A/N: So, wow, has it been a long time. I really am sorry that I haven't been able to post anything in the past, like, year. But, my muse seems to have returned for the time being. -does happy dance- Thanks to everyone who's read this far and for your wonderful patience. The second half of this chapter gave me fits, so I hope you enjoy it. Please review, I'd love some constructive criticism.
Oh, and a million thanks to India, who's the greatest beta. She handles my panic attacks so adroitly. It's amazing, really. Many thanks also to Felena1971 (check out her work, too!) for helping me write Sirius and for her excellent guidance in general.
Day 7: Sunday
Cedric and Sirius had engaged in a knock-down, drag out fight for Hermione's headspace. She'd been ignoring the thoughts all day, but alone in her dark room with nothing else to distract her there was really only a token protestation preventing them from running rampant. She rather wished one of them would win already.
With a cluttered head, Hermione dressed and left to wander the streets of London. It was heavily overcast and smelled of rain. The city's lights reflected dull and orange off of the low clouds, making everything feel close and dirty. She could feel a headache coming on.
She and Sirius had been through so much together. Even before they had crossed the friend-lover line they had been there for each other – no matter what. They'd seen each other at their best and at their worst. They'd been there for the good, bad and everything in-between. Hell, he'd given her most of the good memories she had of the five years during which the war had raged.
Hermione's lungs tied themselves in knots when she thought about what Sirius had said to her the other night, about moving on and forgetting him. She was absolutely mortified that she had kissed him as she had, especially since the act was, apparently, neither appreciated nor returned. Her stomach turned uncomfortably. Hermione had been in love with him for so long that she didn't know how to not be in love with him. She had given him this huge piece of her heart and was having trouble accepting that it was forever lost. Sirius would take it with him to his grave.
And then there was Cedric, who was unlike anyone she had ever known. He was unscarred by the war, which was rare, but his life experiences had left him without the naïveté or delusions that their world was safe, which she found very common in other countries. Despite this, he was inherently kind and patient, and he had an understated intelligence that she found extremely attractive.
There. She admitted it. Hermione was attracted to Cedric Diggory. Her stomach flopped again. Was a simple attraction supposed to summon such guilt? She didn't think so, but she'd been trying to squash the feeling for two days to no effect. Why did everything in her life have to be so damned complicated?
Hermione's feet ceased carrying her forward of their own accord and she, surprisingly, found herself standing before a familiar sight. She was in Hyde Park, staring at the upside-down tree as if in a trance. As a teenager, Hermione had brought Sirius to this part of the park as Padfoot on a near-daily basis during the holidays, which were inevitably spent at Grimmauld Place.
That's when their friendship had begun – that summer after Voldemort returned. Hermione had had a falling out with her parents over Harry and the war that was coming and just about everything else having to do with the magical world, but she had refused to turn her back on everything because her parents were afraid. Not long after she, Harry, the Weasleys and Remus Lupin had set up at Grimmauld Place had she decided that she and Sirius both needed something to lift their spirits.
Everyone had vehemently protested these outings, but they would not be deterred. Both she and Sirius had needed the time away from the old mansion, the subdued air that had enveloped their loved ones and the war in general. At Hyde Park they were just a random girl with her enormous black dog playing fetch or harassing the odd footballer that came their way. Padfoot had especially enjoyed chasing the unprepared athletes; even as a dog Sirius had been more than mischievous for the both of them.
They had continued making their visits to the park until the Order moved to Rhosyncroft in September of nineteen ninety-seven. The Shropshire estate had fields and gardens galore for Padfoot, and it was well enough removed from civilisation and had enough security charms on it that Sirius was able to go outside as a man.
But that was over and done with; she would never be able to get back that easy camaraderie, and it made her want to cry. She knew beyond a doubt that she would not be able to be just friends with Sirius – it was all or nothing.
With a heavy sigh, Hermione sank down onto a nearby bench and waited for the sun to rise, even though it would hardly be noticeable with the heavy cloud cover. Daybreak was marked only by a slight lightening of the sky from ominous and smoky to a silvery grey and by the lampposts flickering off.
Hermione wondered if Cedric had been at all successful yesterday at Azkaban. It would be terrible for him to have been in that awful place all day and come up with nothing. She couldn't help the shiver that chased up her spine at the mere thought of having to spend more than ten minutes in the horrid place.
It was beginning to rain. Hermione debated staying at the park and soaking herself well and fully, but decided that she had a lot to do, and now seemed as good a time as any to get started. With another tired sigh, she walked around the other side of the upside-down tree and Disapparated to the Leaky Cauldron.
Tom was already up and about, and as soon as he saw her he poured her two cups of coffee. "An owl came for you, not five minutes past," he said, withdrawing the missive from his apron pocket. "Same as yesterday?"
"Yes, thank you," Hermione replied graciously. She took the letter and her coffee and went to her usual booth at the back. She quickly drank half of one mug before cracking the blue wax seal and unfolding the parchment. It was from Cedric:
We need to talk. Meet me at The Mason Arms at 22 Conval Street in Dufftown at one o'clock this afternoon.
Hermione couldn't quite say why, but the letter made her uneasy. It was so... brusque. She frowned as she refolded the parchment and put it in her jacket pocket. Cedric was right – they did need to talk.
Cedric couldn't help the growl that rumbled in his chest as he glanced impatiently at his watch. He had only one interview left, but only fifty minutes before he was expected at Level Thirteen and that didn't include travel time. At last, the guard led a shackled Geoffrey Watkins into the interrogation room, where he sat and was chained to the table.
If Cedric had not already read Watkins' file fifteen times, it would have been impossible to glean any sort of information about this man's previous life simply by looking at him. He had been in Azkaban for nearly three years, and after a certain amount of time all of the inmates looked the same: filthy, emaciated, unkempt and mildly deranged. Geoffrey Watkins was no different.
He was forty-seven years old and was serving a twelve year sentence for distributing Class One Narcotic potions to Muggles. While Watkins glared daggers at Cedric through lanky, brown fringe, Cedric idly thumbed through the stack of papers before him, projecting nonchalance and not the itchy impatience he felt bubbling just beneath the surface. This was one of the first things he had learned about interrogating criminals: never let them see your true emotions - they feed off of them, toy with them, and ultimately give nothing away.
Cedric's patience paid off. Watkins broke first.
"I see the Ministry is still sending children to do men's work," he said with a sneer.
Cedric ignored the slight and continued to scan the pages of Watkins' file. "I don't work for the Ministry," he replied smoothly.
Watkins snorted. "That badge for decoration, then?"
"Something like that."
There was a pregnant pause where Watkins processed and decided how he felt about Cedric's words. He could feel the inmate's eyes boring holes through his forehead as though he could force Cedric to look at him by will alone. Cedric turned another page.
"Who are you?"
It was Cedric's turn to pause. When he finally met the other man's gaze he was pleased to see that he had already made Watkins uneasy. "How's your son these days?"
Watkins' bristled. "I expect you already know the answer to that."
"Indeed. Landon Watkins, born the fourth of April, nineteen ninety, was arrested ten days ago for three counts of Malicious Muggle-baiting, Possession of a Class Two Narcotic, and for violating the Decree for the Restriction of Underage Wizardry," Cedric said matter-of-factly. "He's been in Ministry holding since his arrest. I guess the apple didn't fall terribly far from the tree."
Watkins glared suspiciously at Cedric. "If you're not an Auror, then who do you work for and what do you want?"
Cedric ignored the question. "If convicted, he's looking at seven to ten years for each Muggle-baiting charge, six to eight for the Possession – more if the Wizengamot can prove Intent to Distribute, and he'll be expelled from Hogwarts and his wand snapped for the Decree violation." Cedric paused. "He'll be nearly your age before he breathes free air again, Mr. Watkins. That's assuming he survives, of course."
Watkins paled considerably, but his voice was steady. "What's your point?"
Cedric's gaze did not waver. He was really going out on a limb with this guy, having only the assumption that he worked for Malfoy and not someone else. But he was hardly going to let this opportunity slip past; he was running out of patience, ideas, leads and - most importantly – time. This proposition was a calculated risk, but he was willing to take it. He truly felt that both he and Hermione were correct about Draco Malfoy and his potential connection to Peter Pettigrew.
"If convicted," Cedric said pointedly.
Incredulously, Watkins stared at him. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
Watkins cringed as though he expected saying the words aloud to cause him physical pain. "You'll get my boy off the hook?"
Cedric drew a slow, deliberate breath. This was the point of no return. "Yes."
"And what part of my soul do I have to sign away for the service?"
Cedric would have breathed a sigh of relief, but they weren't through yet. Popping open his briefcase, he removed a ready-filled quill and a piece of parchment and slid them across the table. "I want the name of your employer, all known associates, and your contact protocol."
Watkins looked like he might be sick.
Hastily, Cedric continued, "Mr. Watkins, you have been placed in the glorious position of giving your son twenty-seven years of freedom and the right to use magic. Make the right decision." Then he watched with bated breath as the inmate swallowed hard and reluctantly reached for the quill and parchment.
He began writing. "Understand: I only met the bloke once, and I don't know if this is even his real name, but he told me to call him Theo. And he was just my boss. I answered to him, but he answered to someone else."
"Are you certain?" Cedric asked, fighting to keep the excitement from his voice. He had a hunch who Theo was, and if he was right then they really might be one step closer to Malfoy and Pettigrew.
"Yes," he replied irritably. Cedric noticed his hand was shaking slightly. "You better take care of my son. If they ever found out that I peached..." He shook his head and slid the parchment back across the table. "Let's just say it would have been better had Landon ended up here."
Cedric nodded grimly as he collected the parchment and quill and put them back into his briefcase. He'd read it later at lunch with Hermione. "I'll see to it. Thank you."
Before Watkins could utter another syllable, Cedric was gone. Rushing down the corridor back to the Control Tower, he glanced at his watch. It was almost quarter of eleven, leaving him approximately fifteen minutes before his interview with Black.
His stomach knotted up. Cedric hadn't told Hermione about his temporary access to Black, and he felt terrible about it. He justified his actions by saying that it would be easier to talk to Black if he was not focussed on Hermione – a legitimate concern – but Cedric was not deluded. He knew that his motivations were partially selfish as well. It would be difficult enough to talk to Black knowing how Hermione felt about him; it would be impossible to do it with Hermione sitting in the same room. Her presence was already distracting enough.
After reclaiming his wand and signing out, Cedric Disapparated to the Ministry. While he waited for his identity to be verified, he removed his AD uniform robes. They had only been a ruse to gain access to Azkaban and he had to walk several blocks through Muggle neighbourhoods to reach the hidden entrance to Level Thirteen. The directions were the same; only the time of day and the password had changed.
Cedric had been preparing for this meeting since the night before, but he still had no clue what to expect. Black obviously had some good qualities to win Hermione over so thoroughly, but the man was a mystery. There were few alive who had known Black on an intimate basis, and the not knowing made Cedric feel like a first year trainee conducting his first interrogation – and he and Black were even on the same side.
All too soon, in Cedric's opinion, he came to the hidden alley with the iron door at the end. He glanced at his watch: ten fifty-three. With a deep, bracing breath, Cedric spoke the password and disappeared down the stairs two at a time to Level Thirteen.
Looking at Black looking at him was making Cedric far more uncomfortable than he had anticipated. His first encounter with the inmate had been a week ago when he was sent to investigate a Trespassing Alarm that had been triggered at Godric's Hollow. That man had been a sad and defeated human being who had completely lost the strength and will to soldier on. The man observing him from the other side of the iron bars was a vibrant bundle of nervous energy who looked like he'd crawl right out of his skin if he wasn't looking at the sky, and soon. Sirius Black was not a man to be contained, and there was a fire in his eyes that would have melted steel to make his freedom a reality.
Cedric knew the only thing that had happened which could have possibly brought on the dramatic change in disposition was Hermione. She had brought him back to life in thirty short minutes, and the thought filled Cedric with a simmering animosity that left his blood rushing through his veins and his head muddled with confusion.
Why should he feel such hostility towards Black? It was not as though Cedric was romantically involved with Hermione, and he should be grateful for Black's return from the land of the Living Dead. His new-found zest for life would sharpen his mind and his memory and perhaps allow him to aid in his own defence.
So where did this caveman urge to punch Black in his perfect nose come from?
"You're the bloke who brought me in," Black said, bringing their staring match to a close. These were the first words to be spoken between them.
"Aye," Cedric replied, perhaps a bit more curtly than he'd intended. He was unaccustomed to forcing himself to remain polite. He readjusted his grip on his briefcase, being reluctant to move any larger part of his body. He did not want to seem uncertain or nervous.
Black was studying him with those sharp grey eyes again. "Are you here in an unofficial capacity, or have you misplaced your uniform?"
Cedric smirked. "Unofficially official."
Black eyed him for a moment longer before barking out a deep, genuinely amused laugh. His laugh was intoxicating, and Cedric had to fight the urge to allow his smirk to turn into a grin. He already felt himself being pulled off his guard.
With an unnatural grace, Black stepped backward and flopped onto his cot. He fairly lounged, propped on his elbows with one foot resting on the opposite knee. Anyone else would have missed the bed completely, while Black merely looked bored.
"To what do I owe this unofficially official visit?"
Cedric paused to consider the best reply, feeling an intense one-upmanship forming between the two of them. He knew it was ridiculous, but he couldn't seem to stop it. "I'm a friend of Hermione's."
Sitting up straight, Black was immediately curious. "What did you say your name was?"
"Got a first name?"
Black arched an eyebrow. "Tri-Wizard Champion, Cedric Diggory?"
"How are you involved with Hermione?"
Well, that wasn't a loaded question. "Is there something in particular you'd like to know, Black? If there is, just get it out already. I came here for a reason, and I'd rather not waste time bumping chests with you over Hermione."
In one fluid motion, Black stood and crossed to the bars. There were hardly a foot apart. "Are you shagging her?"
Cedric's modesty was outraged. "You see, now, that's what the history books just can't quite capture: you have this indescribable charm about you. It's astounding, really." What had Hermione seen in this guy?
"It does defy words, doesn't it?" he replied with a cheeky grin. "But you didn't answer my question."
"Whom I chose to take to my bed is hardly any concern of yours," Cedric said with no small amount of glee. Let him draw what conclusions he chose. "Are you finished?"
"Why did you come here?" he bit out, glaring suspiciously.
"We need your help."
Black looked sceptical, before he apparently came to a realisation. "She's asked you to help her, hasn't she?"
"She has," Cedric admitted. He noticed that Black seemed considerably more at ease now that he understood Cedric's motivations. "Anything you can contribute will be greatly appreciated."
"She's told you everything?"
"Everything that matters." The tone of Cedric's voice conveyed that he knew more and how he felt about that extra knowledge.
"And you believed her?"
"Hermione is very... passionate."
"Yes, she is, isn't she?" Black replied with a hint of nostalgia colouring his voice. His eyes locked onto Cedric's again. "You like her don't you?"
Cedric considered the question and how exactly it was meant to be perceived. "I'd be a fool not to," he answered truthfully.
Black snorted. "You are a fool if you're chasing after Wormtail; although, I'm glad she swallowed her pride and asked for help."
Cedric was caught slightly off guard by the statement. It seem like a concession, for the time being, that Black would deal with any possible attraction between his former lover and the Auror standing before him if it meant that Hermione would come out of the whole ordeal with her life. The metaphorical chest-bumping had apparently come to a close, and now Cedric felt a bit silly for it. There was absolutely no reason that they should not be able to work together like two mature adults.
Eyes still locked, Cedric solemnly said, "I don't want her to get hurt anymore than you do. Now, what say you lend us a hand?"
Bowing cheekily, Black said, "Sirius Black, at your service."
Despite Cedric's initial misgivings, Black was actually growing on him. They had spent the past hour and a half scouring over all of Cedric's documents, bouncing ideas off of each other and generally getting along. He couldn't decide if this was a good thing or not.
Black was upbeat and vivacious, in stark opposition to their previous meeting, offering snide remarks and witty anecdotes from time to time. Cedric found himself chuckling on more than one occasion. And Black was charming, in a sarcastic sort of way. Cedric was receiving a small glimpse through a tiny window of the man who had won Hermione's heart. He was nearly as refreshing as she was.
He was disorderly, almost sloppy in his perusal, but there seemed to be a method to his madness. He saw some hidden pattern that Cedric, being so far removed from the war as he was, could not even begin to fathom. Black asked seemingly random questions to which Cedric had to dig for the answers, and would then merely hum his contemplation or look curiously at Cedric before returning to whatever he had been reading at the time. It was often infuriating that he did not share his musings with Cedric, who was pretty much just along for the ride at this point.
Cedric wondered exactly what it was that Black had done for the Order. He imagined that, due to his escaped mass murderer status, he was not involved in field operations, so what had it been? A couple of off-hand comments gave Cedric the impression that the Order had been, or at least had become, a well-run and fairly complex organisation. He had never really given it much thought until then and decided to ask Hermione about it.
There was a sudden flurry of movement from inside the cell as Black began hopping from one stack of papers to the next, leafing hastily through each until he found what he was looking for with a triumphant grin. He looked at Cedric.
"How much of this has Hermione seen?"
"About half," Cedric replied. "The other half we were planning to discuss this afternoon. Why?"
Hopping over a line of papers, Black crouched next to where Cedric was sitting and shoved a sheaf of parchment through the bars. "This property in northern Liverpool – is there still a warehouse on it?"
"I would assume so. There aren't any demolition records; although, I haven't had time to cross-check with Muggle records yet." Cedric turned his gaze form the parchment to Black, who was looking very excited. "What about it?"
"I can't believe I didn't put it together sooner," Black said, shaking his head. "It was one of the properties transferred to an alias, correct?"
"Aye, Marius Noir," Cedric recalled.
"Well, this building, unless my memory has completely failed me, was where the Death Eaters had kept all those kids they kidnapped in ninety-five and ninety-six."
Cedric shook his head in confusion. "There is absolutely no record of that whatsoever."
"There wouldn't be a record of it. The Order received intelligence that they were going to off the kids, and we didn't want to wait for all of the red tape and paperwork to clear, so we did it ourselves. It was Hermione's first mission. Ask her about it."
"And Marius Noir?"
"The name Marius Noir, I believe, is a joke by someone who is intimately familiar with my family tree."
Cedric huffed impatiently. "And?"
Black was looking very smug. "'Noir' is French for 'Black', obviously, and Marius was my great uncle on my mother's side. He also happened to be the only Squib ever born to the Black family. He was disowned, and, since his name has been scorched off the family tree at Grimmauld Place and the house burnt to the ground, I'd wager it was Narcissa, considering her charming sister Bellatrix has been dead for six years."
Hopefully, Cedric thought darkly. Hermione would be able to confirm or deny that. "More and more of this is pointing directly to someone in the Malfoy family," he said, not voicing his concerns. "Hermione thinks that Draco is behind this and is more than likely hiding Pettigrew."
"Why would she think that?" Black asked.
Cedric opened his briefcase and removed the note Hermione had found underneath Pettigrew's bed and showed it to him.
"Since Lucius died last year, she thinks the debt may have been passed on to Draco."
"It's been known to happen," Black mused.
"That's what I said."
Black handed the note back to Cedric with a very grave expression on his face. "Draco was a spoilt little prat when he was a kid, but he grew up into the monster his father always wished for. Keep her away from him for as long as you can, Diggory."
Cedric had no idea what the other man felt for Hermione or to what degree, but the tone of his voice told him that he was fiercely protective of her. She had a knack for inspiring such concern for her safety.
Cedric must have had his thoughts written all over his face because Black continued, his voice heavy with regret. "A long time ago she gave me my life back. It would be a shame for her to lose hers on my account."
"I'll do my best," Cedric promised, "but you know even better than I that Hermione does whatever she feels is necessary. If it comes down to it, I won't be able to stop her."
"I know," Black replied, accepting Cedric's promise as it was. There was a weighty pause. "You care for her, don't you?"
"I do," Cedric said quietly. This was the first time he had allowed himself to admit it, to himself or aloud.
Black chuckled sadly. "She does that: one minute you're just floating along through your life and bam! She's everywhere, and the only thing you know is that you don't want to let her go."
Cedric said nothing. He did, after all, have an idea of what Black was speaking. He had not spared Hermione Granger a single thought until she barged into Shacklebolt's office demanding to see Sirius Black. Ever since that moment he hadn't been able to get her out of his head.
"How is she?"
"Lonely; frightened; driven."
"Listen," Black said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "If this doesn't work out, make sure she's taken care of. Hermione does not deal with failure very well."
"I'll do what I can," Cedric said. It was a tall order, to be sure, but he was nothing if not diligent.
Again, Black accepted his words in silence. Cedric looked at his watch; it was nearly one.
"I have to go," he said.
Without a word, they began collecting files that had been strewn all over the floor on both sides of the bars. When Cedric was all packed, he stood and offered Black his hand.
"Thank you for your help."
Black shook it with a sly grin. "You're lucky I could fit you into my busy schedule."
Cedric resisted the urge to roll his eyes but smiled nonetheless and headed down the corridor.
"Yes?" Cedric said, stopping and turning to face Black.
"You're not really shagging her, are you?"
"A gentleman never tells, Black."
Black's grumbling was heard all the way to the door, and Cedric could not help the smug smile that spread across his face.
Hermione had had a miserable morning. She was sick to death of people staring at her; she was sick of the whispers and the surreptitious pointing. She was sick of being treated like a heroine while the real heroes were the ones who hadn't made it.
She was sick of the anxiety that plagued her constantly. There was only one week left until Sirius' trial, and her frustration seemed to grow exponentially with each passing hour. Instead of blasting every building in her path down to its foundations searching for that despicable rat, Pettigrew, she was stuck at the Ministry researching. The rational part of her head told her such a display would be a dreadful idea, but that didn't make the process any easier to endure.
She was sick of not knowing where she stood with Cedric. His behaviour toward her was so erratic, like he wasn't quite sure what to do when he was around her. And here she was, on her way to meet him for lunch, and she couldn't decide whether she should be excited or nervous or both. Both sounded like a good idea.
And Jesus Christ if she wasn't sick of being right all the time. A half a morning spent in the Hall of Records – a section of Archives that dealt only with birth and death records and that required higher security clearance – confirmed what Hermione had discovered during her search of the various graveyards throughout England: Antonin Dolohov, Barden Yaxley, Alecto Carrow, and Bellatrix Lestrange were, in fact, still among the living. It was likely that Bellatrix had returned to the Malfoys, but Hermione did not even want to think about what Yaxley, Dolohov, and Carrow had been up to these last six years.
Snape, on the other hand, was another story entirely.
What made the Hall of Records truly unique was that every single piece of information was updated magically, not manually. When a magical child was born and officially named, a Certificate of Birth was created and when the person died, the date and time were magically recorded. The spell that made it possible was very similar to the spell on Dumbledore's old register at Hogwarts, only more extensive. Hermione had checked the other names on the sign-in ledger. In the past decade, only four people had been granted access to the Hall of Records.
And Snape's was gone. Not lost, or misplaced – gone. It was literally as though Severus Snape had never existed.
The heavens looked as though they would open up and drown the world at any moment, so Hermione picked up the pace as she made her way from the Apparition point in Dufftown towards her rendezvous. It was just past one when she arrived at the Mason Arms.
The small local restaurant's interior was done in cream and brick red with matching tartan tablecloths, giving the room a warm and cheerful vibe. Cedric had yet to arrive and the only other person present was a middle-aged man towel-drying a row of glasses at the bar. He smiled and said hello, telling her that if she seated herself someone named Davina would see to her shortly.
Walking to the very back of the room, Hermione climbed up to a raised portion of the restaurant that held two tables. It would be the perfect place for working in relative privacy once Cedric arrived.
A flock of butterflies soared through Hermione's stomach, and she cursed her stupid nerves under her breath. Ever since she'd admitted to herself that she was attracted to him, even the smallest thought of him brought about a similar reaction. It was utterly ridiculous. How was she to spend the whole afternoon with him?
The heavy bass of torrential downpour filled the room as the rain started up again. It had been going off and on all morning and was promising to continue for the rest of the day.
Hermione had just set her attaché case on the table and was about to take her seat when the door opened and Cedric burst into the room, his hair and shoulders wet, followed by a gust of chilly, damp air. The bartender made a humorous comment about being caught in the rain. Cedric smiled and laughed as he shook the water out of his hair and then straightened it absentmindedly.
Hermione stared. She had never seen Cedric in Muggle clothing but immediately decided that she much preferred them to wizard's robes. The blue oxford clung to his broad shoulders and across his chest, and he had the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, exposing lean but muscular, tanned forearms. Grey trousers hung low on his slender hips; they were excellently tailored and accentuated all the right places.
Cedric must have felt Hermione staring at him from across the room because, just as she shook herself out of the trance she'd fallen into, he spotted her. The smile that had already graced his features took on a warmer note, causing her to blush. She waved him over and waited to seat herself until he joined her.
Hermione watched expectantly as Cedric bounded up the stairs. Now that they were in closer proximity, she noted that his eyes, which always drew her attention, matched his shirt perfectly.
So focussed on his eyes had she been that what happened next caught her totally off guard.
"Hey, sorry I'm late," he said. Then he bent and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.
Hermione's breath hitched in her chest. The action had been so casual and natural. Had he meant to do it, or had it been an accident? What had happened in the past thirty-six hours to change his brusque demeanour to such an affectionate one?
Blood burned in her cheeks when she sensed him tense slightly, having realised what he'd done. He was suddenly uncertain and awkward, yet not really in a hurry to put any distance between them. She couldn't bring herself to look him in the face, not when he was that close.
Funny, though, how all she could really think about was how soft his lips were.
"I've only just arrived," Hermione managed to choke out as he reluctantly pulled back. She breathed in; he smelled like rain and peppermint. Why hadn't she noticed it before?
"I'm glad," Cedric said, clearing his throat. He was obviously concerned that he'd insulted her.
He politely gestured for her to take her seat before seating himself opposite her. Neither would meet the other's eyes, but they were spared the painful moment by their waitress, Davina, arriving to take their orders.
"What would you like to drink?" she asked.
"Gin and tonic," Hermione answered, perhaps a bit too quickly. Her nerves were on fire, and she was hoping to douse them.
Davina arched an eyebrow. "And you, sir?"
"The same," Cedric replied.
Davina smiled at Cedric and recited the day's special. Cedric ordered spicy meatloaf with mashed potatoes while Hermione ordered cauliflower and cheese soup. After Davina left with their orders, the tension between her and Cedric remained unbroken, but they were at least able to look each other in the eye.
"Have you had any luck?" Cedric asked.
"That depends on how you look at it," Hermione replied darkly. Her findings were disturbing, to say the least. "You?"
"Yesterday was dreadful, but today has been quite productive," he said, genuinely pleased.
"You go first. I've had just about all the bad news I can take at the moment."
Cedric looked at her curiously but did not push for details. He always seemed to know when to let things drop. He opened his briefcase, removed a manila folder and handed it to her across the table.
"What's this?" she asked as she opened it. Quickly, she pulled out the first sheet and scanned its contents. The document had the official AD seal at the top and had her name written in three different places in a vaguely familiar hand. "Cedric?"
"I went to see Shacklebolt last night, and he gave me that. I am the newest agent to join the Confederate Intelligence Division, and you've been reinstated as an AD Intelligence officer. Between the two of us, I think we may have access to more resources than the Minister herself."
Hermione stared at Cedric for a long moment, completely flabbergasted. She shook her head as though to clear it. "Did you just say what I think you said?"
The bartender arrived with their drinks. Hermione downed half of hers in one go. Kingsley's unsought for help was a little overwhelming. If all of this meant what she thought it meant, then they no longer needed to fear legal repercussions from their actions.
Hermione smirked. "At least I know why I kept receiving departmental memos this morning."
"I'm sorry," Cedric said with a chuckle. "I expect Shacklebolt had planned on my telling you last night."
Hermione waved him off but made the mistake of meeting his gaze. She blushed immediately. It had been a very long time since someone had looked at her like that.
"You said you found something?" she said, taking another sip of her drink so she could hide behind her glass.
"Aye," Cedric said. He shuffled through his papers until he found what he was looking for. Hermione noticed how disorderly his briefcase was, which was odd because he was just as meticulous as she.
Cedric then told her about a man named Geoffrey Watkins who had worked running illicit potions for someone named Theo before he was arrested. This was potentially a really good lead, especially if 'Theo' really was Theodore Nott, as she and Cedric hoped.
He found what he was looking for and swiftly read it over. His eyes widened at something. "Here, read this," he said, handing Hermione the sheet. He then began shuffling through his papers again.
"What's this?" Hermione asked, trying to decipher the nearly illegible scrawl.
"The contact protocol Watkins gave me. Does that address ring any bells?"
"I've only been to Liverpool once, and I'm really not that familiar with the area."
From near the bottom, Cedric pulled out a small stack of papers that were clipped together. "That address," he pointed to the document in Hermione's hand, "is barely four blocks from this address." He handed her his stack. "Which was one of the properties transferred to an alias: Marius Noir."
Hermione's brow wrinkled as she read the second address. It was definitely familiar to her. She didn't think she'd ever be able to remove that night from her memory. "There's a warehouse there; am I right?"
Cedric nodded, looking relieved.
"I think we need to initiate that protocol today. It would be too much of a coincidence for this 'Theo' to not be Theodore Nott."
"I agree, but what do you know that I don't?"
Their meals arrived, and Hermione waited until Davina was out of earshot before answering "The year after you left, Death Eaters were kidnapping children of Ministry employees from Hogwarts and no-one could figure out how they were doing it. Well, it took a little sleuthing and a lot of eavesdropping, but Harry, Ron, and I eventually figured out that it was Theodore Nott, Daphne Greengrass, and, we suspected, Draco who were kidnapping the children and then sneaking them off the grounds. We actually caught Nott trying to take Ginny Weasley. He escaped, unfortunately."
"I remember hearing about the disappearances from my father when I was abroad, and I knew that they'd all been rescued safely, but the details were rather pushed under the rug."
"No, the details were set on fire and the ashes scattered over the Atlantic."
Cedric quirked a smile, and Hermione hid behind her drink again, realising how dramatic she sounded.
"Minister Bones was a member of the Order, so the Ministry was not openly against us like it was under Fudge, but there was only so much she could give us by way of support. When we got the tip, we were told that it would be at least eighteen hours before she could get any sort of tactical team off the ground because they'd have to wait for verification and reconnaissance to come back. We couldn't wait that long."
"Because, according to Dumbledore, the children were to be executed at dawn the next day – a mere seven hours away. Minister Bones did not trust Dumbledore's source, so we assaulted the warehouse at two that morning. It was Harry's, Ron's and my first mission."
"Weren't you all underage?"
"Yes," Hermione replied with a slow smile. "But we'd been training all year and Alastor Moody placed this charm on us that blocked the Ministry from targeting our magic. Besides, all we really did was sneak in behind the assault and Portkey the kids to safety."
Cedric looked impressed. "I hadn't realised Dumbledore was in the habit of allowing underage witches and wizards to join the Order."
Hermione felt herself blush a little, remembering what right pains in the arses she, Harry and Ron had been the summer before their fifth year. "We were very persuasive."
Cedric leaned back and took a sip of his drink, observing her all the while. "I bet you were. I seem to remember you lot having the unique ability to get whatever you wanted some way or another."
"Yeah, we did."
"What about Black? What did he do?"
"The night of the raid? He nearly paced a hole clear through the parlour rug at Grimmauld Place, is what he did."
"I can see that," Cedric commented.
Hermione wondered what he meant and was about to ask, but Cedric continued.
"What about in general? What did he do for the Order?"
"In the beginning: nothing," Hermione said. "I think Dumbledore was afraid he would do something reckless and get himself caught or killed, but he didn't realise it was the confinement that was killing him. Sirius, more than anyone I've ever known, was not meant to be locked up. That's his greatest tragedy, I think. He's spent the majority of his life in one cage or another," she finished softly.
There was an incredibly awkward silence. Hermione resisted the urge to squirm while Cedric watched her, so she spun her glass in circles on the table. It was so weird to talk to Cedric about Sirius, despite the fact that he was what had brought them together.
Cedric reached across the table and covered her hand with his, halting the nervous motion. She had to force herself to breathe for a moment before looking him in the eye. What was he doing to her? She lost all composure in his presence.
"Calm down. You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
"No, it's all right." Taking a deep breath, Hermione spoke in a rush. "After Dumbledore died, just before we were set to start our sixth year, the Order fell to shambles and was close to disbanding. A couple of months passed with everyone bickering and floundering around without leadership and near-daily Death Eater movement, when Harry called everyone together and told them that he would be assuming control and that anyone who didn't like it could go bugger themselves." Hermione laughed sadly. "You can imagine how well that went."
Cedric's hand was still on hers, but she couldn't make her arm cooperate enough to remove it. It was soothing to have the contact.
"Eventually, most of the original members came around, and Fred and George recruited a lot of people from kids we went to school with. Before long we had numbers enough to actually combat Voldemort. Then Harry split us all into departments, I guess you'd call them, and Sirius was one of the leaders.
"His job was to coordinate between the other departments and with Kingsley when necessary. He was also sort of our emergency dispatcher – everything was routed through headquarters, and he made sure everyone was going where they were supposed to. He was perfect for the job because he never really left the house. The only problem was whatever system he had didn't make any sense to anyone else. I maintain that he didn't make any sense at all and that he was just really good at pulling the right information out of his arse when he needed it."
She and Sirius had had many a row over his disorderly mode of operations. His general disregard for organisation on the most basic of levels had always outraged her fastidious nature.
"And what did you do?" asked Cedric. He leaned back in his seat, finally releasing his hold on her hand.
Hermione took another sip of her drink. This was truly the first time she had spoken about the war since its end, and it was harder than she'd thought it would be. She had put so much effort into burying the memories, and Cedric was effortlessly dragging them back to life again.
"Anything and everything. Whatever needed to be done, and there was always something."
Davina appeared suddenly, wanting to know if everything was to their liking or if they needed anything. Both Hermione and Cedric realised that they'd hardly touched their food and tucked in.
She was grateful for the excuse to cease speaking about the war. Whoever said 'time heals all wounds' was a bloody moron.
After finishing lunch and ordering tea, they got down to business. Cedric listened in grim disbelief to Hermione's findings. That five of Lord Voldemort's most dangerous and cunning servants had escaped the war and justice was inconceivable. He fervently hoped that he and Hermione would not have to deal with them personally in the near future.
The disappearance of Severus Snape's birth records was equally distressing. There were not that many people with clearance high enough to gain access to the Hall of Records, and they were, for the most part, of the higher political echelons and ranking Auror officials. The theft would definitely need to be investigated once this Black business was over.
The only bright spot in Hermione's morning seemed to be that the records indicated that Peter Pettigrew was still alive, as were the remaining Malfoys.
Another pot of tea for Cedric and two cups of coffee for Hermione later, they finally completed their information exchange. Despite the excessive amount of caffeine in Hermione's system, she seemed remarkably at ease. Their lunch had begun stiffly and awkwardly, but by the end he and Hermione had reached some sort of comfort zone. His pulse still quickened when their hands brushed, and she still blushed prettily when their eyes locked, but she was no longer jumping out of her skin at the slightest contact.
And Cedric was pleased to note that his breathing had returned almost entirely to normal.
"So, what time shall we meet tonight?" Hermione asked as they walked together towards the Apparition point.
"How about eleven? That way we'll have time to go over the maps and create some sort of plan should something come up," Cedric replied. "Do you want me to drop those names off at the Muggle Liaison office? I have to go to the Ministry anyways."
"Sure, thanks," she responded. "It'll save me a trip. I've had enough of that building to last me the next decade, I think."
When they reached the Apparition point, Hermione opened her attaché case, found the list of Muggles buried in Death Eater graves and handed it to Cedric. He put it in his trouser pocket.
The silence that fell was a little awkward, but Cedric was determined to maintain the level of comfort they had achieved. He cleared his throat. "What will you do now?"
"George Weasley has a shop in Hogsmeade. Ginny all but ordered me to visit."
Cedric laughed. "You should pick up some of their less damaging products while you're there."
"Actually, that's not a bad idea. So, I guess I'll see you tonight then."
Hermione chewed her lip for a moment before standing on tip-toe and briefly brushing her lips across his cheek then hastily stepping back. "Until then."
With a crack, she was gone.
For a long moment he just stared at the spot where she had stood, unable to help smiling. Perhaps he had a chance after all.
As Hermione walked through Hogsmeade, she could not help but think how very little the sleepy Wizarding village had changed in the past six years. The town had remained untouched by the final battle, and, other than a giant 'W3' above where Zonko's Joke Shoppe used to be, the only difference Hermione could spot was that Madam Rosmerta had recently bestowed upon the Three Broomsticks a fresh coat of paint.
She took her time walking the length of the main thoroughfare, excited about seeing George again, but nervous at the same time. Ginny and Molly both had made it seem as though he would be angry with her. Not that she would blame him, but she would still like the chance to ask his forgiveness.
The streets were nearly deserted, but Hermione didn't want to draw attention to herself by pausing outside the store, so she walked right in. A soft chime sounded as the door opened, and an instant later George's head popped around the end of an aisle to see who had come. There was a thump and a crash as he dropped whatever was in his hands.
George looked exactly as he had the last time she saw him, if only a little older, but she doubted much wiser.
"Hullo, George," Hermione said anxiously.
George continued to stare, looking for all the world like he'd been punched in the gut. Hermione hadn't seen that look on his face since Percy died, and it broke her heart.
Until that exact moment, she had never realised just how much pain her actions had caused those she loved most.
After a minute or so, it became clear that George would not be moving anytime soon, so Hermione very cautiously walked to him, stopping when she was within arm's reach. His eyes bored through hers for the entirety of the short trip. She took a deep breath, knowing she was not in any way prepared for this.
"Three days," he broke in, closing his eyes like looking at her face just hurt too much. "Three days I sat by your bedside waiting for you to wake up. It took three days for Mum to finally drag me home and make me rest, and when I went back in the morning one of the orderlies told me that you'd died during the night and that they'd lost your body."
George was trembling, and Hermione braced for the eruption. He had never been quick to anger, but Hermione knew him well enough to recognise the signs. He was furious, but she knew she deserved his wrath, too.
"How could you be so fucking selfish! After everything that happened, all the people that died – fuck; all that you and I went through, how could you do something so thoughtless and cruel?"
Hermione flinched, suddenly wishing she could run away. The truth was that she had never allowed herself to ask those questions, to demand an explanation of herself. She had been callous and unkind and self-absorbed. At the time she had not been able to see past her own grief and now, looking at George's face, she was seriously regretting her decision to flee.
"George," Hermione began unsteadily, "I know that an apology would not even begin to make amends for what I've done, for what I've put you through, but it is a start.
"When I woke up in hospital," she continued, more softly, "and I remembered everything that happened during the battle and everyone that died, I panicked." She stared at her feet, ashamed. "I couldn't handle it so I ran away like a coward.
"I know now that I never should have left, at least not like I did. I know that it was stupid and selfish and cruel. I also know that while I may desperately desire your forgiveness, I may never get it. And it would be no more than I deserve."
There was a long pause while George visibly controlled himself. When he spoke again, it was with a forced calmness that was nearly as intimidating as his anger.
"Okay. You panicked; I get that. But why did you go? Why couldn't you stay here and panic like the rest of us?"
"To heal," she replied automatically.
To heal, to heal, to heal, to heal. It had been a mantra these six years, always coming effortlessly to her lips when she was feeling lonely or afraid. But now it stuck in her throat like bad medicine.
"To heal?" George repeated incredulously. "Like your pain was greater than everyone elses'? Like you were the only person who lost friends and loved ones? Well, I hope it was fucking worth it!"
In a stunning moment of clarity, Hermione realised the sad, ironic truth. The one thing her absence had not brought her was healing. She was no less broken at that moment than she had been sneaking out of St. Mungo's in the middle of the night.
"No, it wasn't," she answered, a bewildered expression on her face. "Not really. Not in the slightest, actually. I feel like someone pushed the pause button on my life, and I've spent the past six years searching for the remote. Only I just realised that someone was me, and I accidentally left the remote behind when I left."
Hermione fell silent, blinking back the sudden tears that were threatening to fall and trying unsuccessfully to swallow the lump in her throat. It had been a long, long time since she'd allowed herself to be so honest, and it left her feeling a little raw.
George visibly deflated as the anger bled out to be replaced with astonishment. "I think I can count on one hand the times you've wilfully admitted you were wrong."
Hermione sob-laughed. "It's not totally unheard of."
The corner of George's mouth almost curled into a smile.
Daringly, Hermione reached out and clasped one of his hands in hers. He didn't pull it away. She took a deep breath and met his eyes.
"Words cannot express how truly, deeply sorry I am. You never deserved to be treated like that. I hope you can one day forgive me my weakness and deceit."
When George made no immediate reply, Hermione began to back away, but he held her firm. He was studying her.
"If you ever leave like that again, you better have a damn good hiding place." Then he pulled her into a bone-crushing hug and whispered into her hair, "Apology accepted."
Hermione sighed and returned the embrace.
Time doesn't heal shit, but a little love goes a long way.