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Chapter 1: Chapter the First
Chapter the First
All was well, but only for so long. The seed of discontent grows swiftly, taking root in the hearts of those too used to the sweet taste of adventure, and of danger. The bearers of these hearts cannot rest, cannot look upon their successes with more than a passing nod – they cannot be allowed to rest. Their minds are overtaken with the memories of what had been, and whatever has happened since falls to the wayside.
It was a life of contentment for two-thirds of the wondrous Golden Trio, but for the third, the world was becoming a place of banality, of a great and bitter boredom that ate at the soul. At first, it was nothing more than a twinge in the furthest reaches of her consciousness. Once in a while, she would stop in her daily routine of work and motherhood, remembering some event or another in the distant past, but it never took long for her to become distracted by something or other. What did she need to complain about, anyways? She had her children – too quickly becoming older, in her opinion – and also her job – too quickly becoming more than she could handle, not that she’d ever admit it – as well as her husband... well, not that she’d seen him this past month, not with the Aurors having sent him and Harry out to Albania.
But Hermione Weasley was perfectly pleased with her life, of course. There was nothing to criticise at all. An Auror husband, two children, nice house, successful career....
Thinking this, and mostly convincing herself of its truth, she would continue on with her life until the next moment arrived, each arriving sooner than the previous. Dreams of those who had died, and those who might as well have, increasingly haunted her nights, so that no part of her day was free of the discontent.
“Mummy, can you help me?” Hugo’s eyes were impossibly wide as he held up his knotted-up shoe. Already six, he just couldn’t get the laces to work in his clumsy hands, just like those of his father.
Impatience bubbled in Hermione’s mind, but she took the shoe from his hands with a forced smile. “Of course, dearest. Now watch closely how I do this....”
He grinned when he finally got the hang of knotting his own shoes, and it reminded her too much of how Ron had been back when they’d first met. First year, when he’d insulted her for being smarter than him and a girl; when they’d fallen together as friends so naturally; when she had saved his and Harry’s lives a good number of times, and they had saved hers.
Where were they now, she wondered? Maybe she should have become an Auror too, if only to experience that partnership, that perfection of having an adventure with those whom you loved and who loved you in return. They could be dashing across the mountains of Transylvania after dark wizards, hearts pounding with the thrill of the chase. Nights spent under the stars, just like it had been in their seventh year....
The doorbell rang, clanging through Hermione’s ears.
She checked her watch. Still fifteen minutes until she had to leave, but it had to be Ginny coming to collect the children for their trip to the Scamanders’s. She tried not to feel the prick of envy for Ginny’s situation – the new job that allowed her to actually spend time with her family instead of always carting them off to this relative or another. It seemed that of all the old group, Hermione was the most hard-working witch, not that such a fact would have surprised anyone but Hermione herself. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had been on holiday, whether with her family or with Ron. They’d both been so engrossed in their careers that everything else just fell to the wayside, including their children.
And now Ginny was here, yet Hermione had no idea where Rose could have gotten to. Hugo was beside her, giving her one last embrace before leaping across to catch hold of Ginny’s outstretched hand.
Another flash of envy. The aunt more a favourite than the mother?
“Rose! It’s time to go!” She called up the staircase, anger swelling in her chest.
The only response was a muffled reply from the loo. Probably still working on her hair, great bushy locks of auburn that, according to Rose, required constant attention. Just one week spent with the Delacour women and now her daughter could hardly look away from a mirror without wondering how her hair was sitting or if her freckles were out of place. At least spending time with Luna’s family would make her think of other things, even if they were Crumple-Horned Snorkacks.
An exasperated sigh released itself from Hermione’s tight lips. Were neither of her children going to be like her? Or would they both be bloody Weasleys? The gene pool on his side was unfortunately prevalent.
As though she could read her friend’s mind, Ginny laid a gentle hand on Hermione’s arm.
“I’ll wait for her.” With a smile, she added, “All the Weasleys are late to bloom, Hermione. Remember what Ron was like?”
Those parting words hit hard. How could she forget? Impatience, work, too much, all of it stood in the way of the things Hermione had been, making her into the person she no longer wanted to be. Hate, love, and hate again, but always mixed with love.
Maybe it wasn’t such a surprise that Ron was always away, not with a wife like her.
With a small nod, and another hug for her son, Hermione disappeared into the rising fog. It blanketed everything in its thick, downy mist that reminded her of the cool comforts of the moors, without the noise and ticking clocks that haunted her every minute. The children were going there now, to the place where Luna currently lived with her fiancee. Idyllic was the only word for it.
A motorcar rushed past, splashing puddlewater. Hermione closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Clean robes no longer, nor clean shoes, clean cloak, or anything clean. Only dirt could exist here. Dirt and noise and time and busy lives. No emotion allowed.
Yet why was she so filled with all these emotions? The sudden anger, the strengthening desire, neither was characteristic of her usual self. She did not have the time to dwell on them all day; there were too many other things to do. Silly thoughts, utterly impractical.
Another car passed, and she knew she’d be late.
It seemed that, today, she would relish the long walk into the City. The visitor’s entrance would do well enough, the mist having wetted her through. Damn weather. It was like the sun never shone these days. She glowered all the way to the Ministry, hands stuffed deep in her pockets as she shoved her way into the telephone booth.
She had to peel her cloak off after reaching the Ministry offices. They were clean, efficient, and utterly without character, not that she ever noticed the latter of these. Today, the drab-coloured walls suited the rainy skies appearing behind her window. You’d have thought that they’d at least make the weather look sunny all the time, if only to increase everyone’s moods. Her own mood was darker than she cared to admit.
“Good morning, Mrs. Weasley.” Her assistant was exceedingly perky at the worst of times. A little sympathy would have been more appreciated. “Lovely day today, isn’t it?
The inter-departmental messages were piling up in one corner of the room, crashing into one another in order to be the first in line. She ignored the flicking of their paper wings for nearly half an hour before they edged too close to her desk to be ignored.
“Ma’am?” her assistant peeked around the doorway, pushing her spectacles further up her beaky nose. “There’s an urgent owl from the Head. Needs to see you right away.”
Lips setting in a firm line, Hermione looked up from the first message she had chosen to read. “Did he give any details?”
The young witch shook her head. “Nothing at all. Only that you had to see him now... which was...” she looked down at her watch. “About seven minutes ago. The emergency owl got stuck in the lift.”
Some emergency owl that must have been.
“He wants you to meet him outside of Court Room five. There was another hearing this morning for Mr. Hagrid, ma’am.”
No surprise there, really. Another petition for having Norbert returned, perhaps?
Hermione looked over at the messages. Their wings flapped harder as they seemed to realise the situation, all pushing around those in front so as to catch her attention. One fluttered around Hermione’s head, opening its wings wider and wider so that she could only see glimpses of the words it contained.
...can’t return just yet... –ry doing fine, but misses you, too... only way to reach you... trouble with the owls...
Her hand shot up to grab the message, her fingers unashamedly flattening out the paper wings to read the letter from Ron. Why he would insanely trust a message to her to the interdepartmental system was beyond all logic. But that was his way of doing things. Shoving aside the other letters and her assistant, Hermione hurried down the corridor and into the lift, eyes never leaving her husband’s letter.
Of course it wasn’t very interesting in the least. Ron’s prose would get him nowhere in the publishing world, but more often than not, the way he chose to word things amused her. His funny way of trying to say he missed her and the kids, or how he tried to describe his missions without giving anything away (and rather doing the opposite). He prattled on about the dark wizards of Albania and some sort of vampire league without the slightest hint of discretion. The letter ended with a scrawled signature and an absence of love sent home.
It had been the same for many letters now.
A jostling arm pushed into her side. The lift was now full. What floor?
The lift voice rang out. “Level Nine: Department of Mysteries and the Court Rooms.”
“Excuse me!” Hermione pushed her way out, failing to keep Ron’s letter from becoming more crumpled. Not that it mattered, all the others she’d kept from him were in worse shape. Too many lonely nights.
The other witches and wizards moved aside, grumbling; no others exited with her.
It was a gloomy place. The corridor was long and narrow, continuing past the equally narrow stair – she would have to complain about its lack of proper accessibility, how had Hagrid managed to fit through there? She’d been down this way too many times for her to count, so many cases of abused house elves, even in this enlightened age.
The shadow of a further, darker past when she had been here protruded in the back of her mind, reminding her, once again, of this morning’s restless thoughts.
She went down the stairs with speed. Not because the Head was awaiting her, but rather because she wanted to be away from that place, that cesspool of mystery and darkness.
His form was a menacing shadow halfway down the green-tiled corridor that passed along the Court Rooms. The robes he wore did nothing to improve upon his bulk; they only succeeded in making him appear three-and-a-quarter inches shorter. How he’d gotten the exact measurement, Hermione could not fathom, but his complaints were often heard throughout the department.
“Ah, Mrs. Weasley, finally. Did that dratted owl get stuck again?” He had an exceptionally high voice for a wizard, just another of his eccentricities that made him the most laughable of department heads. “That’s the third time this week.” He let out a dramatic sigh.
“Sorry to have kept you, sir.” Her voice remained firm; she’d long gotten over her desire to laugh at everything he said. “I came as soon as possible.”
He nodded profusely. Come to think of it, everything he did was profuse. “Now your friend Hagrid really knows how to get himself stuck in a load of dragon’s dung, doesn’t he? This is the sixth time he’s made this petition, you know?”
Of course she knew. Hagrid was always pleased to gabble on about his quest to retrieve his precious dragon. It was always a worry of hers that he didn’t quite realise just how large Norbert (she couldn’t think of the dragon as Norberta without a giggle) had become in the last two decades. But Quigley had not called her down here to chat about Hagrid. The drops of sweat on his brow bespoke of deeper, more significant matters.
If the matter was that serious, she would let him talk of it in his own time. Standing here was an improvement over having to read all those blasted messages.
Euripides Quigley scratched his fuzzy grey scalp. “There is a reason I asked you to come down here, Mrs. Weasley.” He glanced to the left, then to the right, up the corridor, then down again, before leaning towards her in a conspiratorial manner.
“There is a certain... little... problem I need you to investigate.”
A problem in need of the House Elf Liaison Officer? Had Winky appeared drunken and disorderly to the students of Hogwarts? Was Kreacher over-polishing the heads of his ancestors over at 12 Grimmauld Place because he was missing Harry again? No, no, if it had Quigley hiding out in the Court Rooms to give her the details, it had to be something serious, something he did not want to be overheard in their cramped offices.
She closed her eyes, awaiting his next words.
“There is word that a house elf has been found dead in Malfoy Manor.”
Why oh why hadn’t she taken the week off and gone with Ginny and the children?
“And you must go down there before the newspapers hear of it and clean things up. You remember how delicate anything to do with... with...” his lower lip trembled. “Those people can be. You must tread carefully, Mrs. Weasley, but with your... your reputation.... You are the only one who can do this, I’m sure of it.”” The worry overcame his voice, rendering him silent.
In that silence, Hermione began to take on some of her superior’s anxiety. Malfoy Manor, that hovel of whatever purebloodism still existed in Wizarding Britain. Yes, the Malfoys had officially thrown off the cloak of darkness, but nothing, not even the new world that had come after Voldemort’s defeat, could change their blood nor their brains. The marriage alliance with Astoria Greengrass had done nothing to alter their twisted system of beliefs – it, or rather, the dowry gained from it, had, however, allowed them to regain their place among the wealthiest Wizarding families of the world.
She could say “no” and he would accept it; that much she was allowed. But there was her reputation, that of the saviour of house elves, one who actually cared about the pathetic creatures. Now one of them was dead. That dead body screamed for justice, and only Hermione would bother to answer its call.
Oh Merlin, now she was sounding like Harry.
Turning her attention back to Quigley, she saw the relief in his face and knew that her expression reflected her acquiescence to this assignment.
“When should I depart, sir?”