Authors note:

I'm sorry that it's taken so long to update. My family has not been immune to the economy, and I've been looking for a part-time job to help supplement, as well as taken up a great deal of work for my husband. I have every intention of finishing this story, and I appreciate everyone who's followed along so far. I want to thank my new friend Carrie, who ever so kindly typed this chapter up for me while on bed rest… you go girl! Also, please give some kudos to my Beta Jamie, who's helped out a lot with this chapter.

A recap: last chapter, Draco and Hermione met the Knights for the first time. The 'trio', Harry, Ron and Hermione destroyed the locket Horcrux, thanks to a letter written by Snape and left for Hermione (the boys don't know that Snape helped them at all), and on their way back, they got caught up in a small battle in Hogsmeade where Hermione was introduced to William Prescott, Head of the Auror department.

And yes, the title of the chapter is a reference to a Heart song!

#31 Even it Up

Hermione was one of the first recruits at breakfast on Monday morning; her injuries might have been visibly healed, but the knitting bones caused a deep ache all night long that prevented restful slumber. She'd finally given up at five that morning and prepared for the day. A few bodies wandered in from time to time as the morning progressed. A soft hoot pulled her away from her meal as several generic, brown delivery owls entered the dining hall to drop mail and newspapers into expectant hands, her own receiving the Daily Prophet.

Surprise Death Eater Raid on Hogsmeade: One Dead, Several Injured

"Damn," she muttered as she read the article. Hermione was pleased that Prescott kept their names out of the article, choosing to refer to the trio of Auror recruits as 'off-duty Aurors'. Still, those in the know would wonder at the vague information.

At the sound of familiar voices, Hermione looked up and greeted the group she'd come to call friends at training, pulling Ally and Sam out of their dialogue at the sound of her voice. Ernie, Draco, Jake, Paul and Nick followed behind the girls in various states of conversation.

"Sweet Merlin, Granger! What happened to you?" Paul exclaimed, asking the question brought to mind when they saw the bruising and scarring on Hermione's face and arm.

"What are you…shit. I forgot about those," Hermione said and then tossed her copy of the Prophet on the table, showing headlines above a picture of the Dark Mark over the streets of Hogsmeade, injured citizens and Aurors moving silently in the scene. "That's what happened."

Ally grabbed the paper first and she gasped as the read the article. "Mother of Merlin. You were there?"

"Not so loud," hissed Hermione, gazing around to make sure no one else was listening.

Ernie snorted in mild disbelief, "There is no mention of you in the article, Hermione."

Draco met Hermione's eyes, his brows quirked in question.

'You just can't stay out of trouble, can you?' his voice spoke in her mind. She gave him a lopsided grin then turned to answer Ernie.

"Not directly, no," Hermione looked pointedly at Ernie. "Prescott didn't want our names to be in the middle of it, although I'm sure the few Death Eaters that weren't captured have already informed ol' Snakeface that Harry and his friends helped thwart their raid this weekend."

"Captured?" asked Nick.

"Mmm, hmm," Hermione nodded and smiled evilly. "At least three top Death Eaters… more if they survived. The Lestranges… Rodolphus gifted me with the Sectumsempra scars on my face, arm and stomach…and McNair won't be participating in any raids for a while."

Hermione noticed that Draco paled, and his knuckles were white as he gripped the side of the table in anger. She'd forgotten that these were people he knew, and in the case of the Lestranges, his blood family. Ally's too, for that matter, although she didn't know them.

'I'm so sorry, Drake, really.' She sent to her partner, who nodded his head in return. His blue eyes locked with hers.

'I'm just glad you weren't hurt any worse,' the whisper of his voice conveyed his concern. 'Are you sure you're ok?'

Hermione nodded and winked, and then her expression turned to a grimace as she rubbed her side. The group rose to make their way to the Defense classroom, Ally slowing a bit to have a private talk with Hermione.

"Are you going to be able to manage The Cage?" Ally asked, concerned for her friend.

"I'll have to," Hermione responded with a shrug and a slight wince of pain in her shoulder. "My shoulder isn't fully healed…but others have been through worse."

"Just so long as you don't end up with a blonde, French bitch for a partner," Ally said quietly so that only Hermione could hear.

"I doubt Remus would allow me to be tortured like that."

The pair laughed as they followed the rest of the large group towards their first session in the cage.

After nearly two hours of watchng the selected pairs enter the cage at fairly regular intervals, Hermione Granger was still waiting her turn. Now that it was down to the final six, all hope that she had avoided being paired with Lisette had been summarily destroyed; she was quite certain that with her luck, she'd be stuck with the prejudiced witch for the exercise. Her only choice now was to continue to gently stretch her healing shoulder while she went over spells in her head and hope for the best.

Finally her name was called by the Head French Auror, Jean-Claude Francois, and she was not at all surprised when it was followed by Lisette's. The blonde gave her a smug look as they proceeded to the cage entrance.

"You have ten minutes to enter The Cage, incapacitate the hostiles and retrieve the hostage. Anything over that time will be assessed as a failing grade."

The wizard leaned in and whispered something to Lisette who nodded and smiled as if she'd just learned a valuable secret. Auror Francois then left the pair in a small vestibule. As Hermione set her watch, she began to assess the inner 'building' as they'd been instructed. Before she was able to use the spell to reveal Dark Marks, a method used by Aurors to identify Death Eaters (or 'hostiles' as they'd been dubbed by the ministry…Gods forbid they actually identified the enemy as who they were), her 'partner' stormed the doors and began firing off spells without much thought. It sounded as if several wizards were within doing battle, and her partner had no back up.

"Fuck! Damn it, Duvalier, you don't even know who's in there!" Hermione growled, moving quickly in an automatic response to the painful scream of her partner from within. "Not even five seconds and the bint got injured."

Shuffling her way in to Lisette in a half-crouched defensive position in order to avoid being hit by the hostiles, Hermione saw the blonde lay stunned on the group, her beautiful face frozen in an expression of overconfident aggression and surprise. It took her a moment to realize that Lisette was felled by her own spell and not one of their opponents'; the large pattern of spell impacts on the opposite wall that abruptly ended at a large mirror sporting a cracked scorch mark. The witch had stunned herself and broken her leg in her fall, judging by the angle of said appendage. It was in the middle of this comprehension that spells began firing their direction from the newly engaged hostiles.

Shooting back in defense, Hermione somehow managed to heal the broken bone, calling on some of her Grey Magic to knit the compound fracture back together. "Enervate"

Blue eyes blinked open rapidly as Lisette turned her head to gauge her situation. Realizing where she was, Lisette stood abruptly, wand in hand, and prepared to engage the hostiles once again. Only this time, Hermione pulled her back harshly.

"Get down!" the brunette hissed. "You don't know where they are, and you're providing a perfect target."

"Get your filthy hands off of me!" the blonde snarled as she tried to rip herself out of Hermione's hands.

"Not until you listen to me, you stupid bitch," Hermione said in a low, threatening voice and increased her grip on Lisette's shoulder, secretly pleased to see the witch wince. "You did things your way and stunned yourself. We do it my way this time! While you were passed out, I took the time to assess the hostiles; there are six total, split between two rooms. The hostage is being kept in a smaller room in the southern corner. You take the room to the right and I'll take the three to the left guarding the hostage, as they will generally be more experienced. If I get to the hostage before you, I'll swing back around to you and we'll all exit The Cage together. If you get there first, get the hostage and make sure I don't need back-up." Looking at her watch, she finished, "We have five minutes left… should be more than enough time…"

She didn't get a chance to finish before Lisette was moving again, shrugging off Hermione's loosening grasp. The brunette hoped that her partner would work with the established plan but knew it was a futile expectation. She followed as close behind her partner as she could, dodging spells while firing off her own, most hitting their target and leaving a look of satisfaction on her face. It soon vanished when she realized the hostiles had shifted and she now had four to deal with on her own. She fired several spells at the hostiles Lisette engaged in the hopes her partner could come to her aid as soon as she was able.

Hermione had little time to regroup before a series of spells were aimed her direction by the hostiles defending the hostage. She threw up a powerful shield and took a defensive position, moving in a low crouch as fast as she dared. In a moment of surprising stillness, she fired off a stunner that made contact and knocked a hostile out of commission. At the same time two disarming hexes hit her in the shoulder, the fierce pain announcing a re-broken collar bone. A growl escaped her lips as she made contact with the opposite wall. From her rear a stunner flew at the hostiles while they were distracted, taking another out. For the first time, Hermione was grateful to see her blonde partner, despite her lack of skills and planning. The brunette pulled herself up and turned fire against the hostiles.

"Got yours?" Hermione asked through gritted teeth.

"Of course," Lisette sneered.

"Let's take these two out, get the hostage, and get the hell out of here," Hermione plotted aloud.

With a curt nod, the pair began their assault, Lisette unwisely taking off in search of the prize – bringing the hostage out 'alive'. A surprised shriek followed by a thud increased Hermione's pace, once again revealing the folly of Lisette's actions as the witch lay stunned on the floor. Tired, fed up with a partner who was not only unskilled but failed to follow proper procedure, and in pain from her reinjured collar bone, Hermione took her anger out on everything around her. She placed an over-powerful 'enervate' on Lisette, putting her back into the battle quickly and then focusing on the room containing the hostage, blasting a hole in the wall. The sudden explosion stopped the hostile assault for a moment, allowing Hermione the chance to take the hostage and catch up with Lisette as she headed for the exit of the cage. Hostile fire forced them to look for cover while defending their position.

Hermione knew two minutes ago they were past the allotted ten minutes and part of her earlier anger stemmed from the knowledge that she would fail something for the first time since she'd been in school (Hermione refused to count her abysmal ability to fly as a failure). Faced with the pending failure of this exercise, she would make sure that the hostage was removed and every hostile incapacitated. With this thought, she placed another shield on the hostage and re-engaged the enemy with a renewed fervor. That her own spells outnumbered Lisette's six to one did not bother her, nor did the knowledge that Hermione herself took out the final two hostiles. Her only concern was to get the hostage out safely. The brunette, hostage safely in her arms, could see the exit clearly when an Incarcerous spell hit her from behind, knocking her to the ground with a disgruntled scream before being silenced. Helpless and unable to speak, Hermione was turned over to peer into the beautiful face of her partner.

"Thank you, so much, for your assistance, Granger. I hope you've earned a greater respect for the superiority of purebloods after this." Lisette's laugh tinkled smugly as she picked up the hostage and exited the cage.

"That bloody, cheating bitch!" snarled Hermione as she freed herself from Lisette's hexes. She stalked out of the cage only to be met with the Head of the French Auror Department, a man lacking both the skill and aptitude of his British counterpart.

"Finally out?" the man sneered at her as if looking upon something revolting, then glanced at the clock on the wall. "Five minutes late Trainee Granger… both you and your partner went beyond the allotted time. Normally you would both fail; however, as I am allowed discretions in grading our trainees, I believe Ms. DuValier will pass as she got the hostage to safety, despite her tardiness. You could learn a lot from Ms. DuValier. She is a fine example of what is expected in our world."

"But she," Hermione began fiercely before Auror Francois used an unknown silencing spell on her.

"It does not matter what you say, girl. No one else is here to dispute the official account," Francois replied haughtily leaving the room. "This world is, and always will be, beyond your league."

Hermione furiously released the silencing spell placed upon her. "What is it with the French and their damned silencing spells?" she growled.

She'd thought she'd experienced racism of a sort growing up with 'Malfoy' and his Slytherin cronies, but to deal with this, here, within a respected institute of her government from people in places of power and influence somewhat unnerved her. For an instant, Hermione Granger doubted herself; doubted her intelligence, her abilities before coming back to reality. For too long she'd put up with this, both at Hogwarts and now at Auror Training. The belittling, the derogatory marks, name calling... all because she was Muggle-born or not as attractive as the other witches perceived themselves to be, but mostly it was because she failed to fight back, preferring to represent her school with honor. Well, honor be damned. She owed Dumbledore nothing. She was sick of being the reliable person, the friend to copy homework from because you knew you'd get a good grade, the old-reliable back-up date, the bookworm; the witch to step on to make yourself feel better. It was time to teach everyone her hidden secret – that this lioness had a bite!

Hermione grabbed her medallion, always worn around her neck, and sent a message to Remus, conveniently forgetting the Magical Law class she was supposed to be attending.

'Where are you?'

The medallion burned fiercely on its recipient shortly before he replied, leaving a mark behind that would scar differently from those left behind by his lupine counterpart.

'My office.'

Within seconds, Remus' door burst open with a surge of magic that pressed him into his chair, and Hermione entered his office. The petite brunette paced the floor fiercely for several minutes, magical energy radiating in all directions around her. He'd been called away with two of the top Aurors (Anna Ferguson and Kingsley Shackelbolt) to attend a meeting with the French and British Ministries of Magic, hoping that the cage trial would go on without incident. Given the nature of her entrance, this was apparently too much to hope for.

During her frantic paces around Remus' office, Hermione tried to gather her thoughts. She cursed Remus for his absence for the Cage trials, and hated that every attempt to file a formal complaint had been thwarted. She had never wanted to call attention to her close relationship with Remus, but now she was forced to. Protocol stated that a 'grievance was filed with the supervisor on sight' and earlier in the day during cage trials, that would have been Auror Frank Jacoby. However, it was apparent that Auror François had somehow managed to be the only Auror to supervise her trial in the Cage, and her basic attempt to complain about her score was met with snide disdain for her heritage. 'If the onsite supervisor was unavailable, the Training Supervisor was to been contacted.' Unfortunately for Hermione, her supervisor, Anna Ferguson, was called away on business. The final step, dictated by Auror Protocol, was the Training Director himself…Remus Lupin. She hated, absolutely hated, the thought of going over so many heads in order to get her grievance heard, but she truly had no other option.

Putting on her best Trainee face, Hermione collected herself and began her formal complaint. "During today's session in the cage, Auror Lupin…" Magic swirled fiercely around the young witch, and Remus could see that she was trying, and failing, to keep a hold on her anger and stay formal. Her anger got the best of her and she burst out, "He failed me, Remus! Francois fucking failed me because his precious, infallible princess had the hostage she STOLE from me! I was late; I failed because of that bitch DuValier! She was late, too!!"

The witch was overwhelmed with anger and Remus knew he'd get little from her until she calmed down, which could take hours. He pulled a small stone basin from a drawer, grabbing her attention immediately.

"Sorry," she whispered painfully, pulling the complete memory from her head and putting it into the pensieve for Remus to view.

Hermione used the time Remus viewed her memory wisely, and calmed herself as much as she could, given the depth of her anger. Using her meditative techniques, she quieted her breathing and focused inward, and redirected her rage into a more useful energy. A speechless Remus stumbled out of the pensieve minutes later, jaw set in anger while his eyes flashed and angry amber.

"Of all the despicably low things…why didn't," Remus mumbled and stopped as if gathering a thought. "Where in the hell were the other Aurors? Including the trainee mentors, there were to be four Aurors overseeing the Cage sessions; Francois was only meant to be a casual observer."

"Moody and Jacoby were there in the beginning, but Francois dismissed Moody early on and stayed until the end. Apparently Jacoby left before I went in." Hermione explained. "You and Ferguson were called away…"

"Leaving that bastard in charge."

"Very convenient if you ask me," she mumbled.

Remus pursed his lips as he rubbed his temples. "The rules clearly state that ANY recruit unable to meet the Cage time requirements will fail the exercise," the wizard's tone was clearly reluctant to admit this fact. "It is also true that instructors may make discretionary changes in grading under extenuating circumstances… I'll need the pensieve."

Hermione nodded, looking a bit bewildered.

"It's your word against Francois', Hermione, as there are no witnesses to testify on your behalf."

"What, you don't expect Lisette to confess to her stunning performance?"

Remus ignored the sarcastic comment, "I'll lodge a formal complaint..."

Hermione interrupted, "I didn't expect you…"

"… and ask some impartial Aurors to take a look at your memory. A student can lodge a formal complaint, and I understand your reluctance for me to get involved, but what choice do you have given I'm the only one available and I just happen to be the final step in the process?" Remus explained, understanding how conflicted she must feel. Still, it wouldn't be prudent to get her hopes up. "I can't make any promises, cub… you were past time even if it wasn't entirely your fault. The best we can hope for is a notation in your records."

"I don't want special treatment, Remus. I just want to be judged fairly," Hermione stated simply.

"Don't we all," muttered Remus. Looking at his watch, he said, "Aren't you missing a class?"

"Too mad," she confessed with a guilty smile, not mentioning the need to stop by the infirmary to re-heal her abused collar bone.

"Go to lunch... you'll need it for defense this afternoon," the elder wizard smiled encouragingly at the young woman.

Hermione nodded in acquiesce, the smile on her face doing little to hide the rage that still floated below the surface of her emotions as she thought about her reunion this afternoon with her 'partner'.

"Damn," murmured Remus as she left his office. He wondered how well Hermione would handle Lisette's presence in defense. Hopefully last week's schedule change would help Hermione relieve some of that lingering anger. The thought made him chuckle and with a devious smile he bellowed into the floo. "Anna!"

The female Auror's face popped into his office, hovering in the flames. "Remus?"

"You might want to stop by Defense this afternoon. It should prove to be…entertaining."

Bewildered by the look on the wizard's face, she nodded and retreated from the flames.

The lunch room was abuzz with conversation, most of which centered on the Cage and stories one witch was telling. No group was more fiercely engaged in conversation than the large group consisting of friends and acquaintances of those involved.

"You can't possibly believe anything that DuValier says is true, especially where Hermione is concerned!" exclaimed Ally, vehemently defending her friend.

"Lisette has not reason to lie," retorted Jean-Pierre hotly.

"Oh, yes, she is quite the powerful witch, isn't she," Ally said sarcastically.

"Look, I'm not that fond of Granger, but I can't deny that next to Drake here, she's the most powerful trainee here," replied Michael Petrov, former teammate of Viktor Krum.

"There's no way Lisette walked out of the cage, let alone with the hostage."

Michael's girlfriend, Juliana spoke, "Michael is right. We've all watched both witches in defense and dueling – Lisette is incapable of besting Granger."

"So, what really happened?" Draco asked rhetorically.

"We don't know until…" Paul began but quit when Nick elbowed him in the ribs upon Hermione's entrance into the lunch room. Conversation screeched to a halt and then swarmed up again to low levels, most of it missed by the newest addition to the room as she strode confidently to the table with her friends.

"Did I miss something?" she asked with a wry smile. When no one responded, her hackles immediately rose with the knowledge that people had been talking about her.

"The Cage," Draco provided, glaring at the others.

"DuValier and her rumors," Ally snarled at the same time.

Hermione was not surprised when as everyone at the table spoke at once, Ally, Drake and Vasha's voices rose against the rest. 'My friends,' she thought to herself.

"Is it true, what Lisette is saying?" Ernie asked quietly, not fully believing it possible but his crush on the blond witch created some loyalty to her.

"If my partner is saying that she was knocked out twice, by her own ignorance, failed to heed standard Auror directives, acted recklessly and hexed her partner from behind…and then leaving her partner to fail while she took all the credit?" Hermione responded curtly, "Sure."

"Bitch!" cursed Ally under her breath as she squeezed Hermione's hand in support.

The group looked stunned.

"What are you going to do about it?" asked Draco

"What can I do? That bloody bastard, Francois, kicked out all of the Aurors meant to attend sessions today… I'm guessing so he could look out for DuValier. They must have had this planned, but I can't figure out why," the last sentence was barely audible but delivered as angrily as the first.

"You cannot be serious," Jean-Pierre said with little conviction; he knew Lisette well and knew the witch would do anything to succeed… and discrediting Hermione Granger had become an obsession.

"Believe what you will, JP," Hermione snapped sharply, the sucked in a breath to calm herself. Exhaling, "You all know me, you know her… I'm leaving it up to you, and the Aurors to decide."

"Or you could settle things in Defense this afternoon," said Paul temptingly.

"What do you mean?"

"Merlin, I keep forgetting you weren't here last week," Ally said at Hermione's confusion. "Lupin changed things around while you were gone, added time at the end of Defense class for airing 'grievances'." The last work was stressed; grey eyes met amber in a moment of understanding.

"I always knew that Defense was my favorite class," Hermione said with a smirk and a vengeful glint in her eyes.

Defense started out with a focus on practical application in battle situations and the class, complacent in the topic, forgot about the earlier exercises in the Cage. So, it took the class by surprise when Remus shifted direction and began dissecting the sessions near the end of class.

"Performances this morning in the Cage were mostly adequate, and the majority of you passed. There were few outstanding performances… Drake and his partner Paul executed the exercise with two minutes to spare. Excellent work, Recruits." The room filled with soft applause. "Ally, your spell work was very… inspired."

A titter of laughter filled the room. Ally winked at her 'uncle' with an expression that reminded him of his late best friend. Remus smiled back.

"Only two pairs failed to pass based on time, and unfortunately, Aurors were only able to observe one of the failed pairs."

A small rumble circled the room, ignored by Remus, who released that tidbit of information to get them thinking. He, too, had heard the rumors that DuValier had been spreading, and they infuriated him. Knowing it was not the time, nor was it his battle, he began going over what went right, and wrong, in the Cage. He was brutally honest with the group, giving praise where it belonged, taking to task those that made crucial mistakes that could have cost a life. The class was humbled and listed to their instructor with rapt attention.

"The potential is there, Recruits, and I expect to see major improvements next week in the cage. That being said, it's your time, time to come forward and challenge a fellow Recruit or instructor. Perhaps settle a bet? Hash out an argument…right a wrong?" Remus suggested, glancing quickly at Hermione and admiring her ability to keep her emotions in check after everything she'd been through. "So, who's up first?"

The room was silent for a moment, then, "I'd like to go first, Auror Lupin," Hermione's voice called out firmly and she stood, proud. "I have a little matter from this morning that needs to be settled."

As Hermione stood, a low murmur rippled through the room – every eye on the young witch, waiting to see if she would actually address the rumors directly. Many in the class had been surprised and appalled to learn that she had somehow failed the Cage course; the witch had demonstrated in short a amount of time that she was far more intelligent and more powerful than most of the Recruits, especially her French partner.

"As you will, Trainee Granger. Call out your opponent."

The petite brunette scanned the room as she approached the dueling area. Silence reigned as the other Recruits waited to see what she would do.

"Rumors are a powerful way to demean and damage another's credibility, as they conveniently ignore facts," Hermione began, bitterness laced her tone. Having been damaged by the sharp pen and vindictive nature of a reporter in the past, the mantra played over and over again in her head: 'Never again. Never again.' Her amber eyes flickered. "I call Trainee DuValier out."

The murmur rose to a rumble as the blonde witch stood, smug smile on her face. Remus backed into a corner, unseen, to observe. He noted Anna's quiet entrance, followed quickly by Kingsley, and acknowledged them with a nod.

The pair of Trainees made there way to the dueling area and took their places.

"Remember, defensive spells only. No Unforgivables, and nothing that could cause irreparable harm or permanent damage," commanded Remus. "Salute! Begin!"

Lisette fired off a succession of spells, none of which landed near Hermione despite the shield cast for her protection. Vowing to use a limited amount of non-verbal and no wandless magic unless she actually needed it (basically, no white-lighter powers), this would be a true test of her abilities dueling learned at the hands of her late Potions Master.

While Lisette was busy firing off more spells and circling her opponent, Hermione quietly cast a tripping jinx and the beautiful witch fell abruptly on her arse. The room chuckled in unison at the sight and Lisette leapt up quickly to hide her embarrassment. She fired off an 'Impedimenta' and 'Expelliarmus' in the hopes of disarming Hermione, yet missed once again.

"I promised myself I'd ignore the rude whispers, the talking behind my back," Hermione said as she kept up the volley of spells. "The talk about me, personally, and I did. But I simply cannot tolerate smears against my friends," she paused to cast a nonverbal 'Incarcerous' before continuing, "my family, or my blood. And then this morning… we could have handled this civilly, professionally, but you chose to spread more stories.

"Expelliarmus," Hermione said quietly and Lisette's wand landed safely in her hand. "As if it were possible for you to best me! Do your little sycophants know that you had to be enervated, twice, due to your own spells? Do they know about your distinct inability to follow simple instructions? Tell me, Lisette, how's the leg? The right one? Any new scars? Something that might have come from, hmm, I don't know… a compound fracture?"

The ferocity in the brunette witch's voice, along with the knowledge of both a scar and a twinge in the leg mentioned, Lisette knew something had happened to her in the Cage, but had no recollection. Bound and wandless, the witch squirmed and glared.

"You're lucky I've got some training in medi-wizardry, or else you'd have lost the leg, and we both would have failed," Hermione said sharply, and the unspoken implication hung in the air. Her display in this duel and her remarks regarding the events in the brought many trainees (and instructors) to a quick understanding – Hermione Granger put her partner's well-being above hers and was failed, despite her obvious advanced abilities. Hermione walked around her opponent in victory.

"I've put up with all you've given me without responding in kind, out of respect for my instructors, my school, and my family, but no more. You're behavior as an Auror affects the wizarding world. What you did today in The Cage was abysmal, Lisette, and clearly showed your inexperience." Hermione threw DuValier's wand back and released the restraints. "Had we been dueling with real enemies, with Death Eaters, the pair of us would be dead. You would be dead."

Hermione turned her back on the now loose, enraged witch. It was a risk, but one that she was willing to take in order to prove both her position and her point. She didn't have to wait long.

Thinking she'd caught the formidable witch off guard, Lisette snarled, "What would you know about Death Eaters?"

Remus saw DuValier telegraph her intentions and yelled out a warning "Hermione!" sharply only moments before several others in the class, including Draco.

Remus noticed the unperturbed expression on Hermione's face and registered her preparation, and thought, 'This is exactly what Hermione wants.'

Before the blonde finished her spells, and while her back was turned, Hermione silently cast an 'Expelliarmus.' The brunette's bitter laughter filled the room. The blonde looked to be in stunned indignation as her wand once again found its place in Hermione's out stretched hand. Hermione turned to the stunned female, adding for dramatic effect, a wandless 'Petrificus Totalus' generating murmurs around the class; even the Aurors were amazed at her display of magic. Her left over rage from the cage bubbled over, and without thinking case a silent 'Levicorpus', hanging the witch up for the entire room to see.

"My first encounter with a Death Eater was inadvertent in my Third year. Then I was at The Qudditch World Cup a few years back when they raided the grounds," Hermione said harshly. "Face to face encounters? In my Fifth year, at the Ministy of Magic. I was sixteen; there were thirteen of them and the six of us. A spell nearly ended my life, but left me with this." She raised her shirt to expose her lower abdomen and the majority of the red-tinged scar left by Dolohov.

"The events in June at Hogwarts are now common knowledge, so I won't go into details." She shot a reassuring glance at Draco, who smiled weakly and appeared paler than normal. "My most recent confrontation with Death Eaters was yesterday afternoon. The odds were a bit better this time, but even so," she shrugged and with a wave of her wand, released the glamour covering her face, revealing a deep bruise and a cut on her head. Pointing to a long scar on her arm and abdomen, she explained, "Dark Curses often leave marks behind."

The brunette circled the levitating witch once again, her captive looking both angry and fearful.

"So, you're right…I know nothing about Death Eaters." Hermione snarled, but managed to compose herself before continuing. "In case you weren't aware, there's a war going on. While you were busy spreading petty gossip and schoolyard bullying, people have been dying for a good cause; good people. People I know, and before too long, it will be people you know, too. The problem with you is that you are over confident and devastatingly under prepared. You don't think of anyone but yourself and you are dreadfully lacking in magical ability…something your Pureblood can't overcome." She turned and looked at the blonde; the room was captivated in her conviction. "You're weak and that makes you dangerous - to your partners, other Aurors, and any innocents involved. I'm sure you'd be better suited to another profession. Perhaps Witch Weekly has an opening."

Hermione wandlessly released the witch from her bonds and lowered her gently to the ground, allowing her wand to venture back to its owner. Back once again turned against her opponent, the petite witch threw back, "I don't know who taught you etiquette but even muggles consider it extremely bad form to attack an opponent from behind."

Remus was at his desk, feet up, leaning back in his chair as he contemplated the fire whiskey in his glass and the events of the day. He was drawn out of his thoughts by a flare of green from the floo and the frustrated, familiar face of William Prescott.

"I'll take one of those and an explanation for these reports," Prescott said roughly putting them on Remus' desk with a thud.

"Good evening Will," Remus responded wearily, conjuring a glass and pouring a good measure for the Head of the Auror Division. He was sure Prescott wanted to know about the results from The Cage, and the grievance Remus filed on Hermione's behalf.

"Perhaps Trainee Granger's memory of The Cage, which she has generously provided in her defense, along with her formal complaint, would be sufficient explanation." Prescott looked at Remus curiously, eyebrows raised in surprise, at what was implied in the werewolf's tone. It made sense when Lupin motioned to the pensieve.

A brief nod and Prescott took possession of the pensieve on Remus' desk. Lupin waited patiently, finishing his drink and pouring another.

"That ruddy fucking bastard. Francois set her up? Did he know how dangerous it was? "Prescott snarled upon leaving the memory. "My best damned prospect, and he pairs her with that…that..," Prescott paused, at a loss for describable words for Lisette DuValier.

Remus broke the tentative silence.

"Forgive me, sir, this group is meant to be the most talented wizarding students Europe has to offer," he began with respectful irritation, "so, how is it that someone of DuValier's caliber earned a spot?"

Prescott peered at Remus sharply, "You know as well as I why the undeserving chit is here, Remus. Being the favorite niece of the French Minister of Magic can get you anywhere you want, no matter the price. We had to allow the witch, whose magical ability barely surpasses that of a squib, to attend training in order to use French Aurory's larger facility."

"It was one request I couldn't deny Albus, Will, you know that." Remus shot back at the elder man's implied frustration. "Harry, Hermione, and Ron cannot be trained together. The risks are too great. The smaller group will work better for Harry, and we can trust Hermione to pass along everything she's learned and then some; she's a brilliant witch."

"Her handling of DuValier was exceptional, Remus, and her display of power," the Head Auror shook his head. "She's a natural leader. If I hadn't witnessed today's events, her actions on Sunday would have been enough. I want her at point. Immediately."

"Will?" Remus questioned, quite protective of his student. "She hasn't even grad…"

"I don't care. We need her." Prescott cut Lupin off. "You know as well as I do, Remus. Push her, get her ready."


"Don't worry about the bloody prick, Remus. I'll take care of him. He'll rue the day he screwed with that witch."

Remus barely gave a curt nod in aggravation before the Auror stepped into the floo, and left his office in silence.

"I hate my job."

The pair stood silent outside their Head Auror's office, unable to quite process the information overheard. An innocent trip to talk to their mentor for some advice gave them a jackpot of knowledge.

"Well, that makes sense," a female voice dead panned, tinged with sarcasm.

"Why didn't she tell us that François was involved?" the male voice snarled.

"Snitching on a Senior Auror is the first step I making a long and successful career, says so in the handbook," this time the sarcasm was fierce.

"Shut it, wench," the male voice replied, slowly fading away as the pair drifted into the darkness. "She's going to love this ikkle tid-bit."

Dinner was an odd affair with rumors still swirling around, despite Hermione's swift and powerful dispatch of Lisette DuValier. The majority of students were unaffected, seated with the witch in question. The peaceful meal was broken up by the commotion of two recruits, cousins, although only one knew of their true relationship. The pair wandered in and seated themselves near Hermione.

"So, anyone figured out how the blonde bimbo managed to qualify for such advanced training?" Ally Black blurted and smiled in a way that made Hermione slightly sad as it reminded her of a fallen friend. "She is the Minister's niece. Ignorant bitch."

"How did you?" Hermione stopped when Ally held up a pair of the Weasley's Extendable Ears. "I thought those were only available in England."

"They are," Draco replied, eyes alight and playful. "I knicked them from your room."

Hermione's eyes narrowed but she couldn't find it in her to be angry at her partner.

"Never mind that," Ernie said sharply. "Details please."

Ally and Draco took turns explaining how they'd ended up at Remus' door, and how they'd accidentally overheard the discussion with the Head of the British Aurors. An unspoken agreement between them kept the more detailed discussion about the petite brunette witch between them, with a promise to consult Hermione later in private.

Hermione's face hardened with each word, "Merlin, that's an awful lot to risk just to separate the three of us! Training with an ill prepared, self-centered witch? Said witch taking the place of a qualified witch or wizard; someone who is needed, valued, in the war? How many lives has that smug prick damned at the whim of a family member?" she snarled.

Others at the table were mildly taken aback at the vehemence in the witch's voice, but Ally and Draco saw it as yet another reason why the young woman was such a powerful leader. Hermione looked not just at immediate impact, but looked at a larger scale. Prescott was right; she was a natural.

The rest of the week settled easily into a routine, despite the shakeup Hermione's dressing down of Lisette caused. The trainees spent several more days in The Cage, and this time Hermione was paired with far more qualified candidates. Her two meetings with Anna were very productive, as well, and the two witches spent their sparring sessions dueling fiercely. Hermione used that time to gently merge her white lighter powers with her magical strength, honing her skills while keeping a low profile.

After their Tuesday meeting, Hermione and Anna animatedly discussed the duel and what could have been more effective. Anna broke their contemplative silence, surprising the younger witch.

"I'm proud of you, Hermione, for the way you handled the situation with DuValier, Francois, and The Cage," the elder Auror admitted. "A lesser witch would have used her skills to enact a different type of revenge."

"Don't think I wasn't tempted, Anna. I nearly lost it in Remus' office," she explained. "Francois left me nowhere to go, at least in his mind. Between Remus and Ally's information about the dueling that afternoon…"

"Every Auror here thinks you are extremely talented and holds you in the highest regard, save Francois," Anna said, "and Prescott has had his eye on you since your escapade in Hogsmeade. The way you handled the situation just proved that Will's interest in you is justified. You handled yourself appropriately, Hermione, no matter how you feel underneath it all. Now, off with you. I know you need to get ready for your date."

Hermione flushed, and sputtered, "Date? What date?"

"I was Simeon's mentor," Anna responded, smiling internally at her student's unease. She sobered, "Be good to him, Hermione. Be honest!"

She slept through breakfast; the previous week and a night out combined to warrant her need for additional slumber. So, when she finally emerged from her room and arrived for lunch she was mauled by Ally.

"Damn it, witch, what time did you get in last night?"

"Shut up, Allegra!" Hermione snarled, and the grey eyed girl froze. The blue-eyed young man seated on the other side of Hermione never veered from his conversation, for that she was pleased. Although she owed him nothing, Hermione still felt terribly conflicted about Draco and somewhat guilty about her date.

Casting a privacy spell, she said, "Sorry, but this was only a first date and Simeon is, in theory, an instructor. I wouldn't want to get him in trouble unnecessarily."

Ally eyed her apprehensively, but seemed to accept her explanation. "Well? How was it? Did he kiss you?"

Hermione couldn't help but smile at her inquisitive friend who reminded her so much, personality wise, of Ginny Weasley.

"Merlin, Ally, I didn't think you'd get so excited over a dinner. As for your questions, we got in about ten or so, and dinner was lovely. And ladies do not kiss and tell."

"You prude, Granger!" Ally laughed, "That good?"

"Best I've had so far," Hermione admitted, flushing a bit. "The boy is talented."

"I knew it! I knew he was hot for you!" Ally squealed.

"He asked me to the mixer, but I declined," Hermione began.

"What? Why?"

"You know my parents are muggles," Hermione started, and Ally nodded. "My dad has cancer, Al. Terminal. Remus worked it out with Prescott that I could be at home while my dad has another dose of chemotherapy and I can work with the Auror training there so I didn't miss anytime."

"Oh Mi," breathed her friends, with tears in her grey eyes. "I'm so sorry. How much time?"

"A year at the most." Hermione said, adding, as though it were an afterthought, "Ain't life a bitch?"

Somehow, Ally managed a chuckle through her tears, thinking bittersweet memories of her own father.

"Ain't it just."

After his training session with his mentor, Remus, Draco wandered the halls, lost in thought, until yet another conversation about Hermione stopped him.

"Coffee? And dinner?" a voice asked sharply. "You best not be playing with the lass."

"Playing? You know me better than that, Olly!" another voice started indignantly. "She's an attractive piece, I'll give you that, but I really like Hermione."

"I won't apologize for looking out for her, Sim. I've know the lass since she was eleven, and she's like a sister to me. I'm honor bound by our house, and our mutual friendships to look after the witch…I certainly don't need Ron Weasley or Harry Potter asking why I didn't look after her," Oliver paused. "Hermione deserves to be respected and treated well, Simeon."

Simeon nodded, understanding Oliver's intent, "She's safe with me. I asked her to the mixer but she needs to be with her dying father."

"Aye?" Olive asked as this news unfamiliar. After a nod from his companion, Oliver lowered his head in respect. "Gently, then."

Draco stalked away from the conversation, fuming. Hermione not only had a date with the Qudditch star, the witch conveniently forgot to tell him about it. In truth, they were merely friends and she owed him no explanation but he couldn't help but feel hurt. As he did when frustrated or angry, Draco grabbed his broom from his dormitory and headed to the makeshift pitch on campus.

The rest of the weekend passed quickly, and the trainees soon found themselves back in class Monday morning. Hermione happily found this Monday to be far better that the past Monday until Remus announced a slight change to the schedule for the week: Flying. That announcement alone had the young witch in a panic, but it was Remus' next statement that left her even more uneasy than the thought of being on a broom.

"The Ministry felt, and the Aurors agreed, that defensive flying was best taught by those with both experience and exceptional ability." The werewolf shot an apologetic glance at Hermione, whose stomach instantly clenched with dread. "So, in addition to our staff of Aurors, I'd like to introduce Viktor Krum, who will be joining us for the three days of defensive flight training."

The Bulgarian strode arrogantly in the room, giving a polite nod to the group as he looked them over, nearly stopping when he came to the face of his former girlfriend. Swallowing his anger, Krum took his place with the other instructors, vowing to talk to the witch as soon as possible. He got his chance after lunch, grabbing the witch's arm as she left the lunch room. Hermione turned around, face startled, but happy until she saw who held her and instantly she ripped her arm from his grasp, her lovely face pinching in annoyance.

"Let me go, Viktor!" she hissed.

"What are you doing here?" Viktor snarled. "I specifically forbade you from participating in this fight, Hermione!"

"Ah yes, the conditions of the most romantic proposal a witch could ever hope for. Perhaps if I'd agreed to marry your cheating arse, this one might have applied," Hermione responded tartly, yet in a subdued voice, ever aware of their location just outside of the lunch room.

Her quietly defensive attitude only seemed to further fuel his anger and the seeker grabbed her wrist tightly and pulled her to him, "You will obey me, witch!" Viktor bellowed, voice echoing off the walls. Hermione groaned inwardly as she heard frantic footsteps coming in their direction.

"You fucking, asshole," she seethed, ignoring the arrival of half of her trainee class at the door, lead by Simeon, Oliver and Draco with Remus bringing up the rear.

"You don't own me! I was merely a possession to you; something to flaunt, and lock away when you were done playing." She held her wand under Krum with enough pressure to make Viktor wince. "This is my world, Viktor, and I am no one's pawn!"

Krum moved to lunge at her when he noticed a dozen wands pointed at him and a fellow Qudditch player stepping in between himself and Hermione.

"Take your hands off her, Krum," Simeon Weston's usually kind and vivacious voice commanded.

Viktor looked at Simeon's placement, and understood that the wizard felt he was protecting 'his' witch.

"Weston? That's quite a step down, isn't it, Hermione?" Viktor shot out.

"He's certainly no Elodie, Viktor, but, then again, I'm steps above you, love" Hermione responded. Before the altercation could get any further, Remus stepped in.

"What's going on here? Mr. Krum, let go of Trainee Granger," Remus commanded.

Hermione slapped Viktor's arm away, delivering a strong blow, and said, "Just a slight disagreement about flying techniques, Auror Lupin, nothing more." She glanced at the Bulgarian, a cold gleam in her eyes.

Remus looked between the formerly fighting pair and saw that whatever trouble between them had not been alleviated with this scuffle. A further understanding of their past relationship confirmed his earlier reluctance to have Krum here. Knowing they needed to sort this out another time, he replied, "Don't be late to your next class."

The group moved, but Ally grabbed Hermione's arm and pulled her in close. "Lover's quarrel?" Hermione snarl was answer enough. "So the rags were right about that?"

"One of the few things written about me that was."

"Flying this afternoon should be exciting," Ally stated dryly.

"You have no idea," mumbled Hermione under her breath.

"No, no, no! Loosen up Granger! You look like you have a wand shoved up your arse when you fly," Alistair Moody bellowed at the young trainee and a flood of laughter grew around the pitch.

"Fuck off, Moody!" Hermione snarled to herself, unable to deny his assessment of her flying.

No matter how hard she tried, Hermione Granger was unable to execute even basic maneuvers with the undeniable ease of her fellow students. She was stiff and stilted on a broom, current stresses and past experiences working double against her.

"All right, you lot, in for dinner," Moody called out.

She stumbled as she hit the ground, dismounting the broom with her fellow students in a black mood. Flying was a blight on her educational career, the one area where she failed to excel, and no amount of studying or reading would change that - it was clear to the witch that flying was innate and not learned. And for Hermione, this was one particular subject she'd had a hard time feeling connected to in a positive light.

Dinner passed quietly with Hermione quietly fuming; her confrontation with Viktor and her inability to manage a broom combined to fuel her fire. Draco stayed away from her, which was frustrating as she really could have used a friend. In fact, most avoided her, so she headed to Anna's sparring room, and set up the sparing golems on a high level. For the next two hours, she battled the charmed hostiles until her mind and body were weary and sweat poured from her form. A quick shower in her rooms and a change of clothes later found Hermione lounging alone watching Pride and Prejudice, the miniseries. A knock on the door broke her stupor, and she was surprised to see the open, friendly face of Ally Black.

"I didn't expect to see you hiding out," the sentence came across as half statement, half tease, but still managed to raise Hermione's ire.

"I'm not the best company, Black, so say what you came to say and leave."

The cold breeze of her friends' statement hit her, but Ally was not deterred. "Merlin, Granger. Get up off your ass and stop wallowing!"

"I am not wallowing!" Hermione shot back viciously, while attempting to catch the broom thrown at her, "What the hell?"

"Don't you dare damage that broom, Hermione Granger! That's a Firebolt and it was a gift from my father," Ally threatened quietly and the words were not lost on the young brunette witch. "Before you start, Mi, just give me a chance."

Hermione nodded, and reluctantly followed Ally to the pitch, now carrying the firebolt reverently in honor of Sirius Black. Once they were clear of the building and other students, Ally cast several spells which made Hermione immediately uncomfortable.

"Relax, Mi…these are privacy wards."

Hermione let out the great burst of air she hadn't been aware she was holding in. There was silence between the pair, which Ally broke before it became awkward.

"A friend of mine, a half blood named Starr, feared flying during her first year at Salem. She would get on the broom and could fly, but she was stiff, and refused to fly much higher than several stories, much like you…very resistant to flying in general." Ally was stopped by the glare of her friend but continued, "The next year, Starr actually passed flying, and she tried out for the Qudditch team, as a beater, and made the house team."

"Get to the point, Ally," Hermione snarled, not enjoying the reminder of her failure in this one subject.

"She was scared, Hermione… scared of heights, and it took the mutual love of Quidditch between her and her father, and her mother's background in Muggle psychology to help her overcome that fear enough to be confident enough to fly."

"What do you want me to say, Ally?" Hermione threw back. "I'm not good at flying, never have been and never will be."

There was silence between the two witches: uneasy for Hermione as she contemplated, and expectant for Ally, who was sure she'd hit at the core of Hermione's issue. She knew the petite witch was aggressive and not accustomed to failure; the inability to conquer flying ate at her. It was Ally's hope that the desire to succeed would overcome the deep rooted issues at the heart of her friend's problems. It was time to take a calculated risk. Ally prayed to Merlin it was the right choice.

"Perhaps you're just not as strong as I thought you were, not the witch I expected you to be. Dad said you were a strong witch, never backing down from a challenge…I guess he was wrong."

The deep quiet between them was palpable, and the exceptionally cold look Hermione gave her nearly caused Ally to question the decision she made…did the air actually drop in temperature? Thinking that she'd made a monumental error, Ally planned on retreating when she was stopped by a soft voice.

"I was four, and we, my family and I, were visiting my dad's Navy mate over the summer hols." Hermione took another moment to gather her thought and emotions. The anger coursed through her over Ally's confrontation grew for a moment, but the rational part of Hermione realized the care and thoughtfulness in the gesture. Ally had done this privately and knew her well enough to push the buttons that would force her to react. The cold façade vanished, replaced by a friendly face covering her protective shield. "His son was a bully to me and to his own sibling. The three of us and a friend played in the third story attic…and like on many other occasions, past and present, I ended up being the focus. The boy, Carl, blind-folded and hung each boy from the rafters in the attic to be teased and tormented; I wanted to leave, but they forced me into staying. When it was my turn, they…"

Ally waited patiently for Hermione to continue the story, taking in the petite witch's rigid posture and labored breathing. When she began again, Hermione's voice was rough but strong.

"They hung me up and teased me, just like the other boys. I squirmed and tried to get away. Just when I thought it was over, they pulled the blindfold off. Carl started laughing as I screamed and struggled harder once I realized I was no longer in the attic. Instead, I was hanging from a small balcony, three storeys (I can't remember if you mentioned anything about wanting me to use British or American spellings.) above the ground. I was so afraid, whipping my body back and forth, trying to get down. I didn't realize my struggling was putting me in a very precarious position on the hook off the balcony. Carl didn't seem to notice anything, or if he did, he just didn't care; he continued to ridicule me when I cried. Fortunately, Carl's younger brother did notice and he tried to help stop the inevitable but it was too late…I slid off of the hook and fell to the ground. I broke most of the bones on the left side. Looking back, I think I probably cast some sort of accidental spell that slowed me down before I hit the ground – the fall should have killed me. After that accident, I became petrified of heights. My father couldn't even get me near the tree house he'd built for me and I loved that little house. It took years before I would actually go back in it, and even then, I had to force myself, for my dad. I merely tolerate lower heights these days, more to keep people from hounding me about it."

Ally was shocked that such a traumatic event triggered Hermione's fear and, more so, that it was a deeply rooted and powerful phobia, which stemmed from an actual event. Still, she had to try and help her friend. An idea sparked in her mind, and Ally thanked her own part-muggle heritage and her father's enjoyment of anything dangerously exciting.

"Hermione, have you ever ridden a rollercoaster?" Hermione's stressed expression turned to one of surprise.

"Of course. I love rollercoasters!"

'Thank Merlin!' thought Ally, with more hope. "Really? What part appeals to you?"

"Appeals to me? Gods, I don't know," Hermione replied thoughtfully. Then her face became animated and slightly flushed. "The speed and I love the adrenaline rush; the way your stomach just bottoms out as you take that first big drop. The anticipation. The feeling of being slightly out of control, but secure all the same."

'Yes!!' Ally internally smirked and imagined pumping her fist in the air in triumph. "You like the drop, despite the necessary altitude it requires? Don't you think it's dangerous?"

"Oh, don't get me wrong, I struggle the whole time I'm on the ride, but the exhilaration of it seems to override the fear. Plus have you seen the accident statistics on rollercoaster's? Accidents are very rare," Hermione reported proudly.

"You know what I love about playing Quidditch?" Ally asked, and Hermione was momentarily confused at the abrupt change of topic, giving her friend a quizzical look. "The feeling of being slightly out of control, being able to accelerate and the dive, a buzz of excitement in my stomach, my heart racing. All this, and knowing all the while I'm in control. That even if I make a mistake, which is rare, there are special charms built in my broom to keep me from falling. Sound like anything familiar

Hermione's eyes grew big, having never thought of flying in these terms. From the beginning, the thought of flying made her cringe in fear and watching Neville fall in their first year didn't help at all to encourage her to try. It wasn't surprising her friends didn't think of the parallel between flying and rollercoaster's with Harry's relatives and Ron being a pure blooded wizard. Putting flying in this perspective, however, changed things a bit, and Hermione knew enough about Quidditch to understand the similarities. The ability to master flying had weighed heavily on Hermione and, while she'd never admitted it out loud, it made her feel somewhat less of a witch that she couldn't manage this basic wizarding skill.

"Do all brooms have these charms?" Hermione asked, fear still present, but with a renewed excitement. "Even racing brooms?"

"Yes, although you have to ask for them to be activated on racing brooms, otherwise, the stability and anti-falling charms are standard. You can even pay for additional charms or apply them yourself." Ally confirmed. 'Gotcha.'

"Well, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give it a try again, since we're here and all," the petite witch said, taking a hold of Ally's broom.

"Of course," was the response. Ally didn't want anything to fracture the fragile thread of confidence Hermione was showing.

Hermione closed her eyes and took a deep breath before opening her eyes and mounting the broom forcefully. It took only moments for her posture to become rigid and the fear crept back into her eyes as she gained altitude.

"Don't think about where you are; focus on what you can do! Remember the charms on you – focus on the magic around the broom."

"I can't," Hermione ground out through gritted teeth. "I don't feel anything, I'm getting down."

"No you aren't Granger! You drove my father crazy with your focus and drive – your single mindedness. You aren't quitting!" Ally yelled in exasperation. "You need to relax and feel the magic. You meditate, Hermione, I've seen you. This should be easy for you!"

Hermione snapped her head towards Ally, surprised that her friend knew about her daily ablations and then realized that she was right.

"Why didn't I think of that?" Hermione muttered, bracing herself to hovering.

She closed her eyes and centered herself and her magic. Within seconds Hermione felt the familiar warmth of her magic and the magic of the earth surrounding her like a favorite sweater, enclosing her perfectly. She could pick out small unknown threads of magic, muted colors woven in to the magical fabric of life. 'The broom charms' she thought to herself, and noted the strength within each thread. Ally was right in her knowledge of the spells on the broom, even in the suggestion that additional magic could be added to the broom – a vibrant silvery blue thread stood out from the other threads, signifying a more personal type of protection charm. The additional spell was made by someone powerful, and Hermione got the impression that if it was a direct family member; it made perfect sense to believe that it was placed by Sirius.

She didn't know why, but Hermione suddenly felt even more secure on the broom. Even her heart pounding in her chest beat a new rhythm that mingled fear with anticipation. Perhaps it was having a visual confirmation of the various protection spells that made a difference, she wasn't sure. Eyes still closed, the brunette slowly maneuvered the broom a bit higher rolling through basic flying drills like figure eights and large circles. Ally watched her friend perform fundamental exercises with reservation, but she could tell that Hermione was much more relaxed. As the broom sped up, Hermione's eyes opened, a determined look on her face, repeating the elements once again, and adding the more difficult turns she had problems with earlier in the day. Unlike her earlier results, she performed them competently, albeit lacking the finesse and skill of a more competent flyer. Regardless, Hermione's success was evident. Ally was rewarded with a blur of brunette curls hopping from her broom, only to barrel into her and knock her to the ground. The diminutive witch held onto the taller woman silently as if gathering her thoughts. Finally, Hermione pulled back and peered at her friend with watery, amber eyes.

"Thank you…you have no idea…"Hermione took a breath.

Ally stopped her before she had to continue. "You help me with Potions, I'll let you borrow my broom and help you become a better flyer."


After a short defensive session, a quick run and a hour of flying with Ally, Hermione and Draco, apparated to Castle Lux Lucis for their next week of training with the Knights on Saturday afternoon as planned. Dinner was a tension filled event, with Gwydion huffing away in frustration after failing to get Draco involved in conversation. The blonde didn't take her mild reprimand well and stalked off leaving the witch alone to ponder his behavior. Even after a relaxing soak in the springs in the courtyard joined midway by the object of her musing. Meditation and a thorough massage by Apple were not enough to get him out of her mind. She didn't understand his sudden retreat from her, the new coldness that radiated from his being. They'd been doing so well, studying, training, and watching movies in their room in Paris, Draco's current attitude stunned, even hurt her.

At breakfast, the divide between them becoming more evident, Hermione and Draco listened as Gwydion began a lecture.

"Modern wizards travel by apparition, floo, and for longer distances, port keys. Few give much thought to the origin to these methods, and I understand that little is documented in regards to early magical travel. Early wizards used apparition to move from place to place within short distances. In order to travel to another country, or over great distances, muggle means were used. As you can imagine, they weren't well received, but that was all that was available," he paused. "My Lord Merlin made a discovery, while pouring over ancient Egyptian magical texts, which changed the way our world traveled. The Egyptians, with their magic deeply rooted in the elements, learned that there were many areas within their land where the elemental magic was strong. Most cities were located on these points. There also appeared to be an area greatly concentrated with magic; small, protected areas where shrine upon shrine was built. It was not written how it happened, but the Egyptians found that this area of magic, they called a portal, could transport them to other areas of similar magical concentration around the earth."

The locations of these portals were kept secret by the Egyptian priests, and as the country changed, the information was lost, until Merlin uncovered it. After visiting them, Merlin learned that the portals had been recognized as something special due to an extremely powerful magical signature and each portal had some type of foundation erected around it. After some time, all 11 were identified and refurbished to their original form."

Gwydion took a drink of his tea, and prepared himself for information he was about to impart upon his charges; the knowledge that will change their training from the point forward…and would unknowingly change the lives of 3 people for the better.

"I'm sure you've felt the concentration of magic in the Castle, so it won't be much of a surprise that one of the portals resides within these walls. Early Knights and Guardians trained here, as you are well aware, and it was here that the portal's second use was discovered."

This entire conversation had Hermione's attention as the idea of the portal gave her a feeling of something familiar…a tickle in the back of her mind that she just couldn't reach. She waited patiently for Gwydion to finish his lecture, certain that the tickle would be satisfied.

"The original castle was a far more open structure than the one you see today. The practice arena was a large open area with the portal in the back. At the time, only those well versed in elemental magic were able to travel though it, so all were familiar with the facility. There were cases of trainees falling into the portal and, no matter what was tried, they were unable to be returned, until a young trainee, grieving his grandfather, stepped in to the portal and never reached his destination. The young man stumbled through the portal some time later to the surprise of everyone present, as he had been gone 2 days and was thought to be lost forever. Imagine our shock to learn he'd found his recently deceased grandfather and was thus introduced to family members, ancestors, who'd welcomed the dead man upon his arrival in the afterlife."

"Sweet Circe," Draco breathed, over whelmed by this recent revelation.

Hermione said after a moment, "My Lord, how did the young man return? You said all who previously fell into the portal never returned."

The story Gwydion told was far too similar to what happened with Sirius. Was he truly still alive and stuck? Could he still be saved?

Gwydion raised an elegant brow to the brunette, "Determination and focus on his destination…much like apparation. And now, as to how this tale is relevant."

Gwydion rose from the table and with his hand beckoned them to follow him out into the hallway that revealed itself at his request. The hall opened up into a larger room, occupied by seven men donning rich velvet robes of black, maroon, and green, the symbol of the white-lighters shone brightly on the left side of their hearts.

"Laeana, Draconis…welcome to the chamber of the Knights."

The days following their introduction to the chamber had been the most physically demanding and mentally draining. Between the sessions with the elders focusing on elemental spells and magical control, and their twice daily sparring left the pair so exhausted they collapsed into bed each night without dreaming. The lack of physical energy was annoying, but Hermione and Draco worked through it admirably until their sessions with Merlin himself. The venerable wizard worked with the pair morning and night, first and last thing every day, working to help them connect mentally. Their first an only successful attempt at their mental connection occurred on Sunday morning; so strong was the connection that the very foundation of Moena Lux Lucis trembled slightly under the overwhelming magic the pair produced.

Unfortunately, that was the only time they were able to complete the connection, and by early Thursday evening the tension between Hermione and Draco was nearly unbearable. The elder Knights were even bickering amongst themselves, disagreeing about having a witch as a White-Lighter. Another failed attempt was one too many for Artreus, who had been openly against the witch's presence.

"Gods Above, witch! CONCENTRATE!" the Knight bellowed. "Even that fool, Rasputin, managed this task in a day, and he was practically a squib. 'She's bright,' they said, 'Smartest witch in decades,', and yet she can't even manage this! I told you that a witch cannot be a competent White-Lighter! They will FAIL!"

Hermione appeared angry and embarrassed at his outburst, ashen face high-lighting her red cheeks and dark circles under her eyes. Draco couldn't help but feel sorry for her obvious fatigue and current mortification. Her shoulders slumped sadly.

"So you just assume it is her fault they cannot complete this task? She failed because she is female?" Gwydion came to her defense as several other Knights nodded.

"ENOUGH!" Merlin's booming voice echoed through the training chamber. A nod from Gwydion and he continued, "Knights, you may leave the chambers as I will see the White-Lighter's departure."

The grumbling continued as the Knights left the rooms, Hermione and Draco standing in stunned silence at their untimely dismissal.

"My Lord.." Hermione began in defense but was waved off by the elder mage.

"Laeana, although I do not share Artreus' opinion about witches being White-Lighters, few Knights do, he is correct regarding the consequences of not perfecting this task… you will fail." If it were possible, Hermione's shoulders dipped even lower. "You have much to work on… take this time to meditate. That which is unresolved must have a solution. Think on this."

Merlin gave Hermione a soft buss on the forehead and sent her away, Draco turned to follow.


The blonde turned at Merlin's quiet entreaty.

"Voldemort has been engaging in magic that he knows nothing about, that he has no right to touch. It will take more than a simple spell to destroy him. Your combined magics hold the key to victory for the Son of the Stag. You must accomplish the connection."

Draco heard Merlin's words, but they doesn't really sink in as he contemplates what he's going to do with Hermione and the tension that continues to grow between them. The mental connection was supposed to increase their combined power, yet he every time to make the connection, he couldn't help but fight it. He felt so conflicted when it came to the witch. Part of him was happy that the, not relationship, but that, feeling that was developing between them back before school ended had appeared to be long gone. He thought that life would be easier if their budding attraction ended, but it only seemed to make things worse. Being her friend was next to impossible, not when she was dating that git Weston. And distancing himself kept them from making any headway in their mental connection.

Draco's distraction was exactly why Merlin felt the pair needed to leave the castle and resolve tension growing between them. The mage could see the potential between the wizard and witch, and knew the combined magic would be the most powerful the wizarding world had seen in centuries… Laena had the potential to be nearly as powerful as Merlin himself. They fought their feeling too much, and this needed to change.

"You have conflict within, Draconis, and your heart suffers greatly. Your soul suffers. Laeana is not much better, but her quiet resolve has allowed her to move forward somewhat." Merlin spoke softly to the young wizard. "This cannot go on, if you are to succeed.

Laeana is a witch who many would call 'old fashioned', Draconis, as you are probably well aware. She is also a witch who loves totally and without reserve. So strong is her heart that she would willingly sacrifice her happiness if she thought it was the right thing to do. A wizard would be a fool to walk away from such devotion.

Think on that."