Chapter: (08) – To Be Free
Chapter Summary: Hermione gets to know Grace…and Draco.
Author Notes: I've really got to stop with these once in a year updates. I really do plan to finish this story. I swear.

This story was started after GoF, and with the release of the last three novels, Nest of Vipers is now so far into the realm of AU that I wouldn't even be able to reconcile it with canon at any point in the future. So bear with me.

Also, thanks so much for the reviews! The last time I posted here, didn't have the comment reply option, so I'm sorry for not replying. I will start with any new comments that should come in though.

-----

There is more to liberation than legal freedom.

--- Bellatrix Lestrange at the Battle of Hogwarts, Memoirs of a Death-Eater

-----

Hermione eyed the silent Indian woman seated next to her in the carriage. Their visit to America now over, Hermione and Malfoy were back in Britain, this time with a visitor in tow.

As she had expected, the Americans had agreed to give them aid, but what she had not foreseen was being told that Grace Elk River would be returning with them in order to make sure their money wasn't being spent for the wrong reasons.

Malfoy hadn't batted an eyelash – in fact, he probably didn't care, since he was the best liar Hermione knew, and he would probably be able to mislead Grace as he had misled nearly everyone else in his life.

But Hermione wasn't so good at deception, and while she hated the Malfoys and what they stood for, she also knew who buttered her bread, and whatever hopes she had of eliminating Voldemort lay in ensuring Grace's compliance. Without money, Lucius would be out of power faster than he had taken over.

Right now, the three of them were on their way to Belvedere. Ordinarily they would have returned to Malfoy Manor, but upon leaving the Muggle airport and crossing over to the wizarding world, Snape's carriage had been waiting for them, with a note saying that they were expected at his residence. No explanation was given, though Hermione imagined it had to do with the precious supplies she had purchased from the Americans. Snape had given her a list of rare ingredients that could be found in the United States, and with the help of Michael Tracy, she had been able to track them all down. Since she had used Muggle transportation, she had easily been able to smuggle the illegal materials into Britain.

Their mostly silent carriage ride had been punctuated by short comments from Malfoy and equally short responses from Grace. From Hermione's brief acquaintance of the Native American woman, she tended to speak only when she had something significant to say. Comfortable with silences, her dark brown eyes seemed to assess everything with uncanny sharpness.

She also resented being called a "witch."

So Hermione and Malfoy had been careful to refer to her as a healer – no sense in upsetting such an important person for a minor little detail, though they both thought her aversion to magical societies rather silly.

Breaking the silence, Malfoy raised a hand and pointed to the estate looming in the distance. "That's Belvedere."

Grace flicked a disinterested glance over the elegant manor. "Is that where I'll be staying?"

"No," said Malfoy. "If you wish, we can arrange for you to have your own personal accommodations, or you can stay at Malfoy Manor."

"I need my own space," said Grace.

Granger raised her brows. "Malfoy Manor has more than enough space, Miss Elk River. But if you truly wish to be undisturbed, perhaps your own apartment would suit you better."

"Perhaps."

Malfoy shrugged. "Very well. I'll see to the arrangements when we get home." His voice had a strained quality to it, though why Hermione did not know. From weariness? From muggle exposure? From maintaining a polite façade?

Peeking at him discreetly, Hermione noted that Malfoy's usual cold expression had been replaced with one of tiredness, that his hair – normally slicked back – was now flopping over his forehead, and his clothes, kept meticulously clean and wrinkle free, were rumpled from wear.

For one brief second, Malfoy was almost human.

Then he ruined the moment by snidely saying, "What are you starting at, Granger?"

What a prat, said Hermione to herself.

The carriage drew to a halt near the front entrance, and after hopping down, Malfoy held out a hand for Grace. He ignored Hermione, of course, but that was to be expected.

"We could have used the floo," said Hermione idly. "Why do you think Snape sent a carriage?" Apparition, of course, was not possible in such highly secure places as this.

Malfoy shrugged. "Maybe the networks are down again."

Hermione frowned. The last remaining Order members had taken to sabotaging the floo networks in order to create more chaos in Lucius's government. Without the floo, transportation to and from places was a burden. It was a clever way to encourage discord among the populace and undermine Lucius, for whom power was still too new to be certain.

The doors to Belvedere swept open, and Miru, the head house-elf, gestured for them to follow. "Master is waiting," she said.

Grace scrutinized Miru. "I've never seen a house elf before," she confessed.

Malfoy looked at her in surprise. "Really?" For him, house elves had always been part of the furniture.

"It's not that surprising," said Hermione. "I never saw one either until I came to Hogwarts." But before she could say more – she always had a lot to say about house elves – the door to Snape's study swung open.

His study was not as meticulous as Lucius's was. Open books and scrolls were on every available surface, with various jars on the tables and shelves. The air smelled of candle wax and musty pages, and no effort was made to make the place inviting.

It was Snape's private territory, and very rarely did he allow people to enter. Hermione herself had only been here once or twice, and always under his supervision.

"Well?" Snape was seated on his desk, busy scribbling notes onto sheaves of parchment. "Did you bring what I asked?" he said, finally looking up.

"Yes," said Hermione. "Miru will bring down the materials to your lab."

He rose. "Good." Gliding over, his dark robes making him look more imposing than usual, he peered at Grace. "And this is the American?"

"Yes," said Draco, careful to keep his voice respectful. "This is Miss Grace Elk River, of the Yellow Medicine Indian Reservation."

"Welcome to Britain, Miss Elk River," purred the imperious Potions Master, emanating a near-tangible aura of predominant authority. "We have been most eager to make your acquaintance."

The Native American met Snape's scornful eyes. "You are…most gracious, Master Snape."

Both Hermione and Malfoy discreetly stepped back.

Snape's eyes narrowed slightly. "I trust your journey here was without incident?"

"Indeed," said Grace.

"Sit," Snape commanded easily in his strong voice, indicating the vacant chairs in front of his desk. Hermione and Draco obeyed without hesitation. Here was a man whose word was law and knew it; in his hand lay the power to make or break wizards, power that both of them innately respected.

Grace, however, seemed to be free of the awe that had overtaken her younger companions. She slowly perused everything in the study in that silent, watchful way of hers. Her eyes finally landed on Snape, and she examined him openly, unconcerned with the annoyance in Snape's eyes.

Hermione wondered what the Indian woman saw. Did Grace see what Hermione did? Did she see a man who had fought death at every corner of his life? A man who had equipped himself for his chosen life of endurance by the simple process of learning to endure, by stripping away unnecessary flesh and unnecessary appetite, tempering himself like steel to a sinewy hardness of nerve and muscle, a sharp, sometimes cold strength of mind, so that he could be fit to do whatever he might one day be asked to do, not for any one nation or creed or power – his vision sweeping infinitely further than that – but for his fellow men.

When Hermione had first met Snape, instinct had warned her that nothing she did would ever remove that faint sneer from his lips nor lessen, by one degree, that supercilious arch of his brow. Other people had money. Some people had charm. Severus Snape had self-esteem, and Grace, having her own share of it, seemed to know that she must show Snape no weakness, must never, in her dealings with him, be humble.

Snape had probably meant to humiliate Miss Elk River, had meant to show her that here, she was nothing except a poor Native American with none of the sophistication of real witches and wizards. So it was essential that she show him now, right from the start, that he could not, and thus stood her ground as he came to stand in front of her.

Hermione and Malfoy watched in fascinated silence as Grace established her own authority. The Indian woman's courage did not fail her, for what else had she to rely on? Who would defend her or do battle on her account? She could not afford to be weak; it was as simple as that. She could not even consider the possibility of surrender nor, suspected Hermione, would Snape. And the territory was his.

"Sit," repeated Snape, the coldness of his voice stealing the warmth out of the room.

Grace nodded and did as she was told, realizing that the time to make stands was over. She had made her point.

Snape settled behind his desk and asked if they wished for any refreshments. When they declined, he steepled his hands and asked Grace generic questions about her purpose here, and after promising to be of service to her – everyone knew he was lying – he then turned to Malfoy.

"Draco, your father could not receive you at your manor because he is currently occupied with other matters there. He does, however, expect all of you to dine there tonight. And that includes you, Miss Elk River."

"Miss Elk River would prefer her own accommodations," began Malfoy, but he was cut off.

"Actually, I had a change of heart. I would like to stay at Malfoy Manor."

Hermione and Malfoy exchanged looks. "That is settled then," said Snape. "I imagine Miss Elk River would like to rest, perhaps to freshen up. Miss Granger, please see to Miss Elk River and provide whatever Miru cannot."

Snape was politely dismissing the two women, most likely because he wanted to talk with Malfoy in more detail about the trip. Slightly hurt that Snape didn't require her input, Hermione rose and smiled at the Indian woman. "Miss Elk River?"

The silent woman nodded at Snape and Malfoy before following Hermione out.

They made their way upstairs silently, both lost in their own thoughts. Up ahead was Miru, gesturing to one of the bedrooms in the guest wing. "Does Master Snape live here by himself?"

"Yes," said Hermione, frowning. "But you don't have to call him Master Snape. No one does, actually…though he is a Potions Master, so I guess you could call him Master Snape."

"What do you call him?"

"You mean besides 'sir'?"

To her surprise, Grace laughed. "Besides that."

More at ease, Hermione said, "He was my professor at Hogwarts – the magical school in Britain," she elaborated. "So I mostly call him Professor Snape, though he's technically not my professor anymore."

"But he still treats you like a first year student, right?" The Indian woman's eyes were bright with amusement.

"Yes," said Hermione, a small smile breaking through. "Miss Elk River, may I ask you something?"

"You may, but only if you call me Grace."

Hermione nodded. "Grace, you seemed so…somber all the way here, and while meeting Snape. But now…?"

Grace trailed her fingers on the ornate wood banisters. "You've never met an Indian before, have you?"

"No."

"We like to consider ourselves a humorous race." She sighed. "I'm afraid I wasn't very polite to your two friends back there, but white men bring out the worst in me."

"I'm white," said Hermione.

Grace winked at her. "You aren't quite. You have some red blood in you."

Red blood? Wasn't all blood red? Suddenly it struck her. "My great-grandmother was Sioux," remembered Hermione. "But how did you know?"

"I'd make something up, but in reality, Michael told me. He ran background checks on the two of you. In detail."

They walked into the room Miru had prepared for Grace. "Well, here you are." Hermione gestured to the room around them. "I'll leave you to your rest. Should I have Miru send up some food?"

"Stay," said Grace. "I'm not really tired. Just hungry." She smiled ruefully. "I'm always hungry. It would be embarrassing if I didn't have such a fast metabolism."

After asking Miru for refreshments, Hermione took a seat in one of the armchairs and watched as Grace sifted through her trunk. "Is it true that Americans hardly ever use magic?"

Grace pulled out a change of clothes and headed into the bathroom. "Yes. We're taught that magic is a tool that should be used only when there are no other options. We don't use it for things we can do on our own – like making tea," she said pointedly as Hermione used her wand to conjure a teapot.

"Yes, but it's here for our use," argued Hermione. "As long as we can control – "

"Ah, but that's the problem, isn't it? Control." Grace's voice floated from behind the door. "When you start using magic for everything, it becomes less of a luxury and more of a convenience, less of a blessing and more of a right. It's human nature to disrespect those things which we don't have to work for."

She came back out, her hair neatly brushed, her rumpled travel clothes replaced by a fresh set. "Those who use magic without appreciating its delicate uses or fearing its inherent perils – they are fools."

Hermione didn't agree but wasn't in the mood for a debate. Though…Grace did have some interesting points. Resolving to bring up the matter later, she took the tray from Miru and assembled the assortment of food on the table.

"Now I have a question for you," said Grace as she sat in front of Hermione. Eying the food appreciatively, "What is Lucius Malfoy like?"

Dastardly, cold, ruthless, cunning, evil. Those were the words that ran through Hermione's mind. Grace seemed to know what she was thinking because the amused look was back on her face.

"He's…complicated."

"Surely you can do better than that."

Hermione absently spooned sugar into her teacup. How to describe Lucius honestly without jeopardizing the trade deal? Grace had known an obscure detail about Hermione's ancestry, so of course she would know basic public information about Lucius's personality.

"During the war, Lucius was tasked with recruiting goblins for the Dark Lord's army. Goblins are notorious for being impossible to train, and Lucius was supposed to mold them into a competent battle group. But instead of training them the conventional way, he chose only one goblin to act as his 'general' and taught him only the most rudimentary of commands. Later, when the general and the rest of the goblins mocked his methods, Lucius executed his general and chose another. And from that moment on, the goblins obeyed his every command."

Grace did not blink. "Talk about making your points aggressively."

"Lucius is like that – casually but effectively brutal. I'm not at ease with the violence he likes to employ, but even I have to applaud is foresight. From the beginning, he knew that he would have to kill his first general. It's why he didn't bother to train him in the first place."

"And his son – Draco? Is he like that too?"

The answer was immediate. "Yes. He can be just as brutal – though he is not so polite about it as Lucius."

Grace was slowly going through all the pastries. "I understand that the new government here is trying to impose 'reforms' aimed at muggleborns."

"You know about that?"

"I live in Minnesota, not Mars. We have an owlpost that delivers newspapers. I have a radio too, and it even works most of the time. We hear about what's happening all over the world, even if we don't care enough about it to spur us into action."

Hermione frowned. "That's not right either."

Grace smiled faintly. "No, it isn't. Who said that we have it right in America?"

Thoughtful, Hermione's mind processed the information. She was about to ask something else when she noticed Grace discreetly hiding a yawn behind her hand. "And now I really will leave you to your rest," she said firmly. "Snape won't thank me if you fall asleep during dinner tonight."

The Indian woman looked over at the bed. "I suppose a short nap can't hurt."

"I'll have Miru wake you in two hours. That will give you enough time to get dressed." With a flick of her wand, Hermione had the mess on the table cleaned. Ignoring the reproachful look Grace was giving her, she made her way into the hallway and to her room.

She had a lot to think about.

-----

Two and a half hours later, Hermione woke from her own nap, and after quickly changing into the set of robes that Miru had laid out for her – Hermione always kept a few sets of clothing at Belvedere, given how much time she spent here – she splashed water on her face and fixed her fair. Done with her ablutions, she drifted downstairs.

Grace's low voice could be heard from Snape's library. Curious, Hermione went to investigate.

Inside were Grace and Malfoy, involved in what sounded like an intense conversation. The pair were already dressed for dinner. Malfoy was in a crisp collared shirt, gray slacks, and a dark blue sweater. Grace was wearing a robe decorated by intricate beading.

" – it seems that perhaps gender inequality is not a condition created by muggles or magicals, but simply created by the male psyche," said Grace. "I've always noticed that women, no matter what their class, are bound by the same invisible chains. I used to think that women who grew up with the securities and luxuries of the world would have had the gift of freedom. Not be subject to the same captivities as a woman who suffers hardship and is blinded by the fear of poverty."

Malfoy noticed Hermione's puzzled expression, so he elaborated for her benefit. "We were discussing courtship rituals in Britain."

"You mean between purebloods and the rest of us?" Her voice held a hint of derision that Malfoy acknowledged by inclining his head.

"Yes. I am sure this is not a shock to you, but life is not easy for us either, since our allegiances are strictly to our families, and we have little choice in how we wish our lives to be. This is a burden that is greater on women, for while a man is bound to do what is good for his house, a woman is required to do what is good for her husband."

Hermione had always known of this, in fact, had been subject to gender discrimination herself on more than one occasion. And though Malfoy had not mentioned it – perhaps not wishing to antagonize her in front of their important guest – Hermione knew this discrimination had existed among all wizards, no matter what class or status they held. Times were changing, and most of the people Hermione knew did not subscribe to that philosophy, but she had felt it, had known that when things had mattered, she had been required to do as Ron had said, not the other way around. As Molly Weasley had taken Arthur's commands as law. As Narcissa Malfoy catered to Lucius's every demand. As Ginny had obeyed her brothers out of some deep instinct that took precedence over her own opinions.

Grace seemed intrigued by Malfoy's admission, who continued, "I have seen my mother so very often plan – to make careful arrangements – in order to get herself what has amounted to a measure of fresh air to breathe. She has had to obtain by stealth, I suppose, instead of simply asking, or taking, or stating her intentions. And not very drastic intentions either. Just ordinary happenings of daily life."

"Why do you think that is?" asked the Indian woman, her personality bringing out an unusual openness from Malfoy.

"Because we desire you, I suppose. Which makes us afraid of losing you. So we can have no peace of mind until we have put you in chains. And then there's no denying you can somehow manage to easily make us feel small when we are so anxious to be big. Because those of you who do rise above the petty goals we set for you become far more adult – it seems to me – than men ever do. A man will sacrifice himself to get his name in the history books. Quite readily. It takes a woman, I think, to sacrifice herself unseen, unsung, knowing she won't even be thanked for it because Society has cast her in the role of sacrifice. So all she's doing, according to society, is her duty."

Malfoy pursed his lips in consideration. "I suppose it's the same everywhere. In my country, when famine and war strike, it's the women who die first because as a matter of course, they give their food to their children," he said slowly. "You would do that, Miss Elk River. So would Granger. Whereas I might succeed in convincing myself that I had much better stay alive and get a law passed – or start a revolution. In Britain, businesses employ women for the menial labor, not men, because women will work for even less than minimum wage, just so as long as they can get their children fed. I know that. I also recognize it as a kind of courage and maturity few men possess."

Hermione raised her brows in surprise, both at his words and at his unexpected compliment. She had never thought Malfoy capable of understanding. He had never been a sympathetic figure in her life, and this peek into something deeper confused her. And to hear him admitting these thoughts aloud…

Malfoy must have known what Hermione was thinking, for he said, "I'm just as guilty as the others, Granger, and perhaps my crime is worse, because I am aware of it."

"It saddens me to think that for all our efforts to be an enlightened species, in terms of the problems we face, magicals are no different than muggles, are they?" said Grace gently.

Hermione grinned as she realized just what the discussion had been all about. Grace hadn't brought up the topic out of idle curiosity but to show him that perhaps this ridiculous separation Voldemort preached was just that – ridiculous.

A slight hint of red appeared on Malfoy's otherwise pale cheeks. Embarrassed to be caught out, he nodded stiffly, not brave enough to admit that perhaps Grace had a point, but not so much of a coward to deny it either.

Grace asked, "Do you think you have the capacity to change, inside yourself?"

He paused. "I don't know. Change is a difficult concept for us, especially in Britain, where we cling to traditions centuries old."

Before the conversation could get any more personal, Snape swept into the library. "Ready?" he asked, heading straight to the fireplace.

Grace rose, eager to try out the floo. Hermione followed reluctantly, not really wishing to see Lucius again.

But Malfoy lingered in his chair, and feeling his eyes upon her, Hermione glanced up. His gaze held hers for a moment, pewter eyes crinkling at the corners in lazy amusement, and she felt his mind open for her in a way no one's ever had. A moment of contact moved them beyond Pureblood and muggleborn, rich and poor, conflicting roads and contrasting cultures, red blood on white snow at Hogwarts, the cries of the betrayed and the dying, the Death Eater raids and Voldemort's policies of suppression, the despair and anger that had driven them both. For one brief moment, none of that existed between them.

Snape's dulcet voice released them too soon. "If you are finished with dawdling, Draco?"

The curtains fell.