Sixteen

Thirty of the world's most revered artists, writers, entrepreneurs and scientists were seated at the long, black wooden table that took up most of the Malfoys' central dining hall.

Thirty of the world's brightest were wishing dearly that they had not felt the characteristic sting emanating from the miniscule chip implanted in their forearms.

Thirty of the world's favored were terrified, giddy, or both.

Riddle quietly regarded his Death Eaters from his seat at the head of the table, running his gaze lazily over their hooded forms.

His eyes rested on the lean Death Eater seated to his right. Although the heavy black fabric shrouded most of his facial features, the Death Eater's pale cheek and mouth were visible. The Death Eater studiously studied the dark grain of the table, the epitome of collected grace.

Riddle smiled and, not taking his eyes away from Lucius's spawn, called, "Draco."

Draco's mouth tightened almost imperceptibly, and Riddle's smile widened. Riddle could feel Lucius's gaze flitting between the two men; good. Lucius held too much standing to attack the Malfoy patriarch directly, but his son? His son would do just fine.

Draco turned slowly. "My lord."

Riddle leaned back against the plush leather armchair, resting his long legs carelessly on the expensive wooden table. He saw Lucius flinch out of the corner of his eye and, glancing at the man disdainfully, made no move to change position.

When Lucius looked down submissively, Riddle turned his attention back to the Malfoy spawn. The boy's pale, almost colourless eyes stared back at him, a flicker of unease appearing in the grey depths.

"Do you know why I have called this meeting?" Riddle asked. The room was utterly silent, heavy with the weight of his question. Thirty of the world's most opinionated, most vibrant intellectuals...all cowed into submission. Even Lucius, the richest man in the continent, was defeated. He allowed himself another satisfied smile. His worries had been unfounded, then; he'd thought Lucius was on the brink of dissent, but here he was, as reluctantly subservient as ever.

Draco paused, clearly uneasy, before saying, "I assume it is to discuss the Australian plane crash, my lord."

Riddle slid his feet from the table. The plane crash had been an unfortunate occurrence and the start of his nagging suspicions about the obedience of his group. He hadn't ordered Fletcher to bring down the plane; such a crude display of violence was pathetically mundane.

Fletcher had either mistakenly assumed he knew Riddle's plans or someone else had ordered him to complete the act. Either option was worrying; if his Death Eaters began acting without his explicit command, then there would be utter chaos. If someone else had ordered Fletcher to do it...well, that was even more troublesome, for it meant someone had ambitions to assume a leadership position.

He allowed none of his disquietude to appear on his face.

"And when did this crash occur, Draco?" he asked quietly.

Draco swallowed visibly, but his voice was steady. "A few weeks ago, my lord."

Riddle saw Goyle, a particularly dim-witted and untalented man, shift out of the corner of his eye. Goyle was solely useful for his girth. Riddle doubted he'd be able to perform even the simplest of capers. Still, Goyle's stupidity meant his features were difficult to read. He was just dim-witted and foolish enough to place his ties to Draco over Riddle, and that would not do.

"Goyle," he snapped.

The man blinked sluggishly, his small eyes darting from Draco to Riddle.

"Y-yes, my lord?" he stammered nervously.

Good. At least Goyle had enough sense to feel fear.

"If I intend on addressing an event, would I wait several weeks before doing so?" Riddle asked.

Goyle hesitated before shaking his head.

Riddle lazily picked at nonexistent lint on his pristine charcoal sweater.

"Is that a no, Goyle?"

Goyle threw a panicked look at Draco. Riddle's hands twitched, his jaw clenching. Goyle still depended on Draco; he'd have to change that.

Riddle surveyed the table. Most of his Death Eaters stared rigidly ahead, their faces shrouded in their black cloaks. The few who dared look at him bore expressions ranging from fevered devotion to sheer horror.

He paused on the woman sitting to his right. Bellatrix fairly quivered with excitement, her dark eyes gleaming.

Ah, Bellatrix. Her prior act of foolish independence - warm brown eyes and frizzy hair flashed through his head, and he angrily banished the thought - was irksome, but her devotion was unquestionable.

"Bellatrix," he said. "It appears there is incompetence among these ranks."

Bellatrix looked haughtily at Draco and Goyle. "Do you want me to take care of it, my lord?" she asked eagerly, drawing a small, sharp knife from the deep neckline of her shirt.

Goyle and Draco paled. They'd seen enough results from Bellatrix's experiments to know the danger they were in.

Riddle watched them carefully. The line between fear and reckless defiance was thin; he couldn't push them too far. Still, that didn't mean they could go without punishment. Maintaining eye contact with the Malfoy spawn, he inclined his head.

Just as Bellatrix's knife was about to touch Goyle's flesh, however, the fool wrenched himself away. Riddle was about to order his immediate death when the boy fairly leaped across the table and jerked Draco into a chokehold.

"I can punish him, my lord!" Goyle shouted desperately, spittle flying from his lips.

Draco's eyes bulged, his hands scrabbling helplessly at the thick arms encircling his pale neck.

Riddle held up a hand, halting Bellatrix, and regarded the display with considerable amusement.

The Malfoy spawn was bright red by now, his breaths rasping in and out. Narcissa Malfoy was deathly pale beside Lucius, and Lucius's hand was tightly coiled around his wife's arm.

Good. Let them see who was in charge.

Riddle let Goyle sweat for another long twenty seconds, thoroughly enjoying his increasingly apparent panic, before waving his hand.

"My lord?" Goyle asked hesitatingly.

"You may let go," Riddle said softly.

Goyle disentangled himself from Draco, who promptly slumped, unconscious, to the ground. Narcissa let out a small cry, but she did not leave her seat.

He turned to his Death Eaters. "We are here," he said silkily, "to discuss the Deathly Hallows."

He'd first heard of the Deathly Hallows as a twenty-year-old. He'd initially dismissed it as a children's fairytale, but as rumour after rumour began surfacing over the past few years, he'd gradually come to accept them as a valid possibility. Judged by the shocked, hesitant silence following his declaration, his Death Eaters still believed the Deathly Hallows were fiction.

No one voiced confusion, however; Riddle's prior display had reminded them of their place.

"I assure you, my loyal brethren, that the Hallows are very much real. I have heard word from several reliable sources of their continuing existence. The cloaking technology, the stone, the scepter - all exist."

Bellatrix let out an eager, hoarse laugh. "This is fantastic, my lord! With them, we can finally show the world our might!"

Riddle inclined his head, a smile playing on his lips. "Correct, dear Bellatrix," he said, feeling generous.

Bellatrix's blood-red lips pulled into a grin.

He turned back to face the Death Eaters. "Now, the cloaking technology and stone are paltry in comparison to the scepter. The scepter contains enough fodder to blackmail every government official on the planet. With it, we will be unstoppable. Once we get hold of the world's governments, the other two will fall into place."

He allowed the excited chatter to rise to a crescendo before raising his hand once more. The room instantly quieted.

"We will begin," he said, "by taking out Scrimgeour. He has been Minister for far too long, and I believe it is time for a change of scenery."

The crowd roared its approval.

"And after that, my lord?" Bellatrix asked breathlessly.

He smiled, surveying his followers. He had waited, dormant, for far too long. It was time for the world to see Lord Voldemort's true power.

"We feast."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Hermione sat rigidly on her chair, pushing her roasted asparagus spears around the cheerfully painted ceramic plate.

"No, no, they ought to marry this spring! Imagine - there will be flowers, and the garden will be blooming. You can save money by having the ceremony at the Burrow!" Molly Weasley said excitedly.

Hermione's hand froze, and she steeled herself for a pang of envy that, surprisingly, never came. Instead, all she felt was annoyance - not at having been dragged to the Weasley-Potter dinner or even at having to hear Ronald's wedding plans discussed in detail over chicken and potatoes but at Jude.

Although it had been a full week since the gallery incident, she was still deeply furious. She couldn't believe his nerve; how could he have abandoned her in the exhibit like she was some excess baggage to be dropped off at the earliest opportunity? Besides, he hadn't even bothered to contact her after the incident. She'd be willing to forgive, say, a family emergency, but he seemed to have vanished completely without a word of excuse.

She scowled down at her plate, stabbing a fleeing spear with vehemence.

She should have seen it coming; he was too good to be true. Intelligent, charismatic, and well-read? He might as well have arrived in a gift-wrapped box labeled "HERMIONE'S DREAM."

She huffed, bringing the vegetable to her lips and chewing angrily. Well, she didn't need him. He'd been a distraction, really. His departure had only made her more determined to get back on her feet. She'd sent her resumé to all the top teaching institutions in Great Britain and had even tried contacting some of the prominent publishing houses in London - not that she had anything publishable yet, but she thought it would be beneficial to begin making some contacts. She'd heard back from one so far, Scrivenshaft Inc., and had been invited to a release party later that night.

A hand landed on her forearm, and she looked up distractedly to see a worried expression in Harry's eyes.

"Hermione? You alright?" he whispered. "You know, with all-" he gestured subtly towards Ron, Lavender, and Mrs. Weasley, who were still engaged in deep conversation "-this?"

She nodded. "Oh, yes, of course," she said distantly.

He frowned.

Hermione let out a breath, banishing all thoughts of the dark-haired man from her mind, and said firmly, "Really, Harry. It's fine."

He nodded slowly, patting her arm affectionately, before letting go.

"Molly, this chicken is really delicious," he said loudly.

Molly paused, smiling kindly. "Why, thank you, Harry, dear," she said.

Harry grinned. "Really, it's a wonder I'm not twenty kilos overweight by now."

Ginny laughed. "Mum, he's buttering you up in the hopes of getting some of your treacle tart," she said.

Hermione looked down, smiling. She'd missed this - sitting around, eating good food and laughing with her childhood friends. This was how the past year should have gone - no tangled distractions of relationship drama. Just pure friendship.

So she watched, laughing, as Molly brought out a beautiful treacle tart and Harry fist-punched the air in excitement.

When the conversation turned towards her, Hermione Granger was proud to say that she did not falter once. She met their eyes squarely and, jutting her chin forward, explained her well thought-out plan to achieve success as an English professor.

The Weasleys murmured words of encouragement and the conversation shifted back to Lavender's health.

After Harry had polished off the treacle tart, Hermione thanked Molly for the meal and apologised for her early departure.

The Weasley matriarch smiled kindly. Relations between Molly and Hermione had been...strained, to say the least, after her breakup. Molly had sided with Ron, of course - how could she not when he was her son? Still, Hermione was glad that there was no lingering bad blood.

"Thank you again, Molly, but I really must go. I have a work event, and-"

"Ah, of course. Hermione and her work," Ron interjected, but his words lacked venom. Instead, he offered Hermione a tentative smile. Lavender came up from behind and rested her head on her fiancé's shoulder. He looked at Lavender affectionately, pressing a kiss on the top of her blonde head.

Hermione let out a long breath. Although his barb, however benign it may have been, had hurt, she knew he hadn't meant it in that way.

Still, she couldn't quite bring herself to hug him goodbye. Instead, she waved and hailed a cab to Cho and Cedric's flat. She would need to borrow something suitable for a formal cocktail reception from Cho.

When she arrived at the modest condominium, she was greeted by a loud yapping.

The door swung open, revealing a harried-looking Cho and, below her, a rather large puppy, which bore a striking resemblance to an oversized, wheat-coloured cotton ball.

"Er...hello," Hermione said, watching in vague horror as the dog proceeded to lick her bare leg with obvious enthusiasm.

"No, Cracker!" Cho shouted, scooping the wriggling puppy into her arms.

A tall, good-looking man came up behind her, bearing a tattered purple chew toy.

Cracker, spying the toy, wrenched himself out of Cho's arms, grabbing the rope toy deftly as he fell.

Spying Hermione, Cedric offered a tired smile. "Hullo, Hermione," he said.

Hermione stood, frozen with disbelief, before muttering a distant greeting. Then, turning to Cho, she said slowly, "Cho. Since when do you have a, er, dog?" Really. "Cracker" resembled a miniature bear, if anything. She didn't even want to consider what he might look like in a few months.

Cho beamed, clapping her hands together. "Since yesterday, actually. Cedric and I saw poor Cracker sitting along the side of the road and decided to take him home. Isn't he adorable?"

Hermione eyed the puppy, who was now shaking the rope toy vigorously on the ground. She'd always been more of a cat person. She thought longingly of the dignified orange cat she'd left in her flat.

"Er...yes," she said.

Cho's smile widened, and she looped her arm around Hermione's. "Oh, come off it - don't worry, I know he's a right beast," she said good-naturedly. "Anyway, let's see about getting you a nice dress."

Cedric laughed warmly, turning to Hermione. "Careful - she's been planning this all day," he warned.

Cho rolled her eyes. "Not all day," she said. She reached up to press a quick kiss to Cedric's cheek before motioning for Hermione to follow.

She led Hermione through the navy blue corridor, which Hermione noted was trimmed with pale yellow accents - Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff.

Their bedroom shared the same colour scheme. An elegant, simple and form-fitting wine-coloured cocktail dress was draped on the double bed. Cho strode towards her dresser and rummaged through the top drawer, withdrawing a thin dark gold necklace.

Hermione accepted the jewelry hesitantly. "You don't have to lend me this," she said as the smooth metal dipped sinuously between her fingers.

Cho shook her head. "No, I do - the dress requires it," she said firmly.

"Thank you," Hermione said.

Cho smiled and, stepping out of the room, said, "I'd better make sure Cracker hasn't eaten Cedric alive by now. Don't forget to come out once you've changed!"

Hermione nodded. She shed the sensible jeans and blouse she'd worn to the Burrow - she always acquired at least three new stains when she was there, and she'd long since learned not to wear anything too uncomfortable there - and slipped into the dress.

She caught a glimpse of herself in Cho's mirror. The woman in the mirror was strong. Confident. She straightened, imagining her upcoming conversation with her hopefully-future publisher.

She'd thank the editor - Ivan Scrivenshaft - for his time, at which point he'd praise the paper she'd submitted on the impact of disjointed timelines on character development and offer her a job immediately.

Well, perhaps that wasn't the most realistic of outcomes, but she could always dream.

Hermione grabbed the necklace and headed to the living room.

Later, after she'd saved her shoe from a grisly, puppy-related death, she walked the short city block from Cho's flat to Gringotts. Although it was unusual to host a publishing party in the lobby of a bank, the author they were celebrating had released a book focusing on monetary currency. Or, at least, that was what Hermione assumed; Scrivenshaft's OWL mail had failed to mention who or what they were celebrating.

Warm light from the open doors spilled onto the dark sidewalk. Hermione took a deep breath and ascended the wide marble stairs.

A sharply dressed waiter offered her a glass of champagne as soon as she'd passed through the stone archway. She accepted it distractedly, her sweaty fingers pressing against the cool glass, as her gaze traveled rapidly over the milling crowd before her. A group of musicians coaxed silken music from elegant string instruments to her left. She scanned the expansive lobby, searching for a display of the author's books - wasn't this an event to celebrate said book? - but found none.

Hermione frowned; she'd hoped to at least flip through the book before plunging into the crowd, but it appeared she had no choice. Still clenching the now-lukewarm champagne glass, she searched for Ivan Scrivenshaft's severe profile.

She found the elderly publisher deep in conversation with a man whose back was turned to her. She hesitated - should she interrupt them? - before plunging forward determinedly, her eyes focused on Scrivenshaft's stooped form. She wasn't a Gryffindor for nothing, after all.

She inserted herself into the conversation as neatly as she could, given the circumstances, and thrust her hand towards Scrivenshaft.

The wizened publisher blinked at her confusedly, his pale eyes blurred behind his thick glasses.

"Hello, Mr. Scrivenshaft. My name is Hermione Granger; we spoke earlier via OWL," she said crisply.

Scrivenshaft was beginning to offer his own hand (albeit with much hesitation) when she heard a low, smooth laugh directly above her left ear.

Hermione froze, hardly noticing when Scrivenshaft returned her handshake.

She felt a flurry of emotions ranging from anger to - unfortunately enough - pleasure. She squashed that last emotion down stubbornly, steadfastly ignoring the annoyance to her left. Hermione supposed it wasn't too much of an oddity to encounter him at a publishing event. After all, he was a professional author. Still...why did he have to be speaking to her publisher (well, her preferred publisher)?

She wouldn't let him ruin her professional dreams. As far as she was concerned, Jude could do whatever he liked as long as he didn't interfere with her business.

"Hermione! What a delightful surprise," Jude said. His voice was as charming as ever; she'd never met anyone with as much charisma as he.

She barely glanced at him.

"Yes," she said placidly. "Delightful."

Author Note: thanks for reading! all reviewers will get a teaser of the next chapter c;