Song suggestions:
Kalandra- "Borders"
Slipknot- "Vermillion Pt. 2"
Chevelle- "Send the Pain Below"

Thank you to the best beta in the world, Sheila, and my alpha team for help on this chapter! And thank you, readers, for your patience while I was on vacation.

FYI: This is one of the most important chapters for Hermione's character development.

For some reason, FFN wouldn't let me download this chapter until now (it's been posted for a week or so on ao3). Not sure what's happening. The site is glitchy.

Trigger Warnings are posted at the bottom of the page.

The Price of Love

The Death Eaters remained on edge as they roamed the old streets of London, searching for any sign of the wizard who had killed and mutilated the Lestrange brothers.

In the organised chaos, Titus transferred Finch and her to the edge of the execution platform. The scent of death permeated the air, the pile of corpses reeking so strongly it stung her nose and mouth. She forced down a reflexive gag while facing his glare.

"If you want to stay unbound, you'll remain in that exact spot until I can collect you," he warned with a finger pointed in her direction. "The boundary spell is still in place, so attempting to run away will not only be foolish, but will result in more restrictions."

"Why can't you just bring me back to the manor?"

"I don't have the time, and I don't trust anyone else to do it right now."

Good, because she didn't want to leave; she wanted more clues to the wizard's identity too. Her eyes kept flicking to the bloody lettering above Rodolphus' headless corpse, still stuck to the side of the building.

I can be a Butcher too.

It could be anyone, but she knew that handwriting, had seen it unfurl along parchment, ink staining pale, elegant fingers. A dark thrill zipped through her at the idea that Draco might be the culprit, though the potential consequences made her feel sick.

Hermione sat down where she'd been left, deciding not to test any boundaries while at an active crime scene. She attempted to ignore the ever-growing stench leaching into every cell of her body from behind her. A puddle of blood close to her foot glinted under a hovering ball of lumos, steadily dripping off the platform, and she examined it while processing the events.

Finch remained standing beside her with a placid expression, calm as the creek she'd visited earlier in the day. He'd always been the voice of logic in their coven, so introverted and odd he struggled to communicate beyond his interests.

"Are you okay?" she voiced her concern, pulling him from deep thought. He crouched down so they were at eye level.

It was an idiotic question. Of course, he wasn't okay.

He grabbed her hand again, the heat of his palm seeping through her skin. "I'm better than I thought I'd be— thanks to you. I have a lot to thank you for, really, and I'm glad you're here so that I can do it properly."

She blinked a few times in confusion and frowned. "Thank me? Whatever for?"

He smiled sadly. "Teaching me magic. Giving me a wand. Welcoming me as your friend, even though I wasn't very nice to you at first."

She scoffed. "You don't have to thank me for being your friend, Finch. You've given me just as much as I could ever give you."

"My gratitude stands."

Something about the way he spoke made her uncomfortable.

"Well, I'm not sure I was a very good teacher."

"You were a terrible teacher." He leaned closer. "But even still, I've actually gotten quite good on my own."

His statement made no sense.

"But Titus has your wand—"

"I steal my master's at night." Finch grinned at her horrified gasp. "He's careless where he sets it down and hasn't even noticed the allegiance has shifted. Really, I thought you'd be proud of me. I've been acting like you, stealing dark art books from their library, and I've mastered many of the spells… even two of the unforgivables."

"Unforgivables?" Hermione almost jumped to her feet in shock.

"You were right. I just needed intention— though I never had the heart for Crucio. Once I learned to clear my mind, Imperio was easier than I thought it would be."

She did a quick analysis of the implications, her brain hurtling to conclusions. If he didn't have the heart for Crucio, that meant—

"You've managed an Avada." Her open-mouthed stare must look comical.

Finch nodded with a grimace. "I practised on animals, but only to help them. I first talked a gnome out of a poisoned trap with an Imperio, and then I found a dying rat in my room a month ago. There was nothing I could do to heal it, and I— well, I only had to think of my hate for my masters. It sliced my soul a little in the process, but I don't regret it. I've had to do it several times since."

The purebloods would consider stealing a master's wand a far worse crime than running away. Even Titus might not be able to save him from the fallout if they discovered he'd been practising Avadas.

"What you're doing is very dangerous."

"That's usually the warning I need to give you. For once, I've been more reckless, but I've been given no other choice."

It might be hypocritical of her to ask for caution, but she had to express her worry. "I just don't like the thought of you getting caught. Promise me you won't do anything more. Titus will—"

"Don't pretend Nott Manor's my sanctuary. Didn't you hear him? He said he'd loan me out to families in need of my service. I'm not being saved at all."

Hermione didn't have an answer for that, because he was right. Titus didn't approve of abuse of muggleborns, but he still believed in the necessity of continuing the wizarding bloodlines.

An idea entered her mind. It might cost her a great deal, but she'd pay the price if it meant her friend remained free.

"I'll make a deal with him to—"

"No deals. I couldn't bear the thought of you sacrificing anything for me. But I'm also not sure I can imagine this being my whole life— traded around to produce children, but never being able to be a real fath—the healers think my baby's a girl." He let go of her hand to swipe at a rogue tear. "I've had dreams of her little fingers. Her first smile. Wobbly steps. I didn't think I'd want so much to call her mine."

"I'm sorry," Hermione said, unable to think of what to say. An aura of pain swallowed him. She wished she could wash away the torment and return them both to when he'd been just a boy excited about catching a caterpillar.

"Hermione," he said slowly. "Promise me you'll find a way to make sure she's taken care of properly. Daphne's very immature and selfish. Doesn't like any responsibility or even want a child. And Mr. Greengrass is already angry that it's possibly not a boy to carry on the family name. I think he would've terminated the pregnancy if it was allowed."

"She's practically my niece. Of course, I'll look out for her." Something tilted off balance, and she couldn't put her finger on it. "You're right about the manor. It's not a sanctuary. But after today, we'll be able to figure out everything together." She stopped short of promising to kidnap the child to raise at Nott manor, knowing it wouldn't be a possibility.

Finch had been far more tender than usual, even held her hand and kissed it. She'd been in a trance earlier, unable to question the rare affection, but goosebumps erupted along her arms.

"I'll find a way for you to see your baby, Finch. Just give me some time to think of a plan. I helped Julie, and I'll help you too."

"You can't solve every problem. Some things can't be healed, helped, or answered."

"I refuse to believe that. There's a solution to everything. We just need to figure it out. Soon you'll be away from those monsters. And then you'll be with me every day, like we used to be." The thought caused a warmth to wash over her, a thread of hope. Life always turned brighter in the presence of her friends.

"It's a nice thought, isn't it? To return to our past."

"It is," she whispered. "It can be that again."

Even after they stopped talking, Hermione remained unsettled about something in his tone and manner.

It took another hour to scour the buildings in the area cordoned off. Without success, Titus retreated to stand close by Hermione, arms crossed, calculating what to do next as the higher-ranked aurors shifted nervously in a semi-circle around him. The stars gleamed in the dark now, and she searched out constellations in her boredom.

"It doesn't make any sense. The wizard who did this had to be close." Titus uncrossed his arms, letting them dangle at his sides, clenching his wand so hard the veins in his hand raised. "Average Inferi can withstand distance, but advanced charms on inferi need proximity, since it's linked by soul magic."

"It could be a witch." Even masked, she recognized the hulking figure of Thorfinn Rowle. "Bellatrix is still on the run."

"I admit she has motive when it comes to Rodolphus. She's also insane enough to send an inferi." He studied the corpse still stuck to the side of the building and frowned. "But she has no reason to hunt me."

"Do you have any other suspects?"

For the first time since the investigation began, Titus glanced down at Hermione, picking apart every micro-expression. She kept her features unresponsive as he took his time examining her, eyes narrowing until he finally ripped his gaze away.

Hermione tried to breathe normally. Afraid she'd give away her suspicions with a twitch of her lips, she looked down at the dark puddle of blood, following the steady drips from the platform as they splashed into the center.

"I have a suspect, but I won't make any accusations until I have solid proof."

Plenty of people had motive to kill Titus, but this had been personal and targeted, executed by a talented wizard with connections to dark magic and possibly ancient family grimoires. A wizard from an old family.

It narrowed down the possibilities.

So focused on her worries and the dripping blood, trapped in her thoughts, she didn't notice the majority of the aurors had returned to the ministry, leaving only a few behind. Titus loomed over her with a hand outstretched for her to take.

"Are you ready to go home now? I have time to drop you off."

Her chest hurt at the word home, wishing for a different manor.

"Yes." Hermione was cold, tired, and mentally hanging on by a thread, and wanted nothing more than to enter a dreamworld where she could forget about beheaded Order members. "Why can't Finch come back with us now?"

As she let Titus pull her to standing, his expression softened. "I can't officially take him with me until the sale is finalised and approved by the ministry. It will only be a single night."

Finch remained crouched beside her without any reaction, as if lost inside himself, staying quiet and pensive.

It didn't take long for Greengrass to appear beside Titus. He seemed surlier than before, face red with anger, since his evening plans had turned into an unsuccessful manhunt.

"Get up, you worthless—"

"Careful," Titus warned in a dark tone. "If you want my full payment tomorrow, you'll leave him unblemished and ready for work. If I find a single mark on him, Greengrass, you'll see what happens to people who damage what's mine."

She didn't think the Greengrass patriarch was used to people threatening him, but he was smart enough not to argue with the Butcher and gave a nod of agreement.

Finch straightened at his master's frustrated summons. His legs had always been too long for his body, with lanky, skinny arms to match, and he towered above even Titus now. Greengrass grabbed the chain attached to the shackle around his neck and yanked a single time.

"I'm so sorry. Tell Dean that I love him," Finch whispered as he walked by Hermione. "I can't—"

"Come on, you cretin. I don't have all night."

The chain yanked again, and Finch stumbled away before he could finish his statement.

Titus' hand transferred to her back, trying to lead her away as well, but she couldn't rip her eyes from her friend's back walking past the execution platform, flies swarming around the corpses. The awful stench moulded inside her body, mingling with a dread that poisoned her blood.

When she refused to move, Titus ran his fingers along the curve of her waist. "No need to worry about your friend. Greengrass won't risk my anger by hurting him. Tomorrow I'll bring him home. A companion will be good for you, I think. If I remember correctly, the boy liked botany and entomology. Perhaps I could hire a tutor for the two of you again—"

Hermione lurched out of his hold with a shout. With her focus on Finch, she'd seen the movement of his wrist before anyone else had, but she could only look on as if watching an impending broom accident— helpless to stop what was about to happen.

"Accio wand!" A flash of dark wood sprung from Greengrass' pocket, landing into Finch's hand, followed by two practised swishes and a flick. "Cateno Suffoco!"

The metal leash ripped out of Greengrass' hand and rose up, snapping forward with a crack, and after wrapping twice around the patriarch's throat, constricted his neck like a curling snake.

Titus' reflexes responded in a flash as he flicked his wand, but she smacked his hand to the side just in time, sending the binding curse that had been aimed at her friend to dissipate into an empty building.

Titus twisted and glared at her. "Don't interfere again. In fact, I won't give you the option." Ropes wrapped around her arms and waist, as Titus wasted precious moments securing her.

In the distance, the remaining aurors patrolling the edges of the boundary spell raced toward the commotion, wands raised, but they were too far to land their curses effectively.

She snarled at him. "Don't you dare—"

"The stupid boy's left me with no choice but to arrest him."

Finch hadn't capitalised on the distraction she'd provided. He remained in place, as if accepting the inevitable outcome, calmly watching his master strangling to death. Greengrass was writhing on the ground, face turning purple, legs twitching, fingers clawing at the heavy chain around his throat. Spells in red and blue hurtled past Finch, but he kept staring placidly, until he glanced up and transferred the tip of Greengrass' wand to his temple, eyes connected with Hermione full of pain and apology.

Hermione understood now what Finch planned to do— what had seemed off this whole time.

He'd been telling her goodbye.

"Expelliarmus!" Titus shouted.

"Avada Kedavra."

A flash of green surrounded Finch just as Greengrass' wand hurtled out of his grasp. His face slackened in the sickening brightness, eyes blank, rolling up to show the whites. His body tipped backward, collapsing with a nauseating crack next to a now still Greengrass.

"Bloody fuck!" Titus ran toward the scene, but Hermione couldn't comprehend what had just happened, frozen in place.

The aurors arrived and unwound the chain on Greengrass, trying to revive him without success, while Titus bent down over Finch, doing a diagnostic spell. He examined him for several long seconds until he slowly glanced back at Hermione, eyes wide, shaking his head.

She collapsed without thought, her bindings vanishing before impact with the concrete below. But she doubted she'd feel any pain. In fact, she welcomed the sharp physical sensation as she crawled forward, scraping her knees as she went.

"Help him," she begged. He had to be asleep, passed out from the blow to his head.

Devastation clouded Titus' face as he stood. "There's nothing I can do. He's gone, Sprite."

"No, no, he can't be. It's not possible. You can't Avada yourself."

"You can. You can do any spells on yourself if your wand allows it. He only had to really mean it."

Even if the wand had shifted allegiance, it wasn't truly his, giving him no protection, which meant Titus was right— it was possible.

And Finch had practised the spell before. Several times.

"No, no, no, no." She refused to believe the outcome. Unable to stand in her panic, she continued her desperate crawl forward, knees bleeding.

As she touched Finch's boot, Titus tried to lift her away, but she wrestled out of his hold, collapsing over her friend's body.

"Don't touch me!"

"You don't want to see him. Not like this."

Despite his protests, Titus didn't try to pull her away again, standing to the side in defeat as Hermione cradled Finch's head in her hands, brushing the wiry strings of dirty blond hair from his face.

"Wake up," she begged. "Please. What will Dean—" His body was both limp and impossibly heavy, unresponsive to her summons, eyes empty of any spark.

She bent over his chest, trying futilely to listen to his heartbeat. A loud noise hurt her head with its intensity, and it took a second to realise that the sound was her own scream.

Finch was dead— from the curse she'd taught him in the safety of the treehouse.

She'd done this.

The weaving cracks in her mind shattered with one blow. The ancient grief pulled her under, drowned her. Things she'd buried long ago dug up through the soil of her soul.

Time became nothing as she rocked Finch's body, until Titus gently pulled her hands away. "He's gone, love. It might be better that it was by his own hand. The punishment for killing a master would've been— it would have broken your heart even more."

"It's my fault. It's all my fault."

"It's not."

He didn't understand. If she hadn't wanted magic so badly, if she hadn't disobeyed, none of this would have happened.

She fought Titus when he eventually tugged her away. Her fingers found purchase on his cheeks, scratching like an animal, raising welts along his skin, trying to get back to Finch in a mindless panic, but he only guided her arms firmly around his shoulders, lifting her legs.

"We have to go home," he whispered.

"Don't leave him alone!"

"His body will be preserved and kept safe until burial. I promise, but we need to get you home."

"Finch!" she screamed. But Titus ignored her pleas, walking away into the dark streets, holding her tighter as she struggled.

His heavy cloak smelled of cinnamon, warm around her shoulders as he wrapped her up, as if to protect her from the elements, just as he'd done as he'd carried her away from her father's body.

Hermione wanted to become numb, wanted the sudden emptiness of detachment, but this time, she found it impossible.

"I need Draco," she pleaded.

His shoulders tensed under her grasp, but he kept walking.

"You have me— you'll always have me."

The grief was too much to bear. Both the realisation that she'd never get to see her friend again, and the guilt that it might have been her fault for teaching him the unforgivable in the first place, severed her spirit in half. A foreign sensation began to slide down her cheeks, dripping off her chin. Ugly sobs tore from her mouth.

"He's gone," she whispered.

For the first time since before her father died, Hermione pressed her face into Titus' shoulder and began to cry.

Finch was buried behind the treehouse on a rare sunny morning in the fall. The shade of the tree covered the grave in the afternoon and wildflowers would grow in clumps during the spring. There was nowhere else suitable to bury him, and Hermione selfishly had wanted his grave close by, so she could visit whenever she wanted.

The sunshine hurt her eyes— a setting incongruous with the tempestuous storm inside her. The sky should be dark, rain lashing against the earth, a punishment just for her.

Dean trembled next to her in formal wear, staring at the closed casket, its black lacquer gleaming in the sun. Her guilt had made her unable to face him since he arrived. Pansy hovered behind Dean with Mr. Parkinson beside her, looking sombre. Katie stood on the opposite side, leaning against Marcus, a handkerchief pressed to her nose.

Hermione wished to erase the sight of Finch's limp body and blank eyes from her memory. Instead, she tried to concentrate on all of the good things: the way he would set clever traps for insects, find images in clouds, and befriend the gnomes. At lunchtime, he used to go on long rants about something interesting he'd read, while the rest of them were bored out of their minds hearing about the migration patterns of the nearly extinct golden snidgets.

What she would give to go back and listen again to his voice with rapt attention. She debated whether she could steal a time turner from the ministry just to experience it again.

Hermione had struggled to dress for the day, refusing to eat or wash her hair, having laid in bed for days. Like she suspected, once the tears began to flow, they didn't stop. A lifetime of pain bubbled up inside her heart alongside her friend's death. Her nights were filled with wrenching sobs, dreaming of Finch's death, over and over, never being able to save him. Her days were spent trying and failing to detach from her reality.

Her broken state was caused by more than Finch's death, she realised. It was everything she'd lost. Everything she'd endured. The sum of the horrors she'd experienced had finally drained her spirit, leaving only a husk of her former self.

When Titus levitated the casket and lowered it into the hole, nestling it against the damp soil below, Hermione's knees almost buckled.

"Wait," she cried when the soil began to trickle inside, threatening to smother her friend forever. She pulled out a terrarium she'd taken from the treehouse the day before, one with a long dead butterfly. "Bury him with this. Something he loved."

Titus studied her as he had for days, treating her like spun glass. He took the terrarium from her, along with a bracelet made of string from Dean, and lowered both inside. As the soil began to patter against the casket, Dean collapsed, covering his face with his hands, groaning in pain, and then dug his fingers into the soil as if to bring Finch back out. Pansy leaned down beside him with her bottom lip quivering, gently placing a hand on his back, for once without her omnipresent sneer.

A part of Hermione wanted to be obliviated, but she couldn't imagine a life where she'd never met Finch, and she couldn't imagine a life now where he didn't exist. If she could travel back in time, she would have loved Finch just the same, if not more, because now she knew how little time they had left.

If grief was the payment for love, she'd empty her pockets of her change and step voluntarily into eternal debt for just the sliver of a moment beside him again.

Life lost all colour.

Hermione ceased her attempts at escape, trudging through the new grey landscape. On the rare days that she emerged from her room, she'd taken to wandering the manor like a spectre, especially when she knew Titus would be gone. She'd stop by the coven's old haunts, lingering in the music room. Sitting at the piano, she'd stroke the ivory keys, cleaning streaks of dust away with her tears. And then she'd attempt a simple song that Julie forced them to learn long ago, butchering it as she always had.

Short excursions like that were all she could manage on her own. She found it difficult to do anything for survival, including eating. Her stomach revolted at the thought of taking a single bite, and each time she put food into her mouth, it went down like acid and boiled in her stomach, no matter the type of food Bitty or Eddy presented.

It didn't take long until Titus forced her to dinner, sitting her in front of a platter of food— all of her favourites.

Titus slumped across from her, steepling his fingers, brows creased with worry. "You can't continue this way. You have to eat."

He waited, but she didn't do anything.

"I'm not going to let you starve to death. You aren't leaving this table without consuming a few bites. I'll give you ten minutes, and then we'll do this another way that you probably won't like."

Hermione watched the clock move, timing by the ticks of the second hand, until she heard Titus give a big sigh.


After a simple order, she placed the food in her mouth and chewed repetitively. The meal gave her no pleasure, paining her empty stomach. When she finished, Titus released the curse, leaning back in his chair, running his hand over his face to swipe away his frustration.

"Tell me what I can do to help you."

"I don't want anything from you." She ignored the jolt of pain in his face as she retreated to her room.

A few days later, she lingered at the edge of the south pond, letting her fingers brush the silky water, turning her fingers red with its icy temperatures.

"There's no such thing as water beasts," an invisible Finch said beside her. She remembered them sitting in this spot years ago on a summer day, arguing about the contents of the deep in the pond.

"Then what are you trying to find?" Dean had asked as Finch trudged into the water on a mission with only a bubblehead charm and a net.

"Grindylows, of course."

The memory called Hermione forward. She slipped off her shoes, sinking her toes into the cold mud. Water lapped at her ankles and then went up to her waist. She controlled her shivers, enjoying the discomfort of the temperature. As she remembered the peace under the water at Malfoy manor, she found the call of the deep impossible to resist.

She trudged forward, her white dress billowing around her body, until the water covered her head, murkier than usual from a recent rainstorm. The silt obstructed most of her view.

The pressure weighed down her bones as she struggled to swim lower, until her feet rested against the slimy bottom. With the heavy darkness came a silence that drowned out all of the old voices inside her mind. Like before, a peace washed over her even as her lungs burned. The lack of oxygen began to hurt, but she refused to resurface, clinging to the moment of relief. She wished to stay in the shadowy depths forever, side by side with the mythical water beasts.

She ignored all of her screaming instincts, and the bracelet on her wrist glowed a bright red— a warning of mortal peril.

Just as she welcomed the blissful darkness, a person sliced through the water, shattering her solitude by roughly grabbing her arm and forcing her up. Titus didn't give her any avenue to fight, and she didn't have the energy to resist as he swam. When they broke the surface, she gasped in a breath on instinct. Without allowing her a moment to orient herself, he paddled until he could stand, and then tossed her to the slimy edge of the pond. They both heaved in panting breaths when he loomed over her with a furious glare. She tried to move away, but he tugged her back under him.

"What were you doing?" he shouted, lips blue with the cold.

Hermione retched up some water she'd swallowed. "I just wanted to find a Grindylow."

"What the fuck, Sprite. You could have killed your—"

He stopped abruptly and glanced at the water, eyes widening with his own conclusion.

But he was wrong. He had to be wrong. She didn't want to die. She'd just wanted peace. An absence of sound. The squeeze of pain in her lungs.

Titus cursed, dripping dirty water on her as he rested his forehead against hers. His dark clothes slicked tight to his skin, as he'd dived into the pond in his full auror outfit, including his thick armour and his dragonhide boots.

"You were at work?" Hermione didn't know why she asked the question.

He brushed off the curls that had been plastered to her face. "I was on an assignment."

Her bracelet had warned him that she'd been in mortal peril, and he'd apparated straight to her.

"Don't fucking scare me like that again." He blinked a few times, as if trying to shove away terrible thoughts. "You're slipping away, and I don't know what to do— just tell me what to do."

There were many things he could do, but he wouldn't listen to any of them.

When she didn't answer, he bundled her up against his chest and brought her to his room, using cleaning and drying charms. The sudden spike of adrenaline in her body had depleted, leaving her shivering and empty, and she curled up on the far edge of his bed without getting under the covers.

Later in the night, he tugged her close, warming her chilled skin, curving his heavy body against hers.

"Don't give up on me," he whispered to the dark, kissing her forehead, holding her tight to his chest. "You're all I have left."

She slept and slept and slept.

Titus took off work for several days to watch her, waiting in a chair beside the bed with a book clutched in his hands, wearing reading glasses. Sometimes, he also brought his paperwork in the room, and she dozed to the scratch of quill on parchment. He forced her out of bed twice a day to eat with an imperio and seemed to possess endless patience with her listless state, though as the days went on, she sensed his desperation.

One morning, she woke up to Titus shifting out of bed. The room was sharply cool, and she snuggled under the warmth of blankets, hovering in the space between awake and dreams— the comfortable spot where she briefly forgot everything.

Titus didn't attempt to hide anything as he dressed, but she always glanced away, only viewing an outline of an intimidating physique, honed like a weapon from years of rigorous training.

When he shoved a casual black shirt over his head, pulling it down to cover the span of his back, he turned back to view her.

"You have no choice but to get up and participate in life today. You can't rot in here forever."

Hermione thought she could. She imagined staying in place so long that her bones fossilised. "Are you going to imperio me to do that? Because I'd rather rot."

"We have guests."

Hermione groaned, rolled over, and covered her head with the blanket, only for it to be tugged off by an angry Titus.

"Enough," he snapped, finally losing his patience. "I think you'd like to meet them."

"I doubt that. All your friends are degenerates."

He rolled his eyes and threw the blanket on the floor, leaving her to shiver.

"You might be right, but Severus will be arriving for dinner later today, and he's bringing his muggleborn and adopted children."

Lily Potter.

A single spark of curiosity jolted through her. It wasn't much, but it was enough to get her out of bed. When Bitty came to help Hermione bathe, she entered the tub on her own.

The first thing she noticed about Lily Potter when she stepped through the floo was that she wasn't meek. When Snape attempted to take her cloak, she shoved his hand away. "I can do this myself."

"Of course," Snape said in an even drawl. Hermione wondered if the inflection ever changed, except perhaps with disdain.

After brief introductions, Lily grabbed Hermione's hand and shook hard. Kind green eyes, bright red hair, soft smile lines and tiny wrinkles around her eyes from years of laughter— she seemed like an average mum. More normal than the image she'd built in her mind.

A teenage girl hid behind her mother. Glasses perched on her nose, looking like a startling copy of Harry, except with blue eyes and dark auburn hair. She stared at Hermione in open fascination before dropping her gaze, a flush staining her cheeks. The youngest boy, probably only eight at the most, looked identical to his mum— red hair, green eyes, except, unlike his siblings, he didn't need vision correction. He bounced on his toes, already bored, and tugged on the collar of his shirt.

"We have a treehouse," Hermione told the boy. "Would you like to see it?"

Titus froze, studying her carefully. She realised in the ensuing silence that what she said had come out of nowhere, since they'd been discussing something else.

"That's a great idea," Titus said slowly as if one wrong word would cause her to bolt. "How about you go show Remus the statues in the mazes too. Gemma might like to go as well."

"No, thank you." Gemma pressed to her mum's side.

"She's shy when she first meets people," her mum explained.

"It's okay," Hermione assured her.

The boy didn't need to be asked twice. With a whoop of excitement to be getting out of a formal setting, Remus skipped along behind her as she walked out of the manor for the first time in weeks.

Hermione liked children because they existed without pretence. She didn't need to smile or think of what to say to make conversation. Once Remus started to talk, he didn't stop.

In the middle of his story about an exploding potion, Hermione wondered if the boy knew the man who killed his father was hosting the dinner. Did he even remember the death? She didn't know if she was jealous of his innocence or if she pitied his future understanding.

At least, he loved the treehouse. But what child wouldn't? He squealed when the bucket brought him up.

"I wish we had something like this. Sevvy's place is a little dingy no matter how much it's cleaned. My old home was so much better. And my brother—" He wandered over to the terrariums. "You need new bugs."

"How about you catch some for me?"

They spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the gardens. In the end, he caught a ladybird, and she told him he could keep the terrarium. He seemed excited about it, and she watched him wistfully, wishing she could experience such easy joy again.

Bitty arrived before they could catch anything else, and Hermione's stomach squeezed in trepidation. If she could, she'd spend the rest of the day outside with Remus. Socialising seemed too difficult a task. But eventually, she faced the inevitable, attempting occlumency on her walk back to the manor, building shallow shelves without titles.

Hermione stabbed a carrot and brought it to her lips, letting her tongue rest on the tip, and Titus' stare burned into her. At the moment, he sat next to her, engaging in most of the conversation. Snape was more upbeat than usual, yet still answered in a continuous dreary tone.

Unable to finish a bite, she set her fork down with the carrot impaled on the tines. Titus grabbed her knee and squeezed under the table, leaning close to her. "Don't be rude."

He'd created this dinner so that peer pressure might force her to eat again, but she remained too distracted by watching Snape and Lily interact. She'd expected raw hatred. Instead, Harry's mum seemed… congenial, and it turned her stomach.

"You're wrong about your theory." Lily dabbed her napkin to her lip, completely unafraid of the way her master turned to her with a disgusted sneer.

"Care to elaborate?"

"I'm sorry, Severus," Titus chimed in. "But I side with Lily on this."

"Mum's always right." Gemma flushed and bowed her head when all the eyes turned to her.

Snape's sneer deepened and then he sighed. "That's true. Regrettably, I'm surrounded by women who outthink me."

Little Remus wiggled in his seat beside Snape, but he managed to behave enough to eat. Halfway through dinner, the boy asked his mother if he could go back outside and play.

"I suppose," she said. "Just stay out of the mud and the water. And don't go too far."

"I'll have Bitty follow him." Titus watched Remus sprint out of the doors, and then he gave a kind smile to Gemma. "I've been told that you had top marks on your OWLs. A true Ravenclaw."

"She's third in her class," Snape said. "A model pupil, much like her mother." Compliments seemed rare from him.

Gemma squirmed under the attention, and Hermione couldn't help but remember the night of the ritual. Dolohov had wanted to start the girl's Trials early, hoping she might be the key to the curse. Whatever they were doing wasn't working, and Hermione didn't think it would work when they sacrificed Gemma's innocence to it either. Knowing a secret so foul made her violently ill.

Would Snape watch? Did Lily know what might happen to her sweet daughter?

Hermione wondered what it must be like to have to share a bed with the man who helped murder her husband. Did Lily fight? Refuse to eat? Did she crawl into a pond for the silence?

From the looks of it, it seemed like Lily was doing nothing.

"Hermione is as studious as a Ravenclaw too." Titus placed his arm around her chair and brushed his fingers on her shoulder. "Maybe you could bring Gemma by sometime again during Christmas break, so that they can get to know each other."

Was this what Titus' goal was? To give her new companions? Gemma was younger and not a muggleborn, brought to dinner on a special outing from Hogwarts with her guardian. What would they have in common?

Nothing about this dinner made her feel better. In fact, she felt like if she stayed one more second, she might say things that would get her in trouble.

"I can't do this." The chair legs screeched under Hermione as she stood and shoved off Titus' heavy arm.

"Sit back down." The demand came out like a plea, but she ignored it, sprinting out of the room.

Hermione curled up on her bed, suppressing her sobs. Now that she'd relearned how to cry, it was hard to stop, and it wasn't cathartic. The damnable liquid leaked out of her eyes like acid rain, scorching her skin.

A soft knock on the door interrupted her. Lily peeked into the room before walking inside and shutting the door behind her.

"I don't want to talk." Especially not with her. She just wanted to disappear.

"I understand," Lily whispered. "I remember. Right now everything hurts so much. It feels like you can't breathe. And you just want it all to stop."

She supposed Lily would understand, out of anyone.

"Will it ever stop?" Hermione already knew the answer, but wanted it confirmed.

"Unfortunately, no."

Hermione took a deep breath, appreciating the honesty. Being around Titus all the time proved to be exhausting, his worry overbearing, especially when he'd caused most of it. He just wanted her back to her old self, but she'd never be her old self again.

Hermione lifted her head and then gasped, finding Lily pointing a wand straight at her.

She should be nervous under Lily's threatening stance, but she focused on the wand with jealousy. "Snape lets you do magic?"

"I dared him to take my wand from me… and he didn't."

Hermione lifted her wrists, showing the obsidian. "As you can see, Titus gives me no such leniency."

Lily rested elegantly on the edge of her reading chair, studying the room. "Such fine things. Everything is gilded or covered with silk and pearls."

"I'd prefer it all to burn."

"I'm sure your apathy irritates your master. Based on what Severus has told me, he's desperate to spoil you."

She liked how she called Titus her master. It stripped away the illusions.

"Why are you here?"

"Nott sent me to talk to you. We're much alike, you see. Both stolen from someone we love and forced to accept someone new. Your master saw the similarities." Lily picked up a book from her shelf and riffled through the worn pages before setting it back down. In this light, she seemed younger. "Nott wants me to assure you that one day soon you'll find comfort in your new life like I have. That if you just let yourself forgive, happiness will come after. That it's all a choice, in the end."

"And have you found comfort in your new life?" Hermione snapped, bitterness leaking out with each word.

"They think I have, and that's all that matters." A spark lit up behind Lily's eyes, something dangerous. She recognized the hidden rage. "Your pain might lessen, Hermione, but only in the way a wound might scab over an infection. The only comfort you'll ever find will be a tolerable level of acceptance. Perhaps they're right, and it's a choice to forgive, though I haven't personally learned how. The horrid truth they don't want me to tell you is that the Butcher will eventually require you to swallow your pain— sooner rather than later. He'd rather you pretend to be happy, so he can cease feeling so guilty."

Hermione revelled in the raw candour, laid out so clearly, but found it hard to breathe. Though she already suspected it to be this way, the life Lily presented was everything she feared— purposeless and stripped of anything she truly desired. Titus would mine every precious gem from her soul, if she wasn't careful.

Lily shed her smile, letting her true emotions show through, and then she raised her wand again.

"Answer me truthfully." There was no tremble in Lily's wand hand, but Hermione didn't have the capacity to be afraid. "Did you betray the Order?"

Hermione glanced out the window. "I never mastered Occlumency, no matter how much I tried. Titus cracked through my defences easily. I tried to fight. But— you can curse me, if you want. I deserve for you to hurt me. All of the deaths are my fault. I won't tell or get out of the way. It might actually make me feel better."

"The raid of the base was a blow to our cause, the loss of life horrific." Lily hesitated and dropped her wand, expression softening. "But Sirius is an idiot for believing you volunteered the information. He's always jumped to conclusions too quickly, believing you to be still brainwashed. But I knew you were only a trapt thing, just like me."

That information both stung and confused her. "You're in contact with the Order?"

"As you say, your Occlumency needs a little work." Lily placed her index finger against her lips, confirming her question while also showing she wouldn't say anything more.

Something hot rose in Hermione, almost like hope, but it burned like fire.

Lily tucked her wand back into her pocket. "I wouldn't have hurt you, regardless. I just wanted to see how you would react under pressure. You see— my oldest son is reckless, foolish, and angry right now and would've been killed right away if you hadn't imperioed him. I owe you a life debt for saving him."

Hermione didn't question how Lily knew the details. She'd worried about Harry since the incident, hoping he'd gotten away. The relief in knowing she'd managed to save him caused her to cry again.

Lily walked over to the bed and sat on the edge, pulling her into a comforting hug. She melted into the embrace, missing Tabitha, missing the mother she never got to know.

She felt the need to warn her about Gemma. "Dolohov plans to force your daughter—"

"I know what he plans," Lily whispered in a tight voice, showing she didn't want to discuss the topic. She squeezed her shoulder. "Have courage. It's difficult to endure right now, but if you ever want to get away, I feel I must warn you not to get pregnant. Once a child is involved, the risks are greater, and it becomes infinitely harder to escape." From the inflection in her voice, Lily spoke of herself. How she was manipulated by the safety and proximity of her children. "Titus is counting on the sacrifices you'll make, Hermione, which is why he wants you pregnant right away, so that you'll be easy to control."

Hermione held onto her tighter, stealing the comfort. "He's only promised me six months."

Lily kissed her forehead as a mother would. She dipped her head lower, placing her lips to her ear. "I can help you get back to the Order before that time."

Hermione froze at the promise. "How?"

"You have to prove your loyalty first. Kingsley and Sirius have no choice but to make sure you're not a threat. They need to know you won't return to Titus. When the time is right, we'll send a spy to give you a task. However, I have a mission for you today— if you want it."

Hermione pulled away, swiping away her tears.

"I'll do anything."

Lily dug back into her pocket, coming out with a small device shaped like a tiny ear. "Do you recognize this?"

She did. The Weasley twins invented it. Though this looked far more advanced than the prototypes Theo showed her, even more complicated than the listening device he'd used to help Draco spy on them during the trials. According to Theo, he'd retrieved the invention from the manor long ago, and she hadn't seen anything like it since.

"You want to spy on Titus?"

"Snape told me he's having a private conversation with him tonight after I go home. You know the Butcher better than anyone. Where would that take place?"

"His study," Hermione answered automatically.

"Do you have access?"

More than access. An invitation. A reading chair with books and a soft light above. Titus would like nothing more than if she walked inside and sat with him while he worked again. The only restriction placed against her in the room was the desk drawers.

"I do."

"Then you're the only person in the world that can do this."

"And all I have to do is place it somewhere?"

She shook her head. "The charms on this version are more stable and practically invisible once attached. However, the downside is that the charms for invisibility limit the range compared to earlier models. The connected ear will have to stay in the manor— with you. Any information you learn will need to be relayed to our undercover spy."

"How will I know who it is?"

"They'll make themselves known."

Hermione hesitated, thinking through the potential consequences and rewards. She didn't have to consider for long and grasped the ear.

"I'll do it."

"The Butcher was right," Lily said, a pleased smile growing on her face. "We're much alike."

Hermione made sure to avoid the portraits while she slipped along the corridors. They'd snitch on her to Titus, and then she'd lose the chance to prove herself to the Order.

Hermine entered the study without incident. Since her doppelgänger, she'd never stepped foot into the room. Her old reading chair was still in the same spot with a low light hovering above— the only light on, as if enticing her to come and stay.

She ignored the implications, travelling to the desk. Making sure no portraits or elves could see, she pressed the tiny ear under the heavy wooden edge, right above the image of a dragon flying into shape-shifting clouds. Like Lily promised, it vanished on contact.

Her task felt far too easy for its importance, but she didn't dither or second guess herself, and raced back to her room.

That night Hermione stared at the ceiling on her bed, the connecting device fitted snugly in her ear.

She heard the familiar shuffle of Titus' dragon hide boots into his study first, followed by steps more careful and quieter. She sat up straight with bated breath, hoping he didn't discover the Weasley Twins' invention. There wouldn't be an easy answer for its placement.

"An impressive desk," Snape said. A creak of chairs followed as they both sat down.

"An heirloom. Do you want a drink?"

"I might as well."

Titus snapped his fingers, and Bitty's familiar pop of apparition filled her ear. He uncapped the whisky and poured it into two glasses.

"I'd like to thank you for coming for dinner," Titus began. "Hermione's been... struggling with the transition and the death of her friend. Lily's been an excellent example of a witch handling her circumstances with grace. I thought seeing her might help."

Snape snorted in derision. "We've had our troubles too."

"Of course," Titus said. "But she's settled well."

"Perhaps," Snape answered.

"Still having trouble?"

"In a few ways. Dolohov's pressuring me again to start the girl's Trial. Lily knows about it, and is not very happy, of course."

"He's getting desperate. The sailors have said that the boundary's wobbling. Sunk a few boats. We might lose the coast if—"

"She's a child," Snape bit back.

"She is," Titus agreed. "I don't agree with his plans. If you need someone to argue your case, I will. Avery needs to step aside as the lead intelligence on the curse. He'd be more suited toward the auror department, because we need all the help we can get. On top of everything, the cult in the east is growing stronger. Someone called Antioch. They treat him like the new messiah."

"I've heard. Do you think the recent deaths of Marchbanks and Ogden are connected?"

Hermione straightened, recognizing the names. They were both Prominent Wizengamot members. She could vaguely remember their faces staring down at her in purple robes, voting against Draco keeping her.

"No," Titus' voice went lower. "I think those are the work of Draco Malfoy."

Hermione felt electrocuted. The image of Rodolphus' headless corpse projected in her mind along with the inferi of Rabastan lumbering around Trafalgar square.

Had Draco killed others?

"I thought they cleared him of suspicion?"

"They have, but I don't believe it. All of the deaths fit the same pattern, and the handwriting matches a sample of his. Rumours have begun about a dark wizard within our ranks. People are getting worried, and the Wizengamot are on edge."

Snape made a clicking noise with his tongue. "I think your bias is getting in the way of your job this time. Draco has a solid alibi. Are you willing to risk war with Lucius with your only evidence being a possible match in handwriting? If I could pick a suspect, it would be Bellatrix."

Titus' sudden silence showed he thought through the information. "I suspect her too. When Julie left, Bellatrix's grip on sanity lessened. It did seem convenient that it was Rodolphus without a head, but that could be a false flag." He sighed. "Perhaps you're right. I hate the little fuck, but the severity of the dark magic and his alibi don't lend credence to my theory, though I still don't trust him."

"You shouldn't trust him," Snape agreed. "Even before his mother's death, he was a spoiled child, insisting on getting what he wanted. And after her death, he turned into a cruel one. Like his aunt, he showed signs of being mentally unwell long ago, ever since the Beltane massacres. I've been told that when they found the boy alive in the carnage, he was holding his mother's severed hand. The Blacks have a history of madness, and this latest development might have tipped him over the edge. Since the beginning, he's focused his attention on your ward to an unhealthy degree that I've tried to dissuade long ago. I wouldn't put it past him to do something drastic to get her back, and Lucius can't control him—"

"Could you control him? You're his godfather. One of the only wizards I've heard that he respects."

"I'll try." The ear gave a crackle of static as one of the men shifted in their seats. "But only in exchange for keeping Dolohov's interest off the girl."

"You seem to care for her."

"Should I not? I've taken on the role of her father."

"I just didn't think you had it in you."

"I love her mother." Snape sounded insulted. "Always have. We grew up together. I don't wish to see her child subjected to such barbaric practices."

More liquid was poured into a glass. "I share your revulsion. If I could have saved Hermione from it, I would've. But Dolohov will insist on the Trials eventually."

"Not when she's only sixteen," Snape's voice was cold. "And not when she's eighteen either. In fact, I might refuse completely. While I understand she must attempt to reproduce and possibly undergo the ritual, she'll at the very least be paired with a suitable partner of her choice, preferably close to her age, sans a Trial."

"That's a dangerous statement. Dolohov might interpret that as treason."

"Let him interpret it as he wishes. I won't be the only father who objects. What happens when the halfblood daughters of our guard start getting thrown into the mix? Tell me, what are you going to do if you have a girl? Will you feed her to wolves in the hopes she won't get mauled?"

The only sound was the clink of a glass as it was set on the desk. "I'll think of a way to bring the subject up to him."

"That's all I ask." There was a pregnant pause. "Will you be at the dinner?"

"Not this time. Hermione's not ready for social events, and there's an Order base in Bristol I've been watching. Those tunnels keep them well-hidden. My aurors are waiting for them to fuck up. I can't take my eyes off it for too long."

"Of course." The legs of a chair made a noise as she thought Snape might be standing. "If you need any of my potions, just let me know."

Hermione absorbed the news as they stated their goodbyes, exiting the room.

Bristol was the base she'd stayed at during her time with the Order, filled with younger Order members. It didn't seem like Titus was making a move right away. Probably just gaining intelligence. He liked to wait like a spider, ensuring victory before the attack.

She needed to get the information to the Order that Titus was on their tail before that happened,

Like Lily suggested, she might be the only person in the world with the power to do that.

The next morning, a knock woke her up. Hermione rubbed her eyes, trying to figure out why she woke in Titus' bed when she could have sworn she'd fallen asleep in her old bedroom after hiding the ear under the floorboards— so tiny it almost disappeared where she dropped it.

She peeled Titus' heavy arm from her waist, poking him in the side. "Someone is here."

He groaned as she untangled their limbs, trying to put as much distance between them as possible.

"You may pretend to hate me in the morning." Titus gave a playful tug to a curl as she escaped, and he stood up. "But your unconscious mind seeks me out every night."

Her brain was too sleepy and confused to think of a suitable scathing reply.

When Titus opened the bedroom door, she wasn't surprised to see Theo loitering outside. Who else could get past the wards? He must have been granted access to the manor again.

Theo had his wand out, pressed under Titus' chin before either of them could speak. "I thought you said you hadn't forced her to your bed, you arse."

"It's innocent," Titus sneered. "Her friend died. You know she still suffers from nightmares and doesn't sleep well without people. It's a special circumstance."

Theo lowered his wand reluctantly, jaw clenched. "Are you going to stop me like last time?"

Titus heaved a heavy sigh and crossed his arms. "I was the one who owled you, correct? A long time ago, I might add."

"We were on a special assignment in the Alps to visit a famed healer. You knew that. I wasn't allowed to contact anyone. I came as soon as I could."

"Well, I'm glad you finally made it home, because she needs you too."

The brothers glared at each other, neither budging until Titus gave in and stepped out of the way, allowing Theo to enter past his bulky frame.

"I'll leave you two alone," Titus said from the doorframe. "But I expect the both of you to be at breakfast in an hour. As I explained in the letter, if I see improvement in your moods, I'll grant you permission to take Hermione to Diagon Alley, along with three of my best aurors."

Hermione waited until Titus shut the door to sit up. "Diagon Alley?"

"It's a bribe, but it's a good one," Theo admitted. Seeing her brother caused her heart to ache again, always feeling safe in his presence. "Do you want to go back to sleep before breakfast?"

She didn't even have to give a nod before he crawled into the space beside her.

They held hands like they used to do as children, fingers intertwined.

"I'm so sorry, Hermione. About Finch… and about Draco."

"I know you are."

For the first time in her life, Hermione took no joy in walking around Diagon Alley. The fog rolled into the streets, making a dreary day. The mist clung to her curls in droplets as they ate ice cream, bought books, and managed a short excursion into the quidditch shop.

Titus had allowed her to get out of the manor, hoping to raise her spirits, but she needed more than the cobbled streets. Ollivander's was boarded up for the time being, reminding her of her failures, and she couldn't even look at Malfoy's Apothecary and Medicinals, finding the memories too painful.

The hope from Lily's visit was hard to keep lit. She'd gone to bed elated at the thought of helping the Order and escaping, but with the morning light, she feared she'd just hurt more people in the process. An insidious voice inside her head debated on giving up the dream entirely. Perhaps she should settle into her new life, try and learn to love Titus again the way he wanted. Find happiness in home and children.

Even the thought made her want to curl into bed again and sleep.

"Are we going back to the manor after this?" she asked while exiting Gambol and Japes. Theo looked askance at her as he had all morning, giving the same worried stares as Titus. Her mood had darkened through the day, realising the things that used to bring her joy had only been circumstantial.

"I thought we could go to Madam Malkins," he said carefully.

"I don't really want a new dress."

"I've heard there's a new fabric they discovered, using silk from the ice spiders in the Himalayas."

"Really, I don't—" Hermione's heart thumped hard, aching under her ribs. She understood Theo's true meaning, but she added a warning. "Titus might get angry that you brought me to Malkins when he likes to only order from France."

His eyes looked sad. "I think you need a new dress. Even if you never wear it again."

Hermione left the aurors and Theo in the lobby of Malkins, while the attendant brought her back to a dressing room— a private one far in the back.

"Wait right here. Someone should be coming along shortly to help you." The woman's hand had been shaking the whole time, exposing her nerves. Hermione wondered how much gold she'd been given for the danger to be worth it.

Standing on the circular dais in front of the large mirror hovering in the corner, Hermione clenched the fabric of her dress in her hands, growing more frantic the longer it took.

When the curtains finally swished to the side, she froze.

Draco looked ill. Not even heavy Occlumency could hide the distress. The physical signs showed up in skin paler than normal, dark shadows under his eyes, unkempt hair.

"Tell me you're real."

"I'd rather show you." He walked over and gently touched her cheek. She pressed further into the feeling. "Didn't I promise I'd always come for you?"

It was too much. An instant relief. A rainbow at the end of a storm. The morning after a fever breaks.

She would have crumpled, but Draco caught her limp body, pulling her into a tight hold. She sobbed as he held the back of her head steady, face pressed into his chest, both of them sinking to their knees. One cry turned into another, and she broke in his arms. He silenced the room as she wept, digging her nails into his shirt to anchor herself.

"I'm here, Granger." He tilted her face up, giving a gentle kiss to her forehead. "Be honest with me… has Nott hurt you?"

"No. Not like that."

He groaned in relief. "I know about Fin—"

"I don't want to talk about him. Not right now."

Draco searched her expression and gave a short nod. "I tried to send Hopper, but Nott returned it by owl."

Hermione almost asked why he would do that, but it made sense. Titus would rather she turn to him for her night terrors instead of a stuffed animal. Besides that, any kind gestures from his rival would be denied outright.

There were so many things she wanted to talk to Draco about, but she had to warn him first.

"Your father—"

"I shouldn't have ever trusted him. I won't make the same mistake again."

"He plans to enter you into another Trial."

Draco gave a sneer she hadn't seen in a long time, full of disdain. "He can't make me do anything. And even if I did participate, it would only be to make sure that I lost. My father isn't going to risk wasting a token right now."

Another worry unwound from her chest. Hermione straightened, allowing her tears to dry as she studied Draco, memorising all of the things she took for granted. "Was it you?"

She didn't have to elaborate.

Draco's grin turned sharp. "Don't be scared."

"Of what?"

"Of my appearance."

She almost asked him to clarify, but the muscles in his face slackened, the familiar transformation of taking off his occlumenecy.

Steel grey turned to blood red.

Hermione gasped in horror, touching his cheek. "Bloody hell, what did you do?"

"Dark soul magic."

Her suspicions were true— he'd killed the Lestranges.

But the creation of inferi had extracted a heavy price. The proof of his deeds stared back at her with crimson irises.

"This is permanent." Her stomach turned at the thought of the pain he must have endured. "You mutilated your soul." Dark magic had killed many foolish wizards. It took a lot of power, training, and inner strength to survive the impact.

"I didn't do it alone."

"Who helped you?"

He reached out and touched her temples gently. "Let me in, and I'll show you."

She allowed eye contact, and when he slipped into her mind, she welcomed the familiar intrusion. He paused at her shattered shelves, having only rebuilt a few.

"I'll make him regret this too," he whispered before a brilliant scene erupted in her mind.

Draco stood in the drawing room of what she thought might be the townhome in London, filled with dusty and outdated furniture. Both the Lestrange brothers were propped in the corner, bound by an incarcerous. Rabastan looked unconscious, but Rodolphus glared at Draco. He was talking to him, alternating between bribery and threats. Draco ignored it all, tapping his wand against his hand, and holding a delicate ring inlaid with an opal.

"It was my mother's," Draco whispered into her ear. "All of her sisters had one. They used them to contact each other by pressing it three times."

Hermione returned to the memory, hearing Rodolphus once again bribing Draco.

"I'll give you my spot in the VIP room of the Red Ruby. I think a young boy like you would enjoy it. You've only had one cunt. The others are just as—"

"Shut the fuck up before I rip out your tongue." Draco didn't even look at him, standing inside a circle made with salt and what she thought might be blood.

"You little brat. You'll be executed for—"

"Do you ever shut up? Silencio."

Hermione didn't need to wait long to see what would happen next. Footsteps scaled the staircase, followed by an odd cackle that raised the hair along the back of her neck.

A wild mass of dark curls entered first.

"Hello nephew," Bellatrix Lestrange cooed. Her eyes snapped to the men tied up, and another loud cackle slicked down her spine. She twirled a wand in her hand as if it was a toy. "You've brought me some lovely gifts."

Draco pointed his wand at his aunt. "For a price."

In the corner, Rodolphus' eyes widened, and he tried to wriggle away but had nowhere to go.

"So much like your father." Bellatrix tutted, walking in with an odd gait. "Always a transaction. What do you want?"

"The Black grimoire. I know you stole it back. There are old family spells I need."

Bellatrix ran her tongue along chapped lips. "And what would a little boy like you do with such dark, evil spells."

"Make an inferi."

Bellatrix's eyebrows jumped to a comical height, every movement exaggerated. "Perhaps you're a true Black after all."

"Do we have a deal or not? Your cooperation in exchange for the man who raped your daughter."

Bellatrix must have known or suspected her husband's crime, because she tilted her head down at the words, eyes darkening to the colour of onyx. Her curls defied gravity, lifting with a crackle of volatile magic.

She dug into her robe, extracting and unshrinking a heavy old book. Even through the memory, Hermione sensed the blood magic wards leaking from the spine.

"I've been meaning to spend some quality family time with you, nephew." She grinned, exposing sharp canines. "Inferi spells require the dead of night, which gives us hours to have fun before then. Whatever shall we do to fill our time?"

She stalked forward, shoving the book into Draco's hands. In response, he stripped away the silencio on Rodolphus.

"They lied," Roldolphus begged, shaking his head, eyes wide with terror. "You know me. Listen to reason, Bella. She came onto me. Begged me to—"


Screams filled the room as she cursed him over and over and over, only stopping to prolong other physical tortures, slicing away a few body parts, including the appendage that had hurt her daughter the most, going slowly to prolong his pain.

Draco pulled out of her mind before she could see the rest of the gruesome scene, bringing her back to the dressing room of Madam Malkins.

"Bellatrix helped you," Hermione said in shock.

"Only with the deaths and the inferi, though I still did most of the work."

"Is she still helping you?"

Draco scoffed. "The fucking bitch disappeared after it was done, and I haven't seen her since, even when I touched the opal. She can't be relied on."

"But you almost did the impossible. I've never seen Titus that scared before."

"I savoured his expression, and I've replayed it in a pensieve." Draco eyes flashed bright red. "I never planned for the inferi to succeed. I only did it as a warning and a message."

Hermione remained confused. "How could you have— you were there? But the Aurors searched and couldn't find you."

Draco grinned, his crimson eyes disconcerting with a smile. "The best thing about Invisibility cloaks is that they are so rare no one ever thinks to look for one."

Her heart skipped a beat, connecting the dots. There was only one invisibility cloak capable of use that she knew of. "Harry—"

"If you can believe it, Potter contacted me first, using information from Sirius. It turns out we have a similar goal of getting you out of Nott's clutches, though I loathe being in his presence, and he's shite at strategizing."

"But they said you had an alibi—"

"I do. Potter polyjuiced into me, visiting Hogsmeade. Even shouted at the waitress, demanding better whisky. Eerie, really, how well he could wear my skin. It was probably the first time the four eyed wanker has ever felt attractive."

Hermione laughed. It almost hurt, since she'd grown unused to the feeling.

During the execution, Harry had been disguised as Draco, causing an intentional scene for an alibi, while Draco lingered in Trafalgar Square, controlling the inferi under an invisibility cloak. It worked because not a single person would have guessed the plan, even her.

Thinking of Harry and the Order reminded her of something horrid. "Oh no." Her stomach clenched with panic. "Fuck."

Draco's brows furrowed. "What's wrong?"

"Titus is going to use legilimency on me again." She licked her lips, feeling chapped. "I'd forgotten with everything that happened. He's giving me time now to grieve, but he won't be lenient forever."

The hold on her cheeks loosened, and he narrowed his burning eyes at her.

"What are you asking me?"

She grabbed his hand and held it firmly to her again. "I need you to get rid of my time with the Order, the parts he didn't see."

The dark tear in her mind still made her dizzy. Titus' obliviation had been a knife, slicing essential parts of her away. The thought of experiencing it again caused her body to tense with anticipatory pain.

But it had to be done, and she trusted no one else but Draco with the task.

"Absolutely not." He ripped his hand away and glared at her.

"If I don't, he might discover new information on the base and kill them all."

"I don't give a fuck if anyone in the Order lives or dies— certainly not at the risk of damaging your mind. Meeting Sirius didn't exactly endear them to me."

She needed his help, and arguing empathy for the organisation that killed his mum wouldn't persuade him.

"Then do it for me." She saw his jaw move as if to speak and cut him off. "It wouldn't have to be anything more than blurring faces, altering a few conversations, and erasing any information on location. I know you're skilled enough to do it. I can't live with myself if more people die because of my failures."

Draco glanced up to the ceiling, breathing hard. "I'm not fucking with your mind, Granger."

"If you don't, then I'll find a way to do it on myself."

He paused as if ascertaining whether she was serious and then gave a low growl of frustration. "By the gods, you're the most stubborn, infuriating witch I've ever met. You'll forget the Order. Is that what you really want?"

"When we're safe again, you can return everything to me with a projection. It won't be truly lost."

Titus might discover other secrets while using legilimency, but those couldn't be helped, since she had to remember them. It was a necessary risk, but at least, the base would be safe.

"You make it impossible to argue with you. I should refuse on principle, but—" He squeezed his red eyes shut for a moment. "Just give me a moment to clear my thoughts. I can't have any distractions."

A minute later, Draco entered her mind as he'd done earlier.

He travelled through her memories at a snail's pace. Even with a light touch, legilimency wasn't pleasant, and her stomach turned again. He bypassed the tender tear, the hole she could never fill again, unwilling to irritate it.

Bromley House appeared and then grew fuzzy. Not a full obliviation, similar to taking off glasses, making many identifying features out of focus. He allowed the time with Julie to stay— information Titus already knew.

"You said Nott already saw the Dragon Tamer?"


He returned to his mission, leaving most of Charlie's interaction in the tunnels intact, besides a few aspects of their conversation.

The image of Sirius returned with his boots on the table, tattoos displayed. Draco viewed the memory several times, intrigued at what his cousin had told her, and then he vanished it, leaving some of the visuals.

He continued with efficiency through the maze of her thoughts, stripping away the necessary things with her prompting, especially faces, resulting in a memory resembling swiss cheese. The continual confusion from the alteration made a sharp headache pound behind her eyes.

When finished, she collapsed into his arms, whimpering in pain, knowing he'd done the best he could to honour her request. She trembled with the after effects, suppressing the urge to vomit again.

Draco clutched her tight to him, whispering into her hair. "I meant to be gentle."

"You were," she lied, because she didn't feel good at all.

They wasted the rest of their time by sitting in silence while she recovered. She used all her senses to imprint him on her soul, knowing this wouldn't last.

Perhaps she'd never get to see him again.

Her apprehension rose with each minute, knowing when the time lapsed, she'd have to return to her cage.

Draco dragged her up to standing when the time neared, holding her cheeks firm in his hand. "Take this, and don't open it until you know you're safe."

"What is it?"

"An heirloom I own that will allow me to transfer small objects to you— even past wards." He handed her something that looked like a tiny bag. She didn't question him further and placed it in her dress pocket to examine later.

Staring at him, Hermione couldn't help but imagine Draco strung up like the Order members, Titus slicing through tendons and bone to decapitate him. As much as she wanted rescue, she couldn't allow anything bad to happen to the people she cared about. For once, she decided to sacrifice what she desired.

"Your soul is already broken because of me. I want you to save what's left of it."

"What the fuck are you saying?" He glowered, eyes red as embers.

"Let me go." She halfheartedly tried to yank out of his arms.

He tugged her roughly back, shaking her shoulders. "I'm never letting you go. If I thought the request was genuine, I'd honour it. But you're only doing this out of fear, and that's something I won't respect." His lips hovered close to hers.

"I don't want to see you die! Why should we even continue doing this to ourselves?"

"Because I fucking love you!" He let his grip on her shoulders loosen, as if he was just as surprised he'd said it as she was. "Because—" He caressed her cheeks with his fingers, eyes desperately searching hers. "I love you, you stubborn witch, and you're mine."

"I—" she began in shock, opening and closing her mouth. Each word broke her heart. Her reciprocated feelings stuck in her throat, afraid the universe would hear it and jinx her.

"Don't say it back. Not yet."

"Why— why do you love me?" She needed to hear it so she had something to hold on to.

"I'm not sure when it began," he explained. "When you walked into my manor for the first time, I thought I'd earned you. Like a prize. Winning something. I thought— well, I assumed that everything would be easy. But you were nothing like I expected. Perhaps I thought you'd be a dream instead of real. Instead, you turned out to be so fucking complicated and infuriating. At every turn you argued with me and challenged me. I thought I'd go mad. And then one day, I woke up and realised that I can't live without you, even when I want to shake you. I didn't want the dream of you any more. I just wanted you— the real you. Every broken, complicated piece."

It hurt to think about. She almost wished he'd said nothing at all. What if none of their plans succeeded? What if she was stuck forever?

Soon Titus would begin pursuing her affections. He'd given her some space with grief, but like Lily warned, he'd eventually push that aside. "What if Titus—"

"Nothing will change how I feel about you," he spat, looking furious that she'd even dare ask. "Anything he does will be through coercion and force, because he never let you choose in the first place. You'll survive this, Hermione. Do you hear me? Nott thinks he can steal everything, but he can't take your mind, no matter how he tries." He tapped her head, and then he dropped his hand to her chest. "And he can't steal the one thing he wants more than anything. Because you've already given it to me, and I'm a selfish man."

"Everyone I care for is taken from me or dies. I'm not sure my heart can take any more loss."

"I'm not going to die, Granger. We're going to escape together. I swear it. But until then, I'll make sure the Death Eaters remember what fear tastes like. I'll remind them that they're only mortals, not gods. They underestimate me, which is to my advantage, because I'll outthink them all. They've grown too complacent—"

"Don't risk—"

"You don't get to tell me what I can or cannot sacrifice." His red eyes searched her face before giving her a firm kiss, letting his lips linger as long as possible. "If I have to sell my soul to Death to keep you, I will."

Noise interrupted them. Theo called her name, telling her it was time to go.

"When can I see you next?" she whispered.

"Look for me in the shadows." After a brief moment of agony, Draco transformed his eyes to pale grey, snapping his occlumency shields into place. And before she could say another word, he disappeared behind the curtains, leaving her alone.

Later that night, Hermione walked into the dining room. Titus sat in his normal seat near the grandfather clock, eating a piece of roast with a sharp knife that he set down upon her entrance.

He eyed her warily as she sank into a chair across from him. When the servingware filled her plate with heaping spoonfuls of food, she picked up a fork, stabbing a single pea.

She brought it to her mouth, resting the sharp points against her lips, eyes focused on her plate. Titus remained a statue while waiting, tense lines in his shoulders.

Opening her mouth, she placed the pea inside and began to chew. It tasted like dirt and went down like glue, but she'd managed it.

Titus sagged in relief, resting his elbows on the table, head in his hands. "Thank fucking Merlin." He drew in a jagged breath. "You'll be okay, Sprite. I promise you."

She'd let him believe the lie, if it made him feel better.

As she ate her food, one bite at a time, ignoring Titus' heavy stare, she thought over the reasons to continue living that she'd compiled on her journey back to the manor:

Hermione would survive for the little girl she used to be.

She'd survive for her dead parents.

She'd survive for her remaining friends.

She'd survive for Finch's memory.

And she'd survive for Draco.

Hermione took another bite of food, chewing with determination, every ounce of will power infused into the action, shoving her pain back into a black box with a lock. The empty space it left was replaced by a quiet rage that vibrated alongside her magic under her shackles, begging to be released. Her heart hardened into something unyielding.

Remembering Lily's words, the path forward cleared in her mind. The Death Eaters had built their society on lavish excess at the expense of human suffering, and it couldn't last forever.

She'd make sure of it.

Draco had vowed to rescue her, but Hermione now wanted nothing more than to burn the pureblood society to the ground, scorching everything as she went, salting the earth so nothing could regrow. They'd regret ever giving her a sliver of magic.

And she planned to begin her path of destruction right in the center of the beast.

Slowly, she dragged her eyes up from her plate, locking her icy stare with Titus'. He still seemed wary— and he should be wary of her.

Because more than anything, Hermione would survive for revenge.

Trigger Warning: Character Death, suicide, suicide ideation, grief/ mourning, cessation of eating due to grief (not an eating disorder, but it's close enough that I felt it needed mentioning)

A/N: For my Titus fans: I'll be writing an AU Titus-wins-the-Trials Titmione endgame after House Pet wraps up. It will be a Dead Dove because of the dynamics, with a surface-level HEA