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Chapter 23 : Year 3: Revelations and breakthroughs
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After climbing another four floors, Hermione stepped out of the lift as well, leaving the sleeping man to travel up and down the Ministry, as she had no time to check whether he was actually awake or not before the door closed behind her.
"Hermione!" Armand Sylver, her colleague from the department, was just coming out of the lift next to theirs, and now, he greeted her with a smile.
"Good morning, Armand," Hermione replied.
"So have you heard yet?" The blond, slightly overweight man raised one unnaturally thin eyebrow (Ron was sure that he picked them) and a shrewd expression took over his face. When she shook her head, he continued: "Gwyn hired a new assistant, finally! You'll never guess who it is, though!"
Hermione laughed at his enthusiasm while they walked through the corridor that led to both of their offices. "Tell me," she asked. "I have absolutely no idea, so you're right - I can't guess."
"Draco Malfoy!" Armand looked content when he saw the shock in her face. "I know! Who would have thought that a former Death Eater would care about magical creatures?"
"He doesn't," Hermione said quickly. "Armand, during our third year at Hogwarts, he nearly got an innocent Hippogriff executed. It attacked him, but only because he showed it no respect! He just refused to listen to anything that Hagrid said... And don't even get me started on their house-elf! You should have seen the way the Malfoys treated Dobby before Harry tricked them into freeing him..."
Armand furrowed his thin eyebrows. "Hum," he mumbled. "In that case, how about we pay Gwyn a visit in her office and ask her to explain why in the world she would hire him?"
Hermione nodded, and they turned around to walk back to their boss' office – the first door in the long corridor. They reached it, Hermione knocked on it, and then it flew open so quickly that it nearly hit her in the face. Instinctively, she took a step back and walked into Armand, who laughed and reached out his arms to keep her from falling. "Smooth," he whispered, his eyes glittering with amusement.
Inside the office, Gwyn Stayner lowered her wand, brushed a stray of fair hair from her face and nodded at her visitors. "Hermione. Armand."
"Is it true?" Hermione asked as she sank into one of the visitors' chairs that stood across from Gwyn at the desk. "Is Draco Malfoy going to work here?"
"Before you continue, Miss Granger, I just have to point out the fact that Draco, unlike his father, was never convicted by the Wizengamot," Gwyn said. "As a result, I can't refuse to hire him because of his history - employers have the right to refuse Death Eaters a job, but since he walked free... I think you can see the conflict."
"But it's not just that," Hermione insisted. "He hates animals and magical creatures of all kinds! With all due respect, I think that you're making a mistake. I am the last person to protest against giving people a second chance, but in this case... of course, I have the magical creatures' best interest at heart, and they deserve better than Draco Malfoy!"
"How touching, Granger."
Hermione spun around. She hadn't heard the sound of the door opening, but it must have, because there he was, standing leaned against its frame: Draco Malfoy. She didn't know what she wanted to do first: laugh, cry or sink through the earth, so instead, she just stared at him, her mind (for what must have been one of the first times in her life) completely blank.
"Mr Malfoy!" Gwyn said. "Just in time. I think that you already know Miss Granger, and this is Armand Sylver."
Malfoy reached out his hand towards Armand, who shook it while laughing nervously. "A pleasure to meet you."
Malfoy smiled and rolled his eyes - Hermione couldn't blame him, as it was obvious that Armand didn't find it even remotely pleasant. To be honest, he looked quite scared, and judged by his sinking chest, he appeared to let out a sigh of relief as Malfoy turned away from him.
"I am actually glad that you're here, Miss Granger," Gwyn continued. "I would have shown Mr Malfoy around the department myself and inform him of our different projects, but I just received a tip about a centaur conflict in Northern Ireland, so Amos and I have to go up there and see what we can do. I trust that you'll show him around in my place and make him feel welcome."
And before Hermione had the chance to protest against this, she had rushed out the door.
"Amos? Is that...?" Draco began.
"Cedric's father? Yes." Hermione met his eyes and sighed. "Look, I don't know why you're here, but if you've got some ulterior motive..."
"I don't." Malfoy looked dead serious.
Again, Hermione sighed. "Okay," she said. "Come with me then, and I'll introduce you to the others..."
Neville's voice echoed inside Harry's brain as he balanced Hermione's teacup on his desk. That's Meriona. We never learned of it in Herbology class, but it was in this old book that Professor Sprout lent me. It nails itself onto the inside of your throat and expands for each breath you suck in, thus choking the victim within minutes. It's a miracle that she's alive at all.
So who would have both known about the plant and had access to it – it wasn't exactly the type that most people had in their garden – while also wishing Hermione such harm?
A knock on the door woke Harry from his thoughts and he looked up just as Gawain Robards, the Head Auror, stepped into his office. Since he had been away chasing Death Eaters and only just returned to England, Harry hadn't spent that much time with him yet, but his first impression was positive. Gawain was an impressive, very tall wizard whose deep eyes and curious way of expressing himself reminded Harry a bit of Dumbledore. Perhaps that was why he had taken a liking to him so soon.
"Harry," Gawain said, his smile forming a pattern of lines across his face. "I see you're still busy with that cup." His gaze flickered to the stack of papers lying next to it on the desk and his smile grew wider. "Don't worry. You won't be stuck inside the office for much longer now. John has certainly been a spectacular substitute in many ways, while I have been gone, but he hasn't quite realized the difference people like yourself and Mr Weasley could make out in the field."
Harry lit up. The long months of paperwork and endless of hours sitting in his office with no company but the bare walls had nearly driven him mad, and they had planted seeds in him of the same bitter attitude towards work that he had towards his personal life. However, if things were about to change, if he would soon be able to do the work he had dreamed of doing, those seeds would never grow into anything bigger.
"Thank you so much!" he said. "This is what I have wanted all along!"
"I remember what it was like," Gawain replied and winked at him. He turned around to head back to his own office, but froze in the middle of the movement. "You know," he added. "Eating Meriona is deadly, but smelling it won't do you any harm."
For a while after he had left, Harry simply stared at the wall he had just closed behind him. Then he turned his eyes back to the cup and hesitated for a moment before lifting it up towards his face. Breathing in through his nose, he nearly dropped the cup as he registered the smell. It is one of the wondrous things about smells – they have a way of bringing you back in time, to those small, seemingly insignificant moments that you barely thought of when you lived them. But a smell can pick up that memory, one you didn't even know you had, and bring it forth, as vivid and clear as something that happened only yesterday. The smell of Meriona brought Harry back to an autumn day almost exactly three years earlier. He had been in the Ministry of Magic that day too, only on the first floor and in disguise – as a big, tall man with a black beard. In that exact moment, he had been busy searching the drawers of a desk similar to the one he was sitting at now – a desk belonging to Dolores Umbridge. He he had been looking for Slytherin's locket – the third Horcrux – and so he had opened the bottom drawer. It was from there that the smell had come, but he had only felt it for a few short moments before he had closed it again. Its content (two green twigs and a quill) had not been interesting to him at that time.
Now, however, the memory was nothing if not interesting. Hastily placing the cup in front of him, Harry leaned back in his chair. Could it really be Umbridge who had poisoned Hermione? And if so, for what reason? Sure, Umbridge had worked at the Ministry during Voldemort's reign, actively helping in the persecution of Muggle-borns, but Harry had always assumed that her involvement had merely been due to her desperation to climb further up the positions within the Ministry, that she saw it as a way of benefitting her own needs. She was far from being a good person, but he wouldn't have guessed that she was capable of murder.
Standing up so quickly that for a moment, blackness seemed to take over his visual field, Harry had to lean against the wall for a moment while waiting for his blood to reach his head. Then, he grabbed the cup and rushed towards Gawain's office.
His boss stood in front of his desk, smiling as Harry opened the door, as if he had been expecting him.
"Umbridge!" Harry exclaimed. "Did you know?"
"I recognized the smell too," Gawain nodded. "You figured it out a lot faster than I did, though."
"So you really think it was her?" Harry asked.
"We're about to find out. Williamson and Dawlish have already gone to get her," Gawain responded while pulling something out of his pocket. It was a silver watch, whose hands seemed to spin in every direction without purpose, but Gawain followed their movements attentively before turning his eyes to Harry again. "Just as I thought," he said. "Here they come."
They did indeed; only seconds after the words had left Gawain's mouth, a clearly aggravated Dolores Umbridge appeared in the door opening behind Harry, the two Aurors holding on to one arm each. A rush of gloat filled Harry for a moment as he watched his old professor – back in Hogwarts, her hair had never been so... imperfect, and her pink skirt never so full of wrinkles. He had to admit that it was a joy to see her cheeks burn with anger as she pulled her arms out of Dawlish and Williamson's grips.
"Being dragged out of my own home," she said, "it is absolutely scandalous! Cornelius would have never allowed it – nor would Pius, he was-"
"... a Death Eater?"
Harry's sharp voice made Umbridge jump. For a couple of seconds, she met his eyes. Then she turned her head away and smiled sweetly.
"Of course, I am very relieved that... that little problem is out of the world. Don't ever accuse me of supporting Death Eaters, Mr Potter. I admit we have had our differences throughout the years, but surely you're not suggesting that I would have..."
"Assisted in catching Muggle-borns?" Williamson asked while shutting the door to keep the conversation from reaching any curious ears that might pass. "You were convicted for that after the war, weren't you, Dolores?"
"I was under threat!" Umbridge yelled, her eyes widened into little, round orbs. "I was in a difficult situation and saw no choice but to cooperate. I only did what they ordered me to do! You must understand, Gawain... John, weren't you in a similar position to mine?"
"Not quite," Dawlish responded with a laugh. "If I remember correctly, you were convicted of abetment. I wasn't."
"John really was being threatened," Williamson said, "while you..."
"You just wanted to get more influence," Harry said. "You saw your chance of extending your power and you took it."
"And I am serving my punishment," Umbridge said firmly, "so if you'll excuse me, I have better things to do than just reminiscing those dark times..."
"Oh no, not so fast!"
Dawlish stepped to the side to block Umbridge's way after she had made an onset towards the door, and she froze.
"That's not why we brought you here, Dolores," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "We think you know very well why you're here today."
"It can't be a coincidence that the woman who was in charge of controlling Muggle-borns also had in her possession the very rare plant that was used to poison a certain Muggle-born young woman a couple of months ago," Gawain said. "You were blinded by your own propaganda, weren't you, Dolores? You fell for your own lies, and now you want to uphold the standards that Lord Voldemort tried to enforce on the people of this country. You didn't have time to get the Dark Mark on your wrist, but that 's all that's missing, isn't it? Am I right?"
Everyone's heads turned in the same direction, towards the person who had spoken. It wasn't Umbridge - she looked as surprised and confused as the others. No, it was Harry.
Meeting four pair of eyes, Harry pulled his fingers through his messy hair and began pacing back and forth as he explained himself. "She's not a Death Eater," he said. "She never agreed with them - not then, and not know. She doesn't hate Muggle-borns; in fact, Hermione being a Muggle-born really is just a coincidence, isn't it?"
"If what you're saying is true, why would she have poisoned her at all?" Dawlish asked. "It doesn't make any sense."
"Yes it does." Now, Harry was smiling. "I have already explained why she participated in the persecution of Muggle-borns, haven't I? She was just after power. She loved being Fudge's confidential one when he was the Minister for Magic." Harry noticed Gawain's eyes enlightening with some sort of comprehension, but as Dawlish and Williamson still didn't understand it, he continued: "What was the dream, Umbridge? Becoming Minister for Magic yourself?"
Umbridge snorted, but didn't respond.
"Well, that will never happen now," Harry said, "because according to the verdict of the Wizengamot two years ago, you are not to work at the Ministry or within any sort of political business... and we have Hermione's very convincing testimony during your trails to thank."
"So are you going to admit straight away, or would you like a sip of Veritaserum first?" Gawain asked.
Umbridge hesitated. She opened her mouth to say something, and then she shut it again. Her eyes wondered between Harry's triumphant, Dawlish and Williamson's confused and Gawain's proud facial expressions. Then, finally, she opened her mouth again:
"Yes, I did it, all right? But only because that girl ruined my life! Look at me, look at what she has done to me! I have nothing left, and it's all her fault!"
"Perhaps you should think a little more about that in Azkaban," Gawain said, "because that's where you'll be staying until your trial."
A while later, Harry and Gawain were alone inside the large office with wooden panels that darkened the room and made it seem a bit smaller than it really was. Gawain walked over to Harry and patted his shoulder.
"You should be proud over that deductive reasoning you just pulled off," he said. "It can take you far. You were the only one out of the four of us who understood Umbridge's motives, despite the fact the rest of us have been Aurors for many years... Congratulations."
Harry lowered his eyes for a moment and shrugged. "I got lucky," he said. "I'm sure you would have figured it out in the next moment if I had kept my mouth shut. It just came to me, it has nothing to do with skill-"
"Modesty is another trait worth treasuring," Gawain smiled. "How do I express my appreciation for your achievement this afternoon, Harry?"
"There is one thing I'd like to ask," Harry said. When Gawain nodded and raised his eyebrow while waiting for the request, he cleared his throat and continued: "I would like to be the one to tell Ron about this."
Ron had been sitting in Harry's chair for the last couple of minutes, listening to the explanation of Hermione's poisoning. Now, he rose to his feet, walked over to his best friend and pulled him into a hug - yes, Harry was still his best friend, despite everything that had happened between them. For a long time, Ron had forgotten, but now he remembered that fact; now that they stood in front of each other, Harry's hair sticking up the way it always did, he was reminded of something so important that he wanted to beat himself up for allowing himself to forget: Harry was and always had been his very best friend.
He had spent almost a year hating him. He hadn't been able to see beyond Ginny's tear-filled eyes in order to notice the person standing behind her, his shoulders crouching and his forlorn eyes making him look years older than his actual twenty.
Truth was that Ron could spend endless of hours with George in his shop, come with Andrew Saxby and Justin Finch-Fletchley to the Leaking Cauldron a million nights, but they would always be hours and nights that he should have hung out with Harry. Even if Ginny made him laugh and Hermione understood him better than anyone, none of them could take the place as his best friend.
Once the two young men had let go of each other and cleared their throats a couple of times in a poor attempt to lighten the mood, Ron said:
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry that I've refused to listen to you all year. I'm an idiot, I really am."
"I'm sorry I broke Ginny's heart," Harry responded. "If I could make it undone..."
"I know. I hope you'll get her back," Ron said. "Not because I don't like Oliver, it's just... he's not you. He doesn't seem to be able to make her as happy as you did."
Harry's voice was hoarse and his eyes dark when he replied: "She's not going to forgive me, Ron. If she won't believe me, there is nothing I can do."
"I don't think it's up to you to do anything," Ron said. "It's up to her. And there's something I can... I have to go," he said suddenly. "I'd love to stay and talk but..." His eyes flew over to the empty desk by the other wall that hadn't been used for so long. "Perhaps I can move my stuff in here again tomorrow? And we'll talk and...?"
He fell silent, and Harry nodded. "That sounds good." He walked over to the door and stopped to look back over his shoulder. "I'm watching Teddy tonight, so I really can't stay either. I have..." He seemed to debate on whether he should complete his sentence or not, and then he shrugged. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Harry!" Ron said just before the door closed, and Harry stuck his head in again. "I really am sorry. I've missed you."
For the first time, Harry smiled. "I've missed you too."
The idea had come to Ron during one of his many arguments with Hermione on the subject of Harry. At the time, its purpose had been to prove Hermione wrong about him, but now, things had shifted. And so Ron found himself standing in front of the grand, white house in the countryside of England that he had tracked down back then, for the second time in his life, ready to set in motion the plan he had abandoned somewhere along the way the first time – ready to, if things went well, prove the innocence of the friend he had failed and thus, hopefully, beginning the process of mending their friendship.
The iron gates leading into the property were high and dark – at a first glance, they reminded Ron of the Malfoys' home, and he imagined a traditional pureblood family meeting him when he rang the doorbell. Then, the two cars on the driveway caught his eyes - most likely, these people were only wealthy Muggles. He walked through the gate and followed the path that led to the front door, accompanied by the sound of birdsong and gravel scrunching under his soles. A white, furry cat appeared and brushed against his legs. He bent down to pet it, and as it began purring contently, he smiled in surprise.
"You're nice," he told it. "A lot better than Crookshanks. I thank Merlin every day that Hermione's mum decided to take him in when we moved into our flat."
"Does she have anything interesting to say?" asked a voice from somewhere to the left.
Ron looked up. A dark-haired, pretty girl stood a few feet away from him, smiling as he blushed and straightened his back. She looked like she was about his age, but she was dressed in a very girly, pink dress that made her seem so young.
"Hi!" he said quickly. "I'm sorry for just showing up like this... my name's-"
"Ron Weasley," the girl said. "Of course. Every witch and wizard in this country knows that."
"And you're Eleanor?" he asked.
"I prefer Ellie," she laughed. "But yes, that is my name."
"In that case, we need to talk," Ron said. "Do you want to do it here?"
Ellie looked up at the serious tone in his voice, sat down on the step that led up to the front porch and shrugged. "Go ahead, then. Talk."
"This is about Harry," Ron said. "And the night you spent in his flat. When my sister stopped by and found you there."
"I remember," Ellie nodded. "So what do you want to know?"
"What really happened," Ron said firmly. "Harry and my sister broke up because of it, and I need to know if it... nothing happened, did it?"
"Yes, it did. We slept together. What else would we have done?"
"See, I don't think you did," Ron said. "Harry can't remember a thing from that night, which I find kind of strange. I've talked to his friends; the ones who were with him at the bar... they say it's a miracle that he even made it home in that state. So are you going to tell me the truth or not?"
"I'm telling you the truth!" Ellie argued.
"In that case, I would like to see it."
"See it? How are you...?"
Ron pulled something out of his pocket - it was a glass bottle, so small that it fit onto his palm when he held it out towards her. "I want to see your memory from that night, or I won't believe you."
A wrinkle formed on Ellie's forehead as she snorted. "Are you sure you want to see your best mate... doing that?"
"I'll have Harry watch it himself then," Ron said. "Either way, I need you to give it to me."
Ellie looked at him defiantly. "And why should I?"
"Because this is their lives we're talking about," Ron answered. "Harry just can't move on, because he feels like their breakup was for nothing and that she is the only one he wants to be with. So whatever happens in that memory... whether it's what you say it is or what I think it is, it will help him. If you did sleep together, then he'll know that Ginny broke up with him for a good reason, and he'll be able to process it, to accept it. If nothing happened, then Ginny needs to know that. Please. Whatever it may be, I need to know the truth."
Ellie lowered her head. She kept her eyes fixed on her own feet when she began talking again. She drew a line in the gravel with her toes, smoothed it out and drew it again, all while refusing to look at him.
"Nothing happened," she said quietly. "I just wanted it to look like something did, to be able to tell my friends it did. I... I cast a Confundus Charm on him and told him he had agreed to take me home with him. All night before that, he had only talked about your sister... so we went back to his place and all we did was sleep."
Ron shook his head at this, at hearing the truth that made him even more of a jerk than he had thought he was: the truth that he and Ginny and their family (at least parts of it) had shut Harry out for nothing. That they were the bad ones, the ones who had been mistaken – the ones who had broken Harry and Ginny up. It was them who had caused Harry all that pain.
"Thanks for telling me," he said, his voice just as thin and quiet as Ellie's.
She lifted her head. "Will you... are you going to tell people?"
"I'll tell Harry," Ron said. "And Ginny. Our family. But I don't think you have anything to worry about. No one's going to come after you - we're not going to want to waste another second on you."
The white cat meowed as he turned around to leave. This time, he ignored her and walked away, leaving her sitting on the lawn, completely clueless as to why he suddenly showed her no affection; perhaps he was transferring his anger towards Ellie onto her. Either way, no one scratched her white, soft belly that afternoon, and the cat thought it a pity.
A/N: Yay, the future looks a little brighter! It is what most of you have been asking for, isn't it? And I felt like Ron had to be the one to reveal the truth, to make up (at least a little bit) for the way he has been treating Harry. I think that one of the amazing things about their friendship in the books is how easily they always forgive each other, and so while it might take a while for things to go back to the way they were, they will get there!
Does anyone believe Malfoy when he says he has no ulterior motives? Do you think he's just developed a newfound interest in magical creatures?
As for Umbridge, she's always been wiling to do almost anything for power, and I don't see her as someone who can accept defeat. Also, I really wanted to punish her, because she IS evil, even if she's not a Death Eater.
Again, I just want to thank all of you a million times for reading, for taking the time to share your thoughts on each chapter and for being so lovely to me. I appreciate it so much, and as always, it would mean the world to me if you'd take the time to leave a review now that you've finished reading :)
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