Disclaimer: JK Rowling is cleverly disguised as Robert Galbraith. Oh, wait—wrong franchise.

Credit to LightOtter for reminding me that I'd left Rita's thread dangling.

Chapter 60

Hermione took one look at Colin and Dennis Creevey and smacked her forehead. "Boys, this isn't a movie," she scolded. "Wearing trench coats and sunglasses is the opposite of inconspicuous."

"Relax," Dennis piped up. "We're in a muggle area, and we had to do this at least once."

"Besides, you're not exactly incognito. Anyway, here she is," Colin said. He stepped aside to reveal their visitor.

Hermione gave Rita Skeeter a knowing look, then winked at Colin. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine," she said.

"Excuse me, Miss Granger," she said. "You agreed to this meeting."

Hermione rolled her eyes: "Muggle joke. Just ignore that." Hermione had, of course, come to their meeting place an hour ago and surveyed the area, just in case of foul play—a seedy little pub in London miles away from the wizarding quarter where she could safely set up spells to keep the staff and patrons from overhearing anything.

As it was, if she hadn't known whom she was entertaining today, she might not have even recognised Rita Skeeter. The woman was doing better than she had been when Hermione had barred her from writing, but she had clearly gone for a less conspicuous look, unlike the Creeveys. Gone were her gaudy, over-long painted nails and starched curls. She'd straightened her hair and swapped her jewelled glasses for tortoiseshell, and her bright-coloured robes had been replaced with a surprisingly competent muggle outfit.

Hermione, of course, had gone even further. She'd not only straightened her hair, but charmed it black, her eyes blue, shaved her heavy eyebrows down pencil-thin, and wore black lipstick to complement an all-black outfit. Now that was a proper disguise.

"So, Ms. Skeeter," she said. "We're both here. What do you want?"

"I heard the broadcast on the wireless, Miss Granger," Skeeter said. Of course she did. She was a master of infiltration. "I recognised your voice. I want to help."

Hermione raised an eyebrow at her. "Help?" she demanded. "Why would you want to help us?"

Skeeter sat across from her and stared her down. "Human rights violations," she said. "You're the one who taught me those words. I had a lot of time on my hands for that year you kept me out of the press. I did some reading."

Human rights violations? Hermione thought. After everything that had happened, she'd forgotten that she'd even mentioned those words to Skeeter. "Really?" she asked. "I assumed you spent that time digging up dirt on Dumbledore."

"Well, I had plenty of time for that, too," she admitted. "Not-writing leaves you with a lot of time on your hands."

"And why should I trust you after the hack job you did on him?"

"Excuse me," she said, indignant. "I have always been dedicated to disseminating the truth no matter who it hurts."

"Don't give me that crap, Skeeter," Hermione snapped. "Your articles have been filled with half-truths, lies of omission, lack of context, and slanderous implications for as long as I've been reading them. You may stop just short of a direct lie, but you've always only been interested in your readership, not actual journalism.

Skeeter leaned forward and glared at her. "Alright, then, Granger," she said. "You want to play this game? I'll play. This is how this business works, don't you know? And don't think I didn't do my homework, little girl. Dumbledore made not have done the worst of what I implied, but he absolutely wasn't as squeaky clean as everyone thinks."

Hermione shook her head: "Believe me, I know that as well as anyone. I worked with him closely in the last months of his life. But implying that he murdered his own sister? That he was in cahoots with Grindelwald the entire time?"

"I have solid evidence—"

"There were dozens of witnesses to their famous duel, and you know it! But that wasn't the worst. No, your greatest mistake was dropping this bombshell in the middle of a war. You can be as dedicated to the truth as you want, but the effect on morale of these allegations could be devastating. These supposed secrets? They aren't important, and they aren't necessary. Maybe later, but not now, and society wouldn't have suffered for letting them go until after the war."

"And you would have stopped me from publishing them if you had the chance?" Skeeter demanded.

"No. I'm dedicated to a free press," Hermione conceded. "Your own ethics should have—if you had any."

Colin and Dennis were silent, their heads bobbing back and forth as the two women went at it. Colin looked briefly concerned at Skeeter's implication, but he relaxed when Hermione denied it.

"Don't push it, Granger," Skeeter said. "I do want to help you."

"Why? What's in it for you?" she demanded.

"Exactly what I said," she said smugly. "Human rights violations. It's a concept wizards don't think about too much—not that we ignore them, but we don't have a term for it, either. See, I read up on the muggle press while I was researching. and half the biggest stories of the past hundred years have been about human rights violations, or connected with them. You actually show people the death and suffering up close, and they respond to that. You get the help you need, and I get those readers I love so much. This will be the story of my career."

Of course it would, Hermione grumbled to herself. "Ah," she said. "So you're the same exploitative, opportunistic gossip-monger you've always been, shamelessly profiting of the pain of others."

"I regret nothing," Skeeter said.

"You will if you screw this up," Hermione said as threateningly as she could. "I am interested in your help, as it happens. But I need to make completely sure I can rely on you. So three questions: are you willing to use your animagus form to gather intelligence and pass on anything important to my associates?" She motioned to Colin and Dennis.

"Within reason, yes," she said. "That's how I always do it."

"And you'll keep that information a secret if I or others in the resistance tell you to keep it secret?"

"I'm not a fool, Granger. I wouldn't have lasted this long if I didn't know when to keep my mouth shut."

"Good," Hermione said. "And are you willing to stick to the actual truth on this story? None of your usual spin?"

Skeeter frowned. "Why would I want to do that?"

Hermione shot her such a fierce glare that the woman flinched. "Because I say so," she snarled. "There's a very good reason, though. If you read up enough on human rights to come and offer me help, you must have heard about the Holocaust."

"Of course, Granger. That's the one thing the muggles make the most noise about."

"Good. Have you heard of Holocaust denial, then?"

"Holocaust denial? Not in so many words. That means people say…?"

"Basically, denying that the Holocaust ever happened, yes."

"What?" Rita said, aghast. "That's ridiculous! All the photos and documents they had? Even I wouldn't be that crazy!"

"Well, that's one mark in your favour," Hermione quipped.

"Who would do such a ridiculous thing?" she demanded. "What profit is there in that?

Hermione leaned back and crossed her arms in satisfaction. She had her now. "People who have an ideological opposition to Jews—rank nonsense on the level of the worst of pureblood prejudices—or to the State of Israel—less clear-cut, politically, but still an abominable way to go about it. People who liked Hitler's other ideas and don't want him painted as absolute evil, or true believers who know they're lying, but do it anyway for political gain. The important thing is, when they were originally writing the stories, they knew people would try to deny it and took steps to prevent that."

"They did? Why was that?"

"Because that wasn't the first time it had happened," Hermione said, and the Creeveys nodded along grimly. "The Armenian Genocide in Turkey thirty years earlier was a very similar program of mass murder, and that one was successfully covered for in the political sphere, in many ways. To this day, muggle Turkey and its allies refuse to acknowledge that it happened. So when General Eisenhower liberated the concentration camps, he ordered his troops and the press to document it thoroughly—to get down everything they could and make it publicly known so that the record would remain unassailable long after everyone involved had died, and no one could ever deny it happened without looking like a fool. Even so, people still try.

"We can win this war, but if we don't change people's hearts and minds, we're only going to have to fight it again in another generation. If we give the Death Eaters' supporters the opening to deny the oppression and murder of muggle-borns being carried out right now by this Ministry, they'll take it, and we'll be right back where we started. And as for you personally, you don't want the story of your career to be torn apart by those people worse than any book about Dumbledore could be. They'll discredit it, and they'll discredit you—unless we head them off.

"So here's the deal, Ms. Skeeter. If you're going to report on this, you're going to have to do it honestly—none of your usual exaggerations, distortions, or implications, on one side or the other. Document everything accurately and thoroughly. Make your truth above reproach so that no one can doubt it. If I believe at any point that you cannot do this, I'll replace you with someone who can. With a flyswatter."

Skeeter paled. She could tell she'd got in over her head with this one. But she wasn't one to back down—not from a story this big, and she was no stranger to threats. "You've changed, Granger," she said.

"Maybe," Hermione said.

"You have. You were bloody scary before, sure, but casual murder wasn't in your repertoire when last we met."

Hermione didn't rise to the bait. She didn't intend to literally use a flyswatter, and Skeeter knew it, but it got the point across. "I'm doing what I need to to keep myself and the people I care about alive," she said. "I've already killed one Death Eater in pursuit of that, and I'm not afraid to defend myself from the real monsters again. Now, you know where I stand. The deal's on the table. Are you still interested?"

Skeeter got a greedy look in her eye. "You think I'm going to pass this up Granger?" she asked. "Fine, I'll give you your stories. And I'll make sure they're all properly sourced and documented. Even if you don't believe anything else, I'm not stupid enough to cross my employer."

"Good," Hermione said, and she smiled and shook Skeeter's hand. She only felt a little bit like she needed to wash it afterwards. "The Creeveys will be your point of contact. Pass your stories and documents along to them, and we'll make sure they get to the people in charge of Liberation."

"Meaning you?" she said.

"That is above your pay grade, Ms. Skeeter. And mine," she lied. "Even I don't know most of the secrets of what we're doing. Safer that way. Now, let's talk price."

Hermione worked on assembling molecules—visualising one atom linking to the next to the next in a geometrical lattice. She was immensely grateful that she'd figured out how to make gemstones with magic. It was much more than funding the Twins' shop, now. This was one of their primary methods to fund the war effort with everyone in hiding, especially with Rita Skeeter's exorbitant rates.

Today, however, she wasn't making jewelry. Hermione still hadn't replaced her buckler that had been shattered in her last fight. She needed a new one if she wanted to be able to block the Killing Curse in an emergency again. And this time, she'd made some improvements.

Her original buckler had been a simple disk twelve inches in diameter (or thirty centimetres, rather) and eight millimeters thick. Making it thicker wouldn't help much against a curse that powerful, so there was nothing to be gained there, but she could make it more compact instead. For the new version, she made five wedges of her nanotube material, which she assembled into a spring-loaded mechanism that would strap onto her arm that could unfold them into a fan shape ten inches wide and seventeen inches high with a flick her wrist. Folded, it was like having a chunk of two-by-four attached to her sleeve, but it still allowed a lot more freedom of movement than her old one, and it weighed the same. Unfolded, it offered better coverage of her face and chest, and with the wedges, it might be able to take more hits.

The other improvement she made to her gear was not in direct response to any incident so far, but she was hoping to prevent one in the future by reinforcing the one part of her kit that was undeniably a weak point: her wands. Wands were magically tougher than ordinary sticks, but they were still frighteningly easy to snap over one's knee, or to break in a bad fall, let alone a direct curse. She had broken Ron's old wand by accident when Riddle's spirit stole it in the Chamber of Secrets. Even with two of them plus a homemade backup, breaking one of her wands would put her at a severe disadvantage.

The solution, of course, was again carbon nanotubes. When you had a material that strong and light that could do everything that steel, aluminium, and Kevlar could, and more, why would you ever use anything else? She crafted a very fine mesh of nanotube wires and bonded it to the wood, stopping about an inch from the tip so as not to interfere with the magic. With the strength of the material, it was equivalent to wrapping the wand completely with steel wire. She tested it on low-quality homemade wands first, and she found that it didn't create any increased resistance to spellcasting, nor accelerated wear and tear, but it made them that much harder to break.

With her wands thus reinforced, Hermione judged she was as ready as she could be for the next fight. And that fight might come sooner rather than later, since Kingsley had responded to Harry's request and wanted to meet to discuss the situation at the Ministry—and if Harry got his way, to plan their first major offensive action.

Unlike Rita Skeeter, Kingsley was read into their secret and was thus able to visit the group at the factory. When he arrived, it occurred to Hermione that the Fidelius Charm was also a very nice shortcut to be sure he was who he said he was. One less thing to worry about. He produced a folder of documents as he sat with Harry, Hermione, George, and Fred in what had once been the break room. Mr. Lovegood was politely asked to sit this one out. He wouldn't be involved in any fighting, and they wouldn't want media involvement until after the fact.

"Hello, Harry," Kingsley said in his deep voice. "I'm glad to see you all are doing well. As you requested, I've had our…agents survey the conditions inside the Ministry." Hermione was pleased that, as an Auror, he easily took to proper information security. "I've already talked our options over with Mad-Eye, but before we start, I want to know what you want to do."

"I want to help the muggle-borns," Harry said. "I know if the Ministry's doing what it planned, it's rounding them up and shipping them to some camp somewhere. I want to stop them and rescue the muggle-borns who are in there—show them they can't get away with that."

Kingsley nodded gravely. "And what do you rest of you think?" he asked the table.

"Well, Harry's our strategist, so this is sort of his purview, but I stand with him," Hermione said. "I don't want to let this persecution stand when we can do something about it."

"Same here," George spoke up.

"Can't let them walk all over people," Fred agreed.

"Very well," Kingsley said. "Here is the current situation as we understand it." He laid out the first parchments in his dossier. "Officially, the Ministry is merely investigating the heritage of muggle-borns out of historical interest. However, if no magical heritage is found, which is almost always the case, they are quietly disappeared to a secret trial for supposedly coming by magic by nefarious means. I'm sorry to say Dolores Umbridge is presiding."

Hermione scowled: "So exactly what they were planning, but in secret."

"I'm afraid so, Hermione, with one exception. The need for secrecy has derailed the puppet regime's plans to build the Mudblood Relocation Camp. Most of those convicted are simply being released with loss of wand privileges."

Hermione's eyes widened, and all four heads turned to her. "And I can teach people how to make disposable wands," she said.

Kingsley frowned: "That information has never been widely disseminated," he said. "I'm not forbidding it—merely warning that it could make things messier after the war. And if the Death Eaters start to catch on, they will take more drastic action."

Her face fell: "Like shaving the prisoners' heads…or just killing them…I'll have to think it over, but I suspect the benefits still outweigh the costs. What else?"

"Muggle-borns who show particular dissident tendencies are not released," he continued. "Depending on the severity and how cooperative they are, the penalty ranges from confinement inside the Ministry to the Dementor's Kiss."

There was a bang and a shower of sparks as Hermione's teacup shattered in her hand in a burst of magic.

"Sorry," she muttered and cleaned it up with a wave of her wand. She must be more on edge than she thought.

"My apologies if this is a sensitive subject," Kingsley said.

"I'll be fine," she said.

Harry spoke up again: "So what are our prospects for shutting them down and rescuing the muggle-borns?"

"Those are two separate things, Harry," the Auror answered. He showed them three moving photographs from the dossier. One Hermione recognised. The others she didn't. "To the best of our knowledge, these are the three main perpetrators," he said. "Umbridge, the organiser. Albert Runcorn, the chief headhunter. And Corban Yaxley, who we believe is the Death Eater puppet-master. Best case scenario: we capture or kill all three of them, and the puppet regime is crippled. We might even buy a window long enough to take back control, but that's unlikely. Yaxley will be almost impossible to hit. He's installed himself as the Director of the DMLE, and he's never unguarded. I'm not sure about Umbridge either. Runcorn should be easier, though."

"I want to take down Umbridge," Hermione growled. "If there's a way we can…"

"There are definitely ways. Freeing the prisoners is likely to take us close to her. That's where we'll want to start." Kingley showed them some rough floor plans of the Ministry. "The trials are being held in Courtroom Ten—at the very bottom, below even the Department of Mysteries. Both Mad-Eye and I agree that a frontal assault is out of the question. The whole of the Ministry's security lies between the entrances and that courtroom, and the courtroom itself is guarded by what our agents called an 'irresponsible' number of dementors."

Harry and Hermione looked at each other and nodded. The pair of them were two of the best Patronus casters in the entire Order. If they were going to do this, the two of them wouldn't be able to sit it out.

"We'll have to infiltrate the Ministry in secret to have a chance," Kingsley continued. "All the entrances are guarded, and identities are checked. The security is still loose enough that a disguise and credentials should be enough to get through it—I'm sure the Death Eaters don't like that, but it's a public building, after all—but it will still be very dangerous."

"What about your spies?" asked Fred.

"No. We can't risk exposing them. The infiltration team will have to be convincingly disguised as Ministry workers. We have a small supply of Polyjuice Potion for that purpose. Have you used it before?"

"No, but I'm familiar with the concept," Hermione said, and then, for Harry's benefit, "It lets you take the appearance of someone else. Actually, George, Fred, see if there's any chance you could get the ingredients. We should see if we can brew our own in case of emergency."

"Yes, ma'am," George said, saluting. She rolled her eyes.

"I take it you two are interested in the infiltration mission?" Kingsley said. "You can both cast the Patronus Charm?"

"I practice it every night," Hermione said. When I sleep properly, she added mentally.

"And we're in if these two are going," George said quickly.

"Yeah. They'll need extra wands to help them," Fred agreed. "Especially if they're busy with Patronuses."

"It would be dangerous sending either of you two, given your value to the Order," Kingsley said, eyeing Harry and Hermione. "But I have to admit your skills would be vital to this mission. I can give you preliminary approval as the infiltration team, pending a full planning session with Mad-Eye. Your priority would be to sneak into Courtroom Ten and the holding cells, disrupt the trials, and free the prisoners there. Take down any of our three targets if you have the opportunity to so it safely."

"Makes sense," Harry nodded, though he didn't look too happy about possibly letting Umbridge go. Hermione privately agreed.

"The hard part will be getting out of the Ministry once you free the prisoners. You should be able to get part of the way out before trouble starts if you take the security by surprise, but it won't get you all the way out. Therefore, a team of veterans who are publicly known to be Order members will be on standby to serve as a distraction or an extraction team to make a pathway for you."

Hermione gave a small smile. Kingsley had clearly thought this through. It was starting to sound like a plausible plan. "Who are we looking at impersonating?" she asked.

"That will take some more detailed planning to get a handle on people's movements," he said. "There are a few targets we're particularly considering. Mafalda Hopkirk, for example—Head of the Improper Use of Magic Office, but our agents tell me Umbridge tapped her to be Court Scribe. If we're lucky, Runcorn himself. He doesn't have twenty-four-hour security, like the other two. Lesser subordinates. Maintenance wizards. There are options."

"No one ever notices the maintenance folks," Fred observed.

"It's a well-known fact. Like house elves—no offence, Hermione," George added.

"This is good," Harry agreed, looking over the floor plans. "This could work. I say we set up a meeting with Moody and whoever else is involved and hammer out the details. If we're going to do this, we should do it soon."

"I'm in," Fred said at once.

Harry looked at Hermione, but she just said, "You're the strategist in this group, Harry. I'll defer to you unless you're being blatantly foolish."

"I think we're in, Kingsley," George agreed.

The Auror nodded once more. "Very well. I'll talk to Mad-Eye and make the arrangements."