Hermione discovered how strong the Potter genes were when she met Charlus Potter that night. He was greeting each guest as they arrived and she had to school her expression into polite interest when she saw a Harry Potter look alike, albeit older, taller and with hazel eyes, but the resemblance was quite startling. If Harry was a clone of his father, he in turn was a carbon copy of his own. She wondered how the little Potters of the future would turn out.
"Linus, old friend!" their host boomed. "And where is cousin mothball?"
His wife, or so she assumed since she was standing so close to him, elbowed him in the ribs while her face gave nothing away.
"Cousin Martha couldn't make it, unfortunately," Hermione provided, amused by the couple's antics. "So I'm standing in for her. A bit of a let down, I'm sure, but I'll do my best to be as charming as she usually is."
"Won't be much of a challenge, I'm afraid- Oi! Dora, you do know you have very pointy elbows, don't you? I'm sure I've mentioned it before."
"Indeed, dear. It does ring a bell. Be good now."
Linus had a hard time keeping a straight face until he found an opportune pause between the bickering hosts to introduce her as Miss Hermione White, a friend visiting from abroad, giving her a perfect cover which shouldn't arouse too many questions. She felt bad about implicating Linus this much, but she had no choice, and she had to keep telling herself that so she wouldn't lose track of why she was there.
Grindelwald's incursion into the heart of Diagon Alley and the identity of the mysterious Grey Lady was the talk of the night. Only to be expected, she supposed, but Hermione was relieved when Linus invited her for a dance, giving her time to get away from the silliest pieces of gossip and strategize. She had not had the opportunity to form a plan to snoop around yet and she realized just how easy it had been to procure the two other Hallows compared to this one. She wished Death could be a bit more helpful but she also knew this was the Hallow he had the least power over since the cloak's very purpose was to hide from him.
"May I?" someone asked, forcing them to a stop.
"Stealing my date already, Charlus?" Linus chuckled. "You're never this eager when I dance with Martha."
"That's because Martha is a bit too eager to dance with me." Charlus replied smartly and stepped in as Hermione's partner, twirling and spinning her around expertly.
"So how did you two meet? I must say I've never seen Linus have quite so much fun at my Ball before. Of course, he's never mentioned you before either."
"We met at a pub. Linus was fascinated with the way I was devouring my bowl of stew," she replied with ease, the smile as she thought back to their meeting at the Leaky Cauldron both fond and geniune. "But we're just good friends, not... Whatever it is you're thinking."
"Shame. Maybe Linus will convince you otherwise. He can be very persuasive when he puts his mind to it."
"I can imagine," she chuckled. "Unfortunately, I'm not here for long, but I'm so glad I was able to attend your All Hallows Eve, Mr Potter. I've heard it's the social event to attend this time of year."
Her diversion was clumsy, but her host gracious enough to take the bait, telling her about past incidents that happened during these Balls and that had her laughing merrily while they glided around through the other couples. The song came to an end and he gallantly walked her back to her 'date' before inviting another of his guest. An obligation, from what she'd understood and given the sheer number of people in attendance, the poor man would be dancing the soles of his shoes away… He, at least, would be busy all night, and Mrs Potter was most likely attending similar duties, which was perfect. Neither will be sneaking up on her the parts of the house which were off limits to visitors.
"I'll just go refresh myself," she told Linus and kissed his cheek. If she did find the last Hallow tonight, depending on how it went, she might not be seeing him again, and this was all the goodbye they would have.
The manor was so vast, Hermione lost herself in her search for the bathroom... or that's what she would tell anyone who asked her. In truth, she had a good sense of direction and was inspecting one room after another with a clear goal in mind: locating and retrieving the Hallow. If she was the head of a family who was entrusted with a mythical artefact passed down from one generation to the next for as long as they could remember, she'd make damn sure she kept it nearby, in a place where she would spend most of her time taking care of the family business. So, all she needed to do was find Mr Potter's private study and from there, find where he hid the cloak because she doubted he was quite as careless with it as Harry had always been. In fact, Harry had no doubt been the sloppiest possessor of Death's Cloak. He'd spilled treacle tart down the length of it once. She wondered if Death knew...
"I don't imagine you'd care to help?" she muttered through clenched teeth, knowing that Death was watching her closely now that the Hallow was almost at hand.
"It is the cloak, idiot child," Death rasped in the hollow of her ear. "Of course I cannot. It is close however. So close. I can feel it... but I rather doubt that helps you much."
"You're right, it doesn't," she said and ignored him as she moved to the next door.
Contrary to the others, it was locked, which was promising. She poked at the door with her wand to test the protective spells barring her entrance until she finally found a way to circumvent them without raising any alarm. Lucky for Death, she was an Unspeakable and had a thorough knowledge of wards and curse-breaking or she would have never gotten through that door without having Mr Potter come running. However, there would be no pretending she was looking for the bathroom now.
Hermione slipped into the room, happy to see it was indeed a private office of sorts, full of ledgers, parchment, letters, books, inkwells and quills. No cloak in sight but she had not expected it to be this easy, so she foraged around until she had to resolve herself to the fact that it had to be either in the locked trunk or the locked desk. She wondered if she should just eeny-meeny-miny-moe between the two when she remembered Harry always stuffed it in his trunk, even later on in life when he had his own study.
Let's see if this runs in the family too.
Unfortunately, the trunk was evil. You'd have to be desperate to try to break into it, not mention the duress of time and discovery was not helping matters. Hermione was thoroughly tempted to just take it whole and try to undo the protections carefully, one after the other, until there wasn't the smallest of chance left that she would have the thing blow up in her face or curse her so badly her own bowels would be trying to strangle her. Positively evil. Hermione wondered if the Potter's usually dabbled in the Dark Art, or if it was his wife who had done some of the warding. She was a Black, and they'd always been taught dark curses from a young age as a matter of fact.
Well, nothing for it. She dug under her dress for the elder wand and cast a Protego as well as a Muffliato before jabbing carelessly at the trunk, setting off the traps one after the other. It was a crude way to get the trunk accessible, somewhat like when muggles set off a bomb instead of trying to disarm it. Less dangerous if you took the right precautions, but noisy and messy. Fortunately the magical shield cast by the elder wand was more than enough protection and this way was quickest: in less than five minutes, the trunk was as dangerous as a flobberworm.
Hermione dug around the various items, some objects of value and others whose value was more likely sentimental, until she found the cloak: it's shimmering texture so familiar to her, it was like seeing a piece of home. She thought she heard a sigh of relief from behind her, but if Death was present in the room, he wasn't showing himself. She shook out the cloak and a couple of mothballs fell out, the smell thankfully faint. It seemed Mr Potter the elder did not use his cloak much, which meant he wouldn't notice its absence too soon.
All three Hallows were in her possession. She had actually accomplished the mission Death had given her… she would be going back home soon.
She carefully closed the trunk, but knew she wouldn't have time to replace the wards on it. Linus or her host might already be looking for her, and she'd rather not have to fight her way out of the mansion if she was caught red-handed stealing from Mr Potter. She had little doubt she wouldn't make it past the front door, even with the elder wand. Hermione stuffed the cloak under her dress, as if it was an underskirt and could just picture Death's look of horror at his precious Hallow being used as a petticoat. She only had to hope nobody noticed her dress was a bit more puffy than it had been at the beginning of the Ball.
She strapped the elder wand back to her ankle and was out of the study with her heart beating so fast she felt dizzy. How long had it taken her total? Half an hour? More? Hermione bit her lip, trying to find an excuse for her long absence.
"There you are, dear!" Mrs Potter called from the entrance to the ballroom. "Linus was getting worried. Are you quite alright? You look a bit...flushed."
"Ah...yes. Sorry about that. I was feeling a bit hot and thought some fresh air would do me good."
Smooth, Hermione thought sarcastically, very smooth. A first year could have come up with a better excuse. In fact, she was pretty sure they had used that very excuse in first year. Pathetic. But Mrs Potter merely hummed as she studied her before she reached a hand forward. Hermione almost flinched at the gesture when she realized her hostess was merely adjusting her dress near her shoulder. Her bandage was showing. A nervous giggle escaped her then cut off abruptly under Dorea Potter's steely eyes.
"Linus mentioned you'd taken a bit of a tumble yesterday on a walk near Hogsmeade," she said, her tone offhand, but her eyes reading every little tell Hermione had to offer. "He was a bit worried just now when he didn't see you come back, and even mentioned that maybe he shouldn't have made you come, so I offered to go looking for you in the Lady's room."
"I didn't mean to make him worry. I'd better get back to him right away," she said when really, she couldn't wait to get away from Mrs Potter. She never would have guessed Harry had someone so perceptive in his family tree.
"You do that, dear. But be sure to sit down for a bit, and don't let him drag you on the dancefloor again before you're well rested."
Hermione nodded and hurried away from her sharp gaze. She'd feel better when she would be able to leave without arousing any suspicion. Soon, she hoped. She didn't think the Potters suspected her of anything, nor had they any reason to check on their private study in the middle of their ball, but she knew things could go awry very quickly. She knew from experience that even the best laid plans went down the drain at least opportune moment and because of the tiniest detail, so she wasn't counting herself out of the woods before she was back where she belonged. She half-expected Grindelwald to reappear now that she had collected all the Hallows, swooping in at the last minute to take them for himself, claim the title of Master of Death and win his pathetic revolution. It could literally turn the history of the wizarding world, if she hadn't done that already with her heavy-handed meddling.
"Are you alright, Hermione?" Linus asked, hurrying to meet her. "You look awfully...fidgety."
"No, I'm fine," she said with a forced smile. "It's a bit overwhelming, all these people…"
Dead people. Most of them were long gone in her time.
"I'm not used to such grand events…"
She avoided them like the plague, truth be told. They were full of sycophants and reporters out for a scoop, a piece of fame, while parasites and politicians were out to make a name for themselves… Harry had it worse, of course, but as the only girl of their little group, she hadn't been spared, far from it.
"I can take you back home," he offered, his eyes flitting about her person as if making sure she wasn't going to break into pieces, then added in a near whisper. "I thought this might be too much, after what happened to you with… you know…"
"You-Know-Who?" she asked with amusement, which only made Linus more worried.
Private jokes weren't so fun when you had no one to share them with after all. Harry would have laughed. He always liked a good joke. But he wasn't here.
"Come on, let's dance," she said taking his hand. "Let's erase all your memories of cousin mothball."
If it was the only way she could thank Linus for his kindness, and inadvertently provide her with a way to get her hands on the last Hallow, she'd make damn sure this was the best All Hallow's Eve Ball he had. He would hate her enough as it was once he put all the pieces together and realized what she'd done… because he wasn't stupid, he would eventually.
She had a good time herself, she'd had to admit later. Linus was so kind, and funny. It was much more enjoyable than her Yule Ball at Hogwarts or any of the others she'd attended since, and she almost forgot she was wearing the stolen cloak and parading with it right in front of its owner's unsuspecting eyes. He'd probably hate her too, but she had not time to dwell on that because guests were starting to trickle out of the ballroom. They joined the queue to thank their hosts when there was a commotion up ahead. A few minutes later, Mrs Potter made a beeline for them with her husband in tow. Hermione almost had a heart attack, thinking she'd been discovered, but she couldn't muster the courage to fight or even flee. She stood frozen in place and gripped Linus' arm so tightly she'd probably leave a bruise.
"What?" Linus asked, alarmed. "What happened?"
But Mrs Potter was looking straight at Hermione with that sharp Black gaze of hers and Hermione blanched, waiting for the accusing finger to be pointed at her, to be denounced as a thief and arrested on the spot by people she care too much about to hurt. Linus really would hate her. thankfully, she got it all wrong.
"Grindelwald. He's holding hostages right in the middle of Diagon Alley where that duel happened and says he'll kill one every ten minutes until the Grey Lady is turned over to him. It's you isn't it? You're the Grey Lady?"
Linus pulled her closer to him while the shock washed over her. This shouldn't have happened. She couldn't let innocent people, who should not have died, get executed because of her meddling in the past. That wasn't part of the deal. She heard Linus try to deny Mrs Potter's claim but the woman scoffed at him.
"Come off it, Linus. She comes out of nowhere, has been recently injured and has curly dark hair."
Hermione touched her hair reflexively, thinking it had somehow returned to its natural state but only met the sleek straight hair she had magically obtained instead. Mrs Potter smirked.
"You magicked your hair after getting dressed dear. I found a curly hair clinging to your sleeve when I straightened your dress."
Hermione nodded because she couldn't insult her sharp wit by denying it. Besides, she was already of the mind of doing something about Grindelwald. She stepped away from Linus.
"You can't go, Hermione," he protested, catching her chin to force her to look up at him.
The puppy dog eyes were not even done on purpose, he was sincerely worried. She looked away.
"You almost died last time."
"I have to go. You know I do, Linus. I can't let people die because of me… Listen, don't worry about me. I'll be fine."
"Don't worry? Hermione, this is Grindelwald we're talking about! You can't just go there alone, he'll kill you as soon as look at you."
"No… he might try, but Death… No, it's not my time. I have to go, Linus. Now. I'm sorry."
She kissed his cheek again and he relinquished his hold on her, his shoulders slumped.
"You have seven minutes left to get there," Mr Potter announced, having whipped out his pocket watch. "Do you have a plan? The aurors will already be down there. Albus too, I suspect."
"Albus Dumbledore?" she asked feeling a knot form at the pit of her stomach.
Mr Potter nodded and was about to add something when her wife stepped in and ushered Hermione towards the exit, grabbing her coat on the way out. Hermione put it on as she walked, cursing that she would have to do this wearing a ball gown of all things.
"Here," Mrs Potter said handing her a pot of floo. "It'll be quicker than walking to the edge of the wards to apparate. Floo to the Leaky Cauldron, that's always open and close enough to where you need to go."
"Thank you," Hermione said and took a handful of the glitter powder.
"You just make sure you get those people out of there and… do be careful. Linus really likes you."
"He's better off without me," she muttered before throwing the floo powder and calling her destination, coughing out soot when she stumbled into the Leaky Cauldron. The place was teeming with activity, people who had fled from Diagon Alley, others who arrived to get in on the excitement but all heads swivelled around when she stepped out.
"Someone called for me?" she said, patting the dirt off her blue coat. With the amount of soot she was covered in, it actually looked more grey than blue.
No one answered, or tried to stop her for that matter, so she walked out towards the exit, hearing the people behind her spread rumours of the Gray Lady's arrival, which was a good thing since a passage opened for her without her even having to ask and she didn't have anytime to waste before Grindelwald started putting his threat to execution.
"Death?" she called out once she was out in the street, seeing the aurors' scarlet robes billowing around up ahead. "Any idea would be welcome right about now."
"You're not handing over my Hallows," came the deathly whisper.
"Of course not. I'm not that daft. But I can't let him kill people who weren't supposed to die. That can't be right in your books either. Wouldn't it… I don't know… upset the balance or something."
"It does, usually, but not in times such as these where there's such a strong stream of departing souls, the balance is already upset."
"But still, this isn't right… I'm not letting them die, whether you agree or not. I'd rather die trying."
Death sighed, the sound like wind rustling through dried leaves in the autumn. She was about to go without him, they didn't have time to dilly-dally.
"Use the Hallows," Death rasped.
"What? All of them? You told me not too, and no offense, but I really don't want to use the stone."
Hermione opened her mouth to continue, she had many more objections where that cane from, but Death raised one bony finger.
"No time. Obey, child."
Hermione huffed but took the cloak and elder wand out of under her skirts, smirking when Death made a strangled sound. She put the cloak on her shoulder with the hood up, disappearing almost entirely, but cast a lumos with her wand. Only the stone left to use, but there was no one she could think of calling, not in this time.
"Arianna Dumbledore," Death whispered and Hermione obeyed, because that was smart, cruel but smart.
"Arianna Dumbledore" she told the stone flipping it three times and holding it tight in her hand while keeping the image of the girl in the portrait in the Hog's Head to the forefront of her mind.
She wasn't sure how the stone worked exactly and thought it would be better to overdo it than not. The little girl from the painting appeared, not a ghost, but not a real person either. A shade Harry had called them. Hermione didn't feel any different after using all the Hallows at once though, even if she was technically the Master of Death now, and she wondered why Death had cautioned her against it.
"Follow me," she told the girl and hid completely under the cloak, looking like the shade of Arianna was there on her own.
The aurors moved away when she approached, nudging those who hadn't seen the apparition yet, wondering if that little girl was the Grey Lady. She certainly looked gray and most definitely not alive. The aurors had been holding their wands on Grindelwald and his men while Albus Dumbledore was trying to talk him out of it. Hermione winced, she hadn't wanted to hurt her old headmaster and had really hoped he wasn't here yet, but Fate was a bitch and liked to make her life miserable.
Grindelwald looked triumphant for a second before he recognized the shade.
"Arianna?" he whispered, causing Dumbledore to turn around too, his face ghostly white.
Hermione walked right up to them and whispered to Arianna to wait there to quietly take out Grindelwald's men while everyone was too busy looking at the shade and the two powerful wizards facing one another. She then ordered the hostages to flee quietly down the alley and they obeyed, probably thinking she was with the aurors, but Grindelwald finally noticed what was going on behind him and started shooting spells at the last few people who'd been too slow to run away and hide. Hermione let go of the stone to throw as wide a shield as she could muster. It was much larger than what she was used to but she realized she was holding it with both wands.
"Show yourself, Grey Lady," Grindelwald ordered.
Hermione could just leave now, but she had to make him understand, and all those who sought the Deathly Hallows that they were a thing of the past now, so she showed herself. Everyone recoiled… not the reaction she'd expected, really, but she'd go with it.
"It's the curse of the Master of Death," Death whispered. "Do what you have to do and I'll take you with me back to the void."
"This is it, then?" she whispered.
"This is it."
"What are you?" Grindelwald asked but his voice was not as haughty as usual.
"Isn't it obvious?" she snarked.
"Death," Grindelwald breathed out.
He said it with such certainty that Hermione was hard pressed to hide her surprise, wondering what the wannabe Dark Lord was on about now. Hermione looked down at her hands, discreetly, and yes, they were bony, just as bony as Death's. Right. Now she knew what he'd meant by "the curse of the Master of Death". She thought he'd just been waxing poetic on her. She hoped it rubbed off once Death retrieved his Hallows. She wondered why Harry had never mentioned it, but then recalled he probably had never used all three Hallows at the same time despite being in possession of each one at some point. Had he not truly been the Master of Death then? She hoped Death would tell her before he sent her back. The title had scared Harry so maybe she could put his mind at ease.
"The Hallows…" Grindelwald said, looking them over greedily.
"Are coming back with me. It is high time they left this world."
On cue, Death did the only sensible thing since this whole affair started and took her away from this time and place where she didn't belong, and back to the void where she had first met him.
"Do you think it worked?" she asked.
"I know it did."
"Good. So please tell me I'm not stuck looking like this," she shoved her bony hand in his face...skull.
"I think it's an improvement."
"You would," she snorted. "Right, so… Sending me back to my own time now? How does it work? Do you get me there right before the incident happens so I can stop it or can you just make it so I don't die? I've been thinking about it and it might be best if you drop me right after the incident if that's possible so I can..."
Her voice trailed off. Death was fidgeting, like Ron did when he took the last treacle tart and his mother was staring him down.
"You can send me back, right? That was our deal."
"Then what's wrong?"
No answer. Hermione frowned. Death gritted his teeth.
"Give me my Hallows back and I'll tell you."
"No, tell me and I… might give you your Hallows back."
Death clenched his bony fists and glared at her. Or she supposed he was. Again, the lack of eyeballs was disconcerting.
"You… Erm… didn't really die."
"What?! You said I did! Why do you think I've been running around, doing your bidding? And why the hell would I be here speaking to Death if I'm not, in fact, dead?"
"You're not really alive either."
"I… don't understand. You're either dead or you're not, how can you be neither?"
"You played with Time. Your experiment turned against you in a most unexpected way, trapping you in a small time loop. You have seen one such before."
Hermione nodded, remembering the Bell Jar where a hummingbird hatched and flew away, repeating the scene over and over, and she wondered if she had become the new curiosity down in the Department of Mysteries.
"Wait a minute, you lied to me! You said you'd return me to the world of the living. I was pretty specific about that."
"Baldur's briefs! Were you going to return me to the time loop for all eternity. After I helped you? Is that how you were going to repay me for returning your bloody Hallows?"
"I...No? Not if you didn't want to..."
"Of course I bloody don't want to!" Hermione screeched, feeling she might have a panic attack like she did during her NEWTs."
"Right. I anticipated that might be the case, so I thought I could return you as a ghost instead? That seems more humane. There are some perfectly nice ghosts out there, well adjusted to life. I hear one is even employed as a teacher at Hogwarts. I'm sure you'll fit right in."
"Well, what else do you expect me to do? You brought this on yourself, meddling with Time. Honestly, you mortals can be so reckless with your squishy little bodies."
"So those are my only options? Go back as a ghost or stuck in a time loop. Honestly, I'm not sure which one is worse."
"I could claim your soul and let you move on, but that's highly irregular. I'd be doing you a huge favour."
"Oh, you're offering to kill me for my own sake. That's so nice of you. Remind me never to help you again if that's all the thanks I get."
"Sarcasm?" Death asked, his skull cocked slightly to the right
Hermione rolled her eyes, if only because he couldn't, then argued:
"But I was in 1943. I have a body. Why can't you just send me back as I am? I don't understand."
"I can't allow people to cheat their Fate. For that very same reason, I allowed you to save those mortals back there: it was not to be their Fate."
"But you can cheat me? How is that fair?"
"I needed your skills."
"And now you don't need me anymore, is that it?"
Death said nothing, which was answer enough. But she couldn't accept this. Dying or as good as… or maybe not. She shouldn't trust one word he said.
"Send me back. Alive."
"Give me back my Hallows."
So, a standstill. Were they going to stare each other down until the ends of time? Because she sure wasn't backing down. But then, Death moved, and grew to an unnatural size picking her out of the darkness by the neck of her robes and dangling her like a rag doll.
"My Hallows!" he boomed.
"Piss off!" she shot back, trying to kick him and scratch at his bony fingers, scared out of her mind. Could he just take the Hallows from her. She thought she had some kind of leverage if she was the Master of Death, but this didn't look like she was mastering anything at all.
"I'll just pluck them off your dead body, then. You die, go on to the next great adventure, and I get my Hallows back. Everyone is happy."
"I won't be happy! I'll be dead!" she wanted to scream but could only struggle against the giant hand that was doing a good job at strangling her before a blue light appeared, turned into a window overlooking a sprawling modern city… New York? That was the Empire State building as far as she could make out, but before she could understand what Death's plans were, he dropped her down on the window's ledge, then blew a puff of cold air at her, sending her toppling over the edge, effectively putting an end to the negotiation. All Hermione could do was scream her head off as she dropped through the sky.
This is it for the first part. I know it sort of end on a cliffhanger (yes, I know it totally does) but look out for the next installement, Death's Curse which will take Hermione into the world of the Avengers!