"Hermione." Her name was followed by a firm knock on the door, and not a darling or a dear. She knew immediately what it was about, had been expecting this conversation since she stepped off the train, but only Dad had come to pick her up, so it made sense that they'd waited until Mum finished up at work and come home.
The door opened and her parents came in.
"We'd like to talk to you," Mum said. She had a bit of parchment in her hand and it looked wrong; Mum held clipboards and patient information forms and x-rays not bits of parchment. Hermione caught a glimpse of green ink - the sort Professor McGonagall favoured - and nodded.
"I suppose this is about what happened at the end of term," she said, sitting down on her bed with her hands in her lap. Her parents exchanged looks, perhaps having expected her to try to make excuses or avoid the topic, like she had with the scar on her neck. Then, Dad entered and sat himself at the chair at her desk, and Mum leaned against the wooden top of it. She was still wearing her scrub top, and smelled sterile like the dental practice, and also vaguely of mint. Crookshanks, who'd been skulking around atop Hermione's bookcase, jumped down and then up into Hermione's lap. He settled there, turning his squashed face on Mum and Dad.
"Yes," Mum said. "This- yes, this certainly is about that. Darling, it says you were abducted and-and tortured."
"Yes," Hermione said. She'd had days to consider how to handle this conversation, and only hoped she'd chosen the right way.
"Hermione…" Dad shook his head, looking ill.
"I won't pretend it wasn't awful," she said. "It was. But I'm quite all right now."
"Hermione, the fact that it's happened at all… your father and I have been talking, and- Every year so far, there's been something. Last year it was a coma! This year, there was your neck-" She gestured to the scar, hidden under the collar of Hermione's strategically chosen shirt. "-and now this! We know you seem to enjoy it there, but we have some serious concerns about that school, and its ability to keep you safe-"
"People get hurt every day," Hermione said. "I wouldn't necessarily be any safer at a muggle- normal school. I could fall down the stairs, or catch something nasty from a classmate, or get injured in a sports game."
"Darling," Mum said, "you've never had an interest in playing sport."
"And all those things you've listed would be accidents, Hermione," Dad said. "So far, none of what you've gone through has been; unlucky, perhaps, but not accidental. The magical world… it's dangerous."
"It's no more dangerous than anywhere else," Hermione said firmly. "After my abduction, the school's healer was able to fix me up much more quickly than any mug- normal doctor would have been able to."
"We'd like you to consider continuing your education elsewhere," Mum said.
"Well," Hermione said, deliberately misinterpreting her statement, "I suppose if Hogwarts is out, then the next closest would be Beauxbatons - they're in France. Otherwise there's Durmstrang, but I've heard their curriculum puts too much focus on Transfiguration and the Dark Arts, and not enough on Charms, and that they're very selective about which branches of History and Potions and Herbology they teach..."
"Somewhere non-magical, Hermione," Dad said. "Your mother and I have requested enrollment information from schools we think would be appropriate and they'll be posting things out for you to have a look at."
"I'm not leaving the magical world," Hermione said.
"We're not asking you- well, we are, but not this very moment. What we're asking is that you consider your options and make an educated decision on where the best place for you is. Consider it a holiday homework assignment."
"I have holiday assignments already."
"We'd like you to do this one too, please, Hermione."
"All right," Hermione sighed.
"Thank you," Dad said. "The other thing we'd like to talk to you about is whether you've spoken to anyone after... what happened. Your mother and I are always here for you, of course, but we're dentists, not therapists…"
"I've spoken to my friends," Hermione said.
"That's… good, I suppose, that you feel you can go to them, but they're not qualified either."
"Ron was taken too. He understands perfectly."
"Are Ron's parents having him speak to anyone?" Were they? They'd arranged a mind healer for Ginny after Hermione's second year, but would they get another one for Ron? Hermione didn't know. Ron hadn't mentioned anything, but it probably wasn't the sort of thing Ron would bring up.
"I'm not sure."
"I think we'd both feel better if you did speak to someone," Dad said. "Even if you don't feel like you need it."
"Okay," Hermione said. She'd dreamed of being tortured and being a rat each night since it had happened, so perhaps talking to someone would help. "But it'll have to be someone magical," she said. "It'd be too hard to censor it for a muggle therapist."
"Hermione, you could tell them whatever you needed to," Mum said. "They're bound by client confidentiality-"
"It'd be breaking the statute of secrecy," Hermione said. "And even if I was prepared to do that, they wouldn't believe me. They'd think I was mad."
"All right," Dad said. "More research for you, finding someone from your world that you think would be the right person for that job. Just don't organise anything until your mother and I have had a chance to meet them. Deal?"
"Sure, Dad," she said.
Dad smiled, a little sadly, and leaned forward to run his fingers gently through her hair and cup her face. He kissed her on the forehead, and Mum did the same, and then the pair of them left the room.
Hermione gathered Crookshanks up, and looked around the lavender walls of her childhood bedroom, at the still photographs and the maths and science textbooks on her bookshelf, and felt very alone.
"Harry." If Dumbledore was surprised by his presence in the fireplace, he didn't show it. "Is everything all right, dear boy?"
"I worked out the postcard," Harry said. "Can I come through?"
"Of course," Dumbledore said, backing away from the fireplace to give him room. Harry pulled his head out of the fireplace.
"If anyone asks, I'm at Hogwarts," he said to Kreacher, who was supervising the dishes by the sink. Padfoot wasn't likely to notice Harry was missing at all; he'd been bedridden for the past few days, still struggling against the curse. If he did get up, it was entirely possible his hallucinations would make him think Harry was there anyway. Moony, on the other hand, might wonder. Harry grabbed another handful of Floo powder. "Dumbledore's office."
"Scone?" Dumbledore asked, eyes twinkling.
"Sure." Harry took one, though he was still fairly full from breakfast. He slid the postcard across the desk, and watched Dumbledore's eyes flick over it.
"Is it meant to be blank?"
Harry drew his wand, grimacing a little.
"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," he murmured, and tapped the postcard. Writing bled out of it, covering the backside:
I need Black's mirror, it said in a round scrawl that Harry knew must be Wormtail's. The Dark Lord knows you know your way around the Ministry, so you'll be able to find a way to get it, and bring it to me at the school. Be in the Entrance Hall at three o'clock tomorrow, and look for my signal.
Below that, written in a far more elegant hand, was a single word:
"Wormtail and his accomplice - whoever that may be - have been using this to communicate," Dumbledore murmured. "May I?" He gestured to the postcard and - at Harry's nod - lifted it up to examine it. "And it can be hidden again?"
"Mischief managed." Harry tapped the postcard again.
Dumbledore turned it over a few times, then said, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good." He glanced at Harry. "This is not Tom's style..."
"No," Harry said. "It's Wormtail's. They used the same spell when they were at school."
"Ingenious," Dumbledore said softly.
"Do you recognise the second person's handwriting?" Harry asked.
"This particular style of calligraphy was popular with purebloods through the sixties and seventies." Harry goggled at him. "Unfortunately, that does very little to narrow it down, since a great deal of Voldemort's supporters were purebloods that learned to write during that time period." Harry tried not to let his disappointment show, but Dumbledore must have seen it. "Thankfully, though, dear boy, we need not depend on handwriting alone."
Dumbledore reached for a quill, and, after several long moments spent studying the postcard, he tapped the postcard, then his quill, and began to write. Harry craned his neck for a better look.
The Dark Lord has requested you meet me, urgently, Dumbledore had written, in a flawless reproduction of Wormtail's hand. Be at Fortescue's at Diagon Alley at two o'clock and wear something with pockets - I won't be coming as a human.
"Do you think that'll work?" Harry asked.
"Perhaps," Dumbledore said. "Perhaps not. If Wormtail's accomplice comes, they're bound to be looking for a rat, and constantly patting their pockets, which ought to give them away. If they do not show up, Florean has recently released a new rum and raisin flavour that I've been hoping to sample, so the afternoon will not be a complete loss." He winked at Harry.
"Can I come?" he asked. "Two pairs of eyes are better than one-"
"Useful as your eyes might be, Harry, it would be best if you didn't," Dumbledore said gently. "If it came to a duel, it would be less than ideal for you to be seen performing public underage magic in the company of your teacher. I will, however, invite Alastor along - with him, I've found one eye is better than two pairs."
"Where's your brother?" Lucius asked. Draco glanced down at him from his perch in the branches of the tree that grew in the courtyard. He looked lazily comfortable, expression as haughty as that of a king on his throne, and - somehow - proper, despite the fact that it was a childish place to sit and he should have outgrown it long ago.
"Out," Draco said. He turned the page of his book.
"Out?" Lucius repeated. "Out where?"
"Crabbe's maybe, or visiting the Greengrasses."
Lucius checked his pocket watch, ground his teeth, and glanced back up at his younger son.
"Come down from there."
"I'm taking you to get an icecream."
"An icecream?" For the first time, Draco's mask flickered, and Lucius couldn't help but feel smug about that; it was getting harder and harder to get Draco to react to anything. He savoured the look of confusion on his son's face. "But… we've just had lunch."
"Down, Draco." Draco narrowed his eyes but closed his book with a snap, tucked it under his arm, and dropped down to join Lucius.
"It's been a while since you and I spent any time together." He hoped that might appeal to his son's Gryffindor side, but Draco's look was cool and dubious and utterly Slytherin.
"We had a nice walk together earlier in the week," Draco said. "You know, when you came to meet me after my Divination exam and take me down to Hagrid's hut to watch an execution."
"There was no execution," Lucius said stiffly. The only response Draco gave was to curl his lips up ever so slightly. "And before that… I can hardly remember the last time the pair of us-"
"I can," Draco said. "Don't you remember the time we spoke about Dobby and the hippogriff in your office-"
"We're going to be late," Lucius snapped.
"Late for impromptu icecream?" Draco asked.
"Yes!" Lucius' tone would have sent Hydrus scuttling into the Manor. Draco arched an eyebrow and stalked inside. Lucius stalked after him.
"Lucius." Narcissa paused on the stairs, noticing Draco. "An owl's just arrived for you."
"Leave the letter on my desk, and I'll read it when I return," he said. "Draco and I are going out."
"We're getting icecream, apparently," Draco muttered. Lucius shot his son a look. Narcissa glanced between them and Lucius finally noticed what was in her hand; not an envelope, or even a roll of parchment. It was a postcard. Lucius stilled.
"Wait for me in the drawing room," Lucius said, waving Draco away. Remarkably, he didn't question it. As soon as he was out of sight and earshot, Lucius reached for the postcard. "What now?" he hissed. Narcissa passed it over, but remained where she was, watching. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," Lucius whispered, with a glance at the corner Draco had disappeared around.
My last postcard didn't make it out of Hogwarts so I've had to make a new pair. This is yours.
Be by your Floo at midnight. Our Lord wishes to have a discussion.
Lucius read it, re-read it, and then swallowed and read it again a third time, just to be sure he hadn't missed anything.
He suddenly felt as if he had ice in his veins; if Pettigrew's last postcard had been left at Hogwarts, then it hadn't been him that had written to Lucius that morning. That meant someone had found it, worked out how to use it, and, in all likelihood, written the message to trick Lucius into revealing himself as the other postcard's owner, and, therefore, Pettigrew's accomplice. Was it an Auror, or perhaps Dumbledore? He supposed the who mattered less than the fact that he'd been mere moments away from playing right into their hands.
Pettigrew's flight from Hogwarts had been almost a week ago now. He ought to have alerted Lucius well before now to the fact that the postcard had been compromised.
And then, there was the message's ominous second half. For a year now, Pettigrew had been communicating with Lucius through these postcards, supposedly on the Dark Lord's behalf. He'd received no evidence that that was the case, but had little choice but to go along with it; if the Dark Lord asked for Lucius' aid and did not receive it… Lucius shuddered to think about it.
And, if Pettigrew was lying and using the threat of the Dark Lord to ensure his cooperation, then he was both more brave and foolish than Lucius had ever given him credit for, and not likely to live for more than a few hours once the Dark Lord learned of it.
But this… the way Pettigrew had worded it made it sound as if Lucius would be speaking with the Dark Lord himself to discuss… well, Lucius didn't have the first clue what his Lord might wish to discuss with him, but the very thought of it made him nervous. Had he displeased his Lord somehow? Or did he have another favour to ask, one that Lucius would turn it down if it came from Pettigrew?
"Lucius?" Narcissa asked softly.
"I'll be in my study," he said, turning on his heel.
"What about your outing with Draco?"
"No. I'll see you both at dinner."
He heard Narcissa sigh. It was a frustrated sound, but he could hear the worry in it as well. Then, he heard the soft rustle of her robes as she swept after Draco.
"Wh- Harry!" Dora turned away from the kitchen cupboards and smiled at him.
"Kreacher said you were all here," he said. He could hear Moony and Padfoot's voices drifting in through the open door of Moony's cottage.
"Figured Sirius might like a change of scene," Dora said, glancing toward the door. "Grimmauld seems like it's a bad place for him at the moment." Harry nodded. "Tea?"
"No, thanks," Harry said; he'd had tea and scones with Dumbledore before he left. Dora shrugged and turned back to the cupboard. Harry left her to it.
Moony and Padfoot were lying in the thick grass at the bottom of Moony's garden, apparently enjoying the sunshine.
"-looks like a duck," Moony said, waving a hand at the sky.
"If we're playing a game of who can see the strangest things in the clouds, you'll lose," Padfoot muttered, sounding amused. Harry drew to a stop at that, no longer sure if he ought to approach them. Of everyone, Padfoot seemed to find Harry hardest to deal with when he was having one of his episodes. Lately, Padfoot had seemed more aware of when he was having them - able to tell when he was hallucinating instead of allowing himself to get caught up in the visuals - but if he got too overwhelmed he'd have a panic attack and have to be stunned or put to sleep for a bit to recover.
"Yeah," Padfoot said. "Nothing scary, just…" He was quiet, looking up at the clouds, and then shook his head and turned to glance at Moony. "Bloody hell; you look fifteen." He rubbed eyes and shook his head again, laughing a little.
"Is it bothering you?" Moony made to sit up, tone wary.
"No," Padfoot said. "It's fine, just… odd. You've even got a little Prefect's badge on-" He gestured to Moony's chest. "-but your clothes haven't changed..." He propped himself up on his elbows and glanced around, eyes landing on Harry, frozen in the middle of the garden. Padfoot smiled but his eyes were sad. "Sure enough…" he muttered.
"What?" Moony hadn't turned around.
"I was just thinking that having you look fifteen makes me feel like the others should be here too..." Padfoot was still watching Harry. Moony glanced over his shoulder, saw Harry, then looked at Padfoot, expression gentle.
"I suppose you're seeing James?"
"How'd you know?" Padfoot murmured.
"The look on your face, for one," Moony said. "I doubt you'd look that way for Peter. But for two, mistaking Harry for James happens to everyone, even those of us that aren't cursed." He flashed Harry a quick, rather wry grin. Harry smiled back, a little uncertain, and eyed Padfoot who'd gone quiet.
"If I'm too much, I can go back..."
Moony grimaced and said, "That might be bes-"
"No," Padfoot said. "Don't be silly, it's fine." He patted the grass beside him. Harry glanced at Moony. He shrugged, so Harry went and sat down. Padfoot must have smelled his uncertainty because he reached out and tugged Harry into a sideways hug. "See?" he said. "All fine."
Harry studied his face. His eyes seemed mostly clear, but there was a tightness around them, and Harry wasn't able to conjure anything more genuine than a half-hearted smile:
Padfoot poked him in the side. Harry grinned and made a half-hearted attempt to wriggle away, but didn't actually bother to move more than a few inches.
"Castle," Moony said, pointing at the clouds.
"Isn't that the same one you said was a duck?"
"No," Moony said with dignity. "The duck's over there." He pointed at another cloud. Harry squinted at at it for a moment, then gave up, catching Padfoot's eye.
"Green again," Padfoot murmured, then snorted. "Moony, you've aged."
"Gracefully, I hope," Moony said, sounding amused. He glanced at Padfoot. "It's passed, then?"
"Looks like," Padfoot said. The tightness around his eyes was gone.
"Excellent," Moony said, sitting up and rubbing his neck. "Then I can stop trying to get you to use cloud watching as a safe outlet for your hallucinations." He winked at Harry, who laughed. Padfoot smelled a bit off, and Moony seemed to notice at the same time as Harry. "Padfoot?"
"Just- I mean, hallucinating's never a good thing, and it's nice to see you properly again-" He nodded at Harry. "-but… it was nice to see him." He gave them both a shaky smile.
"Hallucinations also shouldn't be something to be jealous of," Moony murmured, "but I'd make an exception, just this once." The smile he gave Harry was gentle, apologetic.
"It's fine," Harry said, and meant it. He, after all, had looked forward to opening the locket again last summer for just that reason - a chance to see his parents, even if it was only for a few moments. Photographs and stories - while generally much happier - and dreams - generally awful - just weren't the same.
Silence - not a sad one, but certainly a nostalgic one on Moony and Padfoot's parts - followed that. Harry stayed quiet too, at least until a thought occurred to him.
"I can't do much about Dad, other than looking like him," he said slowly, and the other two both turned to face him, "and the same's true for Mum, except for the eyes." Harry pulled his wand out, rolling it between his fingers. "But I can give you Prongs." Moony's eyes brightened with understanding; Harry was sure he'd have heard through Dora.
"Harry," Padfoot said, sounding a bit confused, "you're a wolf."
"Yeah," Harry said. "But look." He lifted his wand, and hesitated; patronuses were impressive magic, and powerful. Silly as it was, it took him a moment to make his peace with his choice to cast it sitting down - it seemed like the sort of spell one should cast standing up. But he was comfortable between Padfoot and Moony, so he put his efforts into finding a happy memory instead.
Oddly, though, it wasn't a memory that sprung to mind, but rather, a thought - a three thoughts, actually; the first was that he knew how much this would mean to both Padfoot and Moony, and the knowledge that he could do that for them left a warm feeling in his chest. The second was that he'd been trying to cast a proper patronus for months and he was excited to show it off to the pair of them. The third was he hadn't had the chance to cast a patronus again since that night in the forest, and he also wanted to see Prongs again.
"Expecto patronum," Harry murmured, and Prongs burst forward, enormous and silvery. He did two small circles of the bottom of the garden, and then settled enough to trot forward, head held high and proud.
The effort of maintaining it was far harder than Harry had thought, and Prongs faded a little, but all it took was a glance at Padfoot's expression - equal parts shocked and awed - and Moony's - fond, and a little nostalgic - to set him glowing brightly again.
"It's him," Padfoot said, leaning forward. Harry tried to encourage Prongs to move closer, but couldn't manage it. "It's not just any stag, it's actually… look at the markings around the eyes, Moony-"
"And the scar on his neck," Moony murmured. He reached out and gave Harry's shoulder a squeeze. Harry turned to him, smiling and distracted, and Prongs faded.
"Sorr-" Harry began.
"It's brilliant," Padfoot said, slinging an arm over his shoulders and smiling the first true smile Harry'd seen since he was cursed.
"The doubts I have had about your loyalty since my… fall, have been allayed in the past year, Lucius by your service to Wormtail… Mostly."
"My loyalty has never faltered, my Lord." Lucius knelt before the fireplace, his head bowed so low that the ends of his hair touched the stone floor. "I have remained loyal-"
"Have you?" The Dark Lord's voice was soft, dangerous. "You didn't renounce me, then, after I fell?"
"I- I did, my Lord," Lucius forced the words out, speaking to the stones before the fireplace rather than the small, snake-like face in the green flames. "But I knew when you returned I would be better placed to serve you if I was free than if I were locked in Azkaban with the others-"
"A pretty lie, Lucius."
"I would not lie to you, my Lord."
"Then you didn't renounce me to save yourself the discomfort of a cell in Azkaban?"
"I kept my freedom so that I could be of use to you," Lucius said. "That I was able to wait for the opportunity to do so from the comfort of my Manor and not a cell is a fortunate side-effect."
"Silver tongued as ever, I see." There was the faintest hint of amusement in the Dark Lord's tone, and Lucius let out a tiny, silent breath of relief. He dared to look up, and met the Dark Lord's slitted eyes. "But I confess myself concerned that you've been merely waiting for all these years… Did you ever look for me, Lucius? Did you ever try to find me?"
"I searched," Lucius said, "and found nothing. If I had heard even a whisper-"
"There were whispers. I have been found, after all." The Dark Lord's eyes drifted to the outline of the hand holding him in place in the Floo.
"I should have tried harder, my Lord," Lucius murmured. "I have disappointed you."
"Yes." Any relief Lucius had felt earlier vanished. "You have. And even more disappointingly, you are not the only one that has - you are one of many." Lucius felt ill. "But, you are also one of very few that have aided me of late-" Lucius held his breath. "-and for that, I might be persuaded to be more... forgiving…"
"Yes, my Lord," Lucius said immediately. "Thank you. I shall never give you cause to doubt my loyalty again-"
"That would be wise." His voice was so soft it was almost a hiss. "I do hope that I can trust you, Lucius. That you're not just putting together pretty words in an attempt to appease me…"
"Never, my Lord."
"Prove it." Lucius was stymied for a moment, then, quickly pulled back his sleeve and showed the faded mark to the fireplace.
"I still bear your mark after all these years-"
"Admirable," the Dark Lord said, tone almost wry, "but I had a more… demonstrative proof in mind."
That's it for Impose - thank you so much for sticking with the story, I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it! :)
Thank you to all of you that have left reviews along the way - I'm sorry I don't have time to respond to them these days, but please don't think that doesn't mean I don't appreciate them. I read every single one, and I find them incredibly motivating - either to keep doing what I'm doing, or to do better. :)
Lastly, I've worked incredibly hard this fortnight to not just get this final chapter done, but also the first chapter of the next story (titled "Intensity"). If it's not up already, it will be very shortly! :)