Malfoy leaned back in his chair. "Where shall I begin my tale?"
"What happened to everyone else?" I said, keeping my voice steady. "The people that fought in the battle, I mean."
"Most of them were carted off to Azkaban, like you. Only a few are still there—Molly and Arthur Weasley, I believe. And Aberforth Dumbledore. The students that were involved—those that weren't actually close to Potter—were sent home after a few months or years, provided they swore allegiance to the Emperor."
"And those that were close to him?"
He hesitated. "That depends."
"The Emperor held a round of public executions shortly after the battle," he said slowly. "As if people weren't afraid enough, he decided they needed to see first hand what happens when you cross him. He started with Longbottom."
I closed my eyes. Neville had been so brave that night. Even after Harry was dead, after Voldemort had already won, he stood up to him, in front of everyone. The fact that he'd managed to kill Nagini was nothing short of miraculous. In that moment, I believed we could still win, even without Harry.
But I was wrong.
"Most of the professors. A few death eaters who he suspected of wanting to switch sides." He paused. "And Weasley."
I shut my eyes even tighter and buried my face in my hands. Just yesterday, I'd been hoping Ron was dead, free of all this pain. Now that there was a dash of hope, now that I was out of that prison, the idea of facing this world without him by my side was almost unbearable. Still, I didn't cry—I'd cried over his death hundreds of times over the past seven years. This was merely a confirmation, not a revelation.
But that didn't mean my heart wasn't breaking.
"Why didn't they kill me too?" I muttered.
"Killing Weasley was never part of the plan," Malfoy said, his voice unusually soft. "He was supposed to be in Azkaban all this time too. The Emperor decided the endless suffering that prison would bring you two was the only possible punishment for the heinous crimes you committed. He only planned Weasley's execution to try to draw his sister out of hiding."
I opened my eyes and spun to face him. "Ginny got away?"
He smirked. "She's still the world's most wanted criminal."
"Finally some good news," I sighed, letting myself crack a smile.
Malfoy's smirk faded. "That's about where any 'good news' ends, I'm afraid. 'You-Know-Who' disbanded the Ministry. That's when he started calling himself 'the Emperor.' He has a council, of sorts, but their only real job is to carry out his orders. Lord Greengrass is on that council."
"That explains what he said."
"What did he say?"
"When he pulled me aside, he asked me what I'd found out and said something about the Emperor not being a patient man."
"Like I said, he had Astoria digging up information on me. What did you tell him?"
"That there was nothing new."
"Well, excuses like that aren't going to last for long," he said snidely. "We'll need to come up with a story you can spin—one that confirms the Emperor's suspicions about me, but vaguely enough that he won't act without further information."
I frowned. "And why wouldn't I just tell them there was nothing to find?"
"Because then they'd assume, quite correctly, that you were working with me. You still need to appear like one of their agents."
"But how am I supposed to know everything Astoria knew?" I stood and began pacing. "I don't even know my way around your house!"
He laughed. "That's all right, Astoria didn't either. She just moved in last week."
"If you knew she was watching you all this time, why did you propose to her?"
"Because pushing her away would have made me look even more suspicious. Besides, the closer I got to Astoria, the closer I got to the rest of her family, and by extension the Emperor himself. Now that you're in Astoria's shoes, it'll be even easier to infiltrate his inner circle, don't you think?"
I eyed him for a moment. "So you expect me to just act like we're engaged, and marry you if necessary?"
"Well, it wouldn't technically be you. You are in Astoria's body, after all."
"That's another thing I don't understand—how can I still look like her? The effects of Polyjuice potion wear off in a matter of hours, not days. And how do I sound like her?"
Malfoy grinned. "You aren't the only one who's good at potions. You should only have to take your medicine once a month."
"You expect me to believe you, what, 'perfected' the Polyjuice potion?"
"I'd think all you'd need to do is look in a mirror to prove me right."
I rolled my eyes. "What, you couldn't transfer her memories to me too?"
"No, but seeing as you love reading so much I think you'll like this much better."
He reached into one of his pockets—how many did he have?—pulled out a small book, and tossed it to me. I flipped through the pages.
"She's been keeping it since she was ten years old. Better get started."
I pocketed the book and folded my arms. "All right, let's say we're not caught the first time someone asks me a personal question. Is this the only place that's safe for us to talk freely?"
Malfoy nodded. "Outside of this room, I'm afraid you'll have to pretend to be my fiancé."
I narrowed my eyes. "I'm not sleeping in the same bed as you, Malfoy."
"You are if you want this to work."
"And why can't one of us sleep on the floor? Or—and I just thought of this—in another room?"
He rolled his eyes. "The Emperor is always watching. We can't take the chance of him or anyone else seeing that."
"And disappearing into a tree trunk isn't suspicious?"
"He doesn't have eyes on the garden, just ears." Malfoy stood. "Believe me, I've explored every option. This is the only way we can avoid suspicion. Now are you going to stop arguing with me or do I have to find a way of getting rid of you too?"
I sighed. "Fine, Draco. Now, about Harry-"
"I'll fill you in more tomorrow. For now, we better be getting back. Your parents will start to worry."
He headed toward the wall we entered from. I grabbed his arm.
"About my parents..." I trailed off.
He stared at me a moment before understanding. "Daphne's comment."
"She said the grief would kill me," I paused, "but I need to know what happened."
Malfoy hesitated. "Look, all I know for sure—all anyone knows for sure, really—is that he tracked your parents down in Australia. About a year ago he started his war with the muggles by burning two bodies and levitating them above the parliament building. Almost everyone thinks they were your parents, but no one really knows."
I took a deep breath. "If he tracked down my parents, they probably were."
He put a hand on my shoulder. "Or he's keeping them for something else. There's always a chance."
I raised one eyebrow. "Am I imagining things, or is Draco Malfoy trying to comfort me?"
His arm dropped to his side and he stepped away from me. "Better for you to think of them as alive than to blow your cover crying over them."
He spun around and walked straight through the wall. I shook my head. I wasn't going to cry over them—I didn't have any tears left—but I knew very well that if Voldemort had tracked them down, they weren't alive. All the more reason for me to go along with this charade—to avenge them.
Three pairs of hands grabbed me from behind. I screamed and struggled, but my captors were too strong. Ron was being dragged in the opposite direction. He screamed my name. The door closed between us before I could call out to him.
The Death Eater's threw me to the ground, cackling. The Malfoys entered the room. Draco stood back as Lucius approached, an evil grin on his face.
"Time for us to have some fun," he snickered. "Crucio!"
I screamed and sat up in bed, drenched in sweat. After a moment, my breathing calmed down. It was just a dream.
But it was more than that. It was a memory.
"What's wrong?" a groggy Malfoy mumbled.
I glanced at him. I'd forgotten we were sharing a bed now. "Nothing," I whispered. "Go back to sleep."
"I had a nightmare."
He propped himself up with one arm. "What was it about?"
I eyed him curiously. I couldn't figure out if he was genuinely concerned, or if he was just playing the part of a loving fiancé in case there was anyone watching. Probably the latter.
"I was dragged away from the man I love," I said in a monotone voice.
Malfoy pulled me into his arms and kissed my neck. "Just go back to sleep. I won't let anything happen to you."
Long after he started snoring once more, I was still awake. Even if I'd wanted to sleep, I wouldn't have been able to—being in his arms was so uncomfortable.
What are you doing, Hermione? Get out of here—find Ginny, figure out a plan on your own. You don't need him. Everyone thinks you're dead anyway, so it's not like they'll be looking for you.
I glanced over my shoulder at Malfoy. There was no reason for me to trust him. He'd given me no proof that Harry was alive, and I was still mostly in the dark about his plan. I had no incentive to stay here.
But I couldn't leave. Not yet. There was a small part of me holding on to the glimmer of hope, the fantasy that Harry was out there somewhere.
What I couldn't understand was why he wouldn't come for me if he was still alive, and how he'd managed to stay hidden all this time. And of course how Malfoy was involved.
I drifted off for a few hours, but soon the sun was up and so were we. Malfoy and I took turns dressing in the closet without appearing too conspicuous. As we were about to head downstairs, I paused.
"Dear, have you seen my wand?"
Malfoy smirked at me before opening the drawer in the nightstand. "It's where you always keep it, my love."
He pulled it out and handed it to me. I took a deep breath as I felt a strange sensation prick my arm. It had been so long since I'd held a wand that I wasn't used to the feeling anymore. It made me feel alive.
"Thank you, Dear," I said with a smile. Malfoy's smirk widened.
We left the room together, but soon parted ways. Malfoy went to the study, for business he said, while I went straight to the dining room. Lady Greengrass was already seated at the table, reading this morning's edition of the Daily Prophet. I paused when I saw a moving picture of me—the real me—on the cover.
"Anything good today?" I said casually as I sat down.
She looked up. "More information on the Granger girl's death. The Emperor decided to have a public funeral for her. It'll be broadcast on the telly this afternoon."
I stared at her. Nothing in that sentence made sense.
"That's a surprise." I picked up a coffee mug and sipped it. "You'd think he'd be throwing a celebration, not a funeral."
"I guess we'll understand more this afternoon. The Emperor always has his reasons." She put down the paper and reached for my hand. "But I don't want to talk about that right now."
"What do you want to talk about?"
"The real reason you've been feeling so sick."
I put down the mug. "Like I said, Mum, I'm fine."
She shook her head. "We both know that's not the truth. Have you told Draco yet?"
I thought for a minute, and decided on the safest answer. "No."
"Why not? He is the father, isn't he?"
I blinked. The father?
"Look, I'll talk to him on our walk this afternoon, but I'm not even sure anymore," I said quickly. "I was a little panicked when I talked to you, and I may have rushed to conclusions—"
"You seemed pretty certain at the time."
"I know I did, but I'm not certain anymore. It may be nothing. But I promise I'll speak to him and we'll make sure."
She sighed and picked up the paper again. "You can't run away from something like this, Astoria. You have to take responsibility for your actions."
"And I will if I have to, but I doubt that's going to be necessary."
Daphne entered the room, and we fell into silence. The footman brought me something to eat, but I didn't really pay attention to what was on my plate. I was too lost in my own thoughts.
The clock seemed to tick extra slowly as I waited for noon to come. We'd told everyone we were going on a picnic together. In a sense we were, we just wouldn't be eating outside.
When we finally did meet up, Malfoy could tell I was anxious to talk. We walked straight to the tree and entered the secret room. Malfoy set down the basket.
"Food or questions first?"
"Astoria was pregnant."
Malfoy froze halfway into a chair. "What?"
"She told her mother just before you killedher."
He slowly stood up. "Well, you should head to the library. I'm sure there's a spell or something you could do to get pregnant."
"I just assumed you wouldn't be open to sleeping with me."
"I'm not impregnating myself, Malfoy!"
He shrugged. "If she already told her mother—"
"And I told her this morning that I think I was mistaken, so that's that." I shook my head at him.
"Fine, then it's all settled. Why did you feel the need to tell me this?"
"You're missing the point!" I yelled. "You not only murdered Astoria, but your unborn child as well! Doesn't that make you feel anything?"
"Since she must have just conceived the child, it wasn't really alive yet anyway."
"You're unbelievable," I muttered.
"I didn't know! And excuse me for not sending Astoria in for a check-up before taking her out of the picture."
I narrowed my eyes and folded my arms. "Look, I've had about all I can take with you. This absurd plan, always more questions than answers—frankly, I don't trust you. If you don't give me some proof—some concrete proof—that Harry survived that night, then I am walking out of here and never coming back."
He narrowed his eyes as well. After a minute of staring each other down, he walked to the opposite end of the room and pushed on a brick on the wall. A stone in the middle of the floor slid to the side and a small basin rose up from the ground. I raised one eyebrow.
"A pensieve? How do I know you haven't tampered with your memory?"
"It's not my memory, it's my mother's." He produced a vial from shelf at the base of the pensieve. "And I think it will be enough to convince you."
He uncorked the vial and poured the memory into the basin. I watched as Harry's face appeared in the liquid. Something caught in my throat.
Malfoy took my hand, and we both leaned forward.
A/N: I'm looking forward to writing the next chapter, and I hope you're looking forward to reading it :) Please review!