A/N: Oh you lucky, lucky readers... a quick update, a really long chapter and a mission... take a shot of the beverage of your choice every time you think, "OMG... but, that totally makes sense..." A lot of this is set-up for the future... hope you enjoy!
Hermione woke first the next morning, Ginny still sound asleep beside her. She turned on her side to face her and found herself just staring at her. Of the three meetings she had the following day the third was the one that mattered most. Not in the grand scheme of things, no, the meetings with Fudge and then later at the bank held far more significance, but the last meeting, the one with Molly, mattered most to her personally.
It was the thought of the first two meetings, however, that found her climbing from the warmth and comfort of her bed before the sun had yet to rise. She kissed Ginny softly, sighed then, as she crossed the room to the bathroom, summoned her robe. She wanted to concentrate on her meeting with Molly, but there was far too many other thoughts running around her head to allow her to think clearly.
Once she'd used the facilities and splashed some cold water on her face, she retrieved several pieces of parchment and a half-dozen of her special thought quills before taking a seat at the table.
"Dobby?" she called quietly.
"Good morning, Miss," Dobby said with a yawn and then looked down.
"It's okay, Dobby, you're allowed to yawn... it's early yet," she said kindly. "Can you tell me why you were so upset yesterday?"
"Miss... it's Rue... she's... she's having triplets..." he explained haltingly.
"But isn't that a good thing?"
"It is... but elves aren't meant to have so many young at one time. The most is two," he explained.
"I'm sure she'll be okay," Hermione assured him, "and I'll make sure that you and your family are always taken care of..." she trailed off at his look of awe. To be viewed as something of an equal by any human was something of a novelty to the elf... but to actually be told he and his family would be taken care of? It was almost too much.
"What can I do for you this morning?" he finally asked, finding his voice again.
"Breakfast for Ginny and I... and orange juice please," she replied.
Dobby nodded and disappeared only to return a few moments later with breakfast.
"Thank you, Dobby," Hermione said warmly before he left again.
She looked at the meal before her and took a sip of juice before starting each of her six special quills writing. As they scratched around her, she filled a plate before casting a stasis and heating charm over the rest of the food for Ginny when she woke. She put her own plate aside slightly and began writing on the last parchment while she ate.
As she had laid in bed staring at Ginny, she couldn't help but start thinking about what she was going to say to Molly, but then her other worries had begun to make their presences known. By siphoning those thoughts into each of her quills she was able to concentrate on the argument she planned to use when she spoke to Ginny's mother.
She sighed, put the quill down and looked over to the bed where her mate still slept. Would it matter? Was there really anything she could say to Molly that would convince her that her fourteen year old daughter should get married? Even at the ages they really were, they were still young for such a big step.
It was, however, what they both needed. There were so many reasons... from the practical of not wanting to be separated in the new school year to the more emotional reasons like having something tangible to hold on to.
Despite her anxiety though, there was one thing Hermione had no doubt of... her love for Ginny. She would move heaven and earth to see that she was happy and maybe talking Molly into it was an even bigger struggle, but if she succeeded, it would be worth it.
She resumed eating her breakfast just as the six quills around her came to a stop one after another. She looked over her handwritten thoughts as she ate, adding a thing here and there as she thought of them.
Hermione looked over to the bed when she heard Ginny stirring and smiled. Despite her trepidation with regards to the events of the next day at least they were finally happening. They had played this infuriating waiting game all year and it was almost over. While it was true they had no intention of outing Tom's return too quickly as they didn't want to alert those faithful to him they could, at least, start preparing. Their allies were in place and, so far, everything was falling into place the way she had thought it would.
She began gathering the parchments and quills, smiling as she did. The truth was, things were actually going better than she thought. Tom was weak and had only Severus to rely on, provided he didn't continue his whining and Severus killed him one day out of sheer annoyance. She chuckled... Tom Riddle, crying like a lost child... it wasn't an image she was going to forget anytime soon.
Hermione stored her notes in her backpack, then went to climb back into bed with Ginny who was slowly waking and groping the empty bed beside her for the body of her mate. She slipped off her robe and then back under the covers, Ginny coming to rest on her shoulder almost immediately.
"Shhh... go back to sleep, love, it's early yet," she said soothingly. It was Sunday morning and their only commitment that day was dinner with dear-old-dad, Minerva and Rosmerta, later that night.
"Why? Warm... sexy... body... here... now..." Ginny muttered sleepily as she nuzzled into Hermione's neck as she giggled.
"I think you forget a few words there, Shy..."
Ginny propped herself up on her elbow and rubbed her eyes.
"Why go back to sleep when I have a naked sexy you here now to wake up to?" Ginny elaborated.
Hermione laughed, then pulled her down for a kiss as she rolled her on her back.
"It looks like it's going to be a beautiful day," Hermione said when she finally broke the kiss; "I was thinking we could round-up some players... maybe get a game of Quidditch going... forget about everything else for a bit?"
"About that... what brilliant idea did Ron give you?" Ginny asked.
"I think he was feeling a bit down yesterday because he found out about Morgan's new broom... I was thinking, for next year, how much better Quidditch would be if everyone was on a more level playing field... if everyone had the same broom to use..."
"So what? You're going to buy the whole school brooms?" Ginny asked, a little shocked.
"Not everyone... just the four house teams and the four junior teams," she put her finger over Ginny's lips. "I'll do it anonymously... no one need ever know where they came from... from what Nym said we have unlimited funds, why not start putting them to good use?"
"So why get Ron, Fred and George new brooms?" Ginny asked when her mate finally allowed her to.
"For the same reason I got brooms for Nym, Fleur and Luna and it's not just your brothers... I'm planning to get brooms for your mom, dad, Bill and Charlie as well," Hermione replied. "And Mr Besom has already offered me a really good deal on the school brooms as well as seven free Firebolts..."
"Because no one is buying the Nimbuses anymore, so he, and every other broom shop, currently have a surplus," Hermione smiled; "Everyone wants the Purpleheart Wood brooms and they're even out-selling the Firebolts," her smile grew mischievous; "He and I are also working on a special project... a new 'Battle Broom'..."
"Are you sure it's a good idea?Putting stuff like that in writing? What if the other side gets a hold of it?" Ginny asked.
"I found a charm in the Sister's spellbook... if anyone other than the intended recipient tries to read it, it'll burst into flame," Hermione replied; "And you would need a special permit to buy one... we're also working on a fail safe that no one would know about except the Aurors... basically, with one spell they would be able to disable all the special features on an enemy's broom."
"That's really cool," Ginny said, impressed with her mate as always. "Where did all this come from?"
"I got to thinking after I gave Nym her broom," she replied; "The Purpleheart Wood brooms were originally designed primarily for Quidditch use, but because they adjust to the flying style of whoever is using them, they've become an all around popular broom. With all the charms already on them what if they could become more than just a great means of escape? What if they could actually help you defend yourself? Like a charm that renders both broom and rider invisible? Or another that could throw up obstacles in your enemy's way so you could flee?"
"Wow," Ginny said softly; "Old Mouldy Shorts really won't know what hit him..." she smiled; "What's with the brooms for the school though?"
"It's kind of like uniforms in Muggle Schools... one of the reasons many schools adopt them is to mitigate the effects of people with different financial backgrounds... if all the students are forced to wear the same thing, then no one can lord how much money they have over others..."
"Why the Muggle school distinction? We have uniforms here..."
"True... but there's no standard uniform and we're differentiated by our house colors... some people wear second-hand robes, while others walk around with the most expensive robes they can find," Hermione explained. "We might as well get up... I've already eaten, but your breakfast is waiting for you..."
Ginny pouted; "Much rather stay in bed with you..." but her stomach had rumbled at the mention of food so she didn't put up much of a fight.
Hermione joined her at the table while she ate... just watching her.
"What?" Ginny asked.
"Nothing..." Hermione replied. It was true, for the first time in a while, she really wasn't thinking about anything in particular.
Ginny grew thoughtful as she sipped her juice.
"I think we should make it official..." Ginny said.
"I'm sorry?" Hermione asked as she carefully replaced her glass of orange juice on the table... she didn't want to have this conversation yet... not until she'd spoken to Molly.
"We were talking, Luna, Fleur and I... I know you don't consider yourself our leader and you're always saying you're only able to do what you do because of us, but I think, if you spoke for us, we'd appear as more of a united front."
Hermione regarded her a moment, unsure of what to say.
"Does that mean you would stop questioning every little decision I make?" she asked finally.
"No... nor would I expect you and the others to not question me if you didn't understand why I did something," Ginny replied. "Part of it is that we confuse people when we speak as one voice... you know? Finishing each others' thoughts all the time?"
"Eventually someone might clue into why, and how, exactly, we're doing it," Hermione added. Ginny nodded. "Not leader... spokesperson maybe?"
"Okay... but in time of crisis I think you should take control," Ginny countered.
"No... depending on the situation, I may not be the best one calling the shots," Hermione countered.
"Fair enough," Ginny replied.
"I want you to come to the meeting with Fudge," Hermione confided.
"Um, okay, but why?"
"Because I might have to do something I don't really want to do and I'd rather you be there when I do," Hermione answered, then continued at her look of concern; "If he chooses not to cooperate with us, I'm going to stun him and hide the knowledge of our ages from him," she shook her head; "I never should have dropped my magic in front of him until I knew where he stood..."
"Why did you?"
"I've noticed how much more at ease adults become around us when we do," she smiled; "I think it's partly because they realize how much trust we have in them to share it with them and it's easier to accept the things we say if we look the age we act..."
"That, originally, was just because I was too tired," Hermione admitted; "but it's nice... having a few more people who see us for who we really are... a chance to just be ourselves, here and there..."
"I guess... it was really unnerving, wasn't it? Our lunch with Severus?"
"It was... but I suspect it was equally so for him. He's been hiding for so long though, it must almost seem like a relief..." Hermione replied thoughtfully.
"You know, it occurs to me, many of our allies aren't just fighting Tom, but fighting for the lives they should have had, had he never darkened them?" Ginny said.
"I know, Shy... and Severus was right... we are trying to change our world into a place where a man like him wouldn't be able to rise again... but sometimes change needs a catalyst and, like it or not, Tom is exactly that..." Hermione said wisely.
They ended up spending better of the day on the Quidditch pitch playing. Students from all four houses had shown up, much to Ginny and Hermione's surprise, until Harry had explained having passed the word around at dinner the night before. They didn't have enough players for a full four teams as only a few Slytherins had shown up, but they were able to field three. One team would sit in the stands while the other two played then they would play the winner.
The only other surprise they had, was that Morgan was a Seeker capable of keeping up with Harry. As Hermione watched the two chasing each other around the pitch she wondered if, like her, her brother shared his flying ability with Harry. She also noticed that Harry seemed to hold back any time they had to play against each other.
The game play that afternoon had served another purpose though... Morgan ended up on the team with the three Slytherins who had been brave enough to show up to play and had, at one point, been sitting with the three in the stands and seemed to be having an amicable conversation with them. Hermione wasn't sure if he had done it in preparation of being in their house the coming year, or if he just chosen to talk to them. Either way it could pay dividends.
They had played until late afternoon, the games coming to an end when Hermione and Ginny said they had to leave. With their team now two players short, there was little reason to continue playing and, as Ron pointed out, it was almost time for dinner anyway.
The girls returned to their quarters, showered and changed for dinner.
They met Minerva in the Entrance Hall and walked down together to Hogsmeade, her new home on the outskirts furthest away from the school.
Talk during the meal was light and there was much laughter until, over dessert, Hermione handed each of them copies of what she had worked on that morning. Not until the reached her suggestions for Hogwarts did anyone speak.
"These ideas... they're..." Albus said, at loss for words.
"And that is why I've included a time line... I'm being realistic," Hermione said then sipped her mead; "But Tom's return has given us an opportunity to kick-start those changes..." she shook her head; "If we can manage the first three, along with keeping the unofficial Quidditch tournament going... by the time the war finally happens we might just stand more united than ever... by the time the war is over? We might just have a world where people will not only welcome those changes, they'll be asking for them... if just a few things can happen between now and then, they'll see for themselves what can be accomplished when we work together and end Tom before he really gets a chance to hurt people..."
"Those are lofty goals," Albus commented.
"The first one is common sense," Hermione corrected; "It was part of the reason the three of us began spending so much time with Rowena... because Luna is in Ravenclaw..." she explained; "Right now if someone has a friend in another house they have, basically, two options to do so... the library and outside... neither are ideal. The Great Hall is out because, even after Luna and Fleur have sat at the Gryffindor table all year, they still sometimes get funny looks. A common common room would solve all that... a place where you leave your house colors at the door... right now, students are discouraged from inter-house friendships just because they're so difficult to maintain."
"And the other two? I assume they're based on things you've seen in the Muggle school system?" Minerva asked.
"The yearbook and student newspaper?" Hermione asked and received Minerva's nod. "Yes... and it's just building on the common room idea... something students from all four houses can work on together. But I really like the newspaper idea because I'm hoping we can get students of different backgrounds to write about them so there will be more understanding," she grew thoughtful a moment; "It's also about equality... if people start realizing we're all the same... but I understand we're going up against hundreds of years of tradition... what I'd like to ask is... do we keep something we know to be flawed just because it always been that way?"
"May I ask about the Friday and Saturday nights for the upper class men?" asked Rosmerta.
"Change will be easier among the younger students, for one thing," Hermione began; "and for another... well, fifth year and above is really stressful..." she shook her head; "It's not about having a party every weekend, it's about having a chance to start acting like the adults we're going to be before too long and it's about giving those who would otherwise be reluctant to visit and enjoy a common space, a good reason to do so... simple stick and carrot reasoning..."
They all grew pensive, each sipping their mead and thinking over what Hermione had said.
"I want Ginny to join us for the meeting with Fudge," Hermione stated, breaking the comfortable silence.
"Why?" asked Albus.
"Moral support to do something I do not want to do," Hermione replied vaguely.
"Are you going to influence him to work with us?" asked Albus.
"No," Hermione replied with a bit of a laugh; "It hadn't even occurred to me..."
"Probably because it's little better than placing someone under the Imperius," Ginny said sagely.
"Maybe... no, if he chooses not to work with us," Hermione took a deep breath; "I intend to stun him, hide his memory of my true age and take a quick peek to see what he is planning."
"Magic will be detected if used in his office," Albus warned.
"That's why we won't use magic," said Ginny, prompting even Hermione to look at her in question. "I can put him to sleep with my gift," she informed them.
"Really?" asked Hermione.
"I did it to you several times last year without even realizing it," Ginny confided; "Whenever you started getting me too... well, I would relax myself and project it to you..."
Hermione looked back to her father, "It's worth a try... no traces..."
"I'm surprised you'd be willing to do that," Albus admitted.
"I don't want to," Hermione replied; "But if he's going to stand in our way we need to know... he's not the biggest fly on our current pile of shit, but he can hinder our progress if he chose to... if we know what he's planning," she shrugged; "Am I comfortable with it? No... does it need to be done? Yes..." she sighed heavily; "I should share Severus' memory of Tom with you..."
"No need," Albus replied; "You can just give us the highlights..."
"Well... he's weak, physically and magically... but he's... he's different," Hermione started; "It's almost like he's regained some of his lost humanity... he was actually sobbing like a little child at one point..."
"Do you think, in time, Harry will be able to consciously draw magic from him?" asked Albus.
"I don't know," Hermione replied ruefully, she hated not knowing something; "It really may have been just the connection between the wands that allowed it to happen... he's, Harry, he's gotten older... we think, during the training for the third task, he began passively drawing from our excess..."
"I thought he looked taller," commented Minerva.
"We're hoping there is something built into our vests to prevent it and it's one of the many things I intend to ask Gringott about," said Hermione.
Albus looked at his watch; "It's getting late, we should head back to the school," he looked to Minerva and Rosmerta; "Thank you for allowing me into your home."
"We're still angry with you so don't mistake this one time as an open invitation to here," Rosmerta replied evenly.
"I wouldn't dream of it," Albus said, warmly.
The girls said their goodbyes and walked with Albus back to the school, Fleur the first to break the amiable silence.
"I'm glad to see you've taken on the leadership role, Hermione," she said proudly as she put an arm around her shoulders and kissed her temple.
"Spokesperson... not, leader," she corrected.
"What made you change your mind?" asked Luna knowing how resistant Hermione was to accept the role she had performed admirably all year.
"Ginny made some good points this morning," Hermione replied as she hugged Ginny to her; "Even if I'm kind of surprised she suggested it as it only keeps me in the spotlight..."
"Different kind of spotlight," Ginny replied; "This would be among people we trust to reduce confusion..."
"She makes good points, my dear, and you have already proven yourself an exemplary leader... first with your Quidditch Tournament and then when you organized the Champions to work together... like it or not, you are a natural..."
"But only because the three of them give me, not only access to their viewpoints, but the confidence to voice them..." Hermione clarified; "Hence the reason I say spokesperson."
They had just passed the Hogwarts gates and Albus decided to confirm their plans for the morning; "If you and Ginny can meet me in my office at say, eight forty-five, we'll Floo to the Ministry from there," he looked to Fleur and Luna; "And Miss Tonks can escort you both to the bank and hour later and we will meet you there," he looked back to Hermione again; "I understand Miss Tonks is taking you to see your parents after?"
"She is, if that's alright," Hermione answered.
"As long as you're back by curfew, young lady," he replied, adopting a fatherly air, which he subsequently ruined by adding; "If that's alright with Ginny of course."
"I admit I'm a little jealous," Ginny said, Hermione catching her tone and waiting for the punchline; "You know... that Hermione gets to spend a little more time away from the school..."
"Brat," Hermione teased as she bumped her shoulder into Ginny's.
"Only fair... my love of Quidditch rubbed off on you and I got your brattiness," supplied Ginny to their laughter.
The next morning Hermione was woken when Nym slipped into bed with them and placed her cold hands on her stomach. She started, then smiled as Nym kissed her awake.
"What time is it?" she asked quietly in an attempt to not wake Ginny.
"Quarter to eight," Nym replied, then kissed her cheek; "How are you doing?"
"Stressed might be an understatement," she replied with a yawn; "I only got a few hours sleep... thanks for this afternoon..."
"Any time," Nym replied, kissed her again, then laid her head back on her shoulder. "When do you leave for the Ministry?"
"In an hour," Hermione sighed, then gently shook Ginny awake.
"Too early... sleep more," Ginny grumbled.
"Fine... if you want to face the Minister of Magic on an empty stomach without a shower you can stay here, I'm getting up..." Hermione teased then kissed her forehead.
"Hey Nym," Ginny said as she sat up, "Have her back before curfew tonight?"
"Um... okay... I mean, if that's really okay with you," Nym replied, uncertain.
"Yeah, it is... Hermione might not get another chance before we leave on Friday," Ginny replied as she followed both of them from the bed.
"Thanks, I guess..." Nym said as she watched the two gather their clothes for the day.
"Can you call Dobby to get us some breakfast?" asked Hermione, who went to kiss her briefly before following Ginny to the bathroom.
Nym wondered as she watched Hermione walk away, if she would ever get used to it... this relationship she had with Hermione. She didn't know, were she in Ginny's shoes, if she would be so accepting of it. Then again, Ginny was pursuing something more with Luna... she shook her head. The relationship between the four of them was different as it was born from their friendship.
She called for Dobby then sat at the table eating after he had come and gone... still lost in thought when Ginny and Hermione returned fresh from their shower. They ate quietly, Nym and Hermione sharing the occasional glance. Nym could almost feel the nerves coming from her and she knew it must be due to her meeting with Molly.
"How fucked up is that?" Nym thought to herself; "Taking the girl I'm falling for, to get permission from her mate's mother to get married this summer," she shook her head, then chastised herself; "No... I knew what I was getting into... I'm their friend first..."
"Nym? You okay?" asked Ginny as she reached across the table, took her hand and squeezed it.
"Yeah? Why?" she asked.
"Cause you seem like you're a million miles away," offered Hermione.
"Just a lot on my mind," she replied offhandedly.
"We'll talk later?" Hermione asked and received a nod in response.
When they finished their meal they woke Fleur and Luna, who had slept in the other bed. With Hermione and Ginny spending a good part of the day apart, they wanted to spend the night alone. With five minutes to go before going to meet her father Hermione took Nym into her arms and kissed her softly, "I'll see you soon," she leaned in to whisper in Nym's ear; "I'm looking forward to spending some time alone with you..." she kissed her below her ear, then one last time on the lips, hugged her, Fleur and Luna before she and Ginny left.
Albus rose from his desk when they arrived, "Are you ready for this?" he asked.
"Not really," Hermione replied honestly; "But it has to be done... the sooner we know his intentions the better..."
"Agreed," Albus replied, but the look on his face grew grim; "We're to have an Auror audience today... I received word from Kingsley Shacklebolt that Cornelius has asked him to sit in..." he smiled; "do not worry, however, he's one of the newest members of the Order."
"I thought you were waiting on that," Hermione replied with surprise.
"I have only called a meeting and Miss Tonks has approached several of her colleagues she knows to be trustworthy to attend," he held up his hand then reached for the Floo powder; "He will not intervene, however, he will need an explanation why the Minister suddenly falls asleep..."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Hermione admitted. From the subtle scan she had done of Fudge in their first meeting, she was well aware what his answer would likely be and it was not the one she was hoping for. At best he would stay out-of-the-way, but she feared that would not be the case. He was too in love with the office he held and truly believed that Albus was after his job. It was a pity, really, she didn't think he was a bad man, necessarily, just not an overly smart man. Not to say he was lacking intelligence, but he lacked the ability to see more than a few moves ahead. She prayed he didn't become such a hindrance that they would end up fighting more than just Tom.
They had followed Albus through the Floo and arrived in the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic. Hermione couldn't help but be impressed, which, she thought ruefully, was likely the point. From the highly polished floors to the enchanted ceiling above them, the place spoke of magic and all that it was capable of. Her awe, however, turned to disgust, as they approached the large magical fountain at the end of the hall.
"The Fountain of Magical Brethren," she said, scoffing as she examined it more closely. There in gold and spouting water was exactly what was wrong with the magical community. In the middle and slightly above, stood a Wizard, his wand held aloft. Beside him a witch. Below and around them were grouped a centaur, house-elf and Goblin... the latter of the three had looks of pure adoration carved into their faces as they seemingly gazed to the magical humans. It was preposterous and demeaning to the Magical Beings represented... for not only did they have this unrealistic and sappy looks of devotion on their faces, there was water coming from the tip of the Centaur's arrow, the tip of the Goblin's hat and from the house-elf's ears. "Well," she thought, "Maybe the house-elf is accurate..."
She shook her head again as she followed her father to the lifts. When they reached the correct floor, they followed Albus to an office at the very end of the hall, standing back a little when he went to inform the secretary of their arrival. He looked to them and motioned them to join him as he went to open the door to Fudge's office.
"Test number one," Hermione muttered under her breath to Ginny.
She smiled, kissed Hermione on the cheek and squeezed her hand.
"You'll be fine," she assured her.
Hermione nodded, then she and Ginny followed her father into the office.
Fudge did not stand from his desk, but instead sat there watching them warily as they took seats across from him.
"After our meeting Friday evening, you'll understand if I feel more comfortable with an Auror presence?" he asked, though it was clearly only a statement.
"I don't see why Minister," Hermione replied in what she thought was an innocent voice; "We pose no threat to you..."
"All the same," he replied.
"With all due respect, however, I don't know that I feel comfortable with him hearing what we have to say," Hermione added.
Their attention was drawn to said Auror, the girls taking the chance to size him up, as they heard a low rumbling chuckle from the man. Albus had told him to enjoy the show, and it looked like it could be a good one. They had barely sat down and the young witch was already calling the shots.
"I am more than happy to have charms placed around me so that I cannot hear your conversation," he offered, his voice a deep bass, that never-the-less contained a certain amount of warmth to it.
"That won't be necessary, Shacklebolt, if this young woman threatens me again, I'd appreciate a witness," Fudge replied, the barest trace of a whine behind it.
"I'm sorry, Minister, you're afraid of a, what, fifteen and thirteen old girl?" Hermione asked, to Shacklebolt's amusement.
"We'll be fourteen and sixteen in a few months," Ginny corrected.
"Honestly, Minister, are you inferring that I, Hogwarts' Headmaster, don't have control over my students?" Albus asked evenly.
Fudge narrowed his eyes as he looked from the tall and imposing black man in the corner to Albus... he could see it was a losing battle.
"Fine!" he finally muttered.
Albus smiled, then cast several charms over the Auror, who smiled and subtly winked to them.
"So what say you, Minister? Join us, oppose us or stay out-of-the-way?" Hermione asked bluntly.
Fudge regarded the young woman a moment, clearly flabbergasted that she had spoken to him in a such a way.
"Please forgive my directness Minister, however, we have another, somewhat more important meeting to attend when we are done here," Hermione informed him.
"You set the hour," he said, almost defiantly.
"And you agreed," Hermione reminded him; "Besides, I have already said what I needed to say and we only wait on your response."
Fudge sat in thoughtful contemplation before he finally answered; "While I cannot deny the proofs you have given me I cannot, in good conscience..." he never got to finish his sentence however as Ginny sent him to sleep.
Hermione looked to the Auror in the corner and noted his surprise, oddly however, he just nodded once then turned to face the wall. When she looked to her father, she saw the cause... he had motioned for him to do so.
"Well, that's unfortunate," Hermione commented as she stood and went to stand beside the now softly snoring Minister; "I knew it was a slim chance but I was really hoping he'd cooperate..."
She placed her hand on the back of his neck and entered his mind. Unlike Severus' well organized mind, Fudge's was an open book. "This," Hermione couldn't help but to think to herself, "Is the man they choose to lead us?"
She took a look to determine what he planned to do next and what she found concerned her deeply. Not only had he decided not to help, he planned to interfere. Unfortunately, his plans were yet unclear. She shook her head slightly, then quickly hide everything from him but the knowledge of Tom's return. If he truly wanted to walk the path of ignorance, who was she to interfere? Best to let him hang himself with it.
Hermione opened her eyes and looked to her father.
"The good news is he's not under anyone's influence," she informed him.
"Somehow that is not reassuring," Albus replied.
"Well there's more, but I'll share it at the meeting," Hermione said then looked to Ginny; "We'll wake him then wait outside, okay?" Ginny nodded and stood. They both walked to the door, Ginny sending a short burst of energy at the Minister to wake him before leaving.
They walked out into the waiting room and took a seat.
"How bad?" Ginny asked quietly.
"Very," Hermione replied vaguely and shook her head. Not only did she have a feeling he intended to extend his influence to Hogwarts, she had confirmed that he had been taking bribes from old Lucy for years. In fact, without his financial support, it was taking every last bit of cunning he possessed to hold onto his office as it was.
Albus joined them a few minutes later and motioned them to follow. They didn't say a word until they reached the Atrium again.
"We have some time before we need to be at the bank," Albus told them as he looked at the time.
"Can we stop by Diagon Alley? I wouldn't mind touching base with Mr Besom," Hermione replied.
"I believe we can do that," Albus replied as he walked them over to one of the public Floos.
They arrived in the Leaky Cauldron, exited immediately into the magical shopping district and headed for Quality Quidditch Supplies. Albus waited outside while the girls entered the shop, Mr Besom smiling broadly when he saw Hermione enter.
"Well, if it isn't my little money-maker," he said jovially as he went to shake her hand.
"I take it business is good then?" she asked.
"Better than ever," he smiled; "But more than that... the ideas you have given me, Miss Granger... I haven't been this excited by my work in years."
"That's good news indeed," she replied warmly.
"And you Miss Weasley, are you still enjoying your broom?"
"Very much so," Ginny smiled and blushed slightly; "It's absolutely effortless flying..."
"They are at that," he replied, then looked back to his silent partner; "I've been thinking... perhaps I should offer you more of a share..."
"That really isn't necessary, I'm only giving you ideas, you're the one making them a reality," Hermione replied generously.
"Yes, but I wouldn't have the work to do without the ideas," Mr Besom countered.
"Touche," Hermione replied with a grin; "How goes it with the two orders I sent you?"
"The Firebolts will be delivered on Friday and I should be able to find enough Nimbuses for the school by the fall... you still wanted a hundred of them?" he asked uncertainly.
"I do," she replied.
"Well the shop owners I have contacted have been more than happy to give me a good deal on their remaining stock in exchange for the right to sell the Purpleheart Wood brooms," he advised them, "While I am tempted to keep them to myself, having other retailers selling them, now that they are so popular, only makes sense," he smiled broadly; "It was definitely a lucky day for me when you decided to walk into my shop Miss Granger."
"You got my latest ideas for our special project?" Hermione asked.
"I did," he replied, "The first prototype will be ready in a few weeks."
"Excellent," Hermione replied, smiling. "That's the first thing to go right today."
"Well, I hope it starts a trend," he replied; "Something, it seems, that you're good at."
"Well, thank you, Mr Besom," Hermione said as she went to shake his hand; "I look forward to meeting with you again over the summer..."
"As do I, my dear," he replied genially.
As soon as they regained the sunlit street Ginny asked; "Why so many for the school?"
"They're being discontinued, the Nimbus, best to snatch up as many as we can," Hermione replied.
When they entered the bank a few minutes later they found a small group of people waiting for them, all of them expected. Madam Amelia Bones, the Director of Magical Law Enforcement and technically, Nym's boss, Nym herself, of course, along with Luna, Fleur, Minerva, and Morgan.
"Ah, I see you've arrived Miss Granger, if you'll all follow me?" Griphook said as he approached them.
"Thank you, Griphook," Hermione replied, then she and the others followed him down a long hallway to a lift. When the elevator doors finally opened again, they found themselves in a lantern lit hallway, Griphook leading them to the very end of it.
Hermione stifled a chuckle when she realized that, not only could she read the Goblin plaque on the door, but that it read 'War Room', when they entered however, it looked like anything but it's title.
The girls were drawn to the paintings that covered the length of the hall depicting many of the Sisters deeds... some of them almost exact duplicates of paintings had Luna had done over the summer.
"I told you," Fleur said quietly.
They turned as one at the clearing of the throat and approached a Goblin they assumed to be Gringott. He smiled broadly, sank to a knee, then kissed each of their hands before rising again.
"Please, sit, we have much to discuss," he said warmly.
"Director, I mean no respect, but I am curious, why you have placed wards around this room specifically designed to impede our gifts," Hermione asked as she took her seat.
"That, Miss Granger, was my idea," said Amelia Bones; "While I can understand you have a great many questions, there are many we can't, at this time, answer."
"But I don't understand why you felt the need," Hermione pushed.
"To be blunt, Miss Granger, I know everything about you and your friends' ability to have people entrust you with information they might not otherwise," Amelia smiled; "I have no illusion that I am your equal but this way at least we won't share any information you're not prepared for."
"I know it hardly seems fair," added Gringott; "Were it up to me, I would have approached each of your families the moment you were born... but Fleur was adamant, you need to experience the things you are experiencing as they will prepare you for what is coming..." Gringott smiled; "Please understand, the wards around this room will only impeded your passive abilities... you will still be able to tell if we are being truthful or not... but everyone here is adept at detecting your abilities and will not allow you to use them if you were so inclined."
"Director, if you believe that I would willingly use my ability forcibly on someone I consider an ally... well you don't know me nearly as well as you think you do," Hermione replied flatly.
"My apologies, I meant no disrespect... I was merely informing you of the limits of the wards," Gringott explained.
"None taken, Director," Hermione replied respectfully.
"Would you care to tell us what happened with Fudge?" Amelia asked.
Hermione sighed deeply.
"He's going to be an issue," she shook her head; "He believes the proof we gave him but refuses to believe what that proof means. He has utterly convinced himself that this is all merely a ploy by my father to make him look foolish and eventually take his office," Hermione shook her head; "But he's just smart enough to be subtle about it," she continued, Amelia smirked slightly at her assessment of the Minister. "He hasn't had enough time to actually plan anything but I think he's hoping you can't find a Defence teacher for next year."
"What do you suggest?" asked Albus.
"If he wants to try to put a spy in Hogwarts... let him," Hermione replied to their surprise. "We've already successfully unmasked one spy and this one we know is coming... if nothing else it will be one more step to get him replaced with someone actually willing to do the job correctly and not just in his own self-interest."
"How do you come by this information?" Amelia asked carefully.
"We knocked him out and I took it from him," Hermione replied evenly; "I'm sorry Madam Bones... he may not be willing to acknowledge it, but we are at war... it is not something I enjoy doing but it needed to be done along with hiding all but that he has seen evidence of Tom's return," Hermione paused a moment, then added; "It was his choice to remain ignorant of what we are doing and it will be his own undoing... not to mention his many shady dealings both with Lucius Malfoy and those he wanted influenced."
No one at the table could repute her claim and so remained quiet.
Hermione looked to Gringott; "Do you still have Pettigrew's body?"
"Would there be any way to repair it enough to make it clear who it is and see his Mark?" she asked.
"There is," Gringott smiled; "What did you have in mind?"
"A little display aimed both at Tom and at Fudge," Hermione replied with a glint in her eye. "After we leave for France display his body in Diagon Alley... preferably in much the same way you did Malfoy's."
"That's just evil," breathed Nym; "And, oh, so perfect..."
"Well ,I found it interesting that news of Malfoy's condition was never made public knowledge," Hermione said, her tone speculative; "If Fudge is manipulating the media... well, this would be an awfully big display to miss..."
"Isn't it a bit macabre?" asked Amelia.
"Perhaps... but few would understand the significance," Hermione replied; "It is more important that it be public than the public need to know what it means..."
"You truly are the mastermind of this little operation aren't you?" asked Amelia in amusement.
"No, Madam Bones... I merely speak for the four of us," Hermione replied a little dismissively.
"To be fair, love, you were already brilliant before you began seeing from our viewpoint as well," Ginny said as she reached for her hand, Hermione blushing at the compliment.
"Well, on to the next order of business," Gringott said, calling their attention to him and the small pile of papers that were now in front of him; "This is all the information I know that I can share with you at this moment..." he smiled slightly at their disbelief; "While there are things I can't yet share, I think you'll find you'll learn more than you were expecting," he said mysteriously as the parchments magically flew to each participant.
Hermione flipped through them eagerly, the most curious of which was the one that described what their new vests were capable of, smiling when their speculations about Harry were confirmed.
"Since we're handing out paperwork," Amelia said, drawing their attention and handing each of the four girls several parchments each.
As Hermione looked at each one her astonishment grew. The first was an Animagus license, the next an Apparition license, followed by special permits to do underage magic and allowing to carry more than one wand.
"Although the license may not appear that way, they are already signed," Amelia informed them; "The moment you prove to either I, Albus, Minerva or Tonks that you are capable..."
The girls shared a smile and then stood from the table.
"Well, how about we get one out-of-the-way, right now?" Luna suggested before all four of them shifted. While the assembled were impressed by their ability, it was Fleur's transformation that drew the most attention.
"I've never seen anything like it," Amelia breathed as she rose from her seat and went to take a closer look at Fleur.
"That is because she is neither an Animagus or a Veela... she's both," explained Hermione after shifting back.
"Are you able to fly?" asked Albus.
"I've only tried for a short distance, but yes," Fleur replied as she resumed her usual form.
"Veela fire?" asked Amelia, Fleur nodding her response, "And magic?"
"In the maze, although I had transformed due to my rage when he threatened Luna, I believe a used a Stupefy to get Junior off me," Fleur replied.
"You're being too humble," Hermione teased her; "Her Stupefy sent him about twenty feet and into a hedge..."
"Amelia? May I call you Amelia?" Hermione asked, Amelia nodded with a smile; "Just seems silly to be formal when you know all about us and we're obviously going to be working together... while I appreciate the Animagus licenses, our forms aren't much use to us if they're a matter of public record."
"And that is why they will not be in the public record," Amelia replied; "they will remain in my possession unless they are needed."
"In other words, in case we get caught?" asked Ginny.
"Precisely," Amelia replied, then looked to Minerva; "I understand you will be teaching them Apparition this summer?"
"I don't know that I've taught the three of them anything for more than a year," Minerva replied dryly; "But I can certainly remind them..." she joked.
"Ah... so you've already learned of the knowledge you already possess," Gringott said, thoughtfully.
"We suspected as much," Hermione replied; "It would certainly explain why everything has come so easily to us since we were reunited."
"So what are your plans, Hermione?" asked Amelia.
"You know everything about what is going to happen, why don't you tell me?" Hermione countered.
"We don't know what the future holds," corrected Gringott; "The records Fleur gave us have only appeared to us when we have needed them," he smiled; "Trust me, you are not the only ones who have occasionally wanted to strangle your former selves."
"You just quoted me!" Hermione said in shock, exasperated when Gringott looked distinctly guilty about something; "Just how have you been listening in?" Before he could answer, however, Hermione asked a follow-up question; "Does this have something to do with why the Fae won't let us visit the Sister's cabin?"
Gringott wasn't sure how to answer as he looked from the two Hogwarts' staff members before meeting Amelia's eyes; "Will you forgive me for not telling you sooner?" he asked.
Amelia was at a loss for words, not once in twenty years had she felt that the Goblin had ever been less than honest with her. If there was something he hadn't told her, there had to be a reason.
Gringott took a deep breath before he explained... of all the things they had already discussed and were yet to discuss... this, this was most dangerous to his kind.
"You were correct in assuming that your guard has been using the area accessed by the Sisters' cabin, you were wrong in believing they were living above ground... or, for that matter, that they are alone," he paused as he let that sink in; "Far beneath the Forbidden Forest lay the true home of my clan..."
"But the Treaty..." spluttered Albus.
"Do you really believe that we would have agreed to such a treaty if we did not already have a better place to live?" Gringott asked rhetorically; "No... my ancestors moved there shortly after they met with Fleur... we have been there since before Hogwarts was built and, when the Founders arrived, we recognized the first sign as three of the Sisters had returned, as they said they would, to found a school."
"Your clan? They built Hogwarts?" asked Luna.
Gringott smiled and nodded; "Have you never questioned the magic of the doors that take you to your quarters?" asked Gringott.
"We assumed it was something Minerva and my father came up with," replied Hermione.
"Hidden tunnels in the walls combined with magic created by Rowena and Helga," he replied to their awestruck faces.
"Is there a way we can use them to get around the castle without having to go to our quarters first?" asked Ginny.
"I'm actually surprised you didn't figure that out yourselves," replied Gringott, "Just think of your next destination and you'll be taken there," he smiled; "Quite simply... we built the school to withstand the final battle nearly a millennium ago and have improved upon it ever since."
"The final battle?" asked Minerva, her voice a little shaky.
"Are you really surprised, Minerva?" asked Hermione; "Given what we just heard... it only makes sense... a place that holds a piece of most of the hearts of magical Britain?"
"And great significance to both Harry and Tom," Albus added.
"Not to mention, us," added Ginny.
"I can understand why you would keep this secret from me," Amelia said quietly.
"But why sign a treaty if you had no intention of following it?" asked Hermione; "Why risk all out war?"
"Because the treaty was only made necessary by other small clans jealous of what we had," he replied; "They had heard tales of the place we call home, but when they refused to abide by our laws and our ancient oath to help the Sisters, they were turned away," he shook his head; "My people have never desired to carry a wand but we would, someday, like to live openly among magic kind."
"Gringott, pardon me for saying this, but your English is impeccable," Fleur commented.
Gringott looked, almost fondly to Amelia, "Like your elf, Rue... I have learned thanks to spending a great deal of time with a very intelligent witch," he explained then looked back to Fleur; "But, I think you'll find, that more of my kind are like me than the mask we present to wizard-kind... you four, of all people, understand the need..."
"So you act as we expect you to act?" asked Luna, who knew all too well about that particular mask.
"More than that," Hermione said slowly; "They act on our behalf."
"Because, despite your many similarities to your fore-bearers, you are not them," he replied; "Yes, you've heard some of the stories of the races they helped... what Fleur failed to tell you is the retribution they took on those that had caused the harm."
All three younger girls looked to Fleur in surprise.
"Why didn't you tell us?" asked Luna quietly.
"I did, to some extent," replied Fleur defensively.
"The point is," Gringott said, getting their attention again; "You are not the Sisters... you are better than them... you proved that when you saved Draco's life."
"Just how bad were they?" Ginny asked quietly.
"They were as voracious in their punishment as they were in the defence of the defenceless," he replied; "No prisoners... if you were guilty, if you participated, even if it was against your will... you suffered the same fate... whatever damage they had done was inflected upon them... no questions asked."
"They would have let a boy die?" asked Ginny.
"Yes," Gringott replied simply but, seeing the look of dismay on their faces he added; "They were, to those they deemed worthy, unfailingly kind and generous, but they saw everything in terms of black and white..."
"We always look for the reasons behind someone's actions before condemning for them," Luna surmised.
"Exactly," Gringott replied; "But more than that... it is what will make you more than they ever were."
"You were right," Hermione said quietly; "You have told me more than I expected."
"But don't you see, Hermione? It is the reason we could not interfere... you had to go through the experiences that you have in order to become the remarkable young women you have become... the kind of people who will only resort to fighting darkness with darkness when every other option has failed," Amelia explained.
"It's why they were killed, isn't it?" asked Ginny; "Their lust for revenge?"
"They called it justice," Gringott replied, "But yes... why do you think they would retreat to their cottage for long periods of time?"
"They were being hunted?" guessed Luna, receiving a nod from Gringott.
Hermione rubbed her face with her hands.
"All this... all of it..." she said, barely above a whisper; "We are their attempt at redemption..."
"And it is why you are so willing to give it to others who have earned it," Gringott replied.
"Speaking of earning... how is it that you approached our former selves and convinced them to bequeath their money to the cause?" asked Hermione.
"I'm sorry," Gringott said; "That was a slight distortion of the truth... much of your wealth comes from the wards we provide, as it was the Sisters who first taught us to make them. You have also received a portion of the bank's profits since its inception."
"Let me guess, the bank was their idea too?" asked Ginny.
"It was... they knew you would need funding, but it was also a magnificent way to keep in contact with your race," said Gringott.
Hermione looked at the time and noted it was closing in on noon and that she was due to meet Molly in a couple of hours.
"Thank you for your candor today, Gringott... we do appreciate it," Hermione said.
"A few questions before we call it a day?" asked Amelia, Hermione nodded. "Has Rita agreed to write for us?"
"No... but she has agreed to letting us use her name with the stipulation that she receive a copy of every article," answered Albus as he took something from inside his robes, two acid green quills, and handed them across the table to Hermione; "She thought they would make it easier to replicate her style," he explained.
"I've already written the first article, would you like to see?" asked Hermione as she reached into her bag again. She took out a single parchment and waved her hand over it to make enough copies that everyone could read it and then, after passing them out, sat back to watch their reactions.
"How did you know that was what I had planned?" asked Gringott.
"You already gave me an example to go by," replied Hermione.
"No offence, Luna, but this is too big for the Quibbler," Amelia said, a smirk on her face. "If I didn't know Rita didn't write this I wouldn't know... I think," she smiled; "it's time I start using my contacts on the Prophet... at least until Fudge finds a way to pull the plug."
"You really think you can do that?" asked Hermione.
"I do... more over, I understand the timing... you'll be in France and there is no way you could have anything to do with it," replied Amelia; "I knew you were brilliant... I didn't expect you to be so cunning."
"The only snag," Hermione said as she looked to Nym; "Is if Nym would agree to be Rita Skeeter just long enough to get a few pictures."
"I'll need to get some clothes or, could I just my magic?" Nym asked.
"I'm not sure how it would react to the camera," replied Hermione.
Amelia withdrew the Monday edition of the newspaper and handed it Hermione... on the second page was a picture of her and a grinning Harry. More importantly, she looked the age she was supposed to be. She handed the paper to Nym, who smiled.
"Well, that simplifies things," replied Nym.
"Don't stick around any longer than necessary... get the pictures and get out, okay?" Hermione asked her, trying to not sound like it was an order.
"Yes, Ma'am," Nym replied with a salute.
"Your safety is my priority, so sue me," Hermione said seriously.
"No, I understand," Nym assured her; "Besides, you really think I want to pretend to be that hag any longer than necessary?"
"You had other questions, Amelia?" prompted Luna on Hermione's behalf when she felt her mounting tension.
"Yes... how old are the three of you now?"
"Let's check," Hermione replied and cast the spell over each of them. "It's slowed again... like, a lot..." she said, dumbfounded, if the diagnostic was correct they had only aged a day since last time they checked before the night of the second task. Once she explained her shock to them, she looked to Gringott when she heard him chuckle.
"Well, it's nice to know the vests work," he explained; "You were correct in your theory as to Harry's ageing and your own... it's amazing, really, how more often you are right, than wrong... but, as you know, everything is for a reason..."
"You wanted to make sure Harry would be able to draw from us," Hermione concluded.
"And you needed to be strong enough to allow him... even the, um, physical aspects of what has happened has been necessary... you may not have realized this yet, but Harry drew more from the four of you than he did Tonks or Morgan... because of your bonds..." Gringott explained.
"I can't believe I missed that," Hermione said quietly.
"You're bound to now and then," Ginny teased.
"But what happened to the energy he took from Tom?" asked Nym.
"He shared it with me when he got back," Morgan replied and looked up to their shock; "I was tired, but as soon as I put my arm around his shoulder, I started feeling better," he explained; "And I've felt dirty for days... the thought of Tom's magic inside me... I can't imagine how Harry feels..."
"Why do you think he hasn't been told?" said Hermione.
"Would it make you feel better to know that magic is neither inherently dark or light... it's how you use it?" offered Luna.
"Slightly," he replied.
"How about... because Harry drew that magic, the last we saw of Tom he was crying like a baby?" offered Hermione.
"Seriously?" Morgan asked.
"Yes... he's quite pathetic," Hermione replied; "I think the greatest danger we face right now, is Severus killing him out of sheer irritation."
"He's really that weak?" Amelia asked, sounding almost relieved.
"I wouldn't bet my life on it, but it almost seems like he has a shred of humanity," Hermione replied. "He still needs to die... even we understand some people are beyond redemption, but he represents a catalyst we can use to start the changes we need to see happen so this doesn't happen again."
"How can you be so sure?" asked Amelia.
"Look up Adolf Hitler..." Hermione replied, drawing a blank look from all but her sisters. "He was a Muggle who was a lot like Grindelwald... actually, come to think of it, they were around at the same time... my point is, a man like Hitler would never be able to commit the same atrocities he did then... yes, racism and prejudice still exist, it always will, but there are far too many people who would oppose it now..." she shook her head; "This is why there needs to be a school for magicals to attend before Hogwarts... Muggleborns come in with almost no knowledge of magic unless they have an older magical sibling... Purebloods lack the knowledge the Muggleborns learn in primary school... basic skills, like math and problem solving, but more importantly, history... a magical primary school would even the playing field..." she looked to Amelia apologetically; "I'm sorry, I meant no disrespect... it's just... I can't help but think how much better our lives would be if people had the chance to form their own opinions of others rather, than having them forced upon them... my point was, I shouldn't have to explain who, possibly, the greatest mass murder of men, women and children in Muggle history was."
"Fair enough," Amelia replied, again at a loss for a reply. Hermione might twenty-one, but she was far wiser than even that.
"On that note," Gringott said cheerily in an attempt to break the somber mood; "I have one last treat for you before you go..."
Hermione laughed; "Treat? What part of this, exactly, was a treat?" she asked somewhat sarcastically.
"I was speaking for myself?" Gringott offered with a guilty look.
"I'm sorry, Gringott, I shouldn't have..."
"No," he interrupted Hermione; "I can understand how some of what you have learned today has been unsettling... it was my poor attempt at lightening the mood... I was only going to show you your vaults, but there is no rush," he smiled; "But know that each of the seven of you have open accounts at all the shops in Diagon Alley."
"Thank you, Gringott, that makes things much simpler," Hermione said gratefully. "Can you have fifty thousand pounds exchanged into French currency for me? Maybe have Nym bring it to us before we leave Friday?"
"No need, it is already done," he replied as he passed her a large leather bag,
"Thank you, again," Hermione replied as she stored it in her bag.
"Shall we call it a day then?" asked Albus.
"Before my head explodes?" Hermione joked.
"You're not the only one in danger of that, my dear," Albus replied as he rubbed his temples.
Hermione looked at the time, then looked to Nym; "We have a little time, maybe a drink before we go?"
"Sure," Nym replied with a smile.
"Don't let her have too much?" asked Ginny; "Wouldn't want her to go see her parents drunk."
"Two, tops, and I promise to limit myself to Butterbeer," Hermione promised as she kissed her temple; "I just need to clear my head before I see them..."
"I can understand that," Ginny replied sincerely, then kissed her briefly.
Hermione looked to Fleur and Luna; "No more than three bottles of mead before I get home?" she joked.
"Should be easy without you there," Ginny joked back.
Hermione looked to Amelia who was shaking her head and laughing lightly.
"I'm sorry... it's nice to see that you still manage to have a little fun," she told them.
"We have to," Hermione replied with a shrug as she and everyone else went to stand. "Create enough light and the darkness suddenly doesn't seem so bad..."
Nym said her goodbyes then went to wait by the door to give Hermione a chance to do the same in private. That was her intent, but she couldn't help watching the object of her affection from afar. She should feel like an idiot... taking Hermione to see Molly... her getting married should be the last thing she should want. She smiled, "Yes," she thought, "Because anything about this is normal..."
Maybe she should take it for what it was... a chance to spend a little time alone with Hermione away from the school. As Hermione turned and walked towards her, she couldn't help but think she'd made the right call.
As they left the bank Hermione laced her fingers with Nym's, the latter turning to her in surprise, "Should we be doing this in public?" she asked.
Hermione smiled and led her to a reflective window, Nym not recognizing the beautiful woman holding her hand in Hermione's place. She looked to Hermione then back to her reflection... in her place stood someone just slightly taller than Hermione, with long light red hair and faint blond streaks. Her hair now perfect soft curls. Perhaps most startling was her dark green eyes and realized where Hermione had drawn the inspiration for her disguise. She was, almost a perfect combination of all four women she loved, right down to Nym, who saw her own eyes staring at her from Hermione's face.
"You like?" asked Hermione nervously.
"I do, but," Nym all but growled before looking back to Hermione and seeing her true form; "this," she said as she cupped her face, "this I adore..." she kissed her.
Hermione looked at her watch, "We've got an hour... how about that drink?"
They walked to the Leaky Cauldron, each of them lost in thought, Nym leading her to a private back booth, then going to order their drinks. Hermione put her face in her hands and began rubbing it. Even though Ginny had teased her about the drinking it really had just been a try to lighten the mood... Ginny might not know what was going on, but her head was just as full with new information as hers was... she understood the need to slow it down.
Hermione opened her eyes at the sound of the Butterbeer bottles being set on the table, frowning when she saw the shot glasses.
"Firewhiskey... I know I need a shot right about now," Nym confided.
Hermione kissed her softly before picking up the shot, toasting Nym with it, then downing it in one go.
"Oh, that's vile," Hermione said as she choked and reached for her Butterbeer to calm the burning in her throat. " You could have warned me," she said as she bumped her shoulder into Nym's.
"Where's the fun in that?" Nym joked, pleased when Hermione chuckled.
Hermione rubbed her face again; "God, Nym... what am I doing? I'm so not ready for this."
"Hermione Jean Ariana Granger Dumbledore," Nym smiled; "Is that the right order?" Hermione shrugged. "You are, hands down, one of the bravest people I know," Hermione looked unconvinced, she didn't feel overly brave at the moment. "You are!" Nym admonished; "You have faced a pissed off mother dragon, scared the silk of an Acromantula, and scared more than that out of the Minister of Magic... you can do this..." she said fiercely.
"It's different, Nym," Hermione said as she broke her eye contact and looked back to her drink and took a sip; "None of those matter to me as much as this," she shook her and smiled just a bit; "Besides... have you ever seen Molly really angry? Much scarier..."
"You might have a point there," Nym joked, then kissed her temple and pulled her head to her shoulder; "You can do this," she repeated; "Just remember why you're doing it and you'll find the right words."
Hermione looked up and met her eyes before kissing her softly.
She stared into her eyes a moment longer; "I shouldn't have asked you to take me to see Molly," Nym pushed her away, then leaned back against the back of the booth, her arms across her chest in defeat. "No, Nym..." Hermione pleaded as she went to kiss her softly in reassurance. "This can't possibly be easy for you," Nym seemed to deflate in front of her eyes; "I know how you feel about me because I feel the same for you... you shouldn't have to sit here and try to give me courage to face Molly... I'm sorry."
"No, Hermione... I've always known what I was getting into," she sat forward, closing the distance between them and cupping Hermione's cheek; "In a weird way, this benefits me," Hermione looked sceptical; "It'll be easier for Ginny when she has solid proof that you are hers forever," she kissed Hermione softly; "I'm just here to help make your present a little more interesting and I will always be, first and foremost, your friend."
"I love you, Nym," Hermione searched her eyes a moment, "You have no idea how important you are to me and I just worry that you'll get hurt..."
"I know you'd never do it intentionally."
"But still... if I ever ask you to do something that makes you uncomfortable, even if I push the issue..."
"I'll let you know," Nym kissed her forehead. "Now quit stalling and finish your drink..."
"Yes, dear," Hermione replied sarcastically, then kissed her. "Thanks, Nym, you're the best..."
"Don't you forget it," Nym replied smiling.
"Plan to show you later," Hermione whispered in her ear.
"Deal," Nym replied throatily. "Now finish your drink..." she urged then downed her own.
Hermione mimicked her actions and they made a race of it, Nym only winning due to the fact that she had a head start. Hermione burped loudly and went beat red as she covered her mouth with her hand.
"Sexy," teased Nym, "Better now than in front of Molly..."
Nym got up from the table and held her hand out to Hermione before leading her to the Floo.
"What are you going to do?" Hermione asked.
"Stay here... wait for you to come back," she replied, then kissed and hugged her; "You'll be okay, Hermione..."
"God, I hope so," Hermione said with a sigh as she let her go and turned to face the fireplace. She quickly sent a message to let Ginny know she was stepping into Floo, then took a deep breath and pinch of the green powder. She stared into the flames a little while longer, nodded her head, then stepped into the flames. As she watched the wizarding homes flashing by, all she could think was; "Either way... I'll know..."
A/N 2... I hope you'll forgive the cliff hanger but I wanted a bit of light after a somewhat heavy chapter... hopefully my longest chapter ever makes up for it ;-).
A/N 3: Thanks to Mylon and HBT for inspiration, along with the countless ideas from too many fics to remember or mention, except for one, She Who Turns Time... although my Hermione's disguise has a different origin you might recognize her description if you're following that story... thanks CherriMarina for the permission...