Hermione realized she'd been staring at the unfamiliar ceiling for several hours without properly registering it. Or possibly several seconds. Or maybe she'd dreamed it.
Waking up is like that, sometimes.
It was then that she discovered that quite literally everything hurt.
She made an undignified groan, and realized she was in the hospital wing.
"Good morning to you, too," a voice said brightly. She recognized it immediately.
"Professor Dumbledore?" Hermione asked. The smiling Headmaster was sitting on a stool by her cot, an expression on his face that she couldn't quite place. "Wh—"
"Ah, first, may I make a correction, and then a request?" Dumbledore said.
"Er. Of course."
"I'm not, strictly speaking, a professor at the moment," Dumbledore said, "meaning you are perfectly free to call me Albus." Hermione shuddered inwardly. There was absolutely no way she would ever refer to the Headmaster by his first name. She'd ignore homework to play Quidditch, first. She felt unclean just thinking about it. "Secondly, a request: I'm not, ah, shall we say, technically allowed to be here presently. This is something of an infiltration, as it were. So I would greatly appreciate it if questions were kept to a minimum. In return, as I am a strong believer in fair exchange, I shall, likewise, keep my answers to a minimum."
"Good. I'm glad we can see eye-to-eye on this."
"What happened?" Hermione said.
"Ah. Hm. That's quite a big question. If by 'what happened,' you meant, 'what happened just now,' the answer would be that we were just engaging in a dialogue refreshingly free of the typical student-teacher formality that has so characterized our past interactions. If you meant 'what happened' in the broader meaning of the word, I would say that the Earth is continuing its merry journey around the Sun, twirling about like a graceful garden gnome on its way. But if you meant, 'what happened while I was unconscious,' well, it's quite a long story. And not all of it is good news, I'm afraid."
"Then start with the good news, Prof—er, Mr. Dumbledore?" Hermione suggested.
"The eight missing children are, blessedly, safe," Dumbledore said. "It seems our photogenic Defence Professor had been investigating the issue on the side, located the house they were being kept in, and heroically rescued them himself. It's all the more impressive considering I was, of course, attempting precisely the same thing in my newfound spare time. Alas, but it appears I do not have the makings of an investigator. The Ministry snapped him up shortly after, and he's now working for them as an Obliviator. A curious position for a man of his apparent talents, but I'm told he requested it specifically. The important thing, of course, is that Hogwarts' missing children have been found."
"Fantastic!" Hermione said. "Are they all right?"
"Perfectly fine. They seem to have no memory of anything after being nabbed in the grounds, mostly near the Forest. They're with their respective families at the moment, but should be fit to return to school next week. Sadly, so many students will be absent that Flitwick has had no choice but to cancel his Charms exam next week. He was quite looking forward to it."
Well, that was three afternoons' worth of studying that Hermione would never get back. She gritted her teeth and pressed on.
"What about the Sword?" she asked.
"And to which sword would you be referring?"
"The Sword of Godric Gryffindor! What happened to it?"
"Is that what you used to kill Slytherin's Monster?" Dumbledore mused. "Most impressive. It only appears for a true Gryffindor in times of direst need, you realize. When Draco Malfoy returned with Acting Headmaster Snape, it was nowhere to be seen. There was quite a bit of disagreement as to how a Basilisk came to be so... thoroughly decapitated in the halls of the school. Most impressive. Not surprising, of course—the Sorting Hat makes its choices for a reason—but extremely impressive nonetheless. Remarkable, in fact."
"What about Ron and Harry?" Hermione asked.
"Both perfectly fine. Mr. Weasley is recovering in the cot just across from you, in fact. Mr. Potter, on the other hand, is still in the hallway trapped in a mysterious magical field. Which brings me to the sad part of the story." It was then that Hermione recognized Dumbledore's expression. It was one that she hadn't ever seen on him. It was pain.
Fiona realized she'd been staring at the unfamiliar ceiling for several hours without properly registering it. Or possibly several seconds. Or maybe she'd dreamed it.
Waking up is like that, sometimes.
She was lying in an uncomfortable bed in a room that reeked of disinfectant. A hospital, then.
She could hear the rustling of paper on paper.
"Hello?" she asked. Her throat felt dry.
"You're awake!" It was Evan Travis. She rolled her head to the side, and found him putting down a newspaper. She caught the first two words from front page headline: LONDON MASSACRE.
Oh, yeah. That.
"What happened?" Fiona asked.
"You were shot."
"What, really?" She asked. "Where?"
"Left leg, just above the knee," Travis answered.
"I never even noticed," she said. "Go figure. Is it bad?"
"You got shot. When is it ever not bad?"
"You know what I mean."
"It didn't hit an artery. Doctors say you'll probably make a full recovery, but it'll take a while and it'll suck, basically. Best find a cane you like and get used to it. You'll need to ask a doc for more, they wouldn't tell us no matter how much Hannigan shouted. Something about not being close family. We've had someone here keeping an eye on you in case... well, in case one of them came for you. We figure it's only a matter of time. Hannigan would have been here too, but... Ah. There's been an inquiry, of sorts. He's being questioned."
An inquiry. Hooboy. They all knew that at some point they'd have to pay for their repeated and flagrant disregard for the rules, but Fiona had hoped that when it came to that, they'd at least have a suspect in custody.
"Best hit me with all the bad news, then."
"When you used the stunner, the door suddenly gave. We stormed the place, but the, ah, suspects got away. Poof, they were gone."
So breaking their concentration did end the spell. Fiona filed that bit of information away for future use.
"What, even Carrow?"
"Hold on, I'll get there. When we finally got Baldwin to pull himself together and talk, he said he'd just found a side room not on the map and investigated it. That's where they got him."
"Not on the map? But we had the architectural plans! That's impossible!"
"Funny thing," Travis said, "when he tried to sketch it for us later, he couldn't."
"What do you mean, he couldn't?"
"He just couldn't. The pen wouldn't draw on the page. We went through a dozen pens and as many pencils, even a bloody crayon, and none of them worked."
"Is he still... bewitched, then, do you think?"
"Nah. When he described it, none of us could draw it. I think they did something to the room, somehow, not to us."
"So these wizards were hiding out in the secret room?"
"Not just them," Travis said. "And here's where we get to the good news. Well, good-ish. They found the kids."
"The missing magic kids. They were in Baldwin's magic room. All but one, anyway. They were tied up and blindfolded, but were otherwise in perfect shape. But... they vanished the second we turned our backs on them. We had an armed guard on them and everything, but nobody saw a thing."
"Kidnapped again?" Fiona asked.
"Dammit!" she said, slamming her elbow into the thin mattress. "One step forward, two steps back. At least we got Carrow." Fiona narrowed her eyes. "We did get Carrow, didn't we?"
"Ah. About that..."
"Out with it."
"While we were checking on the kids, he... changed."
"Right before our very eyes. One second he was a stone-cold killer, the next he was a kid. One of the missing kids, actually. That Finnigan one."
"Where is he now?"
"Vanished with the others."
"So what did we really accomplish?" Fiona asked. "Good men and women died, for what? No suspects in custody, no real evidence found. No nothing."
Travis shrugged. "I wouldn't say that. We know that despite what the wizarding books say, they have an explicitly anti-Muggle faction still operating at large. We know they can be beaten. Besides, there's some good news."
"Cooper's still in surgery, but prognosis is good, last I heard. And Lyndon made it out just fine; she was here until about an hour or so ago. She left to go to the service."
"The memorial. For the others. Nothing big or official, really. There's no good PR to be had making a big show of this. As far as the public was concerned, this was the biggest policing fiasco of the decade. Heads are going to roll." Travis looked uncomfortable.
Fiona knew what he wasn't saying: so you'd best update your resume.
"We knew that was going to be a possibility—"
There was a knock on the door. Fiona and Travis traded a look.
The door opened.
In walked a man with golden hair and a pearly smile. It was the sort of smile that would get a ping! sound effect in a cartoon to highlight just how shiny it was. He wore an expensive-looking, tailored suit and loafers polished to be almost as bright as his teeth.
He looked a little like Kenneth Branagh, actually.
"Hello," he said pleasantly. "I'm—"
"Gilderoy Lockhart," Fiona said through clenched teeth.
Lockhart smiled happily. "I hadn't realized that my fame had spread quite that far, but, again, why shouldn't it have? Of course even the Muggles know who I am. Then you know why I'm here?"
"I have a pretty good idea," Fiona said. "Cleaning up the last of the loose ends?"
"Precisely," Lockhart smiled again, smoothly drawing a wand. "I'm sure you'll be happy to know that the children are safe. They're going to give me a medal for rescuing them."
Well, that was something, at least. The children were in the hands of their government, not their criminals. A minor victory, if lacking in recognition. Not that, in all likelihood, Fiona was going to remember it.
"How'd you catch us?"
"There's a friendly mediwitch at St Mungo's who told me the other night that a few of Lucius's old friends checked in with some very peculiar injuries. Anyway, I have a little more experience with Muggles than some of my comrades, and it was a simple matter to cross-reference the Muggle-related injuries with the Obliviator's files on certain highly-persistent... ah, what am I saying? Look at me gabbing on, terribly rude. It's not as if you'll remember any of this, anyway. Now, what would you me to replace your memories with?"
"Me kicking Kenneth Branagh posters in their smug faces repeatedly," Fiona spat. "With steel-toed boots."
Lockhart's smile froze briefly. Then he shrugged.
The official word was that Milo Amastacia-Liadon, an orphan barely in control of his childhood-style accidental wandless magic, had run off from Hogwarts on his own accord. After the massive cleanup operation that the battle with the basilisk necessitated, it was discovered that his bed was made (for the first time since he'd arrived), and all of his possessions had vanished from their drawers.
Similarly, the mysterious person of unknown identity disguised as Seamus Finnigan who had been trapped in the Gryffindor Common Room was also nowhere to be found. The ensuing manhunt led to nothing but dead ends; no-one was able to produce any proof of the identity of the mysterious trapped man. In the end, it was chocked up to general Hogwarts-related-weirdness.
Gilderoy Lockhart received an Order of Merlin, First Class for his daring rescue of the eight missing Hogwarts children, and, after demonstrating his prodigious talents with Memory Charms, was put in charge of the Ministry's Obliviators after their previous leader, Arnold Peasegood, resigned after a stress-induced nervous breakdown. Some questioned why so illustrious a wizard would settle for something as mundane as a government job, or why he resigned from Hogwarts halfway through a school year, but no consistent answer was ever to be had from Lockhart.
Sketches of the missing boy—no photographs, magical or otherwise, could be found of him—were distributed throughout Magical Britain in newspapers and posters. Aside from that, very little effort was made to find him. He existed on no public records, he had no known next of kin, and as a result nobody was quite sure who was responsible for finding him. Everyone simply assumed that, sooner or later, he'd use his magic and the Ministry would detect him in the same way that they caught all other users of unauthorized underaged magic.
Missing. That's what the papers said, and it's what the general public believed.
But it's not what Dumbledore said, and it's not what Hermione believed.
Because they had a piece of evidence that the rest of the wizarding world didn't.
Mordenkainen happily ran in the red plastic wheel of his small rat cage by the window. He'd long since chewed and struggled his way out of the magical apparel Milo had made for him. They couldn't let him out of the cage; he tried to make a run for it, biting anyone who got too close. All evidence suggested he was a completely ordinary, feral rat picked up from the streets somewhere. Even Ron's decrepit rat, Scabbers, seemed more intelligent by comparison.
Hermione remembered that, once before, Milo had tried to explain the concept of a familiar to her. He'd said that, in many ways, a familiar and its master were the same entity, split into two bodies. As the master grew stronger, so did the familiar. If the familiar died, the master was greatly weakened.
But he'd also said that nobody really knew what happened to the familiar when its master died. Nobody had ever cared to find out.
The squeaking of the wheel stopped. Hermione glanced over at Mordy, who was sitting perfectly still, staring through the white bars of his cage and out the window into the Hogwarts grounds. It might have just been her imagination, but it seemed as if he was waiting for someone to come back to him.
Lucius Malfoy set down his quill and waited for the ink to dry. He was inches away from having Snape's title—Acting Headmaster—simplified by one inconvenient word. All he needed was to exert a hair more pressure on some of the more moderate members of the Hogwarts Board of Governors.
Once he had the education of the entire future generation of wizards and witches in his hands, all he would need was time. He could subtly shape their thoughts and view of the world, and it would be a simple matter to make certain that some of the new graduates most amenable to the Malfoy way were fast-tracked into middling-to-powerful positions in the Ministry. By the time any of Dumbledore's supporters realized what had happened, it would be too late. That was something that neither Dumbledore nor the late Dark Lord had ever really understood. The Dark Lord always viewed the Ministry as an enemy to be defeated with force and deceit, and Dumbledore never paid it much mind to begin with, turning down a powerful political position in favour being Headmaster. But the system existed, and it pervaded every aspect of ordinary life in Magical Britain. The one who controlled the system controlled everything. Time had already shown Lucius to be victor. The Dark Lord was dead, and Hogwarts was no longer in Dumbledore's hands.
It was only a matter of time.
Lucius neatly folded the parchment, and was just about to stuff it into an envelope when he heard the distinctive popping sound of an Apparating wizard.
He drew his wand beneath his heavy wooden desk, ready to spring into action, if necessary. Outright combat wasn't his preferred way of doing things, but if this mysterious visitor had violence on their minds, they would likely as not never be seen nor heard from again.
The lights flickered out.
"Who's there?" Lucius asked. "Show yourself."
"Why, Lucius," a voice said smoothly. It was a voice like goblin steel cutting silk. Soft, clean, and deadly all at the same time. It was a voice that Lucius Malfoy had hoped to never hear again. "That's no way to greet an old friend, now is it?"
It was the voice of the Dark Lord Voldemort.
Fiona awoke in her bed with a strange feeling well-known to anyone who has ever been jolted awake by dream-tripping on the dream-sidewalk. She spent a few seconds taking deep breaths to calm her racing heart.
"Bloody hate those," she muttered to herself, then checked her alarm clock:
With an irritated grumble, she rolled over to try and go back to sleep. She'd woken up at 6:30 every day for so long that, now that she no longer had anywhere in particular to be every morning, she couldn't break the habit.
After an unsuccessful ten minutes of trying to fall back to sleep, she rolled out of bed painfully and limped to the kitchen. If being on leave messed with her morning routine, being a cripple destroyed it. It took her more than twice as long to do even basic tasks with her limp as it had.
By the time she'd showered, had breakfast, fed Sprocket, grabbed her vacuum flask full of tea, her walkman, and left, it was already 7:30, which, in her books, was practically afternoon.
Despite being on leave—allegedly for her injury, but really as a reprimand for the fiasco that was the drug bust—she couldn't help but follow her routine. She'd been programmed like a robot. She told herself that she was just walking to the station to get a little fresh air and stretch after being bed-ridden for so long.
She awkwardly put her headphones on, fumbling the unfamiliar cane in one hand and the walkman, tape, and headphones in the other. She eventually had to lean the cane, and herself, against the brick wall of her building to manage it.
Fiona started as, rather than that of Mick Jagger, she heard her own voice through the speakers.
"If you know why you're hearing yourself speak, hold fast-forward for thirty seconds. No? Still here? Damn, they got you again. Well, anyway, here's what's going on..."