Saving a Death Eater
Author's Notes: Standard disclaimers and thanks may be found in chapter one. I know it's been a long time since I've updated, and I'm afraid my only excuse is that I got distracted by real life, by original fic, and by other stories. This is the penultimate chapter in my tale, and I already have an outline and a very, very rough draft of the seventh chapter.
My thanks, once again, to Subversa and Annie Talbot for stepping in with beta reading.
I do hope you enjoy.
Chapter Six: The Sun Sets
They almost slept through Tuesday.
At dusk, a familiar corporeal lynx delivered its message about their meeting at Gringotts.
Hermione glanced at the clock, leapt from her bed, and scrambled into jeans and a clean shirt. "Harry, wake up! We have to go shopping," she shouted while shoving her feet into filthy, too worn trainers.
"Hermione?" Harry staggered into the doorway of the guest room, the floral wallpaper an incongruous backdrop for his rumpled self.
"We've practically wasted an entire day. Hurry or we'll miss dinner."
She had said the magic word: dinner.
Within five minutes, they were exiting the front door of the Grangers' home, resetting the protection spells as they left.
Fortunately, commerce in the Muggle world catered to a community who routinely stretched their daylight productivity into the arms of a new day.
Apparition made it easy to reach Harrods with time to spare.
Harry's eyes widened at the opulence of the storefront. "A little bright, don't you think?"
She tugged on his arm, leading him into the store.
Harry kept looking over his shoulder as they passed gaudy and lavish displays.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Are we being followed?"
Hermione stopped so suddenly Harry bumped into her.
A fashionably dressed woman crossing the aisle wobbled on her stilettos to avoid crashing into them. Her expression reminded Hermione strongly of Narcissa Malfoy as she had been at the World Quidditch Cup almost four years before.
"Sorry, Harry, but I want to get to the restaurant before it closes, and it's upstairs."
She tugged on his arm again. "The escalator's this way."
"So, what's for dinner?"
"It's useless to try the steak house or any of the continental restaurants. You have to book those in advance. I thought we might have pizza."
They queued up for the escalator just in front of a mother and daughter who were clearly having a day out together.
"Brilliant. It's been—" Harry blinked in thought, "—a long time."
As they strode off the escalator, Hermione smiled. "We'll shop for clothes after."
The mother-daughter team giggled at Harry's expression as they went their separate way.
"But, Hermione," he said, pulling her close, his hand gesturing, "how will we pay for all of this? I don't have—"
"It's the reason we're here. I have a card."
"A credit card, Harry. I'll explain later. Just for now, though, it's all right."
She beamed at him and turned right. They passed the travel goods and luggage display to their left, and Hermione nodded significantly at Harry.
"We'll stop there later. Right now … ah … here we are, right next to The Tea Room." Already her mouth watered for the melty, cheesy goodness of Napoli inspired cuisine.
As they entered The Pizzeria Harry inhaled deeply. "I love pizza."
Hermione led him to the only two open stools at the bar.
Their luck held for the rest of the evening.
Hermione flinched as sunlight speared through the curtains of her bedroom window, awakening her from her first nightmare-free sleep in many months. Rolling over and turning her back to the window, she rubbed her face as if erasing the last gossamer filaments of dreamland.
The aroma of crisping bacon permeated her room.
Harry's up, she thought as she threw off the duvet and climbed from her childhood bed. The room's solid maple furniture and little girl linens made nary an impression on her; her mind busy compiling the list of people and places she and Harry would visit that day.
She grabbed the pale yellow cardigan draped over the back of her desk chair before padding downstairs where she found Harry cooking a proper fry-up in the kitchen. He, too, was barefoot, and his tousled hair belied the fact he'd been awake for at least an hour.
His easy familiarity with her Muggle kitchen was a sharp, visual reminder of how his blood relatives had mistreated him. Hermione had known Harry's treated him poorly, but she hadn't learnt the breadth of his family's abuse until Ron had abandoned his friends.
The Dursleys had been a convenient target for her anger, and she had plans – color coded and diagrammed – for retribution. Harry had shrugged it off as insignificant in the face of their desperate need to seek and destroy the Horcruxes while remaining in hiding. As she had done so frequently in the past seven years, Hermione had followed his lead.
That morning, however, with golden sunlight frosting his messy black hair, and the memory of his innocent enthusiasm at Harrods, the reality of Harry's early life pierced Hermione's awareness as surely as a Diffindo could slice through human tissue.
Her throat seemed tight. "Harry."
He turned from the cooktop, tongs expertly held in one hand, his welcoming smile faltering when he caught sight of her expression. He took one step toward her. "Hermione?"
"Sorry," she said, waving him off. "It's just… I've never—"
"You've seen me cook before." He was clearly bewildered by her reaction.
"I know." She shrugged, unable to find the words to express her thoughts, but discovered a smile for him instead.
Grease spattered and sparked from the pan, and Harry hissed. Nodding at the pan, he said, "Let me get this sorted."
"I'll set the table." Before grabbing the cutlery, she opened the refrigerator she had charmed to keep cool, and surveyed their recent purchases. "Cranberry or orange?"
"Orange," he answered, lifting two rashers of bacon from the pan. "Scrambled or fried?"
"Scrambled." In the cozy breakfast alcove, she opened cupboards and drawers, selecting two plates, glasses, and sets of flatware. She carried her bounty to the round table where she had eaten since being a toddler.
For a moment, she smoothed her fingers across the no longer dust-covered cherry wood surface.
This was the heart of her home.
It had never bothered Monica Granger that she was merely a serviceable cook. What had been important was the family who participated in meal times, lazy Sunday mornings reading the Times and The Daily Prophet, or simply keeping one another company as they waited for take away delivery to arrive.
Hermione suddenly felt like weeping.
"Hey." Harry stepped behind her, wrapped his arms around her waist, hugging her tightly.
"Hey," she replied. Her chin quivered.
"It'll be all right."
"Hermione, you helped me survive Tom Riddle. Finding your parents will be a doddle in comparison."
"I'm not even sure where to begin."
"We'll think of something."
Harry stepped back, turning her to face him. "Absolutely," he said. His eyes shone clear and bright, and utterly convincing. "Do we have to go over this again? You're not generally a slow starter."
Hermione sniffed wetly. "No. I'm just – it's – thank you. The idea of searching for them is … rather daunting."
He nudged her with his elbow. "Yeah. A bit, but we'll manage. You'll see."
"No problem." When his stomach growled, he asked, "Aren't you hungry?"
Having an abundance of food had been something of a rarity in recent months. Despite having pizza the night before, the two friends ate eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes and toast with eager, gustatory delight.
Afterward, while Harry showered and dressed for the day, Hermione tidied up.
"Ready?" he asked, stepping into the room, dressed in the black trousers and crisp white shirt they'd purchased at Harrods.
She looked at her too-small yellow cardigan pulled over an overlarge t-shirt and her bare, knobby knees below. She fingered her wild hair and giggled. "Not likely."
Harry's answering grin faded as he noticed the faint glimmer of Snape's memory strands wrapped snugly around Hermione's ankle. "What's that?" He pointed to the silvery cuff. "It looks like … but it can't … can it?"
"Uh … er …."
"I promised I'd never lie to you."
Hermione bit her lip. "I don't know how it happened, but you're right. They're exactly what you think they are."
His eyes widened until they looked like polished emerald cabochons. "You watched them? Them? As in more than one? How is that even possible? Wait! When did you see them?"
"It was an accident." She fidgeted nervously. "I fell in Professor McGonagall's tub."
"The tub?" He frowned. "It's not supposed to work like that. Is it?"
"I don't know, Harry. It just did." Her chin came up. "It's not as if I've had much time to research the phenomenon."
He managed to look sheepish and determined at the same time. "Still. It could've been dangerous. What if you'd drowned?"
"That's why I kept my leg propped on the side of the ruddy pool they call a tub!" she said heatedly, but then she flushed. "It's why I fell. I was rinsing my hair and lost my balance." Harry suddenly laughed, and Hermione huffed. "Honestly!"
"Talk about arse over elbows," he said.
She pursed her lips; nonetheless, they quirked in amusement. "It probably looked hilarious, but it was a rather odd experience."
"I imagine. It's bizarre enough when you're – Bloody Hell! You were naked—"
"It was quite embarrassing." Her cheeks flushed at the memory. "At first, I hid behind things until I realized no one could see me. That's when I understood what was happening."
Harry shuddered. "It must've been completely mad. Wait. You didn't say whose memories they are? And how'd you get them?"
"Honestly, Harry. Whose do you think they are?"
His jaw dropped, and he whispered, "Snape? They're Snape's?"
Hermione nodded, her hair bouncing around her face with the movement of her head.
"I thought we got them all."
"I really don't know much about the way memory transfers, so I can't really say."
"You're going to tell me what you saw?"
The question was practically a demand, and Hermione fingered the hem of her cardigan before answering. "No, actually."
"No?" His jaw set stubbornly before he asked, "Why not?"
"For the same reason you haven't told me everything you saw." It was Harry's turn to flush, and then she delivered the coup de gras. "It's an invasion of his privacy. And like you, I won't betray him that way."
He nodded. "It's bad enough I used the information to taunt Vol—er – that evil dead guy."
Hermione snorted at Voldemort's new moniker, and the snort morphed into laughter. Harry joined her, and they laughed until their sides ached.
After a minute, Harry removed his glasses to wipe his eyes. "How long do you need to get ready? We really should be going."
"Eep!" She dashed from the room, calling out, "Ten minutes?"
"Remember that pin," he shouted. "We'll need it later."
"It's on the kitchen counter," she yelled before slamming the door to her bedroom.
Twenty minutes later, they Apparated to the perimeter of the Burrow's charmed security shield. It was a mild and sunny day, with frothy white clouds scudding across the clear blue sky, and chirping birdsong from the Weasley orchard.
Hermione remembered her last stay with the family – a joyous occasion terminated by the ill-timed appearance of Death Eaters. Her heart constricted for the family who had welcomed her with such affection in her adoptive community.
Harry called a greeting to the house.
When he received no reply, Hermione moved into a defensive position.
Pulling the walnut wand she now carried, she whipped the end in a familiar swirl, conjuring the merest whisper of misty white before it dissipated like vapor from a number four cauldron.
She sighed deeply at her failure, but unsurprised at the wand's intransigence.
Closing her eyes, Hermione dredged up a stronger mental image before trying again.
This time, ethereal smoke undulated from the tip of the wand, coalescing into the distinctive gamboling form of her Patronus. She smiled at her success – relieved beyond measure she could still cast this finicky and challenging spell after the events of the last month – and sent the smoky white otter leaping in the direction of the house.
Within seconds, Molly Weasley opened the back door with more force than necessary; it slammed against the side of the oddly shaped structure, rattling the windows, and waking the ghoul in the attic.
Hermione followed Harry as he wove through the garden's uncontrolled weeds toward their hostess.
"Where have you been?" Molly asked. "I've been so worried."
Once Harry crossed the threshold, she directed him to a seat beside Ron at the dining table. It was only then she seemed to notice Harry wasn't alone. "Oh, Hermione, dear." The older witch was momentarily nonplussed. "How nice of you to visit."
Before Hermione could reply, Arthur Weasley stepped into the homey kitchen. Hermione was so shocked by his appearance she choked on a gasp. His shoulders were stooped, but as his wife looked in his direction he straightened.
It hurt to see the couple foundering, and Hermione attempted to bridge the gap in conversation. "Thank you, Mr. Weasley, for letting us meet you here before going to Gringotts."
Arthur managed a weak smile and patted her arm. "Of course, of course."
Choosing a vacant chair at the table, she sat directly across from Ron. He had yet to look her direction. He seemed very distant, and she didn't know what to say.
Close behind her father, Ginny skidded into the kitchen, a whirlwind of kinetic energy. Upon spying Harry, she practically levitated across the room, taking the seat next to him and reached for his hand. From the strength of her white-knuckled grip, Hermione would be surprised if Harry didn't bruise.
She averted her eyes, and as they had countless times in the past three years, they strayed in the direction of the redhead seated across from her. Ron's cheeks were hollow and his shoulders slumped in dejection. He stared at the empty chair where Fred had usually sat, his expressive face as still as if he had been hexed into immobility.
Fred's loss was catastrophic.
Poor Colin Creevey.
There were too many to enumerate.
Hermione blinked rapidly to maintain some semblance of composure. She stared about the long-familiar room, seeking a distraction to subvert her overwhelming urge to cry until she had no tears left.
Along the far wall, dishes washed themselves in the deep sink while Molly bustled between table and stove. She appeared not to have slept since before the Battle of Hogwarts, and Hermione feared the older woman might collapse if she were to stop moving. When Molly added three sugars to Hermione's tea, the younger witch said nothing about its excessive sweetness, simply turned the cup to avoid the chip in its rim.
"Tea, Harry dear?" Molly asked, swishing her wand and directing the teapot to fill the Chudley Cannons mug she had levitated to his place at the table.
"Yes, please, Mrs. Weasley," he said, smiling at her.
She affectionately ran her fingers through his dark hair, ruffling the fringe obscuring his lightning bolt scar.
Hermione raised her head to watch the exchange only to gasp in shock.
Harry whipped his head in her direction. In the filtered natural light let in through various window panes, Voldemort's most famous memento shimmered on Harry's brow. "What?" he asked urgently.
Before Hermione could speak, a wide-eyed Ginny exclaimed, "What happened to your scar?"
"What?" Harry asked again, his hand reaching to his forehead, fingers tracing the newly ridge-less scar.
"It's silver," Ginny said. "It's shiny."
Harry angled his body toward Hermione, his gaze dropping to the opalescent tip of Dolohov's curse mark peeking out from the neckline of her pale blue blouse.
As if someone had cast Lumos in her brain, comprehension illuminated the answer to Harry's unvoiced query. She whispered, "You've been claimed."
Ron finally stirred from his emotional torpor. "What the bloody hell is going on?"
Harry said nothing, but he and Hermione indulged in one of their wordless conversations, confirming their decision not to mention Snape's survival. Their short-hand communication never failed to provoke Ron's jealousy.
Hermione bit her lower lip, deep in thought.
Ron looked away from the tableau of his friends, focusing on his sister instead. A deep flush painted her cheeks, and she scowled at Hermione.
Arthur Weasley's attention shifted, sharpened while his wife's befuddled expression divulged her present inability to connect too few dots into a cohesive picture.
"What do you mean 'claimed'?" Ron asked belligerently. "By who?" His blue eyes darted between Harry's forehead and the opalescent scar on Hermione's chest.
He reminded Hermione of when he had been under the influence of a dark-tainted Horcrux. She couldn't look at him; it was quite simply too painful.
"Each other?" he asked loudly.
Whether her reaction was from outrage or a perceived loss of possession of the Boy Who Triumphed Hermione couldn't determine. She was too busy attempting to stem the tide of Ron's budding acrimony. "Ron, no."
"No, Ron—" Harry leapt to Hermione's and his own defenses. "It was the unicorn."
"A unicorn marked you?" Arthur's question sliced across the conversation.
"Hermione said 'claim'." Ginny pointed out in a shrill voice.
Arthur pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose; it was an habitual gesture for the thoughtful man. "If you were claimed by a unicorn, then it was—"
"The stallion," Hermione answered quickly, shying away from Ron's accusatory expression.
"Holy Mother of Merlin!" Molly's hand flew to her bosom, covering her heart. "What a blessing! Do you know what this means? I haven't heard of such a thing in … I can't remember when."
"Molly." Arthur attempted to quell his wife's inappropriate enthusiasm.
Ginny plucked at Harry's arm, desperately trying to draw his attention.
Ron's expression was so jealous and resentful, it unnerved Hermione. She set her teacup on the table with a shaky hand.
"Oh, Arthur, this is wonderful." Molly beamed happily at her putative son. "If you've been claimed by the unicorns, Harry dear, then you must be—"
"A virgin. They're both virgins." Ron stated flatly.
"Both? Oh, my!" Molly dabbed her eyes with a capacious handkerchief she pulled from a pocket of her apron.
Ron seemed unfazed by his mother's transports of awe and delight.
"You're a virgin?" Ginny asked Harry. She dropped her hand from his arm, and it fell uselessly into her lap.
Harry, being Harry, shrugged. "I was."
"Was?" Ron lowered his head.
His posture reminded Hermione of a hippogriff about to charge. "You see—" she stammered, "—when the stallion agreed to help us, it meant the death of— of —one of the herd."
"Amandaria," Harry said softly. "The filly's name was Amandaria."
"I remember." Sorrow crossed her face, its shadow lingering when she looked at Ron. "Of course I agreed. I didn't know about Harry – the claiming – until now, but the stallion accepted the sacrifice of my … er … our," she stammered again, blushing brightly, covering her discomfort by resituating her teacup, "virginity in compensation. According to Poppy Pomfrey—"
Ron's sullen expression darkened and he snarled at her. "I don't give a toss what Pomfrey says. What you're saying is you've been lying to me for years."
"What?" Hermione rocked back in her chair. "I have not!"
"You misled me."
"Vicky." His head – with its glossy, burnished copper cap of hair Hermione so admired – bobbed in a synchronized cadence as he mocked her.
"Ron." Harry stood despite Ginny's efforts to keep him seated and at her side. His shoulders and spine were rigid, and he raised one hand in a quelling gesture.
"You were there, Harry. You know what she did."
"I didn't do anything." Hermione abandoned the teacup, and frustrated by having to plead her innocence again, she spoke sharply. "I've told you and told you Viktor's nothing more than a friend."
"You're lying!" Scorn curled Ron's lip into a sneer.
Hermione bit her tongue on the diatribe dancing on its tip waiting for a cue to enter the fray.
At arm's length across the table, Harry put his hand on Ron's shoulder, only to have it shrugged off. "Piss off, Harry. You always take her side."
"There aren't any sides."
It was only a matter of time before Ron would go off like a Weasleys' Wizard Wheeze. Molly and Arthur appeared to be stupefied, even if no one had pulled a wand or cast a spell.
Ignoring the hurt Ron seemed to casually inflict upon her with too-frequent regularity, Hermione leaned forward, willing him to listen. "You're not making sense. There was never anything between Viktor and me, other than friendship."
"There was," he said, obstinately. When he glanced at his sister, she shook her head frantically. "Ginny told me. Harry was there."
"What?" Hermione stared at Ginny – as if boils had sprouted across the redhead's brow, forming the letters L I A R – before turning large, wounded eyes upon her dearest friend. "Harry?"
"No! Not Harry," Ron bellowed, slamming his hand on the scarred wooden table top, rattling the dishes and cutlery. "Look at me!"
Hermione jerked against her wooden chair before leaping to her feet, her hand automatically reaching for her wand. The knowledge that the only wand she currently possessed was Bellatrix Lestrange's stayed her hand.
"Enough!" Arthur shouted above the din; it had the momentary effect of halting an increasingly explosive atmosphere. Molly stood next to him, wringing her hands in distress.
Harry took the opportunity to scoot around the table. When he reached her side, Hermione nodded at him gratefully. She was outnumbered and utterly bewildered by the turn of events.
But Ron wasn't done; his tone of voice was as cold as the December night he had abandoned his friends. "You always defend each other. I should've known you'd never choose me. It's always been Harry."
"I don't understand." Hermione's voice was high and thin. "Ginny, what did you say?"
"Does it matter?" Ginny asked.
Harry gave her a hard look. "Only if you didn't tell the truth."
Ginny stared at Harry, mouth agape. Slowly, she too, rose to her feet. "I—I— er…."
"Ginny?" Hermione asked.
Ron leaned aggressively against the table, shoving it in Hermione's direction. Instinctively, she stepped back, watching her chipped teacup tip off its saucer, spilling too sweet tea onto the scarred wooden tabletop.
Without conscious volition, she and Harry reached for their wands, fingers flexing… then relaxing as they waited the command to fight. Hermione trembled with the sudden influx of adrenaline.
Absently, Molly flicked her wand to clean the mess, but she stepped closer to her children. "What's going on? Tell me right now."
Ginny stared at the focus of her long-time obsession as she replied. "It doesn't matter now."
Harry's shoulders slumped.
Ginny's eyes narrowed, and she turned a vindictive face toward the girl she had wronged.
"Ginevra Weasley—" Molly's interruption deferred a scathing tirade guaranteed to hammer the final nail on the coffin of an outgrown friendship, "—do you mean to tell me you lied to your friends?"
Ginny shrugged. "Not really."
"Not really?" Arthur asked quietly, both hands resting on his wife's shoulders. Molly leaned back into Arthur as if for strength.
Defiantly tossing her hair over her shoulder, Ginny gestured toward her brother. "Ron was being a prat. I forgot Harry was even there."
"That's no excuse," Molly said, shaking a finger at her youngest child.
Arthur nodded. "Anger is never a reason to lie."
As parents scolded their daughter, Harry threw his arm around Hermione's trembling shoulders.
Rom interrupted the family lecture. "Gin's right. It doesn't matter."
"Hermione and Harry are together." His tone was brittle, cutting. "They've been claimed."
Harry's arm tightened around her. "We aren't," he said. "Hermione's my best friend. I thought she was yours, too."
For the first time since she and Harry had arrived, Ron really saw Hermione, saw the hurt and confusion on her face. His entire demeanor altered in the space between one heartbeat and the next; his face paled. "I thought – I thought—" his clenched fist rested on the tabletop, and he extending his long fingers, turning his hand until it lay in supplication, "—well, anyway…. I—" he looked into Hermione's eyes, "—it's why I went with Lavender. If Ginny didn't tell me you and Krum were together, I never—" he gestured, "—you know."
Hermione's eyes filled with tears.
Molly chose that moment to intervene. She stepped out of Arthur's supportive embrace, and pulled a chair out from the table, taking a seat and smoothing her hands across the homespun fabric of her faded skirt. She nodded approvingly when Ron and Ginny settled back into their seats, and frowned when Harry and Hermione remained standing. "You're much too good friends to let a little misunderstanding come between you. I'm sure you'll sort it all out over the summer. If not, there'll be plenty of time when you're back at Hogwarts in the fall."
Neither Harry nor Hermione said anything, but Ron knew them well. "I know that look," he said. "What's going on?"
Hermione was reluctant to speak, and at her side, Harry kept silent.
"Go on, then," Ron jerked his head up as if by the action able to pull the words from her mouth.
"I didn't think now was the right time to talk about it," she said quietly, but shored up her courage and tilted her chin. "I'm going to Australia—"
As fast as the flick of a wrist and a nonverbal incendiary hex, Ron's anger re-ignited and he was back on his feet. "What about Fred's funeral?" he shouted. "What about the others? You're just going to leave? Run away?"
"It's not running away, Ron!" She stepped from the safety of Harry's embrace. "I need to find my parents. I've told you this."
"How soon are you going, Hermione?" Ginny asked eagerly.
Hermione could barely conceal her repugnance at the younger witch's obvious ploy.
"We're leaving Monday next," Harry said, stepping close to Hermione.
Disgust marred Ron's features. "Of course you are."
Arthur stepped into the kitchen, a traveling cloak draped over his arm. None had noticed his brief withdrawal. "Right. We don't have time for this now. We can sort it out later. We have to leave for Gringotts. It doesn't do to keep goblins waiting."
"I'll meet you there," Harry nudged Hermione with his shoulder, but he didn't spare Ginny or Ron a look before spinning on the balls of his feet and Disapparating.
Hermione gave Ginny one long look before she, too, spun into the dark constricting space between destinations.
Diagon Alley was surprisingly busy when Hermione joined Harry at the top of the marble steps leading to the premiere wizarding bank. There was a celebratory atmosphere permeating the air as witches and wizards hailed one another in friendly and eager fashion.
Within seconds, Arthur and Ron appeared.
"We'll wait for Kingsley here." Arthur handed a homespun wizard's cap to Harry. "Put that on. There's no telling what the public's reaction would be if you're recognized. Hermione, pull your hair back. There's a good girl."
As they complied with his father's directions, Ron said nothing, turning his back on his friends.
Hermione could feel the seething resentment roiling just beneath the surface of his silence. It reminded her too forcefully of those terrifying and desperate days before he had abandoned her and Harry to their impossible quest.
Experience had taught her there was nothing she could say to soothe or cajole him from his fit of pique. Any attempt would be scorned and ultimately futile.
Worse, and with irrevocable finality, she decided it wasn't worth the effort.
At eleven, the enormous brass clock in Gringotts' tower tolled the hour just as Arthur turned to Harry. "You never mentioned why you and Hermione went to the unicorns."
"No," Harry replied, "we didn't."
Arthur raised his brows quizzically. "Do you need help?"
Ron snorted derisively, and Harry shot him a quelling look.
Hermione's smiled with genuine affection. "Thank you for asking, but the situation's been handled."
Any further discussion was aborted by the arrival of Kingsley Shacklebolt and his Hit Wizard cohort. The quintet ascended the bank's broad steps to meet those awaiting them. Two of the hit wizards nodded curtly toward the young savior; they had been assigned to his protection detail when he had slipped past them at Hogwarts.
On the sidewalk below, passersby took notice of the de facto Minister for Magic and his entourage. Arthur Weasley was a well-known wizard, and speculation about his young companions began word-of-mouth passage the length of Diagon Alley.
The moment the first ripple of gossip encroached upon her finely tuned senses, Hermione's fingers wrapped around the handle of Bellatrix's wand. Her eyes met Harry's. He nodded, and she looked for secondary escape routes.
Fortunately, the new minister's Auror skills remained battle-honed. He acted swiftly, motioning Harry to precede him into the bank before offering his arm to Hermione. He nodded at Arthur as he stepped past the uniformed goblin, through the burnished bronze doors.
There was a brief, comedic moment when Ron and one of the Hit Wizards juggled for last position, but the older wizard outmaneuvered the teen to bring up the rear-guard.
By the next morning, Rita Skeeter's acid-etched pen would offer a number of interpretations for the appearance of Harry Potter and his best pals at Gringotts.
None would be accurate.
The Minister's group was escorted through the vast, public marble hall and beyond, to a large conference room with impressive paneling and imposing furniture. Hermione had never understood why goblins chose such enormous furnishings when they, themselves, had such small statures.
"Thank you," she said to Kingsley when he held a chair for her. The others arranged themselves along one side of a large oval table of very dark, but highly polished wood.
Harry chose the seat to her right while Ron sat at the opposite end, as far from them as possible.
They didn't have long to wait.
An inner door opened for the oldest goblin Hermione had ever seen.
Seven goblin guards dressed in full regalia entered the room first, their polearms thudding on the floor as they marched. Behind them came a small goblin who wore an Elizabethan collar on his red velvet suit. It was this goblin who bowed unctuously to the new Minister of Magic before clearing his throat. "Director Tightfist will see you now," he intoned in plummy, high court English.
The senior bank official sauntered to the head of the table, magisterial robes trailing in a wake. Tightfist's wizened skin had taken on the patina of tarnished copper, complementing the sheen of his acromantula silk robes.
He greeted Kingsley as one would greet a respected ally. "Gringotts is gratified Minister Shacklebolt accords this matter its due. It is well-omened for profitable exchange."
Kingsley nodded, and light from the wall sconces shone off his bald head. "The ministry intends to bring this matter to an equitable and mutually beneficial conclusion."
Tightfist sat in what would be referred to as the seat of power in a Muggle boardroom, and Kingsley proceeded to introduce his party.
When it was her turn, Hermione nodded politely.
Tightfist's piercing scrutiny reminded her of Snape's commanding classroom presence, and she lowered her eyes in case Legilimency was a goblin skill. The old goblin chuckled before acknowledging his introduction to the Savior of the Wizarding World.
As the remainder of their party was introduced, and having been reminded of Snape, Hermione wondered how soon it would be before she and Harry could escape to the Hippocratic Ward.
Her attention was claimed once again, when Tightfist launched into an outline of the proposal which had been forged without her knowledge, and she listened carefully to details that would affect her future.
She frowned at one point, and waited for further clarification. It wasn't forthcoming, and Hermione squirmed on the horns of an ethical dilemma.
"Excuse me," she interjected when Tightfist paused for breath.
Sharp black eyes seemed to skewer her to the chair, and Kingsley stiffened beside her.
Heart hammering in her chest, Hermione soldiered on. "Is it possible to amend the terms of the proposed internship?"
"Hermione—" Kingsley's tone was censorious; however, Tightfist raised a clawed verdigris-coloured hand, and the Minister held his tongue. "Miss Granger?"
"Perhaps I've misunderstood," she said, "but I believe our internships commence from the date we receive our NEWT results?"
"You are correct." Tightfist replied in his distinctive, clipped fashion. "You have an objection?"
"It's not that. Perhaps the wording might be changed slightly."
From his place at the far end of the table, Ron leaned forward to glare at her.
Tightfist's eyes flicked between the two humans, and he canted his head at an angle. "What do you have in mind, Miss Granger?"
"What happens if one or all of us don't sit for the NEWTs? Wouldn't that void the agreement?"
Kingsley sucked in a sharp breath.
From the corner of her eye, Hermione saw his hand grip the arm of his chair tightly, and she spoke before he had the opportunity. "I know some wizards and witches have successful careers with only OWL results." Deliberately, she did not mention Fred or George Weasley. "I want – er – I can't speak for Harry and Ron," she said, "but I'm sure they feel much as I do. If for some reason I'm unable to take my NEWTs, I want to respect the arrangement you and Minister Shacklebolt have so generously worked out."
She ignored the seething irritation practically radiating from where Ron was seated. Fortunately, Arthur was not a foolish man, and he would handle any inappropriate reaction of his son's.
It was a rather frightening sight, but Hermione knew she had done the right, if not the easy, thing.
Harry shifted in his seat but remained silent.
Abruptly the senior director rose to his feet. "Wait here," he said, and exited through a previously hidden door in the dark paneling behind his chair.
The goblin guards came to attention, polearm blades wickedly sharp. The Hit Wizards remained seated, but none doubted their heightened attention.
Kingsley leaned toward Hermione, speaking so quietly no one but her could hear him. "I would place my honor in your hands any time."
"Thank you," she whispered.
"No. Thank you." His smile was entirely sincere.
Silence reigned in the conference room for ten minutes before Tightfist returned to his place at the head of the table.
With his manner resembling deference, the senior banking director bowed his head in Hermione's direction.
She smiled at him in return.
"Gringotts," he declared, "has amended the agreement between it and these humans. The term of internship for each of Harry James Potter, Hermione Jean Granger, and Ronald Bilius Weasley, will commence no later than three weeks from the date of delivery of NEWT tests results for the upcoming academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, regardless of whether any of the three have sat the tests or not."
"The emendation is acceptable to the Ministry," Kingsley said with all the gravity of a judicial verdict being rendered by the Wizengamot.
"Miss Granger?" Tightfist looked at her. "Does this resolve your concern?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you."
The senior director traced an intricate runic array on the polished wooden table. He appeared to contemplate the results of his efforts for a long moment before nodding and raising his head. Black eyes speared Ron to his seat before moving on to assess Harry, and then they settled on Hermione.
"It is Gringotts' decision that Miss Granger's internship will be overseen by Coppernicus while Mr. Potter and the junior Mr. Weasley will fall under the tutelage of Mr. William Weasley."
At the end of the table, Ron's head jerked up, and Arthur bowed his head in a silent moment's gratitude. He squeezed his son's shoulder out of relief and as a cautionary restraint.
"Curse-breaking is an excellent background for those wishing to enter law enforcement," Tightfist said amiably to Kingsley.
"I couldn't agree more."
"But what about Hermione?" Harry asked. "Why are we being separated?"
Kingsley said, "Harry—"
Harry was undeterred. "She wants to be an Auror, too. Don't you?"
"Can we talk about it later?" she asked.
Whether it was at her, or at her deflecting the question she wasn't certain.
"Mr. Potter—" Tightfist interrupted the tete-a-tete, "—Gringotts' decisions are in its best interests. However, in light of recent events, I have been granted the privilege of speaking as I choose."
"I would appreciate an explanation," Harry said.
"Do I owe you an explanation, young wizard?"
"No," Harry admitted, "but I would like one all the same."
The sound was a cross between a bark and a cough, but Hermione thought it was a little rusty and wondered if laughter was rare for goblins.
"I shall enjoy watching your development under William Weasley's guidance. I have wagered in your favor."
Kingsley chuckled, a warm, rich sound that enticed a snigger from one of the Hit Wizards. "I should like a piece of that wager, Tightfist. My money's on Harry."
Hermione peeked at Ron only to wish she hadn't bothered. He was grinding his teeth. His father's hand remained on his shoulder, but Arthur's fingers were white-knuckled from the force of his restraining grip.
Hermione sighed heavily.
"Mr. Potter, your talents are best utilized in honing skills that will serve your future career in law enforcement. It is, however, Gringotts' choice to utilitize Miss Granger's other talents."
Harry clenched his teeth.
Hermione heard them grinding and laid her hand on his forearm. Speaking into the sudden silence, she asked, "What … er … who is Coppernicus?"
Tightfist canted his head, assessing her afresh. At length, he said, "Coppernicus is Gringotts' chief Arithmancer."
Hermione smiled in relief. "That would be lovely. Arithmancy was one of my favorite subjects at Hogwarts."
The bank director rose to his feet. "My available time has come to an end. I bid you good day, Minister. Mr. Potter, Miss Granger." He looked at Ron's bowed head. "Young Mr. Weasley."
Rather than exit the way he had entered, the senior director detoured to Arthur Weasley's place at the table. Remarkably, he offered the wizard his hand, and when the befuddled patriarch grasped the aged bronzed claw, Tightfist said, "The goblin nation honors the sacrifices of your family, Arthur Weasley, and offers its thanks for bringing peace to our beleaguered world."
He departed before anyone else could speak.
Arthur's jaw had dropped, his cheeks flamed red. Ron stood from the table, and took a step toward the door.
Kingsley cleared his throat. "Well—"
Hermione was on her feet. "This has taken longer than I expected."
For some reason, this drew Ron's attention, and despite the fact he was already moving in the direction of the exit, he sneered. "Got somewhere to be?"
"We – that is – Harry and I have some things to do."
Ron scowled. "You've only been to the Burrow once!"
Hermione muttered, "And what a warm welcome I received."
While Ron didn't hear her, Kingsley and Harry did.
Angrily, Harry said, "You're the one who—"
"Who what?" Ron asked belligerently. "Asked my two best friends to ignore me?"
"We didn't!" Hermione exclaimed. "We haven't – you … you—"
"Son, you told them to give you some time. They've only been doing what you asked."
"Yeah. Well." Ron pouted, his arms crossed, his posture sullen. "I didn't mean it."
Hermione's and Harry's eyes met, and with a single warning glance at the Minister, she nodded her agreement.
Harry said, "I don't have to go with Hermione."
She had forgotten how churlish Ron could be. His attitude reminded her of being at school when he wanted to play chess or Quidditch rather than accompany her to the library to study.
After the scene at the Burrow, Hermione had no desire to spend more time in his company.
Especially after the scene at the Burrow.
Any hopes she might have cherished where Ron was concerned had been incinerated in a fit of jealousy, insecurity and a spilled teacup.
Yet, for Arthur's sake and for Harry's…. "It's all right," she said. "I can go by myself."
Ron smiled then.
It was a genuine smile; the first since Fred had died.
Perhaps, Hermione thought, there's a salvageable friendship after all.
After that, it was only a matter of moments before Hermione accepted Poppy Pomfrey's brooch from Harry, and he let Kingsley escort her from the bank with a comment about trust and its fragile strength.
When they were back on the top bank step, Harry mouthed I'll see you at dinner just before he Disapparated, Ron and Arthur immediately thereafter.
Left alone with the minister and his entourage, Hermione fingered the caduceus brooch.
Kingsley smiled at her. "If I followed any of the subtext, you're about to visit my favorite patient."
"You're very perceptive," Hermione replied, keenly aware of the Hit Wizards' interest, and beyond them, the growing number of people who were stopping to stare at the minister and herself.
Kingsley snorted. "I'm just privy to the secret. No one else would have a clue what you and Harry had cooked up."
"We haven't told anyone."
The gravity of his demeanor was surprisingly reassuring. "Now is definitely not the time for that news."
"I realize that," she said. "Besides, the prognosis remains guarded."
The Minister for Magic gently removed the Caduceus from her hand and pinned it to the lapel of her blouse. 'If I don't see you or Harry before you depart—"
"You won't be at Fred's funeral?"
He stared over her shoulder for a moment, seeing only something from a memory. "I'll be there. Still, if we don't have a chance to speak, please send me an owl to let me know of your trip's success."
"You're so sure we'll be successful? That we'll find my parents?"
"I have no doubt."
"I'm glad someone has faith."
He raised her chin with his fingertips. "Hermione, you and Harry – along with Ron – accomplished what a host of adults could not. I know you will find your parents. They're most fortunate to have a daughter as brave and brilliant as you."
Hermione's wide brown eyes swam with tears.
Kingsley gave her a quick, hard hug. "I have a tight schedule today, and it's time for you to visit a recalcitrant patient."
"Recalcitrant?" He arched a well-groomed eyebrow, and Hermione giggled unexpectedly. "You have a point," she said before activating the brooch.
Her landing was only a matter of a step or two to right her balance and a smoothing of hands over wild hair before she was ready to check on the patient.
To her surprise, Snape was awake, neatly bandaged, and arguing with a mediwitch hovering at his bedside.
She couldn't hear their discussion until she was two beds distant, but she caught the gist: he refused to take the dearly-bought Cornus Potion.
Hermione came to a stop near his neatly covered feet.
He glared at her balefully.
Her tolerance was already frayed beyond salvage.
She gripped the metal frame of Snape's bed as if gripping the shreds of her patience, and asked him in a falsely sweet voice, "Are you quite finished with your tantrum?"
"Go away." Snape snarled at her, his fingers pressing the bandage tight to his neck. There was no sign of blood staining the white.
Hermione stared at the bandage wrapped around his throat, and despite his irritation, her relief broke out in a broad smile.
"The sooner you take the potion, the sooner I'll be gone," she said.
He crossed his arms petulantly.
For the first time in her experience with Severus Snape, he reminded her of Harry. Her friend could sulk like no one else when the mood struck, but after seven years, Hermione knew how to handle those fits of self-indulgence.
She turned to the mediwitch. "How many times has he refused the potion?"
For a moment Hermione lost focus, her mind's eye recalled row upon row of dead bodies in Hogwarts' Great Hall. She shook her head to clear the memory, and setting her jaw, she held out her hand. "May I?"
"But you're not –"
Hermione interrupted the older woman. "I'll see that he takes it."
An unexpected source of support came in the voice of Brian Pauling. "Let her try, Fitzsimmons. You may go."
The mediwitch named Fitzsimmons stiffened as if she had been slapped. Then, with evident reluctance, she handed Hermione a small glass vial filled with the softly shimmering dose of life-saving potion before marching to Pauling's side.
They began a furious, whispered discussion.
"Are you going to lecture me about the unicorn's sacrifice, too?" Snape's voice was raspy, the tone fretful.
"What would be the point?" Hermione closed the distance to his side. "You know better than most what Amandaria's sacrifice means."
He glowered and said nothing.
"Will you take this now?"
He clamped his lips shut.
She leaned across the bed, staring into his dark eyes. "I won't ask again, Severus."
Pressing his head against the pillows, Snape stared at the ceiling.
Hermione drew her wand, and non-verbally cast Incarcerous.
Vinelike cords spurted from the tip of Bellatrix's wand, binding his arms to his chest. If she had used white bandaging, his torso would have resembled a mummy.
Hermione set her jaw stubbornly, and leaned closer. "Drink this, Severus Snape."
His lips remained clenched in a bloodless, tight line.
He refused to look at her.
Without pause, Hermione pinched his nostrils shut.
An outraged exclamation came from behind her.
For a fleeting second, triumph lit Snape's eyes, but when Pauling reprimanded Fitzsimmons and told her to leave Hermione alone, Snape's face glowed with incandescent fury.
In his weakened condition, his resolve lasted fifteen – Hermione counted each one silently – long seconds.
As soon as his mouth popped open, she tipped the potion onto his tongue.
"Don't even consider spitting it out," she said fiercely. "I won't hesitate to knock you unconscious and pour it down your throat."
He swallowed, but he fairly vibrated with rage.
"I know you're angry," she said. "I know you're frustrated. I— I won't be presumptuous enough to say more, but please … please … just …."
She turned away from the bed, horrified by what she had done, and overwhelmed by the thought that he might choose not to get well. With shaking hand, she set the empty potion vial on the table where she had watched Brian Pauling work his miracle.
Blinking back incipient tears, Hermione faced Snape once more. "I'm sure you're expecting some sort of maudlin, Gryffindorish lecture about what you feel and how you should think. Well, more maudlin and Gryffindorish than this." She had started quaveringly, but her voice smoothed out. "I won't waste your time. Just please live."
He closed his eyes, dismissing her.
Hermione released his bindings before summoning a chair to sit at his side.
He ignored her.
"I'll wait until the next dose of the Cornus."
Brian Pauling had escorted mediwitch Fitzsimmons to the other end of the ward, leaving Hermione as Snape's only attendant.
Snape continued to stare at the ceiling.
After fifteen minutes, she realized he was sound asleep.
After twenty minutes, she brushed his hair from his face, and looked more closely at his wound site. There was no sign of leakage.
In his sleep, Snape's nostrils flared, and he inhaled deeply. When she moved, he turned his head as if to follow her.
She settled back into her chair, and watched him breathe. Her throat tightened and Hermione let fall the tears she had held back since early that morning.
After thirty minutes, Hermione laid her head upon the side of Snape's bed. Within moments, she was fast asleep.
She woke with his hand in her hair and the accompanying sound of his deep, rhythmic breathing. Carefully, she extracted his fingers from the bushy mass.
He awoke during the process, but neither said a word. Both flushed red.
When Brian Pauling arrived with the next dose of potion, Snape exhibited model patient behavior with such an exaggerated fluttering of eyes that Hermione bit her tongue.
"Thank you," she said. "I'll return in the morning."
Snape rolled his eyes, but didn't gainsay her.
The caduceus pin magically transported her back to Gringotts' top step.
Diagon Alley was contrastingly bright after the Hippocratic Ward, and Hermione squinted while surveying the cobblestone street as she considered what to do next. Her original plans had included Harry and trips to Ollivander's and Flourish and Blotts, but the afternoon was waning quickly; the sun sinking beneath a fog bank and into night.
Someone bumped into her, precipitating her decision.
Home, or what most closely resembled home.
She spun into her Apparation before an elderly witch exclaimed, "Why, it's that Granger girl!"
Harry wasn't at the house, but it wasn't dinner time yet.
Hermione shuffled into the kitchen and filled the kettle. While the water heated, she dug into a drawer filled with menus from nearby restaurants. If she was too care-worn to cook, she refused to expect it of Harry.
In the end she ordered Chinese. "No mushrooms," she said into the phone after having ordered broccoli beef, spicy Singapore noodles, and egg drop soup.
While waiting for the delivery, she changed into a pair of her mum's old scrubs, faded teal in color, and added the cardigan she'd worn that morning.
She pulled out her lists: what clothes to pack, how much money and of what currency to carry, passports and other documentation, the rough itinerary. Restlessly, she crossed things off one list, added them to another.
The events of the day pressed in on her thoughts, rendering them muddled and painful. At least she would no longer need to factor time at the Burrow into her days.
By the time she ate her noodles and nibbled on succulent beef, Harry still hadn't returned from the Burrow.
Instead of worrying for his safety, Hermione's mood deteriorated so that she wondered if he would return at all.
She practically slapped herself for that thought.
And then she simply went to bed.
The day had been too much; as emotionally draining in its own right as the Battle for Hogwarts. Perhaps the death of her erstwhile hopes for a future with Ron had been the last casualty of that battle and she was reeling from shock.
Hermione left a note for Harry, and put his dinner in the charmed refrigerator, then headed upstairs to brush her teeth and crawl into bed. As she snuggled under her duvet, her last thought was of how comforting it had been to wake with Snape's fingers gently massaging her scalp.