A/N: Why, hello, all! Yes, it's the beginning of the... erm... revision of the end? I don't think that quite works... but anyway, here's the first REVISED chapter of EC. I'll add a little something along these lines (hopefully a little more eloquent and less... me) at the top of all the revised chapters, and don't forget that I'll have a list of reposted chap.s up on my homepage! Also, for those of you who didn't review the first time around clears throat consider this another opportunity! I really do value your comments, and your reviews are the only payment I receive for all of my hard efforts.
A/N 2: Yes... I've just realized that the first few paragraphs are exactly what was there before... but there are changes! Promise! Future chapters will have many more of 'em, so keep an eye out!
Disclaimer: Crap-proof umbrellas, ten Sickles apiece! That's right, crap-proof umbrellas--get 'em here! That invasion of winged pigs is quite the opportunity for an entreprenuer. : )
Chapter One: Out of the Floo...
Hello, darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
—"Sound of Silence," Simon & Garfunkel
Hermione Granger dipped a quill into the inkwell one last time, finishing her report with a signature and a flourish. Sliding the quill behind her ear, she licked her lips, rereading the last paragraph.
And so, in conclusion, another myth has been resolved. It is something that all people of magical ability should remember; just as the Muggles consider us a legend, so do we have legends of our own that are just as true, and as often disbelieved. While the legend of the Philosopher's Stone is indeed hard to swallow, it is as true as the streets of Diagon Alley, and the engraved gates of Gringotts Bank; and just as verifiable are the circumstances surrounding its obliteration, in which the Boy Who Lived played an instrumental role, despite his tender age and relative inexperience. But even more important than the veracity of this legend is the role that the Philosopher's Stone played in the moral shaping of the boy who helped in its destruction.
She nodded, satisfied, and smiled. A fitting end to the account; plus the ambiguity as to just how it helped Harry's 'moral shaping' would keep her readers interested. It was a trick of the trade that Hermione had known long before she entered upon this job at the Daily Prophet—cliffhangers, when tastefully written and not overused, are a writer's best friend.
Rolling up the scroll carefully, she popped it into a protective sheathing and tied it to the foot of the owl who waited patiently before her. "Off you go, now, Aphria. Take that right to Harry."
The owl hurrred her assent, and hopped awkwardly across Hermione's desk and towards the window sill. Throwing open the window, Hermione watched her owl flit off through Diagon Alley, and into Muggle London. She always made sure to get Harry's approval on one of her exposés before handing them in to her boss.
She turned her eyes skyward then, stifling a yawn. It was a beautiful night, clear and pleasantly warm, and the amiable noise rising from the streets of Diagon Alley to her third-story window told her that she wasn't the only one enjoying it. She smiled and recorded her hours on the editorial office's blackboard, which kept tally of useful things like overtime and unused holidays, before snuffing her oil lamp with a charm, tidying her desk, and grabbing her purse.
Unsurprisingly, the office was completely dark other than the small, flickering lamps by the doors. Hermione had become used to being the last to leave the office, and she didn't mind it at all; in fact, she rather enjoyed the solitude and quiet of those last few hours. Most of her work was done then.
Luna always poked fun at Hermione's tendency to overwork, but she never quite understood that it didn't stem from the journalist's indefatigable work ethic or her trademark perfectionism; Hermione simply loved her work. Everything about the Daily Prophet enchanted her—the smells of ink and fresh paper, the scratching sound of quills over parchment, the diurnal arguments over whose articles got onto the front page of which section—being able to use words like diurnal without being stared at! It was a haven for the literati, and Hermione felt more at home here than in the flat the two women shared.
Then again, Luna would point out, that's what she gets for renting a flat in a Muggle neighborhood. But Hermione had grown up around Muggles, and as much as she treasured the idiosyncrasies of the wizarding world, living among Muggles was like slipping into a pair of well-worn, comfortable trainers after a day in heels. She couldn't help but envy her neighbors sometimes, the relative simplicity of their lives and cultures. The Second War existed only in their minds as That Incident a few years back, that horrible spree of killings. Hermione wished she could forget it so readily.
She made her way through the third floor (Investigative Reporting and Gossip) and down the stairwell. The ground floor was empty save one guard, who was playing solitaire and listening to the Weird Sisters.
"Night, Mike," she said as she passed, offering him a weary smile. It had been a long day—but this exposé was her best yet, and she would be waiting on pins and needles until Harry and Ms. Wattersley approved it.
"G'night, Ms. Granger," he called from his post. "Oh, wait—"
She backtracked a few steps and leaned on the high counter above the desk while he, strangely, pulled on a pair of gloves. He held up a letter for her to see, but pulled away when she tried to take it. "It's a Portkey," he explained. "An Auror just Flooed in a few minutes ago and asked that I give it to the first reporter I see. If I'd known you were here, I'd've taken it up..."
"That's all right. What's happened?" she asked.
"Murder in Wales," he said grimly, turning the letter back towards him so he could read it. " 'Please send first available reporter with camera and quill. The utmost caution and secrecy is necessary.' It's signed by the Head Auror."
"Kingsley," Hermione murmured, frowning. "Thanks, Mike... I'll head right down. It will take me there?"
"That's what the boy said. Be careful, now."
She smiled at him again, adrenaline banishing the fog of fatigue that had settled over her mind and body. "I will, Mike. See you tomorrow."
"Until then, darlin'." He grinned and handed her the letter. As soon as her fingers closed on the parchment, she felt that familiar magical fish-hook plant itself behind her navel and jerk her forward. She never had been able to go fishing with her father after her first experience with a Portkey... she could empathize a little too well with the poor little beasts. After a few seconds of blurred colors and screaming silence, she stumbled to a stop in the middle of an empty street.
It wasn't difficult to find the scene of the crime. In fact, she found it far more easily than she would have wished. For a moment she wondered whether she had been right to come—but the thought of this scoop was too much to bear. Ms. Wattersley would be more than impressed!
She didn't have long to dwell on that, though. It was chaos—Muggles screaming, Hit Wizards performing the memory charm frantically, Ministry officials clumped together and either whispering or shouting and gesticulating wildly, and a horrible smell of smoke and smoldering something—Hermione pulled out her camera, mentally composing the introduction to the article as she snapped photographs. The acrid scent of burned flesh hangs over the street in the isolated Welsh village as Hit Wizards modify memories left and right. The charred remains of a house stand testament to the atrocities committed there, a solemn reminder of the lives lost—
She whirled, gasping, as someone tugged on her sleeve.
An attractive young man stood over her, his dark face twisted into a scowl. "What do you think you're doing, girl?" he demanded harshly. "This isn't a show."
Fumbling with the camera, she pulled out her identification badge. "Hermione Granger, investigative reporter for the Daily Prophet—somebody requested a—"
"You're the reporter, then?" he asked, eyeing her with a look of mingled disdain and speculation. "Come with me, then. You'll be debriefed."
He gave her no chance to argue, just wrapped one hand around her upper arm and pulled her toward the largest knot of Ministry officials. Hermione took advantage of the situation to snap a few shots of Muggles recovering from memory modification in front of the smoldering house.
"Shacklebolt, here's the reporter you sent for," her escort said, releasing her with a sudden movement that almost sent her careening into the Ministry officials. The burly Head Auror caught her by the shoulders and straightened her, glaring warningly at the younger Auror.
"All right, Zabini. Go send another owl to the Prophet so they don't send anyone else. We need to keep this under wraps, you got me, kid?"
Hermione whipped her head around to look at her escort, dimly recognizing the handsome black Slytherin. He glared at her for a brief moment before walking away to carry out his superior's orders. She looked after him, scowling, and then turned her attention back to Shacklebolt, determinedly quashing school memories. "Kingsley," she said.
He turned from the squabbling Ministry officials and offered her a strained smile. "I'm glad it's you Hermione. Just a moment, and I'll—gentlemen, gentlemen, please. My Aurors have this entirely under control. If you'll excuse me, now, I have to debrief the reporter. Ms. Granger?" he said, motioning for her to go ahead of him.
"What's this all about, Kingsley?" she asked when they were out of range, pulling out a pad of yellow Muggle notepaper and her favorite quill. "The letter mentioned murder. What do you have so far?"
He sighed, mopping at his bare head with the cuff of one sleeve. "Muggle family of three—mother, father, and a two-year-old boy." Hermione wrenched her head up, horrified, and Kingsley just nodded. "The Muggle citizen problem is under control, and we've got our liaison working with the Muggle fire department, as you can see," he said, waving one broad hand at the fire engines. "We've also got some of our best Muggle contacts working with the local hospital and morgue to deal with the bodies, and another working with the newspaper and local government. The Muggles will learn there's been a fatal gas explosion—that's all."
Hermione took faithful notes, and then frowned up at her old comrade from the Order. "But if they were all Muggles involved, why is the Ministry here, and why call for an immediate reporter? For that matter—why are you in charge?"
He grimaced and motioned for her to follow him. They stepped gingerly over temporary wards set up to keep curious Muggles out of the wreckage and into the littered yard. The grass was strangely crunchy underfoot; Hermione wished suddenly to feel something less gruesome beneath her heels. Swallowing her rising disgust, she stopped to take a picture of a charred teddy bear flopped against a piece of blackened roofing, and then hurried after the Auror.
She stopped, aghast, and whirled when she saw the body laying at his feet. Her back to the body, she leaned upon Kingsley's proffered arm, one hand over her mouth. A strong hand patted her back supportively, and when her nausea began to abate, she turned back to the scene, mentally distancing herself from it. "Who?" she asked shakily.
"We don't have a name, but we do know that he's a wizard. The fire mutilated his face and destroyed his wand—all forms of identification have been wiped out, so until someone files a missing person report, we have nowhere to start. What I wanted you to see was this," he said, crouching.
Swallowing back the urge to retch, Hermione did likewise, breathing as little as possible. The stench of burned flesh was almost too much to bear.
With a whispered charm, the corpse's charred sleeve lifted; bits of it fell away as ash. Beneath it, a relatively unharmed arm was revealed.
Hermione cursed softly. "The Dark Mark."
"You got it."
"He's a Death Eater?"
"But—but," she stammered, standing. For all of her revulsion, she found that she couldn't look away from that decimated body. "I thought the Aurors caught them all, after Harry defeated Voldemort."
Kingsley flinched. "We got most of them," he said. "But there were a few—either smart enough or lucky enough—who escaped us. Maybe they'd just gotten in and we didn't have enough to convict them on, or maybe they'd just covered their tracks well."
"So there are Death Eaters on the loose and the Defense Department didn't feel like letting the wizarding populace know?" Hermione asked, her voice considerably colder as she waited, quill poised.
"Put that away, Hermione," he growled. "This is strictly off-record." He rubbed his bald head. "They're not enough of a threat to alert the masses. No, hear me out first. They're in hiding now. I don't know why they pulled a stunt like this, but they must know that after we've found the body of a Death Eater at the scene of the crime, they can't afford to resurface."
"But don't we want them to surface?" Hermione asked slowly, chewing her lip pensively. "We couldn't very well find them otherwise, if what you've said is true."
He shook his head in exasperation. "Hermione, you don't understand. If we say that there are still Death Eaters on the loose, people will panic. Hysteria will ensue. And the Death Eaters will come out of hiding to take advantage of the chaos. After all, who would notice a few well-placed murders, a resurgence in the Dark ways, amidst all that pandemonium?" he asked. Hermione found that she had no answer to offer. "You're Muggleborn. I know you've heard that old axiom about ignoring your enemies. Eventually they'll lose interest."
Hermione frowned. "Kingsley," she said lowly, her face very grave, "these aren't schoolyard bullies we're dealing with here. These are fanatics. Fanatics don't 'lose interest' so easily."
"Hermione," he said impatiently, lips pressed tight. "I am in charge of this case, not you, and so help me Merlin, if I see anything on the front page that I didn't sanction, I'll be paying your parents and your employer a little visit—and probably your landlord too, for good measure!"
She gaped, infuriated, and the injustice of this. He was threatening to have her fired, evicted, and humiliated if she told the truth? What had ever happened to the Prophet's motto, tantum veritas?
But Kingsley wasn't paying attention to Hermione anymore. "Zabini!" he called.
The young wizard came running over. "Yes, sir?"
"Tell Ms. Granger here exactly what she can and cannot print, will you? I have to go before there's another murder," he said darkly, motioning to where one of the Muggle liaisons was brandishing a fist at a member of the Wizengamot. He left without waiting for the other Auror's reply.
Zabini looked down at Hermione scornfully before waving her over to a quieter corner a few houses down and sat on the raised curb, hands buried in the thick, well-watered grass and legs extended onto the cement. In the house behind him, the curtains were pulled tight as if to close out the night's horrors. Hermione was seized by the sudden wistful wish that she could be at home—not her flat, with only Luna, Crookshanks, and a few wards between her and the world, but at her parents' house. Even though she knew intellectually that it was a fallacy of childhood, she couldn't help but think that she would be completely safe there.
She only shook herself out of the reverie when Zabini began to speak. Hurriedly she took down the details he gave her, warning her not to be too explicit when it came to names and places, and to leave the involved officials listed as anonymous. Then, as she stowed away her quill and pad of paper, he gave her a cold smile that made her frown.
"What?" she demanded, hugging her arms against the evening chill.
"I can't believe you don't see it," he said, taking obvious delight in her ignorance.
"See what?" she asked guardedly, dropping her voice.
His smirk widened a little farther. "Struck me immediately. Of course, you're still looking a little green over that body..."
Hermione hastily pushed away the mental images accompanied by that comment and looked at him. "If you're done being an immature prick, Zabini," she said coldly, "please explain yourself."
"Off record," he drawled. "Don't you notice anything about the neighborhood, Granger? Anything... familiar?"
She frowned and looked around. It did, actually, seem rather familiar, though she couldn't say why.
Zabini chuckled, a low sound that sent a chill crawling up her spine. She looked back down and met his mirthless black eyes, and saw a shadow of fear there, a fear that she recognized instantly—it was an emotion shared by many who had played an active role in the Second War, as Zabini, then an Auror-in-training, had. It was a fear of the past, a fear that would never completely die for any of them. She shuddered. He spoke lowly then. "Turn around."
"Just do it, Fuzz," he said, sneering and using one of Malfoy's patented annoy-the-Mudblood nicknames.
Glaring, she nevertheless turned obligingly—and stopped, face bent into an expression of horror, unable to catch her breath. Not twenty feet away from them, set into a bed of brightly colored flowers, stood a sign. The yellow rays of the streetlamp fell across its facade, revealing the carved letters. Godric's Hollow.
Godric's Hollow. A gas explosion. A family...
And a little boy.