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Apatija - "Cat and Mouse" - Hermione G. & Fleur D. - NC17

Publié dans Movies


Credit Apatija

Summarize : AU/femslash/violence, Hr/F There is something in the woods. Beautiful and cruel. A predator. Can Hermione save herself?

Authors Note: I would like to thank my girlfriend and beta for editing this. I would like to explain a little bit about the story before you delve into it. This is AU, Hermione is more in character than Fleur will be in this story, I have….. intensified her character lol I take another spin on the Veela species and show you what kind of characters you might end up with in a really difficult situation. This story takes place in the past, very distant past so I've changed how the Wizarding world looks. I hope you don't get turned off by the rather dark content. Please leave a review if you can, I'd appreciate it. I promise there will be romance in this story, just not a very typical romance. Who will seduce whom? The predator or the prey?

Disclaimer: I don't own anything JK Rowling laid claim to or copy righted. I only own this plot and any random people I might create.




Hermione turned her brown eyes upward, wishing for a moment of sun, a slight shift in the clouds to give her a glimpse of the rays that had never touched her. Sighing softly, she hopped off of the patio of her parents' home and walked through the long grass. Her absent-minded wandering eventually led her to the wooden fence that bordered her small village of Diagon. At this realization, she stopped abruptly and stared out into the darkened forest.

She was sure They were looking at her. But They only came out at night.

Her mouth went dry and her eyes were wide, trying to engorge themselves on the shifting leaves from the trees. It was almost obscene; an orgy of movement; a mockery of her imprisonment. The forest is their land; we shall not tread there for we are trespassers of their world. They could see her, she was sure of it, would they take her now? Or were they just playing a game, do they not need the night? At nightfall, They come to the village, stalking and hunting while the villagers hide in their homes. The poor fool who forgets to close their window shut tight or fails to make it home in time is found in the morning, scattered throughout the village. Hermione swallowed the bile rising in her throat as she recalled that poor boy, Oliver Wood.

A part of her dared Them to come out. It was not fair; she was a witch, she had magic that the human people were terrified of, so scared that they wanted all witches and wizards dead. But here they were, an entire village of wizards and witches cowering behind their doors at night, bred and dead in a cursed town. She was the brightest witch her age and had the potential to be the best witch of her town, but she could not leave this place and explore the world. She could not learn new things. The people were powerless and lost all because of Them and Their cruelty. No one even knew what They looked like or what powerful ability They had to render the town's magic absolutely useless against them. She was helpless and trapped, gaping at the forest that silently taunted and beckoned, whispering to her, promising her an entire world beyond its borders….

"Hermione…"

She flung herself backwards, away from the forest and howling in shock.

"Ack! Hermione I'm sorry!"

"Ronald Weasley!" She screamed in fury, trying to gather hold of her malfunctioning nervous system. "You idiot! Are you trying to kill me? How s-stupid!"

Ron watched her with slight amusement. It was rare to see the usually haughty, self-assured girl so flustered. But the amusement disappeared once he realized how mean he was to the girl he was courting, although unintentionally, in scaring the senses out of her so near the forest.

"I didn't mean to, I was actually trying not to scare you. You shouldn't be standing this close to the forest anyway! It's dangerous for a girl. Next time call me if you want to… do whatever it is you were doing" Blushing, he offered her a hand.

She groaned at his words and got up, ignoring the proffered hand, unwilling to admit this was mostly because her fingers hurt from stiffness and were covered in a cold sweat. Clearly, she had been standing in front of the forest for far too long, her hands clenched and body rigid.

"It's morning, They only come out at night. I'm perfectly capable of standing here without any male supervision! And I know more magic than you do, so what use would you be to me in the first place?" She seethed. The look on his face was one of hurt and anger.

"Of course you wouldn't need male supervision! You should be providing male supervision for real girls!" he snarled, turning abruptly away from her.

Hermione flinched at his words and chased after him as he swiftly walked away from her. Damn his long legs, she cursed, jogging to catch up.

"Wait Ron! Wait. I'm sorry, I'm just so…. frustrated." She grabbed his robes to make him stop and wrapped her arms around him from behind. "Just… aren't you ever… maybe… a bit curious?"

He turned to face her, looking confused. It was a familiar expression of his; she often puzzled him. For the first three years of knowing each other she was certain it was the natural state of his face. Sometimes she wondered if she would ever come across a face that was not confused or threatened by her presence.

"What do you mean curious? About… about the world outside our borders? Past-past the forest?"

She bit her lip guiltily. Ever since she was a little girl, she had absorbed information quickly, hunting for more knowledge; she had very little left to learn in her studies. There were, however, two mysteries she knew nothing about: what lay beyond the forest, and what rested within it. It was commonplace to wonder about the outside world, but no one was ever to even suggest finding out what these creatures were that terrorized the village. Their village was the only village that had true, physical manifestations of bedtime monsters and childhood rhymes. She recalled learning one popular song she learned in school as a child. Meant to caution the village children

They are coming, come to you

By the window callin'

Do not look, cause if you do,

They come a smilin'

They are coming, come to you

Take you to the forest

Do not look, cause if you do

Sleep your eternal rest

Avoid your window at night, do not peel back the cloth, and never peek. Her curiosity could kill her. She would have to be insane to even bring up such an issue. As much as she loved Ron, she wasn't prepared to tell him of her restlessness, of her need to escape the stunted village of Diagon. Especially her obsession with Them.

"Yes… that's all really, I've just been preoccupied with things and I'm rather bored lately. I suppose it's making me restless and I'm finding that the forest is frustrating me. What I wouldn't give to just know what lies beyond the woods."

"Oh! But the festival will be soon! You'll get all dressed up! I'll even dance with you this year. I got Ginny to teach me a little bit. You know I think Harry is interested in her. Father and mother approve, even if he is an orphaned boy and doesn't make much money. All that work for the family has paid off. Mother still wishes he would improve his magic though…" She gave him a wan smile as he enthusiastically recanted the latest village gossip and walked her to the main square for food.

In the forest, She smiled.



She was the smartest witch in her school. Having learnt to read and write at roughly three years old, she was a prodigy, already ahead of her class before class had even begun. Unfortunately, the era was not one in which women were treated equally with men. Even in a slightly more progressive society in the small but ever growing magical world, women were second class citizens. The isolation and fear surrounding the people of Diagon only led them to cling to tradition all the more. Sometimes Hermione thought she could smell it; the greasy, disgusting stench of fear.

"Miss. Granger! If you would please grace us with your attention?"

Hermione jumped in her seat, unaware she had been dreamily staring out through the window, her glazed eyes fixated on the trees.

"I'm sorry Ms. McGonagall, what is it you were saying?" Hermione blushed, trying to seem innocent.

"Oh no, don't let me disturb you young lady. I am only trying to teach you how to transfigure an inanimate object into an animate object. Clearly you have no need for my teachings. Would you please kindly stand up here madam and demonstrate your perfected skills?"

There was soft snickering throughout the small classroom. All girls of course; the boys had their own section of the school, with larger rooms. Hermione got up from her seat and walked over to McGonagall's desk, feeling more alert. She inwardly debated over how to handle the situation: to do whatever McGonagall asked for correctly, and have everyone including McGonagall more jealous and angry, or to fail at the task and be ridiculed?

"I want you to change this apple into a bird. More specifically, change it into a crow." She placed a green apple onto her scratched and worn wooden desk. Stepping back from the table, McGonagall watched Hermione with a critical eye.

Hermione stared at the apple and suddenly found it hard to breathe. She knew how to change the damn apple into a crow. She had known for two years. All the books in the village (what few of them there were), she had read and memorized by the time she turned sixteen. And now, gazing at that apple, she realized there was nothing more to her life. The people were afraid to experiment, afraid to test the limitations placed on them by the beings in the woods. Every attempt in the past only led to death and destruction. She was chained down, succumbing to the fear of the village.

With her jaw clenched, she reached into her pocket and took out a piece of chalk. She drew some intricate symbols around the apple and muttered a long string of incantations. Each student needed to carry a knife on their person at all times. This is because all spells required a bit of blfood to help ease magic from the spell caster into the living world. There were strict rules and the harshest of punishments for anyone causing harm to another with a knife. The knife's purpose was only for spells. Hermione gripped the intricately carved wooden handle carefully as she pricked her left finger and let it drip onto the chalk marks.

The class watched as the apple slowly turned black, contorted its shape and grew larger. Feathers sprouted and the shape finally took on a crow's after a little over three minutes. Hermione really wished they had a more efficient way of casting spells, one that wouldn't require blood-letting, complicated writing, and long drawn incantations. The mad-woman living just next to the wooded borders, Trelawney, would frequently rant and ramble about various things she claimed would happen in the future. To everyone's amusement she predicted that the wizarding world would one day use sticks to point at things and cast spells. Absolutely ridiculous. Why not suggest the wizarding world take to wiggling their noses to cast magic?

"Very well Granger, you have proven yourself yet again. Take your seat."

The class was silently glaring at Hermione as she walked over to her seat. She could overhear Pansy Parkinson whisper to Lavender "Little Miss Perfection. A pity someone like her would never forget to close the window."

Lavender stifled her laughter. "You're terrible Pansy! That's just mean!" but even her shock didn't stop her fit of giggles.

Hermione scowled to herself and went back to staring out the window. If an outsider ever could get past the forest and enter the village, they would be very confused about the carvings around the windows and doors of all the buildings. The complex symbols on the inner and outer frames would certainly give them away for witchcraft. Almost everyone in Diagon was too grateful for their protective qualities to actually question whether it was morally acceptable to have cast those protective spells at the lives of others... Hermione swallowed hard, trying not to feel sick. They needed a lot of blood to cast protective spells over all the buildings. The wizarding world was more progressive than the human one, but the fear was so palpable back then that they quickly regressed. The blood of the elderly and disabled was… harnessed. But that happened such a long time ago, so long ago, that people had forgotten the origins of their protection, or perhaps finally felt they could ignore the past. They were now praising the dead for having willingly and courageously given their lives for the protection of the village. But Hermione read all the texts, including what few journals they had. There was no willing sacrifice.

She jumped, startled to hear class was over. Headmaster Lockhart was already ringing the bell. "Ms. Granger, if you might please wait here after class?"

The whole room burst into delighted sniggering. One stern look from McGonagall sent them skittering away but Hermione was hurting inside. Why did she have to be so damn different? She may as well have been born in the human world and burned at the stake just to get it over with.

She walked up to her teacher's desk for the second time that day. "Yes Ms. McGonagall?"

Minerva McGonagall waited until all her students left earshot before turning to Hermione. To Hermione's surprise, the older woman's gaze was soft and sympathetic.

"I know it must be difficult for you Hermione. You're quite possibly the smartest witch in our village." She paused, a far off look on her face. "You are not the only one you know, to struggle and suffocate in this village. We all want our freedom, especially those who have talent… This place…. changes us all. Do you understand Hermione?"

She looked at her teacher with newfound respect. It is possible that McGonagall would have been a kinder, gentler person were she in another place; a place where horror wasn't commonplace. It struck her how similar she and McGonagall were.

"When I was a young girl, and I was young once," she smiled a little, taking years off her face and making her far more approachable "I found it difficult to make friends. That's what happens when you're exceptional. You stand out and apart. It's a difficult life. However… I know what it is that consumes you." Her eyes narrowed and darkened.

Hermione suddenly felt flustered, caught in a guilty act. McGonagall turned and looked over to the window. The dark forest was shifting in the wind, a storm was coming. People would be hiding in their homes early tonight, because Their call was powerful in the rain.

"You mustn't go there. You must not test yourself. Far more powerful wizards have tried and failed. Don't give in to temptation and curiosity. It will be the death of you. Whatever They are, there is no mercy. No one is safe, neither children nor women. If you truly wish to help us find freedom, you need to wait patiently." She watched Hermione's expression close. "Please Hermione, finish your schooling and join the tribal members in their spell casting. I hear they are looking at transportation spells…"

Her feeble attempt to exorcise Hermione's demons fell flat. McGonagall was an intelligent woman, but where was she? Teaching the young how to spell cast. She did nothing to contribute to the tribal members efforts, how could she? The only woman in that group was Dolores Umbridge. The men in the village had all the power and were allowed to do anything and everything vital to Diagon. Hermione Granger would not be a school teacher. She also had no intention of helping the tribal members with transportation spells, should they have asked her. They had no idea what they were doing. In their first and only attempt, they trained Cedric Diggory to cast their transportation spell. The idea was to cast the same spell and transport himself back. To everyone's horror, he never transported back, and for a good few minutes, they could hear his voice screaming in agony near the spot where they conducted the spell. No one knew where he went and no one really wanted to know. Another wizard was dead, or so they hoped.

But she couldn't let McGonagall know this. It was dangerous to acknowledge the hypocrisy and flaws within the village. Hermione deeply believed that in any other circumstance, in another world, she could trust this woman. Yet it was impossible to do so now, when fear had tainted her. Or was Hermione herself tainted?

She forced a little smile "Please don't worry Ms. McGonagall. I am full of fanciful thoughts lately, I blame the festival" She blushed at her own attempt to behave like one of those other silly girls. McGonagall bought it.

"Very good! Of course you should be mindful not to do anything inappropriate… you're with the Weasley boy yes? He's a good boy. You need to have more fun Ms. Granger!"

Hermione's smile became genuine. Although she had difficulty trusting McGonagall, the woman cared enough to talk to her.

"Of course I would never do anything inappropriate. Thank you for talking to me."

"Not a problem. Now off you go… you need to get home quickly. The storm is going to come soon…" There was a flicker of fear in those eyes.

Hermione nodded and grabbed her satchel full of books. McGonagall herself left everything on her desk and quickly took to leaving. A part of Hermione felt her teacher might have walked her home to make sure she didn't do anything stupid but their homes were in completely opposite directions. Fend for yourself first.

By the time she got out of school the rain was pouring. Her normally bushy hair was matted on her head. The cobblestone streets were slippery so she had to trudge sloppily through the muddy grass. She shielded her eyes from the downpour, trying not to lose her way. Diagon was fairly large. Houses tightly packed in the center but more spaced out the closer to the forest. Her own home was nearest to the forest. The houses were covered in carvings from old useless spells and newer more effective protective charms. The basic charms for every house were spells to fortify the house physically, block natural disasters, and silencing spells. The tribal members gave everyone clear rationales for needing those spells.

The tribal members have been alive since the village's origin. It was an unnaturally long life that most people believed were a result of the battle with the Dark Lord. Something in that fight prolonged their lives so they could live decades after most would have passed, except for Dumbledore, whom historical documents say was killed by Them shortly after the village developed. The tribal members had the most experience with Them. The majority of historical documentation on Diagon was written by the tribal members, who consist of five people: Dolores Umbridge, Bartemius Crouch, Lucius Malfoy, Horace Slughorn, and Cornelius Fudge. Since they had the most contact with the forest creatures, their word was law. They were also the most powerful and educated people in the village, although Hermione didn't understand their secrecy. Surely it would have benefitted everyone if the tribal members stopped hoarding spells and information. But who was she, a girl of seventeen, to criticize the activities of the town's heroes?

They told everyone that the creatures had the ability to wield fire, wind and water. Clearly the houses needed protection from these natural forces. The beings were known to call to people, like Sirens, or mentally break them down by creating ungodly noise, so they needed homes that nullified those sounds. These were things that no one had first-hand knowledge of. The spells that covered the houses against those attacks were created shortly after the time of the battle with the Dark Lord. There was only one spell that everyone had experienced with Them. Whatever the creatures were, They were strong. A fool who left their home at night would be pulp in the morning. Some were full grown men, completely shredded and spread along the village like fertilizer. The physical fortifications of every building was necessary. Even the barnyards, few that there were, were covered in spells. Pomona Sprout made the mistake of leaving the door open to her barnyard once and all they could find were smears of blood. Everyone deduced that the animals must have been killed and fully eaten.

Hermione smiled wryly. At least They don't eat us, that would be terrible… Feeling morose, she slowed her pace, but almost missed Draco's presence. Stopping abruptly, she turned to see Draco Malfoy standing in the field, facing the forest. Hermione was nearly home and she normally would have walked by the smug younger Malfoy, but he was acting strangely.

"Malfoy? Are you alright?"

The blonde boy didn't respond, his body relaxed and seemed completely unaware of her presence.

"Malfoy… what are you doing? It's absolutely wretched out here! And it's nearly nightfall. Get away from the borders and go home." Hermione walked over to him, annoyed and nervous. When she finally reached him and saw his face her nerves turned to panic. He was slack jawed, eyes glazed and an expression of… euphoria?

"Malfoy…" she murmured softly. Hermioned touched his shoulder lightly but he didn't register it. She knew that all she had to do was hit him. He wasn't the first person to find Their call more powerful in the rain. It had to do with the water. People would stare into the forest with a deranged look on their faces before they finally trekked over the boundary never to return, or to return in pieces the following morning. Hermione Granger never broke the rules. Never took risks. Hermione Granger, turned to face the forest.

With the rainfall, the trees shimmered and shined. The leaves no longer danced with the wind but shook violently, aggressively. The space between the trees was darker. Hermione felt herself relax, it was so beautiful in spite of its ominous movement. There was something… sinful about the trees, the noise of the water hitting the leaves was rage itself. The forest was alive and furious, but so unbelievably enticing at the same time. Her breath became shallow, eyes half lidded, as the rain suddenly felt like an intimate caress along her body. Her clothes stuck to her skin creating a lovely friction that excited her. She didn't feel chilly, she felt flustered.

She hungered.

This is wrong, this is bad.

She had to go to the forest.

No. The forest is deadly.

Her body trembled with a deep and teasing pleasure. No one touched her except the rain. No one to see except the forest.

No, They are in the forest…

But They needed her. She could feel it. It was important to go to Them. She was loved in the forest, she was wanted in the forest. The forest –

She nearly jumped out of her skin as Malfoy suddenly crossed in front of her. He was running to the woods!

"NO!" She screamed violently as she pounced on him with all her might. They tumbled into the mud, Malfoy sputtering.

"Agh! What are you doing Granger! Get off of me!" He shoved her to the side, red in the face with embarrassment.

"You almost ran into the woods!"

"Don't be an idiot Granger, I would do no such thing. I certainly wouldn't be stupid enough to let myself stare at the trees, let alone need the help of a halfwit girl like you!"

She glared at him, utterly furious. "You dare talk to me like that after I saved your life? Good riddance to you, the next time you do something so foolish! I won't be there to save you and you can find your own way out of the forest!" She scathingly threw back at him, turning around and running back to her own home.

Her feet dug into the soft wet earth and slid but she managed to get home in one piece. She quickly bypassed her parents and entered her bedroom, panting and gasping for air. Hermione's emotions were tumultuous. For years everything had been so boring and stagnant, nothing new and nothing interesting. She finally did something shocking, allowed herself to see the forest and let it entice her. She also felt lust as she had never felt it before. A strange lust directed at no one in particular. A deep blush spread over her face at the thought that somehow… the rain and woods were making love to her. But the forest didn't win. The question was, would the forest have won if Malfoy hadn't fortunately (unfortunately?) interrupted the spell weaved on her?

Hermione bit her lip and walked over to her spell covered window. Latching it closed and locking it tight. She gave the forest one last glance through the grimy glass, as nervousness settled in her heart. Such a powerful magic these creatures had. She closed the two overlapping burlap curtains. They were four inches longer than the window frame, which had many small hooks protruding around it so Hermione could effectively cover the window.

Her bedroom door was also covered in carvings, exactly the same as the spells around her window except for one extra spell: at night Hermione herself would be able to leave her bedroom but would not be able to enter any other room in the house. This was the same for every doorway in the house.

Twenty years ago Diagon endured the Longbottom massacre. Frank Longbottom must have looked outside his window and was ensnared by the forest beings. The problem was that he didn't exit through his window and die, he let them in. With no other barriers to the doors… the whole inside of the house was covered in their flesh. Everything was destroyed and everyone was dead. Hermione remembered her mother's warning.

"These creatures are ruthless, inhuman and sick. The Longbottoms made a mistake and paid for it dearly. It didn't take Them long, everyone was dead by morning and the house… was covered in… Their baby boy…" she choked "he… he was sleeping… he… in the end… he… was part of the house… They… They… Hermione, NEVER look through the window. Do you understand me?"

Hermione shuddered and began changing from her soaked clothes into her sleeping gown. Her parents called out to her and she promptly told them she was home safe and sound, trying to hide her guilt. Her underwear were completely ruined and not from the rain. She felt ashamed. It had felt so good, but it had to be the worst of evils. How do you fight something that makes you feel so good? In all her life she had never reacted so strongly to any man, not even Ron, and they had been seeing each other for three years. It was enough to make her want to lose her virginity… but these were the creatures that killed everything. There was no mercy. She suddenly felt sick to her stomach. Frank Longbottom probably died in lust.

Was it possible to defeat such creatures? They were strong, could manipulate the elements, and brought out peoples most animalistic urges. She feared Them. She was excited by Them. Worst of all, she wanted to test Them again.

She lay down on her tiny bed, weak and trembling. The rain pounded at her window, steadily and rhythmically.

Would Hermione dare test Them again?



Hermione had no time to think about the events that had happened by the forest. She was currently too busy enduring Ginny's incessant chatter and being forced into various dresses. The Festival was going to happen in three days and all the girls were shopping. It was one of the few times the whole village partook in celebrations. Although Hermione hated shopping, even she had to admit that the Festival brought her spirits up. Diagon had little to celebrate, but this Festival commemorated the defeat of the Dark Lord. Granted, if they hadn't defeated the Dark Lord near this area they wouldn't be stuck where they were now, but their ancestors expected to sacrifice a piece of themselves. They had to celebrate; their sacrifice saved the world.

Ginny led her around the town square, trying on various dresses and complaining about Harry Potter. Hermione didn't particularly care for Ginny; the girl was far more outgoing and popular than Hermione was, and she was younger. It hurt her already strained ego to know the red haired girl was loved by more people than Hermione, who had far more knowledge and potential. She could never understand why it wasn't enough that she was the smartest witch in her school. Part of her wished she could quickly find a solution to help Diagon, fantasizing herself as the heroine that all would come to love and adore.

"I really wish there was something he could do about his hair."

Hermione blinked, coming back to reality.

"Who?"

"Harry! Haven't you been paying any attention? He has got to have the worst mess of hair I've ever laid eyes on." Ginny rolled her eyes at Hermione. Certainly, if Ron were not courting Hermione, the youngest Weasley wouldn't waste her time with the brunette.

"Oh… sorry. I haven't been myself lately…" Ginny looked at her with some sympathy.

"Yes, well, what with the Festival and you almost finishing school, I guess you'd be rather distracted. Ron told me you needed a little fun and asked me to show you around."

Hermione felt wary of this sympathetic Ginny. For far too long she'd to defend herself against the cruelty of her peers. The whole village was laden with secrecy and fear, but it was hard having so many thoughts and worries that she could never share with anyone. Even if she couldn't tell Ginny about the forest and her strange sexual feelings, she did long for friendship.

"Yes, I'm sorry. I never did thank you for taking me around to shop. I know I've been rather uncooperative…" Hermione recalled that awful orange number Ginny tried to make her put on, "but umm how about I buy you something to eat to make up for it?"

Ginny perked up at this and grabbed Hermione's arm, dragging her to the nearest stand. The town center was carefully constructed; every stand was compact and on wheels so they could easily be transported to the storage building. The tables and chairs were also meticulously counted and marked so they would be quickly put into that same storage building, keeping track of items to make sure They couldn't cause damage. At night the village looked like a ghost town, just houses everywhere. In the day however, the area was lively. People sat, almost relaxed, as they ate and drank, talking animatedly with one another. The noise and company helped them forget, just enough to feel a bit normal. It was a form of rebellion against Them; to sit there and be regular people for a fleeting moment. It used to be enough for Hermione.

They picked a stand that sold sausages. Hermione wasn't a great fan of their sausages but she wanted to make up for irritating the redhead and she loved them. Just as Hermione began warming up to her and talked more freely, Ginny spotted some of her friends and invited them over. Immediately Hermione fell out of her comfort zone. The girls talked amongst one another, ignoring Hermione. Even Ginny lapsed into the habitual way others treated the brunette. It wasn't a new experience for Hermione but it still hurt. It would always hurt. She finished off her sausage and got up from her seat.

"I'm going to go Ginny; I need to do some things… I guess we can finish shopping some other time." Ginny nodded in her general direction then went back to their discussion on how annoying their teacher was.

Hermione left the town square but was still too uncomfortable about what had happened with the forest to wander off too close to the woods. Not that she should be seeking time alone with the forest in the first place… Instead she opted to take a stroll around the village. In her walk she spotted Draco Malfoy coming out of Bubbling Trouble, Diagon's popular pub, but he just threw her a dangerous look. Clearly, she wasn't going to be making friends with him. The look of disgust he gave her infuriated her, as if she was somehow dirty for having fallen for the same magic that he fell for! The two of them had both felt lust, had both wanted to go to Them. But it was she who repulsed him? She shot him a look that surpassed his own, so full of malice that he flinched and turned away from her. The bastard thought he was better than her because his father was one of the tribal members, but he fell for Them too. If anything, more easily than she had.

She clenched her jaw and strode away from him. Her footsteps led her to the Tribal Quarters; the place where the tribal members convene and initiate laws. The public was allowed to sit in on these meetings and make suggestions, though they generally sat quietly and listened. She had been to them as a little girl; for the most part they were quite boring, discussing what new kind of plant would be the theme for the latest party, or arguing about one person damaging another person's property. The most important policies had already been put into place, shortly after They appeared. However, there was one vicious period of time when the subtle, dormant fear permeating Diagon fully rose to the surface.

The human world would have quickly run out of resources after spending so many decades cloistered together in a village, as small as Diagon. Especially since the beings in the forest liked to come out and destroy everything that wasn't secure in a building. However, the wizarding world did have its advantages. With the help of potions, crops were capable of growing in dark, in the largest and most secure building in Diagon, protection from Them. Their potion resources had never dwindled since the war, the tribal members were careful of that. According to historical documentation, the people of Diagon were returning home from the war, the only group of people to have fought the war without wasting their resources. They were rich with potions supplies and farm animals. Then they became trapped in an enchanted forest teeming with evil beings that wanted them dead.

In Hermione's opinion, potions were the only trump card the wizarding world truly had. The runes and symbols were tediously slow to complete and difficult to memorize, but potions helped solve many problems far more quickly, although there was little variety in the plant life they utilized. It was still dangerous to experiment with potions; however, one man had excellent potions capabilities. Severus Snape had been the Potions Master. He had been the most knowledgeable and had actively helped defeat the Dark Lord. Some would say that without him, they would all be dead. The biggest shock to have ever hit Diagon: his execution.

The people in the room sat in hushed silence as they watched Severus Snape enter, his hands bound and mouth gagged. Hermione hated this place, it was hot and sweaty and disgusting. She was too young to fully understand why that man was there. He was forced to kneel before the tribal members, who watched him with disdain from behind their tall podium. Cornelius Fudge stood up from his seat, deep blue robes shifting:

"This man is charged with the high order of treason against Diagon; charged with consorting with the Enemy and charged with conspiracy to commit murder! The members have listened to a multitude of evidence against you, the witnesses and the vials containing potions meant to lift our protective charms, exposing all of Diagon to Them."

The people in the room were horrified. Weeks of deliberation had revealed that their once hero, Severus Snape, had ties to the Dark Lord. He was a double agent working against the citizens of Diagon this whole time. Somehow he was allied with Them, had been meeting with Them past curfew and planning to concoct a potion that would expose the people to the Forest. All they had was the belief that their homes would keep them safe, and this whole time Snape was plotting to leave them utterly defenseless against the demons in the woods. The fear turned to palpable rage:

"Kill the bastard!"

"Burn him!"

"Hang him by his treacherous throat!"

"There must be punishment! There must be consequence!"

People were jumping out of their seats, screaming with fury. They wanted his blood, his pound of flesh; he had to be snuffed out of existence!

"ORDER!" People paused, slowly regaining control over themselves. "Hem, hem. There must be order. We are not to turn into animals." The high pitched, slightly grating voice of Umbridge somehow broke through heavy the air.

Fudge nodded somberly, returning his attention to Snape once the cries died down and people sat rigidly in their seats.

"After careful deliberation, we the tribunal, find you guilty, of all charges."

Hermione flinched as everyone got up and started screaming again. She was scared and wanted her mum to hug her. The people were shouting too loud. But her mother was one of the people shouting, so she defensively crouched in her seat, hiding her bushy head from the angry people. She felt dizzy.

"The sentence is death!"

The screaming was so loud and so angry. Hermione watched as the greasy haired man, was lifted and forced down the walkway, their eyes connected. His expression was defiant and strong. His posture was proud and calm, although Hermione could see signs of pain in him; he limped and cringed as he moved. He was a bad man, a very bad man, brave as he was.

Hermione never got to see the execution. She was glad for that. Through bits and pieces she gleaned that they had ritualistically crushed his limbs and flayed his skin for two days. This helped create a specific spell that warded off unwanted people. It was used to bar anyone from entering Snape's home, except for the tribal members, because it contained all the vital potions and recipes. During the deliberation, many villagers had attempted to raid his home and destroy it, but his materials and texts were vital to the survival of the people. His tools were also highly difficult to replicate and his journals were massive. No one was allowed to use potions thereafter, not without the tribal members' permission.

She walked past the Tribal Quarters and began to make her way home. This was too much for her, so many depressing thoughts. As she neared her home she glanced at the forest. Without the rain it was just trees. Hermione had to remind herself that it was only trees. Her fixation with it was driving her mad. She laughed nervously as she walked toward her home then paused just outside her door. In spite of herself, she looked at the woods.

She wanted to know what was in there. She wanted to know desperately. Hermione bit her bottom lip as she gazed out. Never had she felt as she did in the rain. It was terrifying, and good.

"Hermione?"

She jumped a little, getting irritated at how people seemed to consistently wait for her to stare at the forest with a zombie expression before they scared her into nearly collapsing.

"Yes?" She asked in a strained voice as her mother rounded the corner with a basket full of laundry.

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing, I was just daydreaming."

Her mother nodded. "Alright, well, when you're done, feel free to lend your poor mother a hand with the laundry." She murmured with a raised eyebrow.

Sheepishly, Hermione followed her mother into the house, momentarily deterred from the trees.

Hermione sat in her room, reading her one of her school textbooks for the third time. She had it memorized by now. Her chores were finished and she had just eaten in the dining room with her parents. They talked of inane subjects before Hermione finally gave up pretending to be interested and left for her bedroom.

"Hermione," came her father's muffled call, "nightfall is coming."

"Alright…" she called back, checking to make sure her chamber pot was empty and under her bed. There was a pitcher of water on her bedside table in case she needed water in the night; she wouldn't be able to leave her room until dawn so it was important that she had everything. Her candle flickered but she had extra candles in her drawer.

Her parents called to her when night had finally fallen. They had gone to bed early, they usually did. Hermione supposed that it was good they couldn't leave their rooms after night, no way to keep tabs on whether she was sleeping. Her reading usually continued long into the night.

Sitting on her bed, leaning over her textbook, it didn't take long before she developed a crick in her neck. She moaned softly as she carefully turned her head and flexed. Then she froze. One of the corners of the burlap cloth had come loose.

She stared at it from the corner of her eye, feeling numb. If her eye so much as flickered in its direction…

Carefully, she got up from her bed and walked over to the window until she was directly in front of it. She couldn't see through that corner anymore but was intensely staring at the cloth.

Would it really be so dangerous? Just a peek?

If these beings were… individuals, then who was to say They were standing just outside her window? What if They didn't even catch her peeking at Them? She swallowed hard but whatever lump was there refused to move away.

If I just… tilt my head like so… and quickly glance… surely, nothing would happen?

The internal struggle made her break out into a sweat. She wanted to see, she wanted to know. These creatures ran everyone's lives, They destroyed everything They touched! Hermione did not know what normal was, how did the outside world define normal? What were They? What were They?

Hermione was breathing hard, hands balled into fists as she crouched down in front of the window. Slowly and cautiously, she inched over to the left side of the window, the one with the exposure. When she was just under it she had to take a moment and slow down her breathing, still too frightened to look up, to incline her head and lean in…

Am I really going to do this? Am I going to risk my life? Just to know the unknown? But am I truly alive in the first place?

Her heart pounded very loudly in her ears. She could feel its strong pulse throughout her entire body. There was acid in her mouth and her body felt weak as she trembled. She had to settle on her knees, incapable of crouching any longer.

Oh God. Just a peek. Just one peek. Oh God, Oh my God. Oh sweet Lord. Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh -

She tilted her head upward, quick short breaths coming from her parted lips. Her left brown eye neared the exposed hole. She was shaking and broke as finally, finally she looked through the hole.

It was dark. But there was a brightness outside. No clouds? She glanced up at the sky for a moment, in awe of the moon. She had only ever read about it in books. It positively glowed.

Her breath was shallow; she didn't realize her whole body was completely rigid, tightly wound in an awkward position. Yet she felt no discomfort.

She saw nothing. There was barely any outline of the forest, even in the moonlight.

Against her will her body began to relax. The adrenaline was in her system but it wasn't going anywhere, wasn't being used up. She continued to gawk at the woods, unaware that her mouth had gone dry from panting at the air. Her eye was dry.

Nothing? Nothing at all?

She felt confused. Her body calmed enough to let her blink.

A flash of silver, a wave of lust!

Hermione screamed and fell backwards. Eyes shut tight she convulsed on the floor. There was a rushing sound in her ears as something pulled at her.

My love, come to me.

Hermione groaned (with pleasure). Raw sexual energy coursed through her body, rendering her a gibbering mess. She tried to scramble up and away from the window (the wet heat between her legs intensified) but she fell again.

"Oh no" she gasped, on her hands and knees, ass up in the air. Her hips bucked as another sharp wave of pleasure hit her from her sex to every extremity. She was whimpering and whining and moaning and wanting…

You will come to me; come for me, my love.

Panic coursed through her mind, only to be changed into desire, wild lust. Her head turned to the cloth covered window, eyes glazed and a thin line of saliva running down her chin. She dug her nails hard into the floorboard. This was insanity! The connection wouldn't go away! She didn't even know what she saw! She was dead, but she wanted it, she wanted it so damn bad. Her body cried, cried long and loud, and her mind was fighting with it. Her conscious mind was horrified: her body was inching to the window.

She forced herself to stop, a pained groan shooting through her as her body's need conflicted with her mind's rationale. Sex or death?

To deny me is death… I will make you live again. My mouth… my hands…

Hermione made a pitiful whimpering sound, how were these thoughts coming to her? How could she make them stop?

Suddenly, she spotted her textbook. She grabbed it and aimed the sharp corner at the back of her left hand as it supported her weight on the floor. Hermione viciously struck her hand as hard as she could. If it weren't for the silencing charms, the whole town would have heard her scream.

But it worked. In an instant the feelings went away, the voice disappeared and Hermione fell to the floor a sopping mess. Suddenly struck by pain and a wave of dizziness she quickly grabbed her chamber pot with her good hand and, barely in time, retched into it.

Her hand and sex throbbed simultaneously. She felt exhausted and confused. What on earth was that? Hermione stiffened when she realized the window still had an open slit exposing her. Could They be watching her right now? Her shaking came back tenfold and another layer of cold sweat broke out on her clammy skin, feeling violated she quickly scrambled over to the window, head to the floor, as she reached up and fumbled to close the burlap cloth. Her left hand hurt like hell but she ignored it. Once the curtain was hooked up, she leaned against the wall just under the window and took careful breaths between her legs, until she realized what the smell between her legs was. Feeling mortified she stripped off her clothes and changed into clean ones, trying to ignore the slick feeling between her legs. To her utter embarrassment she had to wipe her inner thighs with the soiled clothes before she tossed them into the laundry bin and curled into the fetal position on her bed.

She blew out her candle two hours later, after her fear slipped away and her mind became calmer. Small anxiety attacks came and went but, whatever the connection she had with Them was severed. The voice had sounded like a woman… A woman and lust? Her brain was too tired to work on all this new information. She had been through too much. Exhaustion was finally overtaking her.

Was that silver hair she had seen? But the question would be forgotten and lost as Hermione fell asleep.



"Hermione! Get up out of bed, girl!"

Dull, throbbing, dizzying pain. At first Hermione couldn't quite pinpoint the source, was it her head? No, it was her hand, and her head. Specifically, it was the back of her left hand and the space between her eyes.

"Uhhhhrrrr…" She groaned unintelligibly. Those who were not morning people tended to awaken with cobwebs in their head. Hermione was definitely a morning person and usually she got up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day. That particular morning there were no cobwebs in her head, just a thickness that hurt, as if there was too much fluid in her fragile skull, sloshing about angrily with every move she made. Using her right hand to steady herself, she sat up in her bed. It took her a moment to blink her eyes clear of the crust, moistening them enough to clear the blindness that came from sleeping far too little. Normally awake with a sharp mind and quick step, that morning her mind was like a pencil worn to a stub, her movements sluggish and her face drawn.

Thankfully, her brain dead awakening helped to soften the blow of the previous night. A small rush of adrenaline hit her, she had come into contact with Them and survived! The tribal members were the only people to ever come into contact with the forest beings and live to tell of it. Granted, she only recalled seeing something silver before… before…

Hermione turned crimson, glancing over at the pile of soiled clothes in the corner of the room. The powers of the forest beings were… odd. Why were They so sexual? For the second time, Hermione felt Their powers and both times she ended up… ruining her undergarments. Feeling flustered, she quickly looked away from the clothes, her gaze catching the textbook on the floor next to her bed: "Potions for the Amateur." Potions was highly advanced magic and great restrictions were placed on it. Few students were allowed to read the limited number of texts on the subject and the books were to be treated with great care. Even with her excellent abilities in school and widespread knowledge of her intellect, the community needed the tribal members to determine whether Hermione Granger, only girl to ever stand a chance to enter that field of magic, deserved to read those books. It took them five months before they finally gave her permission, and now one corner of it was specked with her blood.

Tears watered in her eyes, suddenly frustrated with herself. She looked over at her hand and had to swallow a cry of shock. It was deeply red, swollen and covered in the nasty brownish color of dried blood. Hermione turned pale; what if it got infected and they had to cut it off? Magic had its limits. But no, surely it looked worse than it was; it wasn't as if she had broken her hand.

She tried to make a fist, which turned out to be quite the mistake. Her eyes bulged out of her head and she let out an unholy squeak through her nose the instant her hand twitched. A flare of hot pain shot through her hand, momentarily displacing the agony in her head.

"Oh God… Ohhhhhh…." Hermione doubled over, acid rose in her already dry rancid mouth, tasting of last night's vomit. The sharp stabbing pain in her hand subsided, increasing the pain in her head tenfold.

"Hermione!"

Her mother's loud voice from the doorway made her flinch pitifully. Hermione looked up at her with bloodshot eyes, trying desperately to come up with a plausible reason for why her hand was smashed in. It would have been easier had that terrible pounding in her skull stopped.

"Errrr… hi mum…" She mumbled lamely.

"What in Heaven's name happened to you?" Her mother's dark brown eyes landed on the hand Hermione was clutching. "Is that blood?" In an instant, her mother stood before her, trying to check her wounds and face. She paled for a moment and stepped back. "What's that smell?"

Hermione blushed a little, helping to soften her pale pallor.

"I… I vomited in my chamber pot…"

"Good Lord! What is wrong with you? What did you do? Are you ill?"

Even the smartest witch in the world would have had difficulty thinking up plausible excuses as her mother harassed her and her body tortured her.

"I fell asleep reading my textbook… I… umm… I had a nightmare. About insects. I tried to smash one in my sleep and errrr… ended up crushing my hand. Then I heaved into my chamber pot." She finished lamely, hoping her expression was innocent enough.

Her mother looked at her oddly, as if she had lost her mind.

"Very well… we shall have to take you to the Mediwitch. You need to be more careful! You know your father and I cannot help you during night time." She frowned with worry.

"Alright dearie, your hand should be fine. The cleansing potion will take care of possible infection… fortunately nothing is broken, but it'll take you about a week to recover nicely." Poppy Pomfrey gave Hermione a terse smile.

"She said she had some sort of nightmare, made her smash her hand in… is there something… up in her head?"

"Mother! I've not lost my mind." Hermione replied hotly.

"Now, there is no need to speak to your mother in such a tone! My goodness, you are quite certain of yourself aren't you?" Satisfied with the girl's shamed expression, Pomfrey continued, "moreover I do agree with your mother. Perhaps you shouldn't be spending so much time buried in books! Girls should be out productively helping their mothers. One day you shall need a husband, and what use will your bookishness be then? You going to read to him are you?"

Hermione clenched her jaw, seething, but she couldn't do a thing. Her mother nodded sagely, the wise elderly reminiscing on the folly of youth. It made her want the chamber pot again, except she hadn't eaten yet. It didn't help that the medical ward was so tiny, it made her claustrophobic. She was sitting on a creaky table, ignoring the other two women as Pomfrey set to bandaging her throbbing hand. There was a potion that could erase the pain but that was conserved for more severe traumas. Hermione had to deal with the constant reminder of her hand, its painful pulse took her back to the previous night. Shame coursed through her when a steadily growing ache settled between her legs. Lately it had become a familiar sensation, never failing to humiliate her.

"All done. Be sure not to overuse it, but flex your fingers a bit throughout the day. Don't want it going all stiff now do we?" The two women looked at Hermione in concern, "Take my advice girly: less books. A young girl has her cuteness only for a little while. How long do you think that Weasley boy will wait?" Pomfrey raised an eyebrow knowingly, unaware that Hermione's heart had fallen through her shoes.

"Thank you for your help Poppy…"

Hermione got up from the table and left the room, certain that her mother would have a fit with her behaviour. Once outside the little hut she took a breath of chilly fresh air. Winter would be coming soon; the forest would change its colors and let the leaves fall. The long, branches struck her as cruel and vicious, the wind creating the illusion that the branches were lashing out at the grey heavens derisively. She could see the outline of the trees just over the houses in the town.

"Hermione!"

She blinked and turned to her mother.

"What is wrong with you child? You couldn't have embarrassed me further? Perhaps you should have laughed in the woman's face? Insulted her outright? She just fixed your hand and you didn't thank her or say good bye to her?"

"Ehh… I apologize. My hand hurts… I didn't sleep well…"

Her mother took in the faraway look, the tired eyes and slouched demeanour, finally taking pity on her only child. "Alright… I need to go to the market; we're out of eggs and bread. You go straight home and get some rest."

"Of course mother." Hermione murmured softly, watching as her mother took off toward the town's center. Perhaps sleep would be good for me, thought Hermione; I can't process everything that has happened when I'm so exhausted.

She proceeded to the outskirts of the town, trying to get home without catching anyone's attention. Her hand continued to ache and her whole disposition was sour. She figured that taking a long bath would help her feel like herself again and allow her to think more clearly, see things from a different perspective. Until then, she pushed her muddled thoughts into the back of her head.

She lay in the tub trying to relax. The room was dark, only a small window lighting the area which was situated high up the wall so no one could peek through when the walked by. She positioned herself in the tub so she could face the window, taking comfort in the dim light barely keeping the darkness at bay. She sunk deeper into the water. Most humans would have been stuck boiling water before they could enjoy a nice bath. However, the runes carved into the floor under the tub were a heating charm, so all Hermione had to do was create a small incision into her right hand and chant another drawn out incantation to activate it. Briefly, Hermione wondered why some spells needed more blood than others, even if they were simpler spells. It irritated her to have to cause more abuse to her body just to take a bath. Her injured hand was carefully hanging over the edge of the tub so as not to get it wet.

Hermione tried not to look at herself nude when she got into the water. It just seemed… wrong to look at yourself naked. The wizarding world was not Christian, but it was damn well affected by the religion. Everyone was. The beings in the forest terrified her more so after actually being exposed to Them. These beings had the ability to make you feel all the bad things you were not supposed to feel. The wizarding world continued to be more open minded than the human world, especially about sex. Hermione's mother told her all about the activity. Sex wasn't meant to be an event enjoyed by people, least of all women. It was to create children. Rhythmic movements meant to generate a desired result, much like putting together furniture. Only sex sounded messier to Hermione. So unsightly, although a part of her, especially when she woke from a very explicit dream, wanted to engage in it. A deeper part of her seemed to think it would actually feel good. She would end up alert, wet, and feel that delicious ache between her legs. It appalled her.

Few things in the world gave Hermione pleasure, but a rule of the universe dictated that when you've suffered greatly, even the smallest reprieve brings the greatest of pleasures. A stomach full of food and water, a body being caressed by the warm pool it was immersed in, and peaceful quiet. Suddenly there was no greater heaven than the tub she relaxed in. Naturally her mind began to wander.

The beings had some sexual power. This was undeniable, though Hermione would rather kiss Malfoy's arse than admit she felt anything. How does one defeat sexual power? Smashing in your hand seemed to do the trick, although Hermione couldn't see the usefulness in such a tactic. A mental image of the people of Diagon hitting themselves repeatedly while trying to run through the forest almost made her laugh. The villagers would be half beaten to death before the beings came into contact with them. She supposed that they could try and come up with a potion that causes a certain level of pain… or perhaps a fluctuating level of pain? Was it more necessary to distract oneself with dull pain or sharp surprising pain? Hermione wasn't exactly in the frame of mind to experiment the night before.

She groaned in annoyance. It was utterly ridiculous for a girl like her to try and come up with a solution that would save the village. Besides that, no one would take her seriously, even if she could make herself admit that she had come into contact with Them and survived. A flicker of fear entered her thoughts: what if the villagers turn against me, suspect me, because I survived? What would the people do to her then? Yet, Hermione couldn't help herself, she was a problem solver. She was also bored out of her mind in Diagon and felt her potential talents die a little each day.

The likely future of most women in Diagon was just within reach, and Hermione was terrified. She would get married to Ron, have several children, and die having spent the majority of her life cleaning up after her family. She would teach her children to fear for their lives as all the villagers feared, so that they too could grow up, marry, breed, and die as all those before them. Hermione often wondered if perhaps hell itself is not filled with fire and pain but pure monotony. The repetition and tediousness of life was slowly going to drive her mad. But did she have the courage to investigate the forest herself, to break the rules, risking her life and her family's reputation?

Her internal struggle was torturing her. On the one hand her whole life consisted of fear mongering and female oppression, on the other, an untapped independence and determination was struggling to keep from disappearing altogether. Fingers gripped the edges of the tub hard as she tried to control her breathing and ignore the tightness in her chest, unaware she was having a panic attack. She knew there was no way she could turn her back on what happened the night before and live with herself. For the first time in her life she felt something. A never ending undercurrent of fear and depression made her numb and lazy. But last night she felt extreme emotions; total terror and absolute pleasure. The two somehow mingled and made the experience that much more tantalizing. She shivered at the recollection.

She finally decided what she was going to do. Hermione Granger was going to break into Severus Snape's home. There had to be information about Them in his home; the man had direct contact with Them and lived to tell the tale. There had been a series of book burnings in Diagon, apparently those texts had some serious magic in them that could expose the village to the forest beings. However, Snape had texts that the tribal members had no choice but to save. If she could find a way to break in and grab those texts…

She got up from the tub and managed to dry herself off, while keeping her bandage dry. Hermione put on her stockings and long skirt. Remembering the chilly morning, she put on a sweater before finally donning her black robes. She wrote her mother a quick note: she'd be back after getting a book from school.

Hermione walked briskly through the town center. She had no delusions of grandeur, there was no way she could infiltrate Snape's house that very day. Her only hope was that by visiting the place she might have some idea about what kind of curse was placed on the house, and then it would be a matter of researching possible spells to break the spells. If all else failed… she would have to break into a tribal member's home and steal information. She swallowed hard at the very thought. That plan would only go into effect if there was no other possibility.

"Hermione? Hey Hermy!"

She tripped over her feet, before she noticed who was calling her.

"Hello Ronald." She forced a smile and tried not to cringe at the nickname he gave her.

Her beau waltzed out of Bubbling Trouble with his older brother Bill and Harry Potter. Ron's bright red hair and height made him stand out sharply against the dark brown building. In contrast, Harry's only striking feature was his deep green eyes. Hermione couldn't help but become self conscious of her own bedraggled appearance when she noticed Bill. He was tall, muscled, and absolutely gorgeous. Ron's older brother was quite the ladies man. Even Hermione was not completely immune to his charms, not that Bill would ever do such a thing to his brother. She suspected that Bill slept with many of the wives in Diagon, though she shuddered to think he would do something so scandalous.

They each seemed a little drunk, their eyes glazed and movements a little erratic. Her father had told her that in the old days of her great grandparents, before the war, pubs were open at night and those were the only times a man could properly get drunk with his friends. It was of course, impossible to keep a pub open at night in Diagon, so people drank in the late afternoon. The general rule was: "if you're gonna get sauced, make sure you're sauced with friends." Before Hermione's time, a man got drunk and wandered off into the forest, never to return.

"Hermione, love! Aww Hermy! Why don't you come with me and the lads eh? We're going to the pub… whassit called?" Ron turned to Bill, a big grin on his face.

"Now now, Ronnie… Can't have your girl going round pubs. S'not right. You need to… to… to take her on a picnic or summat." Bill blinked confusedly. The deeper recesses of his mind understood that it would be wrong to make Hermione enter a bar with the boys, it just wasn't right. Thankfully he was just sober enough to hold onto that thinning tether to rational thought.

"Ahhh yea, can't be doing that to Humani…"

Hermione made a slight noise at the way Ron completely mutilated her name.

"Why are you boys so…" she couldn't very well say drunk because it wasn't proper manners. "Why are you boys going to a pub this early? It's midday." That was almost tactful enough, but they were already drunk, subtlety was not necessary.

"It's… it's Dean's birthday…" mumbled Harry, the most sober of the group. "We came here but there's a special thing going on round McCale's Pub…."

"Yea… nekkid things…" Ron stated proudly, before promptly turning red and trying to cover up for his mistake. "Ahh no… not what I meant… see…" Hermione felt her stomach knot. She wasn't sure if it was jealousy that her beau was going to see other women or disgust that the women were naked. It was improper and frowned upon by the community, though the girls who did such things managed to keep their anonymity by wearing masks, and no one outright complained. They considered it important that the men of Diagon have their needs fulfilled, after all, they were the future that would defeat Them. Yet it continued to upset Hermione.

"What Ron meant is that, that-..." Bill paused to gather his bearings. "There'll be fun stuff going on, gotta wish the birfday boy good luck and all. Just havin' some clean fun." He smiled charmingly at the brunette, with an air of promise, slightly mollifying her feelings.

"Umm alright, you enjoy yourselves…" not too much, she thought to herself. They laughed, Ron gave her a really wet kiss on the cheek, then they wondered off to the pub.

Putting away her feelings, she finally arrived at the home of Severus Snape. The house looked as imposing as the former tenant had been. It was tall, dark, and falling apart. The building was made of dark Alder wood, had a gothic design, and was covered in ivy after years without maintenance. Despite its messy appearance, she felt as if the house was gazing at her with austere contempt. She closed her mouth, mindless of it having been open the entire time. The house was foreboding; why would there be any need to cast magical barriers? Because people like you are too nosy to be deterred by appearance alone, even threat of mutilation didn't keep you from peeking behind the curtain now did it? argued an annoying voice in Hermione's head.

She checked to make sure no one was watching her. People rarely came around that area, believing that Snape's house was possessed by some innate evil. The house was surrounded by trees and bushes, further unnerving the villagers because it felt like They had come to protect the house deep within the town, creating a small forest around it. Hermione walked over to the front door, unable to decide how to proceed. She jumped at a snapping noise only to realize it was a black cat. It suddenly occurred to her how she could test the boundaries of the house, though her stomach lurched at the thought.

"Here kitty… come here sweetie…"

Its golden eyes regarded her with curiosity. Hermione kneeled down, extending her arms and trying to make noises she thought were soothing and inviting. The young cat padded over to her, far too trusting. Hermione picked up its soft furry body and eyed the door. She was an animal lover, it pained her that she was considering using the cat to test dangerous magic, but she had no choice.

"What are you doing?" Hermione froze just before she hurled the cat at the door. Upon turning to see who spoke, she dropped the cat.

To her complete shock, the little black cat strutted over to Aberforth Dumbledore. The man was an infamous recluse. He was the only person outside of the tribal members to live for such an extended period of time without seeming to age. Everyone believed that somehow, his brother and hero of the village, Albus, had left him some power. But the man refused to speak to anyone, pointedly ignoring the tribal members. People resented him, a man with unknown power and a connection to one of the greatest wizards in their time, but he refused to help anyone. There were some whispers, rumours that he had ties with Them, but no one dared speak of it, not even the tribal members. The people also believed he had, in a fit of insanity, carved runes into his skin so he could more easily spell cast – very dangerous magic since records showed that those who tried tended to either explode or implode, neither reaction was pleasant.

"Umm… I was just, just looking at the door." Hermione stuttered.

"Using the cat to improve your vision are you? Rub it on your face? Quite interesting, you'll have to give me details of this new form of spell casting, I am most curious. Or wait, were you perhaps hoping that the cat could break down the door for you?" His bright blue eyes were tearing into her, they were so sharp and cold, and his sarcasm bit into her deeply.

"I… I…." She looked away, scared and ashamed of what she had been about to do.

"What are you trying to do girl? Some stupid dare? You know the last bloke who tried to break in died of skin burns?"

She had been thirteen years old when her parents gave her a talk about knowing when friends wanted her to do stupid things. Not that she had many friends to pressure her into stupidity. They were quite stricken over the event, that someone would be so stupid as to test the tribal members' spells.

"I just… I wanted to…" for some reason a part of her felt she could trust him, almost as if his weirdness made it easier for herself to talk about her own odd experiences and obsession. If she told him and he told others, it would be unlikely that they would believe him. But it was just so hard to open up when you've been closed for a lifetime.

He watched her struggle for a moment, as if understanding what was going through her head.

"Enough. You will go home now girl. Don't let me see you near this place again." He paused for a moment, still observing her, before he added "and tomorrow, you shall meet me for tea. Alone." At that, he turned around and left.

Hermione watched him leave with a shocked expression. He never invites people for tea. He doesn't invite anyone for anything. She wasn't even sure there was a person in the village who knew what his home looked like from inside.

She walked home in a daze, wondering whether she was going to get into trouble for trying to enter Snape's house or for nearly killing a cat. Her effort to enter Snape's house was pointless and now she had to meet with the only man more intimidating than the tribal members. There was no way she was even going to consider declining him.

I'm going to meet Aberforth Dumbledore for tea... Oh God…

"Nah nah, boys… you go'n ahead… I gotta see Emily…"

"Noooo we can't do tha'! Gotta be togedder.. together… together?" Ron blinked confusedly. He had consumed more firewhiskey than he thought he would. But it was hard to keep yourself in control when beautiful breasts were shaking round your head. He grinned broadly at the memory. Of course he was faithful to Hermione; he didn't touch any of them, though he wanted to.

"You gonna stay with Emily tonight?" Harry grinned, his eyes glazed.

"Me? Never!" Bill made smiled hoping he looked innocent enough. It was fairly easy to sneak into a girl's window and spend the night with her. The spells at the doorways helped silence all noise and prevent people from entering bedroom's uninvited. Fathers were afraid to leave their rooms at night, silencing spells smothering all sounds, while daughters were locked up with Bill. He could spend the whole night with a girl without any interruption. The only difficulty was entering and exiting before the spells were in effect. He wasn't the only lad to do this activity, but he was the sneakiest, no one had caught him yet. Last thing he wanted was to miss out on his chance with Emily; she had just given him permission to visit her. Granted, he hadn't planned on getting that drunk before seeing her, but he figured she would still melt under his smile and let him into her window.

"Come on lads…" Bill hiccupped, "Go on without ole Bill, gotta go see summat." He grinned.

His brother and Harry burst into laughter, but they backed off, Harry tripping on himself as they started their way home. Bill smiled at the sight of them before he began his trail to Emily's home. Her place was outside of the town center, much closer to the forest; he had been to her home only a handful of times. Her father, the bugger, hated Bill. In one of the few moments of his life where Bill had a legitimate thought that waded into deeper waters of intellect, he wondered why fathers were so hateful of him when all he did was what all men taught their boys to do, and had hoped to do themselves when they were boys. They had no right acting surprised and offended that other boys would try such things with their own daughters.

"Lotta bastards you all are…" he mumbled to the darkening sky, heedless of all the people scurrying to their homes. The redhead wandered through the town and it took him several attempts and detours before he finally left the town's center and ambled over to the edges of the forest. He finally made it, facing the forest, when he realized he had no idea where he was.

"Ah well… gotta circle eh?" He grinned to himself, since the town was circular it would be simple enough to pick a direction and go round until he got to Emily's home.

"Mmm… be-u-ful legs she's got…" he daydreamed about her naked as he lazily traveled. "Ack!" He cried out as his feet tripped over a log. Promptly falling on his face killed his little daydream instantly. Groaning, he got up from the ground and found himself looking at the woods. The trees were much darker than he was used to.

"Damn firewhiskey… evil stuff, you know?" He looked at the trees with more interest. "You know… you lot… you lot are bad you know? Whatchu doing things like you do eh?" He waved a finger in drunken disapproval.

"All we do is what we do! You can't be doing stuff like tha'! People all… chopped up and whatnot. S'not fun…. Well ok might be fun for you eh? But… but there's other fun stuff you know… Like… Like… chocolate! Tha's fun!" He blinked at the trees, trying to see them better. "Oi… who turned off the light eh?"

Suddenly the trees were illuminated with a silver glow.

"Ooooooo" He whispered with a child like wonder. The trees were so pretty! "Where- where'd the shiny come from?" Bill turned around and gazed up at the sky. There was a strange bright thing in the sky, not quite a circle, a bit of it was missing. He stared at it with his mouth wide, a thin stream of drool going down his jaw as he gazed in awe. He stuck his hand up, trying to touch it.

"Shiny…"

Yes…

Bill froze. Everything felt… strange. He moaned loudly as he felt himself harden. What was happening? Oh God it felt good.

A strong hand gripped his right shoulder from behind. Another wave of pleasure struck him, he cried out, pre-cum quickly seeping out of his sex at a mere touch. In the back of his mind, a thought tried to warn him: the forest is behind you. But the thought dissolved in a sea of sex and alcohol.

The fingers lightly tickled him along his collarbone, grazing sharp nails (claws) up his throat… faintly tracing his jugular vein. He was openly whimpering now, his hips rocking in the air.

"Oh G… Oh… So good… Ah…" His sex pounded, tightening as he neared climax. Soft feminine laughter permeated the air behind him.

"Ah… Ah!..." He stiffened, amazed he could come while drunk and on his feet. His trousers were sticky with his juices but his sex grew hard once more, in an instant, the laughter was driving him mad with want. He wanted to turn around, he wanted to see what was touching him… He wanted whatever They would give him…

Them? Oh… That's bad. Right?

No… it feels good... His hips bucked as a sharp flare of lust flowed through his veins. His heartbeat sped up and two hands rested on his cheeks, caressing his face before clasping over his eyes. Emily would have been nothing like this.

He was vaguely aware that another pair of hands tore apart his robe and shirt with ease. Those hands lazily touched his abdomen; he could feel a presence in front of him. Goosebumps spread over his skin and he shivered feeling as if he was on display for a crowd but it excited him. He moaned over and over, hips bucking, but he couldn't come a second time. It was almost as if this vile magic was keeping him on edge, refusing to let go. The laughter was louder and words were being spoken, but he didn't understand the language.

Someone said something and the presence in front of him seemed to leave. The hands over his eyes left him; he was still staring at an empty, dark village on the verge of a second orgasm when he felt a warm body press up against his back. He cried out, his body convulsing with an orgasm that refused to arrive. Sweat poured down his back and his sex hurt with the need for release. Strong hands rested on his stomach making him whimper pathetically, sooooo good.

"Wha?" His eyes bulged out of his head and he keeled over. His organ spurted once more but something was off, he hadnt registered any pleasure, only numbness of shock. He stared uncomprehendingly at the sight before him. A metallic, sickening smell engulfed him as he stared at the meaty mass before him. The hands were gone and he couldn't hear laughter but for the loud humming in his ears. His blood pounded in his head as his brain tried to decipher the information provided by his senses. Horror was kept at bay only because of shock. He looked down at his stomach only to see a large gaping wound, shreds of skin dangling at his waist. Blood poured freely from his gouged abdomen.

Bill Weasley fell to his knees, pure terror in his eyes as he fell forward, onto the pulsing warm wet mass that used to be his organs.

His eyes glazed over but he managed to lay his eyes on one delicate, beautifully pale ankle. One coherent thought quickly flitted through his overwhelmed, dying brain as it tried to desperately hold onto life.

They were laughing at me.


He walked through the village, his hood and scarf covering his face. Another figure in dark robes and a hooded face walked by him, silently nodding in greeting. They exchanged no words or looked at one another too carefully. Neither wanted to know who the other was, nor did they want themselves known. They were faceless for their own protection, because no one wanted a job like theirs. The) people of Diagon felt they were cursed because of what they had to do, yet it took courage to walk through the village so shortly after sunrise.

He carefully made his way around the heart of the village, glad to have such a position. It made his blood run cold to check near the parameters of the forest. That was where the bodies usually were, bloody idiots somehow walking around at night, always ended up lured to the forest. There was a powerful level of hatred in his heart for the sick, decrepit people who found themselves interested in a meeting with Them. Then he was stuck finding them come morning, haunted by sickening dreams at night only to awaken and start the whole process anew.

He reasoned that the only possible explanation for why some people of Diagon end up dying at Their hands was because they sought Them. This may only be for his own peace of mind, yet why else would any logical person disobey the laws, ignore the stories and still end up dead? Fools opening their windows and inviting Them in, leaving their own homes just to suffer a painful, sometimes slow death. It made no sense to him and he hated them for their weakness. His wife shared his sentiments. Neither wanted to consider any other possibility. That there was no stopping Them, no spells and no protection.

He couldn't help but smile a little, wretched as his job was, he at least had a wife he could trust. Very few in his line of work had families, but he had a child and wife. He never spoke to her of what he saw but he was glad that he rarely ever had anything to say. More people died natural deaths than they did from the forest beings. He was immensely grateful for this because he didn't think he could maintain his sanity otherwise.

The crisp air reminded him of the forthcoming winter. Snow had always made things harder for him, bodies hidden under huge banks of it and as it was his duty to inspect his section of the village, he had to go digging through the snow, searching for possible bodies. As his mind wandered off onto a rant on bloody winter cold and accidentally touching or stepping on corpses, he heard someone cry out, effectively cutting off his internal ramblings.

"J-J-Jesussss! Holy Christ!" Someone stammered in horror.

In a matter of seconds several hooded men arrived at the scene. One of them swiftly turned and heaved his breakfast. It was not recommended to eat before performing that particular line of work.

Hermione was nervous and she had no one she could talk to. The end result was a clumsy, distracted, and utterly useless brunette trying to tidy the living room early in the morning. Her mother began losing patience.

"Hermione!" she cried, as her only child knocked a plate with her broom onto the floor. In her effort to pick up the pieces she miscalculated the distance from the wall and ended up dropping the broom which promptly knocked over some of the knickknacks her mother liked to collect. "What is wrong with you today? Is it your hand?"

"Oh, I'm so sorry mum. I think I'm just restless. I need to go out later –" she got cut off by a knock at the door.

"Wait here; I'll go see what's happening…"

Hermione frowned at her mother's retreating back before she settled onto one of the large soft couches in the corner, adjacent to the other couch. There was a sturdy, round table just in front of her and the chimney. A few shelves were along the walls, mainly holding her mother's collection of small wooden or porcelain figurines (Hermione had yet to learn the spell that turned wood to porcelain, but she didn't see great use for such a talent). It was a cozy home, but Hermione was tense.

People rarely visited one another so early. There was only one group of people expected to leave their homes at sunrise and inspect the village: The Safeguard. These unfortunate people had to check for bodies come morning. The first two hours of sunrise were allotted to the Safeguard so they could protect the minds and souls of the village from having to witness the horror of dead loved ones. The word "SAFEGUARD" was imprinted on the doors of every house by magic. When the Safeguard finally reported to the tribal members, one of them would use an incantation to make it disappear, then it would be safe to leave their homes. The people were superstitious; even when the Safeguards were finished people rarely left their houses early. When someone did travel around town that early then the cause was either joy or horror, births or deaths. She anxiously rubbed her injured hand, carefully massaging the stiff tendons and trying to ignore the pain, until her mother came back pale faced.

"Hermione… Oh Hermione… you need to see Ronald."

She felt the color drain from her own face.

"What? What's happened to him?" she asked, in a soft yet apprehensive voice.

"His brother Bill never came home last evening."

She sat there in a confused blend of relief and illness. Oh God, Ron…

Usually when she arrived at the Weasley home she couldn't help but gawk at its structure. There was a high infant mortality rate in the world but the Weasleys had six living children. What used to be a small, quaint house had turned into a complex, slightly misshapen home, barely held together by nails and magic. Unfortunately, the house had just become a bit more spacious. Hermione cringed at her cruelty, wondering why such a thought had ever occurred to her.

However, she wouldn't be visiting the Weasleys at their home. For some reason there were barriers around the whole area and people had been moved to a courtyard further away. She recognized it as the Parkinson's home. There were several people there, hovering around the front lawn dressed in their best black robes and talking amongst each other. Hermione easily spotted the Weasleys, their bright orange hair standing out in stark contrast to their dark clothing. Hermione gasped when she spotted Arthur Weasley, the head of the household, busy talking to Cornelius Fudge. It was rare for the tribal members to visit people outside of their clique. Molly, Arthur's wife, stood off to the side in silence. Her expression was blank; the only sign of her pain was her red rimmed eyes, staring off into the distance… to the forest.

It was common knowledge that Bill was her favourite. He had charm, extremely good looks and great potential in magic. There was talk that the tribal members would allow him to join the small committee of wizards in charge of finding a way to transport the people of Diagon away from the forsaken woods. It was a dangerous job, experimenting with magic, and few people were chosen. Now that small number was further depleted. Hermione felt sorry for Molly, losing her beloved son, the man who would have made the Weasley name prominent.

Ginny was crying openly in her cocoon of friends. The twins, Fred and George were quietly sitting on the grass near one another, an odd sight as they were often the most rambunctious of the clan. Percy Weasley was talking to Umbridge and several other officials. Hermione finally spotted Ron and Harry sitting on the porch stairs. She hugged him tightly, unable to look at his tear streaked face.

"Oh Ron…."

He buried his face into her neck but couldn't seem to wrap his arms around her. The tremors running through his body made her uncomfortable, men weren't supposed to cry or show weakness. Seeing her beau like that disturbed her, though she knew it was stupid to expect a man not to cry after his brother was killed. He made a muffled sound into her throat.

"What?" She leaned back to look at him. His expression was strained, like he was trying to swallow something too big. He wouldn't look at her, his gaze on the earth. "What is it?" She caught Harry's eyes for but a moment before he too started staring at his feet.

"Walk with us…" Ron whispered hoarsely.

She didn't say anything, but when they got up and starting walking away from the group she followed them. They took her to a small alley between two large houses before Ron collapsed on the ground and stretched out his long legs. Harry leaned up against a wall and slid himself down next to Ron, the both of them feeling numb and empty. She was beginning to feel a bit frightened; they appeared so shocked they weren't quite in touch with reality.

"What… what happened?"

The redhead fixed his gaze on the wall in front of him. "I killed him," he faintly replied.

Hermione's jaw dropped.

"No Ron…. We killed him…" Harry added, miserably.

She gawked at them in surprise, thinking she had either misheard them or they had lost their minds. "What in blazes are you talking about?" she asked shrilly.

Ron buried his face in his hands while Harry answered: "We were drunk. Bill wanted to see… someone, before the night was over. It was late and we shouldn't have let him go… but we thought it would be alright. We went home and let him go off by himself, completely drunk… he must not have found the place in time or he got lost… I don't know…. Damn."

Hermione felt winded. She leaned up against the wall opposite the boys and sat down in a daze. They had been so very stupid. After the shock left her she felt furious. Damn? Damn the men and damn alcohol! Damn them for allowing that stupid drink, damn them for being too weak to avoid it. Damn the woods for destroying anything in their path. Damn it all! But she couldn't say anything. She already felt ashamed that she cursed in her head; her mother would have been mortified at her unladylike thoughts. It was also wrong to talk to men about their business, especially when they were doing such a good job beating themselves up about it. So Hermione kept her mouth shut.

They sat there in silence for a few moments before Hermione spoke up.

"Well… do they know that you did this?"

Ron made a pained noise. Harry still had some control over himself, his soft but monotonous voice carried through the air.

"No… but they will. We were seen all over the town, the bars… someone is going to tell them that we… we were at fault."

It would be terrible. There was punishment for this kind of stupidity, although Hermione was certain they would go easy on Ron. The normally opinionated girl sat there unable to speak.

"The… the Safeguards came to us this morning…" Ron rasped, his glassy eyes staring through Hermione. "They forbade us from leaving the house or opening the windows, did the same to the neighbors… had to be blindfolded before we left, for our sanity they said…"

Hermione waited for him to continue, to say something but before she could speak up Ron abruptly jolted to his feet and made a run for it.

"Ron! Ron, where are you going?" She tried to chase after him but Harry's reflexes were too fast. His hand shot out and yanked her back.

"Hermione stop!" She stared at his hand, gripping her arm uncomfortably tight. He noticed immediately and dropped his hand, embarrassedly fiddling with his messy crop of hair. "I'm… I'm sorry, it's just that, he needs time alone Herm. It was terrible, what they told me, it doesn't even make sense! How did They know?" Harry trailed off cryptically.

"Harry… I don't have the energy for this." She swallowed loudly, feeling so damn tired. It was as if the day was cursed, she woke up fearful of her meeting with Aberforth then ended up hearing that Bill, whom even she admired, was dead and somehow her beau and his friend were responsible. Did she really need to hear the horror behind his death?

"Hermione, he's broken. Ron's… I've never seen him like this before. I came over and he was just sitting up against a wall with his eyes closed and mouth open, head tilted back. I swear, he looked so… strange. Something's not right with him now…"

"What the hell happened?" she whispered softly, unsure whether she was whispering because she swore or because the haunted look on Harry's face brought chills to her body.

He bit his lip nervously, fiddling with his robes. "I might as well tell you now; word will spread in an instant." Harry leaned in, his secretive actions running contrary to his words. "Bill was killed last night, but They didn't stop there." His eyes furtively looked around, as if expecting Them hidden in the shadows. "They took his… his stuff out of him…" Hermione felt nausea settle in her stomach, her vivid imagination relentlessly assaulting her. She wanted to make him stop talking. "And… and they smeared it all over the house, wrapping it around the porch. When they found him… he was dangling upside down on the roof, by his…" he struggled for the appropriate word to use around a girl, ever mindful of etiquette, "his male… private parts…"

"Oh God Harry! Please stop!" She cried out shrilly, suddenly feeling light headed.

"I'm sorry!" He cut in, red faced and horrified. "I'm so sorry."

They stood awkwardly in each other's presence, neither quite able to look at the other. Hermione was too busy keeping her breakfast down to notice the problem.

"Hermione, I told you that because… well because it's weird."

She gave him an incredulous look. "How is this any weirder than what usually happens to those who walk at night?"

"Doesn't it… doesn't it strike you as odd, that they did this at the Weasley house? Rumours are already out, Bill was killed at the edge of the forest, They dragged his body to the Weasley's!"

Hermione looked up at him uncomprehendingly.

"What do you mean?" she asked, her voice dropping to a whisper to match Harry's. She chose her words carefully, dangerous words that made no sense to her but if true, were going to flood Diagon in a fresh current of terror. "Are you saying… They somehow knew who Bill is, that They know who the Weasley's are?"

She watched his sincere emerald eyes intently. Of the few friends she had in Diagon Harry was her closest, but that didn't make her any less reserved or suspicious. People could be very cruel and Hermione learned from a very young age that being different was a punishable offence and the only people to be trusted were people who suffered similarly. Unfortunately for Hermione, she and Luna Lovegood were the only people who stuck out like sore thumbs, and Luna was too strange for even for Hermione, so she avoided the girl. If there was anyone else like her in the village, they were much better at hiding it. Try as she might, the scars of her childhood were too deep to allow for trust, even in Harry.

She couldn't wrap her mind around it; the beings had always committed senseless killings, never attempting to leave some sort of message. Could it be possible that They knew who the people of Diagon were? Were They watching? A queasy feeling of unease settled in her stomach and her chest suddenly felt constricted. Was this some sick joke put upon her? A very sick joke… But no, looking into Harry's fearful eyes, she realized he was telling the truth. She felt guilty for thinking this might be some twisted attempt to make her out to be a fool. A man had died and his desecrated corpse was decorating his family's home. Her self-centered thoughts were going to get the best of her one day.

"Harry… They've never done anything like this before. Is it possible that this is all just some coincidence?"

Harry ran a hand through his hair and looked down the alleyway, buildings blocking his view of the Parkinson house.

"That's the problem. Fudge is already there talking to Arthur, trying to figure things out." He wrapped his arms around himself, shielding himself against the chilly wind, or perhaps against the possibilities. "The other tribal members and the Safeguard are at the house, inspecting and cleaning up…" he let out a tired breath. "The whole village will be paralyzed; we don't know what's going on."

"How many people know?"

"The Weasley's… tribal members, Ginny told me… Safeguard knows. And now you know. Everyone else is confused, they just know someone died near the Weasley place and so they needed to evacuate." He turned to face her, his eyes downcast. "Molly's blindfold was loose, she saw everything."

"Oh dear God…" she gasped. The whole point of the Safeguard was to check for deaths, protect the public, and clean up. They had failed in their main purpose, and the very mother of the victim witnessed the massacre.

Harry rubbed his face in frustration. "I don't know what I'm going to do Herm. I don't know what Ron's going to do either. I haven't even had time to swallow all this myself, too busy trying to keep him together." He slapped his hand against the wall, eyes narrowing in anger. "Why do we have to live this way? Why? Now I need to take care of Ginny too."

She watched him pace back and forth like a caged animal. Despite the circumstances, it quelled her feelings to finally hear someone speak of the pain They inflicted on the village. The silence was suffocating.

Harry paused in his movements and walked over to her, embracing her awkwardly. Her throat twitched sporadically as she tried to think of something to say but he was already speaking. His mouth was close to her ear, warm breath brushing against her skin as he spoke gently.

"I'm sorry; I know you must be upset too. You have to take care of Ron now. I don't know if he'll ever recover, but he needs you. You know how he feels about you." He released her and stepped back, looking at the ground. "I need to go back to Ginny… Then I'll try and find Ron." He appeared to struggle with himself before finally straightening his posture and walking away from the alley, leaving Hermione to herself.

She didn't know what to do or how to feel. Numbness spread through her body, making the world duller and more approachable. Her eyes watered as the cool air encompassed her. There was a tiredness in her body, a sense of exhaustion that refused to leave her. She often wondered if she was born with that sensation, but no, it had come at a young age, when she had finally learned that there were indeed monsters waiting for her in the night.

She awoke trembling, whimpering to herself in the dark. There was a monster in her room, she knew it! Or was it a bad dream? She forced herself up from her bed, past the shuttered and locked window. Mum and dad always locked it before night time but they never said why. They said when she was a big girl they would tell her why she wasn't ever supposed to open her window when it was dark.

She got up out of her bed, bare feet making no sound on the wooden floorboards. It was hard not to touch the window. Hermione wanted to know. She wanted to know everything! One day she'd be the most powerful witch in the world and maybe she would know all there was to know. Some of the other kids told her things. There was a Bad Thing in the forest that happened at night and so she wasn't allowed to look outside. But she didn't know everything. The kids didn't like talking or playing with her very much. It made her lonely but Mum said it would be alright; she'd make friends when she started school. Hermione thought school would be great; she would get to learn new things and make friends! She couldn't wait until she was big enough to know things like the adults.

Her tiny frame made it to the bedroom door quickly, her skin covered in goose bumps, feeling like she were being watched in the dark. Her messy, poufy hair flopped about as she ran from her room to her parents.

"Mum?" came her frightened whisper. She frowned at the door, recalling that her parents wouldn't be able to hear her, the spells were in effect. They told her about that. The spells were supposed to protect Hermione from Bad Things. She didn't understand what these things were but she believed in her parents. Clever girl that she was, she knew that there was nothing to be done to catch their attention, but she was still a little girl, scared of the dark and in need of her parents. She suddenly regretted her enthusiasm to have her own room. If she hadn't begged her parents she might be in the room with them now. She crouched down, back to their door, and sat on the floor vigilantly watching both ends of the hallway for the monster.

She trembled at the memory; it was a big black thing with large, sharp fangs. It had been smiling at her, big teeth bared, it had leaned forward… she let out another small sound, feeling cold. She wished there were heating runes on the floor right then. Her small body was tense.

Click.

She let out a sharp yelp and jumped from the floor.

"Hermione? Hermione, sweetie what are you doing?" Centuries of evolution prevail and a mother's instinct alerts her to her child's distress.

At the sound of her mother's soothing voice she broke down sobbing, venting her fear like a toxin, purged from her system. Her mother's arms wrapped around her and held her close.

"There's – there's a monster in my room." She hiccupped.

"A monster?" She leaned down and took Hermione's hand, completely enveloping her tiny fist. The tired, hiccupping brunette snuggled under the covers next to her snoring father and alert mother.

Her mother nudged him awake.

"Mmm –" he snorted, trying to ignore the irritating attempts to wake him, but her persistence paid off.

He blinked his eyes awake drowsily. The sight of his daughter made him perk up instantly.

"What's happened?" Hermione was confused. She had never seen her dad look so scared.

"Nothing dear, Hermione woke up with a nightmare… had a dream about a monster."

"Oh."

She gave him a meaningful look, he sighed resignedly sitting up on the bed and turning to face their daughter.

"Hermione, we have something to tell you… Your first day of school is approaching, every child will know by then…"

Hermione closed her eyes, took a deep breath and forced that memory back into the dark recesses of her mind. How much time had she spent wishing that conversation had never happened? Far too much. It was a night of firsts. For the first time in her life she learned that there were nightmares one could never wake from. She also learned that there were truths she wished to have never known.

She collapsed against the wall, finding herself sitting on the earth and staring blankly at the wall across from her much like Ron did only minutes ago. So very tired.

Something mewed near her. She frowned at a black cat gazing back at her lazily. It looked familiar.

Aberforth Dumbledore.

Jumping to her feet she set off at a rapid pace to Aberforth's house, both mortified and worried about her meeting. The man had never set a time so Hermione had planned to arrive early, but she had been distracted. She hoped the enigmatic man would forgive her.

Diagon was bustling with people, rumours and whispers were thick in the air. It took far longer than usual for her to get to Aberforth's home because of the crowds of people cluttering the cobbled streets. Apprehension travelled by word of mouth but Hermione was no longer a part of it, too engrossed in her goal.

When she finally arrived to Aberforth's she was out of breath and hungry. Before she could raise her fist to knock on the door it opened to reveal bright blue eyes. He said nothing, just turned on his heels and retreated into his small house. She froze when something furry brushed by her foot to enter the house. The little black cat had caught up to her and sauntered after Aberforth.

The home seemed even smaller from the inside, the chaotic disarray of personal items and furniture made it difficult for Hermione to walk. There was also a strange musky smell infused in the walls. Hermione wrinkled her nose and tried not to look too closely at anything but for one traumatic moment she thought she spotted a pair of tattered male undergarments on the floor. It was disgusting and completely inappropriate to invite a young girl into a house so horribly kept, private items strewn about in the open.

Hermione found it disconcerting that such an intimidating man lived in a humble home. There were only two rooms, one she assumed was the bedroom and the other was a kitchen – dining room. He was already sitting at his compact table. She noted that the chairs were mismatched before she took a seat across from him. He didn't invite her to sit but he wasn't exactly obeying social etiquette in the first place. They sized each other up, only Aberforth was unabashedly judging her while she tried to covertly assess the situation. There was no tea at the table and no kettle rested on the stove.

It was said that Aberforth bore a striking resemblance to his famous brother, indeed, he matched the description perfectly. Powerful blue eyes, a long white beard and very tall, he seemed to radiate strength and mystique. But Hermione wasn't sure where the similarities continued. Albus was brave and beloved by the people. She knew too little of Albus Dumbledore to speak of his bravery but she was certain no one liked him. No, he wasn't likeable at all. But he still commanded respect and fear so Hermione sat politely waiting for him to speak, trying not to react too strongly to the deafening silence in the room although her high strung personality made it problematic.

Sitting under his intense inspection for so long, she began to worry that night would come and she'd be incapable of leaving and have to sleep in that hovel with this unnerving, strange man. She didn't know what upset her more, the fact that she'd be vulnerable to him or that her own already developed notoriety would grow. She chewed on her bottom lip before he finally spoke.

"I don't have any tea. I didn't have time to go to the well and get some water." She didn't comment so he continued. "Apparently Bill Weasley was taken by Them last night, there are tales throughout the village. It seems like the creatures know us."

Her face remained composed. "I know. I went to visit Ron."

"Ah yes, he's courting you. I had forgotten." She wondered why he would ever bother memorizing anything about her.

They fell back in terse silence. She had the distinct feeling that he was testing her for something.

"Are you hungry?"

She froze; the abrupt change of topic caught her off guard. "Umm, yes. I haven't eaten since I heard the news."

Hermione regretted speaking; the last thing she wanted was to try eating his food. With such a repulsive home, how appetizing could his food be? Nevertheless she didn't try to stop him when he got up and rummaged through his cupboards. The small black cat jumped onto the table and sniffed at her.

"What's his name?"

"Her name is Asha. She was feral, but I tamed her. I think she belonged to a Bulstrode litter." He replied, cutting a loaf of bread.

"Oh… I… I'm sorry I tried to…" he shook his head at her and went back to searching.

Asha turned over onto her back and looked at her expectantly. Petting the cat's underbelly did wonders for her nervous disposition. The cat purred and nipped playfully at Hermione's fingers before Aberforth returned and shooed her off the table. He set down a plate full of sliced bread and a jar of peach jam. She worked hard to keep a straight face when he offered her a dirty spoon; it was still sticky and had a white smear.

"Oh, no thank you, the bread will be just fine." He shrugged nonchalantly and scooped a large dollop of the jam. She bit into the bread tentatively, to her surprise it was fairly fresh and had no mold. Her stomach rumbled aggressively and she found herself nearly inhaling four thick slices of it. When she finished he was looking down at her with some amusement.

"S-sorry."

"Not at all, if you're still hungry I have some more in the pantry."

Hermione shook her head. "No thank you sir, I'm well." Her eyes wandered to the window, taking in the sunlight. It was going to be sunset in a few hours. "Well… this has been… interesting… Thank you for the meal but I must-"

"Why were you at Snape's house yesterday?"

She jumped a little in her seat, surprised at his bluntness. Those commanding blue eyes sliced through her mental strongholds, her superficial sense of superiority, she was suddenly a timid young girl staring at the floor.

"Umm… I don't know…"

His eyes probed her for a moment, then they softened.

"Hermione… I have been watching you for some time now…" Her head jerked up sharply. "You have great potential. I have known this since you first started school."

"Oh. Thank you."

"I've also noticed your… preoccupation. With the forest."

Her heart thudded in her chest, far too loudly; she was sure he could hear it.

"You're not like the others Hermione, you never were. We are the same, in that regard. No one really… connects with us do they? We are outsiders in a tightly knit community."

She swallowed hard, an unpleasant feeling in her chest made it hard to breathe. What was Aberforth going to do to her? Report her to the tribal members? Or was he going to offer help?

"Hermione, what exactly do you want to do with the forest beings?" She stared at him blankly, petrified and hopeful at the same time. He was a freak, just like her, someone no one wanted to talk to or spend time with. Only Aberforth kept to himself, a recluse, no one paid attention to him. Everyone knew she was lucky to have caught Ron's attention and spend time with his friends. She had no true friends of her own. Could Aberforth Dumbledore be her friend?

She watched him closely, trying to figure him out. His dazzling eyes revealed nothing but interest in her and his posture was relaxed, but Hermione struggled to open up to him, she hardly knew him. It would hardly make sense to reveal oneself to a strange man based on an instinctive nagging in the back of her head telling her Aberforth shared a kinship with her.

"I… I don't know what you're talking about."

Aberforth observed her for a moment longer, dissecting her protective mental barriers. It was hard living with an obsession for years, saying nothing, burning with the need to know but always aware that to know would be to face the reaper. Never had anyone truly attempted to know Hermione, she was too unsettling; she was a strong young girl intimidating even to adults. Yet her defenses were fragile, never tempered by legitimate attempts to understand her. He made her incredibly uneasy prodding at her with his gaze. Thankfully, the mute interrogation didn't last long. He got up and went to what Hermione believed was his bedroom. When he returned he was carrying a frayed piece of parchment. He retook his seat across from her, carefully holding the thinning sheet between his fingers.

"I have something to show you, Hermione." His intense stare fixated on her. "After you read this, I will tell you something. Whatever it is you learn here, you must not, under any circumstances, tell anyone." He paused, pursing his lips as if struggling with his own attempts to open up to another human being. She watched him close his eyes and rebuild his wavering resolve. The parchment was placed on the table before her.

Hermione bit her lip, worrying it between her teeth as she continued to look at him, almost stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the paper. She had to fight the tremors she felt grow in her limbs, so frightened, and it was only a sheet of parchment. It was an internal battle she had only had once before: her curiosity and her cautious nature clashing. The last time her curiosity had won she had nearly jumped out of a window, running to Them. This old man made her extremely nervous, but he was offering a part of himself to her, to earn her trust. By the sound of it, it was something that could harm him.

She licked her dry lips and turned to the sheet. Hermione frowned, it was difficult to read as it was smudged and old, words were incomprehensible and a whole chunk was torn from the bottom. When she saw the author's name she gasped audibly, her eyes jumping to Aberforth's calm expression then flitting back to the paper in rapt attention. She eagerly began to read:

To whom… I, Albus Dumbledore… before death… The war is won, many were lost on both sides, we were looking… to find the Flame… the Dark Lord had claimed it but it was not on him… weeks in the forest, we could not find it. It was strange, we felt watched. I did not know at the time whether they were dangerous… We were running out of supplies, Cornelius wanted to give up. The winter was the worst of it, many people died in the cold… I refused to let it go; we needed to find the… it would have been nothing, a whole war fought over nothing. I was certain of its location… I did not then nor do I now trust Lucius… Strange things had happened in the forest, we set up camp. Men were disappearing. I needed to find out… beautiful… spoke to them… lust was our weakness…

Hermione made a noise of frustration; the next whole damn paragraph was completely useless. She skipped to the last section.

Someone has been… I cannot leave my quarters anymore. There is no evidence that it is Lucius' doing… poisoning me… I get weaker each day… relations are strained… Still haven't found Fire… Cornelius and others are forming a group… Settling here, building houses, I told them… it's not right. There will be no mercy when they find out… No one is listening… can barely write… Aberforth…beware, they will be the death of us all –

Hermione leaned back into her chair, slouching a little and forgetting her manners as she digested the chaotic rambling on the page. She had never expected to lay her eyes on one of the ancient texts written by Albus Dumbledore himself. All documents concerning the war were cared for by the tribal members and it was forbidden to touch them without permission. Not that Hermione knew of any person who had ever even asked, let alone received, permission to read those texts. The tribal members considered such documents dangerous in the wrong hands, a fear validated by Snape.

"Well? What have you learned?" he asked softly.

It was easier to speak to him now; too shocked to overanalyze the situation or worry about herself she opened up quickly.

"I'm not sure…" she replied, but before she even spoke her mind was already working on its new problem, interpretation of the note. "It appears as if the Dark Lord… and Dumbledore – I mean Albus Dumbledore, were chasing after something. But that doesn't make sense, we've always known – or at least taught – well I mean… we've been told the war happened because the Dark Lord wanted to be the most powerful wizard in the world… trying to get more power. But the note says the war was over some object. Something called the Flame? Fire?"

He nodded slowly, catching her inquisitive look, "Ah, I'm afraid I have no idea what that is."

Hermione gave him a look of outrage. "How is that possible? You were alive during the war, I mean – how could you be there and not know what the war was about?"

"My memory is not what it used to be… and I recall the war, the Dark Lord… but as far as I know there was nothing about a Flame… I think he might not have told me about it, whatever it was must have been valuable for him and the Dark Lord to look for it."

"How can the tribal members not tell us this? How can we not be informed?" her voice rose as her shock increased. She may not have trusted others with her emotions but she did trust the tribal members. Everyone trusted the tribal members to protect the village, to find a way out, and to keep their world functioning in the face of all odds. Why keep that information secret?

"I tried to speak to them… Crouch, Fudge and Slughorn in particular. I didn't tell them that I found this letter in my basement, hidden in the wall… Just that I remembered something about red rubies. They basically told me I was getting senile in my old age…" he said wryly, cracking his knuckles while Asha jumped back onto the table seeking attention. Hermione quickly removed the parchment before the cat could damage it.

Aberforth grumbled and tried to move the cat but she growled softly before adamantly sitting down in the middle of the table to clean herself.

"Stupid cat…" he sighed and looked back to Hermione. "I tried to break into Snape's house several times. I don't know what spells they're using but even I am incapable of entering. I think it requires the blood of a specific person and unfortunately it's difficult stabbing the townspeople for testing purposes." He added sarcastically. "However, I managed to test the tribal members and none of them are the key."

"Couldn't it be possible that the tribal members had no idea of this, that this was all something between Dumbledore and the Dark Lord?" She gave up trying to separate the two Dumbledore men, too distraught to worry about correctly distinguishing them.

"True, but then why wouldn't they be comfortable telling everyone when they found out? I don't understand how we're supposed to defeat the forest when we don't have all the information… I've read every book they would allow me to read, none of them giving me any new information. If it wasn't for that one blizzard thirty years ago that shook the wall loose, I never would have known about the letter."

There was a tinge of regret underlying his words. Hermione closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath to soothe her nerves before imperceptibly gagging when she scented one of the noxious smells in the house. So the town of Diagon had more mysteries than she had known and the powerful Aberforth Dumbledore had not been able to expose any of them. He couldn't enter Snape's home. She was a fool to think she was capable of effectively finding the counter-spells alone. She groaned to herself audibly.

"I don't know what to think…" she looked back to the paper, before paling considerably. "What is this about poison? Someone was poisoning Dumbledore? I thought the Dark Lord injured him and he died a few weeks later?"

"I know, another discrepancy."

"He barely mentions the wood creatures… or rather, what little we can read doesn't really help make sense of Them…" she trailed off in thought.

"I tried to contact Them."

Hermione looked at him blankly as if he had spoken in another language, a lunatic babbling on about inconceivable things.

"You tried to contact the tribal members again?"

"No." He leaned forward, his voice dropping to lower decibels. "I tried to contact the forest beings."

Her eyes went out of focus, blurring his form. She was stunned, completely stunned. He might as well have leant forward and claimed to have captured the sun in his fist, stored it in his bedroom and oh, would you like some more bread?

The old man got up and walked over to his window, glancing up at the silver sky and ignoring the statue-like girl in the room.

"You stand before the forest often. It affects you but you keep doing it. I know why. You're determined to know. You tease and taunt yourself far worse than the woods ever will." He turned back to her, eyes trying to refocus in the dim home. "I was never inclined to care. There was nothing about the forest that made me want to know. It was enough that I spent some time as a Safeguard, seeing the massacres. To know was to die. Horribly. I was comfortable just living. Then I read the note and nothing made sense anymore. As far as I could read, Albus had once contacted Them. And he had survived. So I thought, perhaps I could do the same. Perhaps I looked enough like him to trick Them, to talk to Them. To see the whole picture..."

Her mouth moved awkwardly, opening and closing in quick succession as the questions in her head fought for dominance but she settled for looking at him expectantly. Her hand started to throb of its own accord, as if reacting to the situation. Hermione started a little, feeling the pain in her hand for the first time all day. She glanced down at the swollen mess before returning her attention to Aberforth.

"I went out my front door one evening and stood there, waiting for Them. But no one came. Spent the whole night awake, sitting on my porch and waiting for something to happen. I had even called out to Them, telling Them my name and asking to be heard."

He frowned to himself in remembrance. "I actually began to suspect that They didn't even exist, if you could believe it. Even working as a Safeguard wasn't enough to assuage my suspicions. I mean, I began to think that the tribal members were doing something… something terrible. Killing their own people –" he cut himself off, shaking his head. "Never mind, I shouldn't be saying such things in front of a young girl. The point is I was afraid it was all a lie."

"So… what happened?"

"I came out the next night and waited. That time things changed. I… uhh… got these urges. Really powerful urges…"

Hermione turned scarlet, realizing what he was saying. He caught her expression and his own cheeks turned slightly pink.

"Well… I see you have some experience in this matter."

"I… I had peeked through my window once."

He looked at her sharply. "What did you see?"

Hermione drew back, alarmed. "N-nothing, just had that… errr… the urge."

"Oh," he slumped in his seat. "I didn't see anything either. I stood there and could sense Them watching me…" To her surprise, he turned stark white. "I didn't know what They were going to do, just watching me. Then, without warning… my clothes caught fire!"

Hermione gaped at him, so it was true; They could wield the elements just as the tribal members had said.

"I had stumbled back into the house, trying to put out the fire… the urge was powerful though, I was going to burn alive, in my own house, and I didn't even know the enemy. I couldn't fight Them, Hermione I didn't even know where They were! I felt hopeless and… and deranged. The urge was so strong. I almost… I almost liked it…" he shuddered.

"How did you survive?"

"Asha bit me. It's how I met her. She jumped on my face, clawing at me. I took hold of my senses and put out the flames, rolling on the floor like a terrified dog… I could still feel Their call, but then Asha bit my finger… blasted cat almost tore my finger off…" he added with some affection in his voice before he shook his head, continuing, "and the connection died."

"So… so what do you want me to do with all this, sir? What am I supposed to do with this information?" She asked, hollowly.

"Hermione, I know the things going through your head. I can see it clearly as I myself have had to deal with them too." He nodded to the paper in her hands. "When I read that I was consumed by the need to find out, to hunt down the mystery. But whatever the circumstances, whatever the reasons, They are our enemy. Perhaps there was a time when they were manageable, more likely, my brother was going out of his mind. He had been injured by the Dark Lord, and he wrote this on his deathbed. For all we know he was delirious, but I guess I had always wanted to know what lay in the woods, hunting us, all I needed was an excuse to finally try meeting Them."

He leaned forward and took her hand. "You are a fantastic witch, I do not want you to die, falling prey to your own curiosity. I am an experienced wizard and They nearly killed me, They nearly made me want death."

His intense blue eyes bore into her painfully.

"Hermione, I have never known, in my entire life, a greater pleasure than burning alive. You should not face them, you should stay the course. Develop your skills and become someone. Do not try to fight Them yourself. I… I know that the people here are not welcoming to a powerful witch… but with my influence, I'm sure I could help you gain momentum, become a useful tool to the tribal members. You are one who could help us."

"Right. Of course." She murmured softly, her gaze shifting to the window and her face expressionless. "I need to go now."

"Yes, of course, you need rest. It's getting darker."

She walked to the front door, numb and distant from her surroundings. Aberforth said something but she couldn't hear him, wasn't even aware that she had responded. The sky looked greyer somehow and her body felt leaden. Her legs moved sluggishly along the grass. People walked by her, but this time she didn't take notice of their cruel cold shoulders. Life had changed, tinted darker and bleaker. What was once an unknown future became finite and to Hermione it seemed that the distance to the end was too great.

She no longer felt like she was the smartest witch in school who had the possibility of becoming more. In Hermione's place was a cowed little girl, wondering why she ever thought she could save Diagon from a faceless evil when she could barely keep her head upright in an old man's presence. This man couldn't defeat the forest, none of the people in the town combined could and this stupid, this naïve little girl wanted to be the heroine.

So goddamn utterly stupid, she thought to herself. Tears welled up in her eyes as she made her way home, racing against the darkening sky. Villagers were rushing past her, probably trying to get to their own houses, live their lives, and settle into their patterns. Another death, another day, close your windows, hide beneath the covers, awaken and do your chores…

Tears poured down her cheeks in steady rivulets as she neared her house by the woods. The cold chilled her bones, or was it the knowledge? The awareness that one was helpless, useless and paralyzed, stuck forever in a contradictory cycle of tragedy and ennui. Aberforth was kidding himself, thinking he could influence the tribal members that much. He was a queer man hiding in his disgusting house with a cat. No one trusted him and he had no connections. If he raised problems he would only look more unstable in the eyes of the village.

She scoffed to herself, Hermione Granger, the bizarre snob, vouched for by Aberforth Dumbledore, the cagey dangerous recluse. Oh yes, she was going to rise up the ranks.

By chance, she looked up and at that moment spotted Ron walking past her. She paused and turned to him but he didn't notice her, his vacant eyes looking at nothing. He continued walking away from her, tripping over the earth and confusedly walking to his house. It was in the wrong direction, but someone spotted him and helped him.

"Hermione, he's broken…"

Indeed, she should have been focusing on Ron, not wasting her time daydreaming about impossible feats. She vowed to stop all that nonsense; it was time she grew up. The brunette was no longer a child but a woman. A woman whose suitor was hurt and needed love, not a distracted mess and Hermione would be that woman.

She lifted her chin and walked more purposefully to her house, ignoring the woods when she came by them. Their ominous leaves continued to dance in the air, laughing at her façade but she didn't care. She would swallow her pride and her dreams because it was time to live in reality. She was no hero.

Hermione Granger opened her front door, the forest a dark silhouette at her back, and walked through the threshold without any heaviness in her body. No. There was no weight to her limbs, because her body was no longer her own. It moved to the pulse of Diagon, her mind subdued, the fight snuffed out of it.

Later that night, when all were safe in their homes, shielded by their magic, barricaded by fear, They stalked the village. Some on two feet, some on four, They scented Their territory, learning the map. Many more bodies in the air, the villagers, more than the usual number, had walked the streets.

When They arrived to the house, the one with the red haired, They looked for Their markings, Their little joke. It had been amusing, but She was not impressed. There was much anger, there was hate, there was no place for joking. She had been furious with Them. No more fun. Next time there would be pain.

The humans had cleaned Their joke, but the place reeked of fear and sickness, potently, deliciously. It was maddening, hunters hovering over Their prey, fangs bared but unable to draw that titillating taste, first blood. No, They were only capable of nipping, here and there, while the prey stood tall and alive. It was agonizing. But it was only a matter of time. Humans were frail and stupid. Humans made many mistakes.

The joke had died but They fell into a frenzy of joy, of bloodlust; all that fear… They could taste it, had it in Their mouths. One snapped and attacked another, a fierce roar echoed through the empty village. The game was on. The one who snapped darted toward the woods while the others chased, rabid in their hunger.

She watched Them go, lazily walking around the redhead's house. One wall, just a thick piece of wood, kept Her at bay. It was what always kept Them at bay. But She wasn't worried. She had time and patience. A skilled predator always has patience.




He wanted death. Death was no ominous spectre, no malicious creature haunting him. He wasn't able to pinpoint the exact moment, the birth of his desire for death, longing for it like an aloof lover, tantalizingly beyond his reach but it was now a persistent feeling deep within his core. The yearning was torturing him and the torture only reminded him of the relentless beating of his heart, the mercilessly continuous life passing through his messy body, with all its fluids and noises and nastiness. It made him sick.

 

But then he wondered, what was it about death he wanted most? Did he want himself to die? For the villagers to die? Or perhaps to meet the monsters of the forest. To have those creatures before him in tangible form, so that he could kill Them himself. Give Them a little taste of their own fucking medicine. Shred Them, cut Them, mash Them, destroy Them until They cease to exist. Kill Them all. Or even just one. To have killed just one would have been accomplishment enough.

Ron smiled blearily, slouched in a dark corner of an alley, as he considered that perhaps it wasn't too greedy of him to want all things to die, himself included. But no, it wasn't time to think about that. He slowly and painfully got up from his sprawled position on the frozen earth. The snow didn't make him as cold as he should have felt after being covered in it for two hours in a semi-conscious state. He grabbed a handful of the snow and used it to haphazardly clean off some of the vomit that stained his shirt. He checked his breath and started another fit of gagging because he wasn't prepared for the combined smell of sour vomit and alcohol fumes to be so prominent. Thankfully, there was no food left in his stomach. He took another handful of snow and used it to rinse his mouth as best he could; he needed to at least appear as if he were still holding himself together when he got to church.

It wasn't supposed to be a church. Technically there were no priests and no religion in Diagon. The building looked plain and unassuming, but it was massive and located in the heart of Diagon. No one had to go to the building and its only supposed purpose was to unify the community and exchange news, information, details on the never-ending futile efforts of the tribal members and their group. The tribal members tried to call it 'The Meeting Place' because no one wanted to admit that they had their own sort of religion in Diagon. Religion was a curse word among the wizarding community. Those deranged humans and their savage cruelty against all things magic, all in the name of a God and a book, where magic was the curse word, among the many curse words their religion had: the occult, pagan, mystic...

But there was a religion in Diagon. It may not have been spoken of, it may not have been acknowledged outright, but it was there. The God was for the safety of the community. The priesthood were the tribal members and They were the manifestation of evil. Only They came to no longer encapsulate only the forest beings but all people who stood in the way of the community's safety. The meeting place was just another church; where people listened to the leaders of the community discuss among themselves the various issues in the town, coupled with long sermons on the dangers of the forest beings, the dangers of curiosity, of drink, of fun, and of being unproductive members of the community. So many dangers, so many rules; the constant reminders of rules almost drove him crazy. But he had to admit, there was a need for these rules. Those sick creatures would never stop hunting and people never stopped making stupid mistakes.

Oh Bill…

No, there was no outspoken rule that said one had to go to Church, but the disapproval was there; the shock and anger whenever someone did not show up. It was sacrilegious, blasphemy, spitting in the face of those working tirelessly to keep everyone safe from the monsters waiting in the dark. To ignore the community, to turn your back on them, and there was no question in his mind that the church, though annoying and a bit hypocritical, was important for the survival for the community. It pained him that Hermione rarely went. But she did go a few times, with him, after Bill… after Bill.

"It is with great sadness that we must say goodbye to our Bill Weasley, on this day." Fudge's somber voice easily carried through the vast room, filled with villagers, some crying and other raptly attentive.

The funeral had taken place earlier that day. Long ago it was decided not to bury the dead, but to burn them. Though there was much discontent, after all, many did not want to be burned or have their loved ones burned it was only practical. There was limited space in the village and they relied on ground water. If the waters got tainted than all was lost and They wouldn't have had to do a damn thing. Those who died naturally could be viewed before death, should the family so choose, but the Weasley's had no choice. The body was mutilated. It would have been cruel and offensive to the dead to make the body visible to the family.

"He was an active member of the community. Full of potential and loved by many…" he paused as he looked around the room and realized it was no time for another sermon. Lucius Malfoy got up from his seat at the front row and took his place next to Fudge by the podium. Fudge quickly returned to his own seat at front, allowing Lucius to take charge. His cold grey eyes swept over the expansive unadorned room, almost pointedly avoiding the area filled with red heads as he took control.

"Although this is a dark and sad occasion… it has come to the tribal member's attention that there is discontent and confusion throughout the village…"

Ron shuddered in his seat. Lucius Malfoy's voice always struck him as slick and tainted with venom. No matter what he said or how he said it, Malfoy's voice sickened him. And he was in a terrible state as it was, listening to the man only made him feel worse. Hermione didn't seem to notice though, even sitting next to him. He vaguely noted that it was strange of her not to be aware. She was almost always aware of everything. But it hurt his head to think. It hurt his head to listen. It hurt him all over just breathing. He hadn't slept at all since Bill left. Not a single second. Three nights of insomnia, laying in his bed, sobbing like a bitch or screaming at his window till he tasted blood in the back of his throat. Pointlessly screaming that no one would ever hear. He barely had it in him to digest the words Malfoy was speaking, let alone be aware of his girlfriend's odder than usual behavior.

"The Safeguard has carefully investigated the situation behind Mr. Weasley's… passing. It was concluded that, while disturbing, it was merely coincidence that Mr. Weasley was found near his home." He paused to carefully take in the skepticism among the people. "In our long history, this is the first time such a set of circumstances has ever taken place. Other than the location, there is no evidence to suggest that this was an intentional act by the forest beings."

"These creatures… They are cruel, senseless monsters. They kill without remorse, without thought, and without mercy! They are not humans like us, and it is ridiculous to consider that They might be aware of what they are doing. These… these things cannot be reasoned with. If it was possible to reason with Them, do you not think that the many people who have been lost to Them in the night might have had a chance at survival? The only man to have ever survived Their presence had done so because he could control Them somehow!"

The room burst in shocked whispers. Even Ron managed to come out of his stupor long enough to realize the implications of Malfoy's words.

"Wh-what? Snape could control Them?" Ron blinked at Hermione, who had softly stammered the disbelief others were simultaneously voicing to one another. Her voice had been so weak, so soft and subdued that he would have scarcely heard it were it not for her close proximity and his focus on her. She was the only person he could focus on anymore.

"People… people…" the voices got louder, the shock mingled with hope. "SILENCE!" Everyone abruptly stopped talking. "We have been suspecting this for some time. Severus Snape revealed nothing to us, but we have his texts. It is our belief that he had some way of communicating to Them, of taming Them. We are currently using his books and journals to look for ways to create similar magic. It will take time… and unfortunately, one of our best hopes in creating this magic has been lost to us." The mood instantly turned austere and sorrowful at the mention of Bill. "You can all rest comfortably. They are not capable of thinking. They are lower than animals, bent on destruction and death! Fear Them like you fear a rabid dog, but do not fear Them as if They are some intelligent threat!" He spat out mockingly, clearly voicing his opinion that only an idiot would believe, even for a second, that the forest was full of smart creatures aware of who the villagers are and how to get to them.

Ron believed him. It had been stupid to think those ugly creatures were able to think. If They were able to think, how could They possibly find it in Them to do such acts of evil? Innocent people of all ages, obliterated and destroyed. They were subhuman… no… subanimal. When Ron thought really hard about it he realized They were better classified as parasites. Latching onto a living form, any living form, and draining it of all life even if it meant dying after the host was drained completely. Parasites did not have brains.

As Lucius returned to his seat, the prim, bloated form of Delores Umbridge quickly stepped up to the podium in his place.

"Hem, hem. It is important to remind you all that there is a constant, imminent threat against our town. We must remain together, united against the enemy if we wish to succeed. Rumours are the seed of discontent. There is no greater enemy… than those invisible, within our community, infecting our town with ideas that only spread fear and distrust! We are constantly fighting against Their evil, always searching for ways to free us from our bonds! We shall persevere! But we must remain together! If we do not trust in one another, if we stand in our own way, then we needn't fear the forest, for they will have already won."

Ron's head hurt. Her voice was so high pitched and nauseating. The pulsing in his temples only intensified when the congregation erupted in applause and shouts of approval. They were all on their feet. Hermione was the only person sitting with him, for some reason she had the life snuffed out of her. It mildly confused him but he didn't have the mental capacity to think too deeply. His eyes were sticky and dry from the need for sleep.

Bartemius Crouch stood up from his own special seat at the front row, next to Lucius, as Umbridge concluded her sermon; it was his turn to speak. Crouch was one of the most respected members of the community. The main legislator and creator of the laws in Diagon, his methods were harsh, almost merciless, but he was the face of justice to the people. There was no greater advocator of force and corporal punishment than Crouch. His own son had died at the hands of the forest beings long ago and his fury surpassed the fear within the village.

"This was a most unnecessary death…" his smooth soft voice falsely giving one the impression of gentleness. "A disgusting and pointless death that could have easily been averted were it not for Stupidity and Weakness." Ron's face turned red and his eyes watered. Hermione squeezed his hand but he could barely feel it. He almost wanted to turn around and demand that she crush it, crush his hand into her fist until it crackled like snapped twigs. Until he could feel it, finally feel something physical. Crouch's words burned his gut and tore his chest.

"It has always been a privilege, drinking in this village. Boys, drinking whenever they want so long as they get home before nightfall. We rely on boys to know when to stop drinking! We expect boys to think rationally, to understand the risks involved. No more of this!"

"We have been too lenient with drink. Not just for boys but for men. Drink is an evil, it slows our minds and gives us false feelings. The numbness and pleasure that comes from it makes us feel immortal, safe from harm, when harm is just outside!" his words were hissed, whispered but heard by everyone. "We have lost people because of drink, a complete stupidity on our part. It is time to change this. The tribal members have been thinking about this for a long time, but have now fully decided. There will be restrictions to the amount of drink one may consume, how old one must be to drink and a curfew for the pubs leaving five hours of daylight."

There was a strained silence. The mornings were usually for work and what little time they had in the afternoon before nightfall was spent at leisure. If the bars closed early then there was less time for people to drink in general. Bars wouldn't make as much profit and the men would be left without one of the few vices left for them. Ron suddenly felt sick to his stomach. Facing reality sober and aware did not sound very appealing to him at that moment. He zoned out as Crouch began reciting a list of rules and punishments for drinking. The world just got much darker for him.

He hawked some phlegm onto the earth as he stumbled around town. Most people knew he was drunk and drinking but no one stopped him. No one informed the tribal members or tried to punish him. He was a fairly quiet drunk and never did much in public. Though he couldn't drink as much as he wanted in the pubs, people were trading alcohol for items in secret. Ron was a fairly big customer. Some even gave him free drinks because everyone knew why he was torturing himself. He killed his own brother.

Remembering Bill, that was all he did when he wasn't wallowing in self pity or blacking out. Just remembering his time with Bill. His eyes watered with tears, their presence never ending, and he realized he didn't care if he went to church. He took a detour and started walking to Hermione's house. She hadn't gone to church since Crouch had changed the laws.

Hermione actually made him forget some of his pain. She had become a different person, almost like himself, not quite present with the rest of the world. He didn't understand why but he didn't have the energy to worry and he hardly understood Hermione as it was.

Since he was six years old he had a crush on her. Everyone was afraid of her because she was so strange. Although Ron was not the smartest boy in Diagon, he realized at a young age that if the people were afraid of her, then she had to be almost as powerful as the forest beings. While others were scared, he was impressed. Everything she did amazed him. People teased her for being so strong, and he wished he was powerful enough as a person to defend her properly, to stand up to others. He tried his best, subtly suggesting that people leave her alone, trying to spend more time with her so people would stop being so scared. It didn't make sense to him, even when he was small, that people would be scared of their own. To him she was a beacon of hope, though she sometimes made him insecure about his own strengths.

He talked to her as often as he could, though she barely responded to his efforts. Kids started to tease him a little but he paid them no mind. What little he got to know of her only intensified his feelings. He began dreaming about her, night and day, wondering what she would think about such and such, and what it would be like to kiss her. As he grew older he began dating girls though he always pined for her. She barely noticed his existence.

Getting her to date him was difficult. She was extremely wary and constantly suspected him of playing some elaborate joke on her. He showed up with flowers, took her on walks, treated her to meals and she was always tense like she was waiting for people to jump out from nowhere and attack her. But his persistence paid off and he never forgot the day she referred to him as her beau to her parents. He had spent the whole day with a completely idiotic grin on his face and when Bill found out he took him out to his first drink.

Bill…

He clenched his jaw and kept walking through the cold air. His lips were chapped to the point of bleeding and he couldn't feel his fingers or toes. The need for drink was momentarily quelled but he knew it would come back soon. He hadn't seen Hermione for weeks and a part of him, the part that had yet to be tainted by Them, missed her. As he moved away from Diagon's center, he leant down and ate more snow, but he knew this wasn't necessary. There was no need to subject her to his vomit covered kisses.

When he got to her home he had to stop and stare. The forest stood before him, the bare stems of the trees tangled together in a chaotic mass, its presence a constant warning. Snow made the trees more foreboding, icicles hanging precariously over some of the thicker trees and the frozen wood creaked eerily in the wind. His eyes began to burn from the need to blink but he couldn't tear his gaze away from the taunting image. So stupid, being frightened of trees, but there they were, a whole village of wizards petrified and running their lives according to the limits of the woods. It was a cruel joke.

"Ron?" came a soft voice behind him. He didn't even jump, not that he expected her presence, but because everything about him was numb and slow.

Ron turned to her, ruffling his red hair with a hand as he tried to appear normal.

"Hello… just… just wanted to see you."

"Oh." She glanced at the forest. "Would you like to come in?"

"Your parents home?"

"No. They're at the market."

They walked into her house, not worried about being seen. It didn't really matter to Ron anymore, being caught doing something inappropriate. Strangely, neither did Hermione.

"Do you… do you have anything to drink?" He asked, as politely and innocently as he could as he licked his parched lips. Hermione looked at him from the corner of her eye and left for the kitchen while he walked to her bedroom with the practiced ease of someone who had done so frequently.

When Hermione came back, it was with a glass of water. He smiled weakly at her as she stood across from him and took the glass. She watched him as he brought it to his lips, sipping tentatively and trying not to choke. He managed to get half of it down without sputtering too loudly. How strange, he mused, that when alcohol flows freely water becomes poisonous.

"Mmm… thank you." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Noticing the disgusted look on Hermione's face as his smell wafted over to her, he froze. "Oh… umm, I suppose I can come back another time." He murmured and started getting up, unaware of the pained expression on her face.

"No! No… it's alright. It's alright." She swallowed hard as he carefully sat back down and looked at her.

They stayed there, awkwardly waiting for something to happen. In the end it was Ron who made the first move. He put his hands on her hips and drew her closer, lifting her shirt up to place half-hearted kisses on her stomach. His teeth bit gently into her stomach as he removed her pants and panties. Hermione was staring blankly, head turned toward the window, while Ron sloppily made his way to her breasts.

There were times when Ron hated himself for doing this to her. She never denied him, and he knew it was out of pity and duty. It wasn't fair to her that she lost her virginity so soon, without marriage and with the risk of childbirth. But it was very hard, being selfless in depression. He needed her. Her touch, her taste, her warmth, he needed it all. Yet it was never enough and always fell short of making him feel alive.

Sex was a blur for him. He had hardly realized that he was on top of her, the two of them completely naked. They hadn't even bothered closing the door. It was an out of body experience; his sex was hard and inside her but it was like he wasn't really there. She barely moved while he pumped in and out of her. Several times he had to stop and spit on his hand to wet himself because she wasn't slick enough. The rhythm started off slow as he tried to desperately find something to hold onto, to keep himself hard. No emotion, only a dizzying cloak of lethargy and listless movement.

The pleasure, vague and faint, began to grow within him. All his focus turned to it, clinging to the sensations as tightly as he could, his only true connection to what was happening. It was there, he was alive, and maybe it wasn't so bad. She made a noise as he sped up but he didn't register it, the room was silent except for the muffled slapping noise as he moved within her, eyes shut tight. He grunted while she weakly held onto his scarred back. The grey light from the window seeped into the room, illuminating his pale body towering over hers, moving erratically. His body was warm, finally warm after a whole day of binge drinking and laying in the snow unconscious.

The bed creaked a bit loudly, it was old and worn, and he was too big and tall. He had gotten skinnier though, ribs poking through his chest and his spine sticking out too much. Hermione had her head turned away, so she wouldn't breathe in his breath as he panted, the sickly sour odour of his stomach contents striking her in the face. His very skin reeked of illness and putrid old sweat.

As he finally reached release he had a split second of peace. Nirvana. His mind went blissfully blank, barely noticeable with how quickly it passed. He didn't finish powerfully, he didn't finish with joy and he lost it all too quickly. He stopped his motions and hovered over her, still panting slightly. When he looked at her he saw her eyes were still closed and she had her head turned to the wall. He stared at her for a good long moment, taking in her features, and he realized just how much she had changed. Thinner, paler, and deadened, it was as if he could actually feel her energy had dropped to his own. He pulled out of her, and sat on the bed, still naked.

They said nothing to one another, she lay on the bed and took to looking at the ceiling while he thought to himself.

"Her-Hermione…"

"Yes, Ronald." Came her soft, emotionless reply.

"You don't like what we're doing… do you." It came out as a statement. Hermione seemed to revive her from her languor.

"Oh. It's not like that Ron…" she sat up next to him, uncertainly. "I mean, I love you."

"Right. Right, I- I love you too."

Another wave of silence befell them before Hermione spoke.

"Do… do you like it?"

He sighed, unable to look at her. "I don't know." He whispered. "I kind of… kind of do." Ron turned his face further away from her as he asked, "Are you… were you, in love with Bill?"

"Uhh… what?" she asked, completely dumbfounded.

"You changed since he died… so I kind of thought that…"

"Oh! No! No, no, Ron, I didn't love him like that. No."

He finally hazarded to look at her. Her perplexed expression relaxed him a little, though he wondered why it didn't upset him more, the idea of Hermione being in love with Bill.

"We aren't actually supposed to do this… before marriage I mean." She mumbled, turning slightly pink.

"Yeah… but you don't like it. Right? You wouldn't lie to me." He paused, staring at the floor with empty eyes. "You wouldn't lie to me Hermione."

"Oh Ron…" she shuddered, eyes tearing. "I love you… but… it's not supposed to be like this."

He nodded, tears forming in his own eyes. "Yeah… it's not fair… not fair at all." The forced smile on his face came off as an ugly contortion. "I should go now, before your parents come by." His voice was hoarse and he had to fight off an onslaught of nausea.

"Wait, Ron…"

But he ignored her, got up and dressed himself quickly without looking at her. He felt disoriented and furious. His own woman was disgusted with him, didn't want to touch him. Ron practically ran out of the house before Hermione managed to get dressed to follow him.

Once outside he broke into a sprint, pushing his feeble and wasted body to its limit. It was pathetic; he barely managed to run far enough to lose sight of her house. When he stopped he had a coughing fit and threw up what little of the water he still had in him. The cold was biting into his skin again and he groaned, forcing himself to walk through the larger tufts of snow, keeping away from the village and steadily walking farther away from Hermione.

It was harder to walk so close to the forest. People rarely traversed in the area so the snow hadn't flattened out. The heat that had flushed his body after sex left him and he was shivering. At that point he wasn't sure if it was the cold or the need to drink that made him shake. Or maybe it was the agony, the knowledge that Hermione didn't really want him anymore. That he had only been hurting her that whole time.

Tears started falling from his cheeks and he sobbed painfully at the realization.

"Aww Mione… I'm so sorry, Mione" he coughed as the cool air burned his lungs from the run.

He had hurt her. It wasn't his intention. He just… needed her. When she asked him if she liked it, he had no idea what to say. All he knew was that being with her, having someone touch him intimately, with warmth, made him feel better. She was the only person he still tried to connect with. The only person to make him feel human and alive. But at the same time he was making her feel bad.

He sobbed to himself, unable to hold back.

"I love you… so much…" he keened to himself as he stumbled through the snow aimlessly, feeling horrified with himself. "I'm real sorry…" Ron shook his head, the hurting in his chest no longer from the cold. He took advantage of her, his Hermione, the powerful woman he fell in awe of, that he worked so hard to win over. He hurt Hermione. His eyes burned with salty tears and he wanted so badly to scream, to scream it all up, this built up self loathing but he couldn't. Someone might hear him; see him, in all his repulsive weakness. He killed his brother and he tried to kill Hermione, kill her from the inside. Kill her like he himself was dying.

Goddamn it I want a fucking drink!

Hermione changed, and it was his fault. His stupid fault. What if he had already killed her? Killed what made Hermione so strong and beautiful to him. No, he wasn't the brightest boy in Diagon, but he saw her. He saw a part of her no one else did because they were too busy being too scared to even look at her. Little Ronald, one of the popular boys, cocky and brave, saw her and was humbled. He had wanted to give her everything and he had so little to offer. He always knew this, always felt he was just short of her expectations or wants but he tried so damn hard. Now he didn't just fail her, he tried to destroy her.

He fell to his knees, cold wetness soaking his pants as he knelt with his face buried in his hands. He was failing everyone. Father went around still doing business as usual, acting so normally that it was scary, as if Bill never existed. Molly was listless and always cleaning. Cleaning the damn house over and over again. Harry stopped seeing Ginny, who had her fiery temper snuffed out of her. He hadn't talked to Harry at all since the last time, since the day after. George and Fred were actually working at a pub, no longer playing around or joking. He had no idea where Percy was or what he was doing. And everything was his fault. Because he got drunk. Because he let Bill wander off on his own. Because Ronald Weasley was stupid, so very stupid and useless and sick. And oh how he wanted to die and how he wanted to kill everything in his path and how he wanted to save the world, and fix everything and make Hermione smile, smile again for him and laugh. To see Bill again, to make him come back, please come back and it hurt so much that it was him, his fault, his stupid mistake, and he wished the scars in his back were fresh and deeper. So much deeper, to match the scars within him.

It had taken over three hours of deliberation before the tribal members decided what to do with him and Harry. The punishment would be private, only viewed by the tribal members and the families, should they choose to watch. Ron assumed the privacy was because of Fudge; the man was much softer than Crouch and probably argued that there was already plenty of punishment on Ron's expression as it were. Harry looked a little nervous but Ron almost felt anticipation. He wanted this. He needed this.

They took Ron and Harry to a small courtyard behind the Tribal Quarters. Ron briefly recalled Severus being tried for execution there, but he had never been to the courtyard, where most punishments were delivered. He noticed three thick wooden poles at the farthest end of the courtyard, right in front of the fence. There were ropes hanging off of several rings imbedded in the wood. Two cloaked people, one by each pole, stood there with cloth bags in their hands.

"Attention here." Came Crouch's cold voice. Ron and Harry turned around, alone with the tribal members. The Weasley family hadn't come.

"As punishment for your negligence in the matter of Bill Weasley's death, to which you have both admitted participation, you will serve penance in the form of twenty lashes. Remove your shirts and take a position in front of the poles."

Ron stepped in front of a pole, shirtless and standing tall. The varying levels of rings were for the different heights of those who got punished. He lifted his arms over his head and put one arm on either side of the pole, wincing as the ropes wove through the rings and tied his forearms to the wood tightly, digging at his skin. He leaned his forehead against it and spaced his legs apart.

The sun was strong that day, strong enough for the heat to flow through the clouds that covered the village. Ron could feel it on his skin and for a moment, while he was bound facing the pole, he relished the calmness that overtook him. Crouch was saying something but he didn't hear it. He didn't even note the look of fear in Harry's face.

And then it rained fury. The sun was licking the skin of his back, its flames sizzling his skin and peeling it apart. He screamed, a raw confession of his sins, head thrown back in worship of the sun god that tore into his flesh. No excuses. The blood trailing down his ass and staining his pants were his repentance. He broke into a sweat gripping the ropes that bound his arms so tightly that his hands turned completely white and bled.

When it was over he was crying but pure. So perfectly, completely pure. Harry was hacking and coughing next to him yet he couldn't really see him. It was in that fleeting moment that Ron felt absolution. But it wasn't enough. It would never be enough. The chain reaction of events after Bill's death would only serve to teach Ron that being punished was not sufficient. That his actions would affect so many people in so many ways. Countless wrongs surfaced after Bill died. He didn't deserve to be happy. Though he didn't know it at the time, he began partaking in true punishment. Punishment with no absolution. There was no greater act of retribution than self-destruction.

Ron returned home just before nightfall, completely drunk, yet again. The wood groaned under his wet boots as he made his way through the hallway, forgetting to take them off. His father was in the living room reading a book. The house was impeccably clean. Ron hobbled over to one of the small couches in the house. They had a lot of furniture, a side effect of having such a large family, it made the house seem smaller because of how congested the house was.

"Hey, 'swhere's Ginny?"

Arthur didn't look up from his book. "She's in her room. Don't disturb her when you get ready for bed."

Ron swayed in his seat, blinking rapidly at his father in the hopes of being able to see him better. But no, he was still a blob in his glazed eyes. They sat in silence, with Ron staring in Arthur's general direction who was dutifully ignoring him. Molly walked into the room and glanced at Ron briefly before noting his boots. She didn't say anything to him.

"Arthur, I need to clean the floors, there's snow water all over the place."

She had, months ago, stopped talking to Ron directly. He did what he wasn't told directly and removed his boots, walking back to the front of the house to dispose of them. Instead of returning to his parents he walked by them, and the kitchen, straight to his room. He paused and listened to Ginny sniffling nearby before he finally forced himself to his bedroom. The chamber pot in his room was full and he had forgotten about it. The smell was horrible but he was too lazy and disoriented to dispose of it properly. Sneering, he took the pot and left it just outside his room in the hall.

Stupid bitch, cleaning up all the time. Might as well be useful.

His ire quickly dissipated after he closed the door. The room was long and narrow, jutting out from the doorway with the window just across. His bed was just off to the side, part of it under the window. A mangled, old looking table was beside his bed and dresser was beside the entrance. He opened the large window to air out the place, changing in front of it in spite of the possibility of being seen. Night hadn't fallen yet so people were still making their way home. He tossed the clothes into the messy pile at the foot of the bed. All his nasty clothes were still there because his was the one room his mother refused to enter.

He smiled wryly as he sat on his bed and stared out into the streets. Someone walked by his door and closed it but he didn't acknowledge them. It was starting to get really cold in the room but he didn't care, just kept staring out the window as flecks of snow began falling onto his floor. His throat hurt, he swallowed carefully but it continued to burn. He was either sick or the drinks were actually burning his throat. He grinned goofily, struggling up off his bed as he started searching through his desk to find his flask.

"Mmm Rober' yea… good stuff." He vaguely recalled buying it off of Robert Dillinger. Or was it Rodney? Whoever it was, it was his first time buying off of them. He took a whiff of it and cringed violently at its powerful smell. Powerful is good. He took a sip and had himself a coughing fit, eyes wet and bloodshot.

"Shrong, shiiiiit," he giggled to himself weakly. Ron collapsed on his bed and forced down a huge gulp, the lukewarm fluid burning his already sore throat. Alone in his freezing bedroom, his mind wandered.

"Ron… why don't we go and play ball or something…" Dean mumbled tentatively. Seamus nodded and nudged the redhead with his elbow.

"Wha? Nah, it's good like this. S'pub. We like the pub. Righ?"

"We like the pub yea… but now we're always at the pub," added Timothy.

His heart started to beat faster and his hands sweated. He knew what they were trying to say, trying to tell him to cut down on the drinking, but what the hell did they know? All he had was his drink, all he wanted was his drink…

"You guys go play. I'm good here."

He listened to the chatter of the room while his so called friends sat around him quietly.

"Ron…"

"No. You go on ahead. Go. I'm good here."

"You're sick all the time…"

"I said I'm GOOD, now GO."

There was some hesitation but eventually they left him, muttering about gits and bloody idiots, but Ron pretended he didn't hear. It wasn't their business, and it was embarrassing to have them try and talk to him about it. He could scarcely believe they made the effort.

Taking another sip of his drink he started to feel warmer. Tears fell down his already stained cheeks. His whole face hurt from crying but he couldn't even remember why he had spent most of the day in tears. Like some girl.

He grunted and sat up in bed, a sudden sharp pain in his stomach made him keel over.

"Ah, Gawd!" He painfully heaved the alcohol onto his floor, making his head throb in agony.

Mum's gonna haft a clean that up… he mused as he took another swig of his flask.

"Alright Ronnie, we're gonna play a game!"

"What, what, what?" Ron practically jumped on the spot with excitement. Bill always knew the best games because he was oldest and biggest and he always let him play.

"Gotta build a fort in the snow, alright? Then we make snowballs – like this- and then we'll have a snow war! Last man standing wins! It'll be me and you against Tim and Anthony!"

His eyes went wide, "What? I can't do that. They're both bigger than me; you gotta get Fred and George!"

"What? What Fred and George? All I need is you! You're man enough ain't ya?"

"Well… I'm little…"

"I say you're a man. You're my right hand man." He tossed a snow ball at Ron's chest. "Look at you! Still standing after that! And you call yourself a boy?"

And they played all day, snow flying through the air. He was tired and his little body hurt but his big brother kept going and he was a man damnit and he would keep going too because Bill said he could. Bill always said he could do it. And mum didn't stop them, didn't call them in, let them play. And they won, a little boy and his brother against two big boys. Bill carried him over his shoulder into the house and mum already had two baths ready and a big meal. They told everyone and everyone laughed, enjoying their meals and Ron was a man that day because Bill said so. One day he'd be a man like Bill.

Ron's head felt like exploding and he was shaking. Which was odd because he didn't actually feel cold, but he forced himself to get up and grab a grungy sweater to warm himself, slipping a bit on his puddle of vomit in the process. It made him laugh, a strange painful sound.

He mumbled incoherently to himself, memories of Bill jumbled in his head. Memories of what his life used to be like, his old dreams and hopes. Nothing made sense in his life and nothing made sense in his head. He walked aimlessly around his room and in an act of stupidity, the flask fell from his hands and spilled onto the floor, mingling with the vomit. For a moment he gaped at it incredulously, but then he burst into loud guffawing laughs, slapping his thigh in joviality. He laughed so very hard as he yanked his dresser from the wall began bashing it in with his foot. He laughed even harder as he tore off the curtains and flipped his table over.

"HAAAAAA, HAAAAA fucking HAAAAAAAA!" His eyes were wild and furious, his only flask and he lost it and he still had a whole night without sleep to look forward to. He smacked his fist into the wall and didn't even register the pain as the wood remained unblemished.

His breath came in ragged gasps and the tears, the never ending tears, continued to flow down his swollen red face.

"RONALD WEASLEY!"

"WHAT!"

Arthur's angry face froze in shock.

"Don't you take that- that tone with me young man! You need to keep it down in here!"

He stared at his father incredulously. Arthur's son, his son, was half mad in a drunken rage, standing in his own bile and filth, tearing his own room apart… and all he cared about was Ron's noisiness. Ron hated him, a useless old lunatic living in his own little world. His mother hadn't even come in to check on him. Ron hated her. He wanted them to hurt, he wanted them to know how he hurt and he hated how a large part of him felt it was deserved. He deserved to suffer their passive cruelty. However, at that moment, all he wanted to do was tear into his father, beat him to a bloody pulp and leave deep scars so his father could never again pretend…

"What's going on?"

He stiffened when he noticed Ginny standing by his father. Her beautiful brown eyes were red and puffy. The fight went out of him.

"Nothing. Both of you, get the hell out of my room," he softly replied.

Ginny left but Arthur stood his ground.

"You listen here Ron, this is my house. You watch how you talk to me boy."

"Dad, if you don't get out now I'm gonna to beat ya till both my fists break."

Arthur's eyes bulged out of his head in shock. There was a dangerous stillness to his son, a quiet wrath. Long gone were the days of little Ronnie obeying his dad. A stranger stood before him, larger and stronger. An animalistic anger lurked beneath his tranquil demeanor. Arthur said nothing, closing the door behind him.

He crossed his bedroom floor to the window but rather than close it, he climbed out of it, leaving it slightly ajar.

I don't care anymore. I don't care. I wanna hurt something, I wanna hurt someone…

It wasn't dark yet, but there was no one strolling about Diagon. Except for Ron. It almost soothed him, the crunching of his dirty boots in the dry iced snow. He had never walked alone anywhere before. Always surrounded by his friends and coming out early enough or staying late enough to walk his village alone. He felt hyper sensitive, in spite of his drunkenness. His breath came out in white puffs and the snowflakes gently flitted onto his skin, moving through the air like they were riding streams of water. There was very little wind and he appreciated that. The warmth of the drink was starting to disappear.

He knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. No one cared about him anymore. His friends abandoned him because his drinking made him boring. Hermione didn't want him because he was repulsive. His family pretended he didn't exist. He was as good as dead but damnit he was still alive and he would prove it. The drink brought courage in him, courage that was only strengthened by his pain and disregard for himself.

He hatched a brilliant scheme. If Diagon were to figure out a way to kill Them or stop Them, all they needed was one damn body. One dead creature to examine. Ron was going to be the man to do it and he knew just how.

He wasn't sure what would kill them but decided that a freezing spell would suffice. In one of his more sober but homicidal moments, he figured this out. His spell casting wasn't as complex or powerful as Hermione's. It would have probably been best if he used a lightening spell because it was faster and not something associated with Their known abilities. But the cold weather would help him. It was fairly simple, freeze one to death, and then drag it back into his room. Ron couldn't help but chuckle to himself as he stumbled around outside, the sky darkening.

It would have been a very ingenious plan, if it weren't filled with holes of knowledge, like would the creatures be capable of freezing to death? Especially when They were known to live in the forest during the harshest of winter storms. And what if Their magic manipulated the cold? But that was the least of his problems, as his plan had already failed. He was still very drunk and wandering around town, now quite lost. Growing steadily nervous, he tried to find his way back to his house, furious at himself for straying too far. He had hoped to move a bit away from his window, so as to not alert Them of his plan. Now he was lost and confused.

"Shit…"

The cold bit into his skin more aggressively after the sun finally left the skies. He could barely see in front of him, only catching glimpses when the clouds shifted away briefly to illuminate his path. His nerves began to react; the situation was new and horrific.

What happened to Bill…

He swallowed hard, heart in his throat and stomach getting queasy with fear. It was nighttime, he had never been outside in the night. Oh no, he had spent his whole life hiding in his safe, impenetrable room when the sun left him. Now he was bare to the world and the world was dark. He began an awkward jog trying to get around faster, yet completely unable to tell where he was going. All he could hear was his blood pumping through his body and his breath escaping his lips. He was sober. Worse, he was frightened.

Ron reached into his pocket and grabbed his chalk, almost sobbing when he realized he had very little surface area dry enough to write on. But he pushed his body harder, jogging as best he could.

"No…"

Like a hand pulled him, coaxing him, he stood before the forest.

"No… no, no, no…."

His body was flushed from the effort of running and by God his lungs hurt so bad he almost wished he could stop breathing. But it wasn't possible; he couldn't have run all the way toward the forest. How long had he been ambling around aimlessly? He compulsively licked his forever chapped lips.

Suddenly it was no longer a good idea. A drunk man trying to weave complicated spells in freezing temperatures against an unseen and unknown enemy sounded a lot more reasonable after a good drink. After many drinks.

Even then, he felt the pull of the forest. His legs seemed to move of their own accord, dragging his paralyzed form closer to the woods, so black in the night that they looked like a mammoth abyss. He whimpered when he stopped just a few feet from the first tree.

The wind stopped and his heartbeat slowed until he could only hear his erratic breathing. Nothing moved or changed but his instincts were on full alert. There was something watching him. He could feel it under his skin.

His fist curled around the chalk in his pocket, trying to ignore the growing panic coursing through his body.

"COME OUT!" he screamed, as goose bumps spread over his body. They were watching. "COME OUT DAMN IT!"

Clouds covered the sky completely… he was immersed in pitch black. His breath came out in short gasps as he felt Them surround him, all over, just observing him. He could feel it and he knew it and the fear was too intense. The chalk in his fist broke and he let out a mangled cry at his mistake. There was a faint whining noise in the back of his throat as panic set in. Blind and alone he stood before the trees and They did nothing. Like some sick joke, he stood there body numb with terror.

It was far too silent. His ears began buzzing only to disorient him further. There was too much space, he extended his arm and wished he were near something solid, a wall to put his back to so he could know where the danger faced him. The dread was so intense he broke out into a cold sweat and shook.

"Leave me alone…" he whimpered softly to the suffocating darkness. "Please… just leave me alone… I'll go back to bed, I promise." A weak sob escaped him. When a small burst of wind touched him, he flinched so violently to face it that he tumbled over onto his knees. A noise! He flung his arm out in hysterics, touching nothing. For a few terse minutes he frantically convulsed on the earth, screaming in horror, trying to fend off unseen monsters. Exhaustion finally slowed his body.

"What do you want from me?" He cried out weakly. "What are you?"

He squeezed his eyes shut but couldn't tell the difference. When he reopened them, light had trickled through the parted clouds… and something was there.

Ron's fragile body tensed, wide eyes riveted to the large dark shape that stood low to the ground. He couldn't make out what it was in the meager light. It stood there without moving, without a sound.

"H- hello?"

It didn't react. He could feel it watch him with passive curiosity. As far as he could make out, the creature had pointed ears. He shifted on the ground, trying to get to his knees without taking his eyes off it.

A soft, almost sensual growl flowed through the air…

He stopped, half squatting, as the creature moved. It stood up on four legs, covered in a luxurious silver fur. Ron squinted in the faint light, noting its long snout and glowing blue-grey eyes.

Wolf…

He had read about them… never seen one before in his life, except for illustrations in books. Ron didn't even know they had wolves in the forest. He frowned in confusion. The tribal members didn't say anything about wolves. As far as he knew, They weren't wolves.

"Go away..." the animal continued to watch him intently, an indiscernible glint in its eyes. "I said: go-a-way," he tried more boldly. The animal lowered its head, as if considering him. Ron waved his arm at the wolf, trying to scare it but it didn't respond. If it weren't for the few times it stirred, Ron would have thought it a statue. Feeling less frightened and more perturbed, he relaxed a little, looking at it more closely. It was very large but lithe; he had the urge to run his fingers through its svelte fur. His fingers actually itched to touch it.

A cloud passed overhead, so quickly thought he'd blinked, and when he refocused his attention, the wolf was gone. He paused for a brief moment before he heard a ruffling noise behind him. He jerked toward it only to see nothing.

They're playing with me…

The pounding in his heart rose. He stared at the black forest, slowly moving backwards toward the village.

Another soft growl… right behind him…

When he frantically turned to meet the sound he was only met with the benign sight of his village outline in the darkness. It was too much, his chest burned with fear and the tension got to him.

"Shit –" He broke into a run, pushing himself hard. Home, home was safe, home was where he had to go.

He turned his head briefly and caught a glimpse of the wolf, gazing at his retreating form. It was smiling at him.

"Ah!" He ran faster, panic coursing through his veins as he barreled toward the town. His body felt like it was ready to collapse in on itself, lungs screaming in agony, joints loosening, and muscles cramping but he kept going. Half mad, he barreled through the village, not even sure of his direction.

It wasn't long before he was out of steam. He ran into an alleyway to hide and catch his breath. Panting heavily he tried to make out where he was. To his despair he realized he was half an hour's walk back to his house.

The merciless clouds converged, leaving him in the dark's embrace once again.

He lost sight of the world. This time he flattened his back against the wall and pointlessly stared wide eyed at the blackness. Nothing happened. There was silence. The quiet was unnerving his already frayed mind.

He forced himself to breathe slowly, heighten his hearing. The alcohol felt like it was out of his system, senses revitalized and alert. For that small space of time he almost felt safe. Then something's warm breath caressed his face.

He was petrified. Completely and totally immobile. If he shifted, even slightly, he would come into contact with Them. They were right there. Right in front of him. The hairs on his body stood to full attention. An unnatural sound emanated from his throat, pitiful and scared. He could sense Them. The warm breath continued to gently touch his face. Whatever They were, They had to be tall because Ron was one of the tallest boys in the village. A large, vicious creature was standing right in front of him. Doing nothing, just… looking at him.

A warm wetness trickled down his leg and he had to stifle a pained groan. The smell of ammonia reached his nose but the warm breath didn't leave.

A chuckle broke through the air.

Ron jerked back, smacking his head soundly. Without thinking he turned and ran, reeling around madly in the darkness.

"HELP! HELP SOMEONE!" They knew he was there, They had been watching him. Malfoy was wrong, They were thinking creatures. They were hunting him and They could see him.

"HELP!" He tripped and fell, quickly scrambling to his feet.

Another soft jeering laugh danced through the air.

His foot hooked onto something. A step. He was in front of a house. Forgetting that it was completely useless, he clamored up the slippery, misshapen stairs and started pounding on the door.

"Open up! Open up! Help! Please help! Help! Please, please, please, please plllllllllllease!" His screams went unheard as did the sound of his fists slamming the door.

A small shift in the skies and light whispered through…

There was a human shaped shadow crouched on the handrail.

With a scream of utter horror he hurled himself in the other direction, slipping on the icy stairs and landing hard on his back. The wind was knocked out of him and the pain so intense his eyes rolled into his head. For a moment he blacked out. When he awoke he couldn't move. His back hurt so much he could scarcely breathe. He grunted weakly and was confused as to why he couldn't move his arms or legs.

"Uhh… ahh… wha…" It was so cold. His right arm was near his head, it was blue. "Oh… Oh…" He gasped in surprise.

Something was panting.

His mind felt heavy and slow but he noticed the large shape in front of him. It was a black wolf nuzzling his stomach.

"Eh?"

His voice made its ears perk. When it lifted its head Ron couldn't help but gawk at it. Blood was dripping off its snout.

"Ah!" he cried faintly.

It licked its fangs before it leaned down again.

"Wha… what… wait! Ah…" He had to have lost his mind. This was all a hallucination. This wasn't happening. Couldn't be happening. Was not happening.

When it leaned back to eat the long piece of meat, he realized in a sort of numb haze, that the wolf wasn't eating his stomach. The sounds of wet squishing and hungry gulping made him dry heave. Things snapped and slurped and all he could do was lay there and listen, half delirious. The metallic smell of blood was thick in the air, its warmth melting the ice he rested on. His mind was clouded with incomprehensible beastlike howling. Yet all he managed to do was a bit of twitching.

"Ohhhhhh nnnnnnnnooooo" he groaned in agony as the sound of crunching reached his ears. The wolf tilted its head back and swallowed, dark blood matting its fur. A grey wolf stalked over and joined in the meal.

"Mommmmmmmmmmy" he sobbed, his mind completely lost.

It was an inhumanely long time before Ronald Weasley was finally enveloped by the benevolent, the understanding, the ever forgiving, arms of Death.

The silver wolf watched it all, sitting off to the side as the other fed. Snowflakes placidly swam in the air, visible by the now bared moon. And the wolf smiled in satisfied misery.




Ron died last night.

There was a dull, persistent humming in her ears. She couldn't quite pinpoint its origins but was fairly certain it came from within her. It wasn't very loud but she seemed barely able to hear anything from the outside. All she could do was stare helplessly at her mother's haggard face. The creases were deeper and new worry lines had appeared. Hermione had never remembered her mother's hair being so grey. Her mouth was moving but no sound came out, just the humming.

Ron died last night.

It was a strange sensation, numb and half alert to the environment. Something squeezed her hand hard enough to register in her mind. Her father was holding her hand and looking at her strangely. He looked sad.

Ron died last night.

It almost felt… good. Very little thinking involved. And she did far too much thinking, worked herself up into attacks of anxiety. Sometimes she wished she did as little thinking as others. Then she could relax. Only it didn't quite feel relaxing. It was just an absence. An absence of feeling.

Ron…

She briefly wondered where they were going. The world was white and although things appeared vaguely familiar, she couldn't focus in on any details. Everything was blurry and odd. The strange humming hadn't gone away and she had an unnerving notion that the humming was trying to tell her something important, something to clarify the situation and for some reason she shied away from it. The ever curious Hermione Granger shied away from information. It almost made her smile. Her father gave her a weird look.

Ron…

More people talked to her, touched her, hugged her but she still couldn't quite make out what was being said. She clung to her mother, never straying from her presence. This neediness was not something her mother normally allowed or encouraged, pressuring Hermione to cheer up the last few months, but apparently Hermione got some sort of reprieve that day.

Whole parts of the day were rendered a useless jumble in her mind, a muddled cacophony of images and sounds. In a brief moment of clarity she was surprised to find herself in her own bedroom. Her mother was dressing her for bed. The window was open and the room cold.

Her mother said some things, looking very worried. With what was an unnatural amount of effort, she managed to nod her head a little, not quite sure what she had responded to. But her mother seemed a bit more comfortable. The window was closed and the curtains drawn. Hermione was carefully placed into bed by her mother, who left her a glass of water by the bed. The chamber pot was out in the open, looking quite clean.

I threw up in that… I think.

Her mother kissed her forehead and seemed conflicted about something. She decided to cast her daughter an anxious smile before blowing out the last candle and closing the door shut.

Finally, in the dark of the night when the protective spells were up, Hermione burst into tears. Hot tears that made her eyes burn and itch, her throat dry yet somehow thick with phlegm, she sobbed. Her body curled up on the fetal position as her mind raged at the world and all that was in it. The numbness had lifted but her mind was no clearer. In place of the dizzying mist that had clouded her mind all day, a furious blinding storm. She felt sick. She was angry.

I always obey the rules. I always do what I'm told. I follow the lines, I don't indulge, I back down, and I bend to the wills of others. I can't do anything because of Diagon. I can't do anything because of Them. I couldn't do anything to help Ron and so he got drunk and killed himself. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. DEAD. ALWAYS DEAD ALWAYS FUCKING DEAD.

Want to do everything can't do a damn thing.

Memories of Ron flashed through her mind as she squeezed herself tight on the bed. She had feared the monsters, she had been curious of Them, and she had even been in awe of Them. Now she hated Them.

If They didn't exist then we could be living anywhere we wanted to. If They didn't exist Ron would be alive. If They didn't exist life would be different. If They didn't exist I wouldn't be here sobbing and I wouldn't care about being in this room and maybe I could see the moon again and maybe I could see… so much more. If They didn't exist.

But They did exist and Hermione was tired of Them. Ron was dead. But then, he had been dead for a while. Hermione had been barely holding onto life herself.

For the past few months she had been miserable. She had never felt so strangely in her life. All the energy had been sucked out of her, she slept more and her school marks had dropped badly. People had nodded their heads, all-knowing, Hermione Granger was just a girl, and the high grades were only a phase. Her head hurt all the time and nothing made sense anymore.

There were times when she could barely get up out of bed. She would break out in silent tears randomly throughout the day then go months without a single reaction. She didn't want to do anything. Every small detail in her life was a huge obstacle. She didn't care what people said or thought of her. The forest was barely worth a glance. She slept with Ron.

She slept with Ron. When it happened, she hardly registered it. It didn't even seem so scandalous anymore. Nothing mattered. Countless times holding Ron and listening to him cry or just ramble, she had hardly noticed anything. Her own mind was frayed and tired. Tired of the village. Tired of him. But he was the only one for her. No one else in the village was anything close to a friend. Ron wasn't just a friend. He wanted more of her. Something she thought no one would ever want. That queer Hermione Granger would never find a boyfriend, they thought.

They were sitting on the grass by the forest, no one around there as only Hermione would be foolish enough and Ron drunk enough, to sit so close. He had been drunkenly ranting. Nothing new or unknown to her. But for the first time he was openly sobbing in front of her.

To her shame, she only felt disgusted with him, not affectionate or understanding. She was tired of his self absorbed ravings, as if he was the first person in the village to lose family to Them. And she had her own problems to deal with. All she wanted was to slap him hard across the face. Beat the bullshit out of him.

It was surreal, she could barely hear him rambling on about Bill and his family. His face scrunched up and red as the tears poured from his eyes and all she could think about was how much she wanted to be elsewhere. Anywhere. So far far away.

He fell into her, gasping for breath and she held him reflexively, eyes unfocused as she stared off into the distance, into the forest. The trees were beautiful. A mosaic of colour, playfully rustling in the wind.

She felt his lips on her neck, doing something odd. She didn't particularly like it. But she loved the trees.

Hermione wondered how fast They could run. Perhaps if she created the right spell, she might be able to outrun them. Run through the forest and straight out into the world, leaving those creatures, with their gaping maws, staring at her in shock. The whole village would be shocked that Hermione Granger had outsmarted them all, just as she had always believed she could.

As he fumbled with her breast she realized quite quickly what his intentions were. She was almost offended that he would try such a thing with her. But she also didn't care anymore. She hardly cared about anything. And no one cared about her.

It was true, her school grades were bad but no one seemed to care. It even comforted them. No one tried to help her, ask her what was wrong, what had happened to a promising young mind. She was certain they would have gone ballistic if Harry's grades went down. Oh yes, his marks had gone up and he was proving himself quite motivated. There was already talk of him joining the teams searching for magic to kill Them or find a way out. But Hermione losing ground in school? Was only a matter of time.

Everyone sickened her. Her own mother seemed pleased that she was finally becoming a woman. Teaching her to sew and cook. Her upper lip curled as Ron continued fumbling around her. He hesitated briefly before nudging her onto her back.

She wondered if it would kill his enthusiasm if she mentioned the fantasies. Drowning herself in a well. Jumping from a roof. Or her favourite: waltzing into the forest.

She didn't want to sleep with him. Didn't even want to touch him. But then she would have to deal with the stupidity of all his whining. She wondered if he would stop seeing her over it. Then she would have to pretend to want a new beau. Her mother would go insane if she didn't find one. She recalled her mother's relief when she met Ron. No other man would want her. And maybe she would gain a child from him… then he would have to stay with her. Of course then she'd have to care for the child… maybe a baby would give her some purpose beyond existing. She wasn't entirely sure but she couldn't bring herself to worry or think too much on it.

Ron was struggling with her skirt. When he finally got them off he got on top of her. She gave up and gave in. Too much thinking, far too much thinking her whole life. As he started doing things… her mind went away. It only lasted a few minutes. She felt dirty and tired; Ron looked confused for a moment before passing out. She got up, dressed and kicked him hard in the ribs. He woke up startled and she told him to go home. It would be nightfall and she was leaving. She left without another glance. After that she made sure she regularly bought potions from Parvati to keep a baby from happening. She never asked how the girl got them. It was a disappointing first time. But then Hermione could never recall a first experience that wasn't disappointing.

He used to talk to her, ask her questions and actually listen to her. Oh, he could be as stupid as the other villagers sometimes but he was a good man, always polite and honest. At least, he used to be that man. Then Bill died and Ron picked up the drink. Her only effort to stop him was not actively providing him with drink. She had briefly wondered if she could try it but then seeing him… changed her mind permanently. He was repulsive, weak, and pitiful.

She felt guilty. Why? Because a part of her rejoiced to hear he was dead. His incessant wailing and embarrassing her in public. She stood out enough without him behaving like a drunken idiot. No more days of dreading his presence, of having to let him touch her, of pretending to care. But it shouldn't be that way. It didn't have to be. But for Them.

Them.

Always Them. She wanted Them dead. It drove her insane that They did these things to people and nothing happened to Them. Nothing! Nothing fazed Them. All the efforts of the village and nothing changed. Except for the people affected.

It was enough to drive one insane. A hidden tormentor, harassing you at all hours of the day, mocking you and you can't do a damn thing. Everything could have been different if it wasn't for Them.

She wasn't crying just because of guilt. She cried because she mourned for the people she and Ron could have become. The people everyone in the village could have become.

But what could she do? She knew as little of Them as the villagers. And her only possible ally was a coward, clinging to weird, half torn stories written by a poisoned old man. Aberforth Dumbledore was useless. She didn't know what to make of that letter. For months she had tried to ignore, understand, and discredit it all at once.

She looked out into the darkness of her room, eyes puffy to the point of hurting. Things needed to change. She couldn't live like that anymore. She was done waiting for others to accomplish things and she wasn't half as scared as she used to be. The question of 'why' was no longer of importance. Why They did what They did, why They could kill with such remorseless ease, why They killed without discrimination. It did not matter! The heart of the matter, the important point that she kept forgetting as she fantasized about saving the village, was that They wanted everyone dead. There was no reconciliation. She had done nothing to Them. A hapless girl staring out into the forest and wishing for freedom but doing nothing.

Hermione dug deeply into herself and wrapped the numbness around her once more. She would need it to muffle the fear. Ron was dead, that was Their fault. She barely cared, and that was Their fault. It was timesomething happened to Them. It didn't matter if all she managed was a slight scratch, or giving Them a headache with her screaming. Some consequence had to happen. It was the law of nature.

She stood up in the dark and walked to her window, finger tips gently caressing the fabric of the curtain. Memories of lust flashed through her mind. Ron must have died while… she shuddered. It didn't matter anymore. What was important, was figuring out what she wanted to do.

Perhaps Dumbledore could help her? She bit her bottom lip, hands still teasing the curtain as she considered him. The chances were slim that he could offer her any help, let alone want to. He had tried talking to her frequently since they met but she avoided him, not wanting to be associated with him in addition to a drunken redhead. Besides, he was quite adamant about her doing precisely the opposite of what she planned to do. He wanted her to stay away from the forest. No. It was too late for that. The forest would always be with her. Staying away was futile and redundant. There was no way to avoid Them. The villagers could lie to themselves, hide inside their houses… but there was no avoidance. The creatures were always there, the primal fear in the heart of Diagon.

No, he would not help… but there might be a chance he would prove useful to her. People were scared of his house. He might not have felt the need to put barriers on it. She needed advanced magic and, now that the town was convinced she had finally become the idiot girl they expected of her, no one would offer her any. He had those letters from his brother in the house. Who knew what else he had hidden in there? It was risky, but the numbness was strong, an awful yet wonderful cloak that softened all emotion even fear.

Tomorrow she would begin watching him. Soon, she would be in his house, and(,) hopefully, leave with a book to use against Them. If nothing else she would be rummaging through an old fart's house for no reason and end up home with nothing. Then she'd have to come up with another plan, somehow.

She had failed Ron, but he did not die for nothing. She would make sure of that. There would be consequences.

It had been a week. For all the mystique and fear surrounding the old man, he didn't appear to know she was watching him. But watch him she did, even going so far as to take notes on his daily habits. His habits were boring but patterned. The majority of his day was spent squatting on his porch and smoking a pipe. But he did go out for groceries from time to time and would be out for a few hours, stopping by pubs.

It was difficult, finding a reason to stand in the bitter cold of winter for hours on end. She lied to her parents, pretended she went to the library all day. Neither questioned her as she always tended to go to the library when she needed comfort. It was too uncomfortable for her family to talk about Ron.

People were irritating her, offering condolences and sad stories of the past. Some were tactless enough to gossip about Ron's drinking in the process. They all had some anecdote to give her. It had never really occurred to her she would receive so much attention. It made watching Dumbledore more difficult. She had a powerful urge to do something obscene in the middle of their stories, though she wasn't sure just what, or why.

Her mother allowed her some time to herself. She didn't have to go to school for that week. She got the feeling her parents were worried about her. But she didn't have time for that. Today was the day.

She was lurking behind one of the other houses as she waited for him to leave. Dumbledore got out of the house carrying a couple of empty sacks for the produce. Hermione watched him lock the door and mutter a few spells. This had been an issue in her plan but she eavesdropped and learned the counter spell.

As he made his way toward the village centre her nerves came to life. If she was caught, she had no idea what would happen. She didn't know Dumbledore as a man so she couldn't predict his reaction. At best he might punish her personally. At worst he would tell the village and she would be publically humiliated, probably thought to be crazy and her mother would never allow her outside the house without supervision. She didn't dare think it outright but she strongly suspected there was no way she would allow herself to live that way.

The numbness was no longer as strong and for a minute her resolve faltered.

No! Not now. Not this close. There is nothing for me if I turn back.

She let go of her clenched fist, unaware of the deep red marks she left in her palm, and carefully made her way to his house.

No one was nearby, not surprising as people were afraid of him. She quickly pulled out her chalk and with a practiced hand traced a set of runes on the doorway. Hermione almost smiled to herself. Her grades may have suffered but her talents didn't. It took her only one day to practice the runes, and they were Master level.

A drop of blood and the door was open.

She swallowed hard and walked in, closing the door behind her. All the strange smells hit her and for a moment she was brought back to the day she sat there trying to eat bread and talk to Dumbledore, listening to odd tales from a letter. She shook her head and drew her robes tight around her.

The process was slow and unpleasant. She knew she wanted to start in the kitchen, because it was the place most would least expect to find texts, especially forbidden ones. It was risky but she carefully snooped around the house trying not to disturb too much of his belongings; it was possible that somehow this mess made sense to him and he would notice any changes.

"Ah—!" She stifled a scream when a warm thing brushed up against her leg. Asha looked up at her from the floor, rolling onto her back and exposing her slightly white belly.

"Stupid cat…" she muttered, quickly leaning down to rub Asha's stomach before proceeding to the hallway. The cat mewed in protest but she ignored her.

So far she failed to find anything. She had even checked his basement, located under a carpet in the living room/kitchen. It was dingy and extremely dusty. She couldn't locate the broken wall that Dumbledore said had the letter. If he was an excellent spell caster this would have all been useless. What was she to do if he charmed areas of the house to protect his books? And what if he had no books in the first place? Just as the villagers incorrectly assumed Hermione was strange and dangerous, they also might have been wrong about Dumbledore. Just a simple old man living alone with a cat.

But she couldn't think about that yet, there was still one room left to search. His bedroom. She cringed at what she was about to do. It was wrong on so many levels. Entering an old man's private quarters with or without his permission… not to mention the disaster she was sure his bedroom would be, after the nastiness that was his house.

And so, it was with great trepidation that she opened the door to Aberforth Dumbledore's private sleeping quarters – only to be puzzled. She could barely see inside, side stepping to allow the natural light in the hallway to seep into the room. It was nothing like she had imagined. In fact, it hardly looked lived in. It was almost creepy.

There was a small bed in the corner and a chair in the centre of the room. The darkness was thick, it was almost as if the light from outside was coaxed inside, only to be swallowed whole. Hermione paused, her right hand twitching nervously as she eyed the blackness. But it was too late for second thoughts. She was already there, had worked herself up to it and would go absolutely insane if she turned back then. Insane and homicidal. She could feel a pressure in her chest and knew it was the weight of Diagon's endless tense droning. A village constantly on the verge of death and going nowhere. Stagnant and barely alive, and it was going to swallow her whole if she went back. But the room was totally immersed in darkness. There was no person in Diagon brave in the darkness. Other than those who drank themselves to stupidity or lost their minds. Darkness was Their lair.

She turned abruptly and grabbed the nearest candlestick off a wall. Ever prepared, she had brought a match. The chalk and magic would have taken too long and left too much evidence.

With the lit candlestick ready, she carefully made her way into the bedroom. The darkness was nearly complete. She didn't understand it. The window was totally boarded up, yes, but why on earth would the darkness be so thick? The candle accomplished nothing, only ruining her night vision. Frustrated, she had the urge to tear down the boards on the window. But that would have been stupid, leaving a ridiculous mess so that she could do what? Look at his bed?

Hermione ran her fingers through her bushy locks, trying to calm herself down so she could think more clearly. She only had one chance at this and didn't want to lose it just because she got impatient and discouraged.

At first she made her way around the room with the candle, keeping it as close as she could without touching anything. It was the plainest room she had ever seen. There was literally only one bed and one chair. Was it possible that Dumbledore didn't sleep in his own bedroom? What the hell was the point of this room then?

Meow.

Hermione jerked with a squeak as Asha's warm furry body settled onto her foot. But then the candle fell to the floor, and the cat was of little concern to her.

It was pitch black. Did someone close the door? Suddenly it felt hot and stuffy. Hermione struggled to breathe, panic settling in her chest. Where was the cat? The candle? She fell to the floor, grasping blindly in the dark, desperate to grab the candle. But it was no longer there. Utterly ludicrous, but she managed to lose the damn candle in a room harboring only a chair and bed.

"A-Asha? Kitty?" The cat would have been a comfort at that point.

Her temples pounded frantically and her breaths became frantic panting. It was as if the room became smaller and the air was steadily leaving it. She felt far too hot, sweat beading all over her body. And she couldn't see! A sudden, irrational thought gripped her: What if somehow one of the creatures was in there with her? Maybe Aberforth was using one to guard his contraband? Haha, no, impossible. She realized her chest hurt. And she couldn't think properly, and the panic was increasing, but her eyes saw nothing. She could no longer tell if her eyes were open.

Hyperventilating and shaking, she realized this was no ordinary room. She was going to die. The air was not enough. She fell to her knees, nearly laughing at the absurdity. After all the terror and mental preparation, she would die before ever setting foot out into the night air. The laughter brought up tears and for a moment she could breathe better. And it was then that she realized she could breathe. Nothing was stopping her.

Her heart was still beating fast and she felt faint but she managed to force herself into a seated position. With her legs crossed she leaned forward and took control of her breathing, slowly recovering her senses. It was important to pretend that the darkness was normal. It wouldn't hurt her. If anything was going to hurt her it would have by then. But she would still be caught. Still caught and in horrific trouble. The people of Diagon would find her and she would seem like a lunatic! Her parents would never let her out of the house, or touch a piece of chalk.

In an instant she was gasping once more, nerves sparking wildly throughout her body. Her focus was escaping her and fear coursed through her veins. The villagers would find her and she would be forever lost. What was left of her deformed personality would be completely obliterated. Blackness pressed against her from all sides, almost physically manifesting itself. So hard to breathe.

Has to be a spell.

Her overactive mind fought to find somewhere grounded. Logic. She needed to use what used to be abundant in her arsenal. She needed to think. By forcing her thoughts away from the situation she would be able to recover her breathing. Last thing she needed was to pass out in Dumbledore's room.

She felt as if the earth was moving under her, she was falling without ever moving and her chest hurt.

"Alright!" she shouted, desperate to drown out the fear in her head. "Alright! Alright… I can't think clearly!" It was actually helping, talking slowly and clearly made the tension weaken slightly.

"This. Has. To. Be. A. Spell!" It was hard, talking and hyperventilating but she pushed forward, she needed to hear herself talk. Needed to know that there was a way out. So long as she could speak she could think about something else, something other than the moving darkness. And not knowing the difference between closing her eyes and opening them. And – "So all spells have effects! What is the effect here? Darkness…" she giggled, nearly gagging in the process.

"Darkness…. Useless to me right now."

Her heartbeat sped up and a wave of nausea struck her hard.

"Oh God…" she gasped "Can't breathe. Can't see. Can't move. Panicking… Panicking… Panic… Panic?"

Her mind grasped the thought in an iron grip, so tightly she stopped moving altogether. A revelation. She knew what to do. It was a panic curse, she couldn't be sure what variety as there were so many and she hadn't learned them all. But it was a panic curse! It wasn't some smothering curse. Ingenious! Dumbledore found the perfect way to immobilize intruders without physically harming them…

He must have some fantastic spells hidden away.

And there it was, her resolve was back. In the darkness, with panic surrounding her, she erected powerful mental barriers. Time for change. No more self doubt. No spell would stop her. All her stupid insecurities would be put on hold. Her whole life had whittled down to this one goal. Hermione Granger would get the hell out of there with at least one new piece of information.

She frowned at the darkness. Perhaps it was another feature of the spells but she could swear there were faint outlines on the wall. Tentatively, she got up to a crouch and waddled over to the wall by the bed. It looked like a door, no more than three feet tall and wide, the edges dimly lit by some blue coloured light. She carefully fingered one of the edges and was surprised to find the door easily slid open, revealing an illuminated hidden compartment.")

"Oh!"

There were books. Two of them. And some other papers and pictures. This had to be some safe of his. Whatever spell had been attacking her was gone. It was an odd but fascinating spell that must have been quite complicated, maybe Dumbledore wasn't completely useless after all. Hermione paused with her hand over the texts, wondering if they might be jinxed. It was unlikely, since jinx spells were so ridiculously difficult to control, but considering the hidden compartment, she had to play it safe. She brought out the chalk and a scrap piece of paper she held onto in case of emergencies. Hermione completed a series of complex spells testing the safe. She used as little blood as possible, weary of the remnants of dry blood interfering with the spell she needed to use to grab information from the texts.

Everything appeared clean. She stared at the books. There was only one other test. A final test. She had to touch the books. It would either kill her or it wouldn't. She had no choice. What a way to die, she thought, only a few steps away from her goal. Although she didn't have the time to waste, she couldn't help but sit there and stare at the texts. She couldn't move. It just seemed so pointless to die now. But would Dumbledore have something so dangerous he would kill another to stop them? She had many false starts, hand reaching out before dropping to her lap. In the end she couldn't bear it anymore. She could not go back empty handed.

Her hand shook but she slowly reached into the compartment and hovered over the books. She shifted so she could get up more quickly, in case of an explosion. She inched closer and closer until her hand finally rested on the cover. She waited. Nothing. Hermione tried opening the book. There was a loud crackling as the old book opened up but nothing happened.

She didn't understand. He set up some spell to make her pass out and that was it? Disappointment burned in her chest. His only spell was to make her pass out? Doubt plagued her mind. There was nothing in those texts, just a paranoid old man protecting some small spells. It was all for nothing. She should just go home…

Tears welled in her eyes as she flipped through the pages blindly. But her mind refused to give up. She would take what little the book offered. There was nothing else to do. She would not admit failure. She could notadmit failure. He wanted her to pass out. There had to be something. She would take whatever she could get.

Hermione was an excellent spellcaster, far more powerful and talented than was permissible. She had learned complicated spells in secret, snooping around the library to learn any new information and testing it out herself. There were even a few, rare moments where she had improved upon a spell. Nothing too great. One of them was the Copy spell.

Hermione wasted no time taking out the small folded paper in her pocket and straightening in out. With a quick gash in her palm with her small knife and a few small chants, she placed the bloody palm on each book. An odd tingling sensation prickled through her hand before she placed it back onto the sheet. The dried blood from her testing did not interfere. The books were clean, no blood residue, which only ever happened when a spell was perfectly cast and complete. Messy spells always left their mark.

She shifted her weight on her knees and took a calming breath and held it, trying not to stress over the most difficult part of the spell. Stretching her fingers out tautly, she put out her hand on the parchment and let out a slow breath. Letters dribbled out from her hand in a frenzy. It was rapid and mesmerizing, watching the small flurry of letters disappear onto the parchment. When she could no longer breathe out, the spell finished. She repeated the action on the other side of the parchment, gladly wiping the sweat off her brow when she was finished.

The parchment looked blank but she knew a small incantation that would bring up the words again. Thankfully, she had done well enough not to accidentally meld her hand into the sheet - or in the case of one poor fool – meld her hand with the words and shred the skin off her palm. What she wasn't certain of was whether she had gotten any good spells down. She had tried to draw out her breath as long as she could to prolong the transition.

Hermione replaced the books and closed the wall. The swell of accomplishment served to dispel any remaining fear in her, if only for a brief moment. She suddenly felt tired. Sitting blindly in a dark and dusty old man's room should not have been that difficult. She crawled on her hands and knees to the door, relaxed enough to find it with little disorientation. She refused to think about the spells in her pocket.

Perhaps it was pure luck and not canny deduction, but Dumbledore did have texts hidden in his house. Her goal – if the text she stole proved useful - was half accomplished. With the sections of texts safely put away in her pocket all she needed to do was leave the house and read the spells. She wondered just how risky it would be to return to his house a second time, even with the barrier spells.

What if I don't find anything valuable… I don't have a back-up plan after this…

As she turned the knob she decided she would just make do with whatever spells were copied down. It wasn't worth the risk and she could always improvise with what she had.

Her relief amplified when the door opened and allowed light to stream in. The room had long since then returned to its former drabby little bed and chair. She got up from her knees and dusted herself off.

The front door rattled.

Without thinking she flung herself back into the darkness of the room, instinctively aiming for the bed. In a matter of a few precious seconds she managed to slide herself underneath it just as the front door opened and Dumbledore walked in, humming to himself.

She couldn't see too well from under the bed, both glad and annoyed that the blanket could hide her. The small opening in the doorway made Hermione nervous. Was it too closed? Too open? Would he notice either way?

The floors creaked as he walked by the bedroom. The clanging of pots informed her of his presence in the kitchen and Hermione could finally relax her stiff and overly excited muscles. This was getting to be too much for her.

She slowly made her way out from under the bed.

"Asha…" she froze as he mumbled something to the cat and went back to whatever it was he was doing. Crouching the whole way, she finally got to the edge of the door and peeked through. She couldn't see Dumbledore so he had to be at the stove. His humming started up again.

It had to be fast. It had to be silent. It had to be perfect. Hermione was tired but she had to move swiftly.

Open the door, step out into the small hallway, open the front door, close it and run. She felt a little nauseated at the prospect.

So many, many ways for this to go horribly wrong…

She shifted her legs, steadying herself, and tried to slow her breathing.

Mew.

She nearly choked. That stupid cat had nearly scared her to death for the hundredth time. If it wasn't for the danger of getting caught she would have kicked the damn thing.

Asha sniffed at her and promptly turned away, as if dismissing the agitated brunette.

She grit her teeth and slowly opened the door a notch. Holding her breath as the door soundlessly opened enough for her to slip through. She managed to gulp down a few breaths as softly as she could before taking one very wide step into the hallway, pivoting in place. Her heart pounded in her throat but she managed to do it, opening the front door silently and slipping out before he registered anything amiss. At that point she broke out into a full run, gulping air into her straining lungs and trying to run far enough to feel safe.

After quickly getting winded – damn it I need more practice running – she began to calm down. A few people gave her odd looks, wondering why her hair was a frizzled, sweaty mess and her face so deeply red, but she ignored them. The last thing she wanted was to be held up by more sympathy and condolences while her hand clung tightly to stolen notes from secret texts hidden away in a notorious hermit's home… It was too ridiculous a story. But even if they didn't find out just how she got the papers, she was sure there would be consequences for walking around with unauthorized magical texts.

But what if, after all this effort, these works end up being utterly useless? Or not even magical?

She smiled painfully to herself and entered her home. At least she could laugh at the irony of it in the future.

"Hermione?"

She paused and looked to her mother who stood in the kitchen watching the brunette uncomfortably.

"Where have you been?"

"Out for a walk."

"Oh… well how are you feeling?"

"I'm alright. I'm going to go to my room now." She looked away.

"What about lunch?"

"I – uh – I'll have some later."

"You haven't been eating." Concern edged her voice.

"I promise I'll have some" she called out as she walked away, avoiding her mother's eyes. There was no time for healing; she needed to focus on her goals. She'd deal with her stressed mother later.

It had taken two days to fully understand the notes she stole from Dumbledore and figure out what to do. If he knew about it he didn't speak to anyone, not even herself. Most of the spells were in Latin, completely out of her league and useless. Not that they weren't fascinating but she didn't need to learn how to grow plants with magic or duplicate small animals. She needed a weapon.

She did manage to find one spell. She blanched when she realized she found the spell Dumbledore had put on his room. She supposed it worked in her favour that she was so blissfully ignorant. What on earth could the man have stored in his room that he cast a deadly spell to protect it? Like all the spells it had no title. It was simple enough in theory. It sent intruders into a panic: a nonstop, ever increasing panic that would tear the human heart to pieces. She should have had a heart attack and died. Hermione had accidentally used the one technique available to stop the spell: sheer control. According to the text it was supposed to be nearly impossible to find that much control while suffering a severe panic attack. Dumbledore must have had some counter spell he knew. She couldn't see him fighting off the spell every time he went to bed or visited the compartment.

She should have died from the beginning. Hermione was furious. If she had brought enough paper and had enough time… or wasn't so damn discouraged, she could have stayed there longer and stole more of the spells! She seethed with anger at herself.

But it was not the time for self pity or questions of 'what-if' so she made a mental note to save that spell; perhaps try it out later, though she wasn't sure what for. She had to focus on what little she had. In the end there was only one spell that she felt she could use and she wasn't sure how effective it would be. It was a mild paralysis spell, supposed to slow the movements of an assailant or prey. But to use it on Them? Might get her killed.

She had to decide what to do. Deep down inside, she didn't want to waste time, didn't want to analyze and research. For the first time in her life she wanted to jump head first into a situation she knew nothing about. Ironically, it was probably the only real instance where careful planning was truly needed.

Hermione had weighed her options. She could use the spell as it was and hope for the best. Or, she could spend time and effort trying to intensify or manipulate it. She could ditch the spell and try for Dumbledore's again. Problem was she couldn't tell if Dumbledore knew. If he did know… God knew what kind of spell he'd put on the place, or even if the texts were still there. The panic spell itself was not an option. The last thing she needed was a powerful panicking mythical creature. At best the creature would alert Others, at worst it would go on a rampage and kill her in the process.

But to manipulate the spell would risk many complications. She could die, paralyze herself, paralyze innocent bystanders while practicing, or have some weird unforeseen consequence she couldn't even imagine. And if it killed her, then she would be dead before ever setting foot outside. So she decided to combine a spell she knew with the paralysis one. There was no other way to do things. Master the paralysis one and use and old one she already understood. A knockout spell lasted a few measly hours but she would wait until it was so late it was nearly dawn. Then she could keep the unconscious creature in her room until the spells on the town wore off.

It was risky, a suicide mission fraught with possible mistakes, but she had no other choice. The leaders were taking forever, she was sick of Diagon's existence and everyone else was too scared to do a damn thing.

And now it was time.

She planned for things as carefully as she could and accounted for all possible errors. She had spent a week practicing the spells near the forest where few people ventured, under the veil of a distraction spell most young lovers used to hide themselves. After she mastered everything, she stole a plank of wood from the carpenter.

She glanced at her most vital tool. By drawing out the runes first hand on the wood she wasted less time casting. The only thing she couldn't do ahead of time was draw blood. The fresher the blood the more powerful the spell. She couldn't risk weakening an already mild paralysis spell. But it would have also been stupid carrying a knife around her. Clumsily trying to cut herself would have been dangerous. To solve that problem, she was carrying a fine thin wine glass her mother had inherited. She had swiped it from her mother's cupboard. She knew how easily they broke so the blood would flow instantly and fresh. But she did feel guilty. While it wasn't as difficult for wizards to create glass as it was for the humans, it was still rare. Her mother would be furious but it needed to be done.

She felt sick to her stomach, sitting in her room. It was already quite late but she had spent the last few days calculating just when dawn broke. She couldn't leave too early.

The plank of wood was on her bed. Not very large or heavy, Hermione made sure of that, it was only slightly larger than her Potions text. The runes had been carved into the wood with a knife. Hermione smiled wryly, remembering how she had to practice the runes ten times on paper before applying it to the wood. Always the perfectionist.

Her palms were sweaty. She hadn't eaten anything before returning to her room, but with her queasy stomach she preferred it to the alternative. Had she known, her mother would have had a fit.

Hermione frowned, suddenly wishing she had said goodbye to her parents, just in case.

Technically… I could just sleep tonight, try again tomorrow after I spend some time with them…

But no, she couldn't bring herself to say goodbye. She wasn't sure why, but she just couldn't. Her eyes watered and she had to swallow hard a few times to gather her resolve and keep from crying.

She was standing in a clearing before an infinite number of paths and possibilities. There were some paths, unknown and benign in appearance where others were familiar and safe. But now she stood before the one path, the one trail so shrouded in darkness and stained with death and hatred that she was nearly frozen. It is difficult, taking that first step, to push oneself toward death, alone and frightened.

Her hands were shaking. Without realizing it the numbness she had when she heard of Ron's death disappeared. The shock had worn off. More than that, she had a task, and the task made it easier to stop thinking about Ron. It was all about that moment, where she sat in the darkness of her room with her two spells prepared. Where she sat on a bed and quietly, unconsciously, prayed. If anyone had asked, she would have told them she didn't pray. Hadn't prayed since she was a little girl. But in that moment she silently asked for salvation. All she wanted out of that night was for something to happen. For some progression or even regression to occur, so that Diagon would no longer rot in limbo.

She got up from the bed and took a careful breath, drank some of her glass of water to wet her dry sticky lips, and grabbed her plank of wood. She fingered the delicate wine glass in her pocket as she faced her shrouded window.

There was no turning back. She either died or came back fully knowing the horror that lay in the woods.

Her heart sped up and her stomach churned nauseatingly but she forced herself forward. The curtains lay limp over the window, the archway to hell, so simple and unassuming it appeared benign. Vivid recollections of her first time peeking through the curtains fluttered through her mind as her hand reached out. Finger tips gently brushed the fabric but she could not feel it. Terror had finally arrived. She went against her nature, against the logic her ancestors had passed to her and pulled at the curtain, drawing herself closer to the danger.

She felt as if the body she operated were not her own. Hermione was an innocent bystander, a voyeur watching an indescribably tense intimate moment between some strange hypnotized woman and a window curtain. There was change in the air. A deep undercurrent that threatened to turn the whole world upside down as the woman carefully unhooked the curtain.

How peculiar, that she keeps her eyes to the ground, but her hands so easily remove the cloth as if its shape had been imbedded to memory…

The cloth fell to the floor and Hermione was herself again. She swallowed hard and raised her eyes.

For a moment she was in awe, all her fear falling away so she could bask in the beauty of nightfall. The grey skies of daylight dulled the entire village, but the silver moon made everything shine under the snow. And by God the moon! Hermione had nothing to compare it to. It almost hurt her eyes with its bright glow. It was as if the whole village transformed at night.

Crack.

Hermione flinched and jerked her hand out of her pocket.

"Damn." Her thumb was bleeding. She hadn't realized she was clutching the plank in one hand and the glass in her pocket with the other. Luckily she didn't manage to crush the whole thing, but snapped the lip of the glass. It was dangerous mixing old blood with the fresh, made the magic unstable. Hermione switched the items so she could break the glass on her undamaged palm. She sobered up and scolded herself for wasting time admiring the goddamn scenery.

She climbed over the window sill and instantly felt the chill of winter even under all the extra clothes she put on. The moon was near the horizon, so she had timed things well. Daylight would be fairly soon.

The sound of her boots crunching in the snow was too loud for her. It echoed eerily through the silent village. Although Hermione knew there were hundreds of people asleep in their beds all around her, she felt as if she had entered a ghost town. She gritted her teeth as she walked, as if that would somehow quiet the noise.

She was only twenty feet from her house, but it was enough. Her home was right at the forest's edge. She stated at it intently, hoping to read some secrets from the silent blackness within their depths.

The village was to her back. She had considered just how dangerous this was, standing out in the open, but she feared that They might not come to her if They saw she was close to her house. Might smell a trap. By standing out in the open They might also smell a trap, but at least They would be less cautious. After all it was suicide, standing so defenseless.

She held the glass carefully and remained deathly still. Never before had she been so confusedly petrified and bored at the same time. A good ten minutes went by with her standing there, freezing and staring at the forest until her eyes hurt and her legs went stiff.

She wondered if all the others did this. Just sort of… had nothing happen to them for a long period of time. Hermione was almost frustrated. It was too much, anxiety could only remain powerful for a short period of time. Her reflexes would be slower, mind would grow dull, and then she would fail. She knew it. She wondered if They knew it. Perhaps this was part of Their plan?

A spot on her lower back itched. To scratch it would be to let go of one of her weapons. She didn't move.

The cold started to gnaw on her flesh. Her teeth were chattering and she could no longer breathe through her nose because it burned. She had not anticipated this. They were supposed to jump out at her. She had even expected Them to wait for her outside the window. But there she was, her fingers getting weaker as the cold numbed them.

She nervously chuckled to herself, unable to wrap her mind around the situation. For the first time she considered that maybe, just maybe, They weren't coming out that night at all. Perhaps They were busy having a cup of tea just around the bend of the farthest tree? And there she was, standing there like an idiot, awake the whole night and nearly pissing herself with terror as she forced herself to stand in the snow.

She glanced at her house, not too far away from her. At that point she could have just walked back to her room. A good thirty minutes had gone by and all she had done was stand there like an idiot.

She shifted her weight from leg to leg. A chill went up her spine. She would have dismissed it; after all, she was freezing. But Hermione was never stupid. She glanced around, checking behind her, and saw nothing. Goosebumps crawled up along her arms and neck. And then the earth stopped moving.

A pair of incredibly soft lips pressed against her ear. Hermione sighed, her knees gone weak. In an instant her mind was clouded with bliss. She whimpered as her sex throbbed pleasantly and insistently. There was a gentle purring now, soothing and full of promise. She rocked in place, gasping when a warm hand rested on her shoulder. So deliciously warm, Hermione had never been warmer.

Her breathing became more erratic as the lips shifted away and a cheek pressed to her own. Hermione couldn't move, couldn't think, her brain muddled by ecstasy. That hand moved to her collar bone, trailing sharp nails across her overly sensitive skin…

There was something she forgot. A wonderful scent wafted to her nose, it reminded her of the forest in spring… the elders had said the woods were filled with flowers they could not name…

Her body had relaxed and the wine glass became nonexistent. Another hand… this one on her hip… Everything so relaxed… everything so beautiful… sensual… mesmerizing…

Her numb fingers could no longer hold the plank… the wood slipped through her fingers… and landed… on her foot.

"Ah!" She cringed as the stabbing pain shattered everything. She jerked forward, away from the warm body, and tried to clutch her aching foot. Her mind whirled in confusion. The lust battled with shock. She tripped over herself and twisted her ankle awkwardly. To her horror she fell face forward, her bare hands smacking into the biting snow.

Crack.

"Oh God…" she groaned, as the glass cut into her upper thigh.

The glass, the plank, Them, the forest…. The glass….

She turned abruptly, her mind desperately holding onto her plan. Hermione harshly began chanting the spell, her hand raised to - -

Never in her life, never in Diagon, had she ever seen anything so perfectly beautiful.

There was a woman standing before her. A naked woman, standing in the snow… an ice woman, a Goddess of Winter...

"Oh…"

She was tall. Skin like milk, with luscious curves and hard muscle… Breasts large and full with peaked dark nipples, and if Hermione had any sense left in her mind she would have been mortified by the woman's blatant, proud nudity. But her brain was stricken with awe.

Silver-white hair and silver-blue eyes… a child of the moon, she had to be looking at a child of the moon…

The woman smiled at her, those pouty lips beckoning. Hermione smiled back dazedly. Who was this woman, whom Hermione was about to knock unconscious?

"What… where? Who are you?"

The blonde woman raised an eyebrow at her.

"What are you doing here?" Hermione frowned. "It's not safe here… how… did you come here across the woods? Are you from the outside?"

Could it have been possible? Someone crossed the woods and made it safely past Them? Maybe she had some fantastic powers! She could help Hermione!

Hermione got up as quickly as she could, limping with one leg full of glass and the other a twisted ankle. She reached out to the blonde, who grasped her forearm carefully. That hand was amazing, such elegance… so warm… so wonderful…

Hermione froze and looked up at the woman more carefully.

Her smile became a grin, and with that feral grin, sharp canine fangs. Hermione nearly keeled over when her body suddenly hummed with lust.

"N-No…." She couldn't believe it. This was no woman. This was Them. They were women? Were people? What?

Her sense of self was quickly deteriorating, her fears disappearing…

Skin like silk… touch her… taste her… worship that body… she will keep you warm and safe…

Hermione shivered, eyes glazed and mouth watering. She could just imagine… everything. Her sex throbbed once more.

The woman wrapped her arms around Hermione, holding her close.

Those supple breasts pressed to her, strong firm arms wrapped around her protectively… a Goddess… She was touching a Goddess. There could be no texture on earth or heaven as soft as this Goddesses skin… so warm.

Her fingers moved to the woman's hair, gasping as the hair fluttered over her fingers like water.

The Goddess was redemption, was joy. Hermione's hips began to move of their own volition, as if her sex were truly being caressed by the unseen hands of this Goddess. She whimpered and buried her nose into the Goddesses neck, the firm quick pulse in her throat beating against Hermione's nose. The pulse that carried the Goddesses lifeblood, her essence, her dark red blood, her red… red… red… red hair… Weasley. Ron Weasley.

"I SAID NO!" she yanked back, her fingers caught in the blonde's hair.

There was an animal roar as Hermione accidentally tore off some hairs in her fist. The blonde was enraged. Hermione's head cleared instantly. She was shocked to find herself surrounded by nude, voluptuous women who were looking at her in surprise.

The blonde was clutching at her scalp, the angles of her face deeper and fiercer. Hermione scrambled to her feet as best she could, looking frantically for her plank, but it had disappeared. One of Them must have taken it! She had no weapon! She was going to die, die and have nothing to show for it. Another footnote in Diagon's history, joining Ron and Bill and countless others.

The woman moved forward, licking the tips of her fingers. It was surreal, Hermione watched as that creature licked her own fingers before reaching out to that saliva covered hand… which had slowly become clawed.

Hermione tried to scuttle back.

"Get back!" The other women… the things, were laughing at her. The blonde woman didn't laugh. She walked toward Hermione purposefully, her thighs rippling with strength where Hermione's wounded legs trembled. The blonde darted forward, her clawed hand extended. Hermione screamed, closed her eyes in terror and tried to use her hands as a defense. One of the claws nicked at her throat… she was dead… she knew it… but then a peculiar thing happened.

A rush of power flooded through her body and nearly burned through her hand. Hermione cried out in shock, eyes snapped open to see the blonde's confused expression just before she was flung hard across the snow.

Everything went quiet.

Hermione didn't waste time. In Their stunned silence she made for the house. The creatures hadn't cut off her route to the house! They were fallible!

A deep roar rattled the core of her body. The blonde was furious. Hermione ran desperately as a set of rapid footsteps caught up to her. One of the raven haired creatures body slammed her into the wall of her house, knocking the wind out of her and imbedding the glass more deeply. She groaned in agony, the window just an arm's reach out of the way.

What kind of spell required no runes? Just blood and a chant? The only useful one she could think of. A Tickling spell. She focused on the body pinning her in place and mumbled it quickly. The creature squealed and jerked back. The blood on her wasn't fresh so the spell didn't work right. But it worked in her favour, the creatures body felt as if there were pins and needles crawling around her skin, as if her whole body had fallen asleep.

Hermione flung herself half through the window before another set of hands wrapped around her ankles. She screamed in pain as her twisted ankle flared. To her surprise another rush of power flooded her body and the creature howled, releasing Hermione, who fell over into the room. Though disoriented, she managed to slam the window shut after her and quickly set to work shrouding the window.

Her heart was in her throat, pounding insanely, but she managed to cover up the window.

Safe.

And then her mind went into overload. They were women. They looked like women. The creatures looked like beautiful women. She needed to find books. Never had she ever wanted the library more than she did at that moment.

Were They sirens? Demons? Fairies? So many questions, so many many questions… And Their power… Their bodies… What the hell was going on?

Her head started to hurt. The adrenaline allowed her two hours to think clearly. And then… her ankle hurt. Her upper thigh hurt even worse. She lit a candle and looked at herself. Hermione's pants were covered in blood, her ankle was completely swollen and she tasted blood from when her body slammed into the wall. She took out the mirror and stared at her bruised face. Her left eye was blackened and her bottom lip torn.

Shit.

Luckily, the blonde woman missed Hermione's throat. She could see no mark whatsoever. Her hand, however, was really cramped. She glanced down in surprise. The few silver-blonde strands of hair were in her fist that whole time. She touched them lightly, almost sad to put them down.

She worried about her thigh. Hermione took out some chalk and did a quick Cleaning spell, hoping that it got most of the glass out. She reached to the lowest drawer on her table and brought out the emergency clotting potion. There was very little in there as it was so difficult to make that Diagon rationed it. It would stop the bleeding, but in the morning she would have to go to the nurse for her ankle and the rest of the glass.

And how on earth would she come up with an excuse for this? She had to lie. Hermione was so tired, all she wanted was to sleep and deal with everything in the morning… which was horribly close.

She decided her best bet was to say that she had taken the wine glass on a whim, to appreciate its beauty then distractedly took it to her room. Then in the night she went for a glass of water, tripped on some clothes, twisted her leg and fell on the glass… and her face. She figured Ron's death would work in her favour, though she hated using his name in any way. And she hated how people would only feel more certain of her lunacy and simpleton behavior.

Hermione lay on the bed carefully, on her back. She glanced at the window.

Tomorrow was going to be a very busy day.

After They allowed the girl back into her room They turned to the blonde. The raven haired woman looked to her Alpha with doubt. The blonde raised an eyebrow, her sensual features sharper and vicious. The raven haired woman stepped back in apology. She bowed her head in respect.

The blonde looked around at Them, able to taste Their anticipation. She lifted her bloodied finger tips to her lips and licked them clean.

They rejoiced! Their Alpha did not join in on the fun. It had been too long. No more time would be wasted. She walked back to the forest, intent on completing the task quickly and licking her fingers the whole way.

There would be retribution.


A/N: I am profusely sorry for the delay. I won't go on a long rambling explanation (waste of your time) but suffice it to say, it shouldn't happen again (oh but if you want the rambling explanation check out my livejournal, lots of rambling there lol). Again, sorry, sorry, sorry and… sorry. Your reviews have been so kind (and evil, what with the guilt tripping lol) I hope the length of this chapter and its content have made up for the ridiculous delay. (sorry, by the way).

I'd like to address some issues with the last chapter now. If you are not interested, feel free to skip this long bit to the last paragraph

A reviewer was particularly offended by the last chapter and claimed to speak on behalf of others as well. I would like to apologize for not warning you all that there would be heterosexual content in my previous chapter. I did not plan to offend anyone, didn't go out of my way to do it. She mentioned being disgusted, or rather that I have a "dark, disgusting, confusing mind" so I would like to point out that whether you decide something is dark or disgusting is a matter of subjective opinion. I personally find incestuous undertones and rape disgusting. People write it. I don't try and judge them personally for writing it. To each their own. I will not censor myself. I have real life where I have to carefully watch what I say. This is the fanfiction world, I should be allowed to explore my creativity. Besides that, I don't actively seek out ways to upset or offend people. This is a horror genre, please expect that there will be disturbing content, not a pure romance where people meet, fall in love and have fantastic M rated sex.

Which brings me to another issue. The sex in the last chapter was repulsive and I did set out to do this. It wasn't about straight sex. It wasn't about Hermione/Ron. It was about alcoholism and depression. Not all sex is the fantastic magical sex that the fanworld creates for their characters. I was sincerely trying to depict my understanding of the loss of a family member in a horribly repressive society. If you are offended by straight sex, yes I should have warned you. I will do so from now on more carefully. I didn't mean to startle you. I just personally do not find straight sex disturbing. Now… if you have a specific problem with Ron/Hermione…. Erm I dunno what to say. They were boyfriend and girlfriend in this particular story. While it is popular to pretend that all main female characters in femslash start off as never having had sex before they meet the loves of their lives…. Lesbian women do have sex with men sometimes. Bisexual women have sex with both. It's a fact of life. Im sorry you don't approve of my attempt at realism. I do not hate men, I do not wish bad things upon them. Men should have consensual sex with women. –shrug- I am just not offended by straight sex.

I will however, be more careful. I really don't want to offend people for the sake of offending them.

If the 500 words I spent on the sex between them (out of the 10,000 or so I wrote in the last chapter) has offended you so much you wish to stop reading… well I wish you luck in finding a story you like. I don't wish you anything negative. It has been fun reading your reviews. I will not stop writing. I don't mind criticism. I have 79 alerts for this story and 53 faves. I almost had 30 reviews the last chapter (not counting my own contribution and one person who repeatedly asks me to update lol). So far my intentions appear to be understood.

I am really sorry if I offended anyone with the last chapter. For the last time: this story is rated M for Mature. Please expect that some content may be disturbing or upsetting but I will not mess with my integrity to make people comfortable which at least appears to be ok with most of my readers.

And lastly, I am not a writer for instant gratification. This is a mystery, so yes you will need to wait while I slowly reveal information. I understand the frustration, if this were a completed book you could just read every chapter in quick succession and get to the conclusion quickly instead of waiting for my updates.

A technical issue: why would Hermione have sex with him and risk getting pregnant? I do hope no one thinks that they never had unmarried sex in the past or that they didn't have some contraceptive ability (especially in the magical world). Although I envisioned Ron as barren, I couldn't figure out a way to put it in this chapter so I just pointed out that they had some ability to stop contraception.

Again, sorry for the long wait, I had issues. I hope you enjoyed this chapter, took me 4 times editing to finally feel comfortable with it. About 11,000 words hehehe. Please don't give up on me, I'm not going anywhere. I am almost finished with Walking a Mile's latest chapter. I hope you find the time to review and if not, I hope you at least enjoyed this one! :D



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