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Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter

"You ready, Princess?"

The raid team was crouched at the edge of the forest on the border of the Zabini estate. About a week had passed since Lupin had briefed them about the mission. They had waited for his signal since then. This morning, he stormed into Headquarters at half past nine and nodded.

The raiders followed protocol: five minutes to prepare for a pre-meditated raid. Hermione raced up to her room and pulled on her dark jeans, a dark tank, and a leather jacket. The others all wore robes, but she always chose to wear Muggle clothes to a mission unless the difference would attract attention.

She strapped her wand into the holster around her waist and tied her hair up into a high ponytail. "What do you think, Fred?"

Her friend was crouched on her right side. He was whispering, standard mission rules. On her other side was Seamus. He had his hand on the small of her back. She shivered under his touch, as she normally did. Something was different this past week. He was more possessive. Angrier.

In a world of nothing but fear, she was surprised by how much he scared her.

Fred gave her a look, drawing her attention back to his freckled face. He sighed. "It's just, you haven't been on a mission since…well…."

"Since Oliver and Dean died?" she snapped. She felt Seamus' hand tighten its hold on her. She took a deep breath and shifted uncomfortably under the new pressure. "I don't suppose I have."

"You were right in the centre of that battle," Fred continued, looking at the ground. "You…you saw them die."

"I've seen a lot of people die," she reminded him. The nonchalance in her voice shook her more than she'd like to admit. When had she started living in a world where seeing people die was normal? It was protocol. Everything was protocol now.

"Yes I know," Fred said, his voice quieter than ever. "But, you were so close to them."

She took a deep breath and tried to keep her voice steady. "This is a war, Fred. Sometimes you lose the people that you care about."

"But," he hesitated for a moment. Then he sighed. "I've been meaning to ask you this since the mission. Ron and Harry were also wondering, but didn't have the balls to do it. Were you…you and Oliver…involved?"

Her head snapped to look at Fred straight-on. She was trying desperately to ignore Seamus's breathing behind her.

"Why do you ask?" she demanded, trying to keep her heart-rate down.

"You were heartbroken after he died," Fred explained. "You locked yourself in your room and only left to go tend to Seamus's wounds. We have never seen you like that. Not when Vector was killed last year, or Terry, or even Parvarti."

Hermione wiped a stray tendril behind her ear. "If I told you I had never been with Oliver, I'd be lying," she whispered quietly, trying to shield Seamus from her words.A memory of a night a few days after the Battle of Yaxley Manor flashed through her mind, all heat and passion. She took a deep breath.

"But I wasn't with him. Not more than once or twice, at least. But we were good friends. I wasn't upset because I had lost a boyfriend, Fred. I was upset because I had lost a friend. A very good friend. I watched him grow up. He taught me how to stay on a broom for more than five seconds. And in an instant, all of that was gone. His smile, frozen in my memory for all of eternity. How do you bounce back from the death of someone who was part of your life? I'm trying, Fred. Tell Harry and Ron that too. I'm doing what I can. We all are."

She managed a weak smile that faded after a mere second of existence.

Fred reached up and rubbed her arm comfortingly. "We'll bounce. We always do."

"At least we try."

"Mark!" came a sudden shouted whisper. Hermione looked past Fred to see MadEye stand up. He was leaning on his wooden leg for support, while his magical eye moved quickly, seeing something the rest of them couldn't.

He made a quick signal to start their advance. "The wards have fallen," their general said, voice strong. "They're approaching from the other side."

The team rose from their crouching positions. Hermione felt a wave of coldness flash through her. Padma had gotten the disillusionment charms done, at least. The Order moved out of the forest line and began their descent on the Manor.

Hermione's heart pounded as they crossed the estate. They were trying desperately not to make a sound. Accustomed to this level of silence, she was able to hear any sound out of place. It took her several moments before she was able to pinpoint the footsteps of the Death Eaters on the other side of the large house.

They reached the back wall without difficulty. Hermione took a step back and cast a vanishing spell on all the back windows. This was her part of the mission. As soon as the glass had disappeared, the other members of her team began to push and hoist each other through the now empty holes. She was last to go in. Seamus pulled her through the window like she weighed little more than a feather.

The moment they were in, they took account of their surroundings. Lupin had debriefed them on the layout of the Zabini Manor. They had entered through the library. She turned and saw the door on the right side, exactly where their werewolf had said it would be.

She began the advance, gesturing at everyone to fall in behind her. They did without question. She felt a touch on her hip and knew that Seamus was right behind her.

She reached forward and grasped the doorknob. She spun in slowly, and peaked into the empty hallway.

"All clear," she mouthed at her team. She caught Alastor's eye. He looked up through the ceiling of the library, magical eye darting around for a moment.

"First door on the left," he whispered. She nodded in response.

Fred and Seamus were in charge of getting Blaise. Hermione was to protect the stairwell with Bill, Neville and Arthur. The others were to intercept the Death Eaters in their attempt to get the items.

The team snuck through the door.

Hermione turned left with her portion of the group. They made their way slowly down the hallway. At the end, they found what must be the servant's staircase. Seamus and Fred pushed past her and leapt up the steps. Hermione turned back on the hallway they had just traversed, her wand raised.

For a moment, she thought the raid was going to go fine. In, out. Nothing special. Nothing hard.

Then she saw the door at the end of the corridor blast open, and she knew she was wrong.

From above, she heard scuffling. Blaise must be putting up a fight, she mused. However, her thoughts were preoccupied with the three masked figures who had just entered the hallway.

"Code Black!" she shouted. Immediately, her cohorts fell into a defensive position. Above her, she heard a thud. The Death Eaters turned on them immediately.

She sent a stunning jinx at them, which the one at the front deflected easily. She ducked narrowly to avoid a curse. The close quarters filled with flashes and spells.

They were too close to fight properly. They would all end up dead in this situation.

Hermione looked around for a solution. Without a second thought, she pointed her want at the wall of the hallway.

"Reducto!" She shouted. The wall crumbled into dust. She gestured frantically at her team. "Go, better playing field!"

Bill was the first to jump over the broken stones and into the next room. The shortest Death Eater kept his spells focused on the eldest Weasley child. Hermione was watching Arthur and Neville move to the bigger space when she was suddenly grabbed from behind.

One hand wrapped around her waist and the other across her mouth.

"Who could this one be?" a menacing voice hissed in her ear. The disillusionment charm must still be up, she thought with relief. A second later, she felt the tingle and knew that her disguise was mute.


Her attacker had her wand armed trapped at her side. She couldn't do anything; barely point her wand in the right direction unless she got her arm free.

She started to lift her left arm to hit at her attacker, but before she could make contact, he had lifted his hand from her mouth to catch her wrist.

She screamed. The attacker had grabbed right where the willow had burned into her skin. The mark exploded under his touch.

She almost blacked out.

"Seems like I hit a nerve, didn't I, mudblood?" She was in so much pain that she hardly realized he knew who she was.

He felt her rip open her sleeve in an attempt to see what he had hit.

Suddenly, the hands around her fell away. She jumped forward and turned on the Death Eater, arm raised and panting. She was still seeing stars from the pain.

Her attacker stood in front of her, with his arms at his side. He was shaking his head, backing up slowly. "No, it couldn't be….they were dead, they all died…"

There was something vaguely familiar about the piercing grey eyes under the mask. Those eyes were wide now, filled with shock.

"Retreat," the man whispered. Hermione nearly dropped her arms in surprise. He turned to his companions. "Retreat!" he shouted. He seemed to hold some sort of authority over the rest of them. The others fell back without hesitation. The Order was too shocked to do anything as the Death Eaters all disapparated in front of them.

Hermione lowered her wand slowly, eyes darting around, trying to see if it was a trick. The others came barrelling through what was left of the door at the end of the corridor. MadEye was at the front.

"They're gone!" he shouted, his magical eye looking everywhere in the house. "All of them. They just retreated."

She heard noises behind her. She turned to see Seamus and Fred carry an unconscious Blaise Zabini down the final steps of the staircase. He had a bruise on his cheek and looked thoroughly knocked out.

The others were re-grouping around where Hermione was standing. Her eyes shifted to where her attacker had stood moments before.

He had seen the mark on her arm.

"Get back to headquarters," Alastor said. "Bill, Arthur, stay with me and destroy those artifacts. The rest of you, fill Lupin in. Get the kid some water and fix up his face." None of them moved.

"For fuck's sake, they could be back any moment with reinforcements. Go!"

Hermione was still frozen, unable to comprehend what had just happened. She felt Seamus grab her arm.

"Come on Hermione," he muttered. Her eyes were stuck on the empty space even as she apparated away.

"They just retreated? No reason?"

They had just arrived back at Headquarters. Lupin, Harry, Ron, Ginny and Molly were all standing in the kitchen, listening to their tale from the raid.

Padma nodded. "We were fighting three of them, trying to prevent them from getting the objects. Someone shouted to retreat from the other room and they all disapparated. Just like that."

"Were they losing?" Lupin asked, the confusion evident.

Neville shook his head. "It was fairly even. We actually would've been wiped out, but Hermione knocked down a wall. We had been fighting in close quarters, but she opened up another room which evened the playing field."

"Then who called retreat?" Harry asked, leaning on the table. He took off his glasses and rubbed them absentmindedly on his sleeve. He only ever did that when he was trying to solve a problem.

Before anyone could answer, Fred and Seamus entered the kitchen.

"The Slytherin is tied up in the spare bedroom on the third floor," Seamus announced. "He should be out for another hour or so. After that, we can try explaining to him what happened."

"How'd you get him?" Molly asked, her eyes darting over Fred nervously, checking for any signs of injury.

"We knocked him out," Fred chuckled. "The guy was sitting in his room reading a book when we stormed in. He obviously had no idea anyone was after him or his property. He fought for a while, but we overpowered him."

Lupin nodded. "We'll talk to Mr. Zabini when the time comes. But first, we really must understand what happened here. Harry's question still stands. Who called the retreat?"

"It was the Death Eater fighting Hermione," Neville admitted. He looked at her sheepishly. "I didn't see much of their battle though."

"Hermione?" Lupin asked, surprised. "What happened?"

Since they had arrived, she had been sitting at the kitchen table, staring off into space and trying to comprehend what had happened. At Lupin's question, her eyes snapped back to reality and she was forced to turn to her comrades.

"We were fighting," she said quietly. "Well, actually, after I had blown the hole in the wall, I was distracted and he grabbed me."

"What?!" Seamus cried, fear and anxiety creeping into his voice. Everyone looked at him for a moment, a few eyebrows raised at his strange outburst.

"It's not that bad," she said, trying to draw attention back to herself. "One hand on my mouth so I couldn't scream, and one hand around my waist, trapping my wand hand."

"That's not that bad?" Ron said in a similar manner to Seamus.

"We've all been man-handled," she defended herself.

"This was an in and out mission," Lupin said. "You shouldn't have even been in a position to have been grabbed."

She rubbed the crease between her eyes. "I'm sorry, alright? I fucked up."

"Fucked up?" Harry said. The worry and anger in his voice was palpable. "You could've been killed!"

"But I wasn't!" She cried, finally standing up. "You can all stand there and bitch me out for being distracted for one second. But remember that I was distracted while saving everyone. If I hadn't knocked down that wall, the close quarters battle would've killed us. You can't dodge an Unforgivable in a space like that. I did what I had to, and I faced the consequences. I'm not stupid and I'm not dead so stop treating me like I'm both."

There was a short silence after her monologue. Lupin was the first to concede.

"You're right, Hermione," he sighed. "We should not be jumping down your throat. We're just worried about you."

"And I appreciate it," she replied. "But I'm not a child."

"We know," her old teacher said. He gave a weak smile. "Sometimes I still think you all are. You'll always be that brilliant thirteen year old girl who discovered I was a werewolf, at least a little bit."

Hermione returned his attempt at smiling. She refused to look at Harry, Ron or Seamus. Instead, she focused her eyes on Lupin and asked, "Do you want to hear the rest of the story?"

Everyone nodded.

She sat back down. "So he grabbed me. I couldn't use my wand because it was trapped. My only way out was to try and make him release that arm. I tried to hit him with my free arm, but he let go of my mouth and grabbed my wrist. But he grabbed the mark."

She lifted up her left arm and showed the rip the Death Eater had made in her jacket. Below it, the willow tree was bright red against her skin. She winced at the sight.

Harry narrowed his eyes. "It looks inflamed."

"It probably is," she answered. "He grabbed the mark and it burned me. Not even that, it exploded. I felt like I'd been hit with the Cruciatus. I cried out and the Death Eater realized he had hit something. He ripped open my sleeve, saw the mark, and let me go. Then he called the retreat."

The room became silent. Lupin was blinking rapidly at her confession, his mouth hanging open slightly.

They heard a crack from the next room and MadEye, Bill and Arthur walked into the kitchen. Hardly noticing the tension, the auror reached for his hip flask and took a swing.

"We destroyed everything," he said. "Basically burned the bloody manor to the ground. They won't be coming back again."

From behind him, Arthur walked forward, eyeing everyone. "What did we miss?"

"They retreated?" Lupin asked, his voice barely above a whisper. "They left a house full of Order members and dark objects. They could've probably killed a few and gotten some of the items, but they left because of the mark on your arm?"

Hermione nodded.

"Did he say anything else?" Molly asked, her face white.

Hermione thought back for a moment. "Umm…something about death. They were all dead. They had all died. That's what he said."

The silence that followed her statement was even more shocking than the previous.

"Bloody hell, Hermione," Harry whispered. "What the hell is that thing?"

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Fred asked.

They were standing in front of the spare room on the third floor. On the other side of the door, Blaise Zabini was howling.

Hermione nodded. "I can't be in that kitchen for another goddamn minute."

For the past hour and a half, the Order had been focused on nothing but the mark on her arm. They had started pooling resources, trying to find a trace of it in books. Lupin asked her continuously about the attack. She repeated her story as more members arrived. And all the while, Seamus, Ron and Harry stood protectively behind her chair.

She felt suffocated. She couldn't handle being the centre of attention, especially in what may be a life or death situation.

Fred sighed. "Yeah. Who would've thought that your tree tattoo might actually be mildly interesting?"

"Not me," she admitted. "After that first day, I thought the Gods had just wanted to give me a tattoo."

He pointed at her arm. "Do you mind if…"

She sighed and raised it. "Everyone else has. Just don't touch it."

He took her arm gingerly and examined the willow tree that had darkened even more in the past hour. It was now almost maroon.

"I mean, it just looks like a birthmark." Fred looked up at her. "Maybe it just means you were raised by trees."

"I don't remember photosynthesizing to live."


She rolled her eyes. "Muggle science. Unimportant." She glanced back at the mark. "I don't even mind everyone trying to understand it. I'm just a puzzle that needs to be solved. If it has something to do with the war, it's important. But what I can't stand is everyone treating me like I'm breakable."

"Your trio of watchdogs leaves something to be desired."

She groaned. "I'm so glad they all have watch duty right now. I couldn't handle feeling that…fragile."

"You are anything but fragile," Fred said. He raised an eyebrow. "Speaking of your bodyguards, are you screwing Finnigan?"

She started. "Pardon?" The guilt in her voice gave her away immediately.

Fred chuckled. "Come on, Hermione. Even before he went super-protector boyfriend today, the way he watches you is indecent. Really. Get a room."

Hermione winced. "I thought no one knew."

"And by that you mean Ron and Harry, who are frankly as dense as bricks."

She sighed. "Do you care?"

Fred shook his head. "No. Why would I? Or why would anyone for that matter. This war is sucking out all the humanity in life. If sleeping with the Irish lets you feel like a human being for I'm guessing two and a half minutes at a time, then Godspeed, my child."

She slapped his arm.

He pouted. "Ouch. But honestly, Hermione. No one will be angry with you for trying to feel human. We are all trying, every day, to even have a second of life in our lives. What did I say earlier? When the world gets hard, we bounce. You, apparently more than others."

She slapped him again.

"Okay," he said, hands in the air. He surveyed her for a moment. "Do you love him?"

She shook her head. "He's a good friend, and I care about him, but that's it. I don't think I could ever fall in love during a war."

"That's where I think you're wrong, Hermione," Fred said. "It's surprisingly easy to fall in love during war. Knowing you could die at any moment causes people to take the risks they would usually avoid. It also makes you realize how easy it is to lose people, and by default, who you couldn't stand losing. If you aren't in love with Seamus, it's not because you couldn't fall in love during a battle. It's because you aren't in love with him."

Hermione appraised him for a moment. "Has anyone ever told you you're very intelligent?"

"Quite often in fact," he responded. "But to hear it from Hermione Granger herself, I don't think I've known a greater honour."

Suddenly, another scream sounded from behind the closed door.

Fred gestured to it. "You'd better go talk to the big, bad Slytherin. He sounds like he's being attacked by banshees."

She rolled her eyes and stepped forward. She opened the door to the room and slipped in before turning to face Blaise Zabini.

He was sitting upright in a small cot, all of his limbs bound together by rope. His face was still bruised, but she hardly noticed because of the sweat pouring down his face. He was still screaming when she walked in. However, the second he saw her face, his voice fell.

"Granger?" he blinked, after a moment of silence. "Hermione Granger?"

She grimaced. "Hello, Blaise Zabini."

"What…what's going on?"

She conjured a chair and pulled it up to where he was sitting. "I know that right now, you're confused and angry, but I need you to listen to me."

He narrowed his eyes. "Your people broke into my home, knocked me unconscious, dragged me here and tied me up, and I should actually listen to you?"

"Yes," she replied promptly. "Because I have the answers that you need, and more importantly, the authority to untie you."

He paused.

"Then speak, Gryffindor."

She did. She told him about the items that his mother had collected over the years, and the Death Eaters' interest in them. She explained how they knew about the raid and had deployed a team to his home to protect his life and prevent the acquisition of the Dark Objects. Finally, she informed him about the destruction of his home in the process.

He blinked several times after her story.

"So you all saved my life?"

She nodded. "That we did."

"And you destroyed my house."

"That we did."

He surveyed her for a moment. "I can't decide to kiss you or punch you, Granger."

She shrugged. "We did what we had to. You are lucky to be alive."

He paused. "I am grateful. I'm just…I'm confused. I'm neutral. Why the fuck would you guys care if I get killed?"

She recoiled as if slapped. "Because you are a human being and deserve to live. We do not condone death. That is not who we are."

He gave her a look. "Really? You didn't just interfere because of the objects."

"We did in part, but do not doubt that preventing your murder was one of our main objectives." She took a deep breath and looked him dead in the eye. "You were going to be killed, and in good conscience, we could not allow that to happen. We don't care if you're a Slytherin, or a pureblood, or a neutral. Before any of that, you are a human being. That is how you deserve to be treated, and that is how we treated you in this case. You're welcome, but don't be grateful for something that should be a right and not a privilege. You have the right to live."

He was silent for a moment. "I...I'm not sure how to be neutral after a speech like that."

Hermione smiled at him.

"Well then, Blaise Zabini, welcome to the Order of the Phoenix."

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