A/N: Sorry for the late post. Exams this week. Forgot it was a Monday.
Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.
Hermione carefully shut the door to Grimmauld Place behind her. Her boots made soft sounds against the wooden floor as she quietly went through the kitchen and then ascended the stairs, peering through the dusky gloom that had settled over the house in the absence of the Order's occupation.
"Kreacher?" she called softly.
There was no response, and Hermione began making her way through the house, calling intermittently until she finally found the cramped cupboard underneath the boiler where Kreacher slept. If the house elf wouldn't respond to her summons, then perhaps invading his nest would change his mind about ignoring her.
She opened it up, and found the odd array of broken picture frames—including that of Bellatrix Lestrange—tucked around his sleeping space. There were odd bits and ends stuck in there, as well: an old ring with the Black crest, a silver spoon, a pair of old trousers, a locket—
Something about the locket made Hermione reach out to tug it loose, something familiar and dangerous that tugged at her, and there was a crack just behind her as she held it up to her wandlight for closer inspection. There was an ornate, silver S over the glass windows of the locket.
"Mudblood has been muddying up Mistress's house! Kreacher hears Mudblood making noise through his Mistress's house, but Kreacher doesn't—" Hermione turned to look at the house elf, and Kreacher let out a screech like an angry bullfrog when he saw the locket dangling from her fingers. "Mudblood will give Kreacher back Master Regulus's locket!"
Hermione clenched her hand around the locket. "Where did you get this?" she demanded shortly.
Kreacher made to lunge for it, but Hermione quickly stood up—nearly banging her head on the short, sloped end of the wall—and held it out of his reach.
"This is Slytherin's Locket, Kreacher!" she snapped, holding it up for the elf to see. "Why do you have it?"
Kreacher's eyes bugged out of his skull, and Hermione saw him tremble—whether with rage or fear, Hermione was not certain—and she could see that he was two sparks away from losing his nut.
"Master—Master Regulus gave Kreacher the locket," Kreacher said at last, his eyes fixed on the silver chain wrapped around Hermione's hand, as though hoping that giving her an answer would help entreat her to give it back. "Kreacher was told to destroy it, but Kreacher has failed again and again—Mudblood cannot have Master Regulus's locket, because Kreacher must break it!"
Hermione's breath hitched. She knew that Regulus Black had been killed, but Kreacher's words—now bordering on wailing hysteria—were starting to make her wonder if Sirius was wrong about why. They had all assumed he had gotten scared, ran off, and was hunted down and killed. It was a short, tight, satisfactory answer. But what if it was wrong?
"Kreacher," she said slowly, "are you telling me that Regulus gave this to you and asked you to destroy it? Before he died?"
The elf grabbed both of his ears and yanked on them. "Yes, Mudblood, yes!"
"And you haven't managed to do it yet?" Hermione turned the locket over in her hand.
"Kreacher tried!" the house elf moaned, tugging on his ears in distress. He was no longer focused on getting the locket back, so entrenched was he in his misery and shame. "Kreacher tries everything, but it won't break!"
Hermione closed her eyes.
"I think I know why Master Regulus wanted you to break it," Hermione said quietly. "I've been looking for this locket too, Kreacher, because I also need to destroy it." She clenched the locket in her fist. "I also came here to ask for your help, Kreacher."
"Kreacher doesn't serve the Mudblood!" Kreacher sneered.
Hermione ignored him. "I'm trying to make arrangements to protect Draco Malfoy."
"I can't send an owl," Hermione said, now retrieving a letter from her pocket and holding it up for Kreacher to see. "No one can know about what I'm doing. But I need a letter delivered out of the country, to arrange an apprenticeship for young Malfoy."
Kreacher gaped at her. "Mudblood… Mudblood is trying to protect the young Master Malfoy?"
"Yes," Hermione said firmly.
Kreacher shook for a moment, fingers twitching, and then he snatched the letter out of her hand.
"Kreacher will do it, Mudblood… but Kreacher will do it for the Malfoy boy," he croaked. "And nots for you."
Hermione gave the elf a tiny little half-smile, and then her face fell.
"Tell me, Kreacher," she said. "Tell me everything."
Hermione didn't want to wait until the holidays were over. Instead, she took advantage of the Portkey charmed to her watch, and returned to Hogwarts directly, surprising the Headmaster in the middle of a book that he appeared to have been particularly enjoying.
Hermione wasted no time, tossing her traveling croak over on his desk and marching over to the glass case where the Sword of Gryffindor lay. "Happy Christmas, Albus. I just need to borrow the sword for a moment."
"You found another?" the Headmaster asked, immediately rising to his feet. "How?"
Hermione unlocked the case and pulled the sword out. "It was right under our noses all along," she said, dropping the locket to the Headmaster's desk without skipping a beat. Around them, the portraits were all immediately awake, eyeing the scene before them with something akin to curiosity and disbelief. Hermione was not sure if they were interested in what was happening, or scandalized by the way she simply barged in and made herself at home, as though she were entitled to the Headmaster's property.
"It was underneath our noses all along," Hermione repeated, resting the sword against the locket to gauge her swing. Dumbledore immediately came to stand beside her, turning the locket over in his fingers with consideration, before setting it back down. "Regulus Black didn't die because he was a coward."
She raised the sword.
"He died because he realized what a monster the Dark Lord was, and according to Kreacher, sacrificed his life to get the locket."
She brought it down with both hands. There was an almighty thunk, followed by a crack; the glass windows snapped inward, and a thin wisp of black smoke trickled out, unfurling ominously, but the locket didn't break. Hermione stared at the dent, and frowned.
"Kreacher told me about a lake," she continued slowly, sliding the sword back and preparing to cut down again. "A lake in a cave, full of dead bodies that attacked anyone who stumbled upon it… that's where the Dark Lord hid it. Regulus drank poison to reach it, and then replaced it with a fake."
There was another crack, followed by an eerie sort of whine as Hermione slammed the sword down again. The glass windows cracked even further, spidery and misty from the abuse, but didn't quite give. But a cold, dangerous aura was leaking out of it, and Hermione forced herself to keep talking to distract herself from succumbing to it as she raised the sword for the third time.
"I hope he finds it," she said in a strangled sort of voice. "I hope he realizes it's gone. That he was outsmarted by a wizard and his house elf."
She struck once more, and there was an ear-splitting shriek from the locket, dark smoke billowing out of it, as the sword finally pierced it. Hermione squeezed her eyes shut against the onslaught of magical backlash, and then cracked one open when it finally faded.
Hermione panted for a moment before she realized she was still gripping the sword with pale fingers, and shoved it aside to lift up the locket for inspection.
"I wonder how many other Death Eaters have turned their back," she said at last, letting the broken glass catch in the Yule morning sunlight.
Hermione sat in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place, gazing into the fireplace. Kreacher had not yet returned, and though she knew she was expected at the Weasleys' for breakfast, she couldn't bring herself to go. She had far too much on her mind, and needed a quiet place to think while she waited for the house elf to confirm his errand.
The front door opened and shut, and Hermione looked up in mild surprise when she saw Sirius poke his head through the kitchen door.
"Hermione?" His brow was furrowed with concern. "We've been waiting for you at the Burrow."
Hermione grimaced. "Sorry."
"So how did it go with the little toerag?" Sirius asked half-heartedly, as he came around to Hermione's seat.
"It went better than I thought," Hermione replied quietly. "You ought to be nicer to him, Sirius."
"We never really found out what happened to your brother, did we?"
Sirius's mouth opened and shut in surprise.
"I found out what happened today," Hermione murmured, stroking the shattered remains of the locket hanging around her neck. "He didn't die because he changed his mind and ran away, Sirius. He—" her throat caught for a minute, and then she said, "I'm sorry, Sirius. He died because he found out how the Dark Lord made himself immortal, and did what he could to destroy one of the means he used to do so."
Sirius's features, gaunt and pale from his years in Azkaban, seemed to crumple as Hermione's words hit him with the force of a sledgehammer. He seemed to grow unsteady on his feet for a moment, gripping a nearby armchair for support.
"He died a hero," Hermione said, taking off the locket and holding it out to him. "And Kreacher spent all these years trying to destroy the locket for him."
Sirius's knees gave way, and he collapsed back into a chair, gazing at the locket. Hermione watched his eyes go blank, no doubt replaying the memories he had of his brother, trying to connect the man he thought he knew with the new information he had now.
And the he leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. His shoulders shook, but no sound escaped him. The two of them sat in almost complete silence, each lost in their own mire, for nearly a quarter of an hour before they were interrupted by a loud crack.
Kreacher reappeared in the center of the kitchen, giving Hermione a short almost grudging sort of bow.
"Kreacher has delivered Mistress Mudblood's letter," he said, straightening. "Master Faulkner says he requires further letters of recommendation from Master Malfoy and his parents, but that he gives Mistress Mudblood's request due consideration."
"Don't call her that," was Sirius's subdued, muffled reprimand as he dragged his face from his hands. His eyes were reddened from crying, and he looked older than his years.
"Thank you, Kreacher," Hermione said, giving the elf a weak sort of smile.
"Mistress Mudblood is welcome," Kreacher croaked.
"I have something for you," Hermione said, gesturing at the locket in Sirius's hands. "Show him, Padfoot."
Sirius seemed to heave himself upright with great effort before handing the locket over to the house elf, whose eyes grew to the size of dinner plates as he took in the mangled heirloom. He took it, and then clutched it, rocking back and forth on his heels.
"Mistress Mudblood did it! Mistress Mudblood destroyed Master Regulus's locket!"
"You're welcome," Hermione said with a weary sigh.
"You can keep it," Sirius muttered, looking down at the house elf with a mixture of grudging reconsideration and dislike.
This was apparently too much for Kreacher. The house-elf's eyes widened, his fingers trembling as he held on tightly to Slytherin's Locket—and then he broke down sobbing.
There was an odd, if marked change in Kreacher and Sirius's interaction over the next few days. Sirius returned to Tine Cottage after Christmas, this time joined by the house elf, if only so that he could interrogate Kreacher about the things he never knew about his brother. When Hermione went to pay them a visit the afternoon before term resumed, it was to find Kreacher bustling around the kitchen and preparing a plate of sandwiches, switching between bad-naturedly sniping invectives and almost happily reminiscing about Regulus.
"Master Regulus was the good son, oh yes, unlike the Mistress's brat who broke his mother's heart, but Master Regulus did not know what the Dark Lord wanted with Kreacher until after Kreacher had performed his service…"
Hermione pulled out a second letter, this one much thicker than the last, with all that Faulkner had requested. Severus had taken the younger Malfoy aside two days earlier to inform him of his mother's intention, and had curtly ordered him to write a letter explaining why he wished to apprentice. Malfoy had reportedly been rather sullen about the prospect, but had otherwise made no complaint, fetching himself a quill and parchment to complete the task. Narcissa's own letter—more of a diplomatic plea than anything else—was also carefully folded in the envelope.
Kreacher immediately jumped up at the sight of the letter, almost snatching it out of Hermione's hands, and disappeared with a loud crack before she could properly ask him to deliver it. Sirius gazed at the spot where the house elf had been moments ago, and then flicked his wand at the platter of sandwiches, summoning them to the table.
"Malfoy is a lucky git," he said, helping himself to a sandwich.
Hermione laughed, though she wasn't quite sure it was from amusement.
The few days she and Severus had together were interrupted by various things—from Hermione's duties to the Order to Severus's duties as a Death Eater—but they had put what time they had together to good use. Very good use, truth to be told. Hermione was still feeling run to the ground and overworked, but she now felt refreshed enough to resume term on a good note.
The students would not be taking the train back; arrangements had been made to allow them to return by Floo, and Hermione left with Selenius about two hours before Harry and the Weasleys were due. They arrived in Minerva's office, where the Transfiguration teacher was taking time between monitoring the Floo to do some reading.
"Welcome back, Snape."
There was some uncertainty as to whether she was addressing Hermione or Selenius, but it hardly mattered. Selenius ran off to put his things away, no doubt eager to hunt down the Slytherins who had already returned for a chess game, and Hermione returned to her own office to file the essays she had graded over break. Severus must have already dropped by, as there was a fresh rose in the vase, as always. She began organizing her papers, her mind wandering back to the task Dumbledore had given her, circulating her success and continued failures in her head.
Diary, Ring, Locket, Cup, she recited mentally. Diadem, Snake, and… something of Gryffindor's, perhaps? Dumbledore hasn't said…
She realized she had nearly put the seventh-year homework in the first-year folder, and quickly corrected herself.
Where would the Dark Lord hide a diadem? She shuffled the papers, and then set them aside to work on another stack. If I were the Dark Lord, where would I hide it? Especially if I wanted to keep something near the school… that's the only place I can think of now, everywhere else that he might possibly have a connection to has already been checked…double-checked… I even triple-checked some places…
There was a sudden knock at the door to her office, and Hermione nearly knocked her papers to the floor in surprise.
"Come in," she said, stuffing the last third-year essay into its proper cabinet.
The pale, blond, pointy-face of Draco Malfoy cautiously peered inside, and then he walked in. He shut the door behind him almost reluctantly, and Hermione knew—somehow, the expression on his face gave it away—but she knew that whatever he was here for, it was for more than just homework help or to discuss his grades. In fact, he had never once stepped foot in her office before now.
"I… my Head of House… Professor Snape told me I should come see you," Malfoy said, not quite meeting her eyes.
Hermione gazed at him coolly for a moment, and then motioned for him to have a seat. Malfoy silently obeyed, his grey eyes surveying the room, as though hoping it would give him some insight on her that would help him navigate whatever it was that he was here for.
"Well, talk," Hermione said curtly but not coldly, flicking through her file drawer. "I'm listening."
"My mother's been making arrangements for me to take on an apprenticeship, after I graduate," Malfoy began.
"Two years into the foreseeable future, yes."
"And possibly some interview work over the summer," Draco said, his tone surprisingly hopeful. He'd rather have two or three months to get to know the master he was working hard to earn a contract with for the next three to five years of his life, before committing. "And Professor Snape's put me in contact with the master you recommended."
Hermione slowly sat up, giving Malfoy her full and undivided attention. The boy continued:
"He said… that I have the grades, but that Faulkner is very strict and exacting, and would only take the best." Malfoy winced, and Hermione could see that it was taking some serious quashing of his pride to say what he came to say. "He said I should speak to you about extra lessons."
"I did discuss the possibility with Professor Snape," Hermione said, leaning back in her chair and regarding Malfoy with a considering eye. "And you're right, of course—I did recommend Faulkner. He was my Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher when I was your age, and I have nothing but the highest regard for him. Your work in my class is exceptional, but you are correct: Faulkner has indicated he will accept nothing less than absolute dedication and hard work from an apprentice, along with a degree of skill and experience that you do not—as of yet—possess."
Malfoy looked rather depressed and discouraged by this. "I have been working hard," he said, trying to sit up a bit straighter. "In your class, I mean. I don't know how…"
"That's what the extra lessons would be for," Hermione stated calmly. And then, with an almost reluctant attempt to boost his ego, "They're not remedial, by any means. Consider them akin to a level of advanced placement—it'll be more work for you, but if you continue to succeed in them as you have in my regular class, I can assure you will have that apprenticeship."
Malfoy squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. "Why him?" he asked. "I mean, I appreciate the chance to work under the best, but—isn't there another curse-breaker I could apprentice under?"
"Not that I know of, not out of the country," Hermione said, folding her hands together in her lap, twisting Gaunt's ring on her finger as she did so. Malfoy's brows rose at this in surprise, and she gave him a thin smile that did not quite reach her eyes. "Additionally, Malfoy, I am well aware of the reasons for which your mother wants you out of the country. There is no guarantee that the Dark Lord will be satisfied in letting you go, but I know that Faulkner is more than capable of disguising and protecting you. Of convincing the Dark Lord that you're not worth his concern."
Malfoy stiffened at this, and Hermione understood her slip, but did not attempt to take it back. "I know this may take some time to sink in, but sometimes you will have to work harder—harder than you believed yourself possible, harder than anything else you have worked for in your life—for things that you wish you didn't need."
Hermione pulled out a sheet of parchment from her desk, and tapped it with her wand. Black ink began to swirl over it, leaving behind the letters of an Apprenticeship contract.
"If you want to do this, Malfoy, it must be because you want it badly enough to put in the time and effort needed," Hermione said, her expression carefully blank, giving nothing away. "Unlike Professor Snape and his attempt at giving Potter remedial potions, I will not teach you simply because someone else asked on your behalf."
Malfoy's interest seemed to perk up at this, but he still seemed hesitant. His face was a mixture of fear, excitement, defiance, and uncertainty. Hermione pushed the contract toward him.
"Keep this with you. No, don't sign it," she added, as Malfoy searched himself for a quill. "Keep it, and look it over while deciding whether you wish to take advantage of the opportunity so many people have worked to provide you for."
That seemed to needle him just right. "I want to do this," he said, and there was the slightest trace of a sneer to his tone.
"Then take the contract with you, and whenever things seem to become too difficult to go through, take another look at it," Hermione said, waving the parchment away with a dismissive hand. "In case you ever need a reminder. You will come to my classroom every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday at 6pm. I expect you to be prompt."
"Should I tell Professor Snape?" Malfoy asked, his voice barely audible as he absorbed his fate and tried to memorize and make sense of the odd dates. He slowly stood up, and Hermione watched as he absently folded the contract up.
"If you like. I'll be more than happy to tell him, myself."
"No, that's alright," Draco said quickly. He stuffed the parchment into his pocket. In a tone that was utterly respectful, he added, "Thank you for your time, Professor."
Hermione watched him leave. As soon as the door shut, she sank onto her elbows on her desk with a sigh.
Now, where does a megalomaniac hide a glittering, magical tiara?
The tip of Hermione's lit wand was the only sign of her presence in the vast darkness of the library, aside from the low lamp she had set down on one of the nearby study tables. She had been here since the early evening, attempting to find a reference—no matter how small—to Ravenclaw's object of legacy. The Sword of Gryffindor was easily found and widely mentioned in many historical texts, followed closely by Hufflepuff's cup, which—upon reading about its magical properties—had made Hermione feel a welling sense of enormous guilt that she had destroyed it. She still had the husk, what was left of it, but there was little doubt that one of the founders' objects had perhaps irrevocably wrecked another's. Slytherin's locket was only mentioned in passing, cited as a legend and a myth more than fact, and she had yet to find anything about Ravenclaw's diadem.
Perhaps I should look into having Hufflepuff's Cup repaired… she thought desolately, as she shelved yet another tome and pulled out the next, her mind wandering. Perhaps, if I took it to Borgin and Burkes… or a goblin… but it would have to be on the sly…utterly confidential…
And Slytherin's Locket… No, she couldn't take that from Kreacher. Well, at least we know the Sword of Gryffindor is still in good working order…
She detected a slight movement out of her eye, a faint shuffling of footsteps catching her ears, and immediately turned her wand in the direction of the source. There was nothing there, but Hermione trusted her instincts—she had been doing this for far too long—and slowly eased forward, every muscle tensed.
There was no response. She had expected none.
She whispered, "Homenum Revelio."
There. In the corner, behind the next bookshelf. Hermione wheeled around the bend, and there was a sudden gasp of surprise as she found Selenius crouching low by the bottom of the shelf, a heavy book in his lap. He was blinking up at her, at a light that was much too bright, and held up his hand so that he could see her. Hermione lowered her wand, and let out a low sound of exasperation, before striding forward and pulling him up from the floor, causing the book to slip and thunk to the ground. Selenius rushed to pick it up, clutching it to his chest as he tried to gauge just how much trouble he was in.
"What are you doing here?" Hermione hissed.
Selenius swallowed. "Sorry," he whispered
"It's late! It's four hours past your curfew, and you have class tomorrow. What. Were. You. Thinking?"
"I—I had to look something up," Selenius muttered, holding onto the book even tighter. "I couldn't sleep without checking it."
Hermione bit her lip, trying not to smile, attempting to muster up the appropriate amount of fury a teacher catching a student out of bed after hours ought to have, but she was failing. She more than sympathized with how he felt, knowing full well that—though she had rarely snuck out in her earlier years—she had often stayed up very late to read or check something that continued to nag at her. Hermione grasped his arm, and lowered it so that she could see the title. Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts.
"This is what kept you up?" she asked quietly with a sigh.
"Five—no, ten points apiece for every hour you've been out here past curfew," Hermione said, placing her hand on his shoulder and turning him around. "It'll be another ten if you don't get up to bed, now. And leave the book, it'll be here in the morning when you can check it out properly."
Selenius slowly put the book back, changed his mind, and pulled out three of the books, stuffing the tome he had been reading behind three others. Hermione let him, gazing at him with exasperation as he did so, and then he stood up.
Hermione gestured at the entrance to the library. "Can I trust you to return to Gryffindor without any further detours?"
"Yes," Selenius stated, trying to look as pious as possible.
"Very well. Go. And don't think I won't tell your father about this."
He left, and Hermione watched as he slipped out of the library. He held the door open a second longer, turning back to look at her, and then it shut behind him. Hermione lowered her wand, and returned to continue perusing the books, still searching for anything—any scrap of information—regarding Ravenclaw's Diadem.
"I'm not deaf," Draco hissed in Selenius's ear, as they left the library. He had not removed his Disillusionment charm, and had he not been on the other side of the library when Selenius was caught, he was certain he would have been found. He shuddered at how he would have explained himself, and tucked the volume he had filched more firmly under his arm. But he had heard everything, sneaking closer to see what would become of his late-night cohort. "I heard her. No teacher ever speaks to a student like that, and especially not her. She's your mother, isn't she?"
"That's none of your business," Selenius muttered under his breath. "Anyway, it's your fault I got caught. This was your idea."
"There were some things I needed to check. Why did you never tell me she was your mother?"
"Why do you think?" Selenius whispered out of the corner of his mouth, as they rounded the corridor. "It's bad enough that everyone thinks I'm Sirius Black's son—" He looked away at this, his face turning red with anger as he realized his slip-up, and took a deep breath. "Sirius is my godfather. He—he helped take care of me, when I was younger, and my parents couldn't always be around. But if it's not some toerag whispering that it really was his fault that Harry's parents were killed, it's them being jealous gits and saying I paid my way on the team." He threw Draco a dirty look. "How do you think they'd react if they knew my mum was the Defense teacher?"
Draco grabbed Selenius' arm to halt him. "It's not Black?" he said, looking extremely surprised, and then collected himself. "Then who is it?"
Selenius yanked his arm away. "I'm not about to tell you," he sneered.
"You're not really a pure-blood, are you?"
"I never claimed to be," Selenius snapped, endeavoring to keep his voice down. "Everyone just assumed."
"Your mother," Draco said slowly, "is a witch. So your father…"
"He's a wizard," Selenius said coldly. "I'm a half-blood. I've always said that. Now tell me to my face that it makes one bit of difference!"
The words rang out alarmingly in the silent hall, for all that they were whispered, and Draco quickly glanced around to make sure Filch or his cat hadn't heard before grabbing Selenius and pulling him behind a curtain that passed for a door. He had seen Potter duck in here once before, while trying to avoid the gaggle of girls hoping to snare a kiss with him under the mistletoe—Filch was likely to overlook them here.
"No," he said quietly. "It doesn't make a difference. You're still the first person I would have picked to go with me, tonight."
Selenius stiffened, and then slowly relaxed, looking slightly mollified. "You've changed," he said, almost conversationally.
"I've adapted," Draco said, a bit harshly. For a moment, he seemed frightened, and looked away. "The world—the world wasn't what I thought it would be, growing up. I'm not stupid—heritage still counts for a lot, mind, but not in the way my parents think." He suddenly looked wary, his face draining of all color. "Don't tell anyone I said that."
Selenius said nothing, but his eyes searched Draco's face, sympathetic but observationally calculating.
"We should go before Filch finds us," he said at last. "I already lost forty points from Gryffindor. I don't need a detention on top of it."
Draco quickly peered around the curtain to check, and then the two slipped out, back to their respective dormitories.