Chapter Eight

January 13, 2004

Minister Umbridge Encourages Her Fellow Ministry Officials to Adopt

Believing that everyone within the Ministry of Magic is responsible for helping to ensure that their controversial adoption program is a success, Minister Dolores Umbridge released a statement encouraging all who were able and gainfully employed with the Ministry to sign up to adopt their own child. Facing down critics who have been vocal about their concerns that such a breeding program is unethical, she called upon others who shared her opinion that what they were doing was for the benefit of our society to take the next step forward.

"Everyone who can afford to do so should apply to take in a child. I, myself, have been considering…"

Watching the witch who shared his bed rapidly expand with his child brought Antonin no sense of ease or joy. For months he'd watched the development with a churning in his guts. Never had he felt more helpless than in the quiet moments he could stare at her while she slept. She didn't allow him to linger his gaze on her when she was awake. Each time she caught him staring, she would make a rude remark and leave the room.

She hadn't yet gotten over her fear of being outside. If she was honest with herself, which he knew she wasn't, she might actually come to understand that that was an issue she would always face. Even if she could force herself out in the open, the dread and the fear would still be choking within her. Everyone who spent any length of time at all in Azkaban knew they would not leave the same person. Just as Hermione feared being outside in the vast world that felt too big for her, Antonin feared being stuck in small spaces he couldn't escape. He spent every moment he could outside while she did the exact opposite.

Because of her phobia, it was never difficult to find her again when she stormed off in a huff. Not only were her movements slower because of the advanced stages of her first pregnancy, but her fear always brought her back inside. Knowing that continuing his examination of her would only cause the already high tensions in the cottage to rise even higher, he saved his looks for the privacy of their bedroom when she was completely unaware.

The growing of her belly represented their one chance at freedom… and a loss that was still unimaginable. When the time came, how would they be able to hand their babies, their own flesh and blood, over to those who hated them? They might never see their children again. Even if they completed the program's unnatural expectations and were actually granted parole, there was no guarantee that they would ever be able to find their children. Also, they had to deal with the certainty that their adoptive parents would be protective enough to want to keep their children's criminal biological parents as far away as possible. It was the price they had to pay for their freedom. Even if it was barbaric and they hated it, there really wasn't much they could do.

A rumbling had begun amongst the inmates once the numerous pregnancies throughout the village were confirmed. How could they stop the Ministry from stealing their babies? In all of the couples forced to breed together, only a handful had been able to find any joy together. Thorfinn and Hannah were liable to make even the strongest stomach sick up their contents. Antonin envied them until his chest hurt. Others, like Rodolphus and the Lovegood girl, had discovered a mutual affection that made the whole program easier to endure and much, much harder.

Those blessed few couples that could see a future together beyond the walls of their current prison were anxious to figure out a way to keep their fucked up family units together. They spoke in hushed whispers about how they were going to revolt at the first stolen baby. Naïve, lovesick fools, the lot of them. What kind of resistance would they possibly create? They were alone on a heavily warded island with no wands or access to weapons. Wandless magic was a fantasy. Only a few were capable of performing even the most basic spells and it literally took decades of careful study and practice to improve. Besides, what little magic they still had was so buried deep inside of them thanks to magical suppression wards in both Azkaban and the island that most of them were going to have to relearn the basics when they were finally handed a wand.

Clearly, they were allowing their emotions to get the better of them. Any amount of resistance to the program they all signed up for would only result in them being thrown back in Azkaban with no hope of ever being let out again. To jeopardize their one chance for freedom was foolish. They weren't thinking logically. Relying solely on emotion never got anyone anywhere. As tempting as it might be to fight against the theft of their children, they were completely powerless.

He ignored the small voice in the back of his mind that liked to continually point out he was jealous of what the others found. Perhaps if there was the slightest bit of affection between he and the girl carrying his child he might have felt differently. Maybe he would be one of the vocal ones trying to figure out a way to save their children from being stolen. Fatherhood had always been a dream that he wished for, but never expected. In the ignorance of his youth, he assumed that when he became a father he would be married to, or at least in love with, the mother. Not once did he imagine the possibility that he would be where he was.

Their feelings for each other hadn't improved with the impending birth of their child. If anything, the physical evidence of the deeds they'd committed in the privacy of their own bedroom and bathroom only served to make their limited conversations and interactions worse. The day he took her to the beach for the first time and she'd clung to him, he'd assumed that that would mark the beginning of a difference in their relationship. He highly doubted they would ever love each other like Thorfinn and Hannah. They were too different, too broken to even imagine such a thing. A friendship wasn't too much to hope for. If they couldn't love each other, just being able to lay in bed with the other to have long conversations or to simply be able to enjoy the other's company would have been nice.

But, to his regret, nothing came of the day at the beach. Though he'd been able to take her several more times and she allowed him to walk with her around the village when she needed the exercise, they may as well have been strangers. As it was his child and she was his responsibility, he still felt it his solemn duty to protect and care for her. Even if they couldn't stand the sight of each other, she was as close to his wife as he was likely to ever get.

The cottage was becoming more of a prison to Hermione than her cell in Azkaban ever was. Trapped in the fortress, she had no hopes for ever leaving the small space she spent every single moment inside. Unlike Muggle prisons, there was never an opportunity to walk outside or even around an indoor walking track. The Ministry didn't see a reason for letting the prisoners out of their cells for any reason at all. Humanity was stripped from every person damned to spend a single moment inside.

Others took advantage of the relative freedom to move about the island as they pleased. Half the time she never knew were Antonin was and she didn't care. Life was easier when he wasn't hovering around her, staring like she might erupt into flames or suddenly sprout another head. She could understand his concern about her well-being. After all, without her he would be back in Azkaban with no hope of parole. They were each other's only opportunity for freedom. But, that didn't mean she cared for all of the attention.

It was more difficult to ignore the severity of the situation they were in when he kept bringing attention to it. A time would come very soon, only weeks away really, where she would go into labor and the child she carried would be taken away. If she was ever able to see it again, she'd be amazed. The dreadful Healer who attended the birth likely wouldn't even let her hold it first. Perhaps that was for the best.

As difficult as it was her to leave the safety of the cottage, Hermione forced herself to go outside when she could. Not only was it proving to herself that she could face her fear, it gave her the opportunity to stretch her legs and fill her lungs with fresh air. Staying in bed constantly lamenting her lot in life wasn't healthy for her mental state of mind.

A terrible side-effect of walking outside meant she often came into contact with the other residents. Most of the visits to her cottage where she was asked to figure out what they were all going to do next or how they were going to leave the island were stopped by the presence of an overprotective Antonin. Though she would never come right out and admit it to him, she was grateful. Why did everyone assume she had all of the answers? And why did they think she somehow had all of this miraculous power that could get them out of any fix? Who was responsible for spreading such unrealistic tales? She was only one person, a person who spent five years in prison unable to perform any magic at all. How could it be possible for her to save everyone when the enemy was the full might of the Ministry of Magic?

Stepping outside meant she was forced to be in contact with those simpletons who still imagined she had supernatural abilities. If she ever discovered who started the whole "Hermione knows all of the answers to every single problem and always has a plan" rubbish, she was going to take great joy in causing them tremendous physical pain. She was merely a person scared and trying to make it through an impossible program for the hope of a freedom outside Azkaban. Because every single witch on the island was in some stage of pregnancy thanks to the damned potions the Ministry made them consume with every meal, there were more than a few expectant mothers demanding her to tell them what they were going to do to keep their babies.

Hermione's only plan was to not look at her child before it was taken from her. Somehow it seemed like it would be easier if she just didn't know what they looked like. Make it less real perhaps. Beyond that, no, she didn't have an idea how they could rise up and fight to keep their children. It wasn't as if they asked for this or wanted to have children with their assigned breeding partners. Many nights she lay awake with Antonin asleep next to her wishing she was back in Azkaban instead.

She knew there were several who thought her a coward for not wanting to fight. No, she wasn't. She just saw no value in fighting a war that was already lost. Resisting could get them removed from the program. Then where would they be? Their babies would still be taken from them and they would have no hope of ever being free agin. What kind of idiot would fight against such a powerful entity with zero weapons? It was asinine. The only propsct they had for a life outside of prison was to continue with the program no matter how unpalatable it had already become.

On a chilly February morning, she couldn't bear to spend another second inside the cottage. As the temperatures dropped and the cold wind blew off the tumultuous ocean, most residents were staying inside out of the elements. That had been her initial plan too until she stepped out of her shared bedroom to find Thorfinn and Hannah actually snuggling in front of the fire. He was whispering soft words she was glad she couldn't hear and tenderly rubbing the swell of her own pronounced belly. Though there was a hint of bittersweet emotions coloring their faces, there was also a desire, a love that Hermione couldn't comprehend. If the world had been different, been kinder, this scene might had filled her with joy for her friends twinged with just the tiniest bit of jealousy. She certainly couldn't imagine Antonin gently caressing her belly while he whispered words of love and affirmation. She didn't want him to.

When she turned back to return to her room feeling like an intruder witnessing a private moment she had no right to, she ran straight into Antonin on his way to take a shower. Her balance had been off for awhile. His hands reached out to catch her before she fell. Momentarily grateful for the assistance, she started to thank him until she realized he was standing in the middle of their bedroom completely naked. Wrenching her arms out of his careful grip, she spun back around.

"Do you have no decency at all?"

The wizard wasn't in the mood for a row. Close quarters meant she was becoming a veritable expert on the man's moods. She knew half the reason he chose to leave his dirty clothes in the bedroom before he walked into the bathroom was to make her uncomfortable. When she would complain, he'd smirk and make reference to the dozens of other times she'd had no problems with him being naked. That day, however, he merely sighed and disappeared into the bathroom without saying a single word.

Antonin always lingered a long time underneath the hot spray of the shower, but she didn't want to still be there when he got out. With nowhere else to go, she knew that she would have to be brave enough to go outside on her own. Bundling up in a winter coat provided by the magnanimity of the Ministry, she rushed out the door, ignoring the scene still taking place on the sofa on her way out. She had the front door open and her body through it before she even felt the faintest twinge of fear.

No one else seemed to be out. When the weather was nicer, the village rang with the sounds of conversation. Sometimes there was laughter, but as the reality of their situation grew more present, much of that had ceased. The Ministry, no doubt, was busy patting themselves on the back that they'd been successful in getting every single unfortunate witch on the island impregnated. For some, especially the witches who were a bit older, it had taken a bit longer for conception. A few of the women had even been unlucky enough to endure the pain of a miscarriage before success. There had been a great deal of fear that those women would be discovered to be unsuitable for the program. Thankfully, each of them were eventually able to move past that heartbreak. The first witches, of which Hermione was one, would be due to give birth in the very near future. As the inevitable day when the first baby would be whisked away from their biological parents to be placed with those who were Ministry-approved, there was less and less to laugh about.

She pushed aside thoughts of that wretched impending day. Each step she took further from the cottage became more difficult. Determined that she was going to make it around the entire square of cottages before she went back inside to hide from the world, Hermione continued walking. One day she hoped to be completely over the anxiety that always plagued her when she was out in the open. How could she ever expect to have any sort of normal life after the program was completed if she couldn't even enjoy the world? Paying careful attention to her breathing, she kept moving.

Charlie Weasley was probably one of the very few people alive on that island that didn't ask her a number of questions she couldn't answer. In fact, he seemed to be content to not talk much at all. For that reason, Hermione felt her lips quirk into a small smile when he fell in step beside her without speaking a single word of greeting. If there was anyone else in the program who wished to spend even less time in their own cottage than she did, it was him. No one was quite sure which of the Weasleys had it worse: the brother forced to breed with his brother's wife or the father forced to breed with his son's fiancée. Sometimes when she started to feel sorry for herself about being paired up with a man who tried to kill her twice and who taunted her for five years, she remembered the poor Weasleys. Not only would Molly be stuck in Azkaban for the rest of her life unless someone in the Ministry decided to have mercy and parole her, they would have countless scars when it was all said and done.

It was easy just to breathe around Charlie. Part of her was sad that she didn't really get to know the man he was before the war changed their lives irrevocably. She remembered bits and pieces of him, but they weren't enough to paint the full picture of the man. War sloughed off the last of his naiveté. Five years in Azkaban hardened him. The island was threatening to break him. How he was going to endure nine more pregnancies was a mystery. Even making it through one seemed like an impossibility at times.

"Shouldn't you be inside with a warm blanket and a boring book?"

He didn't speak until they were already halfway around the square. Caught off guard by his teasing, Hermione snorted. No one had truly teased her in years. Well, no one except Thorfinn, but she didn't count him. She rarely listened to what he said anyway. With Charlie, she didn't always know what to expect. He might not speak at all. Or he might bring up a fascinating fact about dragons she'd never had the opportunity to learn. He might ask her questions about a subject he didn't know much about. If he chose to speak, he used the opportunity to help her forget even for just a moment what inhumanities and indignities they were forced to endure each day. Never did he ask her about her pregnancy, her health, or the state of her relationship with the man she shared a bed with. Out of respect for him, she never asked about his life with Fleur.

"The cottage felt a bit crowded this morning."

"I know what you mean. Cho's been crying and screeching at Wally since dawn. Fleur doesn't leave the bedroom much. I didn't really have anywhere else to go."

It was the first time that he'd ever mentioned anything in detail about Fleur. Ordinarily, he tried to pretend like she didn't exist. If someone asked him a question about her when Hermione was around, he would assiduously avoid answering. Knowing that he was likely ill at ease from mentioning her at all, she made the decision to steer the conversation in a less serious direction. There would be plenty of time later when emotions weren't so raw to come back around to talking about her.

"Does Macnair actually let you call him Wally?"

His smirk brought to mind a naughty child caught doing something he shouldn't have. It made her laugh. Walden Macnair was a formidable wizard who had been known to strike people down for no other reason than he felt like they were disrespecting him. She had no doubt that he didn't appreciate the unseemly moniker.

"He doesn't like it, but he's fairly passive about it. Besides, he's got his hands full with Cho. Not enough time to worry about what I call him."

"Why was Cho 'screeching' at him? Is he awful to her?"

Charlie's scoff and subsequent chuckle surprised her. From the day they were assigned their partners after learning the details of the program, she felt sorry for Cho Chang. Of all of the men available, Hermione would've wanted to be paired up with anyone but Macnair. He had a terrible reputation that had apparently been hard-earned. She could only imagine how cruel he was to Cho in the privacy of their own home. Considering she was almost as pregnant as Hermione, she could only assume that he had been insistent and demanding from the first day of their new captivity.

"Wally treats Cho like the princess she thinks she is. Not a single hair on her head could be harmed without him seeking vengeance. Her problem right now is completely hormonal."

"Of course a man would say that about a pregnant woman."

"In this case, it's true. She cries constantly. I think she was yelling at him this morning because he dared to take too much of the covers last night while they slept. Never mind the fact that he'd give her every single stitch of clothing he had on and go sleep naked in the snow if she asked."

It was difficult believing what Charlie was describing, but she'd never known him to be a man who lied. There was no reason to in this case. Perhaps Walden Macnair was simply taking his duties seriously. An innate need to protect Cho and their unborn child must have changed the man from a disgusting monster into something completely different. It was fascinating to learn how much people could change given the circumstances.

"Whatever it was, it was a ridiculous argument. I'd rather be outside in the freezing cold than in there listening to that."

"Can't say that I blame you."

"Wasn't all bad, I suppose. Didn't expect to find such pleasant company outside."

His cheeky wink made him seem even more like the wizard he once was. The little glimpses of the past were both heartening and heartbreaking. Would any of them ever be able to live a normal life once this program was over? Or, were they all doomed to fail and be chucked back into Azkaban to die miserable and cold? She didn't want to think about the possibilities, not when the morning was shaping up to be so pleasant.

It was only as they made the final turn around the square in the center of the village that she realized she had been able to walk the entire way without being afraid once. Of course, as soon as she started to think over how long she'd been outside and how open and exposed she was, the fear began to creep in, but she was proud of herself. Small steps. Each time she walked outside and wasn't afraid, she was getting better bit by bit.

Charlie stopped in front of her cottage. Maybe he could sense the small bit of bravery she showed that morning was waning or perhaps more likely, he thought she had had enough physical exertion for a woman in her condition. It didn't matter. Thanking him for walking with her, she pushed open the front door with a newfound confidence in herself. Perhaps tomorrow she would try to walk around the square again twice.