The next several weeks progressed in much the same frustrating manner of one step forward and at least two back. The maze of wizard bureaucracy had seemingly worsened. Documents had been classified, reclassified, misfiled, outright lost and nothing could be obtained without filling out magically binding applications in triplicate and waiting for official signatures and seals to be added before any of it could even be formally submitted. That was followed, of course, by the obligatory waiting periods. Though she did not see the model that had so captivated her that first evening at each class, when she did see him, she felt a growing connection. Indeed, his face seemed clearer with each drawing. He seemed both familiar and completely foreign at the same time. It was all so maddening. Hermione was fit to be tied the day she found herself in the Department of Magical Games and Sports for the umpteenth time asking to see documents that could not possibly by any stretch of the imagination contain anything classified. Yet, she grew more convinced with each passing week that there was something going. Given the reactions she got when making inquiries, one could think that wizard lives hung in the balance if any information about evening art classes became public knowledge.
"Hermione Granger! Is that really you?" The voice belonged to a cheery young wizard who stood behind a counter inside the Department of Magical Games and Sports.
Hermione looked at him, but couldn't place his name. "I'm sorry. You appear to have me at a disadvantage. You are?"
"Creevey, Dennis Creevey. I was in Gryffindor a few years behind you. Colin's told me so much about you." His smile never lessened, nor did his enthusiasm. "What can I do for you today? I can't believe you're really standing right here in front of me."
For a moment, Hermione considered whether offering him an autograph might help in obtaining preferential treatment when it came to access to Ministry documents. She smiled at him, eliciting a toothy grin in return. "I'd like to take a look at the instructional roster for the evening art classes. I'd like to put a certain special project together for the last day of the semester." She offered no further explanation, but casually placed her hand on top of Dennis' hand. "It would be such a help."
"That's not a problem," he quipped cheerily. "Those lists are available for anyone who wants to see them. Not that many people care to ever look at them, though." He turned and walked to a filing shelf. Dragging one finger along the titles, he pulled one out, and then turned to hand it to Hermione. "Here, this should cover all the art classes."
Hermione took the book and scanned its contents quickly. A crease of frustration appeared on her forehead. The book listed instructors only. There was no mention of any models, male or female. She closed the book and returned to the counter.
"That was quick! Did you find what you needed?"
"Actually," Hermione began, "I need a list of wizards who work as models for the evening art classes. Would you be able to tell me where I might find such a list?"
Dennis thought in silence for a second or two. "Well, maybe…let me check another source from not long after the Victory." He walked out of view and returned a half-hour later with a dusty sheaf of parchments. "This is all I could find, Hermione. If what you're looking for isn't there, then it doesn't exist."
Hermione glanced through the parchments, but could find no mention of any wizards working as models for art classes. 'That's odd,' she thought. 'Why would models be such a secret?' She handed the sheaf back to Dennis. "Thanks anyway." She started to walk away, believing herself to be back at square one.
"Hermione! Hey!" He called to her, waving his hands in the air. She turned to face him. He motioned for her to come back. "You might want to try one other source, though it's not only art classes." She looked a tad skeptical. He continued unabated, "After the Victory, the Ministry wanted to rebuild quickly. The battle against Voldemort had greatly interfered with the education of a good many wizards and witches. It was for that reason that all manner of evening classes were established."
"I've heard the press releases, Dennis. How does that help me?"
He held a small booklet that appeared to have been stored in a damp environment if the mildew smell was anything to go by. Hermione reached for it eagerly. "I found this while cleaning out one of the old store rooms. I haven't had a chance to really examine it properly, but I'm sure it won't hurt any if I let you take a look at it."
Hermione held the small booklet carefully. "Thanks, Dennis." She moved to one of the reading tables and began trying to decipher the lines blurred by water damage. It would likely take some serious restorative work to recover any significant data from this particular source. A word caught her eye. Art. The lines around it were completely smudged beyond recognition. It appeared to be useless without the opportunity to cast some restorative charms on the parchment. She looked at the pages before and after the one that dealt with art. She noted several pages appeared to be missing. The letters AK appeared in several places, which greatly puzzled her. AK? Avada Kedavra? What would that have to do with art classes? The letters appeared next to several pairs of words, all unreadable because of damage. Pairs of words? Could they be names, she wondered? Were they the names of wizards who were felled in the immediate post-Victory period of chaos? It had been a rough and volatile time. Fingers were pointed in all directions, denials and protests of innocence echoed loudly and more than a few had died innocently or not in sporadic and seemingly random violence until the Ministry finally restored some semblance of order. She reached the last page of the book and reluctantly closed it. She felt defeated, having discovered not a single name. She returned to the counter and handed the booklet to Dennis. "You've got your work cut out for you with this?"
"Is it that bad, the water damage? I mean, as bad as I feared?"
"Let me put it this way, Dennis," she spoke softly, "I hope you're talented with Restorative Charms…really powerful ones." Restorative charms were a tricky business and quite draining, though mostly from nerves and worry about doing more harm than good. He smiled uneasily. She thanked him for his trouble and left feeling more dejected than ever. She had no idea where to look next. She hoped the class that evening would reinvigorate her.
She arrived early for the class and used the time to look around the classroom. She noticed a door through which the models must pass. She berated herself for thinking maybe they apparated in for the class. A warm feeling of opportunity began to grow in her chest as she realised that she could perhaps follow him, the model she most sought, or indeed any of them in an effort to learn who they are and why the Ministry had no record of them. She took her place as other students began to arrive, soon followed by the instructor. Hermione could barely contain her excitement upon seeing the model for that evening. It was him…in all his glory.
The class progressed well, as was expected. Hermione's work became ever more detailed, though the face remained stubbornly hidden. She wondered about a darker spot that appeared on one of the arms. It was rather nondescript, of no recognisable shape and really barely there, unless you really nitpicked. After all, the other arm had shading as well. Still, Hermione could not shake the feeling that something was there.
Another student had joined the class recently and also showed a natural aptitude for creating breathing art. Hermione was grateful for the fuss around the other woman that night. She kept her eyes on the model, quietly bundled her items together and walked casually to the door at the far end of the classroom, the one through which the model had gone only moments earlier.
The darkness of the room startled her and she squinted for a couple seconds until her vision adjusted to the darkness. Her eyes scanned the room. It appeared to be empty. Then, a movement caught her eye. A figure, cloaked in simple dark robes! She followed him, trying to remain as unobtrusive as possible. Odd that she could not discern much about his features, even though she could see him only from the back. It seemed almost as if his entire head were hidden behind a mist. His head…and hands she noted with a start were quite blurred. If he'd cast a Disillusionment Charm on himself, but not his clothing…maybe that could explain the odd juxtaposition of clearly visible and clearly not at the same time.
She followed him into Diagon Alley. He appeared to have a destination in mind and was moving at a fairly rapid pace. Hermione, lacking any real training or experience in trailing wizards, did the best she could. Enough wizards still populated the street to help somewhat with blending in. She stayed a good distance behind him but never lost sight of him. A lump rose in her throat when he turned down a particularly dark and still foreboding street…Knockturn Alley. Since the Victory, Knockturn Alley had lost little of its former reputation. It remained a favourite haunt of those inclined to pursue darker interests as well as those who skirted the bounds of legality. Although most known Death Eaters had been sentenced to stays of varying lengths in Azkaban, many of those who had done little more than sympathise with Voldemort had already been released back into the unwelcoming and damning arms of a wizard world that remained deeply unforgiving of even the smallest transgressions.
She took a deep breath and stepped into the dark heart of wizarding Britain. She was sure it was just her imagination, but even the air seemed charged with negative energy. It radiated all around her, sapping at her resolve almost as the Dementors had once drained happy memories of those who strayed into their paths. She looked ahead with a start. He was nowhere to be seen. She moved forward rapidly, her heart pounding and pulse racing. It seemed to get darker, the further she moved into the den of iniquity. A startled gasp escaped her lips. Everything went black.
When she opened her eyes, she did not know where she was. She became aware of several figures standing near her. She realised she could not move. She found her voice. "Where am I and why am I here?"
Her questions were met with laughter. "Leave me. I will question her alone." The figures left. The remaining figure walked closer. His face was still blurred, but it was him. The model! He stood silently before her and studied her features, her body. The seconds gave way to minutes of silent appraisal. Her breathing became more rapid as the fear grew and took hold within her. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he spoke. "You do not find it enjoyable to have strangers study your body even though you are fully clothed and I have no intention of…," he hesitated a moment, "raping you, if that puts your overworked little mind at ease." He stood close to her. His breath felt warm against her face in the chill darkness. "Why are you here? What did you hope to gain by following me here?"
"I…I just wanted to know who you are. I've been drawing you for the past several weeks, over a month, and I…"
"Dare I think you desired to spend time with me? Perhaps ask me to accompany you to Madam Puddifoots for a romantic afternoon tea? The handsome, sexy, nude model of your dreams!" His voice remained low. Though his words were sarcastic, the tone gave no indication of impending threat. A long pale finger traced a line beginning at her temple across her face to her chin. "Clearly, you were desirous of my company as all the silly young witches believe themselves to be. Now you alone have my undivided attention." The finger traced over her lips, softly almost lovingly. "Now that we're both here…alone, what would you have me do?"
"Let me go," she whispered.
"Have you really gone to all this trouble to find me only to turn and walk away as soon as I speak to you?" He gave her a reproachful look. "Have you exhausted your supply of the much vaunted Gryffindor bravery so quickly? You disappoint me, Miss Granger."
He knew her. At first, that thought troubled her, but a moment later she reasoned that she was well-known after the Victory. It was not surprising to still be recognised, despite all her efforts to maintain a low profile. Any thoughts she'd had about reform in the wizard world after Voldemort's destruction had proved fleeting. Things continued much as they had before, minus the threat that had loomed over her student years. "I'm sorry I bothered you. I guess I wasn't thinking. I shouldn't have come." With a start, she realised she was no longer immobile and likely hadn't been for some time. "I'll just be going, then." She took a step in the direction of the doorway.
"Not so fast, Miss Granger," the silky voice intoned. A twitch of familiarity niggled at the base of her brain. "A favour should always be repaid."
"I don't owe you anyth…," she stopped herself from completing the word. He was letting her go with neither warnings nor threats. He was doing her a favour, a fact of which she was suddenly acutely and embarrassingly aware. "What would you have me do?"
The wizard with the blurred face stood quietly as if contemplating a great many things before finally speaking. "You are still in touch with the Weasleys, am I correct?" He did not wait for her to answer. He walked over to her, cupped her face in his hands and whispered, "Tell Percy Weasley that an old friend sends warmest greetings."
A second or two passed before the words fully registered in her mind. Percy? Of all the Weasleys, Percy remained the one with whom she'd spoken the least, though there was no enmity between them. He was committed to his career at the Ministry and had advanced quickly through the ranks, thanks in large part to the enormous amount of charity work he'd organised since Voldemort's fall. What would Percy Weasley possibly have to do with seedy wizards who lived in Knockturn Alley?
"How do you know Percy?" She tried to see through the blur of his face, but could not. "Do you work for the Ministry?"
Of all the things she may have expected in response to such an innocuous question, rich baritone laughter might well have been the last. "One might say that, after a fashion."
"Then you and the others here are Ministry employees, working undercover? To what end?" The more she thought about it, the more reasonable it sounded that the Ministry would wish to keep a close eye on the denizens of the most infamous street in wizarding Britain.
"So naive," he shook his head. "What you see, dear girl, is what you get. I have nothing to hide, indeed I have bared all for the Ministry."
"All but your face? You keep that well hidden, don't you?" She was dying to know who he was. Something about him seemed almost tragic. The images in her mind, those reflected in the drawings she made, seemed oddly incongruent with the haughty but reserved manner in which he carried himself in his own territory."
"I am entitled to a modicum of privacy. In many ways it is all that remains to me."
"You would be recognised without the disillusionment charm, wouldn't you? What are you hiding?"
"I do not hide anything. The Ministry," he spoke the word noticeably harsher, "knows exactly who I am and what I do as well as why I do it."
"Then why does the Ministry have no record of you? I searched everywhere. There is no record of you or any models in that class."
"Did you really think there would be?" He had turned away from her, his head bowed slightly.
"Have you requested the records to be sealed for some reason? Are you so ashamed of your work? Even still, there should be a record of your employment and there isn't."
"I have told you all I can."
"You've told me nothing."
"I've told you more than enough to satisfy your insatiable curiosity."
"I know Percy. He's a good man now. Whatever the problem is, I'm sure he'd be willing to help once I explain…"
He held a hand up to silence her. "All I ask is for you to extend 'warm' greetings from an old friend. I'm sure even a Weasley can understand such a simple message without any undue taxing of the brain or need for further explanations." He paused. She sensed, rather than saw, a smile of resignation. "Anything else may do more harm than good. Don't follow me here again, Miss Granger."
She heard a pop and he was gone, leaving her alone to ponder his enigmatic words. She resolved to try and see Percy first thing in the morning.