Song Suggestion: Prince of Egypt Soundtrack– "Through Heaven's Eyes"
Thank you to MyPrivateInsanity and my alpha group for all of their hard work on this chapter!
The Order of the Phoenix
Hermione followed Charlie into a corridor darker and damper than the others, empty of people. Which suited her just fine. She was tired of the Order staring at them like the purebloods sometimes did— as if they were rare specimens to be studied.
"Where are we going now?" Julie whispered.
"Somewhere you can rest."
That sounded great. Hermione swayed on her feet in exhaustion.
After a minute of walking, they entered a room with nothing in it, lit by a small skylight.
"An apparition point?" she surmised. Charlie gave a nod. Rooms like these were made to be clear of some wards to protect from accidental splinching.
"I'm going to have to use side-along."
Hermione considered using her portkey now, but she wanted to see Julie settled and say goodbye first. Not to mention, without her magic, reaching into her trousers might look suspicious.
"I better arrive with all of my fingers," she warned.
Charlie gave a snort and grabbed her hand. "You remind me of my dragon." He turned to Julie. "I'm going to have to touch you again."
"I-it's okay." Julie trembled as Charlie gently grasped her wrist as if handling fragile glass.
She'd never get used to apparition. It picked her apart and shoved her back together, landing her in the center of another room, just as empty as the previous one, except much dustier. All three of them sneezed at the same time.
"As you can see, we haven't gotten around to cleaning." Charlie cast a quick dusting charm, which only sent another plume into the air. "This base is fairly new."
Underneath the city of Bristol— that's where Sirius said they were. She calculated how far they'd travelled. If something happened to her portkey, she could get inside this room and possibly apparate— maybe. When practising, she hadn't attempted to go further than a village in Wiltshire.
Hermione blinked, struggling to stay awake.
Charlie led them down another set of corridors. The network of their bases seemed extensive, and she wondered how many they had. How many members were stationed at each base?
"Where is everyone?"
"Training or out on a mission. I'll have someone give you a proper tour in the morning."
Charlie stopped abruptly and opened a door, revealing another barren room. But it wasn't for long – with a flick of his wand, two cots appeared, and with another, a door materialised on the right wall. "The loo," he explained.
Hermione walked in behind Julie, but Charlie touched her shoulder. She turned to find him leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed on his broad chest. The dragon tattooed on his arm fluttered its wings with the movement.
"I've spelled the door to attach to my wand, so just give it a tap if you need anything. And Hermione—" He sighed. "We're not your enemy, despite what you may think."
"Sure feels like it," Hermione bit out, raising her wrists.
"I know you won't believe me, but Sirius is a good man." He motioned toward her shackles. "However, I believe he can be too paranoid, and he's not perfect. He's been betrayed too many times, and he struggles to trust, but I'll talk to him about taking these off now that you're here."
"Why would you do that?"
"I don't believe in imprisoning little girls. It's one of the reasons I joined the Order in the first place."
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "And if that same little girl decided to leave once you let her go?"
Under the floating orb of lumos, his explosion of freckles stood out against his pale skin. "Then I didn't do a very good job of convincing her, yeah?" He straightened. "Give us a chance. With an open mind. A solid week before flying from our nest— that's all I'll ask of you."
"And then you'd let me go?"
"And why should I trust you?"
He raked a hand through his red hair, pulling some red strands from its constraint, and then reached into his pocket, coming out with her wand. "Because I'm willing to give this back. I'll also pretend I searched you for other magical objects that you no doubt carry."
Hermione snatched her wand with a speed that showed she didn't trust he wouldn't rescind his offer.
She expected that to be the end of the conversation, but Charlie lingered.
"Were you honest about Malfoy?"
"That he cares for me?"
"No— about you being able to convince him to join us."
Draco had snarled at her with just the mention of the Order. Despite what she suggested to Sirius, she didn't know if she could.
"Maybe," she lied again. "But it doesn't matter because your leader wouldn't accept him."
Charlie considered her reply. "He might not have much choice. Sirius doesn't like to admit it, but we're hurting. We run off volunteers, and we can't match the aurors' numbers. For each one we manage to kill, five more arrive from mainland Europe and Asia— mercenaries seeking asylum from failing countries."
"The ministry hire out aurors?"
"They have to. There are only so many men in the country willing to die. Nott was the one who thought of it, and when they arrive, he ensures their loyalty to him, giving them money, or whatever they want. It's almost cult-like the way they follow him. For the past year, we've been battling a hydra, and there's no end in sight."
Speaking of Titus in cold terms made an uncomfortable prickle dance along her skin. She knew he was powerful as a Mediator, but she hadn't realised he'd amassed a following.
"What does this have to do with Draco?"
"Though I'm an admitted optimist, I'm also practical. A rebellion doesn't work if the soldiers are hungry and demoralised. We're haemorrhaging money, and if we don't find a steady source of income soon, we'll crumble without the aurors having to do a thing. A single Malfoy vault would solve a lot of problems."
Hermione bit her bottom lip at the sharp honesty, wondering if she could convince Draco to join the Order, and part with his money— or even if she would want him to join.
She'd always been curious about her father. And though she didn't owe the Order any loyalty, her father did die for their cause. She might never get the opportunity to explore her past again.
"I'll stay a week," she agreed. "And if you do release me, I'll honour your integrity by finding a way to give you some galleons, though I can't promise Draco's assistance."
He tapped the underside of her chin gently with the side of his finger. "Despite initial impressions, I think you'll discover that we're a good lot. Maybe you'd even like to stay." He grinned and winked at Julie, who sat on the edge of a cot. "Have a good nap, doves."
Hermione pushed the cots together, curling up beside Julie, who softly wept herself to sleep.
The lumpy mattresses were the worst she'd ever had the misfortune to experience. If Charlie had exchanged it with a bed of rocks, she wouldn't have noticed a difference. As cages went, she'd rather be kept in a manor.
Julie's safe, she reminded herself. That was all that mattered.
After waking from an indeterminable amount of sleep, she hugged her best friend close, wondering if she'd ever see her again after leaving. The thought made her chest tight, worried how she'd fare on her own.
Her mind cleared with rest, Hermione reached under her trousers and extracted the communication parchment, quill, and ink pot in her hidden pouch. After unscrolling, Hermione reviewed the two feet of messages Draco had left, all written in capital letters. Most of them were pleading and demanding. Some of them were threatening, promising to kill everyone in his way. She was glad it wasn't a howler, because it would have been screaming at her.
To her relief, it seemed Theo had managed to be convincing enough so far to fool the aurors investigating Julie's disappearance, and Draco was keeping him captive until she returned. The only danger would be if Titus came knocking, though even he might have trouble connecting the dots.
Before writing her response back, she made a hard decision.
I'm with the Order. Julie is safe too. There's no need to worry about me. However— and don't get mad at me— I did promise to stay for a week to figure out more about my father. I'd also like to make sure Julie will be okay. After that, they'll let me leave. If not, I'll leave regardless, because they don't know about the portkey. Tell Theo I'm sorry, and that I owe him a lot for pretending to be me for so long. You'll need to come up with a cover for his job. Something where no one would want to come over unannounced— perhaps spattergroit? I'll be home soon, and then you can keep me in your bed and punish me how you wish.
Knowing Draco would protest and possibly send another two feet of arguments, Hermione rolled up the parchment and tucked all of her items away.
Just in time.
Someone knocked on their door.
"Are you decent?" a male voice asked.
Stretching and cracking her back, she sat up with a groan. Julie remained asleep, still whimpering and twisting from a dream.
"Wake up," she gently shook her shoulder. Julie cracked an eye before startling awake with a gasp. "It's okay," Hermione soothed. "We have visitors."
Lines of worry appeared on Julie's forehead.
"Come in," Hermione called out.
Harry Potter peeked around the now opened door with flushed cheeks and messy dark hair. Another head appeared above him, showcasing freckles and red hair. Ron Weasley's blue eyes widened when he caught her stare, both of them freezing in brief shock.
"Blimey, Harry, it is her."
Hermione had a moment of sinking disappointment, realising Theo's suspicions had been right all along— Harry did run to the Order. She hadn't seen either of them since the Yule ball, so the physical change managed to be disconcerting. They'd both grown taller, though Ron towered above his friend.
Despite Ron's brief rudeness, their identical grins set her at ease. It felt both wrong and oddly right to finally see the man her brother loved again, and her trepidation disintegrated, sensing safety in their presence.
"Hello Hermione," Harry whispered. "I never thought I'd see you again after Theo–" He abruptly cut himself off, biting his lip. "Erm, well, I'm glad you made it here."
Theo was a sore spot for him for obvious reasons.
"It's good to see you too. Are you going to come into the room or not?"
As if something bit them, they jumped forward, scrambling inside. A girl entered behind them with white blonde hair that reached her waist, blue tinsel braided through her fine stands. She wore earrings made of ragwort weeds, and her unblinking blue eyes glanced around as if seeing something in the shadows.
"This is Luna Lovegood," Harry explained.
The last name sounded familiar. A pureblood, she suspected. She'd heard Titus mention it once before, regarding a banned publication.
"Good morning," the girl said in a serene voice, almost as soft as Julie's. "The nargles are bad in this room. You should really attempt to get rid of them."
"What are nargles?" Even with Finch's lectures, she'd never heard of them.
"No one quite knows," Harry interrupted. "We're here to take you on a tour."
She'd forgotten about that.
"This is Julie." Hermione gave a nod in her friend's direction.
Before anyone could add to the conversation, Luna walked closer to their cots and stared in a disconcerting way. "Your aura is bright yellow," she told Julie. "Much like mine."
Something was off about the girl. A disconnect from reality.
"I've always wondered what my colour would be," Julie whispered back.
Hermione placed auras in the same category as divination— which meant she considered it all hogwash. She almost said something, but Harry shook his head for her not to. It seemed the girl did this enough for it to be commonplace.
"And your aura is red." Luna turned to Hermione. "Passion and life, but anger too. If you're not careful, it can become unbalanced."
Again, Hermione found herself speechless, blinking a few times, not knowing how she should take the description.
"Be grateful you have an interesting colour," Harry broke the silence. "Mine's purple. Whatever that means."
"You know, I see her point. You have a purpleness to you." Hermione pointed to Ron. "And I bet yours is brown."
"How did you guess that?"
"Perhaps I can see auras too." She shrugged, finding it odd how easy it was to converse with them. She'd heard so many stories about the two friends from Theo, it was as if she'd always known them. "So, what's first on the agenda? I'm dying to see something besides a tunnel."
"Charlie told me to keep it a surprise."
Of course, he did.
"I don't really want to go," Julie pulled her knees to her chest.
Hermione reached out and squeezed her hand for comfort.
Harry grimaced. "I'm not sure Charlie would like for me to leave you—"
"I'll stay with you," Luna responded. "And don't worry, I don't mind silence if you don't want to talk."
"I'll stay too," Ron said.
Harry quirked an eyebrow.
"What?" Ron shrugged. "I was up all night. The last thing I want to do is walk around."
"I guess it will just be the two of us," Harry said.
"She won't like you being in here," Hermione told Ron. "So you'll have to wait outside."
"Why would I—"
"Just wait outside," Harry interrupted. A look passed between them, and Ron sighed.
"Alright, I'll um— guard the door."
Julie's shoulders slumped in relief, and Hermione stood up, showing she was ready.
Hermione hated the dark tunnels. Did they ever get tired of being underground? Did it start to become claustrophobic? She supposed they had no choice, but she likened it to being a mole.
Harry abruptly stopped at a closed door. "This is the first place I was ordered to show you."
She heard a soft giggle. The distinct high pitch of voices.
"Let's try not to be seen," Harry said. "Getting them to sit down is hard enough without distractions."
He cracked the door open, and Hermione looked through to find a room full of young children. A woman stood at the front, writing on the blackboard. They were in the middle of a spelling lesson, using common herbology words. Unlike the other places she'd been to in the base, someone had tried to add some cheer with paint and wallpaper. But the tables seemed rickety, and their bookshelf was sparse. The lack of funding was apparent.
"This is the primary school," Harry explained. "The older kids have a different professor. Unfortunately, we don't have enough resources for anything more, so they don't get lessons every day."
"Who are they?"
"Some of them are children of Order members." He paused. "And some of them we found."
"Found?" As soon as she spoke, her brain arrived at the correct conclusion.
Mixed along with the children of members were muggleborns— the ones the Order found before the aurors did. Hermione wondered what her life would have been like had her parents lived. Would she have sat at similar tables, taking in scraps of education? Would she have been more free, or less?
Why did her parents not stay at the base? And why did they live in a house away from protection? It might be a question only Sirius could answer.
The professor at the front had the students recite the words, and then she turned, and Hermione almost gasped out loud, recognizing her wide smile. Pretty curled hair. A familiar bow rested on the side of her head. But instead of a white robe, she wore a simple black shirt, which she'd painted with flowers, paired with a muggle skirt.
"Lavender," she breathed.
"You know her?" Harry asked. "She— oh. She used to work at the ministry."
Hermione shifted on her feet. The idea he might know about the ritual stung with embarrassment, but there wasn't anything to do about it.
There was a lot unsaid between them— Theo, his father, Titus, and her experience as a muggleborn. And she preferred it that way.
"Do you want to see what else we have?" Harry asked, changing the subject.
She closed the door before Lavender could see her peeking inside and recognize her. "What's next?"
"The training room."
By his grin, she suspected it might be his favourite place.
They walked toward the more populated areas of the base. Sometimes, people stared at them in a familiar, uncomfortable way. Other times, they pushed around them in the narrow corridor, intent on their destination.
But one man stopped with a wave.
"Oi, Potter!" He had freckles, sandy hair, and a thick Irish accent. "We're meeting up at the pub later. The one Murphy started in the south wing. Do you think—" he finally noticed her. "Bloody hell, is this the girl that killed the werewolf? How did you manage to finally rescue her?"
Hermione was tired of being known for that. She didn't even mean to kill Fenrir. She'd just wanted him not to touch her, and her magic enforced the sentiment. The tree just got in the way. Not that she regretted it. From all accounts, Fenrir was a terror, even to the purebloods.
Harry just nodded. "We didn't rescue her at all. She got away on her own."
"Wicked! How did you do that?"
"With intensive planning." Hermione crossed her arms, knowing she came across defensive. "And your name is?"
"Seamus Finnegan." He held out his hand, and she stared at it. Purebloods didn't tend to want to shake hands with muggleborns, and she didn't know his blood status.
But after the initial hesitation, she extended her hand.
"Welcome to our base," he greeted, shaking hard, up and down. She noticed his fingers were stained black with tiny wounds covering the callused skin. "You'll like it here. Many of us here are the same age. It's like we never left Hogwarts."
Sirius might have read her right. If anything could entice her to stay, it would be this— a communal environment. The ability to make and see friends whenever she pleased. She'd always been restricted in meeting people, and the only friends she'd been allowed had to be approved by Titus. Even with Draco, her options were limited to people of a certain social status.
"He's in our weapons manufacturing alongside the Weasley twins," Harry explained.
And just like that, the coldness returned, reminding her that this wasn't a school, but the center of a rebellion.
"Muggle weapons?" she asked.
"Halfway," he admitted, oblivious to her sudden chill. "We've been trying to mix muggle and magical components like—" his eyes widened. "Fucking hell, like your father. Still have some stock of the ones he made, but no matter what we've tried, we haven't been able to figure out how to replicate them. You don't happen to have any ideas on how he did it?"
He looked at her in earnest, as if she could pull the formula out of her pocket.
"How many explosives are left from him?"
"Not sure. They keep the good stuff in several locations, but possibly thirty. Wait— should I be talking about this with you?"
He looked to Harry for permission, but he only shrugged in return.
Did he create the explosive that almost killed Zala's child? Or was that a remnant from her father?
"Then let's pretend I didn't say anything." He glanced at her. "You're invited to the pub too. The liquor will be awful, but Murphy stole a few jugs of butterbeer for the lightweights. It's always fun."
Before she could answer, Harry shook his head. "You're forgetting about Torros and Shannon tonight."
He slapped his forehead. "You're right. Forgot all about that. Shit, I need to go tell Murphy before he gets anything ready. We'll go ahead and bring the butterbeer as a present. Thanks for reminding me, mate." He slapped Harry's shoulder and then walked past them. "Nice to meet you, Granger."
Seamus gave a good-natured grin and a wave while going along his way.
It felt so odd to meet a stranger without the normal labels of blood status. Of course, he'd heard of her. But her reputation wasn't why he invited her to a makeshift pub. He seemed to really want to make friends. A warmth spread inside her at the idea.
Hermione didn't know how to process it, an odd ache right under her ribs, knowing this was something else she'd missed out on.
"Come on," Harry said. "We're almost there."
The training room walls wavered with the overuse of extension charms, scaffolding a ceiling made entirely from glass, only tempered so the sun wouldn't burn them. But it gave a nice amount of light, mimicking being outside. The claustrophobia she'd felt in the tunnels sloughed off her.
Unlike the other parts of the base, multiple groups of people hovered together in separate sections around the room. In one corner, there was a typical duelling arena with a long, raised platform and several dummies, worse for wear.
But the room wasn't just for magical endeavours. On a far wall were rows of shiny knives and other various weapons, with targets at various positions. In the center of the room— the most populated station— a skinny man and a woman with blue hair wrestled, a small crowd yelling around them. They cheered with each flip and kick, until the woman pinned the man into a position hard to escape.
Hermione curled her lip, not particularly interested in muggle forms of training, though the duelling mat enticed her. If her magic wasn't smothered, she'd give the crowd a show.
Harry led her around the room, and she stared at everything with fascination. The grunts, the sweaty smell, the shouts at each other.
"How many are from Hogwarts?"
"Why did they join the Order?"
It made no sense why they would risk their lives having the privilege of a normal magical education and the ability to lead an average life.
"Most of them are still considered blood traitors because of their parents. It doesn't make a difference to Death Eaters, and they treat anyone beyond their exclusive group like second class citizens. Besides that, our mission here is a good one."
"Which is what, exactly?"
"To save the muggles and muggleborns."
"What about breaking the curse?"
Harry shrugged and pushed up his glasses. His hair appeared wilder than the previous time she'd seen him. "I don't know. We probably do more than the Death Eaters. I doubt they even want to break it. Why would they, when they have everything they want?"
"But the mist—"
Hermione paused at Harry's perplexed expression.
Hermione realised that the old guard of the Order kept their secrets too. Perhaps for the same reasons as the purebloods. Or at least, they hadn't informed Harry.
And if they hadn't, then she certainly wouldn't.
For the next ten minutes, Harry led her around the room and introduced her to a few people. Some of them had obviously heard about her, like Seamus. Others gave a brief nod of greeting before returning to training.
They ended the short rotation at a mock shooting range charmed to reduce noise, located next to the knives. Guns of all sizes gleamed on racks, but it didn't make sense why they bothered. Titus explained that they'd altered their body armour to deflect muggle bullets and most forms of shrapnel from their homemade bombs. They would ping off him— annoying, but harmless.
Hermione almost voiced her question, but something cold and hard pressed to her temple.
"Drop it, Maryam," Harry warned.
Hermione turned. As she did, the tip of a handgun transferred from her temple to the middle of her forehead, held by a woman with brown eyes narrowed so viciously Hermione wondered if the woman would lean forward and tear out her throat with her blunted nails.
Hermione didn't wear any charms to deflect bullets, so if the woman pulled the trigger, they'd rip through her body.
Maryam's mouth twisted into an expression rivalling a Veela, but the rest of her appearance was obscured by heavy fabric covering her hair. She wore a long-sleeved black shirt, trousers, and gloves, with a holster vest carrying several guns and knives. Only her face was exposed.
"We talked about this," Harry sounded exasperated. "Put down the gun."
Without breaking her glare, Maryam tugged the weapon away. Hermione allowed herself to relax and then decided to introduce herself, because it seemed the woman was confused.
"Well, after that, I'm not so sure a nice to meet you is appropriate, but I'm—"
The gun returned to her forehead, and she flinched backward. The cold metal against her skin now felt like a promise.
"You're Hermione Granger," Maryam spat. "Raised by the Butcher himself. From the intelligence I've gathered, you think of him like family. Others might want you here, but I don't."
The woman gave a sharp laugh. "Do you hear the way she says the Butcher's name, Potter? I bet she says her new master's name in that tone too. She fought her rescue once, killing Order members in the process. I don't know why we're allowing her to live."
Shame washed over her. The woman was right— she had fought her rescue, but how could she explain that it had felt like a kidnapping?
Well, she didn't need to explain herself to anyone.
"You don't understand anything."
"Oh, I understand." The woman stepped closer. "Your father did so much to protect you and all you've done in return is be a happy little slave."
The woman was now nose to nose with her. Harry shifted on his feet beside her, but he didn't intervene.
"Get out of my face," Hermione demanded. "What's your problem? I've done nothing to you."
"You've ruined my life."
"Who even are you?"
Maryam smirked and moved her gun a fraction, firing rapidly three times, the noise cracking close by her ears, leaving Hermione's heart in her throat. Even with muffling charms in place, her hearing rang. She forced her body to stay in place, despite her mind wanting to spring away from the threat.
After the muffled noise dissipated, Maryam reholstered her gun. "The only thing you need to know about me is that I never miss."
Hermione twisted her head and stared at the targets, each with a single bullet hole, struck perfectly in the center of the bullseye. Maryam achieved perfect accuracy even though she hadn't broken eye contact. Hermione suspected the woman would be just as deadly with the knives strapped to her chest.
"If you betray us, Granger," Maryam said in a calm voice. "The last thing you'll ever know is the kiss of my bullet as it enters your brain."
This woman was a muggle, she realised. Not knowing how to respond, Hermione held her tongue as Maryam gave her one last warning glare and stalked off.
Everyone in the room had stopped their various training to stare at the interaction. And once Maryam exited, the resulting gossip was deafening. Hermione waited until the Order members all returned to their activities before twisting toward Harry, who examined the targets with a frown.
"Muggles are allowed to fight?" she asked.
"Not many, but Maryam is enough of a threat that she's on the wanted lists that Nott created. She's aware of her disadvantages as a muggle, but it doesn't stop her. Right now, bringing her in alive would be worth 5,000 galleons. Bringing her in dead would be 2,000."
Hermione gasped at the amount. It was a minor fortune and had to be funded by Titus.
"She wasn't bragging. Maryam's a prodigy with accuracy. She's relentless in her hunts, and when she does decide to shoot, she doesn't miss her mark. So far she's killed ten higher ranking aurors, including Titus' third in command. Her biggest drawback is that she's limited by bullets, needing the charmed ones your father created to use against the aurors, which are in short supply. Only five left, from what I know. And each one is named after a wizard she hates. Right now, she's focusing on the mercenaries, because their cheap armour is easier to get around with normal bullets."
She didn't have to ask to know Dolohov and Titus each had their own named charmed bullet.
"Why does she hate me so much?"
Her icy glare had been deeply personal.
"Her little sister was a muggleborn. When the purebloods came, her father and brothers attempted to fight back. Titus killed all of them. Besides her sister, Maryam was the only survivor of the massacre, only spared due to her being a minor."
"That's terrible, but I didn't—"
"When she later joined the Order, Garner helped her in improving her accuracy. She looked up to him like a father for the short time she knew him before—" he didn't finish, but he didn't have to.
Garner was the auror who she'd petrified as a teenager. Later, he'd been tortured and killed by Titus, though she didn't know all the details.
"Oh," Hermione understood now. The anger made sense.
Harry patted her shoulder in sympathy.
When Harry brought Hermione back to her room, Julie seemed in better spirits. As if something heavy lifted for a moment. Hermione didn't pry, but she was curious as to what they'd talked about.
In their absence, Ron had scrounged a platter of bread, fruit, and cheese, which they split equally, eating ravenously.
"The pub will be closed tonight, because there's a wedding," Harry explained after finishing. "I debated on bringing you, since you're new, but it might be a good chance for you to meet people and have some fun."
A wedding! She'd never in her life experienced that. Most purebloods didn't have marriages anymore. Or if they did, the ceremonies were small affairs.
"I don't have anything to wear." Hermione still had on Theo's clothes from the escape, the fabric wrinkled from sleep. At least Julie might be appropriate for the occasion in her conservative dress.
"Your trousers are nicer than what most will wear."
"Really?" Hermione looked down at her clothes in confusion.
"Would you like to go?" Harry asked Julie.
On instinct, Julie ducked her head, but unlike earlier, she gave a surprising nod.
"Then I'll come back in a few hours."
Later in the evening, Harry retrieved them and took them back to the training room, which had been transformed. Hermione tugged on her clothes, self-conscious that she didn't have the resources to take a shower yet. Harry had magically removed the wrinkles from her clothing, and cleaned her hair, skin, and teeth with charms, but he didn't know any to tame her hair, so it remained in a cloud of frizz around her head. Julie looked much nicer than her, blushing shyly at the people they encountered on the way.
When they entered, moonlight glowed down through the glass above. The room still stank faintly of sweat. Replacing the wrestling mat in the center, folding chairs flanked a long, white rug. It led to a raised platform, with an arch of flowers. Extra greenery sprouted along the aisles and wavering walls, giving off the vibe of a meadow in the springtime. They'd even charmed faux fairy sprites to zoom in and out, reminding her of the hedge mazes on the Nott grounds. And like the mazes, there were several statutes decorating the area. Only cheap illusions, based on the shimmer surrounding them.
Behind the platform were tables and chairs, and a whole network of flowers and vines sprouting over the area.
Used to decadence, she'd grown immune to the effects of magic when it came to party decorations. But it was still lovely. A lot of thought and planning had gone into the day. And though it also looked like it had been done on a severe budget, it held a charm that would be hard to replicate.
As they walked into the room, soft music flowed around her. Julie's death grip on her arm loosened.
After depositing them in chairs toward the back, Harry went to the front, sitting beside Sirius Black, who wore a surprisingly nice suit, though the front still gaped open. Neither Charlie nor Maryam ever appeared, but she recognized several others from previous introductions as the guests entered.
The groom shifted nervously under the arch of flowers. He clutched his hands at his spine and rocked on his heels.
She'd never seen the man before, and Hermione watched in fascination as people filtered inside the room, taking their seats and talking. Many of them gave her furtive glances – but none of them for too long.
Envy lanced through her, seeing them partake in easy conversations.
No one wore specific colours to delineate them. No mistresses. Or wives. Or breeders. No purebloods. Or halfbloods. Or muggleborns. The labels didn't matter here.
"It's beautiful." Julie glanced up at the moonlight. "I can't believe we're at a real wedding. I used to dream that I'd—" she stopped, and Hermione grimaced. Julie had always been more of a romantic than Hermione, hoping for love and babies and promises of forever.
Instead of love, Julie had received pain. Instead of a promise of forever, she'd only been given violence.
You're safe now, she wished to whisper. But perhaps she knew, because Julie's hand cradled the small bump on her stomach as they waited.
Soon enough, the wedding began. The soft music played louder, the pleasant sound echoing in the room as the door opened, and the groom straightened. A woman appeared with a lace veil and a pretty white dress— cotton not silk, and the lace on the veil appeared old and stained. The woman beamed under the veil and walked down the aisle, clutching a small bouquet of flowers.
Hermione would never have this. The realisation swooped low in her stomach in a rush of painful understanding.
Draco may treat her as a bride, but it would never be real. And though she'd always attempted to be practical, something inside her raged at the unfairness.
The rest of the wedding passed in a blur of repressed loathing, wishing she could be happy for the bride, hating she imagined herself walking toward Draco in the rose garden under a full moon. He'd probably give her a sly grin as she approached— the one he wore when he won something difficult. He'd act confident, but when they spoke their vows, his voice would crack once with emotion. She saw it clearly— Draco capturing her lips in a searing kiss.
She felt so sick she could vomit, knowing the white of her robe at the ritual had been an intentional nod to this. If Draco hadn't intervened, she would have been drugged, stripped naked, and raped with an audience on what would have been a mockery of a wedding night.
The injustice of what she'd endured never seemed so apparent as when both the bride and groom walked back down the aisle, holding hands in triumph as the crowd surged to their feet with cheers.
The party started soon after.
"Thanks," Hermione said when Harry gave her a bowl of watery soup, while leading her to a seat at a table.
"It's not much."
Harry had been raised with his own generational wealth. She wondered if he had access to the vaults, or if Severus somehow blocked it. The goblins normally ignored the politics of the wizarding world, but going to Gringotts as a known Order member would be suicide, regardless.
"It's great," Hermione lied while taking a spoonful and trying not to grimace at the lack of flavour. She doubted they had kitchen elves stashed away.
Harry rubbed the back of his neck. "Alright, enjoy yourself. I'll be back around later."
He walked away, leaving them alone. Julie ate her food, already looking healthier, colour flooding her cheeks. Even in normal circumstances, she was shy, so this might be too much for her. But she ate without complaint and watched the people.
After a meagre slice of dry cake, the music began again, much livelier than before. The light dimmed, leaving only the moonlight, some lanterns, and the faux fairy sprites as the groom spun the bride around the room.
If she concentrated, she could imagine it as a summer party in the gardens, interrupted only when Seamus walked toward them.
"Who's your friend?" he asked.
"Her name is Julie. Another muggleborn. She escaped with me."
At the introduction, Julie glanced back down at her feet.
Seamus grinned. "Would you like to dance?"
Julie stilled, wringing her hands.
Hermione felt instantly protective. "She might not want—"
"I would," Julie whispered.
Hermione looked at her in shock. "What?"
"I've never danced before, and I've always wanted to, but I— I just don't want to touch."
"No touching." Seamus ran his hand along his chest with a promise. "Cross my heart."
Julie stood and straightened her dress, showing off her bump. Seamus' eyes stuck on it for a moment in surprise, but then he shook his head, grinned, and almost reached out to take her hand. Remembering at the last second, he dropped his arm. "Follow me!"
Julie shivered as she made her way to the dance floor, joining the group of young Order members in the center. Julie didn't do much but sway as Seamus began to move in exaggerated contortions, which made Julie smile and glance away.
Harry was there too, twirling a woman with short purple hair— the same woman who'd been wrestling in the training room. Luna moved beside them in her own world, wiggling her arms and stomping her feet as if gesticulating to the moon. She wore a flower crown with added pine cones and bells. And as she passed by, she could swear she saw dirigible plums attached to her earlobes.
"Join us!" Ron shouted at Hermione, dancing next to a girl with the Weasley hair as the tempo increased — his sister, she assumed based on how much she looked like him.
The whole day she'd felt like some odd outsider, intruding on a moment not meant for her, but the outstretch of welcome almost made her stand up.
But it was interrupted by Sirius Black sliding into the seat beside her.
She tensed as he leaned back in the chair and reached inside his pocket, coming out with a cigarette case.
"I've been trying to quit," he said.
He stared at the case without reaching inside it. "These things can kill you."
Hermione surprised herself by laughing at the thought of worrying about the effects of cigarettes in the world they lived in, and he grinned. She found him very handsome when he did that, his eyes less haunted.
"I thought you should know that Draco Malfoy contacted me."
"He did what?" Hermione turned her body in surprise.
"We found a letter at Bromley house addressed to me." Sirius fidgeted with the cigarette case, turning it in his palm. "Like a typical Malfoy, he began with bribes, explaining how much money he could give for your safe return. And then—like a typical Malfoy— he ended with threats, saying if we refused to hand you over, he'd rout us out like rats and wouldn't stop until he'd killed every last one of us."
"I wouldn't underestimate him," Hermione warned. "The last person to do so was Titus."
Sirius gave a nod in her direction. "I believe he'll try to do as he says, and I also now believe that he cares for you in his own warped way based on how he talked about you."
"So will you give me back?"
"That might not be the ethical choice, but it's the smart one. We're… in dire need of allies, and I might have to take the risk."
They sat in silence, until Hermione couldn't stand it.
"Why did my father not live on base?"
He sighed and placed his cigarettes back inside his coat pocket. "He wanted you to have a normal life. As much as possible, at least. He knew he'd have to move you here eventually, but we granted him a secret keeper. A person I thought I trusted."
"That's a sad story for another time. Tonight there's a party, and you're young and deserve to be so. Give me your wrists."
He held out his wand. "Your wrists. Like you, I can be a stubborn fool too, but Charlie made a few good points."
She let him take off the obsidian, watching them fall away. She could curse him now, but she wouldn't.
"Your insistence to leave made me angry. For a moment, I'd forgotten why I fight in the first place. Charlie's right, I can't force anyone to be here, even if I think they're making a foolish choice."
She knew this was hard for him. "I won't betray you. If I go back to Draco, I really will discuss the option of joining."
He hummed noncommittally, though it sounded cynical.
"I only want one thing from you." He turned his head, finally staring at her, eyes once again haunted. "Go see the muggles. Watch how the purebloods treat your brethren. I want you to see everything for what it truly is. After that, you can make a fully informed choice."
She wondered at the dark tone in his voice, suggesting horror. It couldn't be worse than muggle London, right? Poverty and desperation. She gave a sharp nod in agreement, which seemed to satisfy him, because he leaned back, throwing the obsidian on the table.
As if he couldn't help himself, he once again reached for a cigarette, this time pulling one from the box.
"Go join them," he said, lighting it. "Be a normal kid for once."
This time she did as he said, heart beating fast as she walked up to Julie. Her friend's face was flushed as Hermione with a happy shriek. Luna walked beside them giving erratic wiggles of her arms, and they both laughed at the same time, clutching each other, sides hurting.
Friends— that was what she'd been missing.
When they broke out the butterbeer, passing around the jug, the pain of loss under her ribs faded. The trauma evaporated with the pulse of music. The worries and the fear floated away with the movement of bodies. And the horror of the world outside silenced, if only for a single night.
Under the light of enduring stars, Hermione remembered what it felt like to be just an ordinary girl, having fun.