Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended. Any characters or situations that are unknown in the HP series are the author's intellectual property and should not be used without permission.
Author's Note: This story is not canon-compliant, and certainly not Epilogue compliant. While some elements of existing canon may be maintained, this is AU from Book 5 onward.
April 27th, 2002 - Assateague National Seashore, Assateague Island, VA
The sun was especially warm; it lured a few avid admirers out of their winter hibernation to amble on the beach and dream of an early summer. A few couples walked along the surf line, playing tag with the cold surf that foamed at their feet. One hearty soul in hip waders attempted to fish from time to time, though he seemed more interested in sitting in his folding chair and pulling on his beer than in catching anything.
Further up the beach, a young woman sat on a blanket with an open book on her knee. Dressed for the cool sea breeze, she looked up frequently at the little boy in front of her. He was engrossed by his attempt at a sand castle. So far, it looked more like a large burial mound than any castle she knew.
The young woman tucked away her book and joined her son. The strolling couples moved out of sight around the edge of the coastline and the fisherman packed up his things while the boy and his mother continued to shape the sand. She looked up briefly as the fisherman's vehicle pulled away and headed down the road before returning to her son's endeavors.
Only a few minutes of solitude had passed when the woman heard a soft popping sound above the rushing of the surf and faced the sound with a wand raised and ready. Three cloaked figures stood quietly about twenty feet away, looking about themselves in curiosity. The young woman moved swiftly in between these newcomers and her son.
One of the three, a young man, pushed back his hood. "Hermione… it's great to see you," he said. His British accent sang through the vowels clearly.
She relaxed slightly - his bright red hair and long features were unmistakable. "Ron," Hermione answered flatly, her own accent as British as Ron's was. "To what do I owe this unexpected visit?"
The only woman amongst the three visitors also pushed back her hood, to reveal bright pink hair and a gamine face. Hermione nodded in acknowledgement of her presence, and Tonks gave her a soft smile. The last member of the group stumped over to a large piece of driftwood to slump down on and pushed his hood back only a small distance. His whirling blue eye was obviously magical, and this location was not a magically secured area.
Ron stepped forward. "The thing of it is this, Hermione, I need your help for something I'm working on. Right now actually."
"Well that's a fine greeting, isn't it? Hello, Ron, how have you been? I've been spectacular, thank you for inquiring," Hermione said caustically.
Ron flushed to the tips of his ears. "Sorry to be abrupt, Hermione," he mumbled. "It's very important, what I'm doing."
"So important that you couldn't be bothered with sending an owl post? There was no time to warn me that you were coming?" Hermione kept her voice soft but couldn't hold back a hint of cold anger.
"I didn't think you would mind," Ron said, nonplussed. "It's about - ,"
"Well, you thought wrong. What a surprise, hmm? And by the by, my work is very important as well, Ron, so sorry, but I really don't think I have the time available to take off on whatever goose chase you're on," Hermione interrupted with a wry grimace.
Ron's entire posture changed; she recognized it as the one he adopted whenever he was putting on his bluster. "I need your help, Hermione," he growled.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I have obligations and responsibilities here, Ron," Hermione said with a pointed look. "I can't simply drop them in a heartbeat for whatever it is that you couldn't be bothered to let me know by owl, in advance."
The young boy grew restive and peeked around his mother to look at the people to whom she was talking. Tonks gasped in shock before covering her mouth. Ron's eyes widened and he mouthed something that Hermione couldn't make out. Moody showed no reaction at all.
"Mummy, who are they?" the little boy asked.
Moody reached into his pocket and pulled out a sack of candy. He motioned to Hermione to ask permission, and she nodded. "Sherbet lemon, boy?" he asked gruffly.
The child hesitated, but Hermione encouraged him softly. "It's alright, Jamie," she said. "Mr. Moody is a friend."
The boy crept across the sand and finally took a candy while staring in absolute fascination at Moody's eyes and scars. Hermione watched her son for a moment before turning back to Ron and Tonks.
Ron had gone from shock to anger. "So, this is the reason you broke off with me before you left?" he hissed.
"Anything we may have 'had' was long gone before I left England, Ron. Long gone before Voldemort was defeated, quite frankly, on both our parts as you will recall, so your display of outrage is not only out of line but late to the scene as well," Hermione replied coolly.
"Oh, it was too late, all right - too late because obviously my best friends betrayed me!" Ron shouted. Jamie tore away from Moody, his green eyes bright with fear. He ran to his mother and locked his arms around her leg.
"Lower your voice!" Hermione snapped. "I won't have you upset Jamie any more than you already have. Your intrusion into our lives is unforgivable. I want you to leave…now."
Moody regained his feet stiffly. "Stick to the mission, Weasley," he said to Ron. "Don't have the time for this shilly-shallying."
"I need you, Hermione, so whether you like it or not, you're coming along with us," the red-haired wizard spat.
Hermione raised a single eyebrow and stated quietly, "It would be a monumentally foolish act to try and take me against my will, Ron."
Ron took a step forward, and all hell broke loose.
"Stop where you are! Hands up!" an unseen male voice ordered. Ron and his compatriots turned about in an effort to locate the voice. Even Moody's famous eye couldn't find the source. Six dark cloaked figures appeared from nowhere and pounced on the three Brits; pinioning them to the ground and seizing their wands.
Each of the six newcomers displayed an American Department of Magic emblem on the left breast of their cloaks. One of them began a brisk interrogation of Ron. Two kept Tonks and Moody splayed on the sand. The others escorted Hermione and Jamie away.
"Hermione! It's about Harry, what we're working on!" Tonks called out.
Hermione stopped short, and her escort paused. She signaled to the guards and Tonks was allowed to stand.
Hermione turned back and spoke to the head of the security detail who was trying to interrogate the Aurors. He shook his head twice during the exchange, but then reluctantly signaled his people to let Ron and Moody stand. The interrogator accompanied Hermione back to the three Aurors.
"You will be apparated to my home, but don't take this to mean that I've agreed to go with you, Ron," she said sharply. "My security chief is not a person to be taken lightly, and he doesn't agree with my decision at present. Don't give me a reason to regret trusting you again."
Hermione turned about and returned to her young son and lifted him into her arms, before looking back at her old friends with a burning look. "Once we're secure, then we'll discuss your work…in detail," she finished, the biting edge to her voice sharp enough to draw blood.
After a moment, Ron nodded glumly and did not resist when two agents took hold of his arms and disappeared. Moody was still looking about curiously at the other agents and barking questions that went unanswered, so he was a little more difficult for the pair of agents assigned to him to secure.
Tonks straightened her cloak self-consciously and stepped forward toward the remaining guards to promptly trip over a partly buried piece of driftwood.
The two remaining agents tensed, but relaxed slightly when they heard Hermione's soft chuckle. "Oh, Tonks, not again."
The pink haired Auror bounced back to her feet and sheepishly grinned. "Some things never change, it seems," she countered. "Still as klutzy as ever, I'm afraid. Remus doesn't even ask what's happened anymore, just if I'm alright."
The security chief muttered something under his breath and grabbed Tonks by the shoulder before disapparating silently.
The remaining agent pushed back her hood, revealing short brown hair and hazel eyes filled with mirth. "Well, I suppose you couldn't remain the most boring duty in the Department forever," she laughed.
Jamie crowed with delight and held out his arms to be taken by the other woman. Hermione handed her squirming son off to the other woman and gathered her book and blanket, sighing. "Oh, Carolyn… I had hoped to avoid anything like this until Jamie was older."
"When were you hoping something like this would happen then?" Carolyn asked.
"Oh, when Jamie was in school…all right, I was thinking university at the soonest," Hermione grumbled. Carolyn smirked at that and placed Jamie between them before nodding once and the trio disappeared silently, slowly fading away to leave the beach deserted.
Ron, Moody and Tonks were seated in her kitchen, guarded by the same agents who had brought them here. Hermione sent Jamie down to his playroom with Carolyn and steeled herself to deal with the situation.
Elias MacLaren, the security chief, was adamant about not allowing any more chances for the three to try and take Hermione. He personally knew that she could handle three opponents after all, he had trained her personally in self-defense; but his sense of duty still wanted to ensure that there were no further attempts on his watch. He was leaning silently against the doorway when Hermione arrived and gave her a single nod as she entered.
She beckoned the older man to the living room and began to negotiate for her three friends to stay without a guard. In the end, she was surprised at his willingness to agree with only the modest requests that all three would have to have their wand signatures registered, which entailed being wandless for at least a day while the wands were scanned, and that they would have to submit to anti-apparation wards attuned to the three personally.
Even more surprising was the quiet way her three visitors accepted MacLaren's terms without comment. It indicated a level of commitment that sent a shiver of foreboding down Hermione's spine. It was starting to look like whatever Ron and his team may have found, it might be very important, and combined with MacLaren's unusually mild response; it was becoming clearer to her that the upper levels of the Department were more than likely informed enough regarding the information to subtly facilitate the Ministry's representatives in their attempt to reach her.
The wands were sent off and the wards cast. MacLaren was the last to depart and a long silence fell over the four people huddled in the kitchen. Hermione filled a kettle with water and set out the makings for tea as the others observed her. With a suppressed sigh, she sat down across from Ron.
Ron was fascinated with the wood grain of the table and refused to meet Hermione's gaze, while Moody and Tonks both split their attention between the two.
Finally, Hermione broke the silence. "You're investigating what happened to Harry and Voldemort on that last encounter, then? I would have thought that the Ministry would have let that can of worms be buried deep in the Department of Mysteries, and burned all the maps to the location."
The wizard refused to look up at her, and she shook her head ruefully. Still the same stubborn Gryffindor. "Tell me what you've found that is so important then; what have you found out that I haven't already heard about?" She asked.
"What you haven't heard about? How would you have heard anything at all? You haven't been in England for more than a few days since you picked up stakes and moved here," Ron sniped. His anger was still high as evidenced by the heat in his cheeks.
Hermione leaned back in her seat and folded her arms in front of her. "I have my sources, Ron. That's all you need to know."
Moody's laugh was harsh. "I wouldn't ask anything more if I were you. Just tell her about Malfoy's spell already."
Tonks backed up the older man with a sharp nod when Ron glanced at her before turning back to Hermione.
"We got a few pieces of a created spell that has never been seen before. Most of the Ministry's Unspeakables are flummoxed by it. I need to know what some of the bits do or say, and you're the best I know at Ancient Runes," Ron said.
Tonks pulled a scrap of parchment from her bag and pushed it toward Hermione.
Hermione took the parchment and examined it intently. The formula fragment was amazingly complex and deeply layered. She could almost see the different strands of overlapping magic woven into the equation.
"Malfoy couldn't have come up with this," Hermione said dismissively. "So who did?"
Ron quirked his eyebrow, surprised for an instant before shaking his head ruefully. "I keep forgetting who you are and what you can do…the fragment was delivered from an address in Croatia. It took the better part of three months to track the sender; Kresimir Miroslav."
Hermione's eyebrows arched. "Miroslav? Are you certain?"
"The slimy git is a hard one to get a hold of, that's for certain," Tonks snorted. "We managed to "detain" him and verify that he sent the fragment. It seems that he didn't receive his final payment from Malfoy, and to stir up trouble, he tried to set the Ministry wolves on his client's heels anonymously."
Hermione looked thoughtful as Ron took over the narrative. "He's hinted at some disturbing things when we questioned him. Namely that Voldemort isn't likely to be dead at all; that he was planning something big that required the draining of several witches and wizards of their innate magic. Remember the twelve bodies they recovered from Little Hangleton just before we destroyed the Orrery?"
Hermione's lips flattened as she nodded. Ron hesitated then for a long moment, his face reflecting both regret and anger before continuing.
"The Voldemort-isn't-dead comment alone has the current Minister of Magic almost jumping at his own shadow," Ron said flatly. "It's bumped up the priority of my 'personal investigation' into what really happened to Harry during the final encounter with Voldemort several notches. The Minister doesn't want to be caught looking like another Fudge, so he's taking this information seriously and wants to know if there is any truth in it."
Tonks sighed and shook her head. Moody just grabbed his belt flask and took a long swig of its contents. Hermione got the impression neither of the pair bought into the paranoia of the Minister.
"The level of the runic magics is deemed to be especially high, and the resources of the Department of Mysteries are still depleted from Voldemort's last assault on the Ministry. I have the only researcher capable of translating and interpreting the other parts of the spell, and she recommended bringing this to you for your analysis and to request your assistance," Ron shot her a hopeful glance.
Hermione was rather impressed by Ron's recitation. It was unlike him to be so concise as well as knowledgeable about things outside of chess or Quidditch to her recall. She supposed that she wasn't the only one who had changed in the four years since they had lost Harry and went their separate ways.
Hermione turned back to the parchment and after a long moment, she pushed it back to Tonks. "I can't say much about it at present, other than to tell you that it's a complex bit of work. Without the elements that belong on either side of this fragment… well, this could mean several different things. I don't see how I can help you. There are more than enough capable freelance Rune Interpreters in Europe that the Ministry can tap, so have them take this apart for you." Tonks looked distressed at Hermione's refusal, while Moody remained inscrutable.
"We have quite a bit of the work salvaged from Malfoy's estate, but Miroslav told us that this section was the ‛most critical part of the abstraction'. But if it's too much for you to figure out…," he trailed off meaningfully.
Hermione smiled thinly as she shook her head. "Nice try. It's not a question of the importance of the section that's the issue; it's the context, Ron. I would need everything that you have regarding the spell, front and back. This fragment is useless without the rest."
Ron looked mutinous for a moment. "Can't you at least take a crack at it?"
"I have work of my own to accomplish here, Ron. I can't simply put it aside for something as ephemeral as this quest of yours. Frankly, why should I?" Hermione answered.
"Because it's for Harry!" Ron spat. "Because we owe it to him to find out what happened to him. I shouldn't need to remind you of that! He was our best friend, or have you forgotten that?"
Hermione closed her eyes for a moment. "Not a day goes by that I don't think of him, Ron. You, of all people, should understand that implicitly now."
Ron's cheeks flushed a bit as he snapped his mouth shut and glowered. Hermione was a bit surprised that he left the subject so readily. It wasn't like him to be so temperate any more than it was for him to be so confident in his recitation of facts.
Moody leaned back in his chair with a foot propped against the table leg. His appearance was more than relaxed than Tonks or Ron, which brought a question to Hermione's mind.
"Professor - er, Mr. Moody, I thought you were retired from the Aurors corps? Why are you here, if I may ask?"
Moody's magical eye ceased spinning for a moment and focused with his normal eye. "Hmph, was recalled for this operation. Question of contacts and experience," he muttered before raising his flask to take another swig.
The whistle of the teapot on the stove cut through the quiet that fell after Moody's reply and Hermione left the table to fetch the tea service.
That evening dragged for Hermione. The uncomfortable atmosphere lingered from the earlier conversation and even Jamie's sunny nature caused no lightening of the tension. Her guests had set loose some of the ghosts from her past and she felt their chilly presence in back of her mind.
Hermione knew that Jamie enjoyed company and new things to interact with and felt more than a touch guilty; there had been little time for such in their lives of late. That would have to change for Jamie's sake, she promised herself.
Tonks was the most at ease with the little boy, and happily changed her features and hair colors at Jamie's whim, while Moody was distant for the most part, and shrugged off Jamie's fascination with his appearance. The older man's changeless demeanor and appearance provoked Hermione to wonder if he ever changed or would simply expire someday in the same trench coat and dragon leather pants. Ron had been short, and said little to either Hermione or her son, and Jamie kept his distance from the red-headed Auror in response.
Sending her guests off to bed was a relief for Hermione, even though that meant it was time to get Jamie bathed and into bed. On the best of days, that was a challenge; at the end of an over-stimulated day, it was positively Herculean. After two rounds of chasing around the townhouse, a very wet escape from the tub, three bedtime stories, a glass of milk, and indecision about which stuffed animal was now his favorite, Jamie at last fell asleep.
Hermione felt like she'd been trampled by a herd of hippogriffs and wanted nothing more than to sleep as soundly as her son. Instead she found herself sitting at the dining room table, trying to pull secrets from a tattered bit of parchment.