After their second session of lovemaking, sleep eluded Hermione, yet she stayed in bed for some light naps. But the slightest movement or noise had Hermione's eyes open, despite her feeling of safety in Viktor's arms.
It had not been the regular nightmare which had awakened her earlier that night, of that she was sure, and this knowledge gnawed at her conscious. And the worst was that she had not remembered a single thing of it, the unknown source for her unrest.
It was when she heard Hogwarts' clock peal four times that she decided to extract herself from her current safe haven. With careful movements, she made it out of bed and out of the bedroom. Her shoulder bag still laid where she had left it last evening, near the front flap of the tent. And everything she needed was in there.
Hermione was completely naked except for her wandholder, which was always strapped around her underarm, with Bellatrix' wand held in it. During their passions, neither Viktor nor she had made a move to remove their leather holders. Instead, with a simple charm, they had both made sure their wandholders would not get tangled with hair or hurt them in any other way during their passion.
She gathered her clothes from the ground and summoned her trousers from the ground of the bedroom. And with everything in hand she made her way to the bathroom. She hoped that a cold shower would be enough to drive away the last vestiges of sleep in her system.
A cup of steaming coffee sat in her hands and a Lumos hovered above her whilst she read through the early morning hours. If the caffeine would not help her through the day then she always had the option to use a Pepper-Up potion, or two.
For sleep may have fled from her mind the moment the cold spray hit her body, but something she had difficulty naming was still in present within her. It prickled her senses, made her restless and created the feeling that a headache was about to pounce on her. At times she needed to get up and walk around the place, her book still in hand, for she would not lose precious reading time.
With a heavy sigh, Hermione closed the book in her lap, another fruitless read. No answers to her questions. She took a sip of her still-warm coffee (charms truly made life easier) and reached for the next book.
It was the noises from other people talking and laughing which drew Hermione out of her reading bubble. She stretched her body and stood up from her seat on the couch. Her hair was still all over the place so she opted to battle her curls into a messy updo. With a hair elastic and hairpins in hand, she was ready to start the process.
As she worked she made her way to the front flap and with a twitch of a busy hand she opened the tent flap. The cold morning air crawled inside at once. Hermione inhaled deeply, not minding it at all. The tent had to be aired anyway.
As she stood in the opening she watched others go through their morning routines. Some looked unaffected and practically normal as they ate, smiled and talked; like nothing had happened over the last year. But just as many had a darker look in their eyes, which their smiles could not cover, or they had, at the very least, painfully obvious dark circles under their eyes. The idea to cover them up with Concealment Charms clearly had not even entered their minds. Or they simply did not care.
The war had killed innocence in so many. And had left fear and nightmarish memories, if not worse, in its stead.
The Muggle-born sighed and turned to go back inside. There was no reason for her to heap the suffering of others upon the 'mountain of experience' she had gone through during the war. She could not help them, they had to get through their traumas on their own. Just like she had to. Which reminded her that she still had to make a choice between the files on the Mind Healers which Harry and she had copied in the archive of St. Mungos.
At first, she had wanted to pull a similar stunt at the Ministry as well, but after a small debate on the subject during dinner on the day of their successful 'heist', Harry had convinced her that it was unnecessary. They had ample choice already.
Merlin knew how badly she needed a therapist. And Harry too, even though he seemed more reluctant. Yet he was not secretive about planning to go to one. For he had left the heap of files right on one end of the dining table, not bothered by the idea that anyone who came inside could see exactly what laid there. Hermione, for decorum's sake, had put a charm upon the documents. And just to be safe, after all, their little stunt had been in the newspapers.
That was how Viktor found her, bowed over the files which were spread over most of the table's surface, with here and there notes written in the marches.
"And? Have you made up your mind yet?" He asked as he sat down in the chair next to hers with a mug of coffee in each hand.
Hermione took one from Viktor and kissed him softly on the lips. Then she turned her eyes back to the two files before her. Because the others she had already disqualified. "I am almost there. Not sure whether I should choose the ex-Auror or the one with a Muggle PhD in Psychiatry."
Viktor leaned in to take a closer look at the smiling headshots which were attached to the front pages with paper clips. Something which had to be Hermione's doing, for he had only seen those strange Muggle devices in her presence. "Is there anything specific which keeps you on the fence?"
"They have both their pros and cons. But what I am really not sure about is if I will feel more comfortable with a male or female therapist. Or if there will be no difference at all."
Viktor nodded, took a sip and leaned against the back of his chair. This was something he had no opinion about, as long as Hermione got the help she wanted he was fine with almost anything.
The Muggle-born turned to face him, "What are your plans for today?"
He smiled and ran a hand through his hair to get it out of his eyes, "The first group of people is going home today, I have to help prepare with the last few tasks." His words reminded Hermione that from now on, a batch of people would go home every day. Until the only ones left were the people who wanted to stay and help here. Meanwhile, Viktor continued, "After that, I am staying around the camp, maybe take my broom and play a game in the stadium."
The moment he was finished speaking Hermione pounced, now that the subject was on the table she took her chance, "What about your stay, Viktor? Are you going to stay with me in England, or are you needed in Bulgaria?"
Her lover looked aghast, "How can you ask that?!"
"I - I - "she sputtered, "I am sorry?" She looked both lost and surprised at once, the question making her momentarily forget Bulgarian speech, "Does that mean that you will stay?"
"After all these months of not knowing how you vere doing, vorrying if I vould ever see you again, you think I vould go back to my home country this soon?! Leaving you behind again?!"
"When you formulate it like that it does seem like a rather foolish question, doesn't it?" Hermione smiled sheepishly, then took a sip of her coffee to have something to do besides embarrassing herself further.
With a fond smile he reached over and rested his arm over the back of her chair, his skin warm against her shoulders, she felt it even through their clothes. "I love you, Hermione."
The hours flew by during which they had breakfast, relocated afterwards to the couch and spent the time enjoying a normal conversation between just the two of them, their words a mingle of Bulgarian and English.
During these hours Hermione told Viktor about the news she had gotten from Minerva. About the 'gas leak' in her childhood neighbourhood. As she told it she noted, not for the first time, how emotionless she was as she spoke about it. Not a single feeling settled in her chest, not even dread or sadness; even though at least a dozen lives must have been lost. Lives of neighbours she had known for whole her life. All lost in the blazing fires of Fiendfyre. For that was what it truly was, but Muggles would be presented with a Muggle-cause.
Currently, a wizarding forensic team was searching for any kind of trail of the perpetrator. McGonagall had promised to inform her if she heard anything about the matter, though had confided that the likelihood of finding anything was a small one.
And even knowing all this there was still the emotionlessness. Hermione thought that perhaps it was too surreal a thought for her to be affected by the news. That it was because she had not seen any images like Minerva had seen in the newspaper. But as she saw the colour drain from Viktor's face she knew that her own reaction - or rather the lack thereof - was not a natural one. Was she unconsciously cropping up her feelings, stowing them away? Was her current state of being an unhealthy way of not dealing with everything that was thrown at her these days?
These questions and thoughts raced through her mind, while she kept talking with Viktor as well. Obviously, he had a lot of questions, but there were only a few she could answer. For she had not read the newspaper. The idea to do so had not even occurred to her, another notion which should worry her. Because, less than a year ago, that had been the first thing she would have done.
She turned her face to the source of the sound and a relieved smile broke through her frown. Though her hands stayed in the air since she was levitating the table to set it down just outside of the tent. Viktor wanted to lunch in the open air and she thought it a perfect idea. But now that Harry was speeding towards her she quickly put the table down without really caring if it stood in the right place.
Their hug was like a happy reunion. One would think that they had not seen each other for several days or even weeks, in reality, it had not even been 24 hours.
"How was your -" the Muggle-born started to ask as she stepped back when a high-pitched shriek from above interrupted her. The duo turned their heads towards the sound and saw that upon one of their tent's cords a falcon had descended. It was the falcon from the Owlery who clearly had brought back a response.
"Well, aren't you fast," she commented with pride in her voice and stretched her hand upwards for the bird to land upon. But instead of landing on it himself he dropped the letter in it. Thereafter the falcon did not move, apart from his head to stare her down with one eye. Hermione put the letter in the back pocket of her trousers and shrugged, "If you wait here I will bring you your meal soon."
Harry tilted his head in a silent question. The Muggle-born walked back inside the tent and explained herself to Harry, who followed her. As she did so she gathered some of the slices of meat Viktor was currently preparing for lunch and put it on a saucer.
When they emerged from the tent again the falcon was still waiting, his eyes followed the treat until Hermione put it on the table. The moment she stepped away the bird swooped down, grabbed the meat in his talons and flew away.
The duo watched the falcon's departure for half a dozen seconds, then they ducked inside the tent once more to help Viktor and Harry began his tale about the current mood and wellbeing of the Weasley family. It was worrisome.
Naturally, the Weasleys had welcomed him with open arms the evening before, being ever so sincere in their love for him. And they had been sad to see him leave this soon already. Though he had promised to return in a few days' time.
Unsurprisingly, during his stay Molly had been a wreck, sporadically bursting into tears and barely saying a word, even to Harry. She did not get much further than, "Harry... You sweet boy" only to hug him or pat his hands whilst tears streamed down her cheeks.
Arthur, obviously, did his best to help and feed her and their children, but in doing so he seemed to forget to mourn his son himself. Which worried Hermione upon hearing it, then again, she had no idea how one could 'best' mourn a child or anyone dear for that matter.
However, the thing that worried them the most was that Harry had not seen George at all. Ginny had confided to him that George had not come out of their... his room once. Though that they had been able to force some food and water into him every now and then. But mostly George was just a meek and voiceless shell of who he had once been.
Ron and Ginny seemed to handle the death of their brother a lot healthier. They mourned him with tears and sadness, but at least they did not withdraw into themselves. In fact, they actively sought out their father's company and tried to live as they normally would have.
Hearing all this made Hermione feel guilty about not making a visit herself. But, honestly, it was not the company of the family as a whole she avoided, but that of Ronald specifically. She just could not force herself anymore. He was too easily angered when she was nearby. And Hermione no longer wanted to get his frustration and anger thrown at her without, in her opinion, a good reason.
A heavy sigh left her body as she pondered about it and Harry's sigh followed suit. Viktor kept quiet but gave Hermione a glance. No one really knew what to say.
Harry sat in one of the chairs, though there was no table for him to put his elbows on, so instead, he had an arm thrown over the backrest and faced the kitchenette where the other two stood. Viktor was busy with readying the last pieces of food for lunch, and Hermione was content to watch her lover work, not bothered with the silence. Her expression was pensive.
But Harry had more to tell, though this was about a different, more delicate matter. He spoke up about something he had always found difficult to discuss: love and relationships.
"You know... Ginny and I... I don't know," he began though hesitated almost at once, he wondered if this was the right time or if he should wait a bit longer until it was just the two of them again. Then he shrugged, mentally telling himself that Viktor would be more present again in Hermione's life from here on out. He would have to get used to it.
Hermione blinked, looked over at him and observed him in silence.
Harry dragged in a deep breath and continued, "No matter how I tried..." He hesitated again. This time he doubted himself and wondered if he jumped to conclusions too quickly. What if he had not given himself enough time? He shook his head, unable to answer his own questions, he needed Hermione's advice. "Even during my stay, I didn't feel comfortable around her, not like before. Not once. I mean, I didn't feel uncomfortable, just... not as comfortable, like I did before... Before we had to go on the hunt."
The kettle started to whistle, but before the high-pitched sound had turned too high Viktor put the fire out and filled the thermos with the hot water. He motioned for Harry and Hermione to take a seat on the couch, all the while he levitated the food, tea and the chairs to the table outside.
The Muggle-born watched her lover disappear outside, she appreciated his willingness to give them some space. Then she turned her eyes back on Harry, "Perhaps you just need to give it some time, Harry. War does things to people. It changes them, you know that like no one else -" they both had to duck to avoid being hit by the cutlery and plates which had been summoned outside, "- I mean, you still care for her in that way, right? Or do you no longer feel, you know, butterflies when she touches you?"
As she asked the questions Hermione began to lean against the counter. Though a crackling of parchment alerted her of the letter in her back pocket. She mentally cursed her preoccupied mind and fished it out at once.
All the while Harry spoke, "True, but... I don't know... When I saw how you and Viktor are together, I thought..." He trailed off and averted his eyes away from his friend, he took a few steps towards the couch but something made him pause and he turned towards Hermione. He saw her snatch the letter of earlier from her pocket.
The Muggle-born did not yet open the envelope, her eyes glanced from the paper in her hands back to the green eyes of her friend. She wanted to show him that she was sorry for the current tension he experienced between himself and Ginny. However, at the back of her mind, she noted that he was unaware of something; something she had already witnessed, but, clearly, he was oblivious of it himself.
He gave her a grateful smile but it faltered when he changed the subject. He had seen the seal of the Ministry and it made him set aside his own difficulties. "The Ministry? What for?"
The Muggle-born nodded and started to open the letter, "It is from Kingsley, I hope."
She broke the seal and read out loud to Harry what was written on the parchment. There were not many words to read and the sentences were in a hasty scrawl.
The second she finished the two looked at each other, their eyes filled with a worried realisation as Harry took a glimpse at his wristwatch. A heartbeat passed and then, as one, they ran to the open tent flap and sprinted once they did not have to worry about upturning or crashing into furniture. Viktor stood up from his seat and watched them go in shock and worry, but he did not go after them. Though a frown had settled on his face as he made himself sit back down and return to the conversation with the others who had joined him.
Side by side the duo sprinted through the camp. Some people greeted them, others even asked them what the hurry was. But none of them got any form of an answer.
In his letter Kingsley had confided that half an hour was all which they would have inside Gringotts. That the Head Goblin had been impossible to persuade. And, even worse, that their appointment would start within five minutes, a time which the duo would not be able to make. They would have less than half an hour to find Griphook's body. They could not afford to lose a single minute.
All this hassle was because the Goblins still wanted to deny entrance to them, but since it was the Minister who accompanied them this time they could hardly refuse. Though, the Goblins could make whatever the duo wanted to do as infeasible as possible.
As they left the camp behind and sprinted over the grass towards the point of Apparation, Hermione did her best to produce a sentence between her panting breathes, "Harry... sent Patronus.. message... I can't."
At once he drew his wand and did as he was told. The Muggle-born was not surprised that Harry was actually capable of such a feat during their dead sprint. The silver-blue stag appeared from the tip of his drawn wand and galloped ahead, soon disappearing in slivers of a white glow.
Meanwhile, the two still ran as fast as they could on their two legs. Only when they finally reached the forest and were hidden from the sight of prying eyes did they transform into their Animagus forms. Partly through the transformation, Harry set himself off from the ground to jump over a nearly two-metre high, fallen oak and he landed neatly on his hooves at the other side. Hermione, who could not jump as high (even in her vixen form), jumped as high she could to the side, in order to use the environment to her advantage. She felt her body complete the change in mid-air. The nails of her paws left small marks on the tree's bark as she used the strength in her hind paws to push herself off the standing tree and over the fallen oak.
Once each of them had landed on their four legs their speed doubled.
The duo reached the entrance of Gringotts with pearls of sweat on their foreheads, strands of their hair clung to the nape of their necks. Kingsley regarded them with a small smile on his lips as he watched them run towards and halt before him, their hands on their knees as they took deep breaths to stabilize their heartbeats. Harry's Patronus had delivered him the message that they would be late, which had been attentive of them. But Kingsley appreciated their obvious haste all the more.
Despite their attempt to be somewhat on time Harry and Hermione were still seven minutes late, they should hurry. Kingsley turned around and led the way inside without a word, his cloak billowing behind him.
Harry and Hermione followed him, though all they could do was to gulp in more oxygen. Yet while they did so the two did notice two Aurors appear from behind a column near the door and follow Kingsley inside like they were his shadows. It was a bit disconcerting.
A sentiment Kingsley shared with them, for as they walked he came to walk beside Harry and Hermione and said drily, "Yes, I don't like them either, but the Head of the Auror Department won't listen to whatever I have to say on the matter."
By now their breathing had somewhat normalised which was the moment Harry tried to ask Kingsley why he had not informed them sooner about this appointment.
But the older man would not let him finish his sentence. "Later," Kingsley murmured without looking anywhere but ahead of him, "right now we need to do what we came here for."
They passed a few other wizards and witches who were led by a Goblin or given instructions on how to fill in this and that file. The atmosphere was... quite neutral, especially compared to their last visit, but there was still the ever-present tension in the air whenever Goblins and wizarding folk had to interact with one another.
Soon the group was at the Head Goblin's table and he looked just as vicious as the previous time, if not more so. A snarl was permanently on his face and he had a white-knuckled grip on his gavel.
"Minister," was all he said, he did not deign to speak to Harry nor Hermione. He did not even glance their way.
"Head Goblin, we have come to enter the vaults of Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. And we have still," Kingsley looked at his pocket watch, "22 minutes left of the agreed-upon time."
"Keys." It seemed that the Goblin would not speak more than one-word sentences.
Harry fished in his neck pouch and took two keys from it. One was made of gold, looking the part with multiple bits and what seemed to be over a hundred key wards in them. The other was a simple iron key, with only one bit and the common number of key wards. It had greatly embarrassed Harry when he and Hermione had gone to Gringotts together for the first time all those years ago. But, naturally, Hermione had assured him that she was not in the least bothered by it.
Still, the contrast made him feel self-conscious, even now.
"Just a cart to our vaults is enough, sir," Hermione said as Harry handed the keys for inspection to the Head Goblin.
The glee in small beaded eyes was enough of a warning, "Oh, no, we don't want you to get lost, especially with the Minister of Magic present. No, there will be several Goblins who shall escort you."
The duo exchanged a glance but did not otherwise betray their discomfort at hearing the news.
After they got their keys back three Goblins were called from an alcove, all three of them looked with just as much contempt at them as their Head Goblin. The 'neutrality' which had seemingly hung in the air earlier had likely been a pretence.
The only sounds were their footsteps on the marble floor and the opening and closing of the grand door which lead to all the vaults. The three Goblins stayed near one another as if moving in a pack meant that they were safe.
Harry and Hermione had been trying to silently communicate with glances when they both felt something shift in the air. Though it was subtle, barely evident. Still, Hermione stiffened and her eyes flew to Kingsley.
The Minister smiled widely as the Muggle-born turned to look at him fully, he had not expected anything less. Though the confused expression was a bit of a surprise, then he realized that she had not enjoyed her last year at Hogwarts yet, that she had 'merely' had a crash course for her N.E.W.T.s last summer. Yet still, she had been able to excel. An admirable feat, in his opinion. He motioned with one hand forward and indicated for her to look at the Goblins.
As Hermione did this she saw to her astonishment how the three started to wobble in their step, they no longer walked in a straight line, rather in a manner that made one believe them to be drunk. Her eyes went back to Kingsley, but his posture was too relaxed, then she realised that the Aurors had stayed more in the back. And her suspicions were correct for they both had a look of concentration on their faces as they walked with their hands and wands outstretched. Creating complex looking movements.
Only once the spell was finished and had settled wholly into the air did she dare open her mouth to ask questions, though Harry beat her to it.
"What happened to them? You haven't used the Imperius Curse, have you? They never walked like that." He looked at the Goblins with a frown and Hermione knew he was thinking back to the times he had to use the curse.
"No, Mister Potter," one of the Aurors stepped closer to them and looked at the young adults with a mingled expression of respect and disinterest. He was not the first person who was clearly a few decades older than them and had difficulty believing that they had made the difference during the war. "You are correct."
"But then what did you do," Hermione asked eagerly. There were signs that this was a strong Confundus Charm, but it was said not to be effective within the walls of Gringotts, at least not effective for longer than a few seconds. Only for the victim to snap out of it and reach for the alarm bells.
Then she looked over at the other Auror and saw how his features were still contorted in an expression of concentration. His lips moved to whisper incantation after incantation. Her eyes widened as comprehension dawned on her. They were constantly casting the spell over and over again. It was likely draining their magical abilities, unless...
"Indeed," the pretending-to-be-Auror nodded as he looked at the duo, "we are specialists in charms employed by the Ministry, though our services are usually not used like this..."
"Their cover is a sound one," Kingsley said, "since becoming Minister I get followed by two Aurors every step I make. Gawain, the Head of Aurors, insists." The last part came out with a sigh.
Harry opened his mouth to ask how he had managed to persuade the Aurors to allow a temporary stop in their security, but before he could the faux-Auror held up his hand, "Please, let's ask questions whilst we continue to do what we came here for, this is a gruelling task as it is."
Kingsley nodded in earnest, "You're right, we have to hurry."
The Goblins waited for them in the cart, mumbling incoherent words to no one but themselves. Both of the Charm specialists had taken the backseats, their attention focused on nothing but the incantations. Kingsley answered the questions Harry had for them, but Hermione did not listen, for she had to understand how to navigate the cart if she wanted to find Griphook's body.
The whole group except for Hermione got out of the cart when it halted not too far from Harry's vault door.
During their ride Hermione had informed the others that she would go down to the bowels of Gringotts on her own to retrieve Griphook's body, whilst Harry and Kingsley should get the needed money from both Harry and Hermione's vaults as an alibi. Besides needing proof of their visits, they actually truly needed the money to buy new clothes, school supplies and other personal items which had gotten lost or destroyed during the war.
Harry handed her his Invisibility Cloak, "be careful." And come back to me.
She nodded as she took it and pulled the lever of the cart. There was no time to lose.
Hermione walked stealthily underneath the cloak, aware that if she would be spotted by anyone she would forever be banned to set even one single step into Gringotts. As she walked from the cart and through the first corridor she could not help but falter slightly. This was where they had battled Bellatrix. The scorch marks were still all over the ceiling, ground and walls.
She shook her head to stir away the memories which simmered in the back of her mind, but they seemed all too eager to be lingered upon.
The longer she stayed down here the tenser she became. It was just like that day, it felt as if... As if the Death Eater could still be prowling in the shadows, waiting for Hermione to arrive and step in one of her traps. It would not be the first time that Bellatrix made the impossible possible...
Hermione bit down on her bottom lip, hard. She had to focus and she had to be fast. Merlin knew how much time had already passed. By now she practically ran through the corridors and into the giant empty space where once the Ukraine Ironbelly had been kept. She was utterly relieved to see that no other creature had been forced in its place. Yet.
This was where she had left Griphook's body, somewhere in the shadows and nearby the cavern's wall, behind a big boulder. But there were many such boulders, many more than Hermione could remember. She knew that their escape with the Ironbelly was to blame. Blasting a cavern's ceiling open had as a consequence that more than only the explosion's debris falls to the ground.
Worry gnawed at her insides, she hoped desperately that the charms and wards had kept Griphook's body safe and undetected, among other things. For they should have kept his remains from decomposing as well. If the spells had done their work and held strong all these days. Which she was not sure about.
She took the crooked wand from her holster, ignored the annoying prickles it sent up the nerve system of her fingers and muttered the incantation. Then she waited. And waited. She knew that there would not come a magical trail of floating dust or sparkles she could follow, like in most fairy tales. No matter how much easier it would be. Yet she looked everywhere for just that kind of sign, despite knowing better.
Then she felt it, finally! The softest, barely noticeable, invisible pull. As if someone reached out for her, but instead of taking her hand they took a hold of her soul. She had become a compass and Griphook was enchanted to be her 'north'. It had been one of the spells she had put on his body before she left him, it was a spell triggered only by the incantations being repeated three times and it would break through the ward she had put around him.
As she followed the pull she began to venture through the darkness, there clearly were no new torches put up here. Deliberately? She summoned the weakest Lumos she could manage, too scared to draw attention to herself otherwise. And still her grip on her wand tightened, Hermione had been on edge ever since she walked out of the cart but now her body practically vibrated with tension.
Yet nothing happened; there were no sudden ambushes and no battle-cries echoed through the cavern.
It was not until she walked over the threshold of the wards she had put up that something happened. Before her eyes, the small, sunken body of Griphook materialized. His ashen features were a stark contrast to the darkness of his blood-drenched clothes. She could barely see him in the shadows, yet the fact that he was dead was still unmistakable.
She was heartened by the fact that there was no strangely sweet scent in the air, which implied that the charms to keep his body from decomposing had worked long enough, even though she could not detect them on him. She wondered how long her magic's energy had lasted, but knew she would not get an answer from anyone, least of all from Griphook.
The Muggle-born took a steadying breath, then took the cloak off of herself to put it partially over Griphook's body and levitated his body. With him hovering before her she ran the way back to the cart. There was probably little time left, so consequences could be damned.
Harry's relief at her reappearance was visible, the frown on his features ceased and he reached out to touch her. Just his hand on hers, the gesture innocent though needy. It was obvious to Hermione that she had not been the only one to be haunted by what had transpired down in the bellows of Gringotts.
The three Goblins still walked around as if they had downed more than five bottles of Firewhisky. Despite this, the Goblins took a seat in the cart, ready to stir the cart back to the entrance. The two faux-Aurors close on their heels. What worried Hermione was the obvious strain the two Charm specialist experienced. Pearls of sweat dripped down their forehead.
"We have already overstayed our welcome, let's go," Kingsley said calmly. Though he did not wait for inquiries to be made, he followed after the Aurors.
Harry carried two bags of gold with him, both bags were bigger than they needed to be for the amount of money they carried but that was part of the guise. Hermione was last to step into the cart, busy wrapping Griphook with a respectful carefulness completely in the cloak. The moment she sat down the cart jerked into motion.
The duo was silent whilst they handled, they both knew the plan so there was no need to discuss it. Harry added the coins from one bag into the other, filling it to the amount for which the size of the bag was made and gave the empty one to Hermione. Who, meanwhile, mentally asked Griphook's soul for forgiveness as she put his body into the empty bag, one she had enchanted to be able to carry a larger object - or, in this case, a small person - without showing its true form and size.
Two unsuspicious bags, each presumably filled with coins, was what Harry and Hermione carried now with them.
Before the group entered the entrance hall, the Goblins were released from their charmed confusion. But not before Kingsley had magically altered their memories. Creating in their minds a cause for the already present suspicion. Instead of the truth, the three Goblins remembered that the wizards had started an argument with them. Which had escalated in a nasty Jinx from one of the Aurors.
Once freed from their state of confusion one of the Goblins started to retch. The other two reached out for him, though still unsteady themselves. As they patted him on the back they tried to glare at the wizards and witch.
This whole 'debacle' would cause more damage to the already fragile relationship between Goblin and Wizard, but if the Goblins knew the truth it would be even worse. And the fact that the group had overstayed their short-timed welcome did not help either.
Needless to say, the Head Goblin sneered at them the moment they came into his sight. And when his eyes fell upon the three Goblins, who all looked like they felt unwell, his eyes widened in fury. When he spoke his voice was a mere whisper but the loathing in his voice made his every word all the more audible. "You, all of you, I will make sure none of you will be able to enter your vaults for as long as I sit here."
Kingsley held up one hand, as if to calm the Goblin, "My apologies, what has transpired was unprofessional and it will be my personal task to make sure that the one responsible will feel the repercussions."
The Head Goblin sniffed, not at all impressed, then he hissed, "You won't get me this easily off your back, Minister. I will make certain of that. Now get out! Get out!"
Harry and Hermione would not wait to be told a second time. Both did their best to keep their pace normal and their body language relaxed, but their eyes were trained on the exit. The other three were close behind them.
When the group was a little distance away from the building, neither Harry nor Hermione was surprised when two more - this time real - Aurors came from an adjoined side street and took to walk beside Kingsley. They had been nearby and keeping an eye on the bank's front door all this time.
As the group rounded a corner Harry gripped Hermione's elbow to make her halt as he spun around to face Kingsley. Before he could even open his mouth however, the Minister stopped him, "Let's find ourselves a fine room at the Leaky Cauldron, hm? No reason not to get comfortable."
He put his hands on both their backs to usher them into the direction of the tavern. But once inside a portkey was presented, no unnecessary words shared. Harry and Hermione glanced at one another, he shrugged and she sighed before they both put their hands on the item. The familiar feeling overwhelmed Hermione slightly as Kingsley uttered the codeword, but she clenched her jaws and tightened her grip.
The room they arrived in was unfamiliar to the duo. Neither one said anything, they just inspected their surroundings whilst their experience in Gringotts sunk in. It was not long before they both knew that they were in the Minister's office.
Kingsley spoke softly with the Charms specialist, who looked truly drained at this point. The travel with portkey had clearly not done anything good to their energy levels. And with a nod towards Harry and Hermione, the two specialists took their exit. One of the Aurors accompanied them, a concerned look on his face.
Then the Minister rounded on them, a big, tired smile adorned his face, "I believe we did well, all things considered."
Harry nodded though he looked doubtful, "but with the Head Goblin as furious as he is, I doubt I will ever get access to my vault again."
"Don't concern yourself with that, I will go into negotiations with him. It will just take a few months..." Kingsley said and shrugged. "Though it might be best if you make formal appointments or make requests through letters for your money to be sent to you, for, let's say, a period of a year or two?"
"How convenient," Hermione darkly muttered to herself and laid her bag carefully on the table. She had no doubt that the Goblins would take every excuse to delay the post as much as possible. Just to spite them.
Harry looked worried for a moment before he nodded, "I hope it will work."
"I won't rest until it does," Kingsley said solemnly, "Now, about Grimmauld Place: I will speak to the Head of Aurors about a plan of action. It isn't wise to venture inside alone, Harry. You know that."
Oh, so Harry has discussed our wish to take up residence in Grimmauld Place, Hermione noted.
"I do," Harry acknowledged, "thanks for all your help, Kingsley. We really appreciate it."
The broad smile returned on the Minister's face and he patted the younger man on the shoulder. "Of course, Harry. Don't hesitate to ask for help on any kind of matter. The same goes for you, of course, Hermione."
Harry and Hermione smiled gratefully, it had been so long that people could openly support them. It was still a bit strange to hear it.
"Is there anything else I can help you with? No? Then I have to say my goodbye, for now, I need to get through these files before the clock ticks 3 pm. I will see you two soon," Kingsley said with a final nod.
"How so?" Hermione inquired, she did not know about any plans to visit the Ministry any time soon.
"You will see, Hermione," Kingsley said with a proud smile directed at the two of them, "there is no need to worry. It's a good thing."
Harry and Hermione frowned but said nothing more about the subject. They made their goodbyes and were escorted by the last Auror to one of the Ministry's exits.
The Muggle-born wished she could simply Banish Griphook's body to a secure place in their tent, but the wards around Hogwarts would not allow it. Thus, she had to carry the bag instead, as respectfully as she could possibly do.
Once on the streets of Muggle London Harry ran a hand through his hair and let out a tired sigh, "I forgot to ask Kingsley why he hadn't sent the letter sooner."
That same evening Griphook's funeral was held in secret; the fewer people who knew the better. Hagrid and Viktor were the only other two present. Since Luna had gone home early.
Hermione had reasoned that they had needed the Half Giant's help, for he knew Hogwarts grounds best of anyone and had to keep an eye on it all. It would have been likely that he had stumbled on the patch of ground sooner rather than later. And if Hagrid would have opened the grave... Hermione shuddered at the idea alone. The scandals it would have created... And if the information would ever reach the Goblins... It would make a renewed Goblin war all the more likely of happening.
No, this is for the best, Hermione told herself. Having Hagrid in on the secret was the safest solution, despite his trusting - and at times somewhat babbling - nature. If Dumbledore had believed in Hagrid's ability to keep quiet, so could she.
Harry agreed with her points, but most of all he simply preferred Hagrid to be there Hagrid had lived through the war, knew like no one else what it was like to lose the dearest of friends.
Even if Griphook had not been their friend, he was still a War Hero. And deserved nothing less than a respectful funeral. Just like Dobby, just like Dumbledore and... just like Sirius. Harry looked around him and decided that this was the perfect spot for a Goblin's grave. Hidden in the shadows of old trees, with dense underbrush. It may not be a cave, which Griphook had likely preferred, but at least the sun would scarcely shine on his patch of ground.
Viktor stood with straight shoulders and his chin high. His hair was combed backwards and kept neatly with a charm. He was here because Hermione did not want to keep him in the dark, he was part of her life. And if their relationship would ever threaten to break, then she could always resort to a Memory Charm, though the idea did not sit well with her. She grabbed his hand in hers as she tried to drive the thoughts away and gave it a gentle squeeze. He gave her one in response.
Meanwhile, Harry had taken to stand at the foot of the grave and said some kind words. He thanked Griphook for all he had done. Hermione heard the regret clearly in his voice. His regret that so many had had to die before he was able to stop the madness. And even now, four days after the Battle of Hogwarts, not all the Death Eaters had been captured.
The Muggle-born was next, though all she could think of to say was that she was sorry. "Sorry that I wasn't quick enough to heal you, sorry that I didn't see the attack coming, sorry that we had to drag you into the battle."
On their way to this place she had picked up several spring flowers and with a tap on the small bouquet with Bellatrix' wand she made the flowers grow and sprout roots which dug into the ground. There would be little sunlight for photosynthesis, but she hoped that Griphook's magical energy would give the plants enough nutrients to survive.
This time it was Hermione who wrote on the headstone. She chose the words carefully so that if, by some miracle, somebody stumbled upon the grave, they would have no idea who could be buried here. Though the stone was enchanted to only show the letters if someone touched it.
Here lies he who made a crucial difference during the war,
unbeknownst to many.
Rest in Peace.
Harry nodded, the grave was beautiful. He hoped he could give Severus Snape a worthy funeral as well, he knew that Hermione would no doubt want to help him if need be.
The group gave a final show of respect and turned around to start on their way back to camp. Grawp had stayed far from the grave, to watch through the thicket of leaves and branches from a distance. As silent as a mouse. That is, until now, for he lumbered towards them, obviously glad the ceremony was over.
His head was no longer covered with bandages, though his eye was still swollen and closed. And there was the stiffness to his walk, but it was better than the stumbling which it had been.
As Hermione watched the two relatively small Giants walk a few metres ahead of her she wondered what would happen to the bigger one once the new school year would start. Would Grawp be allowed to stay on Hogwart's grounds? Or perhaps be put back in the Forbidden Forest? If not, where would the Giant be housed then? And would he behave without having Hagrid by his side? What about his cave? He had lived there before, perhaps he could live there again?
The Muggle-born also wondered how long it would take for Minerva to find out about Griphook's grave, and if she would be angry or hurt not to be told.
A heavy sigh escaped her. It could be so bone-tiring to be responsible.
A well-muscled arm wrapped over her shoulders and a tender kiss was pressed against her temple. Viktor's scent washed over her with their close proximity. She smiled and wrapped her arm around his middle to pull his side against hers. For the moment the two of them lacked to care for their public display of affection. And besides, the other three walked ahead of them with their backs towards her and Viktor, for now, the couple had some privacy.
In truth, it was strange that it had taken them this long to bump into each other in camp, but still, it felt like it was all too soon in Hermione's opinion. Though they did not really bump in one another, it was just that Fleur walked out of the main tent right when Hermione passed by. She did her best to cover her sudden nervousness with a smile, "Fleur, hi! How have you been?"
"'Ermione, good morning. I am fine, how are you?" The French woman smiled pleasantly. If Fleur felt anything than her usual confident self, Hermione got not a single clue from her countenance.
"Oh, fine, perfectly fine." She put the weight of the object she was carrying on her hip. "Just helping around in the camp."
"I believe I haven't seen you get to work in camp before, right?"
The Muggle-born realized that Fleur was right, until now she had not once stayed to help around the camp, she had always gone to help somewhere in the castle, be with friends or had gone on the 'secret mission' with Harry. A blush of shame coloured her cheeks, how lousy she must look to others. "Yeah, that is true, isn't it?"
Fleur's eyes widened as realisation dawned on her, she held up her hands with files still clutched in them as if to stop the younger woman's thoughts right there and then. "Ah, non! Je suis désolé, 'Ermione! I didn't mean it like that. Eet was just an observation I 'ad made. I know that you can't sit still. You 'elp een the castle and other places. Just not 'ere, and that ees perfectly fine!"
"Uhm, yes, uhm, thank you?" Hermione had the crawling suspicion that this conversation would turn out to feel very uncomfortable; as if they were complete strangers. She hurriedly decided to change the subject, "By the way, Harry and I got some money from our vaults yesterday, so I will be able to buy some new clothes and give you back your own in a few days' time."
The quarter-Veela smiled and nodded, though for a moment Hermione had the feeling it was forced. "Yes, thank you, take your time though. I have still enough clothes to wear."
"No, I can't keep your clothes, they are yours."
"If you are sure," Fleur said.
"I am, it is no problem at all."
Silence descended between them, an awkward silence. Neither one seemed to know how to break it.
"Ahem, well, I will be seeing you again," Hermione said with a wave.
"Au revoir, 'Ermione." Then Fleur strode in the opposite direction.
This must have been the most boring and awkward conversation we have ever had, Hermione thought miserably as she continued on her path. And I did not even clarify that I have not those kinds of feelings for her. How is that conversation supposed to go, if this one was already so... dire?
Her thoughts kept returning to the awkward conversation as she worked in and around the camp. It was only when she returned to the tent and was greeted by a smiling Harry who waved two letters in his hand that she was granted a short respite.
"We got letters from the Minister already and -" he stopped himself as he scrutinized her. "What is the matter?"
The Muggle-born sighed. Of course, Harry would see immediately that something was wrong. "I had a conversation with Fleur. The whole ordeal was very awkward and I didn't even clarify the comments I made in the garden."
"Perhaps that was why it was so awkward?" He shrugged with a slightly puzzled look on his face. Women were pretty much a mystery to him, well, all except for Hermione.
Hermione motioned with her hand to the letters he still held in his hand. "What do they say?"
"I know as little as you, wanted to wait 'till you were here."
She smiled at that and bumped her shoulder against his. Together they settled inside the tent with a cup of tea and opened the seals on their letters.
They, among the other Order members, would be given a medal for their heroics during the war. Other people, who had also played important roles would be invited as well to receive a medal during the ceremony. Which was planned to take place in two weeks time, in the Great Hall of Hogwarts, where the battle had raged during its final hours.
"You reckon there will be any journalist present?" Harry asked.
"Probably. Kingsley wants to show the people that he is rebuilding and moving forward, but, clearly, he does not want to do that by forgetting the war. This material is going into the historical archives, so there will be a camera crew at the very least."
Harry put his elbow on the table and his chin in the palm of his hand, his green eyes stared at something outside.
"Any idea where Viktor is?" Hermione asked after a while, she had been content with sipping her tea.
He shook his head, Harry had not seen him since breakfast, after which Harry had gone in search for Minerva to ask if he, Hermione and Viktor would be allowed to stay at Hogwarts until Grimmauld Place was ready to move in to. How glad he had been when the Professor had welcomed them to stay as long as they pleased. And, now that he remembered it, he relayed the news to Hermione with the same joyous energy as with which he had received it.
A smile, small but sincere in its warmth, appeared on the young woman's lips. She had not once thought that Minerva would send them out of Hogwarts, but it was still nice to hear they would be welcome for as long as need be. "I am so glad, we will have to thank Minerva properly one of these days. Perhaps we can buy her something nice when we are in Muggle London tomorrow."
Harry raised his eyebrows in surprise, "What are we going there for?"
Hermione had a sly glimmer in her eyes as she said, "Because I know how much you adore shopping for clothes, Harry."
The young man actually groaned like a spoiled teenager, though when he slumped down over the table a smile was on his lips.
In the distance they heard the clock peal, it was half-past three. Hermione had no desire to get up to work in the camp again, she felt far too uncomfortable at the prospect of another encounter with Fleur.
Reading had always been her go-to, and she truly wanted to put her energy into her research, yet since the previous day, unrest seemed to have settled inside her. It was like what she supposed was how having a sixth sense would feel like. And hers told her something was terribly wrong. It ate away at her consciousness, even more so when she sat down for longer than an hour.
"It will be Neville's birthday soon, won't it?"
Harry's question tore Hermione away from her inner musings. "Yes, I believe so."
"Then we need to buy him something as well. Really, by now we need to make a list of the people we want to give a present." Harry shook his head with a disbelieving smile. He started to count them on his hands, "Hagrid, Luna, Bill and Fleur, Arthur and Molly, Minerva, and Neville. Am I forgetting someone?"
"Well, coincidentally I know where we can find the perfect presents for Neville, though I honestly don't know if the place is still accessible."
"Do tell, I am all ears."
The duo carried several small pots filled with fresh loam in their arms, one hand shovel for each and both with protective gloves on. Gear which they had gotten from the greenhouses.
During their walk to the second floor girls' lavatory, Harry told Hermione that he had written a letter to Andromeda Tonks asking her if he could make a visit soon to meet Teddy, who he had yet to see for the first time.
"Want me to come with you?" she asked whilst they turned the last corner.
Harry nodded and smiled sheepishly, "I think I would like that, I am a bit nervous, to be honest. I never really held a baby."
Myrtle was not around as they stepped inside the lavatory, which gave them the opportunity to enter through the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets undisturbed. The stairs were still intact and mostly unobscured, no steps were missing and the rocks which had fallen down upon the stairs were not big enough to block the whole of the passageway.
Even the first few tunnels were not that worse for wear. They could still walk through them, though the duo had to move rocks here and there. Unfortunately, they could not throw Bombarda's at the debris, since the explosions would likely have as a result that more of the ceiling would come crashing down around if not on top of them.
She had planned to bring Neville here someday, but she doubted it was actually safe for them to be here. Well, it is a good thing then that we bring the plants to him instead. If we can still reach the plants.
They had walked in the glow of a Lumos for a while by the time they came to a halt. Before them stood a massive wall of rocks and not a single opening could be seen. The duo put everything they carried on the ground and started to look if they could make a passage, to see if specific rocks looked more vulnerable to moving spells than others.
Harry was the first to find a weak spot in the wall. Though as they worked oh-so-carefully to make a path it was soon clear that the opening, which was big at the start, grew smaller as they went deeper through the wall of stones. It became too narrow for a human to fit through. And making it bigger would only make being in these tunnels riskier. What if some of those big, immovable boulders were the bearers of the weight from what was left of the ceiling?
The Muggle-born looked from the small gap to her friend, who looked at her in return. For a moment she tilted her head and glanced at Harry's wristwatch.
He held it in the Lumos light, "We have been walking down here for more than an hour."
Hermione kept silent and looked back at the small opening they had created, she could not see far, for there was complete darkness beyond the stone wall. Though she felt a cold breeze coming from the opening, so there was still some kind of ventilation in these tunnels.
That was the moment she made a decision, "In my vixen form I will easily fit through that hole, I can scout ahead, see if the plants have survived the battle. If not, we can walk back and try one of the other tunnels."
"Perhaps, but..." I don't like the idea of you being there all alone.
Harry did not have to say it out loud, it was written all over his face. Yet he knew it to be the best solution. They did not have a time limit to be here, but the longer they stayed down here the likelier it was for people to notice their absence and start to wonder. And if Minerva found out they were here, well, they doubted any good would come of it.
"I will be gone for only a moment." Without any move or incantation Hermione started her transformation, she shrunk and her senses became all the more prominent.
Harry looked at her with an uncertain worry but nodded all the same. "Send me a Patro - I mean, yell when you need me, please."
Hermione wanted to say that yelling was probably the last thing they should do since they could risk another downfall of rocks from the ceiling. Instead, she swished her tail in annoyance and turned to trot to the narrow gap between the fallen pieces of ceiling.
Harry watched her disappear into the dark with tension in his shoulders. Something felt not right, though Hermione had waved his concerns off when he had voiced them out loud whilst they had entered the labyrinth of tunnels and he had listened to her. But now that she was gone the worry gnawed at him once more.
Hermione trotted through the tunnels, at ease in her animal body. She sniffed around, much like a hound sniffing out a fox. The irony was not lost on her.
With her senses as finetuned as they were the vixen needed no Lumos. Her whiskers caught the trembles of movements in the ground or air. Her ears picked up the distant sound of rats eating a few long tunnel-corridors away, and heard rats scurrying around at an even greater distance. And though she was in complete darkness she could still see her surroundings; the profile of arches and walls, or the boulders which blocked most of the paths were all easily depicted in the dark. Though right now she relied most of all on her nose.
Despite the cold breeze she had felt earlier, the air was still a damp and musty thing. Scents were definitely present in the tunnels, but Hermione had difficulty separating them. As she trotted further into the tunnel with her nose in the air, she did detect the scent of spores. But the overwhelming scent of rats and urine made it impossible for her to ascertain where exactly the plants grew.
What puzzled Hermione the most was the scent of urine which grew heavier on the breeze the more she travelled inwards. She could not remember rats ever leaving such a strong scent behind. Especially since these tunnels had become somewhat like sewers, with its flooded places, water enough to clean oneself in.
A sudden noise made her stop dead in her tracks, for, in the far distance, a groan had sounded. The kind of low grumbles a normal rat would never be able to produce. Had a creature from the battle fallen down into the tunnels and somehow survived the fall? One of those giant spiders perhaps? A shudder danced over her spine at the mere possibility. It made her raise her fur, to seem bigger than she was. Adrenaline had begun to course through her bloodstream, she could sprint away if need be. Her muscles tense for the need for fast reflexes.
Hermione strained her hearing, her ears turned towards the place where the sound had come from, but there was no repeat. Only silence, except for the ever-present rats in the background.
Slowly she started to walk again, this time making sure her nails made as little sound on the stone floor as possible. Her previous endeavour completely forgotten. All her senses were tuned in on whatever the source of that sound could be.
It took perhaps the quarter of an hour for her to come close to the place, following the sound of rasped breathing when she had come close enough to hear it, but it felt like hours had passed. Dread filled her as she listened to the sickly sound, she would not be surprised to find this creature injured or in a high fever. But everyone knew that a scared wild animal was not to be underestimated.
Hermione started to see the creature in the distance. Close to a corner in the tunnel there lay a dark heap in the almost as dark shadows. It was a strange form, certainly no giant spider. But then what was it?
The vixen stayed were she was for a long time, her eyes never straying from their point of interest. When nothing happened, she dared to move closer. Though she was still a good 40 metres apart. And from this distance, she detected the faintest movement of breathing that accompanied the ragged sounds in time. Thus, this was one and the same, this creature had made the noise she had heard earlier. It must be.
All of a sudden it moved, its body stirred, wild hair waved around. The movements jerky and clumsy, then the creature slumped back against the wall from which it had stirred. "Who is there?!" The yell echoed off the walls.
She stopped dead in her tracks, again. The vixen did not move a single muscle, not even her whiskers twitched. She was as if struck by lightning.
A hope seeped into the rough voice, whilst a hand reached for the wall in a foolish attempt to stand up, "My Lord?! Is that you?!"
More echoes, followed closely by silence. Hermione would always recognize that voice, it hunted her in her nightmares, after all.
"No, no," Bellatrix muttered to softly herself, though it carried far through the silence, "the energy is too subtle, weak."
There was a pause, then a soft crooning voice, "Come here, weakling. Come out and show yourself."
More silence, but the vixen started to regain control over her body. With extreme caution to not give away where she was Hermione began to pad backwards.
"Come out, come out! So that I can have some fun with you!"
The singsong voice made shudders run all over her body. Memories of her torture, combined with flashes from her nightmare, pounced on her mind and caused a momentary loss of her grip on reality and therefore the caution with which she had moved was momentarily forgotten. She put her hind paw, which had hovered above a small rock, back on the ground to regain her balance, but in doing so she hit the rock and made it clatter over the ground.
Then two things happened at once. A Cruciatus Curse came to life while at the same moment Bellatrix yelled triumphantly, "Gotchya!" Her crazed smile was minutely illuminated by the light of her magic as the curse shot away from her outstretched hand.
The green colour of the spell was reflected in the wide-open and terrified eyes of the vixen.
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