The Hogwarts Express back to London was packed full, with everyone wanting to go home for the holidays. Hermione had fallen behind her classmates on their trek to the station, hanging back to try to catch Crookshanks to take him home for the holiday – who had refused, hissing and spitting, much to her dismay.

Luckily, Professor McGonagall had reassured her that he'd be perfectly safe and well-kept over the holiday without her – but by the time she made it to the train, still upset at leaving her cat, nearly all the compartments were taken. She ended up sharing one reluctantly with the Slytherin boys, who had claimed one of the larger ones that sat six instead of four.

Though they all told her she was welcome to sit with them – Blaise with a charming smirk, Draco with some excitement, Theo with mild interest – Draco looked none too thrilled at switching benches he sat on, ending up next to Crabbe, now, while Hermione took the window seat next to Blaise.

Polite conversation and small talk was made for a while until it became clear to the boys that Hermione had no interest in whatever they were discussing, preferring to look out of the window, and their conversation seemed to resume what it had been before she'd entered – a discussion of Sirius Black.

"It's clear the dementors can't protect us from Black," Blaise said, dismissive. "He's gotten past them at least twice now."

"He'd have a much easier time of getting to us if they weren't there, though, wouldn't he?" Theo pointed out. "They might not be much, but they're still helping."

Draco rolled his eyes. "Really, the best solution would be to just send Potter away from the school. He's the one who Black is after, isn't he? Send him away, and the rest of us will be safe."

Blaise raised an eyebrow, sarcastic. "Yeah. The Ministry could put Potter somewhere conspicuous in the middle of Diagon Alley as bait, and then they could trap Black when he came out to blast Potter away."

"That would work," Draco pointed out flatly. "No one would ever go for it, but I bet it would work."

"I just don't understand why he's going after Potter," Theo said, frustrated. "It doesn't make any sense."

"Doesn't it?" Blaise said. "Potter's the one responsible for the downfall of the Dark Lord. Seems natural that Black would want revenge on Potter for it."

But Theo was shaking his head.

"That's not how it works," he said. "The Ministry and the Daily Prophet can spin Harry Potter as a hero all they like, but everyone really knows he was just a baby. No, what would make more sense is for Black to try and find the Dark Lord, or for him to try and find whoever betrayed the Dark Lord and led him to his doom."

"He wasn't normal, apparently," Draco volunteered. "He's my mother's cousin – he was sorted into Gryffindor, ran away from home after he took his O.W.L.s. His mother disowned him at once point for being a disgrace to the family – she only reinstated him after he was thrown in Azkaban and it turned out he'd been serving the Dark Lord in secret all along. Though, fat lot of good it does him now…"

Blaise looked sideways at Draco.

"Do you think he's a touch unhinged?" he asked.

Draco raised an eyebrow.

"The man's been in Azkaban for what, twelve years?" he said dryly. "I daresay that would drive anyone insane."

"That's not what I mean," Blaise said. "He's cousin to your mother, right? So he's also cousin to…"

He trailed off, shrugging, and Draco's eyes narrowed.

"I've got no idea," he snapped, "but probably not. If the Black family madness had affected more than one of them, I think I'd have heard about it by now."

Blaise shrugged, holding his hands up. "I was just asking—"

"Dementors probably drove him batty anyway," Theo said, reflecting. "I hadn't considered that – that a sane man might come out not so sane after all. If all he's clung to is the idea of revenge, it might not occur to him that there are other things he could be doing that are smarter."

"Shame," Draco groaned, leaning back. "If he did go off and get lost searching, we'd be safe and wouldn't need to put up with the dementors anymore."

"Do they make good money?" Gregory Goyle asked suddenly. Theo turned to look at him, puzzled.

"Does who make good money?" he asked. "Death Eaters?"

"No," Greg said. "Dementors."

There was a silence in the compartment.

"Goyle," Theo said slowly. "'Dementor' isn't a position. They're creatures. They're not paid…"

"But you can become a dementor, can't you?" Goyle said stubbornly. "They used to be wizards."

"Err—no idea," Draco admitted. "But Goyle—"

"A few. Most of them used to be muggles, actually," Hermione chimed in, joining the conversation suddenly.

Everyone turned to stare at her.

"I beg your pardon?" Draco said, astonished.

"It's more likely they were muggles," Hermione said. "There were no dementors before Ekrizdis took up residency on that island, and he was known for kidnapping muggle sailors and luring them to his fortress so he could torture and murder them. He got up to all kinds of Dark magic." She shrugged. "When he died, his Concealment Charms on the island faded, and the British Ministry of Magic found the fortress infested with dementors when they went to investigate."

Theo was astounded.

"Where did you find that?" he demanded. "I was researching dementors for ages—"

"It was in a book about Azkaban, not about dementors," Hermione explained quickly, wincing. "I came across it by chance."

Theo looked highly suspicious, but Hermione ignored him, turning instead to look at Goyle again.

"So yes, the dementors did used to be people, but they're not anymore," she said gently. "They have a miserable existence, Greg. Nobody would want to be a dementor. You'd be lost in that awful feeling that you get when they're nearby forever."

"Oh." Greg's face fell. "Thought that'd be a career path. Don't need much skill with a wand if you're guarding a prison and no one else's got one."

Her first instinct was to reassure him – to say Maybe it won't always be like that, and you can be a guard for Azkaban someday – but she bit her tongue to stop herself, ultra-aware of who was in the compartment, who was listening and watching her, and who would remember her words.

"You've got plenty of time to figure out a career path, Greg," Hermione said instead. "I wouldn't bother worrying about it now."

Hermione's parents were delighted to see her again for the holidays, greeting her with big hugs at the station which she happily returned.

"There's so much to tell you!" she said excitedly, tugging her cart. "Oh – first, I have to tell you the dangerous bits – remember the criminal I told you about over the summer…?"

Hermione updated her parents on their way home in the car, talking about Sirius Black and his break-in attempt, the dementors, Hogsmeade, and her work with the Wizengamot. To her pleased surprise, her parents didn't seem overly worried about a dangerous escaped criminal breaking into the school.

"It's not that I'm not worried," her mother stressed, "but they're guarding the school, and the man doesn't even have a wand, you said – he attacked the painting with a knife. And all the students have wands and know how to magically disarm from a distance, don't they?"

"Yes," Hermione said, nodding. "I think Lupin taught the first years basic dueling spells this year, too."

Her mother shrugged. "Then it sounds like he's at a disadvantage, then, doesn't it?"

"He couldn't defeat a painting," her father snickered. "I believe you that he's a dangerous criminal, Hermione, but he doesn't sound nearly as scary as these soul-sucking demons guarding your school do."

Hermione scowled. "Agreed."

Her parents were surprised and pleased to hear about Hermione getting to work on actual legislation, though a bit amused.

"I'm just surprised they put a child on the budgetary committee," her mother said. "With no offense to you, of course, Hermione. Just… children aren't generally the most informed on financial matters or budgets."

"I know that," Hermione said, folding her arms. "I got on it because it was my idea to trade with the goblins for the funding. That's all."

"Are the goblins a separate government, then?" her father asked. "If your Ministry needs to formally establish trade with them?"

"I'm pretty sure," Hermione admitted. "The Ministry isn't the nicest toward non-human magical beings. The goblins just go off and do their own thing now, I imagine."

Her parents exchanged a look that Hermione couldn't quite read.

"What do you plan to do with your holiday, dear?" her mother asked, and Hermione, distracted, happily launched into describing her plans for the upcoming week. Her parents agreed to help take her shopping, as well as gave her permission to visit a couple friends during the week while they were still working, which kept Hermione happy and excited.

The winter break wasn't very long, and Hermione had a lot of things she wanted to get done.