So, it's been a while - which I appreciate is frustrating. My apologies for that - but my enormous thanks for all of you who keep reading and sending encouragement and adding that bit of awesome to my days. I love hearing what you think, and criticism is always very welcome!
Once more unto the breach, then...
You do not know what hope is, until you have lost it.
You only know what it is not to hope:
You do not know what it is to have hope taken from you.
Everything was so alive. That was what struck Hermione as they Apparated in a dim corner of Leadenhall Market; every crevice of London was filled with crackling livid life.
It was in the buzz of the traffic and the Brownian motion of the crowd, in the ticket touts and the hurrying business people and the dawdling tourists. Nothing was still. Nothing was silent. And it was other things too, this old bold brash city, it was self-absorbed and greedy and gaudy as a peacock, but right now, that brought her hope.
This was no Nurmengard. And she would not let it become so.
Underneath the streets lay the secret city, tunnels, sewers, half-forgotten spaces and places. The Order. Like Theseus in the labyrinth, she returned to them, feeling her way along the thread of security spells. Once again, she was tested, blinded, led.
At last the darkness lifted from her eyes. She was back at the bottom of the spiral stairs in King William Street. She left Actaeon with Professor Flitwick, who remembered him from his time at Hogwarts. Tomorrow, the Order could explore his potential. Today, she had another duty which could not wait.
Heart heavy, she re-entered the strategy room.
The need in Neville's face was terrible. She did not respond to Ginny or Ron's greeting – in truth, she hardly heard them.
He knew before she spoke – he shook his head, once, brief.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Neville, I'm so sorry."
Something shattered in his eyes. "No."
"Was it quick?" said Ginny crisply. Hermione hated her a little in that moment.
"There...was no pain. It was instant."
"Did you see them?" he said, his voice a husk. Still he clung to the tatters of hope.
And all she could do was destroy it. "With my own eyes." She hesitated, then added, "They looked peaceful."
"Peaceful," he echoed. A harsh, grating noise came from him. It was laughter, empty of mirth, empty of warmth. "Don't you dare use that word. Don't you dare tell me anything that monster did gave my parents peace!"
"Neville-" said Ginny.
"No. Not a word from you." He was trembling – and he levelled his wand at Ginny. She didn't flinch; she only stared him down with cat-green eyes, fearless. "We both know you're already thinking about how to use this, just like you did the Finnegans. That's all their deaths are to you, a call to arms for the undecided!"
"Will I use it? Oh, yes. Yes. But not because I don't care, Neville." She leaned forward, and suddenly there was heat in her, flushing in her cheeks and dancing in her eyes. "Because I want Voldemort wiped from the face of this earth, and there is not a weapon I would hesitate to use – not your parents, not Seamus's, not Harry and not even my very self. If I have to be a weapon for him to die, then so be it. I think my soul is a fair price for his death." A lopsided, sardonic smile curled over her mouth. "Tell me, Neville, today of all days, that you don't think the same."
His wand flicked, flashed – a green jet that made Hermione fling a shield across the room so fast her shoulder screamed. Too late, she was too late-
But Ron hadn't been. The spell was absorbed harmlessly into a dome of azure light.
Ginny gave a small nod. "Congratulations, Neville," she said. "Your first Killing Curse. All you needed was the right motivation."
"Stop it!" hissed Ron.
Neville stared at his own hand like he didn't recognise it. The horror, the grief, distorted his face until he was someone else, a broken stranger that Hermione didn't know how to reach.
With a cry, he flung down his wand and fled the room. The reinforced door crashed closed behind him; the three of them remained in the space he had left, a room full of unforgivable words, and only two of them a spell.
"What," said Ron in a voice so leached of emotion that Hermione knew he was boiling over with it, "was that little stunt?"
"A necessary evil," answered Ginny. "You know my views on the Unforgivable Curses."
Fury blazed in his eyes. "Merlin's staff, he was right! You used his parents to bait him! You don't like the fact that we won't use the curses so this is what you resort to?" He turned away, frustration quivering in every line of his body. When he spoke again, his voice was tired. "It's the line that divides us, Ginny. Those curses are unforgivable because every one of them needs you to look at a person and see them as a thing to be used – to be coerced, to be tortured, to be destroyed."
"They are our enemies," she snarled, and her voice rang from the walls. "They should be destroyed!"
"They should be defeated!" he shouted back. "And then they should face justice!"
"An unforgivable curse is justice."
"No, it's revenge. And I know why you want it, and you know what, when it's the dead of night and I think about Dad and Percy and it hurts so damn much I don't even know how I'm still breathing, I want it too. But we have to be better."
"He's right," said Hermione quietly and both of them whipped to face her as if her presence was a sudden shock. They looked so alike in their intensity, fire in their hair and fire in their eyes, but the gulf between them rattled her. "Do you think my ally is the only one who has doubts? Do you think anyone but the favoured few wants the life they have now? Fear keeps people compliant."
"You would know," remarked Ginny pointedly.
"I do know," she said, meeting her eyes. "I'm afraid too. But I came to you because you offered something else. You offered hope. That's what there is for most people now – fear, and hope. Voldemort rules them by fear. So you have to rule them by choice. Their choice. The first hint that you're no different from the Dark Lord, and all those people – the fence-sitters and the meek and the ones who are waiting for someone else to stand up and lead them – they'll all melt back into the shadows. Cast that unforgivable curse, and you tell them that you are just another dark wizard in a long line of them, and they'll take the devil they know, the devil that hasn't killed them yet."
There was a very long, dense silence.
Then Ginny said flatly, "Hermione, go and be righteous somewhere else. Maybe somewhere the world's as black and white as you seem to think."
"I have more information," she said, sidestepping the insult.
"Of course you do. You're a veritable fountain of it. Share it with Ron then. I'll break the news about St Mungos."
"What about Ernie?" said Ron quietly. "Surely this must change-"
"Nothing." They stared at one another, and it was Ron who looked away. "St Mungo's was a message, and I have heard it. Now the Dark Lord will hear our answer."
"And what will it be?" inquired Hermione, unsettled.
Ginny paused. Something like regret lay in her voice. "Final."
Leaving the room, she gave Hermione a wide berth, as if her mere presence was repellent.
Ron's anger seeped away. "Sorry you had to see that. Ernie...I'll keep working on her. She'll come round. In case she does... Hermione, can you ask Malfoy for a favour?"
"I can ask. The odds of him doing it are atomically small."
"Impossible odds are the new normal," he said dryly. "Can he sneak this in to the Tower?"
He held out a bangle. It was the dull grey of pewter. "Maybe," she offered. "What is it?"
"Classified." There was a smile in his voice, but not in his eyes. "Sorry, Hermione. You'll have to take it on faith. Ernie needs to wear it for a few seconds, nothing more."
She slipped it into her bag, a touch uneasy.
"Thank you for going to St Mungos," he said. "I know Neville will thank you too, eventually. That can't have been easy. What else did you find?"
She told him, then, about the man she had brought with her, and more importantly, about Blaise Zabini.
"Fence-sitter," was Ron's cool comment.
"Maybe." She hesitated, then lightly traced a pattern on the air with her wand. At a soft word, it glowed gold; the phoenix, rising. "Or maybe he was just waiting for a sign, too."
X – X – X – X – X
As always, Draco smelt London before he saw it. There was no mistaking the faint acrid taste that stuck to the back of his throat, carried on the brisk easterly wind. The city existed in a haze of pollution that no one seemed inclined to change, like a smoker clinging onto that last lingering puff.
It was worse than usual today. He angled his broom down through the cloud layer, and saw why.
Black smoke oozed over the city, blood seeping from a wound. Landmarks jutted through it like bones, demarcating the scope of the tragedy. There was the nub of the Gherkin, there the gold gleam of the Monument, which still stood while history repeated the circumstances of its creation.
He hovered above it, disbelieving. Below, other fliers flashed through the smoke like needles, trailing great orange loops of spellwork behind them which turned back the cloud as if it were a ragged hem, inch by inch. Devastation was bared to the sky – streets thick with grey dust, clogged with debris, buildings webbed with cracks.
And the instant he wondered what had happened, the answer came. The Dark Lord had made his opening gambit, and it was deadly.
Alone of the faithful and the faithless, Draco knew the endgame. He knew that this was no mere battle, the latest skirmish in a string of them. The terror, the panic, the thrashing crowds concealed by the smoke were nothing compared to what would come.
High above it all, cold as the dead, and afraid as only the living could be, Draco looked down on the devastation, and thought that the smoke looked like a black veil, fluttering between the worlds.
With a shiver, he turned for Grimmauld Place, the closest thing he had to a home.
X – X – X – X – X
The press have arrived. Blaise hears them before he sees them, like a pack of dogs baying for blood. Well, today they have it.
The alleyway is limned with dust from the collapsed building. Good: he whips up a few handfuls using Wingardiumand turns his beautifully tailored robes into a bespattered grey mess. He keeps his hands and face clean, which will fit his story.
He strides out of the alleyway and into a scene of chaos. For a moment, he pauses to take it in.
The journalists are crowded behind a magical barrier. They are covered in powder, barely recognisable except for their hoarse excited voices and the army of quills hovering around them. Special Services have arrived in force – they too are grimy ghosts. A breadcrumb trail of masonry leads up to the monolithic wreck that was once St Mungos.
And there are bodies everywhere. Everywhere. He stars at a dark patch in the floor before he comprehends it as blood, turned to maroon paste by the dust.
He takes a few deep breaths, ignoring the taste of smoke. The first few phrases drop into place – he is already shaping, smoothing, spinning his lies.
Dennis is on his knees, hands up, talking urgently to a member of Special Services. A wand is pointed at his heart, and Blaise has a fairly good idea what they are discussing.
Enter the hero, stage right.
"Creevey! You survived, then. Good." He affects to notice the wand. "Is there some trouble here?"
The member of Special Services swivels to face him. The lighting mask cannot hide his bloodshot eyes. "Minister. We were told you were inside the building when it collapsed – and this...Mudblood allowed you endanger yourself."
With a fingertip, he pushes down the wand until it is aimed harmlessly at the ground. His tones are clear and ringing, designed to reach the gathering crowd. "Allowed me? I am a minister of the Great Lord's government, bound to serve the people. I saw the explosion and knew it was nothing less than my duty to enter St Mungos – these are our people too, our weakest and most vulnerable. Anyone who stood in my way would be nothing less than a traitor!"
He hears Dennis' stifled gasp. Calm, Blaise stares down the man. Behind him, cameras click in frenzied percussion, a match for the flashes in his peripheral vision.
Stiffly, the wizard inclines his head. "Minister. It seems there has been a misunderstanding."
Dennis clambers to his feet. Blaise claps him on the shoulder. "Every angle, Dennis. No one else has your eye."
He catches the member of Special Services before he can leave. "Masks off, today," he murmurs. "Pass the word among your comrades. Robes too. Nothing else will be in the news for the week – let's have the faces of the heroes on the front page, eh?"
The man takes it as he intended. His back straightens, and there is a glimmer of respect in his voice. "Sir."
The message passes. Blaise watches with grim satisfaction. Let them bare their faces when they think there will be reward. Let the world see who the loyalists are. They will do some puny piece of good today – he does not care if they do it for fame, or because he tells them, as long as the dying are comforted, the wounded cared for.
And if the Order find some use in knowing who to target, he will not weep.
As though the world itself is his stage, the rain begins to fall. Blood dilutes in the street while the press turn to wavering watercolour figures. When he steps up to address them, using a broken block of stone as his podium, nothing disturbs the silence but the patter of water.
It is simple, what he says, because the dead need neither ornamentation nor flourish.
He speaks of what is lost: of those who needed so much help so desperately. Who will never now recover those pieces of themselves snatched by arcane purpose or calamity or monstrous intent. Of the caregivers, who gave of their compassion with unwavering dedication. Of the bystanders, who were blown down like rows of poppies.
He honours them. He mourns them. His voice cracks as he sends his blessings chasing them, down the dark strange road each of them walks into the great beyond.
Blaise saves the greatest truth for last and he beds it in lies, because it is the only way it will be heard.
The war has begun. Nothing now can end it but victory complete or utter defeat.
X – X – X – X – X
Hermione slipped from the strategy room feeling empty and wrung-out. Ron had quizzed her down to details she had hardly been aware of absorbing, leaping from subject to subject with dazzling speed. Adrift in a sea of notes, he barely waved her away, too intent on finding some meaning in it all, some use for today's tragedies in tomorrow's plans.
She wandered through King William Street. There was fear riding the air like an oncoming storm, the susurration of grief in every corner as the news of St Mungos spread.
"Hermione." Luna called her to a quiet niche where she read by the gleam of a spell. "You look...unlike yourself."
"Do I?" she said blankly. "I wish I was."
"Sit down." With gentle hands, Luna guided her to a nest of tattered cushions. She said, very softly, "You went in through a door this morning, Hermione, and you didn't come out through it."
She met those wise grey eyes. "Who else noticed?"
"Just me." Luna's mouth lifted in a shade of a smile. "Neville's charms keep everyone else from looking too closely." She tilted her wrist and a thin red bracelet slid down it. "He never minds me looking. He says I see things other people don't."
"He's right," she said, the barbed-wire grief snarled tight about her chest. "Luna, right now Neville needs someone who see clearly. His parents..."
She saw them once more, their bodies like slack clay upon the floor, and for the first time she felt tears needling her eyes. Words failed her, expression failed her, and she reached out and squeezed Luna's hands.
"I found them," she managed. "I told him. Oh Luna, he broke...he just broke right there. Please help him, because I don't know how to."
And truth revealed, she just gasped for air like a drowning woman, fighting back sobs because she knew she could not break down publicly. Not now, not when she knew just how fragile was the leadership of the Order, how much they needed a miracle – it had to be her, and she had to be more than human.
Dimly, she felt Luna brush back her hair and kiss her on her forehead, like her father used to. "Don't despair, Hermione," she heard her whisper. "The world breaks us all eventually. It's the price of love – death must divide us, even if it's only by the thickness of a veil. I can't take away his grief, and I wouldn't, for it's only love under fire, but I will show him what remains."
"What?" she croaked.
Luna smiled. It was sweet and sad and in the amber light, she glowed like a saint. "Life," she said. "Selfish, whining weeping angry life, which goes on, no matter what you or I think. And though he won't see it now, there's a beauty in it. Maybe one day, he'll see the echo of his mother in his own children, and be glad he lived."
"No. Today, I hold him here." Something vulnerable was revealed in the sudden tremor of her mouth. "He won't thank me for it, Hermione. It will be a long time before he sees clearly, and recognises that what looked like cruelty was done in the name of love. In my name."
"Better love in the name of cruelty than cruelty in the name of love," she said, thinking of Ginny's stinging smile as she advocated the unforgivable; of a boy's home interred beneath a custodial camp; and of a kiss in a black bleak night.
"Yes. There is that." Luna looked at her with eyes that were too perceptive. "Be careful, Hermione. Remember which is which."
Before Hermione could ask what she meant, Luna was gone. She stayed a little longer, gathering herself, constructing the face she needed to wear. Then she left too, the gleaming illusion of the heroine they needed and wanted, dissipating into the rain-slick shadows of the city.
Stalking her every step was the knowledge that the war had begun with terrible intensity, and she had been the one to begin it.
And worse: what did it say that she had done it in the name of love?
X – X – X – X – X
In finer houses of a certain age – like Malfoy Manor – there had once been a second set of quarters for the house elves. It was merely another status symbol, like the topiary and the wrought-iron gates: behold our wealth, so vast we can fling a little at the chattel and never miss it.
Draco had explored those half-size spaces as a child, entered through tiny rounded doors. The generosity was only superficial, of course: touch the wooden chairs and you would find your fingers studded with splinters.
Grimmauld Place had no such luxuries. Instead, it had the dingy room where the house elf had lived until it was decreed that his existence was as offensive as his stench. Breathing shallowly, Draco squeezed in, ducking his head to avoid the slanting roof.
As the door closed behind him, a barrage of spells clicked into place. Most were his: some, he had found on closer inspection. The house elf, it appeared, had felt the need for some privacy of his own. Once Draco would have thought that outrageous.
These days, he had another perspective.
Worn curtains draped the room, their moth holes illuminated by magical lights that gleamed in the corners. A flick of his wand furled them into sausages, baring the walls and the reason for his visit.
The portrait was not very large, the chair within it empty. With a murmur, Draco sent a dart of fire into the frame.
He did not have long to wait before Phineas Nigellus came shuffling into view. "So," he commented. "The last scion of the noble house of Black summons me like a house elf. Worse, so far have I fallen, I answer."
"Ancestor," said Draco, laying it on with a trowel. "As ever, it is an honour."
The old wizard settled under the flattery like a cat in front of a fire. "As the youth of today goes, you are almost tolerable."
"And as the wisdom of yesteryear goes, you are..." Draco paused and gave him the cheeky smile that had always won over his parents. "Incomparable."
Phineas chuckled, clever dark eyes aglitter. They understood each other very well these days. It was his crotchety ancestor who had hinted there was yet hope left in Hogwarts, that there was someone to be found who might match his own hunger for change.
"So I am." His mouth drooped down like his moustache. "If only due to the shameful treatment of the other Headmaster's portraits. Burning them...! No, I never agreed with my compatriots, but such disrespect, such waste."
"It was ill-done," he said, and meant it. He had not been part of the sacking of Hogwarts that had continued long after the battle's end, but he had scuffed through the remains, trod upon the shattered treasures. "The Dark Lord was not pleased when he found out."
The mere mention of his name was enough to make Phineas grimace. "Vanity! Lord, indeed. He has not a scrap of noble blood in his withered veins. And to have the house of Black bowing before him, offering him titles..."
"A title is a mere word. But names – well, sir, you taught me that names have power." He rolled up his sleeve, baring his arm to his ancestor. "To say the name is to call the monster from the abyss."
There was a determined gleam in Phineas's eyes as he gazed upon the Dark Mark. "Then you must call him forth only when you have the means to slay him. And how goes that endeavour?"
"I took your advice."
"Excellent, excellent." He cleared his throat. "I must admit, while I cannot condone the recent swarm of Muggleborns allowed into our world, there is perhaps something to be said for the discreet, measured acceptance of those who show true aptitude. An injection of fresh, pure power, yes, and gumption! I should like to see the young lady again. There were things said...perhaps not well said."
Draco had no idea how Granger had charmed Phineas Nigellus in her time at Hogwarts. He was snide, witty, arrogant, simultaneously mocking and motivating, challenging in the way that – well, in the way that great artworks were.
In short, a man designed to get right up Granger's nose. And yet here he was: misty-eyed and rhapsodising over what Draco could only assume had been one hell of a browbeating.
"It can be arranged, but not today."
"Summoned by my own blood only to be disappointed. Would that it were a new experience. What did you call me for, Draco? Presumably you had more than a good natter on your mind." He arched his black brows.
"I was wondering what you know about the Great Beyond."
Phineas rocked back as if Draco had slapped him, colour rising up from his neck. "I would think it perfectly obvious from my state of existence that I know nothing!"
Evidently, he had erred. "I-"
But his ancestor was in full riled flood, thrusting himself to his feet. "Do you think that I asked for this? To be peeled off from his soul like the unwanted skin of an onion and tossed into a picture frame, the leavings, while he, he took his rest in the beyond? Pah!" The old man pointed a shaking finger at him. "And you have the gall to taunt me with it? Here is what I know about what lies beyond, boy, here is the truth of it – nothing! Nothing and nothing and nothing!"
There was a great white flash, and when his vision cleared, Phineas was gone. Only a scorch mark remained on the floor before his chair to indicate he had been there.
Dumbfounded, Draco could only stare at the abandoned frame.
He had not thought to question what those inside the paintings were, only assumed. Willing, he had thought. Echoes, mimicry rendered with oil and canvas. Not the shavings of a spirit denied death, hearing the siren call of the beyond and unable to answer.
And if Phineas was less than a hundred years old, his tantrum might have been reasonable. As it was, Draco had no time to coddle his ego. He was too busy trying to save his soul.
"We're all prisoners here, ancestor," he commented in parting. With a flick of his wand, the drapes dropped over the frame. "You just came to it sooner."
X – X – X – X - X
There is a tidal rhythm to grief. Luna knows it well. She has withstood the waves for many years, swamped by the horrors which come again and again – death, disfiguration, madness – trying to knock her down, trying to drown her in her own despair. Grief comes, grief goes, and she endures.
She drifts through King William Street, thistledown-light upon the concrete, leaving no trace of herself but the lingering scent of lilies. A word here, there, and she finds herself in Neville's room, which is sparse except for the desk covered in maps and missives. This is no sanctuary – it is an office where he sleeps sometimes.
Under his pillow, she finds what she is looking for. She is careful, for it is as fragile as him.
No one needs to tell her where Neville has gone as she re-enters the corridors. She tracks him by the shocked faces, by the ragged holes he has left in the crowds, by the awful silence that says they do not know how to comfort him.
The towering black tsunami of grief has crashed upon him, and he can only cling on, and think that he will die – that he must die, drowning beneath it, for there is no air, and no light, and most of all, no hope. He will not die, of course, for his own body will betray him with its need to live. And it will seem betrayal, for a time.
Luna remembers that. In her mind, she sees the laboratory, higgledy-piggledy with jars and beakers and bulbous glass bottles. The smoke was sweet, like someone had just blown out a birthday candle, swirling around the ceiling in bluish coils. And, dragging her imaginary friend by one hand – who did not want to look, why didn't he want to look? – she rounded the big stone table to find her mother face-down upon the floor.
In that moment, her imaginary friend vanished. Never again would she hear him whisper secret jokes. Never again would she be told stories of unseen worlds. And so she was twice bereft: she had lost her mother, who was brilliant and frothy as bubbles of champagne, and she had lost her only friend.
That night, and many nights after, while her father sobbed on the sofa downstairs, she pretended her bed was a boat, her only refuge from the waves. Sometimes it capsized, and sometimes her pillows were soaked in salt-water, and sometimes she clung on, calling out to someone who could not answer. With time, the waves shrank. The loss became normal. Directionless, she went on.
She learned to dress herself while her father stayed in bed. While he scribbled feverish tracts on exotic creatures, she clumsily washed her hair in the sink.
Then one day, purpose came to her, though she didn't know it. It came in a cream envelope with the wax seal of Hogwarts. It came puffing smoke from a red train. It came the moment she cast her first spell with her mother's wand, and felt the wonder flood back into the world.
She cannot offer Neville comfort. There is nothing he would believe. But perhaps, in its place, she can give him purpose.
She finds him in the room where they interrogated Hermione. He is thumping the wall, the dull slap of flesh on stone punctuated by his gasping breath. There is blood smeared on the concrete.
She does not say I'm sorry. She does not say it will be all right.
Instead, as he draws back his fist, she glides forward to circle her thumb and middle finger around his wrist. Nothing more; a shackle as soft as a kiss, but his head snaps round. He is more animal than man, blind blank suffering in his eyes, in his parted lips.
His breath saws upon the air. "Leave me alone."
Her thumb is on his pulse, his heart in her hand, breaking with the waves. She would break for him, if she could.
Instead, she draws down his hand and teases open his fingers one by one. He is trembling like some mistreated bird of prey.
"She didn't leave you alone," she says, her voice implacable. "Neither will I."
As if it is a holy relic, she tenderly places the bubble gum wrapper into his palm.
And he crumples under the weight of it – a howl tears the air, his knees hit the floor and the grief comes flooding from him. She does not run. Luna kneels with him, does not flinch when he folds into her, forehead hot upon hers, his body shaking.
Like an anchor, she will hold him here. Today, the waves can have him, scour him through and through. It is not only his parents he has lost, but the hope that one day they might look at their son and see him for all he is – this bold, undaunted, tenacious man.
She will hold him here because she will not allow the Dark Lord such an easy triumph. Because the Order needs his clever selfless mind. Because one day, there will be a better world and it will need him to lead it.
And she will hold him here because though he does not know it, she too needs hope and so much of hers is tied up in him.
X – X – X – X - X
Damp suffused the air in Grimmauld Place, bringing the creeping cold of winter with it. The drawing room, however, remained warm and fragrant with woodsmoke. The coughing fire made it look almost cosy, hiding the disrepair. The only other source of light was a tall lamp that leaned over Draco's head.
A well-thumbed pile of books lay on the table beside him, and the rickety Chesterfield snuffled every time he shifted his weight. Whenever he glanced up the clock had moved forward further than he expected, and his investigations had borne about as much fruit as the famine of 1586.
The thud of the door warned him that she was back. Her footsteps creaked on the stairs; a gust of crisp air heralded her entrance.
"Granger," he said, marking his place with a finger.
She looked at him. There were shadows in her eyes that had not been there yesterday. Something about her was familiar: then realisation came. It was the soul-weariness he saw each day in the mirror.
"Malfoy. We need to talk."
"Agreed." He gestured to the chair opposite. She took it. "The Dark Lord has given me a task."
Her indrawn breath sounded like a sword slithering from its sheath. She whipped off her gloves with unnecessary vigour; one hit the ground at his feet like a gauntlet. "Was it you, then?"
"Was what me?" he asked, giving nothing away, because it was not impossible that the answer was yes.
"St Mungos." As she searched his face, her shoulders relaxed. "You really don't know."
"Was that what caused the fire over the city?"
"It's gone. Exploded. There are...dozens dead. Probably hundreds." There was more: she was jittery, shiny-eyed. "He flew the sign of the phoenix over the ruins. And...and..." She pressed her fingers to her temples. Anguish laced her voice. "He put the manticore we killed in there. Anyone who breathed an ounce of the smoke was immune to magic. Anyone. So many died who could have been saved if..."
He snorts. "You can if yourself into despair, Granger. We did what was necessary. If it hadn't been a manticore, the Dark Lord would have found some other way to salt the wound."
"Those deaths are on my conscience."
"Then get used to the weight!" he snapped back. "Because I can assure you, this will happen every time we strike at him. This is how he works. Every counterattack will be aimed at doing this – drowning you in guilt, whittling away your ability to decide, trying to find exactly the best way to hurt you. And if I can bear the damn weight, so can you!"
The silence was resounding. She gazed at him, and then said, very quietly, "What task has he set you?"
He answered her with a question, because it was easier. "What do you know about the Great Beyond?"
Scholarly interest kindled in her. "Too much, I think. I spent...a lot of time trying to research it in Hogwarts. I thought perhaps I might find something to lay the ghosts to rest."
"Obviously you didn't. What did you learn?"
She sighed. "It was once an extension of our world. No one's quite sure what it was – an afterlife, or a next life, or some extension of dreams – but we know the dead are found there. Wizards walked between life and death easily enough that it was commonplace. Then something changed, and it became forbidden. The spells were censored and the gates between here and the Great Beyond were destroyed. Well. Except for one."
He nodded. He had been able to put the pieces together from the revealed spell. "The gate in the Department of Mysteries."
"Yes. From what I can gather, it caused a lot of diplomatic tension when the Ministry were forced to admit it still existed. They swore it would never be used, and as far as I know, that has always been the case. Memories faded, and the beyond became known only to a few. The truth's there, of course, if you look hard – it certainly throws new light on the tales of Beedle the Bard. And we both know that Voldemort believed that tale enough to hunt down the Elder Wand. What else does he believe, Draco?"
"It's not what he believes that should frighten you, Granger. It's what he knows." He sat back, letting the shadows hide his face. He was unsure what her too-keen eyes might see. "A spell still exists. The way can be opened again."
Her sharp inhalation told him she had understood precisely the implications.
"But it can only be done by one of my line," he continued. "By me, in fact. The spells are keyed to my blood."
Her voice was husky. "And what does he want you do once you get there?"
"Bring back the dead."
There was a stricken stillness to her. When she moved, it was only her lips.
"Grindelwald," she said, curd-pale. "He will want Grindelwald."
"I doubt it, Granger. It was the Dark Lord who put an end to him."
She stood, turning from him. The firelight washed her in gold, glimmered in her hair. "No," she breathed, sure. "He will call him back. Grindelwald is the only one who has done what he has – who has ruled an empire. Voldemort will want to learn from him. From all of them. They'll be his weapons, Malfoy, and that is terrifying. But what is worse is that they will be his inspiration."
"I'm not sure he needs inspiration," he said tartly. "Raising an army of the dead strikes me as convincingly diabolical."
"Until today, I would have agreed. Then I saw Nurmengard."
He blinked, thrown. "Why on earth were you in Nurmengard? The Apparations alone would be exhausting."
"For you or I, yes. It seems that Grindelwald was moving towards something more than mere domination. He wanted to remake life as we know it. He was experimenting, Draco, on children. He fused them with magical animals." Her voice was cool, emotionless; her hands were trembling.
"That's impossible. No one could survive that-"
"They can and they did. How long before the Dark Lord looks at his present state of existence and covets another?" She faced him: he saw the stern set of her jaw. "Or worse. We don't know what knowledge lies in the beyond. How long can you delay entering?"
"I can't," he said flatly.
"Then how much time do we have?"
"It will take me around ten days to prepare everything I need. I cannot delay this, Granger. I will not." He stubbornly did not think of his mother, willing him hope as if it was her last bequest. "Tell the Order what you must. I may be able to bring back weaker wizards, at first. There is an argument for caution that the Dark Lord might accept."
He knew that look: he'd seen it in the classroom when a thorny problem untangled in her mind.
"What is it?" he said.
"I have a better argument. Propose this to the Dark Lord: who is more loyal to him than the man who gave his life for the dark cause? Who is more loyal than the man who annihilated his greatest opponent?"
He saw where her words ended. "Ingenious. And irrefutable." The starts of a smirk curled on his mouth. "Bellatrix is going to have conniptions."
"Is that an issue?" she asked.
"More of an incentive."
"Then you have the answer, Draco." Her face was intent, challenge bold in her eyes. "Raise Severus Snape."
X – X – X – X - X
All is quiet inside his darkroom. Here, Dennis can at last lay the day's ghosts to rest, each entombed inside a print. The images of the dead hang in neat rows on the wires, unmoving. Some have already gone to Zabini by owl, ready for tomorrow's news. Others will be copied for the Special Services investigation which is trundling into motion.
The morality of it is questionable. The necessity of it is not.
Others, he labels neatly. Not with names, for he does not know them, but with whatever he could determine. Man, grey-haired, Muggle, bilateral amputations. Use in 3 months if press coverage limited, he writes on one, and to it attaches a couple of fine hairs.
Such small, well-meant desecrations were easy. He was, after all, sanctioned by Zabini; official photographer to the atrocity.
Question him, and the answer springs to his lips: he must record the dead for their families. Faces must be put to these poor sad heaps of humanity. So if he brushes back a hair, if he turns a hand to show a wedding ring, if a little blood stains him in his pursuit of their identities, it is understandable.
Teenager, female, witch, significant injuries to face. Immediate use safe. To this one, he pins the tissue he used to wipe her cooling blood from his wrist.
On he goes, putting together this grim menagerie until his own injuries can no longer be ignored. Limping to the kitchen, he pops contraband painkillers, snuck in from the Muggle world. A healer's services are expensive, and even a cursory inspection would find the signs of his treachery.
Dennis returns to his cataloguing. When he is done, the packet goes beneath the floorboards. He has done a lifetime's work. His eyes close briefly.
No. It was seventy-three lifetimes' work, reduced down to an unholy Communion in a Polyjuice Potion. There is their blood; drink of it.
But at least the Order will have new disguises, the dead resurrected in a better cause.
He sits back with a sigh. His leg no longer aches. His arm on the other hand...
The itch becomes familiar scratchy pain. He reacts – the box of props is in the corner. He rifles through the tat – hats, sunglasses, scarves, belts - until his hand closes upon it, soft and slightly oily to the touch. It is so ordinary: a long black feather with a razor-sharp stylus. It is all he has of the Order.
He kneels in front of the rickety coffee table, and turns his left arm so the pale inner is exposed. Only visible in this light – which is good, as one might expect from a man in his trade – a lattice of fine scars gleam upon his skin like ivory lace.
Cleaving through them, pale red letters.
He presses the black quill that they gave him to the varnished surface of the table and answers. In some secret place, his contact feels the slice of his words and bleeds beneath them.
Present at St Mungos. On way to photograph Macmillan when hit by explosion. Assume enemy action.
Correct. Cover intact?
Yes. Instructed by Zabini to photograph scene.
Good. He flinched at the depth of the last letter, which drew spots of blood. Macmillan execution announced for three days.
Dennis rocked back as the letters faded. His chest felt tight.
The order came again, cutting deeply into his flesh. Terminate Macmillan.
Unfeasible. A sacrifice is necessary for the greater good. Confirm orders will be completed.
He waits a long time, long enough that his arm is healed and nothing but a tingle remains. Something is building in his mind. His fingers begin to feel numb around the quill.
He stares down at the blood beading on his arm.
Slowly, he replies. Confirmed.
Late into the night, he remains awake. He draws out the portfolio and thumbs through it. Harry Potter, he thinks, would not have said unfeasible. Harry Potter had lived in a world where inviolable Azkaban could be fooled, where goblets were Portkeys and friends foes; where a man's soul could be tangled in a locket.
In that world, unfeasible was just an excuse.
He is no Harry Potter. He is only Dennis Creevey, little brother to a ghost. Today, he has seen the voice of the Government save lives. The voice of the rebellion orders him to take them. This is a world inverted, where nothing is as it seems.
A sour smile tips his mouth. Perhaps that is Harry Potter's world, after all: in the end, he was not the hero of prophecy, just as his Dark Arts teachers were never precisely what they seemed.
Why then, should ordinary, mousy Dennis Creevey be any different?
There is no one who knows more than him about lies wrapped up in truth, truth in lies like a series of Russian dolls.
He will go to the Tower, as he must. He will immortalise Macmillan. And then, when the moment comes, he will reveal himself in the very heart of the darkness, and deliver death, calling it mercy.
It may even be true.
X – X – X – X – X
"Snape. It's a brilliant solution." And odd. Very odd. "But not a solution you should be proposing, Granger. He is a true patriot. He died so the Dark Lord could defeat Potter. He slew Dumbledore. Why are you championing his resurrection?"
Her chin came up: there was a glimmer of fire in her eyes. "I will never thank Severus Snape for killing Dumbledore. But you and I both know that if Dumbledore had been in the peak of his powers, Snape could never have touched him. He killed a weakened old man in his end days. And that deed sealed his fate." She snorted. "He didn't offer up his life. Voldemort took it to ensure the Elder Wand was invincible. So I'll champion the resurrection of a man who is a known quantity in every way, and moreover, might be just a teensy bit miffed that his piece de resistance led to him resting in peace."
It made sense. "You think he'll join the Order."
"I think he's the best option we have."
"Agreed. I'll speak to the Dark Lord tomorrow. If he agrees, then in ten days..."
"Ten days. That's nothing." She paced, restless. Then she said, "There is a traitor in the Order."
"Several, I'll warrant." Casually, he prodded the fire. "Oh, you want names. I don't have them. Surveillance is not my purview. Aunt Bella guards the names of her whisperers jealously. Though there is one..."
"As I said, I don't know names. The Golden Snitch, she calls them. It was their information that led to Weasley and Delacour's capture." He glanced up. "If I were you, I would look for someone who either stood to gain by the Order's demise, or who has nothing left to lose. It should be a short list."
He watched her circle the room, once, twice, like an eagle thrown free of its jesses, before she settled back in the chair, straight-backed, regal. Some decision had been made inside that astute mind.
"They can't know about the Beyond yet. The risk is too high. I have another way to galvanise them. I hope." Her dark eyes fixed on him. "Ernie Macmillan."
"That oaf. I have a front-row seat at his execution."
She drew something from the bag puddled at her feet and tossed it. He snatched it from the air, startled. A grey metal bracelet. "What's this?"
"Can you get it to him?"
He studied her. Her voice said she had little hope he would agree. "Again, what is it?"
"I don't know. The Order want him to wear it." Before he could point his wand at it, she said, "Don't bother. I've already tried. Whatever spells are on it, they're hidden and hidden well."
He turned it in his fingers. "Yes."
"Yes. I can probably get it to him. But you won't like my methods."
Her breath hissed through her teeth. "How quickly?"
"Tomorrow." He flashed her a smile as flickering as the firelight. "I'll be at the Tower anyway. A visit to my old school chum will not be questioned. Not the kind I tend to make, at any rate."
Draco expected a lecture. He got only her silence, and that was somehow worse. She looked at him as if searching for something, and he could not say what she found.
"Are you afraid?" she said, suddenly.
Taken aback, he didn't answer. Then he said, "Yes. I'm not a complete fool."
She stood, the chair's feet whispering upon the carpet. "Draco..."
Her voice came as if from far away, and something in it rang chords upon the withered strings of his heart. "If you see Alice and Frank Longbottom, please tell them that their son loves them."
She was gone before he could ask her why, gone before he understood why she asked. Pity lanced him, unexpected, pity for Neville Longbottom, before his heart hardened.
Neville had left his parents in the hands of the Dark Lord, allowed them to be cast against him like stones. Such naiveté equated to negligence, these days. Draco would not be so cavalier with his family's life.
He would wrest free his mother, and find her a place, however ill-fitting, in the Order's underground.
Otherwise – he could see the future. From here, it looked just like the past.
X – X – X – X - X
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