Chapter 31 : Everything to Lose
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Ron’s limbs were heavy with exhaustion as he slumped up the uneven path towards the Gaunt Shack. The first rays of daylight were beginning to pierce the overgrown thicket that surrounded him, but all he wanted to do was land someplace soft for a couple of hours. He desperately hoped that Hermione was no longer angry at him. Whatever it was that upset her, he reasoned that she should have had plenty of time to stew on it. After many years of marriage, they had both developed a strong preference for talking through their problems rather than staying anrgy at each other for days on end. And Ron hoped that she wouldn’t mind if he laid down and closed his eyes while she did most of the talking.
After she had angrily dismissed him the day before, he had spent the rest of the day and the entire night searching fruitlessly for Nott, Goyle, Gamp or any of the other known members of the New Blood Order. He tried a number of pubs that they had been known to frequent before they were thrown into Azkaban. When that turned up nothing, he paid unannounced visits to several of their old Hogwarts housemates. His late night calls didn’t turn up any useful information, although he did get a heartfelt apology from Lucian Bole for the time that he clubbed Alicia Spinnet during a Quidditch match in Ron’s third year. Apparently Bole believed the incident had something to do with why Ron had suddenly appeared in his bedchamber and hung him upside down from the ceiling.
Ron took a deep breath and stepped into the portal. When he reappeared inside the attic, he found Hermione sitting in a wooden chair at the small desk, reading the book that Terry had taken from the Blood Order warehouse. He winced involuntarily, thinking what the book might have cost them. If Terry had left the book where he found it, Lady Tenabra might not have realized that her headquarters had been compromised, which in turn meant that she might not have felt the need to protect it, in which case Rose and Octavia might have been out of danger by now. As tired and worried as he was, he still realized that there were an awful lot of “might’s” in that chain of thought. Terry had done what he thought was best. Now they had to deal with the aftermath.
Hermione looked up at him and he searched for signs of her mood in her brown eyes. She appeared weary and sad, with a good dose of nerves. They stared at each other for a long moment before Ron finally broke the silence. “So you’re completely over the wheelchair, then?”
She nodded slowly, still looking very unsure of herself. Setting the old book aside, she reached for the lone crutch leaning against the side of the desk and pulled herself unsteadily onto her feet. Ron stared in amazement as she took a tentative step towards him while leaning heavily on the crutch. He wanted to run over to her and smother her in a celebratory embrace, but the tongue-lashing he had suffered the previous day gave him pause.
“I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find Nott or Goyle or any of the others. I was going to take a quick kip and then head back out.”
“George sent me a message late last night,” she replied, sounding distant. “He said that all of the surviving members of the Order met, along with half of the D.A. They decided to fortify the Burrow and prepare for a fight. That, and he was concerned about you.”
Ron felt a flash of annoyance at his brothers, but the more he thought about it, his sudden departure after their failed assault on the Blood Order warehouse might have left them with the wrong idea. At the moment, however, he was much more worried about his relationship with the witch standing in front of him.
“Mione, are we alright, you and I?” he asked tentatively. “After yesterday?”
“We don’t have much choice but to be alright, do we? We have to find a way to get Rose and Octavia back.” The tenor of her answer reinforced his uneasiness. It was missing all of the usual warmth. The connection that he normally felt just wasn’t there. Yet as much as it bothered him, he wasn’t feeling quite brave enough to explore the topic.
“You’re standing much better,” he ventured, trying to gauge her reaction. “At this rate, you’ll be dancing soon.”
She snorted derisively in response. “Hardly. If it wasn’t for the spells I found in this book, I’d still be in that bloody wheelchair.” There was a bitter edge to her voice that instantly caught Ron’s attention. He doubted that she was still upset about the wheelchair, as it sat discarded on the other side of the room. His focus shifted to the first half of her response.
“So what else have you found in this book? Anything interesting?”
It was Ron’s turn to feel like he was being scrutinized. He shuffled his feet uncomfortably as her stare seemed to bore through him. “Not much,” she finally replied, looking away. “Mostly just a lot of demented rambling. It was pure luck that I found the right spell to start healing my legs, plus another one to handle the, uh, side effects.”
His concerns grew even more pronounced. Everything about her last response was forced, out of character, just... wrong. The instincts that he had developed over many years of questioning suspects began to kick in. Combined with how well he knew his wife, those instincts were making Ron very concerned about her. He took a couple of tentative steps forward, trying to make eye contact. As he passed the trolley where Susan slept, he bumped it inadvertently. Both of them jumped when the sound of glass hitting the wooden floor boards broke the awkward silence.
Ron caught another flash of anxiety in Hermione’s eyes as he knelt down to pick up two fallen potion vials. He could see a few drops of pale, blue residue in each. “Two vials of sleeping draught? Merlin, that’s enough to fell a mountain troll. She didn’t take this all at once, did she?”
“Oh, those?” Hermione stammered. “No, of course not. She was having trouble sleeping. The pain was bothering her. I was giving her a bit along.”
Ron laid his fingers against the side of Susan’s neck and bent over to listen to her soft, slow breathing. He could see blue stains near the corners of her mouth. “She seems to be sleeping quite well now,” he observed. Ron tried hard to let his training take over and imagine how he would be approaching the situation if the woman standing in front of him was someone other than the mother of his children. Her behavior, the physical evidence and his instincts all suggested that that he had walked into the middle of something very bad.
“What are you implying, Ronald?” Hermione’s voice was suddenly cold again. “That I gave her too much?”
“Did you?” he asked simply.
“Of all the nerve!” she shot back. Ron could see the color rising in her face. “How dare you stand there and second guess my decisions? Why aren’t you out there, looking for our daughter?”
Ron had allowed her to guilt him into leaving the day before. Now he stood his ground, having none of it. “No, not this time,” he replied calmly. “I let you drive me away yesterday, but not again. Something is wrong. I can see it in your eyes, I can hear it in your voice and I can bloody well see it in your actions. Out with it. What’s the problem?”
“The only problem is that you’re still standing here!” Hermione was shouting now. “Get back out there, you miserable coward!”
Ron knew that her words should have hurt, but he was so deeply immersed in his Auror mentality that they simply piled up with the rest of the evidence. The harder she tried to push him away, the more he was sure that she needed help. “Is it something to do with these spells you’ve been using? That book was in the dark magic section, you know. Please, love, tell me what’s happened.”
“It’s nothing, Ronald, nothing!” Her voice was shaking with rage, but he could hear a distinct undertone of pleading. “Get out of here! Go!”
There were tears in the corners of her eyes and her lips were quivering. Whatever was stoking the fires of her anger, it was rapidly losing the battle with stress and sadness. “I want to see this book, Hermione,” he said firmly. “Show me these spells you’ve been using.”
“No. You can’t,” she yelped. The defiance in her voice had grown thin. “I mean, it’s all in runes. You won’t be able to read it.”
“Then you read it to me,” he replied. He started to walk past her, and she stepped heavily to the side, trying to block his path.
“No, Ron, please. You can’t do this.”
He ignored her pleas and stepped around her. The book lay open on the desk in front of him and he could see the ancient runes scrawled across its pages in an uneven, hand-written script. “Now what page were these spells on... blimey!” Ron froze as soon as he touched the old parchment. Terrible thoughts filled his mind as the book’s dark power coursed through the tips of his fingers. He could see Rose and Octavia, lying dead on the floor of a cold, dark room. Ginny screamed and crumbled to the pavement, cut down by the muggle assassin’s bullets. Fred lay lifeless on the flagstones of the Great Hall as their mother sobbed on his unmoving chest. Harry and Hermione...
Ron jerked his hand away from the book and stumbled backwards, bumping into Hermione and almost knocking her down. “Hermione, what the hell is going on?” he stammered, trying to drive the gloom from his mind. “I haven’t felt anything like that since...” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Since the locket.”
“No, Ron,” she replied, looking panicked. “It isn’t anything like that. It can’t be. There has to be another explanation.”
“Well I’d bloody well like to hear it, then!”
“You’re imagining things,” Hermione shouted. “You’re exhausted and delusional. Why don’t you lay down and get some rest?”
“I am not imagining things,” Ron countered. “I think after all we went through, I know a horcrux when I feel one.”
“What are you doing, Ronald?” she asked desperately as he drew his wand.
“I’m gonna try to destroy it,” Ron replied. He had no idea how he was going to go about it, since he didn’t have the Sword of Gryffindor or a basilisk fang handy. Still, he had learned many curses during his Auror career that bordered on dark magic. One of them was bound to work. He felt as though the book was driving Hermione away from him, and he couldn’t bear the thought of it. Once it was destroyed, she would go back to being herself. She had to. Otherwise, Ron knew he wasn’t strong enough to do the things that still needed to be done.
“No! Please, Ron, listen to me!” Hermione stumbled heavily towards him, reaching for his wand arm. Her legs gave way and Ron caught her just before she collapsed to the floor. She suddenly cried out in pain, pulling her legs towards her chest.
“Hermione! What’s wrong? Are you alright?” Ron dropped to his knees and tried as best he could to pull her into an embrace, but she seemed to be pushing him away with all of her might.
“You can’t help me, Ron,” she pleaded. “Nobody can help me! Please, just go. If you’ve ever loved me, just go!”
Ron allowed Hermione to push herself away from him. He was stunned, frightened and more than a little hurt by what she was saying. His attention turned back to the book lying open on the desk and he rose to his feet and leveled his wand at it again. “I’m sorry, Hermione,” he said, “but I have to do this. I can’t lose you!”
Just as he was ready to try to blast the book into a thousand flaming pieces, he heard a low hiss from the floor next to him. “Imperio.” Ron was so shocked that at first he didn’t even think to fight back as the curse locked onto his mind. His wand clattered to the floor as his body turned involuntarily away from the book. In front of him, he watched as Hermione slowly pulled herself back up to her knees and then retrieved her crutch from the floor. Her eyes burned with an anger he had never seen before.
“You just couldn’t listen, could you?” she demanded as she got back on her feet. “Why, Ron? Why couldn’t you listen? Why did you have to make me do this?” Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes and she seemed to be fighting them back as she stalked across the room and retrieved a leather satchel from the nightstand beside the bed. “Pick up the book and close it, then bring it to me.” Ron’s body turned back towards the desk and once again he felt the book’s awful power as he picked it up and snapped it shut. He fought back the terrible gloom that threatened to overwhelm his mind.
As his feet began to turn towards the spot where Hermione stood, Ron focused as hard as he could on his training. He thought back to the first time he’d managed to throw off the Imperius Curse. He was a Junior Auror then, and he had been so angry about the way that Gawain Robards casually toyed with him as they practised. Ron summoned the moment to the forefront of his mind, trying to recapture the sense of purpose and the willpower. After one halting step, he was pleased that his feet stopped moving.
“Don’t fight me, Ron!” He could hear the anger in Hermione’s voice, but also the sadness. The curse suddenly washed over him again, with greater intensity. His feet took another couple of unwilling steps. Ron redoubled his efforts, forcing everything out of his mind except the will to stand in one place. “Please, Ron. Just let me do what I have to do. It’s not safe for the rest of you if I stay here.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t know what I might do next.”
Ron felt like he had one hope. One chance to reach her. He shifted his concentration, and as he felt his feet begin to move again, he managed to choke out the words, “I love you!”
His feet abruptly stopped moving and she stared back at him in anguish. The internal conflict was written plainly across her face. Come on, Hermione, he thought with the intensity of a scream, don’t give in! Through all the turmoil, Ron thought that he could see just a flicker of the old Hermione, his Hermione, cross her face. It was working. He was reaching her. He only needed to hold out a little bit longer.
And then all hell broke loose. First, Harry appeared in the portal with a puff of white smoke. “Hey, you two. Did you get George’s message?”
Hermione was startled, and she turned abruptly towards him. Harry had only a second to register her movement, draw his wand and parry the curse that she hurled at him. Ron stood frozen, watching helplessly as she unleashed a barrage of spells at Harry. The power of her rage was breathtaking, and Harry was forced to roll onto his side to avoid being hit.
“Hermione! What the bloody hell is wrong with you?” Harry shouted as he repelled a jet of orange fire that blackened the floor boards in front of him.
“Go away, Potter!” Hermione shrieked, pelting his shield charm with a trio of bright blue hexes.
If Ron had been surprised by the raw power of the Imperius Curse his wife had used on him, it paled in comparison to the awe he felt as he watched her pummel Harry’s defenses. Her anger poured out through her wand and the air around her crackled with the sheer intensity of the spells she was casting. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t have stood a chance in a duel against Harry, but her rage gave the dark curses she was using an unparalleled intensity. Through the flashes and streaks of light, Ron could tell that Harry was struggling to keep up. He was also refraining from any counter-attack, which further limited his options. Ron admired Harry for that, even though it wasn’t a good long-term strategy.
Ron tried again to shake the curse that held him in place, but if anything it had become stronger. Hermione’s unbridled anger had made her more powerful on every front. The curses she was casting at Harry seemed to buckle his shield charms the instant they made contact. The deflections were starting to shake the walls and ceiling of the Gaunt Shack. Even if Harry was able to withstand her assault, Ron wasn’t sure how long the building would hold up.
“Expelliarmus!” Without warming, Hermione’s wand was torn from her hand and spun gracefully through the air. Three sets of eyes turned to see it land in Esme’s outstretched hand as she stood in the portal, surrounded by a rapidly dissipating puff of smoke. “Anyone care to explain what is going on?” she asked pointedly, twirling the wand between her fingers.
In that one instant of stunned silence, Ron felt his wife’s focus weaken just enough. “This book is some sort of bloody horcrux!” he blurted out before he felt the iron grip seize his mind again. Several things happened almost simultaneously. Hermione let out a feral-sounding scream, and even without a wand, she managed to launch a ball of orange fire at Esme which set her cloak ablaze as she dove to avoid it. Harry turned and vanished with a pop. Ron was stunned. It didn’t seem possible that Harry would simply abandon them at such a moment. A fraction of a second later, Ron felt a familiar hand on his shoulder, while somebody he couldn’t see pulled the book from his hands.
“Stop!” came Harry’s voice from behind him as Hermione prepared to unleash another curse on Esme. Ron was unable to turn his head, but he saw the look of surprise on his wife’s face as she turned to face him. Esme also looked startled as she shed her burning cloak. “If you make one more move, I’ll destroy the book. Now let Ron go.”
Hermione stared over his shoulder with a mix of horror and rage. “Don’t do this, Harry. Don’t you see? I can’t stop myself any more. I’ve already done terrible, awful things. I don’t want to hurt you, too. Just let me take the book and go.”
“Just breathe, Hermione. You’re not going to hurt anybody.” Harry’s voice was calmer, almost soothing. “I don’t know what’s happened, but we’re going to help you. Do you hear me? Just let Ron go.”
“You don’t understand!” she shouted, clenching her fists by her sides. “I’m beyond help. I should have known better than to try it, but all I could think of was walking again. I’m a fool. Just let me go. All I want to do is save Rose and Octavia. Then I can end this miserable life in peace.”
“Hermione, just the other day, you told me that you thought that there was nothing that I couldn’t do as long as you and Ron were there to help me. Well help me, then,” Harry said in a beseeching tone. “Help me understand what’s happened to you. You and Ron mean everything to me. Between the three of us, we’ll figure this out. I promise.”
She stared back towards them, looking confused and terrified and miserable. Her crutch, which had been mostly just an accessory as she unleashed her fury on Harry and Esme, was once again supporting most of her weight. Ron felt the grip on his mind loosen and disappear. He and Harry lunged forward as Hermione collapsed to the floor. She looked at both of them through tear-filled eyes. “Help me, please!” she begged as the tears streamed down her face.
“We’re going to,” Harry replied. Ron pulled her tightly into his chest and he thought that he had never felt anything so wonderful as her curly hair pressed against the underside of his chin. “Tell me how this started,” Harry asked softly.
“I was reading it,” she answered in a shuddering voice. “I wanted a way to reverse the blood boiling curse. And just when I was about to give up, I found an answer.”
Harry nodded encouragingly as Ron hugged her more tightly. “I had to cast this spell and then I snapped my old wand in two and the spell hit my legs and it all came back. The movement, the feeling and the pain.” She paused, shaking visibly in Ron’s embrace. “The pain and the burning... everything I should have felt when the curse hit me, it all came back. I couldn’t make it stop. Oh, Merlin, it hurt so bad. It was worse than the Cruciatus Curse, and I couldn’t make it stop.”
She sucked down another few raspy breaths as Ron gently rocked her back and forth. “Then I looked in the book again, and there was a spell to stop the pain. But it’s so bad, Harry. It only works if I stay angry. If I let myself feel happiness or joy or love, the pain comes back. I can’t do it. I can’t live like this!”
Harry stared at her sympathetically, but he looked slightly confused. “So you’re still angry right now?”
“No,” she replied. “Whenever I use dark magic, the pain is... satisfied, for a time. The same thing happened when I,” she suddenly looked away. Her shoulders sagged miserably. “When I used the Imperius Curse on Susan yesterday.” Harry lowered his eyes to the floor as he considered her confession. “This is why you should just let me take the book and go. The pain is going to come back and I’m not strong enough.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “I’m not strong enough to fight it, Harry. I’m going to die.”
“Like hell you are,” Ron replied firmly. Not after everything they had been thought. Not after almost losing her once. There was no way he was going to lose her now. He looked at Harry grimly. “I say we destroy the bloody book.”
“No,” Hermione yelped, stiffening in his arms. “Haven’t you heard one thing I’ve said? The book is the only way I have to control this. If I can’t control the pain, I’ll die or lose my mind. And I can’t do that, not until my babies are safe. After we save them, it doesn’t matter what happens to me.”
“I really wish you’d stop talking like that,” Ron growled, pulling her back to him again. “And what makes you think that book is helping? For all we know, it’s the book that’s causing the pain.”
Harry had been unusually quiet during their exchange. “Ron, why do you think it’s a horcrux?” he asked. Esme knelt beside Harry. She conjured a damp cloth and handed it to Ron, who pressed it against Hermione’s forehead.
Ron shuddered as he collected his thoughts. “When I touched it, all these horrible thoughts tried to take over my mind. Some of my worst memories and biggest fears. It was like Slytherin’s locket all over again.”
Hermione was shaking her head slowly. Harry gave her a quizzical look. “I don’t think it’s a horcrux. Not exactly, anyway.” She sounded just a bit more like herself. “First of all, I don’t see how Herodonthus could have created a horcrux while he was trapped in that cave. There was nobody to murder and he was surrounded by protective wards.”
“You said that he killed hundreds of people before he lost that battle,” Ron replied thoughtfully. “Perhaps he had some spare bits of his soul lying about?”
“It doesn’t work like that, Ron,” she answered. He could tell that she wasn’t feeling especially patient, but she was hiding it well. “The magic involved in making a horcrux is very tricky. The spell has to be cast precisely when the soul is torn apart. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”
“Wait a moment,” Esme piped in, looking confused. “Are you implying that ‘orcruxes are real? I ‘ave always been taught that they are merely a myth of dark sorcery.”
“They’re real,” Harry replied quietly. “Ask me another time.” Esme looked as though somebody had punched her in the stomach as Harry turned back to Hermione. “Do you have another theory?”
“Actually, yes,” she replied, looking unsettled. “In another part of the book, Herodonthus alluded to the possibility of transferring one’s psyche into another person, or even an inanimate object if it was magically significant. He thought it was the ultimate way to cheat death. He even claims to have done it.”
It was Harry’s turn to look stricken. “You said that he was sealed in a cave with not even so much as a quill, and he conjured this book using only the force of his own will, right?” Hermione nodded at him gravely. “I reckon I’d call that magically significant. So it might not be a piece of his soul in the book, it might be his whole bloody mind.” Four sets of eyes turned nervously towards the blackened, leather-bound book lying haphazardly on the floor next to Ron’s feet.
Ron was starting to feel sick to his stomach, and it wasn’t just the fact that he hadn’t eaten. “All the more reason to destroy it,” he replied gravely.
“We can’t,” Hermione snapped. Ron could hear the anger and frustration coming back into her voice. It wasn’t a good sign. Fortunately, Esme cut in.
“She may ‘ave a point. We know almost nothing about this book and its magic. Just because a person ‘as been stabbed, you do not immediately pull the knife out. They might bleed to death even faster.”
Ron winced at her choice of metaphor, but he reluctantly nodded his assent. There was no way to know how destroying the book might affect his wife. Even though she was tormented and miserable, she was alive.
Harry looked around and found general agreement. “We don’t have to decide right away, but we do need to get a move on. Everyone is gathering at the Burrow. Esme and I found a place nearby where we can quietly rent a muggle van, but it’s a long drive to Devon. Let’s get Susan ready to travel and pack up.” He looked at Ron and in spite of the circumstances, he was unable to suppress a crooked grin. “We’re going home.”
Rory Tennant sat at the staff table overlooking the Great Hall, eating a bowl of porridge as he perused the morning edition of the Daily Prophet. He breezed through the latest decrees from the Minister with passing interest. Most of it was rubbish that would be quickly overturned as soon as the outraged progressives managed to elect a new Minister. The whole world appeared to be going insane, but trapped inside the dreary walls of Hogwarts Castle, it really didn’t make much of a difference to him. There was only one piece of news from the Ministry that he wanted to hear.
He heard the low rumble of anticipation from the four house tables as the morning owl post arrived, but he didn’t bother to look up. The only owls he ever received were from his sister, carrying the latest soppy photo of some grandchild or other performing mundane acts of cuteness. As a lifelong bachelor, Tennant had little use for such trivialities. He only feigned interest to preserve his relationship with his mother, and thus his inheritance. Truthfully, the antics of small children made him want to retch.
A nondescript brown owl caught him by surprise when it dropped a small roll of parchment into the middle of his breakfast. It obviously had not been told to await a response, and he barely caught sight of its tail feathers as it turned and ascended back towards the entrance to the Great Hall. He pulled the message out of his bowl and removed the porridge with his wand. It had no identifying marks, and was sealed with a simple smudge of wax. He instantly realized who it was from.
“New photos of your grand nieces and nephews?” Professor Astor asked, startling him out of his contemplation.
“Uh, no,” he mumbled, rising from his seat. “Tis from my mother. Probably has tae do with her estate plannin’.”
Tennant hurried out of the Great Hall and made his way to his quarters, locking the door carefully behind himself. Setting the message on the table in front of him, he drew his wand and cast a warming charm, melting the wax seal that held it closed. He knew that any other method of opening it would cause the parchment to incinerate itself. His contact was as paranoid as she was thorough.
Her message was simple and to the point. As we discussed, the Minister is making the final preparations for your transition to the post of Head Auror. You have only two additional tasks to complete, precisely in accordance with the schedule outlined below.
Rory Tennant grinned in spite of himself as he carefully reviewed the actions listed on the lower half of the parchment. The first didn’t make much sense, but he honestly didn’t care. His long banishment was coming to an end. Soon he would have the authority and respect that he so richly deserved.
Hermione took in the exclamations of surprise and the well wishes that rained down on her the instant she walked through the front door of the Burrow and she almost had to turn around and walk out again. In spite of the grim circumstances that brought them all together, the warmth and affection were so overwhelming that it was difficult to focus on her anger and keep the pain under control. The respite she had been granted after using the Imperius Curse on her husband had long since passed. She could feel the dragon writhing and straining at its bonds.
The long drive from Little Hangleton to Ottery St. Catchpole had been relatively easy for her, since she hated long drives. She merely focused on her irritation and ignored the van’s other occupants. Harry had also handed her an intriguing new puzzle in the form of eleven wooden tiles from a muggle board game. Ordered properly, they spelled out “Lady Tenabra,” a strong indication that she had murdered the French witch who modified Percy’s memory. There was something else about the letters that tugged at the edge of her mind. Through the constant haze of anger and anxiety, she hadn’t been able to put her finger on it, but she felt sure they were significant somehow.
Justin and Terry were maneuvering Susan into Ginny’s old bedroom. As horrible as Hermione felt about what she had done, she was also grateful that her friend had yet to wake up. She owed Susan a huge apology, one that she could never deliver while staying angry. She took some consolation in the fact that Susan’s medical needs were finally being properly addressed. Luna’s son Lorcan was married to a healer and they had already made plans to abandon their day to day lives and join the family at the Burrow. Taking a deep breath, Hermione tightened her grip on Ron’s elbow and hobbled into the sitting room, keeping her hatred of the Blood Order at the forefront of her mind.
Mrs. Weasley rushed towards her with open arms. “Oh, Hermione, it’s so good to see you up and about!” Harry tactfully intercepted their mother-in-law, absorbing the crushing hug and whispering something into her ear. Molly released Harry and smiled warmly at her, then moved on to fuss over Ron.
The next twenty minutes were a torturous ordeal of carefully avoiding the welcoming embraces of the people she loved. Harry and Ron managed to steer most of them away from any detailed discussion of her improbable recovery, and Esme absorbed a great deal of the attention as she endured a series of awkward introductions to people who didn’t seem to be able to look at her without thinking about Ginny. All of the surviving Order members were present, save for Charlie, who was still unable to get into the country. Neville, Luna, Dean and Seamus sat in a corner, trying to comfort Cho. Ron and Harry were huddled up with Terry, Justin and a couple of younger Aurors that Hermione didn’t know, apparently catching up on events inside the department.
Eventually, Hermione managed to slip away from the throng and found an out-of-the-way spot near the pantry where she did her best to simply blend into the decor. She watched Fleur and Esme conversing in French, and wondered whether Fleur was shielding her from the rest of the family or drilling into the particulars of her relationship with Harry. Perhaps it was both. The French Auror didn’t look especially uncomfortable, but Fleur had a disarming manner about her, especially when it came to discussing romance.
Romance. It dawned on Hermione that somewhere along the way, the notion of Harry cultivating a relationship with Esme had become less jarring. It certainly wasn’t that she missed Ginny any less. Esme and Harry just looked so natural together sometimes. They complemented one another in an effortless sort of way, each helping to cover for the other’s weak points while adding to their strengths. As if on cue, the dragon perked up, sniffing out Hermione’s growing feelings of warmth towards the French Auror. Hermione sighed and fixed a frown on her face, recalling the shouting match she and Ron had witnessed in Harry’s house two weeks earlier. Two weeks... it seemed like a lifetime had passed.
“I’d be angry, too.” The voice startled her, and she barely managed to suppress the urge to draw her wand as she spun around to find Luna standing behind her.
“What?” Hermione asked irritably.
“I said that I’d be angry, too,” Luna replied, oblivious to Hermione’s glare. “If even half of the things that have happened to you happened to me, I’d be beside myself.”
In spite of herself, Hermione felt her irritation subside. “Luna, I’ve never seen you angry in all the time we’ve known each other.”
“Oh, I’ve been angry plenty of times. After Rolf died, I was absolutely furious at the entire Amazon River Basin for weeks.”
“But I was there at the funeral,” Hermione replied gently. “We all were. I don’t remember anybody saying that you seemed angry.”
Luna met Hermione’s gaze, looking dreamy but a little sad. “At the funeral, I was with everyone in the world who mattered to me. Well, all but one. Love is the best cure for being angry, you know? I’ll leave you alone now.” Then she drifted away towards the spot where Fleur and Esme were having an animated discussion that nobody else could understand. There was something about Luna’s statement that struck a chord with Hermione, but she didn’t have much time to ponder it before the attention of the room shifted to the front door. Percy and Arabela had arrived and everyone looked to them expectantly.
“We’re sorry,” Percy said as soon as the room quieted down. “We couldn’t find Rosier. Rumor has it that the Minister sent him away on a special assignment.” There was a general moan of disappointment, and Hermione felt her heart drop. She had no idea how much longer she would be able to control the dragon, but she felt like time was running out. They had to find Rose and Octavia soon. Once they were safe, she could accept her fate.
“I’m trying to use my sources inside the Minister’s office,” Arabela chimed in, “but the whole thing is very hush-hush. It could be awhile before I’m able to locate him. I think our best bet is to focus on helping to speed the removal of the Minister from office. Once Percy has been elected, he’ll be able to reign in Ministerial Security.”
Hermione felt her jaw drop. Percy elected Minister? Apparently a great deal had changed while they were in hiding. The room was oddly quiet. “Is that a done deal, then?” George asked skeptically.
“Well, not yet,” Percy replied, sounding more than a little nervous. “We’ve been able to rally a great deal of support among the progressive members of the Wizengamot, but the fact that the Minister ignored the call for his resignation has left the situation at something of a standstill. Neither side seems inclined to make the next move.”
“That’s why we need all the support we can get, to show the Wizengamot that the people are behind them,” Arabela added. She gave Harry a pointed look. “Especially those people whose voices carry great weight.”
Hermione was growing genuinely annoyed. Arabela Dynt had already helped to elevate one dangerously unprincipled man into the Minister’s office. While she didn’t doubt that Percy’s intentions were good, Hermione had to wonder whether Arabela simply enjoyed being a kingmaker.
“We can’t wait,” Ron interjected, slamming his fist into a doorframe and giving Arabela a glare. “Until Rose and Octavia are safe, there’s no time to play politics. If we can’t find Rosier, how about Nott, Goyle and the others?”
“I think we can help,” came a voice from behind Percy and Arabela. Everyone looked past them to find Hugo standing in the doorway, wearing a nervous smile. “We have Goyle and Rosier, but somebody needs to come adjust the wards. Scorpius’s dad almost lost his chin when he tried to walk through the front gate.”
Bill grinned wickedly and headed out the door with Arthur to make the necessary adjustments. A few minutes later, Al and Scorpius walked through the door, followed by the imperiused Gregory Goyle, who carried a bound and gagged Feates Rosier over his shoulder. Draco and Astoria Malfoy brought up the end of the procession. In spite of all her problems, the sight of Draco Malfoy standing inside the Burrow left Hermione dumbstruck. For his part, Draco looked around the crowded living room as though he was worried he might stick to something. “Well, here they are. What now?”
Ron stormed over to Goyle’s back and tore the gag off of Rosier’s face. “Spill it, Rosier! Where’s the warehouse?”
Rosier stared back with a look of contempt on his face. “Wouldn’t you like to know, blood traitor!”
“I will kill you if you don’t tell me,” Ron hissed, getting directly in Rosier’s face. Hermione heard several people gasp softly in response to her husband’s threat. But Rosier wasn’t one of them.
“You think I’m scared of you, Weasley?” he replied blithely. “You people aren’t killers. Compared to the company I’ve been keeping, this is like Club Med.”
“Then perhaps we need to make it less comfortable for you,” Draco snarled. He attempted to shoulder Ron out of the way, but Ron was unwilling to give up his prime spot for glaring into Rosier’s eyes. Rosier watched the two of them jostle for a second and laughed mirthlessly.
“Do you two know how absurd you look? You’re all living in denial. Threaten me all you like. Anything you might find the courage to actually do to me will pale in comparison to what she would do if I gave you the secret. Now either kill me or stop wasting my time.”
“Set him down.” Hermione’s voice cut across the tension in the room, followed by the soft thump, thump, thump of her crutch against the old, wooden floor. The room’s occupants parted to allow her a path. Ron and Draco were still shoulder-to-shoulder near Rosier’s face, neither willing to cede an inch. “Draco,” the cold edge to Hermione’s voice snapped them both out of their impasse. “Down. Now.”
Draco’s grey eyes met Hermione’s icy brown stare for a second, and he abruptly disengaged from Ron and took a step back. “Set him down, Goyle.”
Goyle complied without hesitation, putting Rosier on his feet in front of Hermione. Leaning on her crutch, she reached into the leather satchel she was carrying and pulled out the blackened, leather-bound tome. “Do you recognize this?”
“How did you get your filthy hands on the Dark Lord’s journal, mudblood?”
Hermione felt the dragon snarl menacingly as her anger -- her honest, real, righteous anger -- rose. No matter how many times in her life she heard that word, it always struck a chord. “Not that it matters, but she’s been lying to you. This never belonged to Voldemort. It’s much older and far more dangerous.”
“If you’re trying to frighten me, you can save your breath,” Rosier replied dismissively. “One man has already died trying to steal the secrets in that book for himself. I doubt you’ll fare any better.”
Hermione continued to push her bluff, emboldened by Rosier’s flippant attitude. “Oh, but it’s already taught me a great deal. The blood boiling curse, for instance. Did you know that she learned it from this book?”
“I heard that you learned about it from Nott,” Rosier replied mockingly. Hermione could feel her temper rising faster and faster as the dragon continued to fuel her aggression. The ancient book in her hand suddenly felt different. The dark power it exuded had grown in intensity. Hermione struggled to maintain control as the tide of anger and negativity rose around her.
“Would you like to know what it feels like to die from it?” She had no idea where the question had come from. It fell unbidden from her lips as she felt her fingers tighten around the spine of Herodonthus’s book.
For the first time since Goyle carried him through the door, a bit of anxiety creeped into Rosier’s expression. “You wouldn’t dare. If you kill me, how will you find your precious daughter?” He loaded the final two words with menace, and it turned out to be a near-fatal mistake. The dragon roared with fury and Hermione could feel the bloodlust emanating from the book. She had become a passive, terrified spectator inside her own body.
“Who said I was going to kill you?” Hermione’s voice was so cold, she even scared herself. “Consider this a taste of what’s in store for you if you don’t give me the secret.”
In that instant, Hermione felt the dragon unleash its flames deep in her bones. But instead of spreading burning pain throughout her body, the book’s dark power captured the flames, channeling and directing them like a torch, focusing them on the pathetic man standing in front of her. Rosier screamed in agony, crumbling to the floor and writhing like a worm. She watched in horror as his body shook and convulsed. His skin began to turn bright red. Everyone and everything else disappeared from her world as all of her anger and fear poured into him. Somewhere behind her, she heard Harry’s voice calling out. “Hermione! Stop! You’re killing him!”
With a supreme effort, she managed to choke off the dragon’s flames. Rosier’s cries ceased, and she looked up to see Ron and Draco staring back at her with their eyes wide and their faces white as ghosts. Never in her life had she felt such incredible, awful power. She realized that her breathing was shallow and her face was slick with sweat, so she swiped her sleeve across her forehead before lowering herself onto her knees. As horrified as she was by everything that had just happened, there was one more thing she had to do or it was all for nothing. Rosier lay in front of her, whimpering softly. His entire body radiated heat. She reached down and seized his chin, forcing him to look into her eyes. “Give me the secret, or we go again.”
Rosier sucked in two tortured gasps. When he exhaled, the hot moisture of his breath was faintly visible in the cool, dry air near the floor. “The New Blood Order headquarters,” he sputtered haltingly, “is located in a warehouse at Anchor Wharf.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Please, no more.” Hermione continued to stare into Rosier’s eyes and she felt the book’s dark presence boring into his mind. She tentatively allowed her thoughts to follow, and inside she found no hint of reluctance or subterfuge. The secret had been divulged to everyone within earshot. Her work was done.
She released his chin and rocked back on her heels. As her anger slowly abated, nothing but emptiness remained. The dragon purred with satisfaction and the book fell from her limp fingers, landing on the floor with a thump that sounded throughout the silent room. Hermione fell to the floor and buried her face in her hands. She knew it would take some time before she could face the consequences of what some would surely call her success.
Thank you for continuing to read Conspiracy of Blood, and an even bigger thank you to those of you who have taken the time to leave reviews. As always, a great deal of credit goes to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter. If you can spare a few minutes to leave your thoughts and reactions in the box below, I would appreciate it!
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