Disclaimer: The Harry Potter universe and its components, including characters, places and spells, belong to their creator, the talented J. K. Rowling. No copyright or trademark infringement is meant with this work.

Author's note: I would like to thank everyone who reviewed this story. When I read another author's work and think, 'Gosh, I could never write that well', I come here to reread your reviews to cheer myself up. I'd also like to thank everyone who gave me constructive criticism – it helped make the story better. And I owe a tremendous thank-you to Nessie and ArieSemir,who did a fantastic job at beta reading this chapter.


— CHAPTER EIGHTEEN —

Divided Loyalties

Hermione felt like she had been punched in the chest. She couldn't breathe, couldn't think; even her vision was blurry. It was as though the cubicle's walls were closing in on her.

She slumped forward on her desk and hid her face in her hands, her bushy hair spilling onto the desk in front of her. She squeezed her eyes shut.

It didn't help. She could still see the headline as if it had been burnt into her retinas like the brand on her forearm. The bold, black letters kept flashing before her.

The Daily Prophet lay on the floor near her chair. The black and white picture of Harry Potter grinned and waved up at her from the front page. Hermione wanted to step on it with her shoe.

I need to stay calm, she ordered herself sternly. Her eyelids stung with hot tears. She took a deep breath, then another, performing the relaxation exercise she had been taught at the Auror Academy.

She looked around her narrow workspace. While still uncomfortably cramped, her cubicle looked bigger than her friends' because it was neat. Its walls were covered in bookcases, not posters or pictures, and her desk had been cleaned of yesterday's paperwork.

She could hear Harry and Ron's voices in the next cubicle. They sounded excited …

She breathed deeply, then picked up the paper to read the rest of the article.

YOU-KNOW-WHO'S RIGHT-HAND MAN ARRESTED
POTTER TO BE HEAD OF AUROR OFFICE

At dawn this morning, some of the Ministry of Magic's best fighters staged an ambush against a small group of followers of He Who Must Not Be Named, successfully recapturing three notorious Death Eaters, all of whom escaped from Azkaban prison, where they were to serve life sentences, eight years ago. The captured include Lucius Malfoy, who is rumoured to be You-Know-Who's right-hand man, along with infamous followers Rodolphus Lestrange and Nicholas Nott. Auror Harry Potter, who was in charge of the division, is to be advanced to the position of Head Auror, says Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge …

Hermione stopped reading. She put the newspaper back on her desk, face down, hiding the magical picture of Harry. Forcing her face into a neutral expression, she stood up and walked out of her cubicle and into the one directly on the left.

Harry and Ron were the only ones there. The others who had come to congratulate must have already left. Harry's face lit up with a grin when he caught sight of her standing in front of his cubicle. He waved her in from behind his desk.

Ron pretended not to see her. It had been months since their row over who had sent her that nightdress, but he had shown no inclination to let go of his grudge.

"Hermione, is something the matter? Do you have a lead on who –" Harry glanced at Ron, then gave her an anxious look, "I mean the mission Fudge gave us?"

She moved further into Harry's cubicle. "Unfortunately, I haven't got a clue about who it might be. Whoever it is, they are being really careful. What were you talking about? I heard something about a party," she said in disbelief. A party at a time like this …!

Ron smiled an ugly, lopsided grin that she couldn't believe she had found attractive in her sixth year at Hogwarts. "Yeah, we were thinking about having a party after work … nothing special, just some Butterbeer and stuff, you know, to take everyone's mind off things. And I talked to Smith; he said it'd be nice to celebrate our success … it's so rare that we get one up on the Death Eaters these days, and we've been trying to catch those three for years …"

Hermione barely registered that Ron was talking to her. Then he stopped talking and they saw a paper aeroplane zooming towards them. It was an inter-departmental memo … but this one had URGENT stamped beside the words Ministry of Magic across its wings.

"That's for you, mate – your name's on it," said Ron.

Harry reached out and caught it like a Snitch as it neared his desk. He read aloud:

"To Head Auror Harry Potter from the Deputy Watchwizard at the fortress of –" He stopped, his eyes moving across the pale violet paper. "Wait! Wait – what's this? By Merlin, that's impossible … they're on Voldemort's side!"

"What is it?" said Hermione urgently.

"The Dementors have returned to Azkaban," said Harry in an undertone.

"The Deme— what?" sputtered Hermione, feeling the blood drain out of her face.

"Listen to this: Twenty Dementors appeared at the fortress this morning to guard the cells of select Death Eaters … cooperative, no attempt to attack the guards, the creatures appear disposed to take orders from the Ministry of Magic … possible rebellion from You-Know-Who's control …"

Hermione's eyes darted around the cubicle. The only thought that stood out in her frantic mind was 'the Dark Lord must hear about this'. She could send him an owl as usual, but it would take hours to arrive. This was urgent. If a group of Dementors had somehow revolted against him and was now helping the Ministry, Voldemort had to know it as soon as possible. She was his highest-ranking spy within the Ministry and he would be furious with her if she didn't inform him of something like this the moment it happened.

Or maybe Voldemort already knew … but she would send him an owl anyway.

She kept a smile on her face, but her eyes were flashing. "That's wonderful, Harry," she lied, looking him straight in the eyes.

"I wonder what made them return," he said thoughtfully. "Either these Dementors have broken out of Voldemort's control or …"

"Or maybe they were ordered back to Azkaban by Voldemort himself," Ron suggested.

Harry and Hermione looked at him.

"That doesn't make sense," said Harry. "Why would he send them to guard his own Death Eaters?"

"Maybe … maybe the Dementors don't affect them!" said Ron, looking quite proud of himself.

"Don't be ridiculous, Ron. Of course they do affect them!" Hermione retorted. "But I doubt V – Voldemort would set them on his own followers. I really doubt it …" She turned away from Ron and tried to put it out of her head that he was there.

She walked up to Harry's desk, trying not to glare at him. "So, you're the Head Auror now, Harry?"

"Yeah. Shacklebolt was supposed to return from Tibet months ago, but there's still no sign of him, and Fudge's given up. He thinks it's time to move on and appoint someone else to fill the position. He reckons it's been too long to hope he just got lost in the mountains …"

"No, he probably met some Dark wizards on the way," said Ron.

Harry nodded. "That's what Fudge believes."

"All right." Hermione bit her lip. "Look, Harry, I'm not feeling well. I'm taking the day off."

He raised his head quickly and stared at her with shocked green eyes. "Why?"

She wanted to say, 'to stage an Azkaban breakout'. "I do need rest like everyone else," she said instead.

Harry looked at her as though he couldn't believe what he had heard. "But Hermione, you know there's loads of work to do, you can't just –" He looked around quickly, then continued in a hushed voice, "we have yet to catch the spy; one of us has to stay at Headquarters to keep a watch on the others, you know I can't do it alone. I thought you'd do the watching – you're really good at it, Hermione – so that Ron and I can go on a few more raids … We got lucky yesterday and if that luck lasts, maybe we'll catch more of them. I've been counting on you … I mean, you've never taken time off work before …"

She had the sudden urge to take out her wand and say Crucio. "I know, Harry," she said apologetically. "But I've really got to rest and take some potions – I'm not feeling well at all." She wanted to add, 'because of you'.

Harry finally looked up from his papers and looked at her carefully. Behind his round spectacles, his eyes softened with concern.

"It's true that you don't look good – you're really pale. Is everything all right, Hermione? What did you drink this morning? I know you Conjure your coffee, but there's always a risk … are you sure you didn't leave your cup unattended? You know the Death Eaters can be everywhere, now that they even have a spy here; we've got to be extra careful … there was a bone-breaking hex on my chair this morning …"

Hermione wondered how long it would take Harry to surpass Mad-Eye Moody's paranoia, now that Moody was dead. It wasn't unusual to find their cubicle jinxed in some way upon arriving at work; the Aurors sometimes made traps for each other as a joke of sorts when the stress became too much. Being Voldemort's prime target for over ten years must have started taking its toll on Harry's sanity.

"All right, Hermione. I'll try to explain to Percy, so that the Minister won't be too angry … he's really expecting us to catch the spy in a few days, but I don't care – if you're sick, you can have the day off. Take care of yourself, Hermione, and take an antidote, just in case. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Thanks, Harry." It's your fault.

"Go home and relax – not with a book!" Ron added.

Pressing her lips together to stop herself from unleashing a flurry of angry words, she hurried out of Harry's cubicle.

She Disapparated from the Atrium and found it a relief to be home. The house was empty save for the tawny owl perched on the windowsill. She had deliberately left the window open so that it and Crookshanks could go outside whenever they wanted. Crookshanks probably was out hunting as he had been most of the time during the past weeks. She got the suspicion that he stayed outside to avoid Lucius, whom he didn't like any more than other Dark wizards.

She sat in front of her desk, vanishing the coating of dust had accumulated on it. I don't even have the time to clean these days, she thought as she formulated a message to Voldemort.

Hermione gave a contemptuous glance to the beetle crawling restlessly in her jar. The leaves probably needed to be changed, but since Skeeter wasn't a normal beetle, she wouldn't die without fresh food, not for a few months at the least. I'll change them later, she decided.

She folded the parchment and sealed it, then beckoned to the owl. She patted it on the head as it settled on her desk. It chirruped before taking the envelope in its beak, and she watched it fly away through the open window.

She had wanted to get away from Harry and the other Aurors, but at the same time she longed for someone to talk to, someone who would understand. She needed support, but where could she get it now? Who could possible understand what she was going through?

She wanted to share her distress with someone who knew what it felt like, who had been through this and worse …

The answer came to Hermione after a minute of deliberation. Number seven Elmsford Road, she said her destination mentally as she Apparated.

She appeared in front of a familiar door, which was dark with grime. She lifted the heavy metal knocker and swung it down.

Bellatrix opened the door. "Oh," she said instantly as she caught sight of Hermione. "Come in. I'll get you something to drink," she offered, helping her take off her cloak.

Yes, Hermione thought she could definitely drink something strong now, just to forget it all.

"Bellatrix?" she said curiously, "Why are you wearing black?"

She had noticed that Bellatrix only wore black to Death Eater meetings. At other times, her robes alternated between extravagant shades of dark red, violet, brown and purple, colours that complimented her black hair strikingly. Hermione secretly admired the dark woman for choosing the colours of her robes with good taste.

"I am mourning my sister. Not even a month has passed since Cissy died …"

Hermione cursed herself for her tactlessness. It had completely slipped her mind that Bellatrix and Narcissa were sisters. They didn't look alike at all, and to her, they couldn't be in more different categories. One had been a hated enemy who had almost killed her; the other she considered as close a friend as a not quite sane Death Eater could be. But she should have expected that Bellatrix would mourn her sister's death …

"I'm sorry for your loss," she said as sincerely as she could.

Bellatrix laughed sharply, her eyes crinkling. "No you aren't," she said harshly.

Hermione felt her knees tremble. Had Bellatrix guessed that she was the one who had poisoned Narcissa? It wasn't possible … there was no clue that could connect her to the murder. But Lucius had still found out that she had done it …

She squashed her fear of being finding herself at St Mungo's tomorrow morning, tortured into insanity. She had killed Bellatrix Lestrange's sister

But everyone thought Narcissa had accidentally poisoned herself – that had been the story Lucius had given Draco and the other Death Eaters. No one knew that Hermione had been the one to put the poison into the 'wine'. But Bellatrix had probably guessed that Hermione was Lucius's mistress; perhaps she blamed her anyway … maybe she thought her sister had committed suicide because she had been so devastated to find out that her husband was cheating on her?

She didn't think the sisters had been on good terms, judging by how she had seen them bicker at Christmas, but maybe that was the normal relationship between siblings in a family as Dark as the Blacks. Hermione had been an only child; she couldn't claim she knew much about sister to sister dynamics.

Bellatrix fetched a bottle of Firewhisky, which she placed on the rickety wooden table on the far end of the dusty drawing room. The cobwebs in this house were much more noticeable than those she had seen at 25 Knockturn Alley or even at Grimmauld Place. Somehow, she didn't think the Lestranges minded them enough to remove them.

When Bellatrix conjured a glass and pushed it into her hand, Hermione took it without even looking at it. Her previous experience with Firewhisky wasn't far from her mind, but she did think it would be far too ironic for Bellatrix to avenge her sister by poisoning her in the same way her sister had tried to. Then Bellatrix sat down next to her and took a gulp of the same drink, from the same bottle, and Hermione didn't think she was so devastated by her sister's death that she would poison herself. And the Dark Lord wouldn't approve …

So they sat in the draughty house and drank Firewhisky, chatting about all subjects except those that really mattered.

Hermione was about to take another sip of the Firewhisky, when its colour suddenly reminded her of the Polyjuice potion she had drunk to impersonate Narcissa's potions dealer. She broke out in laughter, harsh laughter so much like Bellatrix's.

Bellatrix seemed very curious about what was the cause of it, and Hermione, between peals of laughter, choked out, "I've got an idea … it's the perfect plan. Harry won't live to see next week!"

This caught the older woman's attention. "Tell me," she urged.

Forcing the gaiety down for the moment, Hermione explained what she had just thought up. Soon, both of them were giggling wickedly.

"To kill Potter and have his blood traitor Auror friend blamed for it … the Dark Lord will be delighted! You're a genius!"

They laughed together loudly, madly, and their dark eyes held identical glints of excitement and hunger for retribution.

Hermione Granger had crossed the final line into Darkness.

"Potter won't live to see next week," agreed Bellatrix.

That became their toast as Hermione poured her friend another glass and refilled her own. They drank together to the downfall of those they hated and the impending triumph of the Dark side.

"D'you know – d'you know how I can reach the Dark Lord to tell him about the plan?" she asked. "An owl won't be fast – and safe – enough, I think."

Bellatrix shook her long hair out of her face regretfully. "Not even I know where the Dark Lord is at this moment. He changes his location very often to keep the Aurors off his tracks, and while an owl bearing a letter addressed with his name can find him, it is he who initiates all other contact with us. You will have to wait for a summons. I may be able to speak to him on your behalf when he summons me next time, maybe even tonight … he can summon only select Death Eaters instead of the entire inner circle," she explained.

"I know," Hermione said without thinking. She had learnt to restrain the urge to flaunt her knowledge most of the time, but the habit had remained with her after she had left school, and sometimes it was too strong to resist, especially after a glass of Firewhiskey.

Bellatrix's dark eyes snapped to her, suddenly narrow with suspicion. "Has he summoned you alone?"

Hermione shook her head quickly. "No." She pushed her bushy hair behind her ears. "But I know how it works … the spell, I mean. I'm familiar with the Protean Charm and – and the other enchantments woven into the mark. We worked on Team Information Transmission spells in Auror training … there was this class called Contact and Collaboration; I passed with top marks, and it's useful knowledge, really handy in espionage …"

The older witch didn't inquire further, and Hermione congratulated herself on once again successfully diverting a person's curiosity by overloading them with technical details. She rested her elbows on the table's scratched surface. On the wall above the table, a dusty tapestry depicted the family tree of the 'Most Noble and Ancient House of Lestrange'. For a moment, Hermione's eyes lingered on the double golden thread that linked Antares Lestrange to Altair Malfoy.

They were interrupted by the doorbell ringing. Bellatrix jumped to her feet, pulling out her wand, and approached the door cautiously.

"You're as paranoid as an Auror," remarked Hermione.

"That's what Cissy used to say," Bellatrix replied, "but it's peculiar to hear it from you."

"I'm supposed to be paranoid," she said defensively. "I'm a spy."

Bellatrix peered through the keyhole. "Oh, it's you, Rabastan …" The chain on the door clanged and the door slid open with a creak. "Why are you back so soon? I thought I sent you to watch over my nephew …"

The thin, dark-haired Rabastan Lestrange stepped into the entrance hall, not noticing Hermione. Bellatrix locked and jinxed the front door behind him while he hung his travelling cloak in the cupboard.

"Draco thinks my company isn't needed at the manor," he said. "Pansy must be doing a fine job of distracting him."

"Rabastan, the boy just lost his mother and his father's been locked in prison for the second time!" said Bellatrix. "Of course he's lonely at his manor all by himself – with his twit of a wife," she added sarcastically.

"He didn't look very bothered by the news. He's still moping over his mum, but he didn't say a word about his dad. I almost got the impression that he's glad Lucius has been captured. He probably hopes the Dark Lord will give him a chance now that he has control of the family money … it sounded like he blames Lucius for Narcissa's death because, apparently, he wasn't sad enough about it."

"Of course he wasn't," Bellatrix scoffed, glancing shrewdly at Hermione. "It's been ages since he cared about her at all," she said, banging the bottom of her glass against the table.

Rabastan jumped, finally noticing Hermione. He looked like he wanted so say something to her, then shook his head. "You've been drinking again, Bella?" he said with a sudden wariness.

Bellatrix laughed, then grabbed him by the wrist and tugged him over to the remaining chair. "Do sit down with us for a drink, Rabastan. It's a special occasion: we're drinking to our victory."

He sat reluctantly. "What do you mean?"

"Our favourite spy has concocted a plan to finish off Harry Potter," Bellatrix announced gleefully.

"Have you?" he gushed, giving Hermione a long, admiring look. Then he paled slightly. "Aren't you meant to be at work?"

"My colleagues are celebrating their latest victory," she said, and there was a sibilant note in her voice. "I called in sick before I could succumb to the urge to curse them in from of the whole Auror Office. I hope they choke on their Butterbeer."

Rabastan nodded sympathetically and Bellatrix patted her shoulder. "When did you become so vicious?" she asked with a feral smile.

Hermione swallowed a scorching gulp of Firewhisky too quickly. She started coughing; Bellatrix laughed, but Rabastan leaped up to thwack her on the back.

She wiped her eyes and looked at Bellatrix in disbelief. "You are calling me vicious?"

The older witch's smile revealed more teeth.

"Coming from you, that's a compliment, isn't it?" Hermione realised aloud.

"What – what puzzles me," Rabastan spoke up, stammering when the two women turned to look at him, "is why you're so angry over the capture. Don't get me wrong, it's admirable to look out for our fellow Death Eaters … but only two were captured, it wasn't half the inner circle, was it? We are angry because Rodolphus is family. But you – you didn't know either of them well –"

Bellatrix snorted into her glass, but he ignored her. "– and it's not like the Dark Lord …"

"It's not like the Dark Lord will let them stay there for long," finished Hermione.

Rabastan nodded quickly.

"I guess I can understand why you're confused by my reaction, but you shouldn't forget that one of them brought me to the Dark Lord. I feel a lot of gratitude towards him for that."

"I would say it's more than gratitude," chirped Bellatrix. "Much more."

Hermione almost choked on her drink again. She glared at the woman, shooting a meaningful look at Rabastan.

"How did you, er, meet the Dark Lord?" she asked. She had been wondering about this for a long time, and it was the best way she could think to pull the conversation away from the dangerous subject.

The dark woman's eyes lit up as though it was her favourite topic of conversation. It probably was.

"I was sixteen," she started. She took a gulp of Firewhisky, and her eyes almost glowed. "He was invited to a Christmas dinner hosted by my parents. My sisters and I were told to practice our skills as future hostesses. I was at the door and my chore was to take the guests' cloaks." She took another sip. "It was the first time I saw him. He walked through the door and … he looked at me and I just froze. I couldn't stop thinking of him all evening …"

Rabastan rolled his eyes, pointing at the glass of alcohol in Bellatrix's hand. But Hermione looked at the dark witch with interest.

"He made a speech about the cause at dinner, and I was utterly charmed. It was as though he was reading my thoughts … I begged him to let me help him in his war before the evening was over." The look in her eyes could only be described as fanatical. "I promised that I would be his most loyal servant … he didn't believe me then … he must have thought me a naïve child. He told me – I remember his words as if it were yesterday – 'I do not admit mere children into the ranks of my followers. But there is a Darkness in you that intrigues me. You were born for the Dark, Bellatrix Black, and I shall teach you the noblest of magical arts.'

"It was the happiest day of my life. He trained me in the most arcane of the Dark Arts during the next year, and I received the Dark Mark on my seventeenth birthday."

"And that's all," Rabastan told Hermione, sniggering.

Bellatrix put down her glass and whirled on him with manic eyes. "You are staring to annoy me, baby Rabastan," she said in a singsong voice, fingering her wand.

He winced. "I'm sorry, Bella," he said quickly.

With a regretful sigh, Bellatrix let go of her wand to take another sip of her drink.

"Do you remember the ball my parents had for my birthday, Rabastan? That's why the Dark Lord was there … you and Rodolphus were there too, though you were quite young …"

"Of course I remember! Rodolphus came home and started about how he was going to join too, and when I asked him why, he was like, 'Well, Bellatrix Black has joined – she's amazing, such an example to us … she's so brave to give her life to the Dark Lord when she's only seventeen …' He didn't shut up about it for weeks, much like you never shut up about the Dark Lord …"

Bellatrix laughed loudly. "Oh, the Dark Lord …when he looked at me the first time, he awoke something in me." Her heavily hooded eyes were distant. "I felt that I needed to please him … Rabastan is right, I talked about him every day at home and at Hogwarts, and I swore myself to him before the year was over. My parents were delighted … I have tried my hardest to please him since. He considers me his most faithful, his most devoted servant …"

Rabastan made mocking gestures behind her back, mouthing 'obsessed' and 'hero-worship'.

But Hermione took in Bellatrix's flushed face and glowing eyes, and she smiled. "I think I understand …"

"I thought you would," Bellatrix said with a sarcastic quirk of her lips.

Hermione sat straighter, giving Rabastan a quick glance. He was staring vaguely through the window, shifting his empty glass mechanically in his hand. He wasn't listening to them. Reassured, she turned back to Bellatrix and said tersely, "And what's that supposed to mean?"

"At Christmas, Lucius did not leave you behind to fight for your freedom while surrounded by Aurors. He has been my fellow Death Eater since the day I joined, and I assure you that I had never seen him concerned for someone's safety to the extent of Side-Along Apparating them out of danger. He normally trusts us to fight for ourselves, and he seems to think that those who fail to stand their ground are too weak to be proper Death Eaters." She scowled a little, then shrugged. "He wouldn't have made an exception of you without a reason."

"He did have a reason: the Dark Lord would have been especially angry if I had been caught and exposed as a spy," Hermione protested.

"Yes, and the Dark Lord rescued me – only me – from the Ministry of Magic, in his arms, because he didn't want to lose his best duellist to Azkaban again." Bellatrix winked. "Then there is the way you look at him," she added, smirking. "It has been quite clear to me that he is your master."

"He's my what?"

Bellatrix smiled patronisingly at her. Hermione turned away, crossing her arms over her chest.

Rabastan was watching them with his mouth open, and Hermione saw that his hands were trembling. "The way she looks at who?" he said hoarsely, sounding like he was in pain.

Bellatrix looked at him with undisguised sadism. "Weren't you listening to our conversation, baby Rabastan? No? Why don't you repeat it for him, then, dearest spy?" she nudged her.

Hermione shook her head, avoiding her gaze.

"But we don't want – I'm sure he doesn't want the whole inner circle to know."

"You mean to say he doesn't want us to know how fond he is of a Muggle-born? That's completely understandable," Bellatrix said with a harsh laugh.

Hermione reddened indignantly.

"He mustn't think all of us are as blind as you, Rabastan." The latter made a sound of protest, but Bellatrix ignored him. "He thought my sister wouldn't see it either. But a woman always knows when her husband is being unfaithful to her; I know even if I cannot speak from experience – Rodolphus has never so much as looked at anyone but me. He doesn't dare … he is afraid I'll leave the house to stay permanently with the Dark Lord. I would like to, of course I would, but Master doesn't allow me to – he believes I'll become a liability," she said with frustration.

Rabastan was staring into his glass of Firewhisky, a frown on his face.

"And you, Rabastan? Seen anyone you like lately?" she said with an evil glint in her dark eyes. "Rodolphus and I are waiting for you to provide an heir to the noble name of Lestrange."

Rabastan gave her a dark look, blushing. He left the table in haste, not daring to look at Hermione.

"He has a thing for you," Bellatrix said conspiringly, loudly enough to make sure he would hear. "He must've been crushed to hear that you are already taken."

Hermione was formulating a response when she felt her left forearm burn. Across from her, Bellatrix winced, her face lighting up with excitement at the same time. A few seconds later, an apprehensive-looking Rabastan came crashing back through the door.

No one spoke. The two Death Eaters fetched cloaks and masks from the wardrobe; Hermione concentrated to Conjure hers from the concealed closet in her bedroom. As one they dressed, pressed their palms to their Dark Marks and Disapparated.

They hadn't been summoned to a forest this time, but to the doorstep of a large, decrepit house on a hill. She figured this was the infamous Riddle house Harry had talked about. No one among the Aurors thought Voldemort could still be using it when Dumbledore and so many other people knew about it. That was probably why he was using it … he was hiding in plain sight.

Hermione had fastened her cloak over her Auror robes; it was long enough to hide them completely. She followed the flow of Death Eaters, cloaked and hooded like her, past the doors and through a spacious corridor. This probably wasn't the first time they were summoned here …

Their journey ended in a large, carpeted room lit by candles. The windows were tightly curtained, not letting through even a sliver of daylight. Hermione felt like she was in a church.

Voldemort stood in the shadows near the opposite wall, his back to the unlit fireplace. He wasn't wearing a hood, and his scarlet eyes looked brighter and more bizarre against the chalk-white skin of his face.

Hermione knelt and kissed the hem of his robes like Bellatrix had just done, although she noticed that Bellatrix had lingered in the position far longer than the Death Eater before her.

The circle of Death Eaters was noticeably smaller today. With Lucius absent, Hermione found herself standing next to Bellatrix, with Pettigrew on her other side. The latter, she noticed, was stealing glances at her every couple of seconds.

Voldemort stepped away from the wall. He stopped in the middle of the room, and a perceptible shiver went through the gathered wizards.

"I find myself extremely disappointed, my friends. I have been informed this morning, as have some of you," his eyes flicked to Hermione, "that three of our number have allowed themselves to be captured by Harry Potter's heroic squad for the second time."

Hermione saw that this was news to some of the Death Eaters who probably weren't receiving the Daily Prophet at home. Their cloaks rustled as they turned to look at her.

She shook her head silently, trying to convey that she hadn't known and hadn't been in Harry's team.

"Today, our circle is incomplete because of the carelessness of some of my servants who, when faced with someone as supposedly powerful as Harry Potter, are too overwhelmed with cowardice to duel like proper wizards."

Hermione stared at him. Was he saying that it was Lucius's fault that he had been captured while on a mission? That he had been too afraid of Harry to fight?

"I have commanded twenty of our Dementors to return to Azkaban to keep your captured brethren company."

Hermione became extremely still. She felt very cold all of a sudden.

And I joined this monster? she thought.

"Perhaps this will give you an incentive to put more effort into your fights regardless of whom you are facing or how outnumbered you are," he continued, and Hermione could feel the growing agitation of the wizards around her. "I sense from the mind of my spy that the Ministry has been quick to conclude these Dementors have rebelled from my control –"

She jerked her head up sharply. Had he sensed the other thoughts in her mind too?

"– and this will be to my advantage. The Dementors will be doing other errands for me while they remain at Azkaban with the Ministry's full confidence …"

Disbelief overrode Hermione's fear of this monster's wrath. "For how long, my Lord?" she spoke up.

Voldemort turned his merciless gaze upon her. "For as long as it takes for the most idle and useless of my servants to learn the lesson. And this is the last time I warn you not to speak out of turn, spy." His voice was like a low, icy blast of wind, like the sound of an approaching Killing Curse.

Hermione quickly looked down, not wanting this heartless creature to see the tears forming in her eyes.

She stood numbly in her place, only a foot away from Bellatrix, and listened while Voldemort went on to question select Death Eaters about their missions, issuing threats to those who had failed or weren't trying hard enough. She stood, wringing her hands anxiously as she waited for her turn. Now was not the time to show her resentment – if she wanted to help Lucius, acting in a way reminiscent of Harry Potter and getting killed wasn't the way to do it.

Voldemort nodded to Bellatrix, and then he stepped in front of Hermione.

"My spy …" The words were a menacing hiss. "I thought I commanded you not to attend meetings during your hours of work? And not to reveal your identity, even to those you kill …"

Hermione gasped behind her mask. It was much more frightening to face Voldemort without Lucius at her side. She tried to draw comfort from the presence of Bellatrix, reminding herself that she wasn't alone: she had a friend next to her. "I took the day off to – to plan Harry Potter's death, my Lord."

She heard startled noises from the Death Eaters, but Voldemort paid no need to her excuse, not even when Bellatrix said bravely, "That's true, Master."

"I also hear that you have been engaging in Muggle torture," he said, a touch of amusement crinkling his inhuman eyes, and she couldn't discern whether he was admonishing or praising her.

Hermione felt her face grow hot under her mask. "You hear right, my Lord."

The other Death Eaters gasped and gaped at her. Voldemort gave her a scrutinising look, then walked further along the circle.

He didn't ask her about her plan for Harry. She was mentally debating whether to speak up anyway when he stepped back and said, "You may leave. Spy, stay behind."

Hermione winced. She understood the importance of hiding her identity, but it felt impersonal and … degrading … to be called 'spy'. It was as though in Voldemort's mind, she was reduced to her function, like she didn't exist as a person beyond her useful role of agent. And she knew it was the truth … to Voldemort, that was all that she was.

"My Lord, I wasn't informed of last night's attack," she said once the last Death Eater had closed the door behind him. "If I had known … I would've told you, I swear I would have! I wouldn't have let it happen –"

"Why weren't you informed?" he cut in, his voice cold as ice.

Hermione stopped talking suddenly. "I don't know, my Lord."

"You are in Harry Potter's confidence. You are at the top of the Auror ranks, yet not only you weren't informed, but you weren't among the Aurors sent on a mission of utmost importance either. Was I lied to about your rank or have you behaved in a manner that has led your colleagues to suspect your allegiance?"

"My Lord, it's nothing like that! Harry Potter and the others, they're working night shifts," she explained. "Harry told me this morning … he had a vision of your plans; he gathered the Aurors who were at the Ministry at the time and went after the Death Eaters who were to attack that family. I didn't know – I'm not at Headquarters at night."

"And why aren't you, if that is when the most important raids take place?"

"Fudge never gave me night duty, my Lord. He … I think he underestimates me, as a Muggle-born, you know, and as a woman … but that's just my guess. I – I don't really know why, my Lord."

"You don't know?" he repeated. "Tell me, Granger, what use do I have for a spy who knows nothing?" he roared.

"That's not true," she said, insulted. "I've told you loads of Ministry secrets … we've foiled dozens of raids thanks to the information I provide …"

"As we would have again, it seems, if I am to believe that you would have fought against you friends had you known about last night's attack," he interrupted. "But what if I had commanded you to keep up the image of a loyal little Ministry servant?"

"What – what do you mean?" she whispered.

"What if I had ordered you not to interfere?"

"But my Lord, why would you –?"

"Did I give you permission to question me?" he hissed.

Hermione closed her mouth, flinching.

"Would you have obeyed me?"

"My Lord, I couldn't –"

Voldemort made an angry sound. "You couldn't have?" he said. His voice grew beyond its normally high pitch. "You couldn't have obeyed my orders? Or you wouldn't have?"

She looked down at the floor, hoping he wouldn't sense the thoughts that were swirling furiously in her mind. She tried to sound firm. "I would have done what you said, my Lord."

He saw right through her attempt. "Lies, lies, all lies! I have a spy who tells me naught but lies!"

"Not at all, my Lord," she protested. "I've never given you false information!"

"There are other methods of deception than telling falsehoods, Granger."

Hermione shifted uncomfortably, but looked back into the inscrutable red eyes.

"You are a Mudblood," he said, making her wince, "but you have joined the right side. Do you regret your decision, Granger?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. Did he think she would be stupid enough to tell him if she did? "You know I don't. The Light side is filled with hypocrites … Dumbledore says the Dark wizards are prejudiced against Muggle-borns and half-bloods, but so far, the Dark side has treated me better than the Ministry. It took Fudge three years to start considering me as worth more than half the average Auror. But you and the Death Eaters – you accepted me as soon as you saw that I wasn't your enemy. Lucius, the Lestranges and the rest of your followers treat me like I'm one of them … like I'm as good a witch as they, even though I'm Muggle-born."

"You are good with answers, my spy," Voldemort said, nodding to her. "But if you don't regret it, why do I sense a stench of hate in the air? It is coming from you … your very breath reeks of it." He wrinkled his flat, serpentine nose. "It is directed at Harry Potter … at Dumbledore … at our enemies … and part of it is directed at me. You would turn against me in a second …"

"I wouldn't!"

He laughed coldly. "You would. You may not know it, but if you were faced with a choice, you would turn against me."

She didn't know what came over her, but suddenly she felt like she was a Gryffindor again. She looked straight into the red eyes and spoke before she could stop herself. "Then don't give me a reason to turn against you, my Lord."

Voldemort's lipless mouth spread in a chilling grin. "You almost remind me of my dear Bella … almost. But you hate me … what use do I have for a servant who detests me, withholds information and is loyal to another?"

Strangely, she didn't feel afraid. She felt nothing at all. "It isn't in your interests to kill me, my Lord," she said defiantly. "I'm your highest-ranking spy; you can't win this war without my help … or his. You won't find another Auror willing to work for you, and you won't find another Death Eater who has as much money to finance your campaign."

"A brave one, aren't you? I do value bravery in my servants, unless they use that bravery to thwart me … an action I know you aren't foolish enough to attempt. The reason you joined me may be the reason you now defy me, but you know what happens to those who defy me, Auror," he spat, twirling his wand in his skeletal hand.

Hermione's face was wet with perspiration, and her mask stuck uncomfortably to her forehead. "But my Lord, I'm bringing you important information!" she said quickly. "I've found a foolproof way to defeat Harry Potter!"

There was a sudden silence. She continued: "I know the contents of the prophecy …"

"You know the prophecy?" There was a quiet anger in the icy voice. "Why, then, did you not tell me earlier?"

Hermione's hands started shaking. She hadn't thought about this. It hadn't even occurred to her that he would ask … why hadn't she told him before? Because she had still considered Harry a friend? Because she had had enough loyalty left towards him, for saving her life several times, that she hadn't wanted to become the instrument of his destruction?

She couldn't tell the Dark Lord that she had a debt towards Harry Potter. Frantically, she tried to lie. "I didn't know. I overheard Harry telling Ron about it this morning and –"

"Liar," he cut off. "Do not lie to Lord Voldemort, for he always knows."

Did he know Snape was a spy for decades? she thought.

"You have known for years, Granger. Isn't it the duty of a spy to share her knowledge to the detriment of the enemy? Or is it that you do not consider Harry Potter an enemy?" His eyes gleamed like rubies in the dim light, angry and hateful. "Why didn't you inform me that you possessed the knowledge I have sought since the day that wretched boy reflected my Killing Curse back at me?"

"Because … because … I was Harry's friend … I wasn't ready to single-handedly cause his death …" Even as she said it, she knew he wouldn't understand – Voldemort had never had a friend in his life. Her mind was working at top speed, thinking up excuses while she spoke. She hoped she could get away with nothing worse than the Cruciatus Curse … "I couldn't bring myself to do it. I joined you just months ago; I still wasn't sure, back then, that I would be accepted on this side, and I figured there was no great hurry … I thought a few weeks wouldn't make much difference. I was still new here, my Lord, please, you must understand that I couldn't –"

Voldemort's eyes narrowed even further. His slit-shaped pupils had widened until they drowned out the red iris almost completely, reminding her of a furious Crookshanks. "But now you can," he stated in an icy hiss. "Now you have no more qualms about betraying your friend …"

Hatred flared in Hermione. "I want him dead. Kill him, my Lord, please! He deserves death! In fact, he deserves – he deserves worse than death."

"There is nothing worse than death," Voldemort said sharply.

Hermione looked at him, but her objection did not reach her tongue. "Then kill him," she said strongly.

Voldemort's eyes narrowed. This woman's zeal almost matched Bella's … only her loyalty did not lie with him. His hatred towards his slippery servant redoubled. How dare Lucius win this one's loyalty when he, Lord Voldemort, could not …

She could become a nuisance … but she was far too useful to him, entangled as she was in Lucius's web of deception. As long as her chosen master remained under his command, so would she … she had become a priceless asset to his cause. He wouldn't have gained so much ground over the Ministry and Dumbledore recently had it not been for the information she provided. She was ensuring the Dark side's victory!

When he would no longer need her, he would kill her with the other untrustworthy ones, her master being the first of them, but for the moment, he was going to pretend that he tolerated this situation. "Go on then, Granger … prove that you weren't lying about your knowledge of the prophecy as well."

Hermione stared at a broken mirror on the opposite wall as she recited the words. "…the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not –"

"What power can he have that I know not?" he interrupted.

"Harry said Dumbledore thinks it's the power of his heart," she said hesitantly, then sighed. This was useless. Voldemort didn't understand the concept of love. Poor Bellatrix … did she know that her master was incapable of it?

She tried to explain in a way that he could understand, because if her explanation made him feel confused, he would get angry and she would pay the price. "From what I understand, it has to do with his mother and the protection her sacrifice created, my Lord. It's why Dumbledore made him stay with his mother's relatives … Dumbledore thinks the protection is in Lily Potter's blood."

Voldemort threw back his head and laughed. "Then it is of no importance, as the same blood – and the same protection – flows in my veins. Dumbledore is a fool."

"He may be, my Lord, but he is a dangerous fool," Hermione said wisely.

"A true Auror, aren't you? One can never be too cautious …" He flexed his ghostly hands. "The rest of the prophecy, Granger."

He was looking at her with undivided attention, and she felt flattered that her knowledge was so important to him. "And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives," she finished.

"That is all?" Voldemort sounded delighted. "That's of no consequence. I always knew all I had to do was to kill that boy …"

"But that's not as easy as it sounds, is it? You've tried several times," she said, adding hurriedly, "Today, when I was talking to Bellatrix, I got an idea that'll make sure you're successful this time. Please, just hear me out, my Lord." She looked desperately at him. "I've found a way – you won't even have to duel with him, and you'll be able to avoid triggering the link between your wands that makes it impossible for you two to exchange spells."

"And how do you propose to accomplish this, Granger?"

"If you follow my plan, he won't even try to fight back."

Voldemort's eyes narrowed.

"He won't fight if he doesn't know it's you. If he thinks you're someone he trusts …"

"How?" he said impatiently.

Hermione smiled. "Polyjuice potion," she said simply. "You can use Polyjuice to take the form of another Auror … the person Harry trusts above all others … his closest friend, Ron Weasley. We'll make sure the real Ron is incapacitated and remains that way until it's done, my Lord, and I'll lead you into the Auror Headquarters. You can kill Harry in front of all the people there. I bet everyone will be so shocked that you'll be able to walk out of there without anyone trying to stop you, if you're quick, or you can prepare a Portkey.

"This way, you'll be getting rid of two enemies in the same move," she enthused, feeling quite proud that she had come up with this. "Harry will be dead and they'll send Ron to Azkaban when he shows up, probably without a trial since everyone's going to claim they saw him do it. They have been looking for a spy for a while, and they'll all conclude it was Ron. It'll get them off my track."

Voldemort didn't praise her or show any sign that he was impressed, but Hermione knew he was when he said, "I expect you to have a strand of Ron Weasley's hair in your possession when I summon you tomorrow evening. But if your plan fails, you will pay the price. Now leave!"

She was a foot away from the door when he spoke up behind her.

"A warning, Granger …"

She froze on her way to the door, glancing up at him with wary eyes.

"You have sworn eternal loyalty to me; it would be wise for you to remember this. I understand that you have acquired a tendency to act without my approval … but keep in mind that if your identity is revealed in one of your foolish attempts to break down the protections on the Azkaban fortress, I will not help you escape prison."

She sucked in a shallow breath through her mouth, and he smiled at the scent of fear that permeated the air.

"Get out of my sight, Granger, or you might not be lucky enough to escape it with a mere taste of the Cruciatus."

She was out of the door as quickly as her feet could carry her.

Hermione couldn't believe it. Voldemort really thought she was stupid …

He had been there, in the back of Professor Quirrell's head, when she had told the teachers that she had confronted the troll thinking she could subdue it on her own. But he must have known that she had been lying to keep Harry and Ron out of trouble; they had, after all, just saved her life. And she should have grown out of such reckless overconfidence if she had ever had it or she wouldn't have survived her first year as an Auror.

Even at twelve, I wasn't stupid enough to attempt something that I knew to be impossible, she thought indignantly as she stalked through the corridors in the direction that she remembered led to the front door. But, Merlin, Voldemort could be so scary … how could Lucius deal with him time and again without flinching?

She saw that most of the Death Eaters had already Disapparated. Some had lingered to talk in hushed voices in the corridor, sharing their fears of being captured, she was sure. She was walking quickly past them when someone grabbed the edge of her cloak.

She stopped and turned around. To her disgust, the short wizard who was holding her cloak was Peter Pettigrew, who had removed his hood.

"Hermione, I'm amazed to see you here … you were always such a sweet and clever girl at school … but you're even cleverer than I thought! And I have thought about you so much … I couldn't dream that we would be on the same side!"

She yanked her cloak out of his hand, reminded of the day she had done the same in the Shrieking Shack. Her disgust towards this traitor hadn't waned since her third year at Hogwarts. If she had had friends who actually cared about her, she wouldn't have betrayed them out of cowardice. "If you ever try to touch me again – and that includes touching my cloak – I'll get Bellatrix to sort you out."

Pettigrew recoiled, his watery eyes filling with anguish. "But I've liked you for so long … I love you, Hermione! That day Goyle's son tried to hit you on the Hogwarts Express, I bit him with my rat teeth to save you! I bet he still has the scar … serves him right. I watched you as a rat at the Weasleys' house … I often crawled under your bed to watch you sleep. Your cat noticed and tried to eat me …"

Hermione tried not to pull out her wand and hex the horrible man. "I'm sorry, Pettigrew, but it's your problem that you obsess over what you can't have."

"C – can't have? But you're – you're not with anyone, are you?"

"Yes I am," she said, hoping this would get him to leave her alone.

He reared back as though she had struck him. "You are? But – but I thought …"

"You thought what?" she said in a steely voice.

Pettigrew looked like Crookshanks had got his tongue. "I – I – who?" he managed, rumpling his colourless hair with a shaking hand.

"Lord Malfoy."

Pettigrew's rat-like face twisted with a mix of resentment and fear. She wondered whether it was at the name itself or because she had used that title.

Then his small eyes lit up. "But Malfoy is in prison now," he said, his voice becoming squeakier with excitement. Hermione wanted to punch him. "That means you're available! You must be so lonely …"

He flung himself to his knees and crawled towards her, wiping the dust off the floor behind him with his black robes. He stretched out his hands imploringly towards her. One of them looked like it was in a silver glove; it gleamed like metal.

Hermione shuddered in revulsion. Maybe it was just her imagination, but she thought she felt the mark on her right arm prickle warningly. She took a step back.

"I'm not available, Pettigrew," she said, offended at being talked about like an object or a prostitute. "I'm faithful to the men I allow to touch me," she said fiercely. "And even if I wasn't, I definitely wouldn't go to you. So you'd better stay away from me, you pathetic rat."

She pulled her cloak primly around her and Disapparated, leaving Pettigrew snivelling on the floor.

That night, Hermione tossed and turned on her bed, but sleep did not come to her. She felt weak and shivery, and so tired that she couldn't muster the will to get up and fetch the Sleeping Draught that she kept in her bathroom cabinet for the rare nights when she had insomnia. For an Auror, it was imperative to get a decent rest at night in order to have an alert mind and quick reactions in battle. Anything else could be fatal in a duel. But Hermione hadn't had a decent night's sleep in weeks …

The nights she had spent Muggle-hunting with Lucius, having only a few hours left to catch up on sleep before leaving for work, were beginning to take their toll on her. It wasn't even as if she enjoyed these Muggle-baiting games …

The night of the Christmas ball, she had been drunk enough to get a glimpse of torture from Bellatrix's point of view, but in a normal state of mind, she found little excitement in making people scream and 'punishing' them – as Lucius described it – for having been born without magic. She went on these adventures into the Muggle world only to be with him. He didn't admit it, but she knew that he craved the attention; he needed someone to keep him company all the time.

She liked watching him. It was awe-inspiring to see him use the Dark Arts; she could almost feel the power swirling in a cocoon of malevolent energy around him whenever he cast the Avada Kedavra. She found it scary and exhilarating at the same time. The expression in his eyes, when he would glance over at her and ask whether she found this as delightful as he did, always sent a shiver through her.

And there was no saying no to him, was there? She went along with it because if it was and had always been his hobby, she accepted it just as she accepted his violent temper and his allegiance to the Death Eaters. It was what he was; what could she do about it? He had changed her, but she had no illusion that she could ever change him.

Afterwards, she would lie in his arms and feel safe, sure that she was doing the right thing.

But there was another reason why she always tried to be there when he carried out raids against Muggles or enemy wizards. She knew that he was a powerful wizard, but she couldn't stop worrying that he would be hurt or caught by the Ministry. When he let her accompany him, she could protect him and help him fight if they were tracked down by the Aurors.

And look what had happened when she wasn't there … Bellatrix's husband and Nott hadn't been of much help, contrarily to what Lucius had told her to assuage her worries, if between the three of them, they had still managed to get caught by three Aurors. Well, Lestrange had spent too much time with the Dementors to be able to magically stand his ground against wizards of average power – Bellatrix must have been an exception, because even after her time in Azkaban, she was still a very powerful witch.

Lucius must have been distracted when Harry had attacked him; that was what she had gathered from Zacharias Smith's gloating account of his Impediment Charm. Hermione's throat felt tight and her eyes burned as she imagined the scene.

Something was bubbling in her throat and she did not know whether it was a sob or a scream of rage choking her.

This time, there was no one to comfort her. Lucius wasn't here to make her forget, to play with her body until she couldn't think coherently. Now she was alone with her doubts and insecurities.

The bed shifted as Crookshanks jumped onto it. He curled up against her leg and watched her with glowing, uncomprehending eyes.

"Have you finally forgiven me for using Dark magic, Crookshanks?"

The cat muzzled her leg and started purring in a vain attempt to comfort her.

"Thanks, Crookshanks, for being one of my few remaining friends. But you can't help me … no one can. No one but one person, and he's the one who needs help this time."

No, a cat could never comfort her … not like he did. And she lay there, remembering every time he had Apparated into this room, disregarding the rule of basic etiquette that advised against Apparating directly into someone's house. Oh, what wicked things he would whisper in her ear … she felt silly for breaking down like this, but she had never wished so desperately that he would come and distract her with his commanding arrogance.

This time, no one would hold her and tell her that she had done well.

She cried into her pillow until it was soaked. Then she turned it over and cried again until she had no tears left. Sometime during the night she succumbed to sleep, and she dreamed that she was in a dark place, surrounded by hooded creatures that moved past her in a black blur, leaving a trail of cold in their wake. It seemed to her that she had forgotten everything except the worst moments of her past. She was sure that she would always feel like this, that there was no hope, nothing to live for …

She woke with a gasp, her hand clenched around her right forearm, her nightdress soaked with cold sweat.

"Harry, I hope that after Voldemort kills you, you will suffer in hell for the rest of eternity!" Hermione screamed, her eyelashes sticky with tears.

She wanted to go to Voldemort, to ask that he hurry, to demand that he do something about this. But she had understood by now that he was the kind of person who would not only ignore an appeal for mercy on principle, but was likely to do the opposite just to demonstrate that he had the power.

She wouldn't be able to help Lucius if she was dead.

She relaxed her death grip on her right arm. She ran her finger over the mark, then raised her arm and brought it to her mouth, touching her lips reverently to the spot where she knew the mark was without being able to see it in the dark.

Then she got up, and shaking, hurried to change out of the sticky, cold cloth that clung to her back. She froze at the sensation of silk under her fingers, and she realised that the garment she had blindly pulled from the drawer was the nightdress that had been Lucius's first present to her. Shaking her head, she put it back into the drawer and pulled out a set of robes.

Hermione was about to reach for her cloak when her sleepy, anguished mind remembered that visitors weren't allowed at Azkaban, not family and not even regular Aurors. Only the Head Auror had that privilege … but she was probably next in line for the position, since Fudge had trusted her to help Harry catch the spy, and after Voldemort killed Harry …

She would have to wait until then. The good news was that it would only be a few days. Nevertheless, it might be a good idea to curry favour with Fudge, to make sure his prejudices against Muggle-borns wouldn't make a comeback when it would be time to appoint her to the job. She had to make sure he didn't give it instead to that pure-blooded sycophant, Zacharias Smith. He had part of the credit for the capture of two high-ranking Death Eaters, together with Harry and Ron; Fudge might get it in his head to reward him for that.

Hermione was sure even Fudge would realise what a disaster it would be to make the other latest hero, Ron, Head Auror. Fudge hadn't trusted Ron with the hunt for the spy either, not even when Harry had vouched for him, as Percy had told her. But he had made Percy a head of department, even if the department in question thought him too young and untrained for the position, so she couldn't be sure he wouldn't consider promoting his brother too … luckily, her plan would make sure Fudge wouldn't even consider Ron. But Smith was be a real possibility, and she had to make sure he wasn't selected instead of her.

She lay back down and drew the blanket up over herself. Tomorrow, she would try to get a meeting with Fudge, with Harry's help if she had to. And maybe she would have to keep up the image of a successful Auror again, whatever Voldemort thought about it. Voldemort didn't care about what happened to her, and he would be very angry, but she had no choice. Nothing would elevate her as much in Fudge's eyes as if she single-handedly captured some prominent Death Eater. Perhaps she would have to use her position against the Dark Order for once. They would never expect it, since she was on their side, so she had a chance of catching them off guard.

Bellatrix came to mind, but she dismissed the idea; she saw too much of herself in that woman to betray her like that. She would think about choosing a target later. For now, one thing was certain: Harry wouldn't remain Head Auror for long.

Tomorrow, she would find an excuse go to The Burrow and steal Ron's hair comb, which she hoped he didn't clean too often …

Crookshanks walked towards her, sniffed at her neck, then curled up on her pillow, his warm, soft fur brushing against her cheek.

She found that the creature's purring calmed her slightly, and it slowly lulled her back to sleep. She succumbed to the heaviness that washed over her body, wishing that she would never wake up, or … was it too much to hope that she would awaken in Lucius's arms and find that it had been just a long, horrible nightmare, one he would chase away with his lips?

She threw an arm around Crookshanks's furry back. Holding the purring cat to her chest, Hermione slept.