A/N: Thank you LOADS for helping me reach my 3,000 review goal! On to the next! :) I am striving for higher numbers because I have found they tend to, more than anything, encourage new readers to give the story a try, and I'd like nothing more than to get the word out about Reverse so more people can enjoy it. Along that vein - THANK YOU to many of you who have been recommending this story to friends as well!
I'd like to give a special shout out to all those who have reviewed multiple chapters - and there are many of you - as well as two special reviewers who left a comment on each of my 44 chapters over the past week! I truly appreciate hearing all your thoughts and comments, even if it's to simply say, 'I liked it; great!' (courtesy is everything) - they really are what keeps me going, believe me.
The Weasel, The Cur and the Dragon
Despite the downright horrendous turn Ronáld's second-to-last Hogwarts semester had taken on multiple fronts, he had to admit the last few weeks had been looking up — all thanks to a resolution he'd made after he'd caught himself pining after My more than the conniving bint deserved and Brown'd had the nerve to up and break up with him out of absolutely nowhere (The gall! He was a Weasley!).
Ronáld Weasley had sworn off all women… temporarily. No dishy sides, no delicious main courses, no smelling the aroma, not even the slightest taste. No, after the way he'd been handled, not a single one of these Hogwarts lowes deserved him, and he refused to fall into their nonsensical, heartless traps again.
After all, there was far more to life than girls and all the highs and lows that came with them, such as — such as —
Such as hunting hippogriffs, and — and Hogwarts' famous Cornish pasties and shepherd's pie.
And the latest Porsche Turbo, the fastest flying auto released to date, which his father had agreed to buy him in reward for finishing out his Eighth Year. Oh yeah. Definitely that.
Unfortunately he still had six months to go where that was concerned, so for now, when it came to speed, brooms would have to do: Specifically, his Firestorm 2080, the best and newest model out.
Yes, instead of slags and their melodramatics and mood swings, Ronáld had taken a leaf from Evans's book and thrown all his energy into Quidditch, and yesterday it had paid off in spades. He'd made fifteen saves in twice as many minutes — his second shut-out of the season, and his personal best in blocks. Alright, yeah, Hufflepuff may have won in the end, but it was certainly no fault of his that rubbish miniature Creevey couldn't catch a snitch.
Ronáld couldn't help but harumph a bit to himself at that. He knew the only reason Evans had tapped Creevey to replace his idiot sister was because the pipsqueak was a Muggle-born, and Muggle-borns were required to be 'well represented in every organization of the school,' whatever that rot meant. Well, it was bloody reverse discrimination in his opinion, and if they lost another match because of Creevey's ineptitude, Ronáld certainly had plans to do something about it.
He accepted another round of high-fives and slaps from the Gyffindor table as he exited the Great Hall after lunch, basking in the fire of his own glow. Outside, the overcast weather had cleared, and he swiftly decided to sod his Dark Arts essay and spend his free period practicing out on the pitch—
Suddenly, someone grabbed his tie, yanking him behind a suit of armor.
Ronáld yelped, scrambling for his wand —
His eyes bulged when he saw who'd pushed him against the wall. He swallowed three times before he was able to speak; when he did, his strangled voice may have emerged two octaves too high.
She was wearing the tight blue Hogwarts jumper with the low-cut scoop neck she knew he liked oh so much, and oh dear Merlin, she was — now she was running her hands up and down his chest—
"Hello, big boy. Where've you been lately?" she purred with a coquettish smile.
Ronáld may have squeaked. "I— I thought we — we weren't…"
A trill of laughter escaped her painted lips. "Oh, silly Ronáld… Of course we are. Hard to get, remember?" She winked at him and leant close, breathing, "But don't worry… what goes around always comes around eventually…"
To his deprived mind, her provocative voice sounded like pure sex.
The heat that rose within him and began to channel itself into one very specific location in his body dampened the confusion and ire competing in his mind. A part of him inexplicably felt he didn't deserve to even look at her, but damn it, he knew something about that was off. My had always belonged to him, shouldn't have — shouldn't have ever betrayed him for a filthy, worthless House-Wizard!
But holy mother of Merlin, when he thought of the memory of their last night together… even if she had stolen the Fusty because of it…
Ronáld weakly tried to resist his body's overwhelming desire to at once ravish her and run from her. "I… I should be raging furious with you for— for every wretched thing you've done…"
"Oh yes. You should be." My's lips tugged upward, and she arched her eyebrow suggestively. "We both know that the perfect little storm of fury and wretchedness," she pressed herself flush against him and breathed in his ear, "makes for the most unforgettable sex."
Abruptly, Ronáld's brain switched off.
Shoving aside any feelings of inadequacy, he shoved his face against her neck and grasped fistfuls of her sweater, inhaling the flowery scent of her hair. He lowered his mouth to her ear, an entitled smirk pulling it wide. "What exactly d'you have in mind, pet?" he asked huskily. "Because I've half a mind to take you right here."
"Behind this hideous statue? Oh, I think not." My's hands encircled his tie, slowly running her fingers down its length. Ronáld felt his body already responding to the mere idea of her caress as more words seductively rolled off her lips. "No, why don't you and I find a nice, comfortable broom closet where no one can find us? With a bit of luck, even Trelawney won't be able to predict where we are..."
That was the most marvelous suggestion Ronáld had heard in months.
With a salacious smile, My took his hand, leading him through the busy halls of Hogwarts. For once, Ronáld was more than happy to let her take charge. He, meanwhile, smirkingly nodded at everyone who looked their way — and everyone did — that the Sovereignty's most cracking Muggle-born was once again with him. Of course she was — Clearly she'd seen him on fire yesterday and remembered exactly what she'd been missing, compared to whichever ill-endowed specimens she'd been shagging lately instead.
Once they reached the stairs, they climbed and climbed, Ronáld's eagerness and impatience growing with each. By the time My finally stopped after seven bloody flights, the exertion had only amplified his arousal. When she gave him a coy smile and opened a door he didn't recognize, pulling him through to the darkness inside, he all but pounced on top of her—
In a flash of red, his entire world went as black as a broom closet.
Hermione jerked away from Ronáld as he tumbled gracelessly to the ground, vigorously wiping her hands on her skirt in disgust. "That could not have happened soon enough," she muttered, slamming the Room of Requirement door shut. She could still feel the imprints of his hands grabbing at her chest, and resisted the urge to scrub herself clean immediately.
Light abruptly illuminated the Room, which had turned itself into what appeared to be a black-walled interrogation chamber.
Harry stepped up beside her, cocking his head at the unconscious Weasley. "Do you think he has any idea what's about to happen to him?"
"I guarantee the only thing he was thinking about was something he's never going to get," she spat. "And we need to make dead certain he continues to have no concept of it, so be thorough, Harry. We've only got an hour and a half before his next class." She crouched down, vehemently yanking a number of slick red hairs from his skull. "D'you think the hair gel will interfere with the Polyjuice potion?" she growled.
"I doubt it; we can clean them — Ruddy hell, Gramione, leave some behind or the bald patches'll be a sure sign to everyone in the world something's up!"
Hermione briefly closed her eyes, forcing herself to inhale and release a slow breath and her almost blinding hatred of the wizard who had helped damage Draco so badly along with it. "Right… You're right."
She flicked the rigid, sticky hairs off her fingers into the phial Harry had held down to her, stoppering the glass. As soon as she did, Harry snapped up Ronáld's wand, levitated him to a metal chair secured to the floor in the centre of the room, and blindfolded and bound him to it with startling efficiency. He erected a Muffliato Charm between them, then turned back to her. "Did you see Lovewood's back?"
She stared up at him. "You're joking."
Harry shook his head. "She was having lunch with Patil casual as you like, no worse for the wear for having been unwillingly carted off by Dementors three days ago."
Hermione had been too busy charming herself and her uniform to appear as alluring as possible to even attend lunch. She pushed herself to her feet. "What about… Terry?" she asked hesitantly, afraid to hope for both.
Any excitement she felt about Luna's survival and actual return was tempered by concern. "Why would your mother let her go?" she asked in bewilderment, starting to brainstorm possibilities herself. "Even Penelope saw she was guilty of what they'd accused her. I would have thought the consequence for that sort of direct subversion would warrant significant prison time, at least…"
Harry crossed his arms, his focused gaze distant. He appeared to be thinking of something specific he simultaneously wanted and didn't want to say.
Hermione sighed. "Harry, what are you thinking?"
Enough time passed that she didn't think he was going to tell her. She was reaching for the Marauders' Map when he said slowly, sounding as if speaking through gritted teeth, "My mother… strongly favors capable, intelligent women."
When Hermione looked back at him in surprise, Harry continued with a certain bitterness, "Always said it was because she didn't get to raise one of her own. She feels it's her duty to — to shepherd them, or some such rubbish. Lovehood may not be Muggle-born or even Mixed-Blood, but if Mother dearest decided she liked her — and Lovehood's the type she'd like — I can conceivably see her letting her off with only an Imperius Curse of loyalty to herself and the Sovereignty to ensure she never did it again."
The idea that Lily Evans had a soft spot for anything was one Hermione found shocking. Still, if it was true, it did better explain why she'd actually agreed to adopt My… even if the latter turned out to lack the attributes Lily preferred.
She focused back on Harry sadly. She couldn't begin to imagine what it must be like to be raised in a home where it was made blatantly clear she wasn't wanted, yet in two universes, Harry had been. Still, she suspected that, like Draco, the last thing he wanted was pity; if she responded with anything remotely like it, she was certain he'd never lower his walls enough to breach any other discomforting topics with her again.
She cleared her throat. "Okay. Say she actually released her. What about Percy? Penelope didn't instruct him to forget his suspicions of Luna, only to never follow up with the Phoenix about it again."
"If Clearwater's already mucking with his mind, she'd obviously ensure that was smoothed over as well. Say it was a false accusation; place the blame fully on Boot; use the Imperius on him entirely… that sort of thing." Harry's gaze shot to hers. "And don't even think of trying to catch Lovegood alone to suss anything out. If she's this prominent on Mother's radar, she could've been compelled to report back anything suspicions."
Hermione let out a breath, burying her forehead in her palm. "My goddess, Harry… this sort of corruption is insanity, even to me. Our Ministry of Magic was no exemplary pillar by any means, but this— so much power over life and death, in the hands of a single woman, not to mention Dumbledore…" She looked up sharply. "You are going to have Ronáld convince his mum to invite you as well, aren't you? If your mother attends and latches on to me or Draco at all…"
Harry glanced toward Ronáld and Stunned him again, even though he was still slumped awkwardly, his mouth hanging open and head tilted so far to the side it was almost comical.
"She won't," he said, returning his attention to her. "The Yuletide Gala is the Weasley's biggest social function of the year. It's the first of the season — meant to kick off the other Elite parties. Declining it is the ultimate snub; after the autumn we've had, Mother's certainly going to ignore any invitation she receives, if they even send one for show." He shrugged. "Anyway, I am going — if Margaret agrees to invite me."
Hermione let out a breath. "Thank Merlin…"
Harry shook his head. "Ohhh no," he said, as if he realized what she was thinking. "I'm not attending to be at your and Malfoy's beck and call if you run into trouble. I've got my own assignment to worry about, thanks."
That was news to her, and she couldn't hide her surprise. "Was this covered yesterday after Draco and I left?"
"No, before. Under the 'don't think about it until we know more' category."
When he said no more than that, Hermione exclaimed, "Oh, come on, Harry! You know what I'm doing, and Riddle promised me no more secrets. So whatever you're actually going to be up to, I'd very much appreciate being informed."
He looked around him like he wished the room had another exit she wasn't blocking, then pinched the bridge of his nose. "Is sussing this out going to distract you from what you and Malfoy need to accomplish?"
"Yes," she said unhesitatingly.
Harry let out a hiss of air. "Fine," he said tautly after a moment, lowering his voice despite the Muffling Charm between them and a very unconscious Ronáld. "Based on a spell Riddle found on the Silver Trio's leads, he thinks there may be a master lead that overrides all the others. It's smart prisoner management; it would give the Sovereignty the ability to easily Summon every House-Wizard back to them at once for emergencies, reclamation — whatever the purpose. If we can get our hands on it—"
"We can Summon every imprisoned conservative somewhere safe," she breathed, excitement leaping to her chest.
He nodded. "Possibly."
Her mind reeled. If this was true, and one of the most daunting challenges she'd seen ahead could be so easily surmounted, there was a small but real possibility any direct confrontation with the Sovereignty could be extremely limited — rather than the dozens of small rescue raids she'd been imagining.
"And you think someone at the Gala would know," she speculated eagerly. "If Riddle's theory is right, that is."
"Yeah, possibly," Harry repeated, nodding again, once.
After a silence, Hermione sighed – Honestly, sometimes trying to have a conversation with him was like pulling teeth! "Who?" she asked exasperatedly.
He looked like he was tiring from this as much as she was, but for a different reason entirely. "Dirk Cresswell. Minister of the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures and an old family friend — he was a fellow Muggleborn a year below my mother at Hogwarts. His Ministry runs the House-Wizard Regulations Bureau, and he reports to Weasley, so he'll be there. If I can wangle an answer out of anyone, it's him, so don't interrupt me if you see me with him." His expression became stern. "I mean it, Gramione — don't tell anyone else yet, not even Malfoy. Riddle doesn't want to get their hopes up until I can work out if it exists—"
Suddenly, the Room of Requirement door flew open.
Hermione wrenched up her wand; Snape smacked it out of the way a second after she'd leveled it at his hawk-nosed face.
"You're late," he snapped as the door shut behind him.
Hermione's brow furrowed in confusion before it lifted in realization.
In the rush to immobilize Ronáld as quickly as possible, she'd forgotten entirely that Snape had told her in no uncertain terms to meet her in the Potions Classroom for detention during lunchtime.
"Of course, you being the closet brown-noser you are, I actually expected you to show up," he continued, "or at least drop by before beginning your femme fatale escapades so I could provide you with further instruction, but—"
He trailed off abruptly, his attention drawn to Ronáld's limp body. "Well, well, well," he drawled delightedly, his lips twisting upward. "It seems the two of you've decided to start all the fun without me."
"I'd hardly consider forceful interrogation of an unwilling subject fun, even if it is a brutish roach of a human," Hermione scowled, remembering all too well Snape's enthusiasm to 'interrogate' her. She still didn't have the slightest idea why Riddle and Harry both staunchly trusted him, but she had to reluctantly admit she wasn't entirely displeased he'd joined them — clearly he had experience with doing this sort of thing, and remaining undetected.
"We've only gotten as far as two close-range Stunners. He's out cold," Harry told Snape as he approached Ronáld, looking intrigued. "You haven't missed much."
Belatedly, Snape's earlier words registered.
"Wait," Hermione said slowly, staring at him. "You wanted me to come to detention… to receive instructions?"
"And here you thought I simply lived to spite you." Hands clasped appraisingly behind his back, Snape circled Ronáld's chair like a shark preparing to attack its prey. "Use that sleek, shiny head of yours to draw connections, Granger. Why do you think I served you a weeklong sentence? Even that won't be enough for the sorry amount of preparation you'll need to keep up at the Jones's holiday jubilee. Your asinine drawing just made it easy for me to publicly buy us extra time."
When she gaped at him, he leaned toward her suddenly, cupping his hand around his ear. "Wait — What's that?" he asked pointedly. He waved his hand at her, leveling her a complacent smile. "Oh, you're too kind! Yes, I am a generous man, and yes, you do owe me."
As Hermione scoffed at him in refusal, Harry gestured at Ronáld's side. "His mobile's still in his pocket — didn't want to touch it and set off any security charms. Think it's best we make him use it to ring Margaret directly in front of us."
"Will she even answer? I thought the cucumbers from her daily spa treatments are the only lunch she ever has."
"If he texts her first and makes it sound gossipy, she will. Can't keep her nose out of that sort of thing, even during a hot rock massage. The real question is how we want to bring him out of this."
Snape studied the now-snoring redhead thoughtfully. "Big Ego, Little Weasel's a pampered prick; the only thing driving his cooperation is positive rewards. Hm… Give me a minute to raid my Ogden's Old stash, and let's put this room to work. Upper class escort flat, Veritaserum in his Firewhiskey, five scantily clad call girls asking the questions we need answered… by the end he'll be so amenable to our suggestions he won't even realize he's under any variant of the Imperius, let alone try to fight it."
Harry nodded, his brow drawn analytically rather than lifted in amusement like his godfather's. "Even if the Sovereignty does suspect anything and attempts restoring his memory, that scene isn't so out of character it's inconceivable."
Hermione let out a snort of contempt and shook her head disapprovingly. It was apparent she'd be recalculating her plan for her free period.
"Right, well — Ciao, then," she called, reaching for the door. Their gazes simultaneously shot toward her in surprise. "What?" she said. "It seems you two have this well under control; I'm not sticking around for the scantily clad show."
Snape crossed his arms. "And you think that gives you a free pass? You still have detention."
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, as you've made perfectly clear. No — I've a few other necessary tasks to see to. You may be aware My's rather fashion-minded; I've got less than a fortnight to sort out who her primary designers are, how I can contact them, if they can actually make me in a dress at such short notice, what it should look like and if my measurements still match hers… unless you'd rather I did it all in your office?" she asked sweetly.
He tilted his head ruminatively. "I suppose you're right," he said, though his voice sounded mockingly exaggerated. "All Gala related; I believe I can sanction that." His brows knit. "Though if you're looking for any help with those measurements—"
Harry groaned and attempted jabbing Snape in the shoulder. The professor dodged, looking like he was trying – very poorly – to hide a wicked smirk.
Hermione glared at him in disgust. Honestly, how on earth did Harry respect such a crude, offensive, downright unlikeable man?
"Right, that's my cue," she said sourly. She frowned briefly at Ronáld, then looked over at her dark-haired friend before she grasped the doorknob. "When you use the Undetectable Imperius on him, be sure to include that he can't so much as poke me without my permission."
"It'd be considerably simpler if you cast your own Imperius on him so you could control that aspect specifically," he pointed out.
Hermione pursed her lips momentarily, considering it, then frowned, shaking her head. "No. I still haven't gotten that curse exactly right, and I won't risk introducing any source of error to this; it's too important."
"For once, I concur," Snape said, unnecessarily.
Harry frowned, ruffling his hair as he often did when unhappy and keenly in thought about a situation. "For as much as I distrust the Imperius, you're going to need to learn the undetectable version eventually. You never know when it could help extricate you from a disadvantageous situation."
Hermione sighed, nodding. "I know, I know, and I will. But right now I don't have time, or a subject I'm willing to subject to it, for that matter."
She reached for the door, then paused. "I can't begin to tell you how ironic it is you're planning to give that beast the luxury hotel version of your interrogation, but if the opportunity arises…" Her gaze shifted toward Ronáld, her lip curling slightly with the utmost loathing. "Don't be gentle."
It was the fourth time Draco had stood before Tom's pensieve that week.
It was the first he'd done it without the support of a cane.
'Relief' didn't seem to be a big enough word to capture the emotion he'd felt that morning descending a flight of stairs without stabbing pain for the first time in months. The entire process of correcting the botched Healing without actually re-breaking his leg had been fascinating to watch, and Draco had shamelessly tapped into his aunt's chattiness to learn as much about fracture treatment and pain alleviating potions and spells as he could.
Aunt Bella, of course, had seen right through it, and by yesterday afternoon, she'd sighed and with no prompting whatsoever, exclaimed, "Yes, Draco, I'll teach you everything I know about Mediwitching!"
He'd left the medical room grinning from ear to ear.
"The leg seems to be much improved," Tom commented, entering the war room behind him.
Draco glanced over at him, nodding. "It is, thank Merlin. Aunt Bella says one more day of smoothing should be enough to restore it completely."
The defiance leader smiled. "I'm glad for that, Draco. I only regret that level of care couldn't have come sooner."
Draco looked down and shrugged halfheartedly. It would have been nice if it had, but he was beginning to stop wishing the past could be changed. He knew it couldn't, and it seemed the only way he could move on from it without losing his mind was by accepting it for what it was and looking forward.
Tom came up alongside him, running his fingers along the edge of the silver basin. "Bella told me she's been reviewing Occlumency with you as well?"
Draco nodded. His stomach clenched nervously, and he fiddled with the small bottle of Anti-Anxiety Tonic gripped in his hand. "Evans seems to think there's little chance of his mother or the Sovereign attending, but the last thing I want is to come face to face with another Legilimens and give everything away…"
"That's very prudent," Tom agreed. "Though you should give yourself some credit. You've been skilled enough to hide your knowledge of a second universe all these years, even through a House-Wizard bond." He tipped his head toward the pensieve. "Ready for another go?"
"Ready? Never. Willing?" Draco sighed deeply. "Unfortunately, yes."
With white-knuckled fingers, he popped the cap off the tonic and swallowed once, the equivalent of a single dose. He didn't like relying on potions to control himself, didn't like how they mimicked so many situations in his life where control had been wrenched from his hands. But after the harrowing experience he'd had reviewing the first memory without it, he'd reluctantly concluded that in the mere fortnight he had to mentally prepare himself for his return to Weasley Hall, the tonic was likely his best chance at keeping any unwanted and potentially severe anxiety responses to undetectable levels.
Tom lightly touched his shoulder. Draco saw it coming and was proud when he didn't feel even the slightest urge to flinch. "It takes a unique strength to acclimate yourself to the presence of those who have harmed you deeply, Draco — especially when you were also given the choice to avoid this ordeal entirely," he said. "I believe you'll reach a point when you don't need that potion, but until then, there's no weakness in accepting aid."
Draco saw not plush, dispassionate words of comfort, but real understanding in his dark eyes.
In a rush, he remembered that the Sovereignty had held Tom prisoner for nearly eight years. The legendary wizard never spoke of it, and with his sheer magical power, it was so easy to forget. But after he'd returned, Draco's mother had mentioned once that the MLE had perfected an ancient ritual to simultaneously trap him and inhibit his magic. Some obscure loophole, she'd said, had been the only reason he'd been able to escape, but certainly not before he was subjected to things Draco couldn't begin to imagine… and Draco could imagine quite a bit.
"How did you do it?" he asked in disbelief. "After everything they did to you, for almost a decade…" He crossed his arms, shaking his head. To him, surviving that long in the Weasleys' hands and immediately emerging as Tom did — to lead a second defiance — was inconceivable. "How did you walk out from that and face them again without a second thought?"
Tom sighed. He turned, casually leaning back against the pensieve stand, and for several seconds simply stared out the spheric war room's wraparound windows.
"My makeup is different from yours, Draco," he said finally. "Unlike you, for those eight years, I was sustained not by love, but by hatred. It was an effective tool to burn away any fear that may have restrained me initially, but I'm only beginning to understand that it hasn't paved a pathway for me to live. It's paved a path for me to die."
Draco frowned, trying to make sense of the words — he doubted Tom meant them literally.
"So… in the short-term your hate was helpful, but in the long-term it's been personally destructive," he surmised.
Tom rewarded him with the smallest of smiles, more at Draco's assessment than his words, he was certain. Tom had consistently presented such an even-tempered persona it was rather difficult for Draco to imagine he was being driven by an emotion as powerful as hatred; the only manifestation Draco could conceivably see it was in the dark-haired man's single-minded determination to resist the Sovereignty, no matter the personal cost. What exactly did Tom believe that any hate inside him was still destroying now?
Before he could contemplate asking, Tom said firmly, "You, on the other hand, are surrounded by love and support. The Estate you'll be entering plainly wants to help you. You and Hermione together possess great power, and Harry's just confirmed he's been invited as well. Between these elements, I'm confident you'll be in very good position to emerge successfully, no matter how many hornets have infiltrated your family's nest, so to speak."
Draco gripped the edge of the Pensieve stand and nodded in thanks. He could feel the tonic's effects already: his rapidly racing heart had begun to slow considerably; the sweat dampening his palms had vanished. "Well… on to Round Four, then?"
"Let's do it."
Tom lifted the tip of his wand to Draco's temple. Draco squeezed his eyes shut and focused; a few seconds later, he felt the familiar tug of a memory being pulled from his mind. He had to wonder if the experiences he'd had while imprisoned at the Weasleys had turned him into some sort of masochist… mostly because this entire idea had been his to begin with.
They both watched the silvery threads begin to swirl in the pensieve.
"Could you freeze it again, like you did the first time?" Draco asked. When Tom gave a nod of affirmation, they plunged into the memory.
The first three Draco had chosen had been relatively safe, featuring run-ins with the four youngest Weasleys, Longbottom, Finnegan, Thomas and other Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs during his fifth year, not his imprisonment. After a week, the sound of their voices still made him want to vomit, but the irrepressible urge to actually do so had lessened drastically; the tonic helped dull the immediate surge of panic at the very sight of them.
This memory was different.
As the tendrils of midst around him settled, the oppressive scarlet and black walls and floors of Weasley Hall materialized. The difference in the Estate was vast from another set of memories in which his father had only yesterday been delighting in escorting him: the airy, white interior of Malfoy Manor while his parents had still resided in it.
Draco's heart did the potion-slowed equivalent of a lurch — a somewhat staggered thud.
Only feet away from him, in the imposing grandeur of the marble-floored front foyer, stood the Viceroy and his wife Margaret Weasley, mid-laugh and holding crystal goblets of champagne. They were accompanied by a different pair of red-headed twins, Fabian and Gideon Prewett, the latter's wife Marlene, and senior Magical Law Enforcement Squad officials Sturgis Podmore and Benjy Fenwick.
Even with the Anti-Anxiety Tonic, a panicked swell of blood rushed to his brain, fogging it slightly.
His hands squeezed into fists. For several moments, he simply stood determinedly, reminding himself over and over that he wasn't powerless here anymore — that he was safe. He was safe.
The reaction was a reminder, rather than a deterrent, of why it was so terribly important he continue this therapy: In no world could he afford to be paralyzed by a simple, unexpected appearance or environment… especially if he was caught without the tonic.
Before he did anything else, Draco took a small breath, kneeling before the bound, frightened boy he had once been. The Draco of a year earlier was hovering a few inches off the ground, mid-curse, eyes squeezed tightly shut in the only action he'd had at his disposal to try to sever himself from the abuses befalling him. But Draco wouldn't look away from the suffering of his seventeen-year-old self like he'd tried so desperately to in the past… not anymore.
As he similarly had when reliving his memory of the Final Suppression, he felt such compassion for this person who was no longer him… and yet still was.
It'll get better. I promise, Draco told him silently.
In that moment, to the layers of previous lives still imprinted within him, that love was a much-needed salve for not-so-distant wounds.
With a final, deep breath, Draco stood. Tom waited at the edge of the circular entryway nearest him, observing the scene with unreadable, vigilant eyes. Thankfully, he'd proven to be a blessedly nonjudgmental, silent companion for this bleak task.
Draco nodded at him, and the resistance leader lifted his wand, twisting once.
Sound and motion burst across the scene as it resumed its natural flow.
Swallowing hard, Draco turned back to the party of Elites, simply allowing his mind and body and the subconscious conditioning within both to absorb their voices, appearances, actions, proximity, and presence in a safe environment…
Before he moved on to yet more memories, more torments and nightmares, facing every character from the ordeals of his past who would likely soon play a role in at least one experience in his future.
To the external eye, a peculiar congregation of witches and wizards gathered around the old desk inside the secure, musty alcove in the Potions classroom's northern corner.
The historically warring Evans siblings sat congenially beside each other, academically insouciant My scribbling fastidiously in a small notebook. Floating at eye level overlooking the Elites was one of two expensive, ostentatious two-way mirrors that had apparently belonged to an 18th Century French wizarding Marquis; squeezed in its frame were two House-Wizards, patching in using its twin, hidden deep within the castle depths.
On the other side of the desk, the Potions professor and, some would argue, least mature adult present reclined in his chair, his crossed feet carelessly perched on his desk. With a lazy flourish, another puff of smoke belched from his wand, solidifying into the image of a slightly chunky man with buzzed, greying hair. "Caradoc Dearborn, Floo Network Authority Director. My hated him."
"Wouldn't even deign to speak to him," Harry added.
Hermione's brow furrowed as she followed their rapid-fire commentary, making swift notes in invisible ink. For the past five days, she'd been introduced to virtually every witch and wizard who could possibly make an appearance at the Gala, in addition to managing prefect meetings, gown consultations, memorizing Weasley Hall's layout courtesy of rudimentary maps penned by Draco's father, and— oh! actual homework My had due, no matter how abysmally it was completed. "Any particular reason why she hated him?"
Snape looked at Harry. "Is there any particular reason why My does anything she does?"
"Ugly devil wasn't rich or powerful enough, I'd suspect," Harry grunted.
"Or attractive enough, it would appear," Pansy commented from the mirror.
Harry chuckled. "Yeah, that too, Liv."
Snape conjured another image. "Episode twenty-three of name that wizard, Granger. You have ten seconds, starting… five seconds ago."
Hermione stared at the rather nondescript, sallow-faced man gazing at her. Muddled hazel, almond-shaped eyes blinked slowly, like a lizard basking on a rock while waiting for prey.
She wracked her brain, desperately sorting through the nearly 150 alternate universe personalities, their roles in the wizarding world (or Muggle world, as a number of powerful non-magical emissaries were invited to events here), and potentially useful details about My's encounters with and attitudes toward them that she'd only just learned this week.
"That's…" she said, gnawing her lip in concentration, "that is…"
Yet another person who hadn't been alive in Universe A, Hermione knew that much — at least, not by the time she was at Hogwarts. Countless Order of the Phoenix members who'd been killed in the First Wizarding War had prominent Sovereignty positions here—
"One and three quarters…"
Her mind blanked completely, and Snape made a rude buzzing noise.
Hermione slapped the feather of her Weasley's Invisible Self-Inking Quill against the desk's edge. "Sod it!"
Snape took her frustration for what it meant and, unsurprisingly, was perfectly eager to fill the ensuing silence with the sound of his voice. "Fenwick, Benjamin. For reasons unknown, commonly prefers the canine diminutive Benjy. Fidgety snitch, but was somehow appointed Chief Wizard of the MLE Squad five years ago. He's unsavory and paranoid — if he's there, be aware."
"Only not overtly… because he'll already be monitoring you, and everyone else within range," Harry warned.
"There's a pleasant thought," muttered Hermione.
"Fenwick's tucked in the Second Viceroy's back pocket," Draco spoke up suddenly, his voice terse. "He'll undoubtedly be attending."
Hermione found that detail intriguing. "Doesn't Lily Evans supervise the Minister of Magical Law Enforcement?" she asked. "She can't stand Arthur Weasley; I can't imagine she'd want Amelia Bones to appoint a Squad chief who's in bed with her competition, figuratively speaking."
Harry tilted his head back and forth appraisingly. "I can see why you'd think that, but Weasley has nearly as much influence as she does. He may be an Old-Blood, but that appeals to the non-conservative Old-Bloods who rode out the First and Second Interventions, and any of their Mixed-Blood families. The Sovereign does occasionally allow him his way over her, for balance — hence the appointment."
"No doubt our virtuous flower's simply waiting for the proper time to send a Hitwizard to meet dear Benjy in a dark alleyway," Snape commented without a drop of sarcasm.
"If unadulterated evil can be considered a virtue," Draco muttered through the mirror.
Hermione sighed. "It does seem to be valued more here than in my world," she said heavily. She closed her eyes briefly, picturing the lizard-eyed man's pinched face in her mind. Benjamin Fenwick. "Right, certainly not going to forget him now. Next."
This face — with freckles and large designer glasses and head of strawberry blond hair in an edgy half-buzzed, half-pixie-length haircut that abruptly morphed into a neon blue fringe — was also new, but it was one Hermione now recognized instantly.
She scrolled to that file in her brain, regurgitating by rote the information she'd stored there. "Kendra Selveretnam Dumbledore. Ravenclaw, Metamorphmangus, professional Quidditch player on Puddlemere United, great-granddaughter of Ariana Dumbledore, and the youngest surviving relative of Albus Dumbledore. It's widely believed Dumbledore plans to instate her father Claudius as Sovereign of Wizarding Britain whenever the time comes. My resented that her unorthodox fashion choices never negatively impacted her popularity, and that she so effortlessly embodied her royalty and fame but at times also seemed unappreciative of it." She frowned thoughtfully. "It's a bit surprising to me Dumbledore's considering establishing a blood-based monarchy when he's all but created a meritocracy beneath him."
"I don't say this often, but short of a free conservative state, which I cannot see us getting, I'd take either Selveretnam Dumbledore any day over the majority of potential contenders for the throne, Mother Dearest and Arthur Weasley included," Harry said.
"I'd agree," Draco said, nodding. "Unless things have changed drastically in two years, the SDs are as moderate as they come where the Sovereignty's concerned, Hermione. They never—" his speech halted abruptly, before he continued evenly, "—did things the other Elites readily would."
Hermione knew what he meant, and that alone boosted her assessment of Kendra, Claudius and Helena Selveretnam Dumbledore.
Harry nodded. "Malfoy's right," he said, and for once didn't seem uncomfortable acknowledging it. "They're among the few wizards mentally capable of balancing Light and Dark Magic the way the Sovereign touts without spiraling down completely into the Dark Arts — they've got his cognitive capacity. I suspect Metamorphmendra and her father will be the least of your problems next Saturday."
For better or worse, Hermione suspected the same — she'd already marked stars beside a long list of other individuals who might. Still, she made a note to observe Dumbledore's great-grandniece more closely when at all possible. She had only seen her in passing or across the Great Hall a handful of times that semester, since Kendra's professional Quidditch and academic schedule was so demanding.
Snape's lip curled at the next image that materialized, one with a larger-than-life confidence that seemed to spring from the two-dimensional likeness. "Speaking of problems…"
Hermione sat up immediately.
"Sirius Black," she identified… even though this Sirius was, physically at least, a vastly different man from Harry Potter's much-beloved godfather.
"Egotistic knobhead, more like," Harry muttered.
Hermione twisted toward him in surprise. Snape's loathing, she could understand — it seemed he was meant to resent the Marauders in any universe they all appeared. But it was perplexing to her that Harry's aversion to Sirius ran so deep.
"Why do you dislike him so much?" she asked, keen to learn more about Universe B's Sirius, who she knew was the wizarding equivalent of an actor and television personality. "In my world, he and Harry were incredibly close — Sirius had been best friends with James Potter there. And… didn't you say he gave you these mirrors?" She gestured in confusion at the hovering, near-priceless magical artifact connecting them with Draco and Pansy.
"Trying to buy me off," Harry grunted. "Took him giving me those two years back to finally sort out he couldn't."
When more of an explanation didn't come, Hermione said, "And?"
Snape let out an obnoxiously loud breath and rolled his eyes. "Oh, for the love of Merlin's pet goat, can we get a move on from Bajillionaire Black? I'm certain every tabloid My subscribes to from here to Greece has already painted an extremely accurate likeness of the mangy cur beneath the grandiloquent character."
Hermione wasn't about to take Snape's word on Sirius Black's personality. "Listen, if there's some sort of history here My may have been aware of, I think I need to know what it is," she argued stubbornly.
When Harry silently crossed his arms, his expression stony, Pansy said, a bit tentatively, "Sirius Black, erm… abandoned Harry's father in a time of need." Harry looked toward her quickly but surprisingly didn't stop her. She held his gaze and said slowly, "Now that Harry's grown, Sirius has tried to pretend it never happened, but Harry's understandably still upset with him for it."
At her vague, furtive words, Hermione's brow knit. There was so much about the Marauders here she didn't know but had assumed she had, she realized… Obviously they'd once been close enough to create the Marauders' Map, but what could have driven Sirius and James — well, Sirius, James, and Remus, not to mention Peter, who no one ever mentioned here — so far apart in the years after?
Before she could ask, Harry said brusquely, "On the other hand, My and he were disgustingly friendly. Always sneaking off and whispering and laughing and causing a scene. I've no idea what about."
Hermione warily looked back at Sirius's floating likeness. Here, lines and scars from thirteen years of Azkaban imprisonment hadn't aged his face; a heaviness from losing his closest friends and believing it to be his mistake didn't weigh down his eyes and frame. She had to admit, however reluctantly, there was a reason why magazines were still naming him the Sovereignty's most beautiful man: his appearance was certainly nothing to scoff at.
She was also all too aware of the many rumors about him and My that had been flying about since the day she'd arrived.
Uneasiness rose in her chest, and she shifted uncomfortably. "You don't think they were, erm…" She cleared her throat awkwardly, looking at Harry in question. At his blank gaze, she hissed, "You know — involved!"
A disgusted expression exploded across his face. "Christ, I hope not! But I wouldn't put it past her; she seemed to appreciate him more than Weasley at times, and I don't say that lightly."
"Wouldn't put it past The Eternal Bachelor to bed someone so young who 'looks so old,' either," Snape said, crooking his fingers in quotation marks while his eyes pointedly flicked toward Hermione's chest.
She felt nauseous, and desperately glanced toward the mirror for some sort of evidence to shift My and Sirius's potential history. "Pansy, any insight?"
From Pansy's regretful expression, she knew instantly she wasn't going to like what the dark-haired woman had to say.
"I never saw her with him… directly," she began gingerly, her gaze slightly distant in recollection, "but I… remember he called her a few times, when she was with her friends. She'd tell them it was him, and they'd squeal — Ginevra would always rebut it, but My insisted it was true, and told him she'd see him later… She did leave at the times she said they were meeting, and she always seemed rather… well, rather chuffed when she returned…"
Hermione's eyes briefly darted to Draco's before she covered her face, groaning. "No!"
Pansy nodded apologetically. "She'd come back with gifts, too… beautiful, expensive things I'd never in my life be able to afford. Your lead for me, that ruby bracelet — that was supposedly from him as well." She frowned. "I'm actually a bit surprised you haven't heard from him at all since the semester began…"
"Because he couldn't reach me, rather than any lack of trying, it sounds like. My's mobile is gone, remember? I never found it," Hermione reminded her. "I never replaced it, either."
She hadn't wanted to deal with loads of phone messages she didn't know how My would answer on top of everything else. She'd eventually closed the Mystery of the Missing Mobile with the theory that, like her own bag of Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes, My's phone must have somehow been affected by the inter-dimensional transfer.
"Oh, that's right," Pansy nodded. "Well, that explains that. He probably thinks you're ignoring him."
Harry learned forward, addressing the two-way mirror directly. "Malfoy, Ronáld deemed Sirius Black beneath him because he came from a family of Fus—conservatives," he corrected rapidly. "I assume the real fuel for his dislike stemmed from jealousy over Black's friendly relations with My. No doubt he'll be there, and no doubt he'll arse his way into the conversation. When he does, assert your territory. Be rude."
Draco looked considerably uncomfortable with this idea. "Right. Of course. World-famous celebrity. Aggression and rudeness. Easy done," he said with a nonchalantness Hermione knew was a cover.
Oddly, he sounded like he was speaking of a stranger rather than a relative.
"He's still your cousin, Draco, isn't he?" she asked.
"Yes, by birth, but he didn't exactly drop by the conservative slums of East Belham for family reunions. My mum always said that once he and Andromeda got out, they never looked back." Draco winced slightly. "I'd say that's an accurate assessment, given the few glimpses I've caught of him from the wrong side of a red carpet."
Hermione dragged her fingers down her face, her (unwillingly) manicured nails digging temporary furrows into her skin. "Merlin, this is going to be so incredibly unpleasant," she mumbled.
More than that, not knowing the exact nature of her apparently close acquaintance with Sirius Black also made her nervous, and she once again cursed the fact she didn't have access to a full well of My's memories. If he was someone who My actually liked, someone who not only knew her well, but was a determined suitor…
Well, she suspected a spectacular show of possession from Draco, no matter how much he didn't fancy the thought of it, might be the only way to evade the complications of Sirius's obviously intrusive nature.
It was well past midnight only four days until the Gala before Hermione could escape to the Chamber of Secrets — the first chance she'd had since her long afternoon there two weekends earlier. She and Draco sat on small cushions across from each other in the middle of Tribute A's dueling room, only a single, large candle set between them. The long, curved room was otherwise as devoid of furniture and people as it had been when Hermione had dueled Tom Riddle in it a month earlier.
"Assuming 'strength of the Source' has to do with magic that's in some way accessible, have you noticed anything that happens when we're with each other that doesn't when we aren't?" Draco was asking. In the hush of the nighttime hour, the lantern cast a warm glow on his face, and how much healthier and more alive he appeared now than he had only a week ago warmed Hermione's heart with tremendous relief.
"Only one thing, specifically," she said. "I was able to cast an Eighth-Level Charm more easily around you. Mind you, I've only cast it thrice, but still."
"Yes, the Invisibility Charm. Under immense pressure as well, as I recall." He glanced at her rather sheepishly. "I'm fairly certain I was already unconscious by the time you did it."
"You weren't alone. I was nearly there myself," Hermione said, remembering only too well their dangerously close Dementor encounter. "I've also managed the Charm once on my own, but it was the same night I met you — and only just after we'd spoken for the first time," she realized. "I've tried it seven times, now, and the rest haven't taken at all, not even in life or death situations. So I suppose it can be said with some level of confidence that you were a common element in the successful casting of the three that have."
Draco gazed at her thoughtfully. For the first time in weeks, the jumper he'd chosen wasn't high-necked, which revealed many more scars, yes, but the fact that he wasn't trying to hide them anymore said a great deal. "Can you do it now?"
"What… cast an Invisibility Charm?" she asked in surprise.
Hermione pursed her lips in concentration. Then she inhaled deeply, closed her eyes and lifted the tip of her wand to her opposite wrist. Breathing again, more slowly, she conjured all the theory she knew about the successful completion of the spell to her mind… allowed the intention to vanish from all eyes and senses to permeate through the magic inside her…
With a silent thought, she cast the spell and opened her eyes hopefully.
Draco was still studying her. "You just tried it, I'm guessing?"
Her shoulders fell in disappointment.
"Oh, damn this bloody Gala!" she exclaimed, venting frustration that had been building for days. "If I didn't have so much to prepare for it and handle all the daily rubbish I've to do as My, we could've tried to figure this out sooner. Now it feels we're in a time crunch to find an answer about what this power is, and if something unexpected manifests at the Gala instead…"
"Hermione, it's alright," he soothed. "That preparation, understanding My's relationships with everyone who's anyone in the Sovereignty… You'll be glad you've done it, even if we didn't have the Gala."
She sighed, shoving a hand through her hair. "Yes, I know you're right, but… What if this Source strength isn't tangible magic like Dumbledore and Riddle seem to think it will be, but something abstract? Or… what if it is real, but it isn't even talking about us? 'Marked as the least,' yes; 'united at the greatest despair,' yes, but we still don't know what 'those of the purest intention' means."
For several seconds, Draco was silent.
"I know what it means," he finally said quietly.
When her gaze shot to his in surprise, he looked down, almost nervously working his hands into the small openings at the opposite wrists of his jumper. Then he said a bit tentatively, "And I… I think you do as well."
He took a small breath before looking up at her again.
Suddenly, Hermione understood.
Immediately, her irritation deflated as rapidly as it'd expanded. In the low light of the candle, the silver of his eyes seemed to glisten and glimmer in a mesmerizing dance. In the honesty between them now, his gaze was beautifully open, his soul laid bare, and with startling clarity, Hermione saw everything she had ever felt for him, so powerfully, from the very moment they'd met — everything that had once frightened and overwhelmed her, everything that had driven her to run away from herself, and him.
The distance they'd traveled between then and this moment seemed as vast as the space between his universe and her own. In that instant, she could admit with certainty what had always been inside her: even without a whisper of a word, of an expression that didn't seem quite full enough to encompass the sensations, the thoughts and emotions racing through her head and her heart…
Nothing had ever felt so pure.
"Draco," she said quietly, "I've something I'd like to show you."
He blinked rapidly, then seemed to shake himself slightly and refocused on her, his brows furrowing ever so slightly in silent question.
Hermione smiled at him once, nervously, before she stood. She'd never produced this spell sitting down, and trying would've felt too odd — she didn't want anything interfering with her casting it correctly.
Her stomach flipped a bit in either giddiness or anticipation as she turned to the expanse of the dueling hall. She shook the jitters away, closing her eyes, and lifted her wand.
The first memory that pulled a smile to her lips was a chuisle. Holding tight the sound of Draco's voice murmuring it in her ear, she opened her eyes and exclaimed, "Expecto Patronum!"
A monumental burst of light, far brighter than any she'd ever seen upon producing her otter guardian, exploded from her wand.
Behind her, she heard Draco inhale sharply.
The magic solidified into the same magnificent corporeal form of an Asiatic dragon it had on the West Tower. It was actually far bigger than the room, and half its back and tail disappeared through the walls and ceiling as it circled the dueling hall.
Now that Hermione wasn't dumbfounded nor under attack, she was able to study it more closely with no dearth of awe. She noted again how serpentine it appeared compared to traditional European species, lacking the wings its Western counterparts possessed. Even still, the sinewy embodiment soared through the wall and out into the Chamber of Secrets, its head reappearing through the window a moment later to stare straight at her with large, focused eyes.
As she always had in the presence of dragons, Hermione could see how these majestic creatures could inspire fear and worship amongst a global community. But now — unlike the time she, Ron and Harry had faced off with the Gringott's Ukrainian Ironbelly — she found herself smiling slightly as her Patronus stretched its slender, scaled neck and head out to meet her, noticing with some fondness its long horns and beard, the full mouth of razor teeth stretched in a smile.
She reached toward it, her outstretched hand half the size of a single fang. When her fingers brushed against the glowing form, it faded from sight. Compared to the radiance of its immense luminosity, the room was plunged into near darkness.
Holding her breath, Hermione turned back toward Draco to see his reaction.
He was standing now, too, as still as the silence that surrounded them, but it was impossible to discern his expression in the faint light of the single candle.
She shuffled a bit apprehensively. "I did some research. Apparently it's — it's native to Korea," she explained. "The Korean Dragon is one of the few species that aren't fire breathers. According to local records, they're water dwellers… not only peaceful, but benevolent and wise—"
Her breath hitched as Draco rapidly crossed the few steps between them and took her face between his hands. From this close, Hermione could see his eyes were shining with emotion, and for a split second, they searched hers for permission before he leant down and kissed her soundly.
Such warmth flooded her that a gasp escaped her lips; another quickly followed when joy swelled like a swiftly inflating balloon in her chest. She gripped his jumper tightly, her lips steady and certain against his, savoring the sweetness of his taste, his scent, the indescribable electricity his touch never failed to awaken inside her from the tips of her fingers to the top of her head. She had no concept of how much time passed before Draco pulled back slightly, but she let out a soft sigh of pleasure as he rested his forehead against hers, his hand still gently cupping the back of her head.
"W-When — when did it—?" he croaked.
Hermione looked at him swiftly. His usually pale complexion was ruddy, his breaths hard and ragged, but it was his eyes, mere heartbeats from hers, that truly betrayed how moved he was.
She suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to thank him… but for what? For caring so deeply about something as rare and meaningful as a Patronus shift that had clearly been triggered by his presence in her life when he didn't have to care at all? For being here for her, always, in ways no one else ever had? For… for allowing her to love him as he was and loving her back the same, even if he might call it by a different name than 'love'?
None of it seemed enough, so instead she lifted her hand, slowly, tenderly running the back of her index finger down his flushed cheek. At her touch, Draco closed his eyes, inhaling another shuddery breath. "Hermione," he breathed, and she wanted to tangle herself up in him all over again.
"I only found out recently, but I think… awhile now," she answered softly. "Riddle said last month he thought my Patronus was impressive, but I didn't see it then, so I didn't realize it might've actually changed…"
He took her hand and held it close to his chest. As he gently traced his thumb across the tops of her knuckles, Hermione's breath caught, relishing the familiar, powerful spark of desire and life within her. "Ah, I wish I could show you mine, a chuisle," he sighed, his eyes regretful.
"Someday, you'll be able to," she murmured.
The long breath Draco released was heavy. Hermione couldn't imagine how it must have felt to have lived forever with her magic… only to suddenly, and seemingly permanently, be without it.
"I truly hope you're right about that," he said quietly.
As she breathed with him, she was unable to stop the insatiable tingle of curiosity that rose in her chest. "What was it?" she asked. "Your Patronus."
He straightened up a bit, and after a moment, smiled, tucking a bit of hair behind her ear. "That will simply have to be a surprise," he said, teasing lifting the sadness in his voice.
Hermione stared at him in disbelief. "Draco! Come on, tell me!"
Draco shook his head. "No, no — I want you to see it, Hermione."
"Seriously?" she asked incredulously. When he still didn't give, she wheedled, "What if I told you simply knowing mattered more to me?"
"Listen, if you'd only told me your Patronus was a dragon instead of showing me, it wouldn't have been at all the same. I won't take that experience away from you. But I will say mine — mine's connected to you, as well."
"Oh, thanks, that makes having to wait for it loads easier," Hermione said sourly.
He laughed and found her hand again, squeezing it reassuringly. "Hermione, I promise I'm not doing this to be difficult. Whenever my magic is restored, which I have to believe it will be, I solemnly swear that the very first thing I'll do is find you and perform the Patronus Charm."
He sounded frustratingly earnest, which meant she wouldn't be able to stay annoyed with him for very long.
Hermione let out a hard breath, crossing her arms. "How is it that you can be one of the few things that keeps me sane, and simultaneously manage to drive me to the edges of it?"
"My excellent Sovereign-given education in achieving Dumbledore's perfect balance, I'd expect," Draco said dryly.
Her lips twitched at that. Still, she shook her head. "Okay… so perhaps every piece of evidence in the prophecy does point to us. We're still no closer to discovering anything useful about it." She glanced at Ronáld's Wizex, shrunk for her smaller wrist, and yawned. "I think I've got about a half hour left in me before I'll desperately need to crash…"
"Here?" he asked.
She smiled at him slightly in response, and Draco's eyes brightened more. He held out his hand to her, and they both resumed their cushioned seats, the candle in between.
"Tom really thinks it's us, you know," he said suddenly.
Considering how hard Riddle had worked to all but force a solemn vow to keep her here, that wasn't a surprise. "Of course he does."
"No, I mean… He told me a few days ago he feels it sometimes, Hermione. When you and I are both here."
Her gaze shot to his, astonished. "Wait— What? What does he feel?"
Draco shook his head. "He… didn't really say. Only that it comes and it goes, but it's powerful enough for him to sense it clearly across the Chamber. It's why he wanted us to try to sort through this as soon as you had the chance."
Hermione's heart began to race, and she instinctively gripped his hand tighter. "So… he thinks we're already manifesting whatever this may be?" Simply saying it aloud was utterly unnerving. "But… we haven't done anything! Not anything special or out of the ordinary, at least."
He nodded, his gaze troubled. "I know. Hermione, I know. That's why it was so hard to believe when he mentioned it me," he said. "But… there must be something going on we just aren't seeing…"
Hermione rested her chin on her palm and hunched over, her brows furrowed deeply. Raking her teeth over her lower lip, she tried to imagine every possibility — any possibility. It didn't make sense to her that whatever Riddle was sensing came and went, unless she and/or Draco were somehow casting it unconsciously. But if they were, clearly it didn't always work. After all, neither did her Eighth Level Invisibility Charm…
Her frustration was dampened only slightly by the sensation of his thumb gently massaging her palm in reassurance. Briefly, Hermione closed her eyes, savouring the comfort of the familiar swell of warmth and tingling though her arm—
Her eyes flashed open.
As it so often did in Draco's embrace, a surge of energy that was expansive and immense welled in her chest.
She sat up swiftly, grasping his hand more firmly. "Draco."
He jerked slightly, startled. "What? Did you think of something?"
"I— I may have." Already, her eagerness was building, and she quickly searched his gaze. "Do you ever… feel something, when we touch?"
Draco's lips parted slightly. After a beat of silence, the faintest tint of red began to tinge his cheeks. "I, er — What… What sort of something would you be referring to, exactly?"
Hermione felt herself begin to blush as well. "Oh — Oh, no, not — that. I mean— yes, of course that, but…"
Hastily moving the candle aside, she stretched her other hand toward him, waggling her fingers to encourage him to take it. "Here. Quick. Give me your hand."
Draco shook his head in amused bewilderment, obligingly placing his own in hers. "Hermione, what—?"
"Sssh — Sssh. Close your eyes," Hermione urged, excitement racing through her as she wrapped her fingers firmly around his. "Try to focus. On our touch."
After a second, she cracked her eyes open a bit to find him still gazing at her softly.
"Draco!" she scolded. "Concentrate or it might not work!"
He flushed again, nodding quickly. "Yes, sorry — sorry." He closed his eyes. "Hands. Concentrating."
Hermione slipped within. She could feel it almost immediately: a buzz, almost a vibration, starting at her hands, tingling out through her fingertips and toes, flowing like electricity through her veins to her body's center, where it abruptly exploded outward, infusing her chest with a staggering, indescribable fullness that seemed almost infinite in depth. She had always simply believed it to be her raw attraction to him, something she had never felt around anyone else because she had never felt like this about anyone else, and usually she was most aware of it when they were most intimate. But it seemed just as full and noticeable now that she was consciously thinking about it.
"That!" she exclaimed. "Do you feel that?"
Draco's pale brow furrowed. "I… I'm not sure I…" He gnawed the inside of his cheek briefly. "Perhaps you can describe to me what you're feeling?"
She shook her head. "It's hard to put in words. Life. Energy. Right in the center of me, but it always begins wherever we're connected. It's like you — you activate something inside me that feels so natural and right, like it — it should be there, but it… isn't without you. When it is, it's… beautiful." The smallest of smiles unconsciously pulled at her lips. "Sometimes it… becomes so overwhelming I half expect it to somehow burst out of me…"
It was doing it now, in fact, rising in her chest like a great ocean tide: interminable in its cyclic nature, brimming with perpetual power.
Still holding his hand with her left, Hermione lifted her wand again slowly, as if afraid that by moving quickly she would disturb or lose the sensation, and pointed it at her chest.
"Occaceo," she murmured.
When she opened her eyes, Draco was staring toward her… but not at her.
She looked down.
Where her legs had been, she saw nothing but smooth wooden floor.
Draco's hand still gripped hers; when she looked back up at him, his mouth had fallen open slightly. "Sweet Salazar… Hermione—"
Swiftly, she lifted the spell off herself, staring at him with wonderment. "Draco…" she breathed, barely afraid to hope.
Could it — Could it really be that simple?
Draco visibly swallowed, then nodded toward the empty dueling room. "Try it again. Something different."
Hermione twisted around, pointing her wand over her left forearm to aim at the closed door at the far end of the room. "Patefacio."
The spell that fired from her wand was so unexpectedly powerful she instinctively jerked backward; so fast she didn't actually see it happen, the door swung out and open, slamming against the wall. "Bollocks," she gasped, her heart hammering wildly.
Only by replaying the split-second progression in her mind did Hermione realize the light of magic that had left her wand hadn't been yellow, as the Opening Charm should have been — but white.
Abruptly, she remembered Riddle's words about Source magic:
"Following the extension that adulterated magic manifests as discrete colours, it was further posited that the original Source magic, unadulterated as it was, was — is — the only magic that could appear pure white."
Hermione spun back around to face Draco, her mouth hanging partially agape.
The makings of a massive smile had begun to pull at his lips.
A thrill shot through her. "Get up — get up!" she urged, leaping to her feet and tugging him with her. Her body had never felt so electrified, and in exhilaration she pointed her wand at the candle on the floor, weaving it appropriately. "Geminio!" she cried.
In a blink, they were surrounded by not simply a dozen, but hundreds of candles, illuminating the room in a blaze of light. It was the most instantaneous, beautiful execution of the replication charm Hermione had ever seen, and more than that, the magic that had left her wand was still white.
Beside her, Draco let out a bark of laughter, but Hermione stared around them in disbelief, unable to rationalize what she was seeing.
"This can't be possible," she whispered. "Logically, this— this doesn't happen. Two wizards can't just touch each other and involuntarily transform their magic into a form of energy that technically doesn't even exist! There is no cogent reason why we should—"
Draco spun toward her. "Hermione, you're here from another universe! How is any of this possible?" he exclaimed, grinning broadly and grasping her shoulders. "Set aside logic for a moment and consider the evidence we've seen with our own eyes. Whatever this magic is, it's inside you!"
And then he scooped her up beneath her arms and spun her around.
Hermione shrieked, holding tight to his neck, but after a second she threw back her head and began laughing joyfully as her feet swung wildly off the ground. The energy flowing through her felt as strong as it ever had, filling her insides to the brim like an incredible high no amount of potions, drugs or enchantments could ever equate, and it — it was wonderful—
When he swept her back on her feet, she dizzily stumbled against him, grasping his jumper to find her balance.
"Draco… what about - you?" she gasped breathlessly.
Draco gazed down at her in confusion, breathing hard, the thousand flames dancing around them illuminating the jubilation still shining in his eyes. "What… What about me?"
When the room finally stopped spinning, Hermione straightened, her mind still racing. "I mean, you're plainly contributing to this," she said, thinking aloud. "Without you, my magic's ordinary."
"I'd hardly say your magic is ordinary," he said seriously.
She shook her head. "You know what I mean. Look." She stepped back from him and pointed her wand at the pure mass of burning candles now lining every inch of the room (she found herself feeling a bit relieved Riddle had obviously element-proofed it in a sheathe of insulation charms for duels).
"Exstinguo," she said.
A thin orange light flowed from her wand, extinguishing about a quarter of the flames. Then Hermione reached for Draco's hand and repeated the incantation.
In a flash of brilliant white light, the room was immediately plunged into total darkness.
"Point taken," he said weakly.
Hermione re-lit the candles. They ignited in an instant, the flames dazzling with a radiant intensity they hadn't before. The beauty of it took her breath away, and her throat choked with emotion.
How — How could it be that something so resplendent, so transcendent had been inside her… and she hadn't even known?
After a moment, she swallowed hard, shaking her head once and blinking back tears, and turned to Draco.
"Here," she said, holding out her wand hilt first.
He looked between her and it, reluctance and, unexpectedly, fear flickering through his expression. "You can't — you can't possibly think I can—?"
"It's worth a try at least, isn't it?"
Draco crossed his arms over his chest and turned away from her slightly, his gaze weary. "But I would know if something like that was inside me," he said, sounding a bit frustrated, and not at her, she believed. "I don't feel anything— certainly nothing like what you've described. My magic's still gone." He hesitated, licking his lips roughly, then added, "Sometimes, when I'm with you, I — I do feel a warmth, but it's… coming from you. Like a blanket, almost. Not from me."
Hermione's heart ached for him, but she refused to simply give up on it without even trying. "I know it may not seem likely, but… it's like you said. We need to set aside logic for a moment, and just see what happens. Please?"
After a long moment, Draco sighed softly and turned back to her, reaching out to take her wand with clear trepidation. For a moment, he stared at it as if he'd never held anything like it before, then gripped it tightly, his expression resigned.
Hermione slipped her hand into his, and when he visibly took a small breath, she held her own. The immense hum of energy that resumed its dance inside her chest momentarily stilled, hoping, hoping—
Draco pointed her wand at the candle nearest his feet. "Exstinguo."
Without even a flicker of interference, it remained lit.
Her heart dropped, and his shoulders slumped in disappointment.
For a moment, they simply stood in silence.
"Draco," she finally said softly. "I'm sorry…"
His shoulders straightened a bit. "No," he said dully, clearing his throat a bit. "No, you were right. It was worth a try, at least."
Despite his words, she could read the despondence in his frame and eyes plainly.
Watching him, the sadness and frustration and — and unfairness of it all that arose inside her was unbearable, and she knew it could only be a fraction of what he must be feeling.
This wasn't right. How could some omniscient, power-granting prophecy do the impossible for her, but not for him?
After all, her argument before still held true: through the physical connection between them that seemed necessary to manifest what was very possibly the strength of the Source, the most fundamental Magick of all was still recognizing, at a basic, energetic level, that Draco was not only there, but that he was special, regardless of whether or not he possessed his personal store of magic.
Unlike Draco, she wasn't ready to admit defeat.
Hermione looked back at him determinedly. "Draco, I know it must hurt an awful lot to get your hopes up, only to have them fall through, but perhaps we're going about this the wrong way. There's…there's so much magic inside me," she said, resting her free hand over her heart in emphasis; as if in agreement, something enormous and irrepressible leapt in her chest. "Perhaps until you get your own back, it would be possible for you to… borrow some of mine."
Draco lifted his head slightly, glancing at her in incredulity.
She shook her head. "I know it sounds a bit mad, but… because of you — and only you! — this — this 'Source strength,' whatever that even fully means, is very much available to me. You said sometimes you felt a warmth when you were around me, didn't you? That's what I feel! That's how this feels!"
"Hermione…" he began tiredly.
At his doubtful, defeated expression, she begged, "Oh, one more time, let's try it — Please?" She gripped his hand tighter. "I'll focus on pushing this toward you, and you focus on — on noticing that warmth, and drawing it out of me into yourself, to channel into a spell. I swear this is the last I'll even bring it up, but I can't see giving up after only a single go."
After a pause, Draco's shoulders fell in a sigh, and he nodded. "One more time," he agreed reluctantly.
His grip around her hand tightened, his own at once icy and sweaty. Hermione stepped closer to him as he squeezed his eyes shut, concentration etched across his face. She closed her eyes as well, her heart racing with hope and apprehension, and immersed herself in the buzzing, vibrating current inside her, propelling it through her arm in his direction…
"Hermione," he whispered after several seconds of silence, his voice strangled.
She opened her eyes and tilted her head downward, fearing the worst.
A single burning candle beside him was no longer lit.
Hermione's head swiveled toward Draco in astonishment. He stared at her, his eyes frozen as if with shock, before he pointed her wand at a different candle, his brows furrowed deeply in concentration.
Suddenly, a jet of orange departed her wand, nonverbally extinguishing the flame.
Hermione let out a scream.
Draco's mouth fell open. "Ah— Aha!" A stuttering laugh burst from his lips as he gawked, still partially frozen in disbelief, at the unlit candles. "Hermione — Hermione!"
She'd begun ecstatically shaking his arm and bouncing up and down on her feet. "I knew you could do it!" she cried. "I knew you could, Draco, I knew it!"
Without thinking, she joyfully launched herself into his arms.
Draco let out a soft 'oof' and nearly dropped the wand to catch her; she hooked her legs behind his back and whooped in triumph, pumping her arm into the air before she leant down and pulled his head into a crushing hug. He began laughing as she planted quick, soft kisses along the side of his face, chanting, "I knew it, I knew it!"
She slid to the floor, and Draco found her hand again, grinning elatedly.
"Wait, wait—" he exclaimed eagerly, "watch this!"
He pointed his wand at the candles; Hermione focused as well, urging the energy inside her toward him. With a few flicking and swishing motions from him, several began rising into the air.
"Aha!" Draco shouted giddily, like a child who'd just completed a spell for the very first time. He grasped her hand more tightly, if that was possible. "Hermione, wait — and this!"
Without pause he leant back slightly, flinging the tip of her wand toward the ceiling. He bit his lip, his eyes narrowed, and then twisted her wand in a more complex motion. "Tectum cosmos fictus!"
At once, a smoky darkness streamed from his wand, slowly, steadily flowing upward to fill the stretch and corners of the space above them. Then, in a single moment, the beams of the ceiling disappeared beneath the blackest night and innumerable stars, as tangible and clear as if they were standing outside in the north of Scotland on a cold, cloudless evening.
Draco let out a delighted laugh.
"That's beautiful!" Hermione exclaimed, gazing up at the now-Enchanted Ceiling in awe. She'd never actually seen the bewitching spell performed, but given it was an advanced piece of magic often only senior design wizards employed, she was impressed Draco even knew how.
"We used it on Peia's bedroom ceiling, back in East Belham. It was an interior room and it was so small, it needed something," he explained, his beaming face aglow with pride and tears of joy. "You were right… all I needed to do was focus on the warmth and strength that's coming from you, instead of the emptiness where my magic used to be, and — and I can pull just enough of it into me to cast the spells on my own!"
Hermione wasn't aware of the tears streaming down her own face until one dropped off her chin. She quickly wiped them away, sharing in his euphoria; her face ached from smiling so broadly, but it was the best sort of pain. The magic he was producing appeared to encompass the traditional amount of power one would expect from a wizard, as well as the full range of colours within the energetic spectrum rather than the omnipotent white their connection triggered in Hermione, but at that moment, it didn't matter. He could still do magic again, and in the glow of floating candles surrounding them and the breathtaking expanse of the Milky Way above, it was as every bit as stunning as the revelation of hers.
Abruptly, Draco halted in the midst of casting tens of ecstatic levitating spells on the candles, his head cocking to the side a bit as if he'd suddenly realized something. His eyes shifted toward her briefly, and his expression softened. When Hermione rapidly blinked her tears away, tilting her head in question, he simply smiled mysteriously, briefly wiped his own face dry, and readjusted his grip on her hand.
He turned and stretched her wand out in front of them. His jaw set, his brow knit deeply: He seemed to be focusing with all his might. Whatever he was planning, Hermione went inward again, now intentionally channeling the ever-blooming expanse of heat and energy inside her toward their joined hands.
The swell of vitality in her chest surged with exhilaration when she heard him exclaim, "Expecto Patronum!"
Her eyes flashed open.
A towering, blinding brightness as immense as her own Patronus exploded from his wand, overflowing beyond the dueling hall.
A fortnight ago, if anyone had told her a wizard could have a dragon Patronus, she would have laughed it off as doubtable — only the most powerful, legendary wizards produced such unbelievably large Corporeal Patronuses, and very rarely, at that. But now she was hardly surprised when she saw that Draco's, too, was a dragon.
But it was vastly different from her own.
This was very much a fire-breathing species, with great wings and teeth not stretched in a smile but in preparation for an attack. It also looked vaguely familiar, and Hermione knew had seen this type of dragon somewhere before…
"Picture scarlet scales," Draco prompted, reading her expression. "The spikes around the face, golden."
Her eyebrows flew up, all at once remembering the dragon Viktor'd had to pass during the First Task of the Triwizard Tournament. "A Chinese fireball?"
Draco nodded. "They're known to be a bit hot-tempered, but also tolerant, as far as dragons go. Exceptionally clever. Only breathe fire when protecting their kind or when retribution's needed."
Hermione had to tilt her head so far back her neck cricked to see the dragon's intimidating face stretched high above them, the majority of its neck and back lost in the upper floors of the tribute. It was truly magnificent, but its fiery personality seemed like an odd spirit guardian to be drawn to good-natured young Draco, who had clearly first conjured it sometime before his long imprisonment had even begun.
At the simple reaction of an admiring silence, Draco hesitated. "I'm… not sure if you know this, but the Chinese Fireball is often called by another name."
There was… something she wasn't quite catching here, Hermione knew it. She quickly thought back to her fourth year and the mounds of tournament research she'd helped Harry with as, with a great exhalation of ghostly white flame from its nostrils, the Fireball launched itself into the air, disappearing through the walls, and, presumably, out into the Chamber of Secrets.
Suddenly, her lips parted.
Everything — everything about why this Patronus had chosen Draco slid into place.
It wasn't about the animal itself. Just like her own, peaceful and benevolent water dragon, it was about the symbolism of the traits it possessed, its scarlet and gold colours, even… symbolism with which Draco quite obviously must have had a great affinity even before he'd even known Hermione was a real person at all.
In the abrupt shadows that ensued before her eyes readjusted to the candle-lit darkness, she turned toward Draco in amazement, squeezing his hand tightly.
"Liondragon," she breathed, her eyes prickling with tears. "The Chinese Fireball is also known as a liondragon."
Draco's lips twitched upward ever so slightly. His glistening eyes were filled with a sea of unfathomable emotion as full as the ocean in her own heart, one that had nothing to do with the mysterious power also swelling inside her.
"Promised I'd show you after I'd gotten magic back," he whispered faintly.
Hermione let out a choked laugh that also might have been a cry and reached up, tenderly cupping his cheek with her hand.
A hushed calm followed their jubilant celebration that, with the tribute's privacy charms, had passed entirely unseen and unheard by the rest of the sleeping Chamber of Secrets. In the immediacy of the sudden stillness, she and Draco simply stared at each other in incredulity and awe at the incomprehensible immensity of everything ineffable they now held between them, illuminated by a thousand glittering lights spilled across the floor, the air and the sky.
On the other side of Great Britain, meanwhile, the usual late night festivities were still going from Leicester Square to Piccadilly Circus for any Muggle London native or tourist undeterred by an early morning workday.
Despite that, across the magical border in Diagon Alley, any bewitching-hour exploits were winding down. By 1:30 a.m., The Leaky Cauldron was the only establishment still bustling with raucous laughter, as well as the occasional bang! as an unruly patron was either flung out the door, or responsible for flinging somebody else out the door.
Knockturn Alley, however, was a different story. After the Second Conservative Intervention had eliminated the widely despised, impoverished conservative population the dilapidated alley had previously catered to and had resided there, it had been overhauled entirely. Lavish, internationally covered grand opening celebrations a year earlier had featured a ribbon cutting ceremony with the Sovereign himself.
Now, it was christened Victory Alley, and boasted a vibrant all-hour patronage from wizards and Muggles alike, as well the first of its kind Wizarding Movie Theatre. Tonight — that rare, clear-skied end-of-November early morning that, while chilly, invited activity — it was alive with still-bustling restaurants, pubs and clubs for every budget.
No wizard nor Muggle would suspect, however, that in the still, drippy darkness of the sewers and tunnels that ran beneath the busy cobblestone streets… movement was also stirring.
A tiny face poked up above a circular gap in the wall, clinging to the damp bricks as its beady eyes cautiously surveyed the shadowed shaft beyond.
After a moment, it was off, little paws rapidly scuttling against the curved sewer blocks, until it found another opening, this one much narrower than the first. As it scrambled inside, it was swiftly followed by an even more inconspicuous insect with oddly coiled antennae.
Every other night, the rodent and the bug converged; every other night, they navigated the minuscule and often shifting gaps and cracks in the passages and powerful security fields surrounding their target before parting ways, only meeting again exactly three hours later to exit the same route they'd come.
Beyond directional nudges and body language, neither had ever tried to communicate with the other. Neither knew the other's true names, occupation or the nature of his or her decidedly illicit activities.
But each possessed a great enemy they knew was common to them both.
A/N: As Snape would say... Well, well, well. A number of developments this chapter! Thoughts on the identities/loyalties of our two furry/winged friends? Reactions to Hermione and Draco's rather significant discoveries? Is Snape really being helpful? Not to mention a potentially... Sirius problem?
Oh! By the way, I definitely HAVE NOT written the last 16 chapters yet... I've only just planned them! Now if only I could wave my wand and magic that 150,000 words done! ;)