"Excuse me, Mistress."
Hermione looked up blinking. Alex was standing patiently in front of her, waiting. It had been his voice that had interrupted her.
"Master Malfoy asked me to tell you that a Mister Potter has arrived."
"Oh! Is it three already?" She could have sworn she had only just sat down. She looked around blinking, trying to get her eyes to focus. "When did Draco leave?"
Alex started to chuckle but smothered it quickly. "Excuse me, Mistress. Master Malfoy left almost immediately after you sat down."
"Oh, Alex, my house burned down. Draco is graciously letting me stay here while I look for a new place to live." She explained quickly repeating the lie that they had told the public.
"Actually." She paused but decided the elf should know the truth. "Draco and I are working together. Honestly, I'm not the new Mistress."
Alex looked at her with a small smile and a shrewd look. "Are you not?"
"No, I'm not," she stated firmly, not wanting to argue with the learned little elf.
"My mistake," he said with a small bow. "Master Malfoy is waiting for you in the downstairs study, Mistress."
And before she could scold him, he disappeared. With a huff and a scowl, she gathered up her numerous notes and made her way to Draco's study.
When she walked in, Harry was already there. She couldn't help but smile on seeing him and quickly set down her scrolls on the desk in front of Draco. As she turned around to greet Harry properly, she was scooped up in a hug.
The sudden movement brought on panic, and despite the familiar smell and feel of him, Harry's well-muscled arms felt more like a cage than a comfort. Forcing herself to exhale, she willed herself to calm down. This was her best friend, her brother, the one person who had always been there for her. She wouldn't allow one violent act to change how she felt and acted. Her heart had seized in her chest, and she was finding it hard to breathe.
Harry drew back, noting the stiffness in her small body. Looking down at her face, he cursed himself for being twelve thousand kinds of fool for pushing himself on her after all she had been through. He had seen the effects that similar attacks had on their victims: the fear of physical touch and feeling of being restrained. He pulled back quickly.
Draco wanted to throttle Potter for doing something as stupid as grabbing Hermione. He was having trouble restraining himself from growling at the sight of his mate in the arms of another man, and the scent of her fear permeated the room as she tried in vain to cover her distress.
Before Harry could open his mouth and make the situation worse for her, Draco stood up and moved to the sitting area. "You Gryffindors and your constant need to paw at each other! Sit, so we can get this over with." His tone was disgusted and impatient, laced with scorn.
He transfigured one of the two arm chairs in front of the fireplace into a chaise lounge and sat. Hermione surprised him when she quickly drew away from Harry and sat next to him, much closer than the size of the chaise dictated, her trembling making him want to take her in his arms and comfort her but not wanting to anger Potter and make a bad situation worse. Possessiveness and satisfaction flooded him as he felt her breathe deeply and relax, leaning into him slightly.
Harry watched as Hermione sat less than a hand width from their childhood nemesis. He was conflicted at the sight of his previously self-assured, confident, and brave friend— no sister—barely hiding her fearful tremors and seemingly taking solace in the cold and arrogant man they had hated all through school. He was hurt she wasn't able to take comfort and reassurance from him, furious that whatever had happened last night had shaken her so badly, and puzzled she might be finding any kind of support in a man as emotionally vacant as Draco appeared to be. And yet, Harry was also grateful there might be someone Hermione could find comfort in at all.
"What happened last night?" Harry drew his attention back to the current situation.
Draco watched Hermione draw a shuddering breath out of his peripheral vision. She wasn't ready.
"I received an invitation to a private gathering of the Dark Court, a ball given in my honour, and I was asked to bring my new pet. A portkey was delivered by owl with the instructions that it would activate at eight o'clock last night. I provided Hermione with the appropriate attire and at the stroke of eight, we arrived at a castle. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing where it was located, but from the preparations, it appears they use it as their primary residence and centre for their operations. From what I saw, all the top members were in attendance." Draco outlined all the people he had seen and the events that had taken place. He was concerned when Hermione paled at the mention of the pit fighting and looked like she might bolt at the recollection of the torture of the Muggle woman.
Harry's fury built as he heard Draco dispassionately recount how he had made Hermione crawl like a dog and sit at his feet as if begging for table scraps. He surged to his feet and opened his mouth to start venting his anger.
"Harry, sit down please," Hermione said quietly.
Her calm tone and the pale pleading look on her face drained the anger out of him. He had known they would have to do some horrible things to ensure their cover. If Hermione was calmly asking him to sit down, he would. He could hex Draco Malfoy later.
When Harry sat back down, Hermione took a breath and began recounting her memories of the previous evening. "Harry, they're all alive. Almost everyone we thought was dead is alive. Dean, Luna, Seamus...And Harry – Harry, Fleur is alive."
Harry's mouth fell open. He knew how much the Weasleys mourned the loss of Fleur. How much Bill was struggling to raise their daughter on his own. They had found a body—her body.
"But her body..."
"It must have been a polyjuiced corpse. It was her. The Death Eaters like to collect the unusual and famous as their most prized slaves, which is why Draco was so welcomed last night," Hermione explained.
Draco casually leaned back, adopting a relaxed pose: ankle resting on his knee, arm draped along the back of the chaise so he could feel the heat from Hermione's back ghosting over the top of his hand, her hair occasionally brushing his fingers.
"Hermione is known as the Mudblood Princess in the Dark Court. She's been their intended target for some time. My taking her made me somewhat of a hero. It should make things much easier from now on. I've already had one offer to purchase her." Draco looked at Hermione and she could see the revulsion in his gaze.
Harry was stunned. He knew the Death Eaters were keeping slaves but until he heard one of them wanted to buy his best friend, it hadn't really hit home.
"Is that why Zabini was here this morning?" Hermione asked.
Draco nodded. He could see her wheels turning.
"What are you thinking 'Mione?" Harry asked. "I know that look."
Hermione started rustling through her stacks of parchment. "What did he say to you Draco? How did he act?"
"He seemed angry that you were chained in the dungeons and had clearly been toyed with."
Both Hermione and Harry looked at him; Harry looked alarmed.
"But I didn't leave my room this morning," Hermione said confused.
"I had Kreacher pretend to be you. Apparently, as a House Elf, his inherent magic allows him to impersonate people rather convincingly; he took it upon himself to chain himself to the dungeon wall after rolling in the mud and generally making it appear as if he, or rather you, had been roughed up a little. Zabini offered me over twenty thousand galleons for you, and when I refused, he got angry and told me that you would be no good to anyone dead. He claimed to have dozens of slaves," Draco explained.
Hermione was rifling through her papers and stopped abruptly when she found the one she had been looking for. "I listed the people I recognized by how injured they appeared to be and the brands that they wore. Dean wore Zabini's brand, and Luna wore Nott's, yet they seemed to be in perfect health. Luna, I'm sure, saw right through my act but helped me. The two of them seemed to be almost in charge of the slaves, distributing food, caring for the injured. I'm sure I saw Luna doing wandless magic at one point. Zabini and Nott seem to treat their slaves rather well. I can't say the same for too many others."
"Alecto Carrow complained that Zabini always bought the 'best' slaves and rarely brought them around to entertain," Draco mused. "And last night he seemed to almost support me, seemed to make it easier for me to keep you safe."
"Could he be working against the Death Eaters like us?" Hermione wondered aloud.
"There's no way to know for sure. Factoring in Nott, we'll have to work off the assumption that he's one of them until we have evidence otherwise," Harry said. "The likelihood of two known Death Eaters working against the Dark Court isn't high."
Draco nodded. "Agreed."
"What else do we know about the slaves?" Harry asked.
Draco thought for a moment. "From what I saw last night, only half-bloods and Muggle-borns are sold and kept as slaves. The more rare the mixed blood, the more valuable the slave. Your friend Fleur is quite the prize because of her Veela blood. Zabini won her from Nott just last night for a huge sum in a card game. Not near as much as I was offered for Hermione, but still a lot of galleons. Muggles aren't kept at all, only killed for sport."
Hermione frowned, thoughts racing across her face. "Who else changed hands last night?"
"I didn't recognize the names but the way they were talked about led me to believe they were worthless due to poor health. They were used as wagers in the game as well. I believe Nott won three or four of them. He was still complaining that acquiring them didn't make up for losing Fleur to Zabini." Draco said. "I think they were won from Alecto and Morcott."
Hermione gasped. "They weren't just in poor health; they were dying. I didn't recognize them all, but Dennis Creevey was one of them. Luna and Dean were doing everything they could to help, but without wands and a proper Healer, there wasn't much they could do."
They spent hours going over the information they had gathered, making lists of Death Eaters, slaves who wore what brand, possible locations, and plans for how to proceed. It was decided that Hermione would return to work the following day accompanied by Draco. Harry would make it appear as though he had left to go back overseas to supervise the operations there, when in fact he would be hunting down and placing the Death Eaters under surveillance. The invisibility cloaks that Draco had given them had had Muggle tracking devices sewn into the linings for Harry to track later.
It was time to go hunting for the mole, so they could free their friends and possibly end the war once and for all.
The next morning, Draco escorted an outwardly composed Hermione through the Atrium of the Ministry. The destroyed Fountain of Magical Brethren had been replaced with a more accurate depiction of all the different races. The Magic Is Might monument had been the first thing to go after the war.
Instead of the House Elf, Centaur, and Goblin looking up to the witch and wizard in adoration, they were depicted as working and happy. The statue was larger now as the figures of Giants, Werewolves, and Merpeople had been added when it was remade and stood for the hope that all the races could someday be united in harmony. Draco couldn't help but sneer slightly at the new figures of the fountain and Hermione caught it.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
"Fine," he said as he arranged his face back to the usual arrogant mask he normally wore.
When the lift doors opened onto the 2nd floor that housed the Auror Office, they ducked reflexively, dodging the purple interdepartmental memos that were waiting. Hermione and Draco were met by a bubbly auburn haired woman who was about their age. She was Hermione's height but carried considerably more weight and had a bright simpering smile plastered on her face.
"Oh, Ms Granger! We're ever so glad to have you back! Unfortunately Mr Potter had to go back out into the field, although I'm not at liberty to say where. Everyone in the office was so sorry to hear about your house and all your things! Such an unfortunate accident. Oh! My!" Her chubby hand went to her mouth in a show of surprise, her annoying ramble had come to a screeching halt when she noticed Draco at Hermione's elbow.
"Who is this...person?" Draco drawled out, not having to fake the distaste in his voice. The woman reminded him of a short, squat Rita Skeeter: all fake concern and subtle digging. He hadn't missed the woman insinuated that she alone knew where Harry had gone or that she wasn't at all upset to hear about Hermione being the victim of arsonists and attempted murder.
"This is my assistant, Alma Wattfreed. Alma, may I present Lord Draco Malfoy," Hermione said automatically.
"Oh, Lord Malfoy! It's such an honour to meet you! I had no idea that Ms Granger was connected in such high places. I mean, a man of your station could have his pick of the Families' daughters! Why just the other day-,"
Before Alma could subtly insult her anymore, Hermione interrupted. "Do you have the day's schedule, Alma?"
"Yes, of course, Ms Granger," Alma said snippily, handing over a leather folder.
As Hermione opened it and perused her appointments she casually looked up. "Alma, what is the date today?"
Hermione flipped through her paperwork seemingly absorbed and let out a sigh. "I was afraid of that. Merlin, I hate this time of year. Please pull the personnel files for the entire department; I have to get started on the annual performance reviews."
"Yes, Ms Granger," Alma said, still standing there making cow eyes at Draco.
Hermione looked up. "Now please, Alma."
Alma pursed her lips and walked away.
"How do you put up with her?" Draco murmured.
Hermione let out a sigh. "She belongs to the Administration department and as such wasn't my hire. Of course that means I can't fire her either and unfortunately she does her job well enough that I can't complain and have the job done for me. She also comes with the 'highest recommendations' which ensures her assignment to the most demanding department—my Department. Harry pawned her off on me the minute he met her, hence the reason he spends so much time out in the field. She clings when he's here. He calls her a 'blood chaser'. Something about being attracted to Pure-bloods?"
Draco grunted. "Some people follow pure blood families like muggles do the British Royal family. They're social climbers looking to align themselves with famous or well-bred witches or wizards. I believe muggles would call them gold diggers?" Hermione smirked but nodded. "I take it she's a half-blood?"
Hermione shook her head. "Actually, no, she's Muggle-born like me. It explains why she's so slow to help me but scrambles whenever Harry comes in. Ridiculous."
The two of them made their way past the cubicles to Hermione's office, which was located to the rear of the department. She had one of the only two corner offices on the floor, which had large picture windows on two of the walls that depicted the real weather outside, several floors above them in Muggle London. Her desk was large and stacked neatly with books, piles of parchment, scheduling charts, foe glasses, sneeakoscopes, ink, quills, and a strange, square, black metal looking object that had small blinking lights around the outer edges.
"What is that?" Draco asked pointing to the strange object.
"My laptop." At the blank expression on his face she tried to explain. "A computer? Kind of like your cell phone but with far more capabilities. I was able to make it work around magic by coating the inside with a shielding potion."
Draco shook his head. "As convenient as my cell phone is, I will never understand the muggles' need to complicate things. There is something to be said for tradition."
Hermione smiled and sat behind the desk. "I'll use the performance reviews as an excuse to take a closer look at the employee files and see if I can narrow our search for the mole."
"It has to be someone who travels frequently. He would have to be able to come in, get the information, and leave without drawing any notice," Draco thought out loud.
Hermione frowned. "The problem with that is the Aurors are the only ones who come and go with the degree of frequency that would be required. And they don't have the clearance necessary to gather information on random muggle-borns and half-bloods."
Draco raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
"After the war, when Harry and I took over the Department, we were horrified at the information that the Death Eaters had amassed. Having the Ministry at their disposal enabled them to build files on over 90% of the muggle-borns and half-bloods in the country. In the first two weeks of the Taboo curse, it was policy for the Death Eaters to listen in on conversations before making the arrest. Subsequent torture provided copious amounts of information: family trees, locations, ages. The files were huge and became the basis for the…" Hermione's voice trailed off.
"For the Muggle-born Registration Commission," Draco finished.
"But Aurors don't have access to those files and the Register was destroyed," Hermione murmured, deep in thought. "But the files themselves must actually still exist and someone is accessing them."
"I'll leave you to your research. I'll be back at half five to collect you," Draco said, rising to his feet. "If you need me before then, send an owl."
He saw her look up in alarm, and he moved to stand at her side. The privacy of the office made it easy to give in to the urge; he ran the back of his fingers down her cheek. "Will you be alright?"
Had it been anyone else that asked that question, she would have taken it as an insult and immediately gone on the defensive to deflect the supposition that she was weak. But this was Draco, her dark angel, her protector and now it seemed, her partner. He was leaving and she would be alone at the Ministry looking for a mole in her department. What if the mole realized she wasn't Imperioused? Would they try to kidnap her again? Would they just kill her this time? Or would she be handed over to Rudolphus Lestrange as his personal slave? What if they went after Draco before she could warn him? She tried to shake off these thoughts. She was Hermione Granger for Circe's sake. She could do this. She could.
Draco saw her chin give a minute quiver and knew she wasn't as strong as she wished herself to be.
"I'll be fine," she whispered but Draco wasn't convinced.
He reached out to the torc around her neck, and she gasped drawing back, holding her hand to it.
"Shh…I'll give it right back. I promise," he murmured.
Hermione dropped her hands but was obviously not comfortable with him taking it. Draco took his family signet ring off his hand and placed it on the desk within the circle of the torc.
Modifying the Protean Charm, Draco linked the two pieces of jewellery together and set a trigger word. The torc and ring glowed brightly for a moment.
Once the glow subsided he rehung the torc around Hermione's neck. "Touch it and whisper 'Draconis'. My ring will let me know that you need me. If you feel the torc heat up around your neck, go to the Hog's Head. Aberforth will know what to do." His thumb stroked her jaw line softly.
"But..." Hermione did not like the sound of that.
Draco cupped her face fully in his palm. "No, Hermione. I need you to do this for me. It's important. I know your Gryffindor instincts will tell you to rush to my aid, but in this case, staying away from me and getting to Aberforth will do just that. Promise me," he said, looking steadily into her eyes.
Hermione nodded and took the ring off the table. Taking his right hand in hers she slid it onto his ring finger and whispered, "I promise."
"Good girl." He kissed her forehead and stepped back. "I'll see you later."
Draco left the Ministry and Apparated to Hogsmeade where he went into the Three Broomsticks. He made his way to the bar, tossing some sickles on the counter buying a butterbeer and a pasty. After eating, he casually went to the toilets and pulled his wand, carefully transfiguring his high end robes to something less conspicuous and concealed his looks with a few well-placed glamour charms. The man that left the toilets of the Three Broomsticks bore little resemblance to Lord Draco Malfoy.
No one took any notice of the plain looking, brown haired wizard that walked into the Hogs Head that afternoon. They took no notice of him as, halfway through his firewhiskey, he appeared to make his way to the toilets. Nor did they notice he bypassed the entrance to the toilet and instead made his way to the cellar.
Draco shrugged off the worn and battered cloak and sank wearily into a large armchair that sat near a warm fireplace, his disguise fading away and turning back into the fair-haired aristocrat he was. The fire was the only illumination in the darkness of the cellar that served as the home of the inn's proprietor. Draco ran his hands over his face rubbing tiredly.
"It's risky, this scheme you're runnin'," said a gruff voice out of the darkness.
"Shouldn't you be minding the bar, old man?" asked Draco, not looking up.
A deep chuckle came from the grey haired old man, who faintly resembled his goats that he loved so much. "I'll know if someone steps up to the bar. That lot is so deep in their cups, it'll be a miracle if they awake before dark."
Draco looked up with a rare small smile. "You learning astral projection now, Aberforth?"
"Nope, when the front door opens, the hog wags its tail," he said, gesturing up to the strange taxidermy mount of the rear half of the warthog whose head hung in the main bar upstairs.
"I always wondered why you had a pig's ass end hung in your cellar. I thought you were just losing your mind." Draco leaned back and rolled his tightly wound shoulders, trying in vain to release the tension.
Aberforth looked at the man in front of him, concern creasing his face.
"When was the last time you changed?"
Draco huffed out a breath. "Too long. It's been too risky."
The old man grunted but said nothing.
"Do you think it'll work?" Draco looked up. "My plan?"
Aberforth crossed the dark room and lowered himself into the chair across from Draco with a low groan. "Like I said, risky. But, I do think it'll work. Provided you make it out alive."
"It's complicated," Draco started say but was interrupted.
"The girl." Aberforth snorted at the glare he received. "Don't look at me like that, pup. I may be old, but I'm not blind. I've seen the way you've looked at her over the years. Only met her the once, but I was impressed. Everyone talked about how clever she was. Didn't prepare me for the intelligence I saw in her eyes." He huffed out a grunt. "Explains why my brother took to her." He refocused on Draco. "If anyone can help you, it would be her. How is she?"
Draco pushed to his feet and started to pace. "She has nightmares, hates to be touched. She'll never use her wand hand again."
"Nothing that surprises me. What I meant was...how is she with you? Has she forgiven you?"
Draco sat back down with a sigh and ran his fingers through his hair. "That's the amazing part. It's like she never felt the need to. She saw way more than I ever thought she had over the years. Now it seems the only touch she can tolerate is mine. I'm sure it's only because I rescued her and that we're working together." Draco looked up at the only man he truly trusted with tortured eyes. "I love her."
"Just figured that out, did you?" Aberforth said with a laugh.
"Shut it! You know what I mean. The mating pull was there, but I never expected to love her like this. She's so strong and yet at the same time so fragile. I want to protect her but at the same time, to do that, I have to put her in danger." He let out a growl. "I've never been so conflicted."
The old man grunted. "Girl's been in danger since the day she started at Hogwarts. Running from one scrape to the next, always busy trying to keep those two nitwit friends of hers out of trouble. At least Potter could hold his own; the other one always was more guts than skill. Now that she's by your side, you'll be better able to protect her."
"Protect her? I took her to the center of the Dark Court! She-"
Aberforth interrupted. "She came out alive and unhurt, which is better than any other time she's gone into a dangerous situation before. Give yourself some credit, boy. Your plan didn't let anyone lay so much as a finger on her. With Potter, she would have ended up in St. Mungos – that red-headed buffoon would have gotten her killed."
"Yeah I'm a real Mugwump – I only traumatized her instead of landing her with a Healer," Draco said bitterly.
"You need to run." Aberforth stated. "You're getting irascible."
"Which brings up a whole other problem. Even if we make it out of this, win the war once and for all, how do I tell her what I am? What am I to her?" Draco's eyes were tortured. "I've never had to tell anyone before. I've been conditioned since birth to never tell."
"She's an intelligent girl. Maybe she'll figure it out," Aberforth said softly.
"Like you and your brother did?" Draco let out a huge breath. "If she comes here?" Draco asked looking up at Aberforth, a question and plea in his eyes.
Aberforth didn't let him finish. "I'll protect her. You have my word."
A/N: Some more major clues...what will you few but loyal make of it? I would love to hear your guesses! Reviews are love, people.