"This has to be the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen."
Harry shrugged as Hermione scowled at the brief memo that the owl had dropped on his breakfast fifteen minutes earlier at Grimmauld Place. With Harry, Hermione and Ron living together, mail could get interesting.
"Pointless, really," he replied, "but at least it will be cheerier for the guards."
Hermione shot him an incredulous look. "What? Why should that even matter? It's a prison."
Again, Harry shrugged. The weather was dreary and wet, which meant postponing his pick-up Quidditch game with Ron. At least with this new mandatory volunteer shindig they would have something to keep them busy.
"No, this is the utmost… No - just, no."
"I don't think we have a choice, Hermione."
"I am not decorating a prison!"
Harry placed his elbows on the table to give Hermione a blank stare. She could be stubborn, as well as ridiculously smart, but this was one of those pointless but necessary requirements that the Ministry had come up with. She would comply because her career and the fast-track promotions she racked up were important to her. Decorating a few prison cells certainly didn't put him in the holiday spirit, but at least between the three of them it wouldn't take that long. After all, the Ministry required one holiday volunteer event and, sadly enough, decorating a few prison cells was the best of the lot.
"Leave in an hour to go ornament shopping?" Harry suggested lightly.
Hermione's shoulders slumped. "Right, right. I'll be ready."
He dreamed of burning, consuming flames. They licked his skin like a malevolent lover, leaving peeling, blistering swathes of red, loving marks to create the most pain. He dreamed of drowning, of the water spiraling down his throat, prickling his nose and flooding his lungs. He dreamed of being stabbed, every bit of his body submitting to sharp steel and then him drowning again in his blood, because it was everywhere.
There was nothing but his agony; soulful torture that ripped at his already tenuous thread on sanity. Time meant nothing. Past meant nothing.
There must be an end at some point.
Brief respite. A warm light. A soul.
I should have known.
Hermione stared in disgust at the box of second-hand Christmas decorations, then at Ron and Harry's pleading expressions.
"We're bollocks at decorationg anyway, Hermione," Ron pleaded ineffectually. "You always nag and say that we put things in the wrong spot."
"It's a bleeding prison, Ronald! I don't care whether you douse the place in tinsel and get dried cranberries all over the floor!"
"You only have three cells to do," Harry said reasonably.
In his opinion, at least.
"Yes, three cells with corpses in them," Hermione snapped back.
The dim lighting in the corridor, brought on by weakly glowing lamps, just exaggerated the general creepiness of the place. She wasn't sure whether to be thankful that they got to decorate the area with the kissed prisoners - not like they would appreciate it much, being soulless and all - or whether she should be offended, relegated as they were to the corner of the prison where half-alive bodies were being stored until they expired from old age or infection.
And the Ministry wanted their cells decorated for 'Holiday Cheer.'
"They're not corpses," said Ron. "They're still alive. It's not like they can do anything to you."
"That's not the point!"
"Please, Hermione," said Harry in his 'placating' voice, which he learned worked wonders with the female species after dating a tempestuous Ginny for four years. "You realize this is a once in a lifetime chance for us. We had no idea they would call us in for a trial run so soon."
"It's just Quidditch," Hermione grumbled petulantly, but she could feel her resolve crumbling.
"Professional Quidditch," Ron shot back haughtily, though he was quickly quelled by a desperate glance from Harry. It was his 'she's weakening, don't bugger this up!' look.
"I understand why you would be nervous here," Harry murmured, then came the kicker. "Even most wizards would be nervous. Well, maybe not most, but some, I'm sure-"
"Harry Potter," Hermione snarled, "are you trying to manipulate me?"
"Are you su-?"
Harry and Ron jumped slightly, then scuttled past her all the while giving her shifty looks. She glared darkly at them, arms crossed and body tense. Before they turned the corner she could hear Ron hiss at Harry,
"Buggered that right up, you did. She's going to make us regret it. I bet you three sickles!"
Hermione stabbed wreathes into walls, strangled iron bars with popcorn thread and chucked tinsel at every surface that wasn't breathing. After seeing the state of the first two cells occupants, she made a promise to never get Harry or Ron a gift again, as well as buying herself a liberal amount of antibacterial potion. The third cell held a slightly younger, less decrepit wizard, but he was still sickly pale and bone-bag thin. Awkwardly glancing at him as she viciously spread holiday cheer throughout his little closet of a cell, she pondered why she was friends with two idiot boys anyway.
That's right, they're the only ones who put up with my overbearing personality.
Unfortunately, this was true. In Hermione's old age (well, 21), her self-righteous defense of defenseless creatures and her friends - when warranted - had only become further backed up by an increasing intellect and magical power. It was no wonder that her newfound relationships had come to a standstill - both friends and dates. Ron had said she was 'bloody intimidating sometimes,' and while she didn't understand this, apparently majority of the wizard population did.
If they just read a book every now and then….
Hermione aggressively tossed tinsel at the dirty stone floor, sulking at her abandonment in the middle of a prison without even a prison guard to keep her company. They had snorted and snickered at the sight of her Christmas decorations, which sent Ron flushing an embarrassed neon red and Hermione glaring at them while pointing out it was mandatory, so shut it.
Hermione glanced at the only other living thing in the cell and nearly jumped out of her skin.
Bloody buggering hell.
His eyes were open. Hermione remained frozen, because they still looked blank and soulless, but she was positive they hadn't been open before. Her wand had been taken from her and though she didn't like to think of herself as defenseless, she certainly felt exposed without it. Shakily, Hermione began packing all the excess decorations in the box, carefully not turning her back on the husk.
His eyes slid to gaze at her.
Hermione shrieked and backpedaled, dropping all the cardboard and plastic wrappers to stumble back to the cell door. A groan escaped his throat as he stared at her desperately.
Oh my god.
Without a second thought, Hermione whirled through the cell door, slammed it shut with a screeching clang, and sprinted down the corridor to find a guard.
"And, you say, you did absolutely nothing to the prisoner? No potions, no charms, no runes?"
Hermione ground her teeth together as she glared murderously at the warden, who shifted nervously under her stare, and the lawyer, who didn't.
"As I said, they searched me before I came in. I didn't have so much as a Chocolate Frog on me. All we brought in were those ridiculous decorations."
The office they lounged in was ragged and unkempt. Obviously the warden did not have many guests because a thick layer of dust and cigarette smoke clung to every corner and crevice. Papers littered his desk and a small bronze lamp provided the only light in the room.
"Yes," murmured Mr. Picknese, the lawyer, "we're checking on those right this moment."
Hermione narrowed her eyes but didn't respond. Of course this couldn't happen with Harry and Ron. Oh no, it had to be when she was by herself that a soulless husk miraculously regained his soul and came back to life. Barty Crouch Jr.
And it had to be one of their enemies, too. Brilliant.
And since the Dementors had been banished from Azkaban - and, really, most populated wizard areas - there would be no re-kissing for this particular prisoner.
At least somebody would appreciate her 'holiday cheer.'
Even if he was a psychotic, Muggle-hating Voldemort follower with delusions of Holy Grail-like grandeur.
The first thing he saw was her. There was no time to process this as she quickly exited with a wide-eyed shriek. The second thing he saw was a gaudy amount of tinsel on the stone floor, as well as ivy-popcorn strings tangled around the bars to his cell door.
This incomprehensible development was soon followed by a host of prison guards and Aurors, all who glared at him suspiciously and cast a multitude of diagnostic spells on him and the Christmas decorations.
All throughout the uncomfortable paranoia and aggressive questioning, throughout the rough handling and medical analysis - 'yes, he's officially alive' - one image kept running through his mind.
It only took a couple weeks to shake Harry and Ron off her tail. After the lovely Azkaban incident and the revival - and subsequent release - of Barty Crouch Jr they had been attached to her by each hip, glancing suspiciously at every shadow that was near them. With the Dementors absence came the necessity for more guards and higher budget cuts, thus allowing Barty to be free of Azkaban.
"Now, really," Hermione groaned in exasperation, "if he hasn't come after me now, I highly doubt he will. The Ministry said the MLE was keeping a close watch - "
"Yeah right-" interrupted Ron sarcastically.
Hermione overrode him "- and even if they're not, I can take care of myself!"
"But he's a Death Eater!" Harry protested, moving to block the front door to Grimmauld Place.
"So were a multitude of others!" Hermione shoved past him and Ron. "Now, I will be going to Flourish and Blotts, and I will be going alone!"
Hermione slammed the door open and whirled around to face them. "No. No, no, no! You have practice and I refuse to be shut into this house a moment longer! I am leaving. You two are going to practice, and I will be just fine."
Harry and Ron exchanged a glance.
Hermione interpreted it. "And don't you dare skip out and follow me. I'll know."
With that final proclamation, Hermione slammed the door shut behind her and flounced down the steps to Apparate.
Fortunate for her wayward friend's peace of mind, Diagon Alley was quite busy. People bustled back and forth in a mad rush to complete their holiday preparation. Hermione dove into the stream of robe-clad minnows decisively, wanting to get out of the mob as fast as humanly possible.
Before I lose my temper, she grumbled as a tall man collided with her shoulder, nearly pushing her a step backwards before he steadied her with a murmured apology and moved on.
By the time she reached the book store, Hermione was feeling thoroughly harassed and ready to hex the next person who crossed her. She should have known better than to venture forth during prime shopping season, especially with the wizard world only having limited shopping venues anyway.
At least there's no way Harry and Ron could have followed me.
The front of the book store, which displayed new best-sellers and commonly bought novels, was crawling with customers, but the back retained a bubble of calm that seemed a fairly different universe from the rest of Diagon Alley. A lingering scent of musk and parchment clung to the air, interlaced with leather and cloth bindings. The turmoil of the last few weeks slowed and released as Hermione lazily perused the shelves, running soft fingers along rough spines. Dim lamplight filtered through, creating a soft, warm glow that reminded Hermione of late nights at Hogwarts and holidays with her parents. Both were distant memories, but the heart-slowing nostalgia still remained. Pulling out a Charms book, Hermione set to skimming chapters to find what could keep her busy in the house for the next few weeks. The majority of the employees at the Ministry got the Holidays off and Hermione was no exception, though she would have happily preferred to continue working right up until Christmas. Her research, while tiring, was thrilling, and with how hectic Harry and Ron's lives were, it was the only thing that pulled her from the thick mire of boredom.
She was carefully studying an example Arithmancy grid when someone pushed past her, once again, rudely. Her temper whipped to life.
Book forgotten in slack fingers, Hermione found herself staring up into the thin, sharp-edged face of Barty Crouch Jr.
Harry and Ron were right. Brilliant.
Hermione stared at him mutely as he gazed down at her. She noted his much more life-like figure - less corpse and more breath. His skin was still a freckled pale, and his hair a lank, blond mop, but his frame was thin instead of the once gaunt, skin-and-bones body from before.
"Hermione Granger," he stated softly, eyes focused in an intense manner on her face, as though memorizing every freckle. "You have no idea how long I've been trying to find you."
Hermione tensed warily. Would he attack in a busy area? Was this a trap? She idly fingered her wand.
"Three and a half weeks, perhaps?" Hermione suggested lightly, eyeing him as she slid the tome back into place.
His lips quirked in response. "Ah. You've kept track. I read that you were smart."
He had read up on her. If that didn't send her on edge, then nothing else would.
"Is there something you need?" Hermione asked stiffly.
That was unexpected.
Hermione blinked. "I'm not a possession. So - no."
A slightly manic gleam filtered into his intense stare. "You don't understand - I've researched you."
She had gleaned that.
He continued, perhaps thinking the faster he explained the more likely she would accept him.
Like that would happen.
"You are the youngest researcher to understand the connection between potions and genetics. You're the first researcher to even introduce genetics. You have the Ministry at your beck and call, proclaimed to become head of the Research and Development sector within the next five years, the youngest head in history. Within ten, you could become Minister. You could rule the wizarding world with ease."
With each word that slipped from his lips, like the rushing river of a burst dam - unstoppable - Hermione felt her jaw grow more and more slack.
"And you defeated the Dark Lord, who was all-powerful - omnipotent! - at the age of eighteen."
"That was more Harry…." Hermione protested weakly.
Barty hunched over her, his lanky figure suddenly overwhelming her. "But without you he would have failed. I researched this."
Hermione felt as though her brain had flat-lined. "Um, but what about your - er - Dark Lord?" She was quite positive Barty had been one of the most fanatical - as well as unbalanced - Death Eaters that had existed.
His face twisted. "My faith was misplaced. He abandoned me, sacrificed me, lied to gain my trust. He was unworthy of my devotion."
He had a disturbing tradition of turning against his father figures, didn't he?
"-are worthy of it. Your loyalty is unparalleled, your power second to none, your-"
With that long list of her unrealistic, apparently dictator-like qualities, Hermione cast a silent Confundus before slipping out of his reach while he blinked blankly at nothing. She barely looked at the textbook she grabbed before rushing to the checkout and then out into the bustle of the streets. The crowd provided the unexpected relief of anonymity, for which Hermione was grateful.
She was perfect.
It took him nearly fifteen minutes to clear his head from her hastily cast silent spell. Even then his thoughts still seemed jumbled and flighty, like a flock of birds that had just run straight into a window. Not only was she ingenious, loyal and powerful, but she was also wary.
If she had given in too quickly, that would have been a fault he needed to correct, but not so! With her rebuff her worthiness was proven ten-fold. She would be a magnificent leader and he would follow her until every witch and wizard bowed before her humble shoes.
She had been shocked, yes, but he could still sense the concealed, sharp edged potential that flowed beneath her skin. The eventuality of her stubbornness was planned for. In fact, he looked forward to it. She would be a stern but generous leader and he would make sure to be the stability of her power, the foundation to her control. She was a plain sort of pretty, but when angered, she put even the most delicious goddess' to shame.
He couldn't wait.
Hermione did not tell Ron and Harry about her encounter. In fact, she boasted that she had been right all along.
Because, bugger it, her pride could not stand being wrong.
He didn't seem dangerous. Not to her, at least. Maybe anyone who opposed him would find themselves with a very angry, unhinged wizard going after them, but it seemed as though Barty had raised her to some kind of demigod status.
Hermione frowned at the skillet which held a few frying eggs alongside some sizzling bangers. It was her turn to cook and the boys had yet to venture from their rooms. Not surprising, considering how late they had stayed up grilling her on her shopping trip and placing extra wards on every single entryway, window and mouse hole.
Number 12 Grimmauld had to be one of the most protected houses in existence, including Moody's paranoid induced wards when he had been alive. Of course, Barty had slipped through those easily enough, so maybe she couldn't hold it against them. In fact, she had already placed a few very strong, unique ones herself. It would be impossible for anyone to enter without invitation, and any glamour or disguise would be rendered null as soon as the intruder passed the entryway.
It was no surprise that they had so many wards up, considering their past. Not only was there still the possibility of enemies, but also the threat of the press, which was ten times worse. Old-fashioned pure-blood fanatics or runaway Death Eaters could be easily controlled by dueling measures. Luckily the wizard world understood the meaning of self-defense, especially when concerning war , these measures could not be taken against the press without severe legal backlash. In the recent months it hadn't been too bad, but the year following the war had been horrendous. Gaudy stories and rushed pictures of them and others sprawled over the pages of the Daily Prophet, disrupting the lives of those who had saved them. For how reclusive Hermione could be, it had almost sent her over the deep time brought new, more interesting stories to print and they were, for the large part, left alone.
Now if only she hadn't developed a fanatic with the intent for her world domination.
Hermione slid the eggs and sausage onto separate plates, smiling as she heard the soft pad of someone entering the kitchen. "Morning, 'Mione," Ron mumbled, rubbing one eye and tugging a hand through his mussed hair.
"Good morning," Hermione replied politely, sliding a plate on the counter towards him.
He frowned. "That's it?"
"You can make more if you want more. That's a healthy amount." She snorted. "Is Harry not up?"
Ron shrugged and made a discontented face. "Dunno. Think Ginny came over last night."
Hermione nearly laughed. Ron still wasn't completely comfortable with his best friend and baby sister dating, especially when they spent the night together. Being an only child, Hermione tried to understand, but couldn't quite accomplish his perspective of discomfort. Even after four years he still acted awkward when any mention of the Harry-Ginny amalgam couple acting intimate came up around him.
"Well," Hermione said flatly, "she didn't say anything so I'm not making them extra food. They'll probably go out for breakfast anyway."
Ron didn't bother responding, as his mouth was already completely full, but she caught him eyeing Harry's plate longingly. She rolled her eyes, grabbing her own breakfast and a mug of Earl Grey to settle down in the dining room. Ron followed and they both ate in comfortable silence.
Which was quickly interrupted by the violent slam of a door and a thunderous roar of footsteps.
"What the-!" Ron mouthed around a mouthful of egg. Hermione was already standing, wand in hand. Whoever it was sprinted to the sitting room, followed by a short bout of silence then a long, loud stream of expletives. The voice revealed it to be Harry. Hermione and Ron exchanged curious looks, turning to gaze at the dining room entry as Ginny meandered in.
"What buggered up his arse?" Ron asked eloquently.
Ginny just shrugged in response. "I don't know - the weather? He just looked out the window and took off like a madman. Hey, is there more of that in the kitchen? I'm starved."
Ron groaned in disappointment as Hermione nodded her head absently. Harry was dramatic.
But not that dramatic.
"I'll go check on Harry," Hermione muttered, padding away to the sitting room at the front of the house. She entered to find Harry glaring out the window with clenched fists and wand half-raised. His glasses clung precariously to the bridge of his nose, crooked, and he'd only donned a pair of pajama trousers before his mad dash down the stairs.
"Harry?" Hermione greeted questioningly. "All right there?"
Harry turned his glare to her. "I told you," he accused. "I told you."
Hermione blinked, completely befuddled. "What?"
"Ron and I were right, you know. I bet he followed you, the bloody stalker. You're so smart until it comes to your own safety, then you're stupider than Neville at potions."
A dawning realization entered her mind, but Hermione refused to voice it.
"I've no idea-"
"Look out the bloody window, Hermione!"
Hermione sighed and pulled back on of the pale curtains to peek through. The street looked average enough, houses shabby but not in extreme disrepair, a dog snuffling in one of the yards, probably loose from the street over. And a man staring at a piece of paper, then at the house two addresses two away from them, then back to the paper.
Barty Crouch Jr checked his bit of ripped parchment once more before moving to the house right next to theirs, repeating the process, followed by a dazed expression as he stumbled past their home to the one on the other side. Once in the confusion cleared, he checked his parchment and his brow furrowed.
Hermione groaned. "Oh no."
"That's the third time he's done that!" Harry hissed. "How did he get our address?"
Hermione shrugged helplessly. "We're not supposed to be found, so I've no idea. Not long before he figures it out though, I'd say."
Harry muttered another curse. "Well, we'll pretend like we're not home."Hermione goggled at Harry for a moment.
"That's your grand plan? Pretend like we're not home? What are we, high school girls avoiding the boy who's infatuated with her?"
"Basically," Harry muttered, though a vivid blush wound up his sniffed before turning and stalking back into the kitchen. She needed to finish breakfast before Ron's minimal self-control was overcome by his never-ending appetite.
She entered the kitchen just in time to catch Ron guiltily brandishing a fork at her bangers. Hermione smacked his hand with her wand and stared him down.
"Merlin, Hermione," Ron whined, "I just wanted a little bite."
"Make more, then. This is mine."Harry followed behind her, refusing to sit and just glaring at everybody in the room, including Ginny who had just re-entered, brows raised and plate in hand.
"Well," he proclaimed grandly as everybody settled at the table except him, "it seems as though Barty Crouch Jr. has found Grimmauld Place."
Seems, her arse.
Ron's face flushed an angry red.
"What?" He exploded.
Ginny took another bite. Hermione rubbed her face.
"We need a plan," said Harry.
"I thought it was to ignore the door," muttered Hermione.
"Well, yes," Harry replied, all seriousness, "but we need to set a guard."
The light tap of a polite knock interrupted their conversation. Hermione stood up.
"No!" Harry whispered. "Don't move."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I'm just going to tell him to go away, you nutter."
Hermione strode past him, ignoring his attempts to block her way and confidently making her way to the door. She swung it open with a foreboding scowl on her soft features.
Barty grinned handsomely.
Handsomely? Was she mad?
"I knew I would find you here."
Hermione's scowl deepened. "You have a disturbing tendency to know things about me that you shouldn't."
His grin shifted into a smirk. "I'm just diligent, Miss Granger. Surely you find respect in that."
"I said it was a disturbing tendency, not a respectful one."
Barty shrugged. "I wanted to finish our earlier conversation. You… cut me off."
Suddenly a wand appeared in her peripheral vision as the warmth of a body pushed against her back. Hermione braced the doorframe so Harry couldn't press through.
"I can justify blasting him," Harry whispered in her ear.
"I can handle this," Hermione hissed back. "Go away!"
"Not happening," Harry stubbornly replied.
"Fine, at least shut up then."
Hermione turned her attention back to Barty, who was watching with raised brows.
"You should respect her wishes," he said, addressing Harry.
"Oh, shut up," Hermione interrupted. "You ignore what I say too, so you've no ground to stand on."
"But it's in your best interest!"
"You leaving me alone is in my best interest," she muttered.
Barty sighed. "I can understand how you would think so, but your potential as a leader-"
"Stop right there," Hermione interrupted. "I don't plan on becoming Minister. In fact, working in the Ministry is only temporary." She paused for a second. "Did they give you information on where I lived?"
"My sources will remain secret - I have my ways."
This man was utterly ridiculous.
"Maybe you should focus on yourself, instead of focusing on me," Hermione suggested.
"That is completely unreasonable, but for your comfort I'll leave for today. Tea tomorrow?"
"Right, see you tomorrow then."
"I said no!"
Barty waved as he strolled down the walkway, his lanky form exuding confidence. Hermione stepped back and slammed the door shut, then turned to face Harry who had his arms crossed and an expression disturbingly similar to the one her mother used to give her when Hermione was in trouble.
"Not the first conversation you've had with him, yeah?"
After Harry gave her a through dress-down in the form of an interrogation and much-sputtering-anger-that-didn't-make-sense-to-Hermione, she escaped to the library where she could hide from the worried rage of her friends. She still stubbornly stuck to her stance - she could take of herself and there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Touching, maybe, to know they cared enough about her to be so up in arms about Barty, but still aggravatingly unnecessary.
This is the same way they treat prospective dates.
Which is probably why she was still single and had been since her rather unfortunate dalliance with Ron. Now that had been a failure of epic proportions and Hermione was just happy they could put it all behind them, though Ron still retained some of the possessive jealously that lead to their explosive fights. It seemed with The-Boy-Who-Lived as her best friend -and, er, Ron - men were too intimidated to approach. It didn't help that the ones who gathered up the nerve were run off like a stray sniffing around another dog's food bowl.
With her propensity to be shrewish and hermit-like, along with her nearly always-rumpled appearance and flyaway disaster called hair, it was no wonder she had been single pretty much her entire life.
Barty had a plan, but not a very good one. Most people wouldn't really consider it a plan at all, at least not by Slytherin standards. Considering who his target was, though, he figured that subtlety would be wasted on her. His plan was to be a battering ram of social grace and polite, but insistent, with manners. She would be stubborn, he knew, but she wasn't cruel.
From what he had researched, she tended to have a soft spot for hopeless cases. Despite the fact that the Crouch Manor still stood, and Winky had relocated back there as well, he had bought a grungy apartment to pretend to live in - when he actually convinced her to come over. He planned to be as hopeless as possible to obtain her attention. He would become her friend to keep it.
Maybe more, if she was receptive enough.
But that was much further down the road. For now, he would - once again - attempt to find their ridiculously evasive house and bother her until she relented to tea.
The first day of his tea campaign was an abysmal failure, though Hermione considered it a success. As soon as he knocked Hermione sprinted to the door, opened it to flatly say, "go away," and proceeded to slam it in his face. He knocked continuously for an hour after, but Hermione was well-versed in silencing charms and didn't hear a thing.
The second day Hermione had left a post-it note that read a resounding 'NO.' He still knocked, but Hermione didn't care, instead just wondering how long this battle of wills would last. By the end of the week she had upped the wards so it took him nearly three hours to get past the confusing charms. He would approach, only to become dazed and toddle off down the street in search of something he had to do. Hermione watched from the window with a smirk, not bothering to hide herself when he finally made it to the stoop and looked up at her pleadingly.
She felt a little sorry for him, but not enough to subject herself to his presence.
Three days before Christmas she had decorated the front of the house with warm, winding lights and ivy and holly wrapped around the cast-iron banister. She watched him knock for a shorter time than usual, then pull out a piece of parchment to scribble on, after which he stuck it to her door. She kept her curiosity at bay for a mere ten minutes before sneaking downstairs to see what he had written.
'Lovely decorations. We can discuss next year's over tea. -BCJ'
On Christmas Eve he approached with a gift in hand; small, square, and brightly wrapped with a tidy gold bow at the top. As was tradition, he knocked for an indeterminately long time and whistled to himself, shifting from foot to foot. Finally he glanced around, set the gift on the top step, and padded away. She watched until he was out of sight, turning around the street corner before cracking the door open and scrabbling a hand out to grab the gift.
She didn't even bother to move away, instead sitting cross-legged on the floor staring suspiciously at the box. She shook it, but it made no sound. Diagnostic spells revealed nothing and when she tried to unwrap it, it zapped her.
"Bugger!" Hermione cursed, shaking her hand, then sticking an index finger in her mouth. Glancing down, she noticed words had appeared scrawled on one corner of the present.
'Sneaky girl - not until Christmas morning, Miss Granger.'
Perhaps she presumed too much when she thought he wouldn't be showing up on Christmas. After all, why would he bring a gift the day before if he planned on showing up on the actual holiday?
It just figured that right when she was getting dressed and about to step into the Floo to spend the Holiday with the Weasleys that a knock at the front door danced through the room.
Hermione froze, eyes narrowed as she turned to stare at the entryway, incredulous that someone could actually be at her door early Christmas morning. To her unreasonable surprise, the sound repeated.
There is no bloody way….
Stalking to the door, Hermione tore it open with glowering flare. She was already late and who knew what one of the Weasley brothers' tricks could be set up for her in reprimand for her belated appearance.
"It's Christmas," Hermione cried as she glared at Barty's smile of surprise. "Don't you have anything better to do?"
Barty's smile shifted to a grin. "Not at all. I'm alone in the world. Did you open your gift?"
"No," Hermione replied honestly, then proceeded to lie. "Though I don't have to open it right away. I don't really need your gift anyway. You should take it back."
"No, no, no," Barty said, shaking his head. "That gift is for you. You should open it."
Hermione frowned, rubbing her arms. It was cold outside.
"Bugger it," she muttered viciously. "Alright, come inside. I'm in a rush so let's make this fast."
If possible, his grin widened and he rushed in as though she might change her mind and slam the door in his face.
Which wasn't outside the realm of possibility, to be honest….
Hermione retrieved the present from where she had left it on the coffee table in the sitting room. Barty quirked an eyebrow at the warning note that had appeared at the corner of the gift, then cast an amused glance at her. Hermione glowered back him then proceeded to viciously rip the wrapping off.
Hermione found herself holding a small, plain box. Barty reached his wand forward to tap it and it extended to be the length of a short quill. Shooting him a suspicious stare, she opened the box to find a bookmark inside. It was probably one of the most elaborate ones she had seen; enchanted creatures curled and stretched, slipping away and looking at her with jeweled eyes. A phoenix flew by, followed by pixy as a the tip of a unicorn trotted just out of sight. Attached was a long, red thread, a small golden emblem attached to the end.
"Is that a lion and a… snake?"
Barty inclined his head.
"Well," Hermione murmured, stumped. "This was very… nice. Thank you."
It was actually beautiful, the charms work a masterpiece, but she couldn't say that.
Hermione set it down reverently on the table, on top of a pile of books, then straightened to face him. She was disturbingly aware of how much taller than her he was, the angular planes of his face and his mussed blond hair. She was terrifyingly aware of his masculinity.
"I'm glad you like it," he murmured and once again he was staring at her in that too intense way of his.
"Er, yes. Well, I really must go. I'm actually very late…."
"I'll be back tomorrow," he warned.
Hermione snorted. "I probably won't answer."
He chuckled and Hermione hunched her shoulders. "You… really don't have anybody to spend Christmas with?"
No! Don't ask that! You don't want to know!
"Not at all, but I did purchase some special peppermint tea to celebrate…."
Bugger! Bugger, bugger, bugger!
"Well," Hermione dithered, sympathy overwhelming her. Alone on Christmas? How awful. "I suppose you could come with me… but you'll have to relinquish your wand!"
Barty managed to look offended and excited at the same time. "Where is Christmas celebration for you?"
"Not with your family?"
"No." And she refused to ponder that anymore.
"I see," Barty said after a short pause, perhaps surprised by the flat tone of her voice. "Well, I don't have family either, so we make quite the pair."
Because he had murdered his family. Mere semantics….
"Hmph," Hermione replied. "I'll have to go first, to explain. Wait a few minutes to follow and, er, don't be surprised is someone tries to hex you."
"And you're still going to take my wand away?" He asked, incredulous and halfway wondering if this was her indirect way of offing him.
"Well, not until you at least get there," she admitted. With that, she stalked to the fireplace and grabbed a handful of Floo powder.
"The Burrow!" She shouted, loud enough so Barty could hear the destination, then stepped in.
She was met with an explosion of holiday cheer and grinning faces. A tinsel and wrapping bomb seemed to have been set off in the living room, in the middle of which there was a large group of ginger haired people with the few odd ones out.
Harry, snuggled up to Ginny, caught sight of her first and waved. "Finally! Thought you had decided not to come!"
Hermione unwound her scarf from her neck and laughed. "I got a bit held up. Um, Mrs. Weasley?"
Molly glanced up from where she was dangling a glittering ornament in baby Victoire's face. "Yes, dear?"
"Do you have room for one more? I might have invited… someone else."
"Of course," Molly grinned, happy to press her holiday cheer and dinner on another hapless soul. "I have more than enough place settings!"
Hermione smiled nervously back. "Er-"
George interrupted. "Does Hermione have a boyfriend? Is that who you invited?"
"-Oi!" Ron interrupted, "She would have told us if she had a boyfriend, right-"
"-You're not her Da," Bill snorted, finally breaking the adoring gaze he had been directing at his wife and daughter. "I highly doubt she tells you everything."
"Um," Hermione tried again, but she was too late. At that moment the fireplace flared up and Barty stumbled through, blinking at the shocked faces that slowly morphed into deadly anger. A multitude of wands were suddenly pointed at him aggressively and in a flash Barty dropped his to the floor and splayed his in hands in the universal gesture of 'I'm unarmed, don't hurt me!' with wide eyes.
"Wait, wait!" Hermione protested, picking up his wand and casting some silent shields on the both of them.
Just in case.
"He's the person I invited. I'm sorry, I tried to warn you, but he's all alone for Christmas and nobody should be alone at Christmas," Hermione babbled. A few wands wavered, but the suspicious looks remained.
"Hermione," Harry said incredulously, "he was a Death Eater."
Hermione glanced at Barty's frozen figure beside her. "Er, well, yes, he was." She was also pretty sure he was still unhinged, considering he wanted her to become the leader of the wizard world.
At least he had suggested the legal way.
"But he doesn't have any family-"
"-because he killed them!"
"-and nobody should be alone on Christmas… especially with no family…." She felt her shoulders slump and her face warm with a flush. "I told him he couldn't have his wand. I'll have it in safe-keeping…."
"Hermione…" Ron sighed, his tone a mix of exasperation and sympathy. Hermione blinked rapidly, though she noticed that all their wands had been lowered.
"Well," Arthur chimed in, leveling her with a knowing look, then sending Barty a calculating one, "we'll just keep an eye on him. I suppose there are worse people we could welcome into our home."
This did not seem to satisfy anybody, but the protests were squashed, even if the suspicious glares were not.
"Hermione," Molly said hesitantly, "I made a pile of your gifts in the corner there. Would you like something to drink?"
Hermione smiled gratefully, glad the Weasley matriarch hadn't decided to hold her… guest against her. "Thank you, Mrs. Weasley. No need for you to get up, I'll get myself something."
Molly nodded, watching Barty warily as Hermione shuffled off to the kitchen with him following. It was a relief when she passed out of sight from the heavy looks and the thick silence. Barty was right behind her.
"That went well," he commented lightly.
"I'm still alive, at least."
"Well," Hermione replied, slightly sarcastic, "we're not your lot. We don't indiscriminately murder. What do you want to drink?"
Barty remained silent for a moment. "I know what I did in the past. I'm not going to mull and mope about it. I would do the same thing for you."
Hermione slammed two glasses down on the counter, followed by messily pouring eggnog. "I would never want somebody to be tortured into insanity. That's never justifiable."
"If it's necessary-"
"-it's not. Not when there are so many other alternatives to extracting information. The Cruciatus Curse is just an excuse at sadism." Hermione flicked her want to clean up the speckled spills on the counter.
Barty stared at her ponderingly for a moment. "Was it used on you? Is that why you are so-"
"Yes, I know what it feels like, but other than that it's none of your business. Now drink your bloody eggnog."
She shoved the glass into his hand and he stared at it in askance. "But… I don't particularly like-"
Hermione leveled him a stare so malevolent that it rivaled the late Lord Voldemort.
"Uh," he said, "thank you very much."
Hermione snorted and stalked from the kitchen.
That man was a stalker, Harry was positive. If it weren't enough that he showed up on their doorstep everyday, he now followed Hermione everywhere in the Burrow. Yes, maybe she was the only one who wouldn't kill him, or at least severely hex, if he even blinked wrong, but it was how he acted with her that was the problem. He watched her - hungrily.
Of course Hermione wouldn't notice something that actually concerned her own safety - she wouldn't even allow him to set some of the more… painful wards for their unwanted guest. But Harry could tell, his instincts were usually on point, and Barty was watching Hermione with a lover's eyes. He continuously pulled out chairs for her and fetched whatever she needed, all the while standing just a tad too close as much as possible. For the most part, she ignored - or didn't even notice - his efforts, but every one else did. Ron's face was flushed an angry red and he looked even more maniacal than Barty used to look. The other Weasley males had similar expressions of protective aggravation, and Molly's eyebrows seemed to be cemented in an expression of permanent surprise.
It made for some very tense holiday cheer, which was probably why George broke out the mulled wine especially early.
("Not before dinner, George, really!" exclaimed Molly.)
Harry curled his arm around Ginny's waist, who seemed to find his preoccupation with Hermione's guest not the least bit amusing and was making excessive attempts to get his straying attention.
Merlin, he really needed to fix Hermione's soft spot for hopeless cases fast.
Hermione sighed as her gaze once again somehow manage to stray to her guest, who lounged on the couch, staring at the ceiling as Ron glowered at him from across the room. She had finally unlatched Barty from her three-foot personal space and was helping Molly clean up as everyone else lounged in a post-dinner daze.
His gaze slid to her and she felt her cheeks flush, quickly looking away and focusing on the mass of discarded wrapping paper in her arms.
Too much wine. Definitely too much wine.
Victoire was sound asleep, making the soft little cooing that babies make, snuggled against her mother, who had cast away her disdainful expression to gaze lovingly at her daughter. Charlie and George had already escaped to who knows where and Ginny and Harry had slipped outside some time ago. Arthur continuously got in his wife's way by trying to herd her under the mistletoe and Hermione decided it was time to go.
Hermione padded over to Barty, who continued to watch her with half-lidded eyes.
"Ready?" she asked, gesturing towards the fireplace.
In response he stood up, straightening the wrinkles in his clothing and once again standing just a little too close. Hermione walked about, saying her farewells and thanks. Barty followed, nodding respectfully at Arthur and Molly while toting the gifts she had accumulated earlier.
When they reached Grimmauld Place he carefully set her presents on one of the couches while she handed him his wand.
"Well, I hope you had fun."
Thank you for not behaving like a complete maniac.
Barty nodded. "You're gracious for having invited me."
Hermione shrugged, not quite looking at him, instead focusing on her fingernails.
"Well," she muttered, "I suppose you should be leaving now."
She glanced up, tensing as she noticed he was a step closer than before.
"I suppose," he agreed, taking another step closer.
Hermione tilted her up to stare him down and that's when he took the opportunity to hunch over and kiss her.
He was ahead of his non-plan. The unwritten schedule had been breached by weeks, if not months.
But she had looked so tantalizing like that. Her cheeks were flushed, eyes cast-down in uncharacteristic timidity. How many were allowed to see her this way? This was power. This was a gift.
Merry-bloody-Christmas to him.
He really had planned to continue his door knocking campaign, but apparently his self-control was much less restrained than he had thought it was, as he couldn't stop himself from possessing her lips.
And with how she felt, he wouldn't be able to stop at possessing the rest of her as well.
She was soft and warm and her arms had curled around his neck. Already he had relieved her of scarf and coat, running his hands over curves that were usually hidden by shapeless sweaters and baggy jackets. He prayed to Merlin that this wouldn't set him back, because he certainly didn't plan on stopping.
Now she was nipping at his lower lip, teasing and stroking and coaxing. Nymph.
"Bedroom?" she gasped.
If she lived alone, he would vehemently protest and take her on the carpet, but unfortunately she didn't. One of her friends walking in would certainly end the festivities, as well as his life, quite possibly.
"Now," he growled.
She nodded and pulled away - to his dismay - grabbed his hand and led him to the staircase. He stopped her on the first landing to lave her neck, tickling with teeth and arousing with tongue, as well as to strip her of her cardigan.
She stopped them on the second floor to run her hands up and down his chest, pressing deep kisses to his lips and rocking her body against his, which almost loosed his control something dire.
By the third floor he was shirtless and just about to relieve her of her blouse. She tugged him into a room at the end of the hallway, a room that definitely shouted Hermione. Books were piled on a rickety desk, surrounded by quills and parchment and notes. The bed had yet to made from that morning, still mussed and slept-in.
That was all he cared to examine before pushing her on said bed and dragging the hem of her skirt up to her waist. He nuzzled the inside of her knee, glancing up to see her staring down at him with slightly surprised eyes. A tender bite on her thigh jolted her, as he continued up.
"Wait," she protested. "I've never-Oh!"
He latched onto her damp knickers, nosing her mons and running a tongue along her cloth-covered center.
"These are coming off," he murmured, hooking her underwear and hurriedly tugging them down her legs. Hermione awkwardly helped, but before she could settle he was already on her. He laved her clit, pressing one finger into her and reveling in the quiet whimpers of surprise that issued from her throat. He back arched, straining, her legs curled and stretched as her body wound tighter and tighter.
She came with a breathless gasp and he grasped her hips with bruising intensity.
"Clothes off," he demanded, gripping the waist of her skirt and futilely tugging at it. With shaky fingers Hermione undid the clasp and button at her side and let him undress her. Next came her blouse and bra, until she was completely nude.
Barty gazed at her.
This was power. She was power.
Hermione watched him self-consciously as his eyes ran along the length of her. His thin chest quivered and tensed, his hands rubbing circles against her thighs as she lay splayed before him. Finally something pushed him into action as he unhooked the catch to his trousers and awkwardly pushed them down his legs. She almost giggled, but his expression was so intent that it sucked the humor from it. She felt her eyes widen and face flush as she caught sight of his proudly waving manhood.
She didn't have much time to ponder it through, as he was already crawling over her, pressing kisses up her chest, along her clavicle and the line of her neck. She could feel his body against her entrance, teasing and tantalizing. He nipped her lips, tangled his tongue with hers, then slid in.
Hermione moaned, arching so her breasts pushed against his chest, nails digging into his shoulders. He withdrew, then quickly sheathed again, her toes curling with each thrust.
She wrapped her legs around his hips, attempting to rock back but too overwhelmed to be successful.
I'm not a good girl anymore, she thought vaguely, though that quickly disappeared like smoke in a breeze as Barty sped up his pace.
"I'm yours," he whispered into her lips. "I'm always yours."
"Yes," Hermione replied breathlessly. "Mine."
That was as good as acquiescence as any, and Barty found release, tensing against her as she continued press kisses to his lips and face. He lowered himself carefully on her, still fully inside and pressed a gentle kiss of servitude to her mouth.
"You're squishing me," she whispered jokingly.
"Hm." He rolled off, then dragged her to him, wrapping possessive arms around her waist.
"I'm still not going to become Minister," she threatened groggily.
"Whatever you wish, Hermione. I follow your every whim."
She snorted, but quickly fell asleep.
Clean morning light shone through her lacy curtains, and Barty found himself studying her sleeping form. His hand teased trailing circles across her skin, lightly pinching here and there to see if she would wake. He nuzzled her shoulder, kissing the edge of her shoulder blade and wrapping a finger in her tangled hair.
She had accepted him, gave him a piece of herself and bowed her head to receive his pursuit. He had given her servitude and she had raised him to partner.
Of course, she still refused to become a leader. He smirked as she sighed and cuddled closer to him.
Well, he had time to wear her down, didn't he?