding.
A group, Hermione thought, designed to take down the most cunning wizard alive, would need to be extraordinarily cunning themselves. But as she looked at the young witch, her face blotchy with tears, Hermione wondered if there could have been another way.
"Hermione," Alecto whispered across the dining table. "I'm going to -"
Quickly, Hermione rose and pulled Alecto from the hall, Arabel hurrying after them. As they held her hair back, Alecto retched over the toilet and sobbed.
"I didn't mean to do it."
"It was incredible."
Rabastan bounced across the grass towards Herbology, his cheeks flushed with over-excitement.
"Have you ever done that before? Do you think it'll happen again?"
Arabel rubbed her night cream in little circles across her pale cheeks, and nodded at Hermione.
"I wondered how long it would take you."
In the bed behind her, Alecto was curled up beneath the covers, fast asleep. She'd barely made it through dinner.
"What do you mean?"
"You've had her diary for months. I was starting to think you were never going to do it - although making Alecto handle her own battles was inspired."
Hermione met Arabel's eyes in the mirror, and wondered exactly what she'd unleashed.
"Where's Alecto?" Severus demanded, the instant the dungeon door sealed shut behind Hermione.
"Is she alright?"
Hermione didn't reply, but shrugged off her robes and took up a duelling stance. She felt sick with exhaustion, and wanted the day over as soon as possible. Severus stared for a moment, and then took up position.
They never bowed to each other. It wasn't duelling that they were doing in this cave.
They fell into the usual pattern, casting and parrying, sometimes silently, trying to find the weak spots in each others defense. Hermione didn't use her tricks here; she wasn't about to give Severus the chance to study her spellwork closely enough to find out how she did it.
Getting Alecto through the day had been a nightmare. Mad-Eye's recruits were usually flung straight into the battlefield after their first kill, not asked to sit through double transfiguration. Hermione wondered if she'd overestimated the girl; expected too much from a sixteen year old with a grudge against her brother. It wouldn't surprise her if Alecto cracked the first time she was questioned. Could she have saved them any other way?
It had been a long time since Hermione could remember being this tired. She fought automatically, feeling dead on her feet, barely aware of the volley of spells she was returning.
Hermione saw the spell coming, and wearily lifted a shield. It shattered on impact, and a stray spell shot past and sliced her cheek.
"Shit! Hermione, are you alright? I never thought I'd get that through the shield."
Severus jogged over to Hermione, but she looked away.
"Here, let me heal that."
"Leave it. I'm sorry Severus, I'm not up to it tonight. Can we try again another night?"
Hermione touched the hot blood running down her face, and looked at her fingers. Red, sticky, wet. There was so much blood on her hands. Alecto had gone from child to murderer. Rabastan looked like he wanted to try next. Hermione wasn't sure why she cared so much. Amycus was better dead, but she should have done it alone.
"Don't be stupid."
Gently, Severus pulled Hermione's hand from her face, and used his wand to knit the skin back together. Then he very carefully wiped away the blood.
"Thanks," she said wearily. All she wanted now was to get some sleep.
"Hermione, what's wrong?"
At that, she snorted.
"Nothing. Nothing at all."
And then without warning, without meaning too, Hermione felt her eyes begin to water.
"I - are you - Hermione?"
Severus sounded panicked, but Hermione couldn't face him. Unable to help herself, she sank to the floor. Never in her life had she felt so completely and utterly alone. She had seen so much death she had thought she was numb.
"Go away," she managed to choke out. "Please leave."
"What can I do?"
A moment later someone knelt beside her. Very awkwardly, Severus put a stiff arm around her shoulders.
Nobody had touched Hermione for years, and she almost struck him, but paused. His large warm hand brushed against her bare arm, and she felt a shudder run up and down her spine. Another human, real and alive, touching her.
Severus sounded uncertain, but he kept his arm around her shoulders. Hermione resisted for a moment, holding herself stiff. But after a moment she found herself turning away, and sobbing like she hadn't done since childhood. She couldn't stop it; couldn't shut it down. Severus wavered, clearly feeling wildly out of his depth. Finally he pulled her into his arms, awkwardly but with determination.
"I can't do it all over again."
"You can't what?"
Hermione shook her head, her face buried in his robes. SloIwly, Severus began to run his fingers through the tangles of her wild hair.
"Shh. It's alright."
It would never, ever be alright. Hermione let out a great shuddering breath, and leaned into Severus. As her sobs calmed and turned into the occasional gulp, she felt herself flushing red with humiliation. Why was this happening to her?
"I think you've been keeping too many secrets for too long," Severus said quietly. "And it's killing you."
Hermione pulled away sharply, aware that her face was blotchy and red but suddenly furious.
"Don't you fucking dare read my mind!"
Severus raised his hands slowly in the air.
Hermione stared him until she was sure he was telling the truth, and Severus leaned forwards, his face pale and earnest.
"Look, you don't need to say anything, not a word. I'm not stupid, and I know you've got things that you're hiding from us. But I don't care Hermione, none of that matters. What happened today doesn't matter because I know why you did it. Because even though you're terrifying, and for some fucking scary reason you're okay with killing, you're still...you're my best friend and I care so much. Fuck!"
Severus's voiced cracked, and he cursed. He began to get to his feet.
Hermione didn't know where the word came from. She felt locked in place, wretched but unable to stop listening.
"Please don't go."
Severus slowly sat down again, and Hermione said quietly.
"Could you just...talk to me? About anything?"
She didn't know why she was asking, but there was something about Severus that made her feel safe. Something about him had always made her feel safe, even long ago in that strange twilight world when she had been his student. His calm presence and his steady voice somehow drove away her demons for a little while, and after a moment she realised she had stopped shaking.
Severus sounded self-conscious as he began to recite a list of instructions for making a calming draught.
It was so typical Severus that Hermione almost smiled. What was she doing here, with this man? It had been death or this life, and she'd chosen life. But for the first time, Hermione wondered if she had made the right decision. What would Harry and Ron say, if they saw what she had become? What would her parents have said if they could see her now?
"I had to live through all their fucking deaths though," she muttered.
Severus paused as Hermione began to stand.
"Hey, are you okay?"
"I don't know."
Hermione wondered if she should obliviate him, although he'd seen almost nothing. But she felt tired. So god-damned bone weary of trying to make everything different. She didn't want to be Hermione Black anymore. She began to sob again, deep choking shudders that came from somewhere inside of her, tears pouring down her cheeks.
Suddenly there were fingertips on her cheek; Severus stroked her face from cheekbone to jawline. Hermione unconsciously leaned into the warm, soft touch, comforted as though it was a friend like Harry, or Ron. Slowly his other arm came around her waist, uncertainly and gently.
"Hermione…" he whispered.
But Severus wasn't Harry or Ron. Abruptly Hermione yanked herself away, stumbling to her feet. This was too dangerous.
"Just leave me alone!"
Hermione threw off his gentle hands and ran; scattering piles of rubble as she slammed out of the dungeon, sealing the heavy granite door shut behind her. It wouldn't take Severus long to break through, but she would be safely away by then.
The call from behind the stone wall was faint, but it didn't stop Hermione from remembering the hurt look on Severus's face as she'd pulled away. The thought was painful, but she was good at pushing hurting things to the back of her mind.
Focus. Need to focus. No more regrets, just finish the job.
One question - I'm not entirely sure what the story rating should be at the moment. I don't think it quite warrants an M yet, but I might be wrong. Any advice from anyone more familiar with the ratings system than me?
Until next time,