ALLERFORD, SOMERSET, ENGLAND
Hermione’s brain started whirring. The Muggle Resistance. The words were like a jolt of espresso to her bloodstream. She sat up straight and started scrolling through the website quickly, and Christie started chuckling again, at her elbow.
Christie grinned. “They’re all in a’ uproar, ye know. Ye shoul’ see the ‘mericans. There’s a ho’headed lot, no mistake. Lots o’ people ‘round t’ world don’ ha’e enough sense t’ stand down. Mind ye, I’m one o’ ‘em. There’s plenty that jus’ falls in line, mos’ people around here are like tha’, but there’s enough tha’ are stubborn. Aye. There’s enough.”
Hermione listened closely and continued scrolling through the forum, clicking on a few threads here and there. Thread titles like EMERGENCY ONLY: HELP NEEDED; JUSTICE FOR OUR’N; BLACK MARKET; OFFENSIVE ACTION; WHAT THE HELL, I’LL BE A PAWN; KNOWN SAFE HOUSES; LOST OR FOUND; THE FALLEN; and ASK A REBEL were just a few that stood out to her. Her head felt like it was spinning.
“How does it work? How does the site stay safe?”
“Invitational only. And anonymous. Rumor has i’ that this one an’ a few others were started by the first rebels, what was left of the, whatsit ye call it? The Order. Though, ah, no one knows for sure who. A few key ones are on there often—takin’ as much care of the ones who need emergency help an’ safe houses as they can, an’ all that.”
The thought of The Order still being out there in some way really hit Hermione’s emotions on a physical level. It was a little overwhelming. She stood up abruptly and backed away from the table a few steps, needing air. Her whole body felt like it was pounding and shaking.
“Are ye alrigh’ there, lassie?”
Hermione’s hands rose up to cover her mouth and she was embarrassed that she was about to burst into tears. She closed her eyes and nodded once, then stood there for a second, trying to breathe around the feelings that were choking her. Christie quickly steered her around and gently led her to the living room. He made her sit down on the couch and opened a nearby window, letting in a cool breeze.
Hermione brought her hand up and cradled her forehead, leaning in towards the refreshing wind. Hesitantly at first, but then easier and with more strength, she breathed in and out deeply through her nose, fighting off the lightheadedness that the spike in emotion had caused.
“It’s a bi’ much t’ take in. Aye, I know tha’.”
Finally, Hermione leaned back against the couch, the nausea gone, and opened her eyes. She found Christie leaning back against the couch himself, patiently cleaning out his fingernails with a pocketknife. Hermione smiled. She smiled the biggest smile she’d managed in over three years. Her face felt tight, but Christie met her eyes and grinned, and Hermione’s answering smile grew even bigger.
“I want to help.”
“Aye,” Christie’s Cheshire grin expanded and his eyes looked a little fierce. “Aye—suspec’ed ye would.”
After a quick breakfast of pancakes, watered-down apple juice, and warm ginger tea to settle her stomach and nerves, Hermione set up an email account with AOL.
“Sometimes, the best place to hide is in plain sight. We ge’ away with a lot online,” he smiled, “but still, never use yer real name, though I doub’ I’d b’ needin’ t’ tell ye tha’. Och, can hardly believe ye told me, ‘specially righ’ off, t’ be honest.”
Hermione nodded and looked a little embarrassed. “I had a strong feeling about you. That you were trustworthy. You…you reminded me of Harry and all of my friends, you know.” She sighed. “Looking back now, it was a perfectly reckless thing to do.”
It was a few seconds before Christie spoke, and when he did, his voice was filled with a great deal of respect. “Ye’ve made my day, girlie. Compared t’ the likes o’ him! Trusty lad, wasn’ee?”
Hermione’s throat clogged up and her voice was thick when she answered. “Yes. The trustiest.”
“He’s watchin’ ou’ for ye, ye know.”
Hermione nodded and wiped her eyes. “I…I think you must be right.”
“Aye, ‘course I am! Now. How abou’ tha’ email address?”
Hermione paused, her fingers drumming over the keyboard a few seconds without typing. Finally, she typed ‘fourthcharm’ into the first part. They switched places and Christie logged into the forum and sent her an invitation.
Noting his username for the first time, Hermione chuckled. “TwistinHay.” She shook her head, confused. “What does that mean?”
Christie winked at her. “In Ireland, if yer twistin’ hay, yer startin’ trouble.”
Hermione spent an hour exploring the forum before she started any real chores. Christie was out taking a walk and bird-watching. She turned the laptop off and closed it and got up from the table with a lingering smile on her face. It was all so much to take in. Was it really possible, she wondered for the twentieth time, her mind still in a bit of a daze.
She stretched and then perused a small shelf in the kitchen filled with a wide variety of cookbooks. The edges were aged, and from the titles, Hermione knew that Christie’s late wife, Laura, must have been the one to purchase and use them. A red and white plaid one titled Quick Meals from Betty Crocker looked like an okay place to start, so she pulled it out and unfolded it on the table. She browsed through the index quickly and came to a stop, her finger just below ‘beef stew…pg. 64.’
They didn’t have any beef, she knew, but the one rabbit left needed to be cooked soon or frozen. There was no reason substituting rabbit for beef would be a problem. The cut-up rabbit meat was sitting in the shallow meat drawer of the refrigerator in a bowl, just waiting to be used.
Quickly and easily following the instructions in the cookbook, Hermione soon had a stew simmering on the stove and had even tried her hand at homemade drop biscuits. They didn’t look like the picture, but they were edible.
Christie walked in the front door when Hermione was mopping up the kitchen and pantry floors. “Why, looky here! Thank ye, lass, it’s lookin’ sparkly in here, surely. Are ye ready to take a break?”
Hermione smiled and nodded. “Actually, yes. I wanted to ask you about something.”
“Sure, what’s tha’?”
Hermione wrung out the mop and stepped carefully over the wet floor in her socks. “One second, I’ll show you.” She went in and came back out of her room with a carefully rolled up newspaper gently clasped in her hands.
Christie followed her into the living room and she spread it open on the coffee table. Actually, it was an old chest she had found in the pantry filled with Mason jars, newspapers, and cardboard, but she had commandeered it to use as a coffee table.
She bit her lip as she viewed the picture of Arthur once more. “This…this is why I wasn’t at my camp when you got there. I….”
Christie nodded and smoothed the paper respectfully. “I think he’s prob’bly dead,” he finally said.
Hermione’s head jerked up and her eyes widened. “What do you mean, probably?”
“You mean there’s a chance he isn’t? How could that be?”
“Isn’t tha’ wha’ ye were goin’ tae ask meh?”
Hermione shook her head and blinked away tears. “No, I was going to ask if you knew anything about…about him…or his family. What happened to them. The Weasleys.”
“Wallll now, I wish I did, girlie. Supposedly they’re all dead, but I would only take i’ with a grain o’ salt. This trash is propaganda tiddle. No one ac’ually reads i’. Or believes i’. I jus’ keep ‘em fer me compost.” He winked at her, nodding at the stack of newspapers on top of the bookcase in the corner.
Hermione’s heart started pounding. “No?” It was quiet as she processed this.
New life buzzed through Hermione’s veins. She tackled everything she could during the day: deep cleaning, dusting, organizing, and cooking. Christie kept on at her to slow down, to take a rest, but she couldn’t. It was wonderful to feel useful again. Wonderful to be clean and to be able to eat seconds of anything she liked. But even more wonderful than this was the few hours after dinner when Christie retired for the evening and all was quiet in the house. She would make herself a hot toddy and arrange a small plate of honey graham crackers, click on the Tiffany lamp on Christie’s roll-top desk, and bring the laptop out of sleep mode.
It hadn’t taken Hermione long to read every prominent section of the forum that she could find and she was slowly getting to know a few of the regulars. No personal information was allowed, nothing specific whatsoever. It was a little odd, at first, greeting someone by pseudonym only and having no earthly idea who they really were or where they were from, but there was a bit of freedom to be found underneath the mask as well.
She desperately wished that there was no need for secrecy, that she could possibly find someone that she knew, but she was more than up for the challenge.
She wanted to learn every bit about the Resistance and about the rebels that she could, so she had been taking notes in an empty spiral-bound notebook Christie had given her. She had also been jotting down thoughts of how she could possibly help or wild ideas of how the rebels could one day turn the tide. They weren’t practical in the least, but she wrote them down anyway. One never knew when a single crazy idea might give bridge to a stroke of genius. And she’d always been gifted in that department, there was no denying that.
There was a great deal of discussion this evening concerning recent rumors involving the World Ministry. Hermione felt sick to her stomach when she read that the standing Minister, Montague, was passing a new act that stipulated that Muggles in Europe were not to be allowed to earn more than one pound an hour. Rumors were circulating like a sharp breeze that decreased rations, again, were around the corner. A few members, Asphodel and ManDrake, were rather grim on the subject.
“Despite th’ violence, I migh’ like our wars better. It was no good, fightin’ a war we didnae even know aboat ‘til i’ was over. But this Lord Whatsit fellow won’t win forev’r, ye know. We Muggles migh’ no’ have magic at our disposal, but we’re pretty defiant. And we’ve got weapons enough of our’n,” Christie said, his voice lower than usual.
“You’re right. Voldemort’s ranks may not be spread thin, exactly, and while he may have followers flooding his numbers, they can’t all be especially loyal. We should divide his ranks as much as possible.”
“Better yet woul’ be some well-placed spies,” Christie added, a smile lighting up his face.
Hermione’s hands trembled at that thought and she shook her head forcefully once, but then sighed. “I concede, but I am not sure how it could be managed.”
“Rumor ‘as i’ tha’ we have a few, bu’ ‘course, I’m no’ high up enough on t’ ladder to know a’thing aboat i’.”
Hermione drummed her fingers on the cover of the notebook for a few moments, lost in memories of a spy who had been too good at his job.
Christie interjected, “I wonder, lassie, how did ye do i’? I’ve been stewin’ and ponderin’ and plottin’ ‘til meh head’s fit tae bust.”
“Hmm?” Hermione’s fingers suddenly stilled as the depth of his question struck her. Her mouth opened a few times, but it took her a minute to get the words past the lump in her throat. “Oh, Christie. I-I can’t pretend I haven’t been to hell and back. You can’t imagine….”
Christie didn’t say anything, he just nodded, his eyes kind.
Hermione’s hands started shaking and she clasped them between her knees. She rather wondered if talking about it would help. She finally said, “I thought I was going to die. No—I knew I was.” She paused for a few deep breaths. “I was desperate to, well before the last…to be honest.” Her eyes welled with tears and she stared down at her hands for several silent seconds. When she spoke next, her voice was quiet and Christie had to lean forward in his chair to hear. “It’s strange. I’d never liked him, you see. I suppose, over the years, I despised and felt sorry for him in equal measure, and I did appreciate his thirst for knowledge. By my last year at Hogwarts I…I did wonder about him.” She sighed, a few tears slipping down her cheeks, and her voice was thick. “I’m not sure I can talk about it.”
“Aye. ‘course. Sorry, lass, ye don’ have tae.”
Hermione nodded and shuddered, but then exhaled slowly and rubbed her forehead weakly. She spoke slowly. “No, I…I think I should. You’ve been ever so kind to me and it’s the least I can do. I just—I might need a moment here and there.”
Christie nodded and Hermione was about to open her mouth to begin, when he stood up and insisted on making them both some tea first. “Ginger root, it’s jus’ wha’ ye need. I’ll jus’ be two shakes o’ a lamb’s tail.”
Hermione gathered her wayward emotions while Christie made them each a quick cup of tea. Her hands stopped shaking and she eased back onto the side of the couch, pulling a soft pillow in front of her protectively. Christie was back shortly and handed her a warm cup and settled in the chair nearby.
Hermione absently stirred the tea, dissolving the honey settled in the bottom of the cup with a small spoon for several moments before she began. “It may come as a surprise that I owe my life to a Death Eater. We…we knew each other from Hogwarts. I am not sure, exactly, how long I had been held prisoner when I first saw him. Harry had been…gone…oh, Merlin…it felt like forever. I longed for the end. To be reunited with—with Harry and Ron and my parents and countless others. It was the only thing I had to hold onto; that eventually, it would all be over and I would be free from the pain and the dark and the….” A soft sob escaped her and she tried to take a sip of the tea, tried to catch her breath.
Several moments passed in silence and then Hermione continued, her eyes fastened on her teacup in her lap. “I…the few hours before had been…” she shuddered, “…I was still delirious from the pain. I was lying in my cell, alone for once, when he came in very quietly with a bowl of broth. I’d never…his eyes…he was shocked. I remember he locked the door and tried to help me sit up. He kept going on about how I had to eat the soup.” She laughed softly, still overwhelmed by the difference she had seen in him. “I hadn’t eaten anything in ages—I had given up. He held me up and spoon fed me, which at the time didn’t really register, but ever since, I can’t seem to get it out of my head…I still find it hard to believe. He Apparated us outside of the dungeons and to a deserted countryside in the Highlands, not far from a farm. I collapsed after that. I wish I remembered it all better. Part of the time, there was a lot of pain, from healing spells. He healed me as much as he could, but was running out of time. I remember that he said he had to go. He settled me under a tree to rest and said that he would return soon with decent clothes for me and food and such, but he never came back.” Hermione bit her lip and closed her eyes for a long moment. “I never saw Draco Malfoy again.”
Hermione’s sleep that night was punctuated with some of her worst memories.
Hermione stared at the small group crowding into her cell. She was momentarily taken aback to see her former professor after all of this time. His face was cold and frozen in a glare, and while she gaped at him, he resolutely avoided her eyes.
But then, Bellatrix started chatting, and Hermione shrunk against the wall warily. Just the sound of her voice set her on edge. And then--What is that smell? Hermione wondered.
“So nice that you could join us, Severus,” Bellatrix purred insincerely, glancing down at a large metal can Rodolphus had just set down with a noticeable clang against the flagstone floor. “I must admit, Half-bloods are good for one thing.” Bellatrix sneered as she abruptly stepped forward and slammed Hermione down hard against the floor of the cell.
Hermione didn’t react to the sharp pain and shrunk into herself, making herself as small as possible. Bellatrix smiled at her, and Hermione’s heart skittered and then pounded frightfully in her chest.
“Skyer has been telling us a great deal about the Muggles’ ideas of torture.” Bellatrix paused and met the cool obsidian eyes of Severus Snape nearby, then the eyes of her husband and Lucius Malfoy. “They say,” she paused long enough to smile radiantly down at the Mudblood crouched on the dirty floor, “fire is the worst.”
Cold ice raced down Hermione’s spine, and she shuffled back against the wall. Bellatrix met her husband’s smirk with one of her own and then nodded. Rodolphus hefted the large can of petrol and eagerly untwisted the lid, then as Hermione tried to get away despite her chains’ strong resistance, he turned the can over, spilling the odorous liquid all over her legs. Hermione started to hyperventilate, and she stared at the man who used to be one of her favorite professors, silently begging him to do something. But he just stood there, jaw clenched, face impassive. When Bellatrix raised her wand, his eyes finally met hers.
Bellatrix couldn’t help the giggle that escaped. “Incendio!” the mad woman cried gleefully, and Hermione’s screams tore the air apart.
Almost worse than the pain was the smell. And there was no time in the pain. She could have burned forever. Hermione gasped for breath and her wild, pleading eyes held on to the hard gaze of her old professor. But then--he broke the eye contact and stared at the wall, his face a contrast of hard lines. And she knew what abandonment felt like.
It hurt. It hurt so much.
There was a terrific scrambling of limbs and tangled quilts and Hermione sat bolt upright, gasping and sobbing. Her eyes clenched shut and she doubled over in the bed, crying so hard she felt like she was going to throw up. She climbed clumsily and shakily out of the bed and stumbled towards the doorway, righting herself by grasping onto the doorknob. Her body was shuddering and her left hand was clasped over her mouth.
Christie met her in the hallway, looking unkempt and sleepy. He pulled her close and quickly steered her towards the bathroom while her knees knocked. “Child, lass, shhh, i’s okay, you’re alrigh’. Almos’—steady on there.” He helped her ease in front of the toilet and opened the lid for her.
Hermione held on to the floor near her knees as she lost her dinner, heaving wrenchingly two, three, four times into the porcelain bowl. Sobs renewed in their strength after the nausea wore away and Hermione turned and drew her knees up to her chest and bent her head, unable to stem the flow of tears. Christie was murmuring something, she wasn’t sure what, but soon she felt a cool, wet cloth on the back of her neck and then he was pressing another one into her hand.
Hermione gratefully used it to clean her face off, her fingers weak and trembling, and then she held the wet cloth against her forehead as she balled up once more. Her tears were so hot, they were burning her face. She started hiccuping. A fresh wave of sobs shook her as her mind’s eye brought back the clear memory of her professor breaking his gaze, staring rigidly at the wall. Normally, Hermione hid behind a wall of righteous anger where he was concerned, a nice and safe and comforting blanket of anger, but tonight, right now, all she felt was a deep and painful ache. Her heart felt like it was going to implode.
She felt so empty.
NEAR GAIRLOCH, HIGHLANDS, SCOTLAND
Severus retched into the sink, then rinsed his mouth out and splashed water on his face. His hands were shaking, but he ignored the trembling. He left the bathroom and paced around the small bedroom, wearing down the path in the carpet still further. His steps eventually brought him to the tall single-pane window beside his large and untidy desk as they usually did, and he stared out. The night sky was overcast, and he could not see any stars or even the moon. As his breathing slowed and the memory lingered solely upon her gaze, the image of which only seemed to become sharper with time, he stared past his reflection in the glass, not seeing himself but a broken girl, asking for his help. His hand raked roughly down his face, and he sighed. He hadn’t been able to make it back in time.
Lucius caught him heading down the flight of stairs leading to her cell and imparted on him what he thought would be good news. Draco had been commissioned to bring the Mudblood her meals, because no one else really wanted the bother anymore; she wasn’t a high security prisoner to them anymore since Potter’s death a few months before, after all. Why should they have to waste their time feeding the chit, keeping her alive? But, Lucius had laughed, saying how kind fate had been. The girl had saved them all the trouble and kicked the bucket. Draco had found her, and wasn’t he relieved? When Severus had appeared to somewhat reluctantly offer to take care of the corpse, Lucius had patted him on the shoulder and told him not to worry about it; he’d already seen to it. After Lucius departed, Severus had continued down the stairs, frustrated as hell and full of regret, and when he reached the door to her cell, he found Draco standing outside with a completely blank look in his eyes.
The poor kid had been shocked, no doubt. Severus opened the door with a hard grip on his wand, tapping twice, and let himself into the cell for a moment. It was empty, dark, oppressive, and he couldn’t believe that she’d lived as long as she had. A year in this hole. Stronger even than Potter. Why couldn’t she have lasted just one more day? Anger and indignation nearly suffocated him. He left, closing the door behind him softly, and Draco followed him up the many flights of stairs. They didn’t speak. There were really no words.
At the principal safe house near Gairloch, Severus’s long legs carried him to his bed, and he sat down heavily on the edge, lowering his face into his hands. Two and a half years she had been gone.
He’d never be free of her.
ALLERFORD, SOMERSET, ENGLAND
Hermione woke quietly and turned over onto her side. The sky was still dark outside her window. A glance at the alarm clock on her nightstand showed that dawn was still a few hours away. Three in the morning and she was wide awake. With a sigh, she pulled the quilt up around her shoulders and snuggled down into her pillow and closed her eyes stubbornly, willing away the hot tears she could feel building up behind her eyelids. She hadn’t been able to shake the melancholy after the other night. She felt raw. When a few tears leaked out, soaking into her pillowcase, Hermione sat up and pushed her blankets back.
She couldn’t take another minute of lying in bed crying. If she couldn’t sleep, she would just get started on her day. She stretched for a minute and then turned on the light switch. Opening the top drawer of a short and wide dresser, she unrolled a pair of socks and quickly slipped one on each foot. Winter had arrived, and she was so thankful that she had a warm and safe place to stay. Renewed gratitude helped take the edge off of her wayward emotions. Hermione made her bed, turned off her light and padded quietly to the kitchen.
Fresh coffee and an hour or two on the forum, that’s what she needed.
Hermione filled the percolator half-full with water as the laptop hummed and beeped in an arrested beat, slowly booting up. After scooping coarse coffee grounds into the top chamber, she set the percolator on the stove and turned the burner up to med-high, so that the water would start boiling in a few minutes. The smell of coffee brewing was invigorating.
Hermione drank three cups of coffee while reading and posting on the forums and was wide awake and covered in flour, pulling two loaves of crusty french bread out of the oven, when Christie walked into the kitchen, sniffing appreciatively.
Christie glanced at the clock with a laugh. It was 6 a.m. “Did ye sleep a’ all last night, girlie?”
Hermione smiled and set the bread upon the counter to cool. “A little. Enough. There’s hot coffee if you would like some.”
“I believe I do! Thank ye, lass. Ye know, I do believe I’m gettin’ spoil’t.”
Hermione smiled, closing the oven door and setting aside the potholders. “Me too.”
A/N: Thank you to Devilish Motives and Davron Fan for betaing! I appreciate you guys so much! Thank you for reading, too! I cannot even tell you how much I appreciate you guys.