Chapter 2

Chapter 2 – Blood Brothers

The door knocked again.

Every head snapped in Hermione’s direction. She knew she was as pale and concerned as the rest of them. She tried to stay calm.

“I thought you said no-one else was coming!” hissed Susan Bones.

“And didn’t you make the place Unplottable? You usually do,” added Justin.

“Of course I did,” Hermione snapped back. “And there isn’t anyone else coming. Or at least -“

The door knocked a third time. This one more hurried than the last.

“I’m going to open it.”

“No, Minny…it could be dangerous,” moaned Susan.

“I’ll open it, if you like,” Luna offered breezily.

“No, its my flat, I’ll go,” said Hermione rising from the table. “Better clear this away, though.”

She swept her wand, somewhat sadly, over the still glowing pentagram. She felt like she was sweeping Harry away with it. Had he been that close? Had he almost…

Another knock. An impassioned series of thumps this time.

Hermione made her way to the door and peered through the glass. She hadn’t realised how tense her shoulders were till she eased them slightly and opened the door.

“It’s okay,” she said to the others. “It’s just Jimmy.”

A squat, barrel-chested young man entered the room. Hermione didn’t know Jimmy Peakes all that well. He’d once played Beater for Harry’s Gryffindor Quidditch team. But these days he was employed as Ernie Macmillan’s PA. In truth, he was more of a bodyguard. He was strained and sodden from the heavy rainfall outside.

“Yes, it’s me,” he said gruffly, shaking his wet mane like a shaggy dog as he crossed the threshold. “But it isn’t okay. Ernie’s dead.”

Hermione threw her hands to her mouth to catch her gasp. Behind her, she heard the shatter of glass where Justin had closed his fist around his wine, which was now spilling out across the table. Parvati and Padma hugged as tears fell from them both. Susan was too shocked to even move.

“You’re certain?” asked Luna, who was as pale as her hair.

Jimmy nodded. He was furiously angry, and the hurt was etched into his face at the death of his friend. “Malfoy did him personally. And when I say personal…I mean it had a ‘hands-on’ sort of feel.”

“Cunting Malfoy,” Justin hissed.

“Yes, yes, we all hate the blonde twat,” said Jimmy impatiently. “But Ernie had gone to Alan to warn about Seamus. I suppose you’ve heard. He’s dead, too. He didn’t survive the interrogation.”

More tears fell. Even Luna broke down. This, somehow more than the others, shook Hermione to her core.

“Seamus gave you up,” Jimmy went on. “He didn’t have a choice. He did it to save Alan. It didn’t work. Section 7 took him in, too. We can all guess how his night is going.”

“What do you mean gave us up?” asked Susan.

“He told Malfoy about this meeting,” said Jimmy. “He knew already, just didn’t know where it was. Now he does. Commandant Weasley confirmed to him about the flat. He gave him access to its location. They have a warrant for Hermione’s arrest. They’re coming.”

“Ron turned her in?!” Susan cried. Hermione shifted as she waited for the response, her skin tingling and flecked with icy spikes.

“Oh, he’s been waiting for a chance,” Peakes explained. “Now she can be used in the new Lower Blood restraint protocols.”

“I’ve heard about those,” said Justin. “What do they do?”

“Spells to restrict movement, tracking charms, muting charms to stop her speaking to anyone Ron doesn’t grant explicit permission to do so with,” Peakes began, pausing as the anger levels rose in the room. “There are rumours of a blinding jinx, which means Hermione wont be able to physically see anyone Ron doesn’t allow her to. She can expect a whole web of mental and memory charms on top of that. Your mind wont be your own for long.”

“Where are they?” Hermione asked, shivering inside her jumper.

“By now, they should be turning into your street,” said Peakes blithely.

“Out! Now! All of you,” Hermione commanded. “They cant do anything if they don’t catch you here.”

“I’m not leaving,” said Susan firmly. “Don’t even -“

“Sue…go, just go,” said Hermione fiercely. “I’ll be alright.”

Susan took one last, despairing look at Hermione, hugged her briefly then apparated away just as the Floo glowed acid green as the Patils vanished into the fireplace. Justin stood next, took Luna in his arms and spirited them away before the girl had any chance to protest.

“You too, Jimmy,” said Hermione. “It isn’t safe.”

“I’ll go, but not before I deliver you my message.”

“What message?”

“The one Ernie told me as he died in my hands,” said Peakes, fury warring with grief in his stern eyes. “He said ‘help will always be given…to those Gryffindors who ask for it’. He said you’d know what it meant.”

It couldn’t be. It was impossible. Despite the doubt, Hermione’s heart thrummed softly in a way it hadn’t done in five years.

She took a calming breath. “Thank you, Jimmy. I think I understand.” Over his shoulder, Hermione’s Foe-Glass darkened. “Now go!”

Peakes apparated away just as the door was powerfully kicked in. Draco Malfoy stepped across the threshold, his eyes red and burning in his slit-like sockets. He looked part-reptile these days. The ritual blood magic used to force a Subservience Bond with Lord Voldemort often led to physical transformations in the host. It was rumour heavy that Malfoy had been spliced with a kimodo dragon. It would explain his unnaturally broad shoulders and forked tongue.

Ron was yet to have his own bonding ceremony. They hadn’t made it down as far as the ‘W’s’ in the list of those in the direct service of the Dark King. Hermione felt physically sick every time she thought about that impending day. It was coming soon, she was sure of that. She dreaded to think what sort of animal Ron would be unnaturally bound with. He was bad enough as a human.

“Granger,” Malfoy hissed as he slithered towards her. His entourage of eight, combat dressed agents entered the room and fanned out around Hermione, all with wands drawn and ready. “Party for one, is it?”

“This is my property, Malfoy. I’m not breaking any laws.”

Malfoy raised a thin eyebrow. “Disappearing to a pre-Marital home without the express permission of your truly wedded Lord? You’re skirting the borders there, Granger.”

Draco Malfoy always called her exclusively by her maiden name. A reminder of her origins. Her low-born origins. She didn’t like to be reminded too often. The thought cut to her, tormented her about the lost past. They’d not even let her say goodbye to her parents, the last of that name, whose bodies were now wallowing in one of the mass graves of the Muggle-born Bearers.

“Last time I checked, I was allowed to come and go relatively as I please,” Hermione argued. Fear roiled in her belly. Draco’s eyes terrified her nearly as much as Voldemort’s own.

“Relatively,” Draco repeated in sneer. “Lord Weasley is always too lax with you. I’m sure his consorts are granted fewer freedoms than you.”

If that was true she pitied those silly bitches even more than before. Having Ron stick his small, ginger cock into one or another of them on a regular basis seemed harsh enough. At least she got to leave the house. Hermione shuddered but steadfastly returned Malfoy’s stare.

“What do you want, Malfoy?”

“Word has it that you’re hosting your annual lets-cry-over-that-cunt-Potter-being-dead get together here,” said Malfoy slickly. “I don’t know why I’ve never been invited, you know. I love celebrating that pricks’ death. This is easily my favourite day of the year. On a par with the birth of my firstborn.”

Hermione winced at his words. The twisted truth behind them, the pain of her own memories. She blinked back tears she would not shed.

Malfoy stalked around her. “I can see why Lord Weasley keeps you around,” he said appraisingly. “You have one hell of an arse on you. Not that I’d ever touch you, so don’t get your hopes up. You’re a Mudblood. I wouldn’t fuck you with another man’s dick. But Weasley isn’t the prettiest. Beggars cant be choosers. But, still, that’s an arse to be reckoned with. In another world, eh, Mudblood.”

Hermione dry heaved. Malfoy stepped close, that forked tongue flicking hot spit at her ear. Terror and utter revulsion consumed her. She felt something shift inside. It was dizzying. She daren’t pass out. Malfoy may have been a zealous blood-supremacist but others weren’t so picky when faced with a free-to-rape female form.

The air shifted again, even Malfoy noticed it. His spiky blond hair perked up as though statically charged. He looked curiously around, unalarmed, but aware of something nearby. Something distinctly feral. And angry. Oh yes, it was angry. A fury that had physical form. Or form of some kind. Hermione couldn’t honestly pin down what it was. It was as if the very wind around them was about to throw a tantrum.

Then the coin against her chest burned furiously hot. But she felt not an ounce of pain. She clutched it tightly and scrunched her eyes together.

Help me, Harry.”

Malfoy was taut, as animals are before a storm. He hadn’t heard Hermione’s unspoken plea. But someone had. A sudden flash of fire above her head drew everyone’s attention. It yielded a huge phoenix, far bigger than Hermione could ever remember Fawkes had been. Its rich plumage was deep red, gold and emerald green. It called out in song so beautiful that it brought tears to Hermione’s eyes, and so terrible that Malfoy and his agents fell to their knees in agony, clutching at their ears.

Then there was a new sound, equally terrifying. It was a roar so guttural, so furiously angry that it shook the windows of the flat. A truly animalistic snarl smashed the air from behind them and Hermione looked around in utter shock as a gigantic lion crashed through the open door and began indiscriminately slashing huge, razor-clawed paws at the cowering agents, snapping one of their arms between its powerful jaws and ripping it clean off. Blood flashed from the wound and spread out in an astonishing pool.

The lion looked up at Hermione in that moment, its eyes locked intently on hers. Emerald green, startling to behold. Familiarity and understanding flared between them. The lion dropped the severed arm and mewled lowly at the phoenix, who responded with another quavering note of untold beauty, before its talons curled into Hermione’s jumper and whipped her away in a swirl of fire, as the lion bared its razor-sharp teeth again.

‐——

When the flames died, Hermione found herself in a very cold, shadowy circular room. The phoenix had not reappeared with her. Wherever she had been deposited, she was quite alone. She stood slowly, gingerly. Her knees were slightly weak and her thighs trembled against the cold air. There was low lying mist, no more than ankle level. There were no windows, no roof that Hermione could discern. It might have been a prison.

But Hermione didn’t feel that.

She couldn’t have said why, but she felt quite safe here. Calm, despite the drama of her exit from the flat. The walls and floor seemed to hum with subdued energy. It seeped up through her shoes, warmed her skin. There was something comforting about it. It was all very confusing.

A door opened in the darkness and a robed wizard entered. Hermione held her breath for only a second. It wasn’t Harry, she could tell that from his walk and posture. Sure, it had been five years, but his body shape was all wrong. This wizard was a bit too rounded, where Harry was wiry and angular in all his motions. The wizard approached her, stopping barely a few feet away. Hermione only then realised she was on a raised platform of sorts, a circular elevation at the centre of the room, sort of like a stage.

The wizard spoke. “Hello, Hermione.”

Hermione’s breathing literally stopped for a full ten seconds. “Neville! Neville Longbottom?? Is that you under there?”

“Yes, Hermione, it’s me.”

He threw back his hood. But in the dark, Hermione still couldn’t really see him. She remembered how he looked last, startled and surprised as he beheaded Voldemort’s snake, only to mysteriously vanish himself as the Dark Lord advanced on him. Hermione had thought him to be long dead.

“How is this possible? How are you still alive?” she whispered. Her breath rose as hot steam in front of her. “Can I at least see your face?”

“You haven’t stopped being full of questions then,” Neville quirked. “It’s comforting to know that, despite everything, you’re still under there somewhere.”

“Let me see you, Neville. Please.”

As if in answer to her request, the phoenix exploded into the air above them in an arc of golden flame. Torches crackled into life all around the room, drenching them in warmth and light. Neville drew his wand and deftly conjured two squashy armchairs at the centre of the raised platform, beckoning Hermione to sit as the phoenix soared above them. It circled her as she sat, before coming to a graceful rest on her knee.

“Oh!” Hermione whispered in surprise as the phoenix let a silvery tear fall onto her heavily bruised thigh, before pushing its head under her jumper and letting another fall against her cracked rib. Both healed instantly in a rush of warm energy. Neville stepped forwards, regarding them both with a highly amused look. But there was anger there, too. A very base sort of hatred for whoever had caused her injuries.

“How curious,” he mused. “I see you’ve met Lily.”

“Lily,” Hermione repeated.

The phoenix cocked her head and looked deeply into Hermione’s eyes. She felt pity and concern flood at her from the beautiful bird, who sung another swooning note. Hermione felt it vibrate in her ribs, in her very soul. She choked back a sob, one of intense relief. She felt something break inside, or maybe it was being healed. She wasnt certain. She wanted to hug the bird, but she settled on a gentle smooth of her lushly-feathered head. The phoenix trilled in contentment.

Then Hermione’s breathing hitched, as understanding struck hard. “Lily… Neville is…is this Harry’s phoenix?”

Neville smiled warmly. He nodded. Lily sung out again in joy at the mention of her master. Hermione felt certain she would faint at the news. She gripped the armrest of her chair to keep from falling off, gripped so hard her knuckles turned white. “Named after his mum, obviously. And she clearly likes you. This is curious bordering on the bizarre.”

“You’re telling me,” Hermione agreed, struggling to maintain her composure.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” said Neville, still eyeing them with acute interest. “Lily has never gone to another person as far as I know. Never allowed another to even pet her. Not even me. Truth be told, I’m a little bit upset by this display.”

He grinned wryly. Hermione, who was unsure of this phantom vision from her past, was glad to see his soft humour. It stilled her stirring worry. She returned his smile as he sat opposite her. It allowed her to get a proper look at him. He looked unspeakably older. Far more than the five years that had passed since they’d last met. His eyes were darker, not just physically but in an undefinable element of his stare, which he now fixed on Hermione. It was like meeting an estranged twin rather than an old friend.

“So this…I mean, she…does belong to Harry?”

Neville nodded, grinning at the look of disbelief she could only imagine now crossing her face.

“Then…is he alive?”

Neville’s face went stony, neutral. Hermione imagined this as a reflex to the question, as though it weren’t his first time deflecting it. But he seemed stumped in the face of her, as though somehow she required a different answer to his stock response.

“Neville, please. Is Harry alive?”

Neville sighed. “Yes. Yes he is.”

A cry escaped Hermione’s throat. Tears stung at her eyes. She was powerless to stop them.

“How? How can that be?” she begged. “I saw him die. We all did. What did I see, Neville?”

“You saw Harry after he was cursed by that dumb cunt Tom Riddle,” said Neville harshly. Hermione had never seem him as angry and militant as this. “It’s a curse that half-dead snake fucker will sorely regret, trust me. When Harry gets his hands on him…”

Neville tailed off and closed his eyes. The look of enjoyment at whatever it was he was envisaging made something stir in Hermione’s chest. She swatted it down. She didn’t want to invite that into her mind. It felt teasingly like hope.

“So where is he?” Hermione asked. She looked around, half-expecting him to stride out of the shadows. “Can I see him?”

“You have seen him. As for where he is, I think, at about this time, he’s probably moping up what remains of Mr Malfoy’s entourage,” said Neville, dryly.

Oh my god. Hermione tried to process the information. It flowed over her like a tide of gritty sand. She had suspected it at the flat, but to have it confirmed was something else.

“Harry was…he…animagus?”

Neville laughed aloud. “It was the first thing we learned together. Entry level process to higher level magic. Harry mastered it within eight months. I can barely change without feeling like my limbs are being torn apart.”

You are an animagi?” asked Hermione, immediately ashamed at her tone of surprise. Neville raised an eyebrow, but didn’t seem offended. “Sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s fine,” said Neville with another chuckle. “I only started to express my true magical potential after I broke my Dad’s wand and took my own. It took me years to catch up. Working so closely with Harry has certainly helped. He’s an extraordinary wizard. The things he’s doing with magic…”

“Nev…I have to see him,” Hermione moaned. “I’ve missed him so much. I cant believe he’s still alive. I’m aching not being able to tell him how much I’ve missed him.”

Neville sighed sadly. “You may never be able to tell him.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think Harry will actually consent to seeing you,” said Neville.

Hermione shifted in her seat. “Why not?”

Neville wrung his hands in his lap. “You have to understand, Hermione, Harry has changed. He’s…different. He’s pretty confident you wont like the new him. Also, he is pretty sure you wont want to see him. He’s terrifically guilty, you see. He thinks you hate him. He certainly hates himself.”

“For what?”

“For leaving you. For entrusting you to….”

Neville’s tone was laced with acidic hatred. Hermione was taken aback by it.

“To Ron?”

Neville hissed like someone had poured lime juice into an open wound. The room around them seemed to vibrate with anger and markings on the floor, which Hermione hadn’t noticed before, flared briefly in vivid colours. Even Lily spat viciously. Hermione sat back in shock.

“Do not mention his name around here,” Neville said darkly. “It’s enough to make Harry destroy a few research labs, a potions store and several endangered magical creatures. That’s on a good day.”

Hermione felt her mouth drop open. “Harry feels like…why, Neville?”

Neville shook his head at her. “For the brightest witch of our age, you are acting very dumb. In fact, you’re as stubborn as Harry on this issue.”

Hermione sat stock still as though petrified, though she couldn’t have said why. Neville took her silence as a further indication of her denseness.

“Harry wont thank me for saying this, but this is the only area in which he shows any sort of cowardess. So I suppose I’d better,” Neville began. “It would be doing my Blood Brother a disservice if I didn’t.”

“Blood Brother?”

“Yes, we performed a ritual,” said Neville. “We were both touched by the Prophecy. Riddle could have picked either of us. Fate had gifted us both with such a powerful basis of magic that either of us could have been the child of the prophecy. Riddle picked one, but that didn’t mean the other was diminished. Harry sought me out as soon as he could, as soon as he knew. We bonded through blood, we became more powerful as brothers and we declared Riddle a mortal enemy of us both. Seriously, that serpentine fuckwit has no idea what’s coming at him.”

Hermione was stirred again. It brought tears of excitement to her eyes. Neville wasn’t even in doubt. It might as well have been a foregone conclusion. He and Harry were going to do battle with and beat Voldemort. It would have been such a ludicrous idea a few hours ago, but Hermione found herself believing it.

So…this disservice?” she prompted.

Neville grinned at her. “Harry cares for you more deeply than you have ever, or likely will ever, know. Perhaps more deeply that he’d ever be able to confess to you. This isn’t new. He always has. But you know Harry, he’s still as stupid as ever where his emotions are concerned. Cant blame him, really. Our bond allowed us to share memories. Fuck me, Hermione. The abuse he had to put up with as a child. I’m surprised he formed even the most basic of relationships after that. Living in a fucking cupboard for eleven years…eleven years! What the fuck is that about?”

Hermione couldn’t answer that. The bottom had just fallen out of her world. Her anguish was agonising, she couldn’t process it. Harry had lived in a what…a cupboard?….Neville had to be wrong. Harry had never said a thing. And the emphasis Neville had put on abuse…Hermione knew all about that, it was part and parcel of her life. But to imagine Harry, as a young boy going through it…someone might as well have speared her heart.

But even within this wave of grief was something else. Neville’s earnest admission that Harry cared for her sparked something within her heart. She tried to swat it away. She wasn’t used to feeling such things. Being cared for, being liked….that belonged in a parallel universe.

“So why wont he see me?” she asked tentatively. “If he cares so much, as you say, he must still consider me a friend?”

“He doesn’t think you are his friend,” Neville explained. “Much of this is for Harry to say, not me.”

“But if he wont see me…”

“Then you’ll just have to accept his protection without ever seeing him,” said Neville flatly. “It might be the best you can hope for.”

“Neville, you really aren’t making any sense,” said Hermione. “Cant you at least explain what’s happened tonight?”

Neville scrutinised her. “Okay, maybe that I can do. It might help you understand the other things. To start with, Riddle didn’t kill Harry five years ago. Accept that, process it. Harry has spent the time since preparing himself to fight that Dark Bastard and beat him for good. He didn’t come back sooner because he couldn’t, but that’s for him to explain. But he didn’t know that you were suffering until recently. And he fucking hates himself for it. He thought that absolutely shitehawk Weasley would have protected you. He blames himself almost entirely for all that you’ve suffered. The only reason…I repeat, the only reason…he resurfaced tonight is because you were in danger. He came back because of you.”

Hermione felt herself fall apart at the admission. But Neville wasn’t done.

“They know it’s him. He’s just not surfaced in his form in such a direct confrontation before. But now they will know he’s back. We weren’t sure he was entirely ready. If you do see him…don’t hate him.”

“Why would I hate him? That’s nonsense!”

“Not in his mind, and – as I’ve shared it – not in mine either. He thinks he left you to your fate, he thinks that’s your opinion, too. It might be. It’s rational.”

“But where did he go for all these years? What happened to him?”

“That’s for him to tell you, if he ever decides to,” said Neville dismissively. “Harry doesn’t speak very much these days. I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”

“But he is alive,” she said, almost to herself. “Is he well? Healthy?”

Neville grinned and laughed. “He’s at war. Make of that what you will.”

Hermione’s heart ached. Harry was alive, he wouldn’t see her, but he was alive. It was worse in some ways. Hermione couldn’t get her head around the way the day had gone.

Then Lily the phoenix began to sing. It was a gorgeous aria. Hermione felt the song vibrate all through her body. It empowered her. She might as well have stuck her finger into a plug socket. She felt unreasonably happy as the beautiful bird sang on her knee. Sang to her, as bizarre as the notion seemed.

“Lily’s happy,” Hermione whispered to Neville. “I can feel it.”

“Well, of course she’s happy,” said Neville. “Harry’s home.”

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