Disclaimer: I own any characters, spells, or objects not previously mentioned in the Harry Potter series, as well as the plot. Anything else is property of JKR.

A/N: Yes, I actually updated. Can you believe it?

Apple from the Tree

Third Chapter

Horrifying News

Remy glanced over his Father's shoulder at the Daily Prophet. "Anything interesting there?" he asked.

"Not to me," Severus replied dryly. "However, you might find some interest in this." He flipped a couple of pages, then held the paper up for Remy to see. "There, on the left."

"Wow!" exclaimed the boy, a wide grin on his face. "You're right, Father. That's what I call interesting!"

"What is it?" asked Samantha curiously. "What's so exciting now?"

"Look!" Taking the paper from Severus' hands -- well, he had said it wasn't interesting anyway -- he turned it around for the others to see. "See what Lucius Malfoy has?"

"That's -- that's a lot of snakes," Hermione stated after a moment's pause. "How many of them does he have?" She, like everybody else, looked at the picture of her oh-so-dear uncle. Malfoy stood in a room apparently full of snakes, one of them held rather fondly in his hands, while another was hanging around his neck like a twisted necklace, its head caressing his cheek.

"Three hundred and ninety-six, it says there," Samantha read from the article, a grin on her lips. "What does he do with them all? Does he collect snakes or something?"

"His great-grandfather, Isaac Malfoy, was a Parselmouth," Severus said calmly. "Ever since his days there has been a collection of snakes at the Malfoy Manor. Some of them have been there ever since Isaac's time -- you'd be surprised at how old some snakes can live, especially magical ones."

"Well, that's interesting," Remy said, smirking a bit. "What do you think, might Lucius be a Parselmouth, too?"

"I doubt that," Severus said. "If he were, he would have made sure that Voldemort knew about it. Although ordinary wizards may fear the stain of a Parselmouth, to a Death Eater it would be an honour unimaginable. No, I think he just looks after his great-grandfather's snakes, letting everybody think that he is a Parselmouth as well."

"Apparently he's currently alone in the Manor," said Samantha, who had read the article further. "His wife is staying with a friend of hers for most of the summer, while his son is currently on a holiday trip with some friends of his own. Well, that many snakes should definitely be enough to keep him occupied."

"And if it isn't enough," Remy added with a smirk, "Hermione could always pay her uncle a visit. Hey, stop!" he then exclaimed amusedly as Samantha rather calmly began to hit his head with her small fist. "It was just a joke!" With his equally amused girlfriend chasing him, he ran out of the room.

Severus looked after them for a while. Then he shook his head in quiet amusement, picked up the fallen newspaper, and continued to read it.

"That's indecent, you know," Harry stated cheerfully as he walked into the sitting room, finding Samantha and Remy there. "Your parents would be shocked indeed if they saw you like that."

The spotted skunk lifted his head for long enough to glare at the wizard, then let it down again. Neither he nor the golden bunny seemed to have any intention to move from their rather comfortable positions wrapped around each other. In fact, it seemed that Samantha was fast asleep, and even Remy seemed sleepy.

"Actually, it's not indecent," Hermione said from his side. "It might be, if they were naked and in human form, but I don't see anything wrong with that. I've often enough seen Sirius and Severus sleeping as a furry pile to know that they, at least, don't consider it indecent to appear like that in public."

"Shh, let me tease them," Harry smirked. "Aww, it seems Remy has fallen asleep, too. They do look cute, though, don't they?" He looked at the younger couple, smiling.

"That they do," Hermione said, smiling as well. "They're our little furry balls of cuteness."

Even in his sleep, Remy the skunk managed to huff at that comment.

"Has either of you seen Hermione?" asked a voice from behind Remy and Samantha. They looked up from their position sitting comfortably under a tree.

"She was with us some time ago," Samantha replied. "However, she got a letter and wanted to read it before joining us outside. It was a while ago, so we were already wondering when she would come."

"A letter?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "What kind of a letter?"

"Well, it had the Ministry seal," Remy said, "with black wax. I thought that seemed a bit odd, but --"

"What!" exclaimed Harry. Suddenly he turned extremely pale, apparently no blood left on his face. "But the Ministry -- they only use black seals when they tell of somebody's death!"

Remy froze. Then he chased after his cousin, heading inside to search for Hermione. He hurriedly told that Hermione had said something about going to the library, which was where Harry then ran.

They found her sitting in an armchair, the letter clutched in her hand, trembling violently. Big, fat tears ran down her cheeks as she stared unseeingly in front of her. When Harry reached her side, however, she apparently broke out of her daze, raising her eyes at him.

"Oh, Harry!" she exclaimed. "They are -- they are --" She started to sob weakly, unable to speak.

"Calm down, Hermione, love," Harry said softly, gently drawing her into his arms. He then sat down where she had been moments before, setting her in his lap. At the same time he gestured for Remy to take the letter that had fallen from the young witch's hand.

Remy took the letter and quickly read it. It was simple enough. Both of Hermione's parents had died in a car crash, and the Ministry had chosen to inform her about it. After reading it he gave it to Harry, who read it as well, holding it in one hand while the other was petting Hermione's hair comfortingly.

Samantha had caught up with them by now. Although she hadn't read the letter, one glance at Hermione told her that the situation was dire indeed. Walking closer, she carefully set a hand on that of her friend's, squeezing it gently. She didn't ask what had happened, though. Hermione didn't look like she was in any shape to tell.

Finally Hermione had calmed down enough to speak. "What'll I do now?" she asked quietly. "I'm still a minor; I won't turn seventeen until September. I don't have any living Muggle relatives aside from some distant ones I don't even know properly, and --" She trailed off, an expression of horror rising to her face. "Lucius," she whispered. "My closest living relative is Lucius Malfoy."

Despite the obvious concern of her friends, Hermione demanded to be left alone for some time. She needed time to think, she claimed, and locked the door into her room behind herself. At the moment, however, she could not think; instead, she collapsed on her bed, crying even more than she had before.

She had no home to return to, she suddenly realized. All this time she had thought that she would return to her home before the summer break was over, surely, or perhaps during the Christmas break. After her graduation, that was for certain, before she went to wherever she would continue her studies. Only now, she couldn't. Her parents wouldn't be there; she would only be met by an empty house and memories.

She could stay at Hogwarts during the breaks, and the Snapes would surely let her stay for the summer. It didn't change the fact that she was now staying elsewhere out of necessity and not by choice. She couldn't go home if she changed her mind, couldn't send an owl to her parents to tell them that she was okay. No more would she have to prepare clever lies to hide whatever danger her life as a witch had led her into.

There was still the funeral, too. She would have to see her parents lowered into grave. How she was going to survive that, she didn't know. Harry would be there for her, she hoped, but still...

A small sound came from her side, and something landed onto the bed beside her. She opened her teary eyes to see Crookshanks sitting close, looking at her questioningly. Reaching out her arms, she hugged the cat close to herself. The animal suffered this treatment silently, apparently sensing her distress.

"Oh, Crookshanks," Hermione whispered, "what am I going to do without them? What am I going to do?"

The cat, however, offered her no answer aside from a twitch of his tail and another little 'meow'.

By the time she released him, his fur was soaked with tears. For now, though, he let it be.

Harry rested his head on his large paws, giving Hermione a serious glance. She firmly refused to talk about her feelings, but seemed to still accept his silent company. Curled up by her feet, he kept an eye on her, ready to immediately spring to her comfort if it seemed that she needed him. Oh, she could have all the alone time she needed, but if she thought her friends were going to desert her in her grief, she had another thing coming.

For a couple of days now Hermione had been merely waiting for the funeral. A friend of her mother's had contacted her, telling her the time and place, requesting her to be present. She hadn't given an answer -- there was no phone in the house, and she couldn't really send an owl to a Muggle -- but she was going to go. Harry was determined to accompany her. It would be simple enough; he could Apparate her there and back, being an adult, and be there for her all the time.

He did wonder, though, how he would react in a similar situation. Arthur and Molly were now more friends than parents to him, and although losing them would have hurt, it wouldn't have been the same thing. James had been dead for a long time now, and Remus... Remus was hanging between life and death, although Madam Pomfrey was not yet ready to give up hope. If he did die, Harry would be very upset, but at least he'd had time to get used to the thought. Hermione had got no forewarning, no suspicions, nothing. Just a sudden shock and grief.

With a low grumble that in a cat might have been interpreted as a purr, he rubbed his head against her leg. She absentmindedly reached a hand to pet his head. He smelled the salt of tears on her.

Hermione. His poor little Hermione, who was now an orphan.

She wouldn't be alone, though. He would take care of her.

No matter what, he would take care of her.

"Those fucking..."

Several heads were raised, startled, as these words echoed through the room. They had all recognized the voice as Severus', and they were definitely not used to hearing Severus swear. In fact, it was quite unthinkable. If he had resorted to such language, something very serious must have happened.

"What is it, Severus?" Sirius asked, looking at his husband. Severus was holding a letter, one he was glaring at quite angrily. "Bad news?"

"You could say that," muttered the Slytherin. "It is from the Malfoys. They have heard of the Grangers' death, and are now demanding the custody of Hermione!"

Hermione paled. She had only just recovered from the funeral. And, although nobody had dared to mention it, she had feared this news, like all the others. It was only logical that her closest relatives would demand custody. After all, she was still a minor.

Too bad her closest living relatives were Death Eaters.

"They have every right to do that," she said quietly. "All my Muggle relations are distant, and the Ministry would rather give custody to Wizarding folk than to Muggles."

"They have every right to do so, true," sighed Remy. "However, we all know that if you indeed go to the Malfoy Manor, you won't come out unless you're dead or married to some Pureblood Slytherin wife-beater to keep you in line. The Malfoys were quite upset when you took your inheritance; this is the perfect occasion for them to take it back."

"You wouldn't die, that's not Lucius' style," Severus said. "However, the latter scenario is all too likely. I wouldn't put it past Lucius to cast an Imperio on you to force you to marry some suitable young Pureblood wizard. Your father may have been a Muggle, but you are powerful, intelligent, and half Malfoy. Few Pureblood families would protest to having you as a daughter-in-law."

"Isn't there any way out of it?" Samantha asked quietly. "Any way at all?"

Severus, however, shook his head. "I'm afraid no," he said. "We can try to play time, but I doubt we'll get out of this. If we try to hide Hermione, we might even be arrested."

Silence fell into the room.

Harry lay awake late that night, holding Hermione in his arms. Usually Severus and Sirius made sure to keep them in separate bedrooms, but that night they hadn't bothered to do so. Perhaps they intended to give them what little time together they could have before the Malfoys managed to get heir claim through with the Ministry.

He hated thinking that the Malfoys held that much power over the one he loved. True, Hermione would turn seventeen in September, and after that nobody else would have a say in her life. However, there was a lot of damage the Malfoys could do before that.

A plan, however, was starting to take form in Harry's head. It still had a lot of flaws and uncertainties, but with enough work, it might be useful. He definitely hoped it would work, at least.

At the moment, though, he could do little else but hold Hermione.

The letter came the following morning, surprising them all. It was closed with the Malfoy seal, and Hermione almost refused to read it, but finally she did open it. After reading it, she seemed quite stunned.

Remy was the first one to react as she reached out the letter, snatching it from her hand. Glancing at the lines of fine, thin handwriting, he read it aloud. The contents shocked them all.

"Dear Miss Granger," the letter started,

"It has shocked me to hear of the unfortunate demise of your parents. As you probably know, my family, the Malfoys, have demanded the custody -- with rather ill intentions, I fear. However, I assure you that I bear no ill will towards you and would indeed be upset should you be forced to go along with whatever plans have been prepared for you.

I cannot reveal to you who I am, in fear the other two might somehow intercept this owl. However, I do believe I may be able to postpone the action of custody at least until the beginning of the school year. By that time, I hope, you may have managed to form a plan to avoid it altogether.

With best regards,

A Malfoy."

They were first disbelieving, not about to accept this as a truth. However, it had prepared them enough that they were only surprised, not overly shocked, when a letter of somewhat similar content reached them that afternoon. The handwriting and the exact wording were different, but the basic message was the same: There was someone -- or, rather, someones -- inside the Malfoy family who wished to help Hermione.

And, when a couple of days later they received yet another letter from the Ministry, informing them that the Malfoys had chosen not to pursue their claim for custody until the beginning of September, they were only mildly surprised.

A/N: No correct guesses this far, I'm afraid.

Three of the following will NOT happen during this story:
Samantha starts weakening
Remy ensures Samantha will not die of her illness
Samantha is told she only has a year left at best
Sirius sings a love song to Severus in the middle of the Great Hall
Remus is declared a lost case
Neville is in love with a basilisk
A cactus with a flower-patterned sombrero returns to Hogwarts
Hermione gets married
Sirius pulls a prank
Weasley tries to sabotage Remy's potion
A group of commando sheep appears on the roof of Hogwarts
Remy and Samantha's first time
Hermione completes her Animagus transformation on a very inappropriate moment
Severus faces his worst fear
Voldemort is not dead
Remus wakes up
Samantha dies
Remy gets a little sister
Remy gets a little brother
Hermione skips a lesson
The Student-Eating Horrid Monster of Ravenclaw Tower makes a comeback
Severus becomes a Potter again
Carnivorous squirrels cause problems at Hogwarts
Samantha faints in class
Lucius Malfoy isn't really evil
Narcissa Malfoy isn't really evil
Draco Malfoy isn't really evil
Severus almost dies in a Potions accident