A/N: Apologies for the massive delay. I actually completed this story about a year ago and am apparently rubbish at posting on a regular schedule. I have therefore front-loaded the entire story and will be posting the rest over the next week or so. Now, without further ado...
Life had returned to Diagon Alley, though it wasn't as busy as Hermione remembered from her earlier years. People still clustered in groups and spoke in hushed voices; habits formed out of fear didn't break easily. Children were the exception to the rule and Hermione was glad to see a handful of laughing young ones darting through the street in a game of tag. There was hope.
Ginny, moaning and picking at her robes in the summer heat, led Hermione through the crowds as they sought after school supplies. They halted suddenly in front of a shop with a large window and Hermione groaned as her friend gravitated toward the glass in a near-trance.
"It's just a broom," Hermione grumbled.
"They've not been able to develop anything better in five years, Hermione. Do you know how rare that is?"
"By the fact you, Harry, and Ron nearly wet yourselves every time you see one—"
"Hermione Granger! Such inappropriate language might lead me to believe you've been spending far too much time with my brother."
The older witch smiled in spite of herself. "I've not spent that much time with your brother."
"No, you just went traipsing around Britain with him for months on end," Ginny retorted.
The conversation ended there in an abrupt silence. This was the closest they'd come to talking about the war since the day Hermione found Percy with the picture of his family. Hermione felt a twinge of awkwardness at the mention of Ron and their adventure hunting the Horcruxes. To her knowledge, Bill and Fleur were still the only Weasleys who knew he'd abandoned them halfway into their search.
"I wonder if George would buy me one," Ginny said in an attempt to return the conversation to safer territory. The redhead stood on her toes to align her reflection in a way that it looked like she was mounted on the Firebolt. She fell several inches too short for the mirage to work and harrumphed before she stomped toward Flourish and Blotts.
"Standard Book of Spells, Grade 7," Hermione mused to herself as she walked through the familiar shelves. The scent of leather and paper slowly calmed the nerves she didn't realize she'd been feeling. A gentle wave of homesickness swept over her as she longed to return to the Hogwarts library and drown her nightmares in a familiar routine.
She bumped into someone reaching for the shelf at the same time. "Pardon," she mumbled and looked up. Blaise Zabini raised an eyebrow at her before brushing past without a word, as if she hadn't been there at all.
Several minutes later, Hermione spied the young man grabbing, not one, but three copies of their Defence Against the Dark Arts textbook. Did he normally buy so many copies? The books didn't seem like something that would need replacing, unlike the self-destructive Monster Book of Monsters disaster of third year.
After Zabini left the store with his suspiciously large stack of books, Hermione approached the display of black books. The covers glistened as though they were wet, except for an engraved title which read Offensively Defensive. She gingerly picked up a book with bated breath, waiting for some sort of sign that it was something more than just a regular textbook. When it stayed decidedly still and unexciting in her hands, she let out the breath and picked up a second copy for Ginny.
Hermione made to join Ginny at the counter, but a book tucked away on a bottom shelf caught her eye. Like the Defence Against the Dark Arts book, it had a simple black cover, but red lettering on the spine. She pulled the book off the shelf to reveal a front cover depicting a wand appearing and disappearing in casual succession.
Wandless, the spine read.
Without a moment's thought, Hermione added the book to an armload which rivalled Zabini's. At the counter, she passed a few books Ginny's direction and handed an assortment of coins to the clerk. The girls meandered back outdoors, with most of their shopping done. Their final destination was Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, in spite of the fact both owners were absent.
With a huff of impatience, Ginny flicked her wand and the books in her arms disappeared.
Hermione gaped. "Ginny! You can't keep doing that. What if you get in trouble? Where did you send them?"
"I have less than three weeks before I turn seventeen. Do you really think the Improper Use of Magic office is going to bother with someone so close to being an adult? From what Harry said, the Ministry is still in shambles. They won't even realize I've done anything until I'm back at Hogwarts." Ginny's smile turned triumphant as she flicked her wand again and Banished Hermione's books as well. The older girl screeched. "Don't worry; your books are safe at home. Fred and I managed to hide a few things around Ron's room without actually stepping through the door. You should've seen Mum's face when she found our entire spoon collection hidden inside a shoe. She made Ron scour the damn things three times before she let them near the utensil drawer."
They reached Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes before Hermione found the right words to lecture her friend. Part of her wished she had seen Mrs. Weasley's expression at discovering the flatware. The redheaded matriarch was a sight to behold when angry. The other part of her realized that Ginny had been playing with underage magic long before the Ministry fell and had somehow avoided the consequences. As far as Hermione knew, the devious young woman had never even been investigated for her offences.
The store was busy, though there was an immediate feeling of lacking in the atmosphere. A blonde woman in magenta dress robes stood chatting with a dazed-looking customer while two other magenta-clad employees darted in and out of the back, restocking half-empty shelves.
In a cursory glance around the store, Hermione noticed more than the twins were missing. Their line of products dedicated to making light of Voldemort's return had disappeared. No more edible Dark Marks, no more cheeky posters advertising U-No-Poo. Even the line of love potions was gone, which Hermione suspected had to do with Harry letting it slip that Voldemort had been conceived under the effects of such a potion.
"Verity, how are you?" Ginny asked, interrupting the blonde's conversation.
The Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes employee dismissed the enamoured customer and embraced Ginny. Hermione wondered for a moment if the woman was part-Veela as the man kept woefully looking back at his indifferent companion.
"As well as can be expected. I don't know how George plans to keep the store going without him. We're running low on products and he pulled one of our most popular lines—"
"The love potions; yeah, I heard. Are you able to manufacture anything on your own?"
Verity sighed. "The Skiving Snackboxes are simple enough, as are the joke wands and most of the sweets. It's everything else. I'm pretty sure the Duplication and Tracking Parchments use spells of their own creation."
Ginny frowned. "I thought those were restricted items."
"They are, but the Minister for Magic himself ordered our entire supply. It seems the Aurors' Office will be using every available resource to track down the remaining Death Eaters."
Hermione nodded to the back of the store. "The restricted items are back there, right? Do you mind if I take a look?"
The employee looked to Ginny first. The redhead nodded and the three of them disappeared behind the curtain. Verity retrieved the items and gave the girls a brief explanation of both.
"The Duplication Parchments are a pretty effective way of communicating covertly. Whatever you write on one parchment shows up on the other. You'd never have to send an owl to your best mate again if you had a pair of these. George Apparated to New Zealand once to make sure distance wasn't an issue."
"How many of these does Kingsley want?"
Verity shrugged. "He said he wanted all of it. He didn't specify a number, per se. I got the feeling he wanted a lifetime supply."
Hermione nodded, filing that information to puzzle out later. "What about the other?"
Verity laid a single paper on the workbench. Hermione and Ginny leaned over and the former stifled a gasp.
Tiny black dots moved around a faded floorplan that looked curiously like the layout of Diagon Alley. As Hermione peered closer, her suspicions were rewarded as she found a miniscule dot labelled Hermione Granger near two others named Ginevra Weasley and Verity Applebaum.
It was the same charm Harry's father's friends had placed on the Marauder's Map.
"Can I buy a set of these off you? I promise not to tell the Minister." At Verity's doubtful look, Hermione explained. "I think I can figure out the charms. The Duplication Parchment seems to be simple enough. It's probably just a variation on the Protean Charm, but this other one..." She felt a rush of excitement at the challenge that she hadn't felt since figuring out how to charm her Extended beaded bag. "I definitely want to figure this one out."
The de-facto store manager nodded in appreciation. "Alright, but they're pricey. If you manage to figure out the charms, I'll refund you the cost."
Hermione handed over nearly twenty Galleons before she and Ginny walked outside with their purchases and headed for the Leaky Cauldron.
Harry and Ron were already seated at a table, but not wearing the grins Hermione expected to see. She dropped into a chair next to Ron, a feeling of worry in her chest. "What's wrong?"
"You tell her," Ron said. His voice sounded hoarse, as if he'd been yelling.
"The Malfoys are on the run," Harry said tonelessly. Hermione felt her heart drop into her stomach. She'd expected something like that. The Malfoys were cowards, bowing to Voldemort in secret until they were sure they were on the winning side, then running away at the first sign the tides were turning. Hermione still remembered the way Draco Malfoy all but whimpered as he tried to play both sides by not admitting their identities when they were captured at Easter. Even clearer, she remembered his panicked screams when the Fiendfyre raged through the Room of Requirement. Even over the roar of the flames, she heard his fear.
Cowards, the lot of them.
"Any leads?" Ginny asked.
Harry shook his head. "Took the Aurors nearly six hours to get through all of the wards on the Manor. Kingsley ended up calling in a favour with Bill, since he'd been a curse-breaker for so long. Even then they could only get into half of the rooms. Rest of them sealed themselves off. Their Gringotts vault was emptied, though the goblins wouldn't tell us a damn thing about when or where they might have transferred the funds. I can't imagine they're roaming the British countryside with millions of Galleons in a trunk." Harry paused and glanced at Ron, looking unsure about something. He looked back at Hermione and chewed the inside of his lip. "You might—they burned the drawing room."
Hermione just nodded, allowing a numbness to spread over her body at the revelation. So there was some semblance of regret on the Malfoys' part. Good.
"Can we talk about something else?" Ron asked. "We spent the entire day talking about those bastards and I want to think about something else."
Across the table, Ginny launched into a lamentation about passing by the ever-unattainable Firebolt. Hermione sank in her chair and simultaneously lamented that her troublesome underage friend had Banished her books nearly 200 miles away.