"There is not any present moment that is unconnected with some future one. The life of every man is a continued chain of incidents, each link of which hangs upon the former. The transition from cause to effect, from event to event, is often carried on by secret steps, which our foresight cannot divine, and our sagacity is unable to trace. Evil may at some future period bring forth good; and good may bring forth evil, both equally unexpected."

Joseph Addison (1672-1719)

Secret Steps

Having just murdered her mother, a young woman chose to turn that same violent intent upon herself. It was a gruesome destiny hastened by mere months, but it forever altered the fate of Wizarding Britain…

Step 1

It was November of 1989 and the Wall had just fallen. Not their Wall, mind you, but the muggles' Wall in Germany. The Berlin Wall. That it was the inspiration for their Wall was a well-known secret.

Really, their Wall wasn't so much of a wall at all, but instead an opaque magical barrier surrounding all of Wizarding Britain. And their Wall, like the muggles' Wall, wasn't there to keep others out so much as it was there to keep the inhabitants in. The muggles didn't even know the Wizarding Wall was there. But to every witch and wizard who saw it tapering up and up toward the sky, it was a daily reminder of their circumstances.

It would have been difficult to navigate Wizarding Britain in such a state if it weren't for the conveniences of magical transportation. But as things were, it was little trouble at all to pop between the various small wizarding towns, schools, and suburbs scattered across Britain without illegally venturing through all of those muggle parts in between.

And some parts were very isolated, indeed: just an old family's home on a small plot of land. Such families had to have their property Walled and connected to the Floo Network by special request.

—But back to the muggles' Wall.

No one learned of its fall by reading the Daily Prophet. No, the Ministry controlled the media too heavily to let such news break in the paper. Instead the message slipped through in an owl message to an English wizard from his relatives on the continent. Such private correspondence wasn't scanned or censored heavily.

At the time. One wizard who went by the name of Severus Prince had a strong feeling that it would be soon.

From that one owl, the news spread very quickly in hushed whispers between neighbours and colleagues until very soon, everyone knew.

While the rest of the world celebrated, Wizarding Britain became restless.

No one was terribly fond of the Wall of course, but it had been there for long enough that people had become complacent. Until the news hit that the muggles' Wall had been torn down, and then suddenly everyone—especially those of older generations who remembered a time before the Wall—thought to question: why was their Wall necessary?

There were small, petty acts of vandalism and secret gatherings in protest. But the protesters were quickly punished and aurors patrolled the streets more regularly. Posters featuring the scowling face of the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement were hung prominently, reminding everyone that sedition would not tolerated.

It was a tough time to be a wizard in Britain.

Severus felt the tension keenly as he stalked through the foggy, early-morning streets of Diagon Alley on his way to open shop. The aurors eyed him carefully while he unlocked the door to his apothecary and entered, flipping the sign in the window to "Open" with a swish of his wand.

He made sure that his wards had not been tampered with during the night and then proceeded to the back of the shop in a foul mood. This wasn't unusual for Severus, almost any small thing was liable to put him in a foul mood. That morning he had found that he was almost out of tea and would have to get more before returning home. That was enough.

Looking at the ledgers, as he was doing then, only made it worse. He was scraping by, his earnings covering expenses, taxes, and costs of living... but barely. Severus was more fortunate than many, but he was not the sort to focus on the positives of a situation.

Instead he focused on the incompetence of a government that isolated its citizenry and allowed the economy to wither.

He was interrupted from his brooding when a soft ping, heard only by him, indicated that someone had entered the apothecary and passed through his wards.

The wizard slipped quietly behind the counter at the front.

For a time he didn't see anyone, only heard light footsteps as someone wandered through the barrels and shelves of jars and bottles, filled with potions, unguents, herbs, animal parts and more. Then the person came around the corner and Severus realized that his potential customer was actually a young girl with a wild mane of untamed, brown hair. A pudgy cat trailed behind her.

Severus could tell from her distinctive, uniformed robes that she was from the orphanage on the other end of Diagon Alley. And since she was not at Hogwarts this time of year, she must have been younger than eleven. But that didn't explain what she was doing in his apothecary. Alone. Serverus knew that the younger orphans were only permitted to be outside in groups of three or more at certain hours and were unlikely to need anything he sold.

He watched silently, amused at her startled jump and gasp when the girl suddenly noticed his presence.

She stared at him, wide eyed. Wary and guilty. He knew she hadn't touched anything, it was likely guilt for sneaking away.

"How may I help you?" he asked with a smirk and a pinch of snide amusement.

"I-I um, I'm fine, thank you, sir," she squeaked out and continued to slowly examine the shelves under his imposing watch, occasionally giving him fearful glances.

Severus rolled his eyes. The girl had no finesse in her rule-breaking. She would probably be a Hufflepuff.

"Sir?" she said cautiously after a time, "What are all of these for?" The girl gestured broadly at a shelf of ingredients.

But then with her curiosity... perhaps a Ravenclaw?

"Potions," he drawled slowly, and she rolled her eyes.

Maybe a Gryffindor, then. Any of them were possible, of course. Any but Slytherin, with her heritage.

"I meant specifically," she said, clearly agitated with his patronizing reply. But he was not it in a mood to tolerate cheek from a child.

"I'm not going to tell you the specific properties of every ingredient I stock, child. Such knowledge is why the Ministry pays to educate you," he snapped.

She slumped, chastened, and stared forlornly at the jars. Severus felt a small stab of something resembling remorse. He sighed.

"Choose one," he grumbled, and her happy grin only marginally compensated for his annoyance.

The girl studied the jars carefully, seemingly searching for the most interesting. Finally she pointed.

"That one?"

He had to take only a short glance at the black, slug-like plant...

"That is a bubotuber," Severus told her with thinly disguised impatience. "Properly diluted and processed, its pus may be used to cure acne. Undiluted, it will raise terribly painful boils upon contact with the skin."

She took a respectful step backward, even as she leaned forward to study it more carefully.

"I've read about those," she told him reverently, "Is it true that they squirm around and smell funny?"

He nodded, mildly surprised that a young girl would read about such things. She giggled.

"I wonder what they smell like..." she mused, conversationally.

Her cat stepped forward and put its paws up on the bottom shelf, sniffing at a jar.

"If that creature breaks anything, it will be on you to see it replaced," he snarled. The girl bent down to lift the beast into her arms and looked at him with a wounded expression.

"Tibbles wouldn't break anything," she told him, seemingly offended on the creature's behalf. "He's too smart for that!"

Severus studied the cat more carefully and reluctantly acknowledged to himself that it was likely true. "Tibbles" did look at least part kneazle. Not that he would apologize.

The girl edged toward the door, the beast still in her arms.

"Thank you very much, sir, for answering my question," she said politely, her expression again wary.

Severus simply nodded, frowning, and watched as she quickly fled the store.

He shook his head. What an odd child.

He was surprised when she returned a few days later, Tibbles still trotting behind.

The girl wandered the apothecary and studied his shelves while he assisted another wizard.

When his customer left, she pointed at a jar of fluxweed.

"What about that one?" she asked, as if continuing their previous conversation. He wondered if she bothered all the other shop-keeps in Diagon Alley with incessant questions like this.

He shortly informed her of the magical properties of Isanthus brachiatus, and she nodded with a grateful smile before soon leaving.

And then she returned every day, Tibbles in tow, in order to ask him one question each visit. Always some variation of "what is that?"

He wondered when he agreed to the bargain. One answer for one question each day. It was apparently the girl's "clever" attempt to circumvent his refusal to tell her everything all at once. He wasn't certain why he put up with it. She never bought anything. Severus determined that he must have found her curiosity, at some level... endearing.

However, Severus had to marvel at the lax security of the orphanage. Shouldn't the girl have been found out and punished, prevented from leaving on her own? It was not very safe for a young girl to wander about Diagon Alley's streets alone. And as an orphan, she was a prime target for narrow-minded bigots.

He suggested as much to her on one occasion, a couple weeks after her initial visit.

"There's so many of us, no one really notices when I'm gone. And Tibbles will protect me," she told him. He eyed the creature sceptically. "It's true! He'll get Mrs. Figg if I'm hurt."

Severus didn't doubt it. But there was very little that the old squib who ran the orphanage could do if one of her charges turned up hurt. And an auror was just as likely to be the cause of the injury as help heal it.

So one day when her back was turned, Severus cast a small charm. Nothing illegal, so far as he was aware. It would alert and lead him to her location if she was ever in pain and afraid, provided she stay within Diagon Alley. It was a charm his mother had cast when he was young, and it was the least he could do. He was the one enabling and practically encouraging her recklessness with his cooperation, after all.

This was soon after the girl had finally asked,

"Sir, what's your name?"

"Severus Prince," he told her, busy sorting receipts.

"I'm Hermione Granger," she said, "I'm very pleased to meet you." And she curtsied.

Severus gave her a nod in acknowledgement, rather bemused. They'd "met" quite a bit earlier, after all.

The girl then walked toward the door, and Severus was startled. Did she think that was her question for the day? Before he could think twice about it he called out,

"The bottle of cerulean-coloured potion to your right on the top shelf is a Befuddlement Draught."

Her response was a beaming smile and Severus felt a small tug of satisfaction. He suppressed it with a scowl.

One day after he explained to her the uses of dried billywig stingers, Granger tentatively questioned,

"Mr. Prince, do you make these potions yourself?" She waved a hand around as if to indicate all of the potions in his store.

"Most of them, Miss Granger, yes. Though I'm the only apothecary in Britain to do so," he informed her, smirking proudly.

The girl regarded him with a sort of worshipful awe that he had to admit was rather gratifying.

"Do you suppose, sir, I might someday... watch you make one?" She seemed already resigned to his refusal.

He considered her carefully, however, thinking about the days, long ago, when he would stand on a stool beside his mother and watch her brew while his father managed the store.

His father died years ago, leaving him to manage things. His mother had been depressed and withdrawn ever since.

Severus looked around the apothecary, empty but for the girl, and made a decision. The wards would alert him if anyone entered...

"Follow me," he told her, and headed toward the lab in the back. Severus paused when he didn't hear her footsteps and looked back. The child stood frozen, looking uncertain and afraid. He rolled his eyes.

"If you want to observe, come," he snapped and Granger scurried after him, grinning. Tibbles, as always, followed behind.

As he set up the cauldron and began preparing the ingredients for a Calming Draught, she predictably began to ask a number of foolish questions in rapid succession. Severus glared, and she subsided, content to watch silently.

In the end, he found the experience to be overall... pleasant.

It was very cold and dark in the attic, but Hermione kept a pile of heavy blankets in the corner to snuggle into, and she had always had a talent for wordlessly, wandlessly conjuring small bluebell flames to keep in a jar to read by.

So aside from the dust and rather frightening atmosphere, the orphanage's attic was the perfect place for her to find some peace and quiet. There were other rooms where one could be alone for a while, of course, but none as solitary as the attic. No one ever came across her, up there, where all the old junk that belonged to orphans years and years ago was stored. (Mrs. Figg was too kind to ever throw it away, though it was rare that anyone ever actually came to retrieve any of it.)

Yes, Hermione was quite confident in the secrecy of her special hiding place. Until one day she was startled to hear the creak of footsteps slowly making their way up the small, wooden staircase. She would hide... but where? This was her hiding place! So she sat frozen as the attic door opened and a little girl slipped inside hesitantly. Hermione recognized her as Hannah Abbott, one of the girls with whom she shared a room. Which meant that the giggling from the bottom of the stairs was probably her other roommates.

Hannah looked around, clearly frightened. She seemed close to tears when she turned around and yelled shakily down the stairs,

"All right, I'm here! May I come down now?"

"No, five minutes, we said!" came the gleeful response. Hermione rolled her eyes. Whatever silly game they were playing, she wanted no part of it.

She stood, which caused the floorboards to creak and Hannah spun around to let loose a blood-curdling scream...

until she saw that it was only Hermione, and she stopped with as fearsome a scowl as a nine year old girl could muster.

"What are you doing up here?" Hannah asked snottily, ignoring the worried calls from the others girls downstairs. Then her eyes lit upon the book in Hermione's hand, and she sneered meanly. "Reading like always?"

"I was," Hermione defended, lifting her chin. "Perhaps you should try it sometime. I think you'd be much improved with a few thoughts entering your stupid head, for once."

The younger girl huffed furiously, but was prevented from responding when her two friends burst into the attic right behind her.

"Are you okay?" "What happened?" they asked quickly and then spotted Hermione.

"Oh! We thought you may have found a boggart or something!" Alice said, laughing. "Was it just Granger?"

Hannah pouted angrily, and Liz thought to console her,

"I'm sure you were just startled. Um... did I mention that Justin was looking for you, earlier?"

The embarrassed girl perked up immediately. "Really?" Hannah asked brightly, already headed down the stairs, their earlier game and Hermione's insult easily forgotten. "He told me my hair looked nice you know, last week..."

Alice rolled her eyes and followed behind. "Yes, you've told us over and over. I still think he was joking. I don't think bright green is really a good colour for you..."

Liz loitered around a bit longer, eyes darting around nervously as if expecting something to jump from the shadows at any moment.

"Um, sorry about that," she mumbled awkwardly. "We bet her a whole sickle she couldn't stand being in the attic for five minutes, you see." Hermione shrugged and clutched her book to her chest.

"It's all right."

For a moment Hermione thought the girl might say something else.

Liz had always been the nicest to her, of everyone in the orphanage. The younger girl never teased her for reading so much like all the other children, and for a while Hermione had hoped they might be friends. Those hopes were dashed when Liz started spending more time with Hannah and Alice.

But Liz said nothing, just scurried out of the attic and back down the narrow staircase.

Oh well. She had books, and that was almost as good as a friend.

Feeling the mood spoiled by the other girls' rowdy interruption, Hermione extinguished the flame in her jar and left the attic too. She walked down and down a number of floors and through corridors until she reached the orphanage's small library, and reverently placed her book back in its proper place on the shelves.

It seemed like a good time to visit Mr. Prince, anyway.

Hermione walked quietly to the entrance hall and looked around. No one could be seen, so she carefully pulled open the front door the slightest bit—giving the portraits a smile when they winked at her—and slipped through, shutting it quietly behind her. It had surprised her the first time, how easy it really was to sneak out.

A number of mews greeted her as Mrs. Figg's cats quickly surrounded her on the steps.

She made sure to give each of them a good scratch behind the ears before she walked away. As always, Tibbles broke away from the others to follow behind.

Past Ollivander's and the junk shop, the Magical Menagerie and Gambol & Japes. It was as familiar a landscape to her as the back of her hand. She had lived in Diagon Alley, and gone no farther, for as long as she could remember. Longer, even. The aurors watched her suspiciously but made no move to deter her.

Then she began to pass the entrance to Knockturn Alley and heard a faint, pitiful cry that sounded very much like it came from a person in pain. Hermione hesitated. She wasn't supposed to go into Knockturn Alley, that place was as unfamiliar to her as Diagon Alley was familiar. And for the most part Hermione liked to follow rules... when it suited her. Knockturn Alley looked scary, so it had always suited her very much to stay out of it.

But when she heard a sound that suggested someone might be in trouble... She looked around, but if the aurors or anyone else noticed anything they gave no indication of caring.

She hesitantly took a few steps, and then walked quickly into Knockturn Alley. Already the atmosphere seemed darker. More wizards had the hoods on their cloaks raised and the cheerful, busy chatter of Diagon Alley was absent. Hermione felt that they'd take one look at her and realize she didn't belong, send her back.

But everyone ignored her, going about their own business.

Hermione followed the wailing to an alleyway next to a store which kept a gruesome display of giant, dead spiders in the window. The cries grew much louder, and she could now hear a man sobbing and pleading. Frightened, she peered cautiously around the corner of the building and saw two wizards—the backs of their uniform, black robes emblazoned with the green symbol of Magical Law Enforcement.

They shifted a little bit, and one of them kicked at a lump of twitching fabric on the ground. Slowly, Hermione was horrified to recognize that lump of fabric as Ernie, a very nice—if smelly—old man with poor eyesight who could often be seen asking for charity from Diagon Alley's patrons. It seemed he couldn't afford his own home, so Ernie often slept in alleys. She sometimes shared her sweets with him.

"I'll ask you again," one of the aurors jeered, "Where'd you steal that nice, new cloak from?"

"P-p-please!" Ernie stuttered, "I d-din't-'E g-gave it t' me!"

"Wrong answer," the same auror sighed, "I suppose you'll need some more convincing. Crucio!"

Ernie started thrashing on the ground, screaming. Hermione stood frozen, watching, as tears ran down her face in horror at the man's obvious pain. Other wizards in the street occasionally glanced over, but quickly averted their gaze and moved on.

"Suppose he's telling the truth, Gibbon?" the other auror asked above the noise, sounding mildly amused but mostly bored.

"Gibbon" snickered and lifted the curse with a flick of his wand. Ernie stopped screaming, but she could see that he was still twitching. "I'm sure he's done something recently that he oughtn't have, Jugson."

Immediately determining that something must be done, she began furiously concentrating on the hem of Gibbon's robes, which soon enough sparked with a small blue flame. As the flames grew larger, Hermione ducked out of view from the alleyway and hid herself in the entryway of a nearby store, heart pounding with fear and anticipation.

"If you keep doing that, he won't be good for more than the Janus Thickey Ward at St. Mungo's," Jugson chided.

"He'll be of more use there than-"

"Gibbon! Your robes!"

"Wha-? Argh! Get off!"

"The fire or the robes?" Jugson asked, laughing.

In the resulting confusion, Ernie smartly managed to drag himself out of the alley.

"Psst, Ernie!" Hermione whispered, "Over here!"

The poor man seemed to have lost his glasses, but obligingly crawled through the thin layer of snow toward her voice. She helped him into the entryway, bravely ignoring the stench (which was much worse than usual), and they knelt there in the shadows silently. Or mostly silently. Ernie whimpered a bit, still twitching.

"For Merlin's sake, Gibbon," Jugson said, exasperated, and cast an extinguishing spell. "It's just a little fire."

"Well excuse me for panicking a bit, but I was burning!" Gibbon snapped angrily. "Bloody hell, I'm going to need new robes, and some sort of salve..."

"Just how did you manage to catch yourself on fire?"

The two aurors exited the alley, thankfully seeming to have forgotten their target in favour of their bickering.

"I didn't do it! I bet you did just to laugh and watch me hop around!"

"Please. If I were going to raise my wand against you, it wouldn't be to set a little fire on your robes."

"And just what do you mean by that...?"

They got farther and farther away into the crowd until Hermione couldn't hear them anymore. She took a deep breath to sigh with relief and then wished she hadn't. Urgh. That smell.

"Um, are you okay, Ernie?" she asked, standing gratefully and putting a bit of distance between them. Tibbles rubbed himself against her legs, having just emerged from a shadowy corner on the other side of the street.

"Y-yes... Thank y-you," the man stuttered quietly.

She saw his glasses on the ground a little ways away and picked them up. The lenses were cracked.

"I'm sorry, I think they're broken..." she said, placing them in the man's hands. Ernie put them on and looked at her solemnly.

"'s al-r-right." He carefully retrieved his wand and pointed it at his face, shaking. "R-re-r-e-p-pa-ro." Hermione felt a stab of impatience at seeing him fail at such a simple charm, she'd seen the older orphans use it all the time to repair things before Mrs. Figg could find them broken. Then she felt bad, suppressing her irritation, reminding herself that he was hurt. He gave up with a sigh, and she carefully offered a hand.

"Um, I could try..." she said hesitantly, and he offered her the wand entreatingly. Taking it by the handle, she paused. "Maybe I should try it with them off," she mumbled, and gently took the glasses from him. Ernie blinked at her owlishly, though his twitching had already lessened slightly. "Reparo" was all. And there didn't seem to be any wand movements necessary...

"Reparo," she said firmly, and was very pleased when the lenses repaired themselves. "Here you go!" She returned the glasses and wand.

"Th-thank you."

"You're welcome. Uh, I'm glad you're okay, or well, will be, I think," Hermione told him, not sure what to say to extract herself from such a situation. She wanted to know more, to know why they were hurting him. But at the same time, she wanted to be somewhere else desperately and never wanted to think about what she saw or why it happened again. "I believe I'll be going now?"

Ernie nodded.

"Thank you, Miss G-granger. V-very much," he said softly. She smiled gently.

"I'm very glad I could help. Bye then!" Hermione waved and carefully made her way back to Diagon Alley. She headed straight to Mr. Prince's apothecary and found herself frowning in deep thought, dwelling—despite her wish to forget the whole experience.

When she walked in Mr. Prince was re-stocking a jar of what looked like horned slugs. Eww. She knew he knew she was there, but he didn't turn to acknowledge her.

So Hermione stared at his back silently, at his familiar black robes and his long, fine, black hair gathered in a tail in true wizarding fashion.

Her silence seemed to confuse him (usually she would greet him with a cheerful "hello, Mr. Prince!") because he turned quickly with a scowl, a large slug in hand.

"Are you quite well, Miss Granger?" he asked. She remembered that she was crying recently, and wondered how much a mess her face must look.

"Yes, sir. But... could you tell me something about aurors?" His scowl worsened.

"Aurors...?" he repeated.

"Yes, sir. They're... supposed to protect us, right?" she asked. Before that day, she wouldn't have even questioned it. But suddenly nothing was as clear to her as it once was.

Mr. Prince looked around quickly and drew his wand. He appeared to cast a spell, but Hermione didn't notice anything change.

"Yes, Miss Granger... that is their purported duty. Dare I ask what motivated your curiosity?" He studied her carefully as if something in her manner might give him a clue.

"I just—I saw them, just now... hurting someone. And I don't think they had a very good reason," she told him, eyes welling up again with tears at the memory of Ernie's pain.

"You didn't attempt to stop them, did you?" he demanded, dropping the slug into its jar and walking toward her quickly. "You didn't pause or interrupt, or catch their attention in any way?"

Mr. Prince was a bit frightening when his voice was loud and he was looming in front of her, scowling like that. His demeanour led her to drop her gaze and shake her head quickly, guiltily.

He must have thought her guilt was for not stopping the aurors instead of guilt at lying, because he relaxed, seemingly relieved.

"It is important you understand, Miss Granger, that many wizards are not kind," Mr. Prince said, "And it is generally that sort of wizard that becomes an auror, because aurors will not be held accountable. For anything. Do you understand?"

She didn't, no, and shook her head to indicate such. He sighed.

"Aurors are a powerful force within the Ministry, Miss Granger... they are the only military force, and they are very much favoured by the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, who himself is a very powerful wizard. So should any of them... become a bit bored, want to have a bit of fun... You are never to repeat this, Miss Granger—but he will forgive it, encourage it, even. He will allow them anything.

If you ever get it into your head to fight back, or accuse them of something... you will either be dead very soon or wishing you were."

Mr. Prince's expression suggested that he was utterly serious, and Hermione bravely tried to swallow a hiccuping sob. It couldn't be true! It wasn't fair!

"B-but, if the minister knew...!"

"You could never convince him, Miss Granger. The minister is manipulated so strongly on all sides... And even if you could, there's nothing he could do to change things short of starting a civil war."

He watched sadly as Hermione cried, as her whole world view shattered around her and her ideals of fairness and justice were disproved. He lifted her from where she'd collapsed on the floor and set her on the stool behind the counter, conjuring a handkerchief and wiping at her face gently.

She didn't leave that stool for what felt like ages.