AN- Hello all! I'm back. I'm a horrible person, I know, but it was just so hard to motivate myself to write. By the way, I caught a mistake I made in the last chapter where it says that Ginny transfigured a couch from an old wooden crate. But, of course, since she didn't have her want yet she couldn't have. But, just ignore that and pretend it says that the couch was already there. I'll probably fix it later.

I also want to thank everyone who kicked me in the butt to update this past year because I probably would have gotten busy and distracted and just not done it. But, you guys guilted me into it. :):)

Alright, enjoy…

Despite wiping their memories, nothing was the same between Hermione and her two best friends after that. It was as if they knew something was wrong but they couldn't define what it was. Harry avoided her and was curt whenever he had to address her. Ron seemed almost as if he was scared of her. The two spent all of their time together, even slept in the same room at night.

Hermione was a little hurt by their apparent mistrust, but she had lied and modified their memories against their wills. More than once she'd thought about trying it again just so that things could go back to normal, but thankfully a part of her realized that was wrong. She needed a way to resolve things and quickly. They were the only two friends she had.

One night, she was by herself on the sofa, when a thought came to her. It was stupid and dangerous, but just what Harry needed. She knocked on their door and entered without waiting for permission. The two boys looked up with a mixture of apprehension and irritation.

"Yeah, yeah, I know you guys hate me for some reason," she began, without waiting for them for to start in, "but I have an idea." She sat on the corner of her parent's bed and looked around. It was strange being in here without her parents. Flashes of them screaming shot through her mind and she blinked hard, forcing the memories down. The cool trickle of control soothed her little by little.

"What?" Harry at least sounded cordial.

"Well, we're not doing anything right now. And we can't get into Malfoy Manor to find horcruxes with all the Deatheaters, not to mention Him, in there."

"Yeah?"

"Well, I've been thinking lately, you know, with all that spare time to myself," she added in a snide tone, and was pleased that they looked guilty, "and I've decided that we need some sort of distraction. Something big that will draw all the Deatheaters away from the Manor and leave it defenseless."

"Like what?"

"Well, like a rescue operation." She tried to keep her tone neutral. Her stomach was aching with the stupidity of this idea and a dull headache throbbed behind her eyes. It was almost as if the dark magic inside of her was fighting against what she was saying. "There are people being murdered and rounded up everyday and nobody stops it. Well, what if we helped out a bit?" she suggested looking back and forth between the two boys.

Harry perked up slightly. "But how? Everything is guarded. And there's a reward on all of our heads. What if we meet someone who decides that the money is worth turning us all in?"

"I find it hard to believe that an ordinary witch or wizard will be able to capture us, Harry," Hermione scoffed, arrogance dripping from her tone. "And besides, once You-Know-Who knows it's us messing up his plans he'll send out his Deatheaters for sure. Maybe not all at once, but if we can evade them for awhile he'll get angry and send a full force after us. Once he does that, the Manor will be left unguarded and we can sneak in and get the horcruxes. I've been making some potions with some of the stuff we found at Hogwarts and they should help, at least a little bit." She left out the part about the potion recipes coming from a dark magic book.

Ron looked scared. "I don't know, Hermione. Even if we do get into the Manor, what about You-Know-Who? He'll still be there."

Before Hermione could answer, Harry spoke up. "Not if I challenge him."

They both looked over.

"He won't be able to resist me. Above all else he wants me dead. He needs me dead," he corrected firmly. "That's the only way he'll ever feel totally and completely safe."

Hermione pursed her lips and nodded. "Yes. I mean, no, but yes." Both boys looked at her like she'd gone loopy so she explained. "You're too valuable, Harry. But, you're right about being a distraction for You-Know-Who."

"So," Harry said slowly, waiting for her to explain more.

"So I think we should take a page out of Mad-Eye's playbook." She looked at them with a smile, knowing they wouldn't get it yet. Her smile turned condescending. "While the Deatheaters are busy trying to catch Harry Potter in some town fifty miles away, and You-Know-Who is busy trying to kill him in Malfoy Manor, the real Harry Potter will be sneaking around the manor in an invisibility cloak looking for horcruxes."

Harry looked aghast. "Polyjuice? Again? No way. No, Hermione, it was bad enough the first time. Don't you remember Mad-Eye actually got killed because of that plan?"

"Do you think that we'll be able to win this war without some casualties?" she asked coldly. "Besides, if everything goes accordingly, no one will die."

"When does that ever happen?" Ron protested. "Besides, who's going to be dumb enough to volunteer to look like Harry?"

"We have to contact the Order. As soon as we're for sure that no one is watching us we'll apparate to Shell Cottage. Your brother will know how to contact the rest of them." At Harry's mutinous face, she conceded a little. "At least, let's tell them about the plan and see what they think. Maybe there is new information that will help us."

After minutes of Harry mulling it over and Ron looking worried across the room, he finally agreed. But, then he sighed. "Regulas Black. Sirius' younger brother."

"What about him?"

"It would help to have another destroyed horcrux under our belts before we do anything. He's our only lead on the real locket. I think before we make a move on You-Know-Who we should find it and kill it. After that, then we can go to Shell Cottage."

Hermione cocked her head to the side before nodding. "You're right. There are steps. I wasn't suggesting we go confront him next week. I just think that should be something we consider as a distraction for getting into Malfoy Manor. But, we don't have any clues as to where to Regulas might have hidden the locket, so any ideas?"

Ron sighed glumly. "At his house. That we can't get into."

Hermione thought that it might be worth it to see for sure whether or not Deatheaters had gotten to it, but then Harry spoke up.

"I've been thinking of something for awhile now."

"What is it?"

Instead of answering, he stepped away and looked up and off to the side. "Kreacher!" he bellowed.

"Harry? What are you doing?" Ron asked nervously.

Hermione knew what he was doing, but would have appreciated a little warning before calling a potential spy into the only safehouse they had.

"Kreacher, get your ugly, wrinkly ass in here now!"

A loud pop! sounded and Kreacher appeared inside the room.

"How the hell did you do that?" Hermione asked angrily. "The wards I put up don't allow apparition inside the house."

The tiny old elf looked at her sourly. "Filthy mudblood addresses me," he muttered in a quavery voice. "Mudbloods and Bloodtraitors in every corner. Speaking to me as if-."

Harry cut him off. "I forbid you to say 'mudblood' ever again. I order you to answer and obey all questions and commands that either of us ask of you without complaint. Is that understood?"

Kreacher didn't answer right away but his face started turning red and he seemed to have some sort inner turmoil tearing away at him. Finally, he gasped, "Yes, master."

Hermione felt a pinch of pity for him, but then shrugged it away. They had a mission to attend to and this house elf was a very good asset. "Kreacher, tell us about Regulas Black. What happened to him?"

Kreacher answered though it was apparent that his words and cooperation were forced. "Master Regulas was a good boy. The pride and joy of Missus Black."

"Yes, but how did he die?" Harry asked impatiently. "We know he was a Deatheater."

Kreacher looked up at him angrily. "Master Regulas was a good boy."

Harry snorted. "I don't know too many Deatheaters who are good, Kreacher. He stole a locket from his master and we want to know where it is."

Kreacher stopped speaking.

"I order you to tell me where it is."

Kreacher fought with everything in his soul, but in the end he broke down. "It was night. Master Regulas told me I must come with him. He said that I had to do everything I was told to do and then to come back to him right away." He sniffed. "The Dark One hurt me. Took me to a dark place full of evil."

"The lake," Harry said quietly and Kreacher nodded.

"I did everything he told me and drank foul burning water. He laughed and left me on the ground. I couldn't breathe and I saw horrible things. Horrible things," Kreacher cried, two tears trailing over his cheeks. "Then I went back to Master Regulas."

The looked at each other. "How did you apparate out of that place, Kreacher?"

Hermione answered before the elf could, having been thinking hard during his entire recitation. "The same way he got inside here. Elf magic is different than wizard magic." A glint shone in her eyes, but she didn't say anything else.

"Master Regulas told me to come back so I did. He tended to my wounds and told me how sorry he was for sending me into that place. He asked what the Dark Lord made me do and I told him about the locket. He was very angry and scared and then-," Kreacher sniffed again-, "he told me to take him back to that place. I didn't want to but I did. Master Regulas ordered me to obey his every command and to disapparate when he handed me the locket. He was on the ground crying and screaming and moaning, but I did what he told me to do." Kreacher started crying loudly. "I never saw my master again."

Harry looked sad. He knew what happened once you drank from the bowl. The burning thirst and then… the Inferi.

"It's not your fault, Kreacher. You would have died too. He was saving you because he loved you. But, why didn't you tell anyone about this before?"

"My master told me not to. He said I would gets into trouble if I did."

Harry squatted down to eye-level. "You would have. If the Deatheaters had found out what you did they would have tortured and killed you. But, it's a good thing that you told me about this. The man that caused your master's death can be stopped and part of that involves finding the locket that you took. We have to destroy it."

"Can't be destroyed," Kreacher said in a gravelly voice. "Not by fire, or hammer, or magic. Nothing I tried worked so I hid it."

"At Grimmauld Place?" Harry asked excitedly and the elf nodded. "Can you go there right now and get it for me?"

To everyone's surprise and consternation, Kreacher shook his head. "No, master. He stole it. I caught him going through the missus' things. He put his dirty hands everywhere and took what he wanted. I know he took the locket."

"Who?"

"The dirty thief with dark beady eyes."

"Mundungus Fletcher," Harry said. "It has to be. He's the only thief we know and he didn't come back after Mad-Eye was killed." He looked angry when he turned to Kreacher. "Can you find him for me?"

Kreacher nodded. Harry knelt down and placed a hand on Kreacher's shoulder, ignoring the wince from the elf. "Alright. I want you to go find Mundungus and then bring him back here with you. Is that clear? Don't do anything else. Just find him and bring him back."

Kreacher disapparated with a loud noise and the three teenagers were quiet as they waited. Minutes ticked by with no hint of Kreacher.

"If that little worm runs away on us, I'll wring his neck," Ron grumbled, throwing a small piece of wadded up paper onto the carpet.

Another few minutes passed and Hermione was starting to get worried.

Then there was a pop! and Kreacher appeared in the middle of her room, stomping on Mundungus Fletcher's stomach.

"Ow!" he howled, trying to throw the elf off him but with no success. His dull beady eyes found Harry. "Harry Potter! Get this thing off me. Please."

Harry stood over him glaring. "Not until you tell me where the locket is that you stole from Grimmauld Place."

Beads of sweat appeared on the thief's face, but at the same time Kreacher kicked him hard in the shin and he yelled. "I don't know what you're talking about. What locket?"

"Kreacher," Harry said, "take this baggage and dump him outside the Ministry. I'm sure they will be very interested in Mr. Fletcher here."

"No, no, no," Fletcher protested, pushing with all his might against Kreacher. "Okay, I'll talk, but get this thing off me."

Hermione raised her hand toward him in threat as Harry nodded at Kreacher. The old elf reluctantly hopped down off Mundungus' stomach and walked off to the side. Fletcher sat up breathing heavy and looked around.

"It's great to see you alive, Harry. I was worried. You can't blame me for running away can you? Mad-Eye was killed by You-Know-Who. I wouldn't have stood a chance against him and I didn't want to go on that mission anyways. You understand, don't you?"

Harry glared and shrugged. "I don't care about that. I always knew you were a weasel. I only want to know where the locket you stole is."

"Hey, I just figured since no one was coming back there and all that no one would mind if I took something to sell. Times are hard, you know."

"Where is the locket, Fletcher?" Hermione broke in. She was getting sick of his sniveling and excuses. "Tell me before I blast you all the way back to the dirty little hole you crawled out of."

"I don't have it anymore."

"Who did you sell it to?"

"I didn't want to sell it, but she came along and made me. You know, that Ministry hag. The short squat one who looks like a toad."

With a sinking feeling in her chest, Hermione looked at the boys. Their grim expressions mirrored her own. "Umbridge."

"Has to be," Ron said slowly. "I don't know anyone else who matches that description."

Since they seemed to know who he was talking about, Mundungus took the opportunity to get into their good graces. "Yeah, that's her name. Umbridge. Works at the Ministry of Magic. She's a nasty piece of work, that one. She was handing out this." He rummaged around in his dirty coat pocket and withdrew a tattered piece of paper. Harry took it and looked at it.

It was a wanted poster of Harry with 'Undesirable No. 1' at the very top. Hermione took it out of his hands. "I guess going to the Ministry to get the locket is out of the question."

"But, we need to get that locket. What other choice do we have?"

"Do you think she knows what it is?"

Ron asked and Hermione answered. "There's no way. He wouldn't have trusted her. Harry, have you gotten any flashes from You-Know-Who?"

He shook his head. "No, but that hasn't happened in awhile. Maybe he's found a way to sever the connection."

"Or maybe," Hermione replied grimly, "he hasn't had a reason to be angry lately."

They were silent for a few minutes while Mundungus looked back and forth waiting for something to happen. "So…" he said, after a few minutes had passed by, "Can I go?"

All three glared down at him. "No," Hermione practically spat, "you cannot. Since you decided to steal something very important to our cause, you can help up retrieve it. Get comfortable," she ordered.

"Are you sure we can trust him?" Harry asked in a low voice and for the first time in a long time things almost felt normal again. Except for her urge to curse Mundungus with an Unforgivable.

Hermione gave the thief a withering look and addressed Kreacher, never taking her eyes off Mudungus. "Kreacher, I order you to kill Mundungus Fletcher if he so much as gives you a hint that he's going to betray us. Is that understood?"

Initially, Kreacher looked as if he were about to choke on his own tongue at Hermione addressing him, but as she finished her order, his eyes gleamed brighter than normal and he smiled. It was not a pretty sight. He looked down at Fletcher who was now cowering with fear in his eyes. "I understand."

"Thank you." Hermione turned and saw the judgmental and surprised looks her friends were giving her. "What? I'm not going to be handed over to You-Know-Who again because this sniveling worm decides to cash in on the reward for our heads. If Kreacher has to kill him to save us, so be it."

"I'm not going to order people to kill one another just to save my own skin," Harry protested. "How would that make me any different than Him?"

The absurdity of that question made her sneer and roll her eyes. "Well, let's see. I think that, unless you start fucking and torturing schoolgirls and then marrying them off to the members of the Order, you'll be safe. Have you forgotten Ginny so soon?" She had forgotten that Harry hadn't wanted Ron to know about his sister's fate and in an effort to not derail the progress they had made she hurried on. "Or Katie Bell? Or Lavender and Pavarti?"

Harry and Ron's jaws clenched. "No," Harry spat.

"Good. Neither have I. And I am not going back 'cause if I do, I'm dead. And not with the Killing Curse either. I'll be tortured to death. So forgive me for not wanting this," she gestured to Mundungus on the floor, "to be my undoing."

The boys were silent after that. Ron looked slightly green at her mention of Voldemort fucking people.

"Kreacher, concentrate and see if you can locate Dolores Umbridge. Try and find her as she's leaving for the day and apparate outside her home. Don't let anyone see you. You might be recognized."

Kreacher's lip curled ever so slightly at her order, but he looked at Mundungus and something about made him happy. He nodded. "Yes, miss."

"If something happens, no matter how small, apparate back here, but first go to the Forest of Dean. Don't come straight here in case anyone follows you. Maybe I should Obliviate Fletcher," she said to herself, tapping her wand against her cheek, "just in case."

In a loud staged whisper, Ron leaned over to Harry and asked, "Now who does that remind you of? Sometimes she's scary, you know?"

Harry glared at her. "Kreacher's my house-elf, Hermione. Shouldn't you ask me before ordering him around?"

"Damn!" Hermione ignored Harry and slapped her forehead with a hand. "An official as high-ranking as Umbridge won't leave the building through common means. She'll have her own Floo connected right to her home." Shit, she thought with a frustrated scowl.

"Well, maybe he can locate her if he concentrates hard enough?" Ron suggested. "He found Fletcher. I'm just saying."

Hermione thought of something and bent down toward the old elf. "Instead of focusing on Umbridge, can you focus on the locket? That's what we really want anyway."

Kreacher nodded.

She smiled in relief and straightened back up. "Good. Everyone should be going home from work soon. When you see the locket, do not do anything. Report back here first. Okay?"

Kreacher nodded and looked at Harry for confirmation. He nodded slowly and the elf disappeared with a pop. Harry looked at Hermione. "You have a plan, don't you?"

She smirked and nodded. "You still have the fake locket, yes? Well, once we locate Umbridge's house we can watch her for a few days. If we catch her at the right moment we can switch lockets and give her the fake."

"What good would that do?" Ron asked. "And how exactly would we do it? Wouldn't she know?"

"Not if I wipe her memory and make her think she went to bed early. If we can somehow get You-Know-Who to see her wearing the locket he'll go ballistic and rip it from around her throat. He might even kill her."

Harry looked uneasy. "I don't want to get her killed, Hermione. I know she's awful, but it wouldn't feel right."

She glared at him. "It's not like we would be killing her, Harry. But, if You-Know-Who thinks he has the real locket it will make him feel safer. He might even make a mistake that will help us defeat him. We need all the help we can get and if that bitch gets caught in the crossfire, all the better for the magical community."

Ron didn't look like he cared too much if Umbridge died or not, but Harry still looked miserable. Hermione swallowed her irritation and walked over to her friend, placing a hand on his shoulder. She rubbed small circles in an attempt to soothe him. "Harry, you have to do what you have to do. The sooner this war is over and He is dead, the sooner we can get on with lives. You and Ron can go to Auror training and we can all get a house together. And we won't have a care in the world."

What she said seemed to make him feel better because he gave her a small smile and nodded. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ron glare at them. Mentally she sighed and made up her mind to do what she rarely ever did anymore. Talk to Ron.

"Alright Harry, now if you don't mind, I'm going to steal Ron away from you for a moment, okay? Just think about what I said and you'll realize that I'm right." She gave him another encouraging smile before turning to Ron who bore a surprised expression. "Can I talk to you in my room for a minute?"

He nodded quickly and followed her out of the room and down the hall. Hermione closed the door behind them. Ron stood in the middle of her room awkwardly waiting for her to talk.

She took a deep breath and tried not relax. Ever since Ron had taken her from Malfoy Manor, she hadn't felt the same toward him. She avoided him at all costs, afraid that he would bring up something that was best left alone. Her brain was rewired now. She wasn't the same Hermione that he'd gone to school with last year.

"I know that I haven't been the greatest person to be around lately." She looked at him and saw that he was staring down at the floor, stubbing the toe of his shoe into one of the cracks in the tile. "I just don't feel the same, you know? The old Hermione feels like a completely different girl now." He still didn't say anything and she felt a rising frustration. He could at least make this a little easier on her, she thought in annoyance. "What I mean to say is that your one of my best friends, Ron, and I don't want to lose that."

He nodded down at the floor and she thought that he discerned her meaning. As she turned to leave, he stopped her. "Hermione?"

She turned back. "Yeah?"

"I don't know what happened in there."

She knew he was referring to Malfoy Manor and tensed up.

"I know a little bit, of course, but not the whole thing." He looked up at her and she swallowed, folding her arms protectively over her chest. "But, what I do know is that you're the smartest witch I've ever met, that any of us has ever met. And the bravest and kindest. Maybe you don't see yourself that way anymore for whatever reason, but I do. That's rare, Hermione."

Her throat was dry and a stinging pain was behind her eyes. Quickly it was gone, replaced by a cool relaxing feeling and she felt safer. She didn't say anything, just kept staring at him.

"Remember first year? Those traps set by the teachers to keep people from finding the Sorceror's Stone? We wouldn't have made it past the first one if it hadn't been for you. Second year, the Chamber of Secrets? You were the only one who figured out how that snake was getting around and that was the only reason Harry figured where the damn thing was in time to save Ginny."

She glared down at the floor. "None of that means anything, Ron."

"You were smart enough to figure out that Remus Lupin was a werewolf and kind enough not to tell anyone. The only reason me and Harry aren't starving and freezing our asses off right now is because of you. You battled Deatheaters with us in the Ministry fifth year and survived, Hermione. That's saying something."

"Even Neville survived. Obviously, not much talent was involved." She looked away from him. "What are you trying to say with all of this, Ron? If you're trying to make me feel better, it's not working."

The corner of his mouth lifted a little and when she looked back at him again, her breath caught in her throat. There was so much emotion in his eyes. "What I'm trying to say, Hermione, is that I love you. From the time that troll was loose in the bathroom and almost killed you because I'd hurt your feelings. You don't have to be afraid to be who you are in front of me because you think I won't understand. I will. I know who you are, Hermione, and just because you're a little different now doesn't mean that I don't. You're pissed off and angry all the time and you should be. You hate Umbridge and the Deatheaters? I do too. I don't give a shit whether any of them live or die. I hate them." He moved closer to her, but didn't touch her. "I don't know how you feel and that's not why I'm telling you. I don't want you to feel like you have to love me back. I just want you to know."

Hermione swallowed hard. "I don't just hate them, Ron. I want to kill them, all of them. I want to torture them to death. And I'm not brave, not anymore. I was at first, but after awhile it just got too hard." She turned away. "There's things that I haven't told you, things that I've done that you would hate. I—I . . . killed someone."

There was a heartbeat of silence and then, "Who?"

It was too late to backtrack now. "Sirius told everyone that he was on the run, hiding out, but I killed him. I was so angry at him for betraying me. I saw the memory. I saw him stun me from behind. I tortured him first before I killed him."

"Who was it? You can tell me."

"Kingsley."

He didn't say anything for a minute and she didn't turn around to see his expression.

"I'm not sorry about it either. I only wish I could kill him again over and over."

"He deserved it, Hermione. Me and Harry would've killed him if we'd gotten the chance. You don't have anything to be sorry for."

She turned around in surprise and a mixture of anger. "I saw your face in your room at the Burrow when I told you guys what happened to us at the Manor. You looked disgusted."

"I was disgusted, but not at you. I was pissed off and sick at the thought of what had happened to you, of you being . . . hurt that way. How could I be mad at you?" Ron shifted and looked guiltily down at the floor. "I know you must hate me for how I acted at the wedding. I hate myself for it. I had all this stuff I wanted to say and instead I acted like an ass and then the Deatheaters attacked and. . ." He blew out a breath and raked a hand through his hair. "I won't lie and say I don't care about what you told me about Malfoy because I do. I wouldn't love you if I didn't. But, I should've made it clear that I was mad about the situation, not at you. I hate him though. I always have and I always will."

She didn't know what to say. She brought him in here to let him down as gently as she could and to clarify their relationship to him, but now? The things he was saying were the last things on earth she'd expected to hear. And from him, of all people. Ron had never before spoken to her this way or articulated himself like this. It made her throat constrict and her chest tighten.

"You're saying these things without knowing everything," she said in a hollow voice, turning away from him.

"What could be worse than murder?" he joked, giving a weak laugh.

She grimaced at his attempt at humor. "I don't want children. Ever." She couldn't tell him the reason why.

"That's okay. I don't either."

He didn't really mean it though. Ron was so loveable. Eventually there would come a day when he'd want to share that love with his offspring. Offspring she couldn't provide. Offspring that Lucius Malfoy had robbed her of. She felt dirty, worthless, and less than a human being all at once.

A warm hand on her shoulder startled her out of her thoughts and she jumped. He retracted it quickly. "Sorry."

She barely heard him. "Ron, I don't know what to say to everything you've told me. I—I love you too, but . . . I don't know in what way. I don't know if I can ever have a normal life after this. You and Harry have all these plans for what life is going to be like after we win this war, but I don't know."

He nodded slowly, looking down again at the floor. "I understand. Like I said, I just had to tell you while I had the chance. I don't want to pressure you or anything. I just hope . . . maybe one day . . ." He left the rest unsaid, but she knew what he meant.

He gave one last small smile and then walked out of the room, leaving her alone to think about everything he'd said with mixed feelings.

XXXXXXXXXX

Ginny stared lovingly down at her wand. A wand that had been hard earned. In the back of her head a voice told her that it hadn't been that hard for her to get it back, but she ignored it. Using the Cruciatus Curse on someone was horrible and there was no way she enjoyed it. That would make her like Voldemort and she hated that thought.

She was back in her special room. Voldemort had given her wand back to her with a malicious, gleeful, triumphant expression on his face after Lucius had passed out from the pain. She hadn't known she'd had that much hate inside her, but she did now. Now she wanted to make sure that there were no restrictions or tracking spells on it.

Waving her wand, she said, "Avis," and several small brightly colored birds shot from her wand with a loud crack. They flew around the room a few times before settling down on an old cloak rack in the corner. She smiled down at her wand. At least it still worked for her.

She couldn't be sure that there weren't tracking spells on it though. How would she find that out?

Ginny looked over at the stairwell when she heard the noise of footsteps coming down. Though her heart raced in alarm, she knew it was Merin coming back to see her. Sure enough a blond head popped into sight. Merin's face was stony before settling on Ginny. Then she smiled and walked over.

"You came," the red-head stated. "I'm glad. I thought that maybe you wouldn't."

Merin scoffed and sat down gracefully. Her tone was mocking. "I'm sly and cunning, Ginny. Like all Slytherins. A few Deatheaters aren't going to stop me."

Ginny recoiled in shock. "What? You're in Slytherin house?"

Merin gave her a look. "Oh, well, if you're going to be that way about it I'll just leave. Maybe I'll encounter a Gryffindor on my way and send her down here." She made a move to get up, but Ginny quickly shot out a restraining hand.

"Wait, don't go. I'm sorry for being rude, it's just that I've never met a Slytherin I liked before. And seeing as most of their parents are trying to kill my friends and family—well, you can see my point?" As bad as Slytherin was to her, she didn't want to lose the only friend she'd made here.

Merin seemed mollified. "Yes, the others of my house can be quite unlikeable."

"I thought you were a half-blood. How did you get into Slytherin? I thought they only took purebloods?"

Merin smiled faintly. "Mostly that's true, but in my case an exception was made obviously. Besides, there more half-bloods in Slytherin than people think. Most of them pretend they're not, but you can't hide the truth forever." Her eyes deliberately dropped down to the wand in Ginny's hand. "So, you got a wand."

"Last night," Ginny said quickly. "The Dark Lord let me have it."

Merin cocked an eyebrow. "He let you have it? All you had to do is ask?"

Was there a mocking tone to her voice or was that imagined? Ginny nodded her head, not trusting her voice not to betray her. What would Merin think if she knew that she'd tortured someone last night?

"That's . . . odd. Why do you think he gave you your wand back?"

Ginny shrugged. "Probably to mess with me. That's his favorite thing in the world it seems, messing with my head."

"Because of what happened in the Chamber of Secrets? Or because of your relationship to Harry Potter?"

Ginny darted a look at her. "How did you know about the Chamber of Secrets? I thought Dumbledore promised only to tell my family and some of the teachers?"

Merin shrugged. "Everyone knows. Maybe Dumbledore just told you that to keep you from bothering him about it."

Ginny flushed and looked away. "So everyone at Hogwarts knows what I did? Great. You know, it wasn't like I knew what I was doing or anything. Volde—I mean, Tom Riddle was possessing me and making me do those things. I would never harm anyone of my own free will." Too late she realized that was a lie and flushed again.

Merin gave her an almost knowing look. "You'd harm Avery."

Ginny stood up and turned away. "I—I don't want to talk about that anymore. Do you know what he'd do to me if he ever found out I was even harboring a passing thought of actually harming him?" Just the thought of that retribution was enough to cause a panic attack.

Merin gave a noncommittal sound in the back of her throat that Ginny took for assent. She turned back to face the blonde girl, composing her face into one more pleasant. "So are you still hiding from the Deatheaters? How have you not been caught yet?"

Merin smiled faintly. "I told you before. I have my ways."

"I wish you could stay longer," Ginny said miserably. "You're always leaving."

Merin cocked her head and smiled at Ginny. "I wish I could too," she assured her. "But, if I stay away too long they will become suspicious."

Ginny nodded, swallowing down the lump in her throat. "Let's talk about something happy. Where did you live before the war? Your father was a muggle, right?"

An involuntary grimace passed over Merin's face. "Yes. I lived in London. Where did you live?"

Ginny responded "Ottery St. Catchpole. I miss it so much." Tears pricked her eyes as she thought of the Burrow. "Sometimes I hated it when I was a kid because we were so poor. I never had anything new. Our house was barely holding together. But, my parents loved me. It was warm. Here it's always so cold."

"I was poor too. But, I didn't mind because I knew I was magical. A witch. I knew that one day I'd have everything I ever wanted."

Ginny couldn't relate. "I miss my mum so much. I miss her cooking and the way she'd hug me when I was upset. I miss my dad's weird stories he'd tell after he came home from work about muggle stuff he'd found. I miss being happy," she whispered, staring down at the stone floor. Then she shook herself and looked over at Merin. "You must think I'm pathetic. I usually never cry. I'm not overly emotional, it's just that it's been so long since I've talked to anyone except Deatheaters . . . or Him," she added darkly.

"How is that?" Merin asked casually. "Does he torture you?"

Ginny shrugged one shoulder morosely. "Pretty much every time. One way or another."

"So was that you I heard screaming earlier?"

Ginny's stomach flipped in place and she froze. "Um, no. It was Lucius Malfoy. He was being tortured." She omitted the part about her being the one doing the torturing and hoped the girl stopped asking her questions. Merin always had this way of making Ginny feel as if she knew all her secrets and it was hard for Ginny to lie to her.

"Why were you there?"

"I don't know. He summoned me. I think it was because I am not pregnant yet . . . but I asked him for my wand back."

"And . . .?"

"He made me use an Unforgiveable on Lucius Malfoy before he'd let me have it," she whispered.

"So it was you who was torturing Lucius."

Ginny looked over at her quickly. "I didn't want to. He made me. I just wanted my wand back."

Merin raised an eyebrow and leaned forward. "Why didn't you want to hurt him? He's a Deatheater, the enemy of your family and friends. He's killed children before, forced himself on girls, on your mudblood friend. He deserves everything he gets."

Ginny nodded, ignoring her use of the word 'mudblood'. "I know he does, but I still didn't want to. Except . . . I did like it after awhile. I just kept picturing all the times he insulted my parents and called us names just because we were poor. And he's the one who gave me that stupid diary my first year at Hogwarts. I almost died. If Harry hadn't found me when he did. . ." She shook her head, remembering everything that happened that year.

"But, it couldn't have been that bad. You don't remember most of it, right?"

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but I was a little kid and it was first time away from home. The diary I found in my cauldron could write back to me and make me see things, during my blackouts I was releasing a giant basilisk that was petrifying my schoolmates, and You-Know-Who's past self was sucking the life out of me to make a return to the land of the living. It was horrible. And I still have nightmares too. I think they're memories of my blackouts that are coming back to me in my sleep."

Merin looked intrigued. "What are they about?"

Ginny didn't like how interested her new friend was in one of the worst times of her life so she answered vaguely. "Just stuff. Let's talk about you. Did you have a boyfriend at Hogwarts?"

Merin frowned in distaste. "No, I did not."

"Why?" Ginny was curious.

"There is no one who is worthy—good enough to be mine."

Ginny cocked an eyebrow at the weird phrasing. "Worthy? That's never been a prerequisite for kissing as far as I've ever seen. You do know that you can hang out with someone and it's not a marriage proposal, right?"

Merin gave her a withering glance. "That's the trouble with people, Ginny. Instead of concentrating on what's really important they waste their time with people who drag them down and ruin their potential."

Ginny laughed. "Potential to do what? Most people just finish school, get jobs, and have kids."

Merin leaned forward, staring at her. "Is that what you want? A boring job you hate and a bunch of whiny brats? Mediocrity?"

"No," Ginny confessed, "I just want to be normal and have a normal life. If we do win this war and I can have that then I'll be happy to settle for someone who doesn't hit me all the time and force me to do things with him." With a sinking heart, she remembered what she had to live with until that dream was made a reality. "That's why I wanted my wand. To defend myself."

"And how are you going to do that? Do you know any dark curses? Because that's what he's going to use on you."

"Do you know any?"

Merin shook her head. "I've seen the Cruciatus Curse and the Killing Curse. Those seem important, especially in here. Why don't you practice them?"

Ginny shook her head emphatically. "I can't kill someone, Merin. I already used the Cruciatus Curse and I didn't like the way I felt afterwards."

"Ginny, you don't have to pretend with me. You just don't like that it made you feel good, powerful," she emphasized. "Wasn't it nice to be in control for once? To be the one inflicting pain instead of the one receiving it? Admit it."

"I guess," Ginny mumbled.

"Avery only does to you what he knows he can get away with. What you let him do. Wouldn't it be nice to show him that he can't use you anymore? To gain some respect?"

Ginny nodded, tears filling her eyes. "I guess, but that's never going to happen. I can't win against him. He's stronger than I am." She shivered, thinking about all the mean things he'd ever done to her.

A firm hand clamped down around her shoulder. "I thought Gryffindors were supposed to be brave? What is the harm is testing out your abilities down here in private?"

Ginny looked around at the dusty room and then glanced toward the stairs. She had a wand now. The room could be warded with silencing spells and keep other people out. It would be like in fourth year when Harry taught her and the other kids how to duel and produce Patronus'. That was fun, she thought wistfully. "What should I practice?"

Merin crossed her arms and stood up, looking down at Ginny. "Not today. I have to go. But, tomorrow I will help you practice the Cruciatus Curse."

Ginny felt faintly nauseous at that. "Can't we start with something less . . . horrible?"

Merin gave her a nasty look. "I can see you're not serious about this. I want to help you, Ginny, but I'm not going to waste my time if you're too afraid."

"I'm not too afraid," Ginny retorted angrily. "It was just a question. Where did you learn to do the Cruciatus Curse anyway? It's illegal." She glared at her suspiciously and folded her arms over her chest.

"It isn't illegal anymore. From what I hear the teachers are teaching it in school now. Do you want to be a victim your entire life?"

"I'm not a—," she was going to say 'victim', but as of right now she'd be wrong. She was a victim. Her face flushed in embarrassment. "Fine. I guess as long as I only use that curse here it's not as bad."

Merin turned abruptly and started toward the stairs. "I'll be back tomorrow."

Ginny watched her friend leave through the door at the top of the stairs and thought about how odd the girl was. She still didn't entirely trust her, but at the same time she didn't think Merin was a spy. There was just something off about her. Like the way she kept pushing her to kill Avery or use Unforgivables on people.

She was a Slytherin at Hogwarts, she reminded herself. Her father always said there wasn't a witch or wizard who went bad who wasn't in Slytherin. It seemed to be ingrained in their blood to use evil curses.

Ginny looked around and realized she was all alone again. She desperately wanted her mum right now. To tell her what to do and whether or not she would be disappointed if her daughter learned to torture her tormentors. To reassure her. To tell her to kill them all if she could.

Anything to stomp out the indecision she felt now.

If she wanted to get out of here in one piece, she was going to have to toughen up a lot. The only way she would be able to see her parents again was if Avery was dead or if the bonds of their marriage was broken. She had a wand again which meant that she could perform magic, but she didn't know the first thing about severing marital bonds. Maybe there was a book in the manor on it. She wondered if she could get in there while Avery was gone on his mission.

Ginny stood up and bolted up the steps, only pausing every now and then to make sure no one was coming. The manor was surprisingly quiet and she wondered what time it was. She didn't encounter anyone on her way which was a relief and finally she saw the doors to the Malfoy library.

Inside it was dark so she lit a large lamp that was sitting on the small table towards the back. The library wasn't overly enormous, but it was full from ceiling to floor with books of every shape and size. Looking through them would take hours and hours. Guess I'd better get started, she thought, walking over to shelf against the back wall. She pulled a heavy thick book down and carried it over to the table.

XXXXX

The corridors of Hogwarts were deathly silent except for the sound of boots against stone. A lone figure strode with a purpose toward the Headmaster's tower and gave the password. The entryway revealed itself and the boy walked up the steps to the Headmaster's office, arrogantly pushing open the door without knocking.

Snape looked up from his desk without surprise. A blonde woman kneeled on the floor with her hands bound behind her back and her mouth gagged. "Mister Malfoy, you're late."

Draco sneered at his former professor. "What do you want? I do have my studies you know. Is this another pathetic attempt at intervention your part? If it is, you can save your breath."

Snape stood up and sent a quick spell to the heavy door of his office. A sheen of silver-blue coated it from top to bottom. At Draco's confused glance, he clarified, "So we won't be interrupted. No one can enter or leave without my approval."

Draco grew furious. "How dare you! I should curse you right here."

Snape let his comments roll off him as though the words were never spoken. Draco's eye flitted down to the bound woman.

"Mother? What is she doing here and why is she tied up?"

Snape flicked a bored glance at her. "I know you are under the Imperius Curse, Draco. I am almost sure that you are fighting it, but you need help. So I took your mother and I intend to torture her until you break free of it."

Draco looked coldly at him. "You don't know what you're talking about, you fool." His wand rose in the air, but Snape disarmed him quickly to the boy's surprise. "I will kill you," he spat.

Snape put the other wand on his desk and then aimed his own at Narcissa. The blonde woman pleaded with her eyes at her son, but he didn't move. Then red light hit her and she screamed, writhing on the floor in agony.

Draco didn't seem impressed. "My father will not like how you are treating her, Snape. He'll kill you."

Snape shrugged. "Well, your mother will dead so I guess we'll be even." He cursed her again, this time holding it on her for longer. He watched Draco as he stared down at his mother, looking for any sign that this was getting through to him. He thought he saw the boy twitch involuntarily, but that wouldn't be enough to break free of the curse.

He let off, giving Narcissa a break. "You can stop me at any time, Draco. Just use your mind and know that you are stronger than your father. His hold on you is tenuous at best. You can be free."

Draco looked at him sullenly. "Have you told the Dark Lord your suspicions?"

Snape sneered at him. "Yes, of course, and he's overjoyed to know that you have been under the Imperius without his knowledge or approval. I wonder what he's going to do?"

"You're lying. You wouldn't be doing all this if he knew. I'd be kneeling before him right now with his wand aimed at me."

Snape shrugged a shoulder. "You got me." He cursed Narcissa again producing more smothered screams.

Draco closed his eyes and tried to vie for control. His head was beginning to pound and he raised his hands to his temples. Inside he was yelling with all his might, willing his feet to move toward his mother, to help her.

Instead, he was only able to sink to his knees. The screams stopped, but he knew that they would start again unless he could break free and save his mother. He lurched forward, arm outstretched and saw Narcissa's eyes widen in her haze of pain.

"Good, Mister Malfoy, you moved your arm. Do it again," Snape urged.

Draco tried but the movements were stiff and uncoordinated. A bit of the pressure in his head was relieved a bit. It was a battle with himself to move it again.

"The more you practice the easier it gets."

"Shut up," Draco heard himself snarl, head bent and breathing hard.

"You're not leaving this office unless it's of your own free will. I'll torture your mother again if that's what you want."

"Do it. I don't care." Inside, Draco screamed for Snape to stop, but it was hard. His mother screamed again and he concentrated with all his might on breaking free of his prison.

For the last few weeks, he'd been practicing at resisting the curse his father had put on him and sometimes he could speak of his own volition and sometimes he couldn't. Sometimes it was a matter of flicking a finger or trying to move his body. It didn't matter. What did matter was that he was conditioning his mind to resist and it was getting stronger every day. That was the key to the Imperius Curse.

But, now his mother was getting tortured and there was nothing he could do to stop it unless he broke free once and for all.

Snape watched him carefully and let up on Narcissa. He wasn't using his full might, but he knew the curse still hurt. He wondered how long it would take Draco. He couldn't let the boy leave now that he had shown him that he knew. Draco would go straight to his father and tell him everything.

Draco was making progress, but Snape thought it was time to use the Cruciatus on Narcissa full force. "I've played nice so far, but I think now it is time for harsher measures."

Narcissa looked down and braced herself for what was to come. A small noise escaped from her throat.

"Stop."

Snape looked over at Draco. He was still kneeling on the floor, but had gained control of his voice for one second. "Make me stop, Draco."

The magic was trying to take back its hold on his mind, and Draco was trying desperately to keep it at bay. His mother screamed again, but this time he knew Snape had been holding back because the scream sounded like the ones that came from the Dark Lord's victims. Snape must have a lot of hate inside him.

Draco's head snapped up and he saw his mother's body contorted in an awful position. She's going to die, he thought in a panic. She's going to die and it'll be all my fault. She's right there. Right within reach. You can stop all this. Just break free. Break free. Break free. Move, move, move, move, move, move, move, move, move, move, move, move!

"Stop!" he yelled, standing up on his own and moving to his mother. Her screams stopped abruptly and he cradled her in his arms, hoping desperately that she was still alive. Sometimes bones broke when the Dark Lord tortured people and sometimes his victim's hearts stopped beating from the pain.

But, she was alive. He glared up at Snape, untying his mother's gag at the same time. "I'm going to kill you. How dare you use my mother like this? Torture her? Give me back my wand, you bastard," he hissed.

Instead, Snape sliced though the cords that tied her hands and then whispered a spell over her body. It turned a light pink before sinking into her form. "She will be fine. She volunteered for this."

Draco looked up at him in shock. "What are you talking about? No one would volunteer to be cursed like this."

"I guess you're not as smart as you think you are."

"Draco," Narcissa whispered, raising a hand to his face, "are you okay now?"

He nodded. "Yes, Mother."

"It's true. It was my idea to use me as motivation to break free of the Imperius Curse. I'm sure Severus thought of it first, but he was kind enough to let me verbally volunteer." She smiled weakly. "What's important is that you are yourself again."

"Mother, you could have died. What were you thinking?"

"Draco, when you have children you'll understand. I would die a thousand times if it meant saving you."

He felt tears prick his eyes. "What about Father? How could he do this to me, his own son?"

She closed her eyes. "Your father is not the same man he once was, not since the Dark Lord returned."

"I hate him," he hissed, not sure who he was talking about—his father or the Dark Lord. Both, he decided.

"I've tried so hard this past year to keep our family alive and together," she whispered, "but the safest place for you to be now is away from me and your father. The Dark Lord is too close and his mind operates on whims. He could decide to kill us all tomorrow or not. There is a place in the States that I have set up as a safe house. Professor Snape will help you to it."

Draco was shocked. "I can't leave you, Mother. Come with me. Leave Father to his fate. He deserves it."

"I can't. I've spent my whole life with him. Even before I got my letter to Hogwarts our families moved in the same circles. I can't remember a time when I didn't know Lucius Malfoy. I still remember when he was young and strong and a better man. I can't abandon him."

Draco stared at her and helped her to her feet. "I can't leave, Mother. You don't know what the school is like now. I can't just leave the other kids to the Deatheaters, especially not now that I have my mind back."

"But, you can't fight them, Draco, not without branding yourself a bloodtraitor."

"I know that," he said slowly, "but I don't have to openly fight them to protect the other kids. You don't know how I feel, Mother. It's been horrible. I feel like a coward all the time. What's the point of living if you hate yourself?" He was miserable. "I should have listened to Hermione when she tried to tell me about Father. I'm the reason her and Black got captured again. And I've tortured kids here too and all for nothing. Just because I was told to. Why did we even start following the Dark Lord? I can't even remember. It doesn't matter anymore, at least not to me."

Narcissa started crying into a handkerchief and he wanted to go to her, but didn't. She sniffed and raised her eyes to him. "I have never cared about any of that. As long as you're still alive, that's all I want."

"I'm only alive until the Dark Lord decides to end my life on a whim," he said darkly. "That's not living, Mother. It's a pathetic existence." He took a deep breath. "I'll stay here and keep up appearances, but I'm not on Father's side anymore. I'm not on the Dark Lord's either. I really hope I don't die, but if I do, I don't want to be known as a sniveling coward that was killed by the same man he swore allegiance to."

Narcissa turned to Snape. "I don't know what to do. Talk to him, please? I won't be able to bear it if you are hurt or worse, Draco." She rushed to kiss him and then threw some Floo powder into the fireplace and stepped in. "I have to go before I am missed."

Draco looked uneasily at Snape. "There's something I have to tell you. When I was under the Imperius curse I had to tell my father everything that I knew. So I did."

Snape stared at him. "He knows that I have betrayed the Dark Lord."

Draco nodded. "I—I didn't want to, but I wasn't strong enough."

Snape walked to the window and stared down at the grounds. "And yet I'm still alive so it is safe to assume that Lucius hasn't shared this news with him."

Draco shrugged. "I don't know. He didn't tell me anything. By the way, what should I tell my father?"

Snape's black eyes glittered in the moonlight. "Don't tell him anything. Keep pretending to be under his curse and come to me with any suspicions or information you might have. If there is anything I can do to keep him out of harm's way I will try, for your sake."

Draco paused before turning to leave. "I don't care anymore. Just keep my mother safe."

XXXXXXXXXX

One week later

Umbridge stared terrified down at the floor of Malfoy Manor. She couldn't look at the Dark Lord's face. "Please, my lord."

"Please, my lord," he mocked, staring down at the locket he'd just ripped from around her throat. The gold chain slid between his fingers. "Please, my lord, what?"

She didn't answer. Her voice failed her.

"I ask again, where did you get this?"

"My lord, I told you. I confiscated it from a thief in Diagon Alley weeks ago. M-Mundungus Fletcher was his name."

"And did this Mundungus Fletcher tell you where he'd acquired it?"

She shook her head in fear, swallowing hard. "No, my lord. I assumed he'd stolen it from someone else."

"Where is this thief located now?"

Her mouth opened and closed until she finally forced words out. "I don't know. Probably roaming the streets somewhere. He's a notorious criminal."

Voldemort turned his crimson gaze upon her and she shrank back. "It seems that since the Ministry cannot keep crime down to a minimum it is up to me and my Deatheaters."

The others in the room jeered and smiled just like he'd wanted them to. Umbridge's head darted wildly around trying to look at everyone at once without success.

"My lord-,"

"Silence!" he hissed, rising from his seat to pace around her like a snake. Umbridge cowered from her position on the floor.

Everyone else watched with mixed feelings as they wondered what he was going to do. History was not on the woman's side. Not many people in her position survived much longer. They all wondered what was so important about the locket.

"You are the head of the Mudblood Registration Commission, are you not?" He went on without waiting for affirmation. "You have been useful in that area and my spies tell me that you are loyal to our cause."

She raised her face which was filled for the first time with hope. "Yes, my lord, one of the most loyal."

"Still, like most women, you have proved yourself capable of being distracted by trinkets and shiny objects. Why didn't you arrest Mundungus on sight rather than let him go? You said yourself he was a thief."

"I didn't know who he was until afterwards."

"After what? Confiscating the locket?"

She shook her head. "No, after . . . after. . ." She stopped and struggled to find the right answer, but could not. "I don't know."

Voldemort frowned and then a moment later he aimed his wand at her. "You're memory has been altered." He smiled. "I'll just have to rip the information out."

Before she could scream or protest, he was in her mind. The events during the last few days leading up to this encounter were clear. Then things started becoming hazy until a black wall slammed down around him, blocking her mind from further intrusion. He smiled. Whoever had done this had powerful magic. He'd have to kill them very soon.

Forcing his way through the blackness, everything was still muddled. He raced past it toward an earlier time, scanning and picking through everything he saw. The thief selling his stolen wares on a street corner, Umbridge taking the necklace with greedy eyes, work at the Ministry, dozens of screaming sobbing witches and wizards being dragged out and away from their families, lonely nights at home, cats, the thief again, this time with a house elf—wait. He stopped and paid closer attention.

This last kind of memory was what he liked to call the fringe, things a person sees without even knowing it. The thief, Mundungus Fletcher, was standing outside her house for two nights without her even knowing it. He was accompanied by an ancient house elf. Maybe she'd seen out of the corner of her and brushed it off. The locket gleamed around her neck and she kept touching it every so often, as if it were one of her cats. Next the doorbell rang, she answered it, looked angry, and was promptly Stunned.

Try as he might to dig deeper, he couldn't find anything after that. He backwards and forwards over that particular block of time in her mind and soaked in everything he could. Who was powerful enough to alter someone's memory so that not even he could find the truth?

In frustration and disgust, he exited the woman's mind, leaving her a blank heap on the floor. After a moment or two of studying her, Voldemort spoke. "Yaxley."

"Yes, my lord?"

"I'm afraid you're now in charge of the Mudblood Registration Commission." A small smile curved his 'lips' as if he'd made a joke. "Someone clean this up." He waved a hand at the assembly, dismissing them, and walked slowly back to his chair, staring down at the locket and thinking about everything he'd seen.

Alright, there you have it. Just to get the timeline straight, we are now mid-November in the story. Sorry there was no Sirius again but there will be next chapter. We have to catch up and see what he's been doing this whole time. No much—mostly drinking. But, there's going to be a major development in the next chapter that frankly just has to happen. We've got some dead weight that's been hanging around for a dozen or so chapters. Hope you liked this chappie. I tried to make it long to make up for how horribly neglectful I've been.