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Vertigo by subtle_plan

Format: Novel
Chapters: 20
Word Count: 42,587
Status: WIP

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Mild Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Mystery, Romance, AU
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, Ginny, OC
Pairings: Draco/Hermione, Ron/Hermione, Ron/OC

First Published: 01/16/2008
Last Chapter: 01/03/2013
Last Updated: 01/03/2013

Summary:


What if everyone you knew were only in your head?

Hermione awakens from a coma to be informed that all her memories of the past eight years have been but a vivid dream. In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Hermione clings on to the notion that magic is real and the hope that Ron might be out there somewhere. A chance encounter with a former enemy justifies her faith, but sometimes ignorance is kinder than knowing the truth...


Chapter 1: Room 337
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“Tomorrow.”

A simple word had so many meanings.

“Tomorrow is the day.”

Hermione drew a shuddering breath, then let it out in a puff.

“I don’t know if I can do it.”

“Nonsense,” Ginny said, snickering from behind her. “Of course you can do it.
I’ve done it, and I turned out quite all right, didn’t I?” The red-head wriggled her left-hand fingers, displaying to Hermione the two bands symbolizing engagement and marriage.

Hermione was sure she was going to faint, and she couldn’t even blame the corset which deprived her of the ability to breathe, seeing that she wasn’t wearing it at the moment.

Obviously growing bored and impatient with the situation, Ginny reached over Hermione’s lap, wrenched the car door open and gave Hermione a shove in the back, pushing her out of the safety of the car and onto the scene where her wedding would take place the following day.

Hermione and Ron had chosen an outside wedding. Hermione had dragged her fiance all across Great Britain to look at cottages, parks, gardens, mansions, fields, beaches and every other setting imaginable for their bonding. Out of nowhere, having gotten a whiff of the wedding and evidently feeling the need to make himself an important part of it, Ernie MacMillan had offered to lend them his family’s medieval castle on the Scottish highland.

“Beautiful courtyard,” Ernie had boasted, “Big enough to fit a thousand people, and a cake the size of a muggle car.”

He hadn’t been lying about the former, Hermione thought, as she was pushed out of the car and into the applause which sounded like the one which had used to follow each of Dumbledore’s speeches in the Great Hall. Hermione blinked against the bright sunlight, once, twice, her eyes adjusting to the sight of what seemed to be everyone she and Ron had ever known.

‘Calm down,’ She told herself, or at least she tried to tell herself. It seemed she wouldn’t listen to her own words of wisdom. ‘
Calm. Down. This is not the real thing. This is just the rehearsal. Just the rehearsal... You’re not getting married quite yet.’

Tomorrow was her big day. Her dream-come-true. Because this was what she wanted... right?

‘Ideal timing for second thoughts. Really great.’

She swallowed once more, and lifted her gaze to the altar which was located directly vis-a-vis where the limousine had dropped off her and Ginny. It was a beautiful, white arch, elevated a few feet from the surrounding garden by a pedestal. A small, petal-strewn staircase led up to where Ron was standing, in the shadow of the whitewashed, wooden arch, evidently almost as nervous as she was. His deep, blue eyes were fixed upon her and a smile lit his features, and Hermione became suddenly unaware of the million other eyes fixed at her. All she saw was Ron’s blue eyes and his nervous smile shining through the darkness.

Hermione’s heart melted.

Her knees gave away.

“She’s fainting!” a hysterical voice Hermione recognized as Auntie Muriel’s squealed.

Before she had even recognized what was happening, Ron had stormed down from the altar and down by her side. He scooped her deadweight frame into his strong arms and rocked her back and forth as though she were an oversized baby.

Hermione looked up and saw his worried face; his one thousand freckles, his ocean-blue eyes, his bright red hair. They were all melting together, swirling, until they resembled the artwork of a three-year-old graciously supplied with fingerpaint.

“Hermione,” she heard, though her eyes were falling shut. “It’s time to wake up.”


~





June 2, 1999

Mrs. Granger was breathing fast. In fact, she was almost hyperventilating as she snaked her way through the busy streets of London with a firm grip on her youngest daughter’s sleeve. Mr. Granger was scurrying along by his wife's side, with a morose and slightly anxious expression on his wrinkled, yet kind, face.

“Let-me-go!” the five-year old screamed as she attempted to wrench her sleeve away from her mother. Some bypassing stranger stopped and smiled at the little girl, who displayed typical childish behavior as she stubbornly set her heels to the cobblestones. She had red roses in her cheeks, and her brown hair flew waywardly in all directions. “What are we doing here, anyway? What’s the rush? What- Ouch!”

The trio rounded a corner, cutting through the city on their way. Everything about the parents, from their strained expressions to their quick pace, suggested that they were determined of their destination and not in the mood for arguments. The little girl scowled at them, but fell silent nonetheless as she consented herself to trotting alongside them.

Could it really be true?’ Mrs. Granger mused and she met her husband’s hazel eyes. They asked her the same question as she had just asked herself; ‘Was it really true this time?

It had been eight years since the accident; eight long, mournful years for the Grangers. Hermione had only been eleven when the incident had occurred, and Mr. and Mrs. Granger had watched her grow in silence; they had watched as her features matured while her pale face lay upon her pillow; watched as she slowly turned into a young woman they did not recognize anymore. It was painstaking to see her growing up, and knowing that she might never wake again.

That was the very reason the Grangers had been so startled that morning, when their doctor had called to announce that Hermione was slurring in her sleep. This was the reason why they were now practically sprinting through London with wide eyes and beating hearts.

Hermione’s five-year old sister, who might never have been born if it hadn’t been for her parents’ despair over losing their eldest daughter, knew nothing about Hermione. Her parents had neglected to mention the coma-induced teenager they paid to keep at a hospital in the center of the city, in fear that the little girl wouldn’t understand. “She’s only five!” Mrs. Granger had shouted at her husband when they had discussed it, even though they both were on the same side of the argument. They had had a lot of moral duscussions of the sort since the accident.

Ophelia was about to continue down the street when her mother held her back, and the little girl followed her gaze up to a hospital sign.

“Here it is...” Mrs. Granger mouthed, and she felt Mr. Granger’s hand grab hers and give it a small, reassuring squeeze. It was warm and comforting, yet more frightening than anything else she had experienced that day. It signified that it was time.

What if she wasn’t awake after all? Another false alarm? God only knew that this wouldn’t be the first time they had scurried to London to find their daughter just as unconscious as they had left her eight years earlier.

“We’re so sorry. She really did move!” the doctor had explained to them, although his apologetic words had not been enough to console the parents. Dejected, they had returned, time after time, to their little home in the south of England, and continued to challenge their imaginations with questions such as ‘What if?’ and ‘What would have been?’.

The three Grangers walked through the familiar, musty corridors of St. Mary’s Hospital. It was not by any means a new institution; it had been founded by nuns sometime during the 1890’s, and although it had been refurnished several times, and the paint had been covered afresh, it still smelled like sickness and death. But it was the best they could afford, long-term. And besides, the doctors seemed friendly and the nurses were sweeter than sugar.

The little family approached room number 337, and they could hear voices inside. Mr. Granger grabbed his wife’s hand again and the pair exchanged looks when they heard a horrifying scream coming from within. Ophelia attempted to turn and run, although Mrs. Granger caught her before she could follow her natural instincts.

“I want you to listen to me. We have something important to tell you, Ophelia,” Janice Granger announced to her daughter as she squatted down until she was the same height as the little girl. The girl stared back at her with big, blue and innocent eyes.

The girl in room 337 let out another painstaking howl.

Mrs. Granger hesitated. Was she really going to burden this child with all the drama and trauma that came with the situation? But after all, what other option did she have?

“Ophelia...” she said softly, soothingly. “You have... a sister. Her name is Hermione, and she is nineteen years old.”

The girl inside the room screamed a third time and Ophelia shivered. She had gone as pale as snow, and her eyes were the size of saucers. “I don’t understand-”

“Mr. Granger,” a nervous voice said; the door to 337 had swung open. A man, known to the Grangers as Doctor Silver, stood in the door with a look of mingled horror and delight upon his face. He was a jittery man, old for his age, and with his skinny frame and nervous habits he looked as though a stressful situation was enough to take him out. “Mrs. Granger, how very nice to see you. And you brought your youngest one as well, I see. Very pretty,” He beamed down at Ophelia, who looked away shyly.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Granger said distractedly, looking over Dr. Silver’s shoulder in a vain attempt to catch a glimpse of something that she didn’t know if she even wanted to see.

The Grangers had, naturally, omitted to bring Ophelia to their monthly meeting with Hermione. It seemed clear now, however, that they should have introduced the sisters at a younger age. Little Ophelia had just started to become a realist, like her sister before her, and it seemed obvious that the news were too much for the girl to handle.

“As you can hear,” Mr. Silver said, and shrank slightly at Hermione’s fourth scream and the sobs that followed. “Your daughter is very much awake. Naturally she is very confused; she keeps on rambling about pig warts, magic, and she has several times asked to see a ‘Ronald Weasley’. Does that name sound familiar to you?”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Granger shook their heads wordlessly.

“I didn’t think so,” said Dr. Silver gravely, and he looked over his shoulder and into the room before directing his wide gaze back at the Grangers. “It is normal, of course, for patients that have been in a coma to dream. Scientific researchers have experimented with it, taken heart-rates and brain-scans and all sorts of things... Yet typically the patients aren’t able to remember a thing when they wake up. Your daughter is evidently an exception.”

The Gangers exchanged meaningful looks. They had never expected the day of Hermione’s return to come, but whenever they had dared to fantasize about it, ramblings of a dreamworld that lasted for eight years had definitely not been a part of their dream.

Ophelia appeared to have regained her usual, curious behavior as she tried to look around Dr. Silver’s legs to catch a glimpse of the person that kept sobbing and rambling in a constricted voice from within 337.

Dr. Silver looked at the little girl fondly before returning his gaze to her parents. “So, do you want to see her?”

Mr. and Mrs. Granger made no reply; their facial expressions suggested that they were too overwhelmed for speech, but they followed obediently as Dr. Silver led the way into Hermione’s room.

It was the very same room as they had visited Hermione in countless times before, although it appeared slightly different now that it was brimful with nurses and doctors. Usually it was only Hermione’s parents, and sometimes Dr. Silver, who visited Hermione, the large apparatus that kept her alive, the stand beside her bed that pumped fluids into her body to help her be nurtured and the lacy curtains that allowed specs of sunlight into the small room.

Today, far from being still and dead-looking, Hermione was sitting in her bed with her arms wrapped around her knees. She looked like the epitome of vulnerability; her slight shoulders shaking in sobs. Both her hands were injected with needles that the doctors had taped around her palms for reasons best known to them. Her hair was messy and sweaty, and as she lifted her tearstained face to greet the approaching footsteps, her visage betrayed neither surprise, nor glee, at the sight of her parents. She looked more skeptical than anything as she considered Mr. and Mrs. Granger carefully through her tears.

“Hermione, darling?” Mrs. Granger said in a shaky voice after a moment’s silence. It was clear that she was on the verge of tears, although nothing less was expected by a woman who was being reunited with her daughter after eight years apart.

Ophelia chose this moment to rush past her parents and run into the room, looking around at the nurses and doctors for a second before she raised a finger to point at Hermione. “Is that her?” she said loudly to no one in particular, and her blue eyes were bulging. “Is that my sister?”

“S-sister?” Hermione repeated in a shrill tone; her voice was shaking as well. She looked from the child and back to her parents, and a frown formed on her pale, flawless forehead. “What’s going on? Is this a joke? Mum, dad, please, tell them I’m not crazy! Or better yet, just take me home.”

To hear her eldest’s voice, so mature from the last time she had heard it, seemed too much for Mrs. Granger. She broke down in sobs; a display Ophelia turned and stared at with eyes wide by shock. She had never seen her mother cry before.

Mr. Granger put an arm around his wife, and he stared at Hermione for a moment before a smile broke out on his lips. His daughter had recognized them both, and used his name.

Dad.

The doctors had on several occasions warned the Grangers that there was a huge possibility that the long period of induced sleep would most likely cause brain damage to Hermione, meaning that if she, against all odds, ever did wake up, chances were slim that she would be able to talk, and much less recognize people.

“Yes,” Mr. Granger said, and his brown eyes sparkled with tears of happiness. “We’ll finally take you home.”


Chapter 2: Truth Be Told
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June 16, 1999

Hermione’s pale cheek was pressed against the window of her door. On the outside raindrops were falling, but inside the car she was warm and safe from both the stormy weather and the cold.

She felt oddly weak and drained, no doubt due to the dizziness she had experienced. Her parents were acting weird in the front seat, exchanging wordless, worried glances. And to top it all, they had adopted a little girl, Ophelia, without even calling Hermione to warn her of this new addition to the Granger household.

“Hermione,” Ophelia said curiously. Her round, blue eyes had not left Hermione since the family had gotten into their car and started the long drive home. “Do you have any Barbie dolls?

Mr. and Mrs. Granger exchanged another curious glance in the front seat. Their eyes betrayed mingled horror, worry and adoration for their youngest daughter’s innocence in the situation.

“No, Ophelia,” Mrs. Granger said with a voice draped in silk, before Hermione had time to answer. “We already gave you all of Hermione’s old dolls. They're the ones you have that look used, remember? The ones with frizzy hair.”

“Oh,” Ophelia nodded and fell silent once more.

The atmosphere in the car was awkward.

Mr. Granger glanced at Hermione in his mirror. “How are you feeling, Hermione?” he asked her carefully before returning his eyes to the wet road.

At the hospital Hermione had insisted that she was fine and refused to answer the doctors’ questions as they tried to determine wether they needed to keep her at the hospital or not. Infuriated, they had had to let her go, disappointed that they had not managed to squeeze some more money out of the Grangers’ wallets. As though they hadn’t acquired enough over the past eight years of extending Hermione’s lifeline.

However, even though Hermione had insisted back then that she was fine, her parents could tell that she was lying. Her pale complexion, the confused look in her eyes, the way she kept looking down at her trembling hands... Everything suggested that she was far from fine.

“I’m so confused...” Hermione admitted, and her mother smiled at her words. She was about to turn around and offer the teenager an explanation, but Hermione continued ruthlessly: “I mean, why isn’t Ron here? And where did my ring go? Did they have to take it off at the hospital or something? Oh no, please say I didn’t sleep over the wedding! How long was I out, mum?”

Now there was almost a wild look about her, and Mrs. Granger’s mild smile was gone to be replaced with a look of horror. She had thought that the truth had finally started to dawn on Hermione, but apparently the girl was still caught up in her own little dreamworld.

“Honey, stop the car,” Mrs. Granger sighed, and Mr. Granger obediently drove to the side of the road before killing the engine. Mrs. Granger turned to Hermione. “Okay... Hermione, this might come as a slight shock, but... I don’t even know how to say it.”

“You’ve been in a coma,” Mr. Granger said, and he, too, turned to look at his daughter. His kind eyes looked oddly wet behind his square glasses. “For eight years.”

A few seconds ticked by as the rain pounded against the roof of their minivan.

Hermione shook her head, and her expression was strained. “No...” she murmured. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no-”

“But it’s gonna be okay, sweetie,” Her mother tried desperately, and leaned across to cup her daughter’s chin in her hand. The last time she had done it Hermione had been nearly twelve.

“No!” Hermione yelled, shaking her head and pressing her back against the hard carseat. “Don’t you see? It won’t be okay! It will never be okay! Poor Ron, I’ve kept him waiting for too long... Oh no! Did he give up on me? I... Ron...” and her outburst of anger subsided into furious sobs. Her world seemed to spin around her, even though she was quite isolated from it inside the little car.

Her parents exchanged yet another, this one horrorstricken, look. Ophelia continued to stare shamelessly at her sobbing sister. She had never seen this many adults cry in such a short amount of time.

“Hermione, dear... Don’t cry...” Mrs. Granger said as she awkwardly attempted to come closer to her sobbing daughter though the opening between the front seats.

But Hermione seemed oblivious to Mrs. Granger’s soft voice and kind manner as she wrapped her arms around her legs and cried into her knees. Her parents thought they could hear her mutter the name “Ron” through her sobs, along with other words they were unable to hear.

The rain seemed to intensify around them, and perhaps it was hailing, because it sounded as though they were being fired at with relentless, unstoppable bullets.

Mr. and Mrs. Granger looked pained, and unsure of what to do. Perhaps it would be best just to let her cry it out and get it over with? But before they could let her do just that, Hermione had forced herself to calm down enough to speak again.

“So did he? Get married, I mean.”

“Hermione...” Mr. Granger said in a calm, controlled voice. Hermione knew that voice as his serious voice; the voice he only used if he was reprimanding her or telling her something extremely important. “Ron never existed.”

“What the hell do you mean by that?” Hermione shrieked, and she looked outraged. Her cheeks had, for the first time in eight years, developed red roses of anger, and she directed a glare at both her parents. Then she turned to Ophelia, who was still staring, and a look of comprehension dawned upon her face.

“Ah!” Hermione turned back to her parents. “I understand that you didn’t want to talk about my world at the hospital, but you can’t keep this a secret forever, you know. Not if she is a part of our family now.”

“Keep what a secret, dear?” Mrs. Granger asked in a low voice.

Hermione raised an eyebrow. “Magic,” she said simply, and that one single word was enough to make her both her parents cringe; the same reaction Harry had told Hermione that his aunt and uncle responded with whenever any peculiarity was mentioned.

“There is no such thing like magic,” Mr. Granger said softly, and Hermione could hear the faintest trace of impatience in his deep, mellow voice.

“How can you be so stupid?!” Hermione practically yelled, and she sounded like the outraged teenager she never got the chance to be. “You know as well as I do! I showed you my spells, my magic, my bloody wand!” After the little outburst she sank down in her seat, trying to maintain control of her temper. Whenever she had lost her temper like this when she was a child it would start raining, the TV would break or something else that they didn’t recognize as magic happened.

Now, instead, she just felt dizzy.

~




“Dear God,” Mrs. Granger said, as she paced the length of the Grangers’ living room. Ophelia was already in bed, and Hermione was lying, unconscious, on the couch. Her face was pale as snow, and she looked dead except for the small rising and sinking of her chest, indicating that she was breathing.

It wasn’t as though the Grangers’ weren’t familiar with this; whenever Hermione had gotten worked up as a child, she would faint. 'Vertigo', the doctors had deemed her condition, and the best and only medicine was rest. It had been a curse, sometimes, yet with her intelligent manner and her puerile beauty Hermione had been a blessing nevertheless.

Still, Mrs. Granger couldn’t help but fear the worst as she looked at her immobile daughter.

“What if she has fallen into another coma?” she asked her husband, who was sitting in the armchair, rubbing his temples. His glasses were laying on the wooden coffee table.

Mr. Granger sighed. “I don’t think so,” he said vaguely, although he wasn’t sure. But somehow it seemed to be his job to comfort his wife in whatever cause she was worried about. “She’ll wake up soon.”

And, as though she had heard her father, Hermione groaned.

“Hermione, darling!” Mrs. Granger exclaimed and rushed to her side.

Hermione sat up straight and gave a small sob. She sounded like an overgrown toddler that had been rudely awaken from its nap.

Mrs. Granger wrapped a consoling, comforting arm around her daughter. Oh, how she had longed to be able to do just that, all the times she had watched Hermione laying motionless with her chocolate eyes closed against the real word. “Sssh, darling, it’s alright...”

“It’s not alright...” Hermione muttered. “I’m twenty-seven years old, my life has passed on without me....”

Mr. Granger frowned from his spot in the middle of the floor. “You’re not twenty-seven, Hermione. You just turned nineteen.”

Hermione looked up from her misery suddenly, appearantly forgetting to sob as she stared from her father to her mother and then back. She looked both accusing and relieved. “But you said I had been in a coma for eight years.”

“You have,” her father replied gravely, nodding. “You fell into a coma just before your twelfth birthday-”

“No I didn’t!” Hermione snapped, shaking her mother’s arm off her and standing up. “Just before my twelfth birthday I got my Hogwarts letter, and I went off to school!”

Both her parents knew that they shouldn’t contradict her, that they shouldn’t upset her any further, and that doing so could cause a new vertigo. Still, they could not help sharing another helpless glance.

The glance did not pass by Hermione without notice. She gaped at them for a moment, before she fell to the ground as though she had been knocked off her feet.

Mr. and Mrs. Granger thought for a horrifying, split second that she had had another seizure, although the sobs that rang through the living room quickly proved them wrong.

“But, Hermione...” Mrs. Granger said, stroking a hand through Hermione’s long, greasy hair. It had been through both sweat and rain that day, which was more than it had been through for eight years.

Hermione inched closer to her mother’s feet, resting her cheek against her skirt and crying uncontrollably. The tears seemed to fall just as hard and fast as the rain they had witnessed earlier that day. Mrs. Granger continued to stroke her daughter’s hair, gently and calmly, until the sobs and whimpers eventually subsided into silence. Mr. Granger stood by their side, wordlessly, simply watching the two women while losing track of time.

“You’re not lying, after all,” Hermione whispered from Mrs. Granger’s knee, because the one glance she had seen been exchanged was enough to tell her the whole, undisguised and heartbreaking truth of her past.


Chapter 3: Psychology vs. Proof
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July 25, 1999

“Name?”

“Hermione Jean Granger.”

“Age?”

There was a pause, as though the verdict of the interrogation had to count on her fingers before answering. “Nineteen. I’ll turn twenty this September.”

Dr. Holsted, an aged man who, in Hermione’s critical opinion, resembled a warthog, scribbled away on his notebook.

Hermione was sitting next to him, her long legs stretched out on the bench she was placed upon and her hands folded over her stomach. The back of both hands bore marks from where numerous needles had been injected over the past eight years. The skin was visibly bruised.

Dr. Holsted finished writing and, with a great effort it seemed, laid aside the notebook and scooted his chair closer to where Hermione was laying. He smelled like the tuna sandwich he had eaten for lunch; Hermione tried to unnoticed edge away from his breath.

“So, Hermione, tell me: Where have you been for the last eight years?”

He looked at her, and she had to admit that his eyes looked sympathetic even though she was determined to dislike the old man.

“I’ve been at the Hospital, in room 337... At least that’s what I’ve been told,” Hermione responded stiffly, yet smartly, gazing right back.

Dr. Holsted nodded, and his dry lips stretched into a smile underneath his piggy nose. “Indeed you have,” he said. “But where have you been in the last eight years, as far as you remember? Your parents have told me that it is quite the enthralling tale. I would love to hear it.”

The truth was, of course, that he would love to scrutinize her insanity, research the psychology behind her imagined life and hopefully earn a handful of money while doing so. The warm smile, filled with pity for her condition; the kind eyes, the wrinkled hand now placed on Hermione’s shoulder; it was all just an act of bedside manner that he had exerted for years and years, ever since he had started out on his career as a shrink with the hope that one day a jewel would come in, loaded with money and insane stories that he could get paid for listening to.

Hermione sat up.

“I don’t think this will work for me, Dr. Holsted. This isn’t getting me anywhere.”

“Hermione,” Dr. Holsted said, still with the faux smile fixed upon his wrinkled face. “Please sit back down. We can discuss something else if you want to. I hear you have a sister now. What was your reaction when you found out?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Send the bill to my parents,” she said shortly. Then she turned, strode over the polished wood floor before the psychiatrist could stop her, and exited the room with an ear-shattering bang.

Once down the numerous staircases to the streets of London she set off into the bustling masses that crowded the streets. She was still not completely sure that Dr. Holsted wasn’t tailing her, and in case he was she wanted to make sure she shook him off before he had the chance to catch up and force her back into his office.

One month had passed; one long, painful, confusing and discouraging month. Hermione was still adjusting to the fact that she was a Muggle, that the opposite of a Muggle did not exist, and that eight years had passed since the last time she had walked around the house she had visited every summer since starting Hogwarts. There was a definite lack of progress as far as her comprehension went, and, in an attempt to help her accept what had happened, the Grangers had made her a three-hour appointment with one of London’s top psychiatrists. Since there technically was two hours and forty-five minutes left until her parents were picking her up outside of Holsted’s office building Hermione had that amount to spend on her leisure.

Where should she go? London was open before her feet; the streets looked inviting and the scents of freshly baked bread, wildflowers and new books drifted through the city as though each one was competing to gain her attention and lure her in the direction it came from.

For Hermione, however, there was no question of where to go.

She had to look; had to make sure. She couldn’t accept what the doctors told her, what her parents said, until she had concrete proof that her world had never existed and that there were no trace of anything magical in or outside her.

With a maelstrom of thoughts in her head Hermione set off towards the first magical place she had entered after learning that she was a witch, where she had first gotten her proof that it was true; the Leaky Cauldron.

While she walked, bumping into random people and occasionally tripping over the cobblestones under her feet, she tried to quench the hopes that arose inside her like a flurry of butterflies.

Because it wasn’t as though she hadn’t tried. In her room, late at night, she had sat up in her bed and attempted to make the things around her shiver. She had tried speaking out the incantations that she knew so well. She had sought to do everything she could think of, everything she remembered, and nothing had worked. True; she didn’t have a wand. But even before she had obtained her wand, before Professor McGonagall had shown up at her doorstep to announce that she was a witch, she had been able to make peculiar things happen within the confined space of her bedroom.

Now, however, there was nothing. Her waterglass didn’t refill itself upon request; her pencils didn’t hover into her outstretched hand when she was about to write in her diary. Indeed, when she waved her hands and whispered spells into the air, nothing whatsoever happened. Movements were just movements, and words were just words.

Nevertheless, even when knowing of her inability to perform even the smallest magical deed, she could not prevent her heart from racing as she, step by step, approached the spot where the Leaky Cauldron was crammed in between a bookstore and a shop selling second-hand shoes.

She reached the street and she moved along it, walking on the opposite side of the street as to draw out the torment. Then, as she reached the botique vis-a-vis the Leaky Cauldron, she froze and took several deep breaths.

'It’s not real, it’s not there, it was all just a dream...' She muttered these discouraging words to herself over and over again, as she slowly turned towards the magical pub across the bustling, busy street. It was momentarily obscured by a vast group of foreigners, Frenchmen by the sound of them, and Hermione waited for the lot to move along without breathing.

Then, the last French of the family moved out of the way, and Hermione’s eyes widened in drawn-out anticipation as she saw...

Nothing.

There was absolutely nothing where there had once been, in a land in her dreams, a busy inn filled with witches and wizards, goblins and vampires, and everything else that had only been in her head.

Hermione stood as though glued to the street, her hands finding and clinging onto a streetlamp in the effort to keep to her feet while it felt that everything that had come alive inside her had shattered and fallen apart. Her eyes filled with tears.

The pub that wasn't there was obscured by a large group of elderly ladies, swinging purses and shopping bags, each one of them passing by without even glancing in the direction of the Leaky Cauldron.

There was her evidence; her concrete proof that her parents had been telling the truth and that this wasn’t just an act of love from their side, trying to protect her from Voldemort, magic and all the evil creatures that came with it. It had been her last, desperate hope, and now it was all gone, evaporated, diminished into thin air.

And then, she saw him.

The crowd had momentarily cleared up, and that’s when she saw him, seemingly appearing out of nowhere on the spot where the Leaky Cauldron should have been.

It might have been a trick of the sunlight, or a trick of her tear-filled eyes, but nothing could make an account for the reality of the blond youth now climbing through the masses up the street.

There was no mistake about it; she would have recognized the white gold hair, the pale, pointed features and the haughty demeanor anywhere.

It was Draco Malfoy.

Struggling to compose herself, fighting to breathe through overwhelming excitement and relief, Hermione pursued her arch-enemy like a wolf stalking its prey.

She kept him in sight through the many people moving between him and her, through the guffawing men, the chortling women and the howling children they dragged along. She was intent on not letting him out of her sight for a moment; to not lose trace of this one, firm, living and breathing proof that she wasn’t quite as insane as she had been deemed.

Their trail zigzagged its way through the streets like an elusive snake. Malfoy kept talking unexpected turns and sharp swings as though he was a rockstar keen to shake off the paparazzi. Still, he didn’t turn once, and Hermione was sure that he didn’t know that she was there, that she was watching his every move and following him from a distance of seven yards straight across the town of London. She wasn’t sure where he was taking them, and she was even less certain that she was going to find her way back. The problem of getting lost in the city seemed much less alarming than the prospect of losing Malfoy, losing the one thread that bound her to the magical world, out of sight.

Malfoy took another sharp turn and Hermione followed suit without thinking. She realized her mistake a moment too late when she found herself in a street leading nowhere, with a Malfoy who had just spun around on his heel and was glaring at her as though she was something nasty that had possessed the nerve to stick itself to the underside of his shoe. There was something so familiar with that cold, gray stare that Hermione’s lips almost twitched in spite of the seriousness of the situation.

“What do you want?” Malfoy demanded, crossing his arms over his chest and fixing Hermione with criticism edged on every pale feature. His eyes travelled from her sweatpants, stained from re-painting her room the week before, to her hair, as frizzy as ever, most of it having escaped the messy braid she had knitted in the car on the way to Dr. Holsted’s.

She was faced with a difficult decision, and she had to make it fast. The resentful, impatient expression upon Malfoy’s face told her that she wasn’t worth a minute of his day.

“I...” Hermione started, weighing her choices. Should she lie, claim that she had just taken a wrong turn, and then walk away? That was the easy way out, yet that way she might lose him forever.

His face remained cold, his expression empty, as he continued to survey her across the cobblestoned stretch that separated them. Hermione looked into his eyes, trying to read him. There was a certain amount of dislike in the way he stared her down, yet a different dislike than the one she had become accustomed to facing during their time together in school. He looked at her as though he had never seen her before; as though she was a stranger.

“Draco Malfoy?” Hermione said testily and watched the young man's, Malfoy’s, face whiten until it was the color of newly fallen snow.


Chapter 4: Relax, Relapse
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His aristocratic features, perfect down to every pale detail, were somewhat tainted by the look of shock, outrage and, was it possible, fear.

He took several steps away from Hermione, looking as though he was thinking hard and fast. She could almost see the wheels inside of his blond head turning as he continued to stare at her. There was not a single sign of recognition in his silver eyes.

Then his gaze shifted, focusing on something over Hermione’s left shoulder, and he lifted a shivering hand to point at something behind her.

Hermione turned to look, her curiousity getting the best of her, and a second later she was struck in the back by something warm that knocked her out cold and left her an unconscious mass upon the cobblestone street...


~



Janice Granger stood over the stove, scrambling eggs, listening with half an ear to the sound of Ophelia’s cartoons coming from the living room, a soft smile upon her kind face. Her daughter, both her daughters, were alive and well. There was no glee such as that of a mother getting her lost child back.

The ringing of a phone interrupted the serenity of the kitchen and Mrs. Granger peeked over her shoulder at Mr. Granger, who was sitting by the table, half-hidden behind today’s newspaper. “Can you get it, honey?” Mrs. Granger chirped. “I don’t want the eggs to burn.”

Mr. Granger lowered the newspaper and revealed a smile to match that of his wife. He walked out of the room, into the living room, towards the ringing sound.

Mrs. Granger returned to her eggs, poking them and turning the pieces of egg over in the frying pan. Her bright blue eyes matched the color of the sky outside, and, as though to make a point of it, she looked out the kitchen window. She often did this while she was cooking, and more than once it had reduced her to tears.

She used to be quite fond of the view. She would much rather have a view of the old oak tree growing in the backyard, than she would have of the driveway and the cracked asphalt of the street in the front. It was through this window she had watched Hermione brushing the hair of her dolls, spinning like an ungraceful ballerina and playing tag with invisible friends. But it was also through this window that she had watched Hermione swinging; her favorite childhood pastime. Mr. and Mrs. Granger had never had to worry where their daughter was; she was always on the swing, swinging higher and higher, squealing with excitement.

During one quite normal summer day, the first of the year, as a matter of fact, Mrs. Granger had stood in the very same kitchen, frying what had looked like the exact portion of scrambled eggs that she was stirring at the current. She had been humming along to the tunes of the radio, closing her eyes, remembering her youthful days. When her eyes were shut she could recall her reflection; she had been beautiful then, dressed in a poofy skirt and a modest shirt, her face layered with make-up. Beautiful.

She looked down at the mass of yellow in the frying pan, and a smile graced her fine features. No matter what she had back then, what she had now was better. She had a family, a purpose, and with that she was content.

As though to underline the latter she looked up, still smiling, and gazed out of the window at the old oak tree. The swing was swinging back and forth, but something was wrong.

Something was terribly wrong.

Mrs. Granger had let out a terrible yelp. “Micheal!” she had called, and then she had abandoned both eggs and hot stove, running out into the garden and towards the ancient oak.

Outside, underneath the swing, upon a soft carpet of grass she had lain: sweet as an angel; still as a corpse.

The fact that Hermione had now been deemed demented, that she was rambling of a world in which magic was real, did not matter to Hermione’s mother. As long as Hermione was breathing, talking, smiling, laughing and living, the world was at peace once more.

“Janice.”

The sound of her name awoke Mrs. Granger from her reminiscence and she looked down to see that she had done what she had been trying to avoid: the eggs had attained a golden brown color, a few points past what would have been the ideal shading of the dish.

“Oh,” Mrs. Granger exclaimed, yet it could hardly have been clearer that nothing could fog over her silver lining. She lifted the frying pan off the stove and started shoveling onto three plates while humming merrily along to the tunes of Ophelia’s favorite TV-show.

“Janice,” Mr. Granger said again and when Mrs. Granger did not stop humming and bustling about the kitchen, he lay a heavy hand upon his wife’s shoulder.

He leaned closer and whispered something into her ear.

The frying pan fell to the tiled floor with an ear-shattering crash.

~


Hermione’s eyelids fluttered.

She wondered where she was, what had happened, who she was. Was she Hermione Jean Granger: witch prodigy and the future Mrs. Weasley or was she, as everyone seemed to think, Hermione Jean Granger: demented teenager stuck in a comatose reality which never existed?

The memories seemed to flood her; Dr. Holsted’s office, the escape, the empty spot where the Leaky Cauldron had stood, Draco Malfoy...

Draco Malfoy.

This was Draco Malfoy’s doing; her aching back, her distorted thoughts, her inability to remember precisely what had happened when she had last been alert. He had tricked her, made her believe there was something awe-inspiring behind her back, and in the instant she had turned he had shot a stunning spell at her and left her in blackness.

Yes, that was what had happened.

A triumphant smile spread upon Hermione’s lips.

Wizards were real.

“She’s awake,” a hushed voice echoed through a space in which a dozen people seemed to have a competition of who could breathe the most shallowly. Hermione opened her eyes to find that the contestants were the doctors and nurses of St. Mary’s, as well as her parents, all hovering over her bed back in room 337.

“Good morning, sunshine,” Her mother said before falling to her knees, pressing her lips against Hermione’s hand, muttering and mumbling against the pale skin draped over her knuckles; “She’s awake, oh, thank God she’s awake...”

Hermione ignored her mother completely and looked at her father and the team of doctors behind him instead. “What’s going on?” she asked, a frown creasing her brow. “Why am I back here again? What’s happening?”

Dr. Silver stepped into the limelight, giving a slight cough to gain her utmost attention before he talked.

“You had a relapse.”

“A relapse?” Hermione repeated subconsciously, her mind racing, her heart thumping in her chest.

“Yes, a relapse,” Dr. Silver said again, seemingly satisfied that Hermione was following along. “You had another vertigo a day and a half ago.”

A choked sob came from Mrs. Granger, still on the floor by Hermione's bed.

“No,” Hermione said, shaking her head into the pillow. “No, I didn’t. It was Draco Malfoy: He hexed me. Stunned me - Don’t shake your heads that way; I’m telling the truth!

The doctors and nurses quit shaking their heads sympathetically, but the looks of disbelief and pity were not wiped off their faces as they looked continued to gaze down upon her: ten pairs of twinkling, unbelieving eyes.

“It’s normal,” Dr. Silver said, in a low, mellow voice, taking a step closer and touching Hermione’s shoulder in what he evidently believed to be normal bedside manner. “to be confused after suffering a vertigo. I’m sure this is all very confusing to you. Many people start hallucinating before they actually faint, the borders separating reality and fantasy become blurry, and sometimes-”

“Don’t touch me!” Hermione snarled, bucking in the bed to get away from Dr. Silver’s rough hands, which she just now noticed were covered in a silvery film of long, cobwebby hairs. “I know what I saw, I know what happened! You weren’t there, you don’t know, you- you don’t know anything!

The imaginative Harry and Ron would probably have been awestruck if they could have seen her now; no one in their living memory could remember Hermione ever raising her voice to an authority figure.

Hermione’s parents looked rather dumbfounded as well; a scared hiccough escaped her mother into the ringing silence of room 337. Yet Dr. Silver looked quite untouched by her rudeness. “Very well, Miss Granger,” he said, in the same calm, leveled voice. “But remember: we have your best interests at heart. You won’t get anywhere unless you cooperate and let us help you.”

Mrs. Granger let out another heartbreaking sob from the floor.


Chapter 5: Letters to a Stranger
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September 19, 1999

Harry, Ron, Ginny, Malfoy, Neville, Luna. Professor McGonagall, Dumbledore, Hagrid. Severus Snape. All the people Hermione had ever known belonged inside of her head.

At least this was the truth doctors and therapists forcefed Hermione with on a daily basis.

They discouraged her thinking for herself, and, if she wasn’t trapped within deep conversations going nowhere with her shrinks, they gave her homework. Mathematical problems to solve, books to read, basically anything that could keep her lofty mind off her world and on theirs. The only time she was allowed to think, to breathe, to be alone, was during the late nocturnal hours before sleep induced her.

Two months had passed since Hermione had woken up in room 337 to be told that she had experienced what the doctors called ‘another vertigo’. It had been two very long months. She was still in room 337, laying in the same bed in which she had lain for eight years of her life.

There was a soft knock on the door.

Hermione was sitting in her bed, reading a fat book of English history. It really couldn’t compare to History of Magic, so she was glad to lay it aside, even if it was for the benefit of Dr. Silver or one of the other doctors at St. Mary’s.

She was surprised, however, when what came through the door was not human at all but a bundle of at least twenty motley balloons followed by cheerful off-key singing.

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...”

The singing, it appeared, came from a somewhat windswept quartet which followed closely after the balloons. Hermione’s parents, Ophelia and Hermione’s ancient and slightly senile grandmother had all walked into the room: three of which were carrying gifts; Hermione’s mother balancing a birthday cake with burning candles in her hands.

“Happy birthday, dear Hermione...”

Hermione quenched a sad, little smile.

Normal people celebrated their departure from their teenage years together with a large group of friends at a nightclub, sipping cocktails, dancing the night away. Celebrating hers at a broken-down old hospital in the company of four family-members had definitely not been Hermione’s idea of an ideal twentieth birthday.

Nevertheless, she had to smile. She wasn’t blind: she could see the effort her family had put into making her birthday the best possible considering the current circumstances. She could see the love reflected through their actions and shining through their eyes.

Five hours later, and a few slices of carrot-cake too many, it was time for the Grangers to leave. Each of them, even Ophelia, hugged Hermione in turn and promised that they would visit again the next day, and the day after that, and the next one, and indeed every day until Hermione was allowed to come home.

They left Hermione to one of those slivers of time in which she could let her mind run free.

'You owe it to them to try and get better. You owe it to them to listen to he doctors and get healthy, so that you can finally go home for good. Look at all the suffering you have put them through, look at the premature wrinkles that line your parents’ faces. You owe it to them to try.'

Hermione stared at the ceiling, knowing that her thoughts were true. She owed them something, and by being stubborn and angry she only made it harder for them to cope.

A soft knocking sound, like the branches of a tree scratching against window glass, blended with the sound of thundering rain and the howling of the wind. Hermione ignored it for a bit, then remembered that there were no trees growing outside the hospital walls: There were only buildings and more buildings, old and gray, as unkempt and dirty as the building she was currently living within.

Her curiosity spurring to life, she slipped out of bed and crossed the dark floor. The teardrops falling from the heavens drowned her footsteps as they continued to drop.

Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.


Two orange orbs were shining through the dark rain. They blinked once, then continued their relentless staring.

Hermione knew those eyes only too well. How many times had she not been sitting by the Gryffindor table, enduring a pair of almost identical eyes glowering at her as she rummaged through her schoolbag in search of knuts for the owl which delivered the Daily Prophet for breakfast.

She stared at the owl outside of her window.

The owl stared right back.

This wasn’t ordinary owlish behavior, was it? Or, in the Wizarding world it was, but seeing that magic had never, did not and wouldn’t ever exist this was highly unusual on the verge of impossible.

Hermione’s second idea was that she was having another vertigo, that she was imagining this, that she ought to lay back down and hope to wake up the next morning, safe and sound, with no owls or any other oddities close by. Her first thought, the one she acted upon, was to let the owl in.

She unhinged the window and watched the dripping bird soar in and land upon her bedside table, shaking rain from its long wings. It was an eagle owl, the king of all owls, and it was looking around the room with an almost majestic air as though trying to decide wether it would graze the room with its presence any longer or if room 337 was unworthy of its occupancy.

“Hey,” Hermione whispered as she walked over to her bed and sat down next to the large bird, trying to smile, trying to speak softly as to not scare the bird. “I’m Hermione Granger.”

The bird blinked slowly and cooed.

Hermione reached out a hand and stoked the owl’s head. “I used to be a part of your world. But I’m not now. Not anymore.”

Hermione sighed. ‘You’re losing your mind. You’re talking to a bird. A bird.’ But before she could pull herself together and shove the hallucination out the window, she had withdrawn pen and paper, supposedly her homework, and started scribbling a letter of desperation, of hope, of love.

“Dear Ron,” she wrote. “Perhaps we used to be the best of friends, or maybe we never met at all. A few months ago I woke up in a hospital in London, full of memories of a boy the doctors tell me never was. That boy was you. I woke up calling a single name: Ron Weasley.

I need to lay the past behind me, particularly since overwhelming evidence suggests that you’re not there. But how come I remember you then? I remember how you look down to the last freckle, I remember how you smell, how you smile, how you tasted the first time we kissed.

We were going to get married, you know. The day after I woke up we were going to have our wedding; a wedding I never attended. When I woke up from my coma my ring was gone, and so were you. I want to say to you what you and me have never said before, what we were going to say the day we married.

I want to tell you how much I love you.”


Hermione bit down on her lip as she felt tears of desperation and sadness in equal measures well up in her eyes and blur her vision. She flipped the piece of paper over, pressed it down onto her thigh and continued to write the declaration of her love.

“If you get this please write me back and tell me I’m not crazy. Write St. Mary’s and tell them the same. Write my parents and tell them that their daughter was right; that you, Hogwarts and magic are all real and that you’ll be here soon to show them.

If you don’t get this, if this is someone else or none at all, I’m sorry for any inconvenience and don’t bother writing me back. Owls aren’t meant to carry post, after all.

Love eternally,”


A single drop of salty tears fell to the crisp paper when Hermione put down her name in a swirl. The eagle owl seemed to cock one of it’s long, feathery eyebrows at her, wondering why she was all of a sudden sentimental. Hermione held up the letter to the animal.

“Can you take this to the Burrow?” she asked it, emphasizing each word, willing the bird to understand. Willing it to be more than an owl; to be magical, and to be real and not a hallucination. “Can you take this to Ronald Weasley?”

"And if you do-" Hermione whispered into the night, as she watched the big bird take wing five minutes later, the letter attached to its leg. "If you do deliver it right, I promise I will do my best. I promise I will recover, that I will do what the doctors say. That I will follow their prescriptions and get well, for the sake of my family, for the sake of my future, I will forget all about magic and start over fresh."

She closed her eyes and yet another tear rolled down her cheek as the eagle owl disappeared between rain and darkness. "I promise."


Chapter 6: In Another World
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September 20, 1999

Meredith stood by the kitchen bench of their modest cottage-sized house, chopping up a giant pineapple with a knife which could have easily played the lead role in a Rambo movie.

She was a natural in cooking, and sometimes she wondered if that was why she found herself already with a ring on her finger by her twentieth birthday. After all, she thought, smiling, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Naturally she didn’t want it any other way. She was in love; she loved him and she knew he loved her back, even if the actual words were rarely shed in between their frequent bickers. They weren’t the kind of couple who held hands and kissed in public, or who spent hours on the phone arguing about who loved the other one most followed by a just as giggly argument of who was going to have to hang up. The reason for the latter, naturally, was that her husband was a Wizard and had no clue how to work a telephone.

The chiming of the phone sounded through the kitchen. “Speaking of the devil...” Meredith muttered, her previously smily face now replaced by an expression that suggested she had just drunk an entire glass of lemon juice. She dropped the huge butcher’s knife, quickly wiped pineapple-juice from her long, slender fingers and picked up the phone without looking at the caller-ID.

There was no point in looking, because there was only one person who would call at this time in the morning.

“Hi, mum.”

“Dithy!” Meredith’s mother’s voice sounded on the other side of the phone. “I get off work early today, so I can come visit you turtledoves right afterwards. I’ll take the ten past four train out to your house.”

“Er-” Meredith said, playing with her wedding-ring, twirling it around her finger. She had imagined this day to be special, perfect, and her mother was not a part of that special, perfect day. “Listen...”

“Okay, I’ll see you roughly at five, then. I love you. Oh, and I expect you to come pick me up at the train-station.”

The beeping signalized that her mother had returned to work, leaving Meredith alone, holding the line. “Damn,” she swore, before hanging up.

She took up the preparation of her husband’s breakfast-in-bed, no longer smiling, her chopping dangerously hard and fast so that she risked cutting off a finger in the process. Why couldn’t her mother leave her alone for one single day? Why couldn’t she accept that Meredith had a life and a family of her own now?

She positively fumed as she whisked eggs, sugar and flour into waffles and then poured the gooey substance into an iron and started burning hearts for her man.

She would have to calm down before facing him with a heavily laden tray of all his favorite goodies, made almost as delectable as his mum made them. Meredith might be blessed with a certain talent in the kitchen, but what she could was nothing compared to her mother-in-law’s remarkable skills. No one compared, it seemed; not even the chefs on TV.

Meredith arranged the food items carefully on the tray, trying to get the colors to compliment each other as she hummed a nervous song to distract herself, calm her nerves and help her annoyance fade away. Her heart was leaping and she felt nauseous, as though she suddenly had to throw up. Well, she felt that way constantly lately, so it really wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

“Calmly, gently, carefully...” she whispered to herself as she picked the tray up, and carried it up the stairs towards the bedroom. She could hear deep, slow snores from within which made her smile.

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” she said loudly as she pushed open the door with her back, but expecting a response would be optimistic on the verge of being downright foolish. She knew her husband better than that.

Meredith walked over to the where he was laying, put the tray down beside his sleeping frame and slipped into bed. She bent down and buried her lips in his red hair, close to his ear.

“Boo.”

The reaction was immediate and predictable. He sat up straight in bed, his eyes wide and alarmed, his hair a right mess and his mouth aquiver. When he saw her, however, he let out a long, slow breath.

“Blimey. You scared me,” he told her before spotting the breakfast. “Food,” he observed with a broad grin and a second later he was shoveling it in with a spoon supplied by his nervously smiling wife.

Meredith watched him thoughtfully as he ate; watched those familiar features which she had watched every day for over seven years.

She wasn’t sure when it had happened. Perhaps it had been in thei first year, when he saved her life and their friendship was first established. Perhaps it had been that Christmas when he had given her a bottle of perfume. Or when he had been dating someone else just to make her jealous, or when he had become jealous himself when he found out someone wanted to date her, too.

She didn’t know; she could only guess, and her guess was that a part of her had fallen for him on the day she first saw him, on the Hogwarts Express. For it had been him, rather than the Boy-Who-Lived who caught her attention. Him, and that little smudge upon his long, freckled nose.

“Ron,” she said eventually, when two thirds of the food had disappeared into the seemingly bottomless pit that was his stomach.

Ron responded with something that sounded like “Errhit?”

“My mum’s coming later today.”

Ron gave a non-committal shrug and continued to eat his breakfast. He pretended not to care, but Meredith recognized that tiny wrinkle of annoyance between his eyebrows which signalized that he was just as unhappy as her.

“Ron?” Meredith began afresh, determined to say what was on her chest, what had been for her chest for over a month and seemed to grow day by day, inching closer to her stomach for each passing hour as she knew it would soon be obvious for everyone what she was.

Ron looked up at her and his big, blue eyes met her olive ones. He swallowed. “Meredith?” he said, and this time he sounded slightly worried. “Is something wrong?”

“I’m pregnant.”


***


In a dingy city just caressed by the first beams of sunlight a hospital woke up to a new day. Rays of pure sun somehow managed to slip in through the curtains and Hermione yawned and stretched in a salute to the day ahead.

It was going to be hard, especially after last night’s dreams. She slipped a hand under the covers and caressed her stomach, which was now hollowed from years of only having food injected through tubes and needles.

Of course you’re not pregnant,’ she thought, looking towards the curtains, her eyes clouding for a minute before she blinked it away. ‘You’ve been here for eight years, remember?'

The door inscribed with the number 337 creaked open and a nurse with mousy hair who Hermione had never met before peeked in. She smiled brightly as she saw Hermione already awake and closed the door behind her.

“Good morning, Miss Granger.” the nurse said, her dark green eyes twinkling behind horn-rimmed glasses as she crossed the room and ripped the curtains apart, letting the sunshine momentarily blend Hermione as it overwhelmed her like a tidal wave. “Are you ready?"

"Ready for what?" Hermione asked, blinking, the mousy nurse a silhouette against the sun.

The nurse smiled warmly and sat down on the edge of Hermione's bed. "Ready to move on to the real world, of course.”

***


An eagle owl soared towards a large mansion on the British countryside. It was clearly proud to have found the way, proud to have something tied to its foot; everything from the way it soared majestically towards the handsome, carved stone windowsill to the way it cocked its eyebrows while waiting for someone to open suggested pride.

It pecked on the dark glass; once, twice; and the window creaked open.

Someone was reflected in the owl's vivid orange eyes. “Come in, Arabella,” a cold voice called into the chill September morning and the eagle owl flapped its wings and entered into a dimly lit, but handsome, room. “I hope you have something not completely useless.”

The eagle owl poked out its leg and allowed his master to remove the letter from its leg. Once the piece of paper had been taken from it, it shrank, cowered, as though it expected a beating once its master was done reading whatever was on the note.

Eyes moved keenly over cursive writing. “What the hell...” the icy voice whispered; cold eyes landed upon the owl, who lowered its gaze obediently. “What do you mean by this?" the voice demanded.

Arabella gave a soft coo.

"Who is this..." silver eyes returned to the letter before settling on the Arabella, who was immediately reduced to a trembling mass of bones and feathers under her master's harsh glare. "Who is this Hermione Granger woman?”


Chapter 7: Magic String
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March 1, 2000

A bright sun shone over the frosty first day of spring. The winter had been frigid in London, and people in the streets were still dressed in their winter things seeing as the merciless sky showed no signs of dropping its icy mask.

Hermione had a warm hat on her head and a woolly scarf wrapped two, three, times around her neck to keep her from catching a cold like everyone else at work. She was the last healthy person left, which meant that she worked from eight until six every day at the dusty old bookshop three blocks down from her flat.

She was lucky to have a job; it’s not easy to get a job if you’re a young, uneducated woman, barely out of her teens, with no experience to talk about except for a colorful, though comatose, life since the age of eleven.

Luckily Mr. Newman had recognized her passion for reading and offered her a job, which she had accepted in a heartbeat.

Mr. Newman was the squattish owner of Newman's Books; an eccentric man with a silvery gray mustache which covered most his face like an indelicate imitation of a bride's veil. If forced to place a bet, Hermione would guess he was well into his fifties, though he could be anything from a prematurely decayed man of forty to an energetic seventy-year old.

The proximity of the bookshop was partly why Hermione had decided to rent the little third-story flat she referred to as 'home', though when she moved in she had no idea what the store would mean to her only a few months later. After only a few weeks of prowling the dusty bookshelves in Newman's Books Mr. Newman himself had sat down next to the girl with the honey-locks and offered her a bearded smile and a job behind the counter of his bookish emporium.

And so it was, two months, a week and three days later, Hermione found herself living for the hours she could spend in the warm and cozy store, either getting lost in new arrivals on the literature front or chatting with customers, recommending them her favorite reads and keeping them company while they waited for the unstable weather to calm.

Who would have guessed that just half a year ago the bucktoothed girl with the curly pony-tail and the vacant eyes had been released from the hospital in which she had lived since she was eleven. Naturally Hermione had never told Mr. Newman or any of her co-workers of her past; all she needed was a fresh start, which her parents seemed compliant to allow her after Dr. Holsted and Dr. Silver had assured them that it was for the best. They had lent her money to rent the flat in London, and they came once a week to see how she was doing, each time relieved and happy to see that she was coping so well with reality.

Hermione reached the front of the shop, unlocked the door and entered, greeted by the merry tinkling of the doorbell. She turned the close sign to open, grabbed a book and sat down behind the counter to read. Reading had always been one of her passions and nothing had changed; if anything she was even keener on the fictional world now that she had a boring reality to escape from.

In books there were no boundaries, magic could be real, and so could every other imaginable and unimaginable thing, all as long as the writer was capable to think it up. Hermione found herself drowning in written words, time after time, usually not surfacing until the familiar tinkling of the doorbell would signalize the arrival of a customer.

Speaking of the devil; the chirping of the bells, a howl of the wind and the sound of a door swinging shut a moment later, nearly drowning out soggy footfalls, as a customer escaped the flurry of snow and rain outside.

Hermione hurried to scan the rest of a page, but realized that she had lost the thread and needed to mark the page and pay the customer some interest if she wished not to appear as rude as your average European shopkeeper.

Sighing, she flipped the corner of the page down and closed the book. She had to look around for a second and finally ended up tracing the wet footprints on the floor to spot the source, who had disappeared so quickly into the occult section that she almost thought he had Apparated.

Almost, except, of course, the fact that she knew Apparition was not real, and that in any case it would have made a loud 'crack'.

His back, the customer's back, was facing her. He was wearing a long frock which tiny snow crystals stuck to like glitter to a child’s artsy creation with the glue tube. The back of his blond head was also snowy, and realizing so he lifted a hand and dusted it off with his fingertips.

It seemed he wanted to be alone, so Hermione decided against asking him if he needed assistance, which was customary in every store nowadays. She, herself, found it rather annoying and disrupting, and she got the strange feeling that the blonde would find it bothersome as well.

Smiling she resisted the temptation to pull up her book again and waited instead for the customer to pick out a book and make his way towards her to pay, or else walk over to her empty-handed so she could direct him to his books of interest.

He seemed, however, reluctant to ask for her assistance. Instead he took his time, looking through the books, every now and then pulling out one and flipping through the pages before sliding it back into its correct spot. Hermione thought he might be waiting for the snow to stop falling, but it seemed she was mistaken. The snowfall stopped and the stranger remained, his head bent as he continued skimming through the shelf’s content.

Hermione sighed inaudibly and looked out the window glass. The snow was melting; a bright sun peeked over the clouds, melting away the winter dust. She glanced up at the calendar on the wall and saw that it was the first day of Spring; for a moment her heart stopped, though she couldn’t remember what the day meant for her.

And then she recalled it. Red hair, a freckly face; a bright smile and open arms.

It was Ron Weasley’s birthday, or would have been, if he had ever been born.

A book slammed down upon the counter woke her up from her thoughts. The blond customer standing right in front of her, judging by the belt buckle that was all she could see from the height at which she was sitting.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” she said, flustered, clumsily finding the bar-code of the book and scanning it. She looked down at the cover and saw that it was one she had looked at before herself and contemplated on reading. It revolved around Witchcraft through the times and was the kind of book Dr. Silver had assured her could bring back a relapse if she ever as much as looked at it.

“Your total is sixteen pounds,” she told the blond and held out a hand, still not looking up at him, still embarrassed that she hadn’t noticed him at first when he had approached her. Ever since she woke up from her coma Hermione had become shy; having been used to being the brightest in every crowd, the center of intelligence, she suddenly found herself less than average in terms of education and brains, or so everyone else seemed to think.

Cold coins were dropped into her palm and she pulled in her hand to count them. Usually a second was enough to tell her how much money the customer had given her; there was a ten-pound bill, curled up and wrinkled, and three coins. Three two-pound coins, although before she dropped them into the cash-register Hermione needed to take a second glance. One of the two-pound coins were slightly bigger than the remaining two, heavier, with a vibrant tone of gold.

She picked the coin up from her palm, flipped it over and looked down at a familiar face which made her heart skip a beat. “Wait a minute...” she started, examining the piece of metal she had worked on for so many relentless nights during her fifth year at Hogwarts when she had finally succeeded in making it into a mean of communication with the rest of the DA.

There was no mistake about it.

“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s foreign-” the stranger started in an tone of strangled alarm and he fumbled in his pockets with one hand, making money rattle within their depths as he stuck out the other for Hermione to put his galleon in.

“This isn’t foreign...” Hermione said slowly, holding the coin up against the light, scrutinizing the familiar shape and size of a golden galleon.

The customer looked down at the precise moment as she looked up, their eyes met and Hermione’s mouth fell open.

There was no mistaking that face, either.

He looked every bit as snobby and crude as he always had, though age had made his cheek-bones more prominent and his eyes even colder. His hair was no longer sleek and oily; perhaps it was due to the wintry weather, but nevertheless it was rueful, wild and blond, and sparkling with droplets of melted snow.

“Draco Malfoy,” Hermione spoke, once the shock of recognition had faded away into confusion, into thrill. Before he could turn on his heel and escape she grabbed him by his wrists and gaped up at his face, so real it could not be a dream.

He was really there.

She was touching him, feeling the warmth of his blood pumping underneath the pale skin of his arm as she pinned him to the counter.

“God,” Malfoy responded, staring back down. Hermione saw her own reflection in the silver orbs; her eyes were bigger than galleons, bulging at the ecstasy over finding another string to pull her back into the Wizarding world.

She would not let him escape a second time.

“Don’t tell me,” Malfoy growled, once he had given up trying to pry Hermione’s hands from his arms. “You’re Hermione Granger, aren’t you?”


Chapter 8: Strange and Stranger
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The last three years hadn't been particularly kind on Draco Malfoy.

He hadn't changed much on the outside; he was as handsome as ever with his sharp, silvery eyes and flawless, pale skin, but nevertheless his insides were a right mess.

Never before had his mind been as troubled, his heart as worn down or his soul this shaky. Naturally, being a supernatural when it came to hiding his feelings, he figured no one had to know.

Still, Draco had invested everything in the Dark Lord, given up everything to follow the path into darkness, and it was only natural to feel a certain letdown when he foundn he wasn't ready when the moment came for him to finally prove himself worthy of the mark etched into his skin.

The year that had followed his failure to kill Albus Dumbledore had been the worst in Draco's life. The summer immediately following the said failure had been particularly bad, because during this time Draco had found himself in a dark place, entirely in Lord Voldemort's grasp, obliged to follow the evil wizard's every bidding. Draco had spent the summer, not in Malfoy Manor, but in a large, old house overlooking the village of Little Hangleton.

The house had many rooms, and Voldemort had used it as his headquarter for several years prior to Draco's moving-in. When Voldemort was busy killing and torturing Muggles and Mudbloods alike, Draco walked restlessly around the manor, looking at all the Dark objects gathering dust alongside him.

The things he found most interesting was not, however, the obviously evil artifacts such as shriveled and cursed bodyparts, but a small collection of books that Lord Voldemort kept in the room he used as his own. Voldemort did not need to sleep, he was too inhuman, so where the bed would have been in the master bedroom stood instead a large, antique desk next to a bookshelf as tall and slim as the Dark Lord himself. It was in this room, in this bookshelf, that Draco found the solace that kept him sane during the darkest months of his life.

These books described an evil that had been until then unknown even to the son of one of the most renowned Death Eaters, and Draco believed that if he could only read them all he could become as wicked and powerful as Lord Voldemort himself.

Because the books were magical; why else would Voldemort keep them so close?

Summer died and Draco returned to Hogwarts. He never saw the books again, and he had left one of them unread.

A battered old book bound in black leather, bearing the title the Grimoire.

He had saved that book for last, because to him it seemed the darkest, and therefore the most interesting and important.

Then, one year later, the Dark Lord fell, and Draco had only one thought in mind when he watched his own parents being shipped off to Azkaban: Get a hold of that book. It had become his obsession, his only ambition, and he had spent months awake in his bed in the Slytherin dungeons wondering what secrets could possibly be hidden inside the Grimoire's yellowing pages. But when Draco returned to Little Hangleton, a few months after Voldemort's death, it was to find the house completely deprived of furniture and books, and ready for its new owners to move into.

Draco spent the next two years looking for the book, multi-tasking by looking out for other dark objects and sorting them after worth as he went. The most interesting things he found he kept in his collection; the least he humbly handed over to the Ministry, making sure to put on an act of disgust as he gave them up.

Still, in the back of his mind there played a picture, all along, of a book bearing letters in faded gold.

He thought he had finally given up the search the year of the neverending winter.

He was on his way home, after handing the Ministry a deck of cursed playing cards with the instructions of destroying them, when a sudden blizzard had caught him off guard. Draco cursed, because he would rather get home as soon as possible, but, seeing as blizzards were known to affect Apparition, sending the wizard Apparating miles off course with a greatly increased risk of splinching, Draco instead slipped into a random, Muggle bookstore to seek shelter for the harsh weather.

Little did he know at the time that the untimely blizzard would change his life for good.

He took in the store at a glance, his eyes resting a second longer on the shopkeeper than on anything the shop had to offer. She was a young girl, perhaps his age, perhaps a little younger. She was balancing on a stool, her dark eyes quickly skimming the pages of a book whilst her chestnut curls fell softly around her, framing her heart-shaped face. She looked oddly familiar, but Malfoy pushed away the thought. He did not socialize with Muggles, and he did not want to, either.

He moved further into the store, as the air outside was filled with snowflakes. He found the occult section pretty quickly, and, having been secretly curious all his life about how much Muggles actually knew about magic, he started picking out books at random and flipping through them to look at pictures of witches with long, warty noses and pointed hats riding atop brooms that looked utterly old-fashioned when compared to the new Nimbus 3000. Exasperated, he put these books back and his eyes searched the shelves for something more interesting.

And then, his heart stopped.

There was a small, leatherbound book, squeezed between the taller, more eye-catching ones. 'Could it be...' he thought, but of course it couldn't.

Because it couldn't, could it?

One of Voldemort's prized books couldn't just suddenly have landed here, of all places, in a Muggle bookshop miles away from where Draco had last seen it?

But there was no denying, once he pulled it out of the shelf and examined it with a racing heart, that it was the very same book he had thirsted after in Voldemort's room.

The Grimoire.

He walked over to the shopkeeper, trying not to let his face show anything of what was going on inside of him. The truth was that his blood was rushing, his cheeks bore uncharacteristic roses that had nothing to do with the toastiness inside of the store and he was impatient to Apparate home, into his living room, where he could once again delve into the Dark Arts with the book he had been missing for so long.

He stood before the counter, looking down at the shopkeeper, and once again the feeling of having seen her before struck him. She looked pensive, she had put aside her book now, but she was staring into nothingness and appeared not to notice the handsome blond before the counter. For a second she gave him connotations of Loony Lovegood, Hogwart's oddity, who had been surrounded by the very same aura of dreaminess.

Draco put the Grimoire down, a little harder than he intended to, making the petite shopkeeper jump. The surprise and shock in her eyes definitely sparked something in his memory.

And then, he realized what it was.

A cold Autumn day, a dead-ended London street and a stranger speaking his name, causing him, in a moment of uncontrolled panic, to stun the girl and leave her laying alone in the street.

"Your total is sixteen pounds," the girl who knew him said, and Draco was too distracted to pay close enough attention to the handful of Muggle-money he handed her. He made a mistake, and he didn't realize it until the Muggle-girl held up a galleon before the light and examined it with open-mouthed wonder.

Then she turned to Draco, and for a second time he spoke his name. Malfoy felt the familiar flurry of panic and shock, yet before he could act upon it, before he could draw his wand and disappear, blizzard or no blizzard, the girl had clasped his wrists so hard that it hurt.

"God," Draco said, looking into her eyes, because what he saw there was much more than a Muggle. He saw desperation, a plead for recognition, a prayer that he would say her name as she had said his. It was as though he should know her, but instead he was looking at a stranger. The desperation reminded him of something else, a letter he had received by mistake, and remembering the cursive signature his worst suspicion escaped him before it could be stopped: "You're Hermione Granger, aren't you?"

Hermione Granger beamed and nodded eagerly, confirming his fear. "You know me!" she said, jumping up and down, grinning from ear to ear. "You remember me!"

"Of course I remember you. You followed me straight across London. And you know my name." Draco said, not overly satisfied that she had almost pulled him into her jig with her unconfined expression of joy.

"Of course I know your name.", the girl, Hermione Granger, said, shaking her head, still clutching Draco's wrists as though he was threatening to disappear before her eyes, which, admittedly, he had done once before. "You know mine."

"I don't know your name." Draco protested, before realizing that he contradicted himself with what he was saying. "Or, I do now, but I only guessed, I mean, I put the pieces together, and-"

"What pieces?" the Muggle cut him off, and it was clear that she was an extraordinarily sharp woman who was not at all happy with his stumbling explanation. Her expression was quickly changing.

Draco hesitated, and he wondered how this brunette, who was obviously quite insane and moody, could make him feel like a guilty little boy. "I got your letter."

"What letter?"

"I don't know! Just... a letter, okay?" Draco said, pushing aside the question of why he was talking to this Muggle in the first place. He did not talk to Muggles, heck, he did not as much as look at them. And suddenly he found himself standing there, in front of a Muggle stranger, explaining himself.

"I've never written you a letter.", Hermione Granger said slowly.

"It wasn't addressed to me.", Draco admitted, faintly annoyed.

The shopkeeper raised an eyebrow. The jumping-up-and-down, grinning-from-ear-to-ear behavior was completely gone now, replaced by one of silent skepticism, doubt and controlled anger. "So you intercepted it?"

"You gave it to my owl." Draco said, stubbornly. He did not appreciate being reprimanded, and especially not by a crazy Muggle-girl. "I did not want it, I just got it."

"And you didn't send it on?" Hermione Granger said, suddenly sounding breathless. A spark of hope had been re-ignited in her brown eyes. "You saw who it was addressed to. Right?"

Draco rolled his eyes. "Ronald Weasley." he said. "Blood-traitor extraordinaire. Self-proclaimed hero and unsuccessful employee of the most useless department in the Ministry."

Hermione Granger seemed not to hear anything but the two first words, and her face split into a new smile, this one different from the one she had put on when Draco had said her name. Rather than seeming manic she looked peaceful, dreamy and silently euphoric, and if Draco had paid more attention to girls during his Hogwarts years he would have recognized that smile.

It was the secretive smile of the kind that a girl can't help but break into when the name of the boy she's in love with is mentioned.

"Ron." she said softly, tasting the name as though it was an exquisite desert. "He... I mean, how-" she stuttered, shaking her head, still smiling dazedly. "What I mean to say is, do you know how he's doing? Ron?"

Draco snorted. "Why should I know?" He said gruffly. "All I know is that he married that Mudblood and that they're living somewhere near York. It was in the Prophet."

Before he knew it Draco's face was a lot closer to Hermione Granger's; so close, in fact, that he could feel her breath prickling his skin. The grip around his wrists tightened painfully, and Granger's eyes were shooting sparks aimed at him and hitting the target.

"What Mudblood?" she hissed, in a voice barely over a whisper. "Tell me you're lying."

"Get off me, you filthy Muggle!" Draco said, forcefully freeing himself from the supposed Muggle's grip and stepping away from the counter.

He turned away from her and strode towards the door, his hand just closing around the cold steel of the doorknob as a voice spoke behind him.

"Wait."

The plead was not desperate or loud; it was soft, and simply pleading, and Draco turned to find Hermione Granger in the exact spot where he had left her, with silent tears staining her cheeks. "What's her name?" she whispered after a second of silence.

Draco had found Hermione Granger's weakness, and the knowledge made an evil smirk spread across his face and taint his features.

"Her name is Beckett. Meredith Beckett." he spoke loudly and clearly, over the sound of the howling blizzard outside. "Or, no, wait." His smile widened maliciously, "Meredith Weasley."


Chapter 9: Lockdown
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"You can't just leave like that!" Hermione exclaimed, her voice almost strangled by tears as she ran around the counter to stop Malfoy from leaving the shop. "Wait! Stop!"

Malfoy's hand closed around the doorknob and he pulled, and then pushed, and then pulled again. "Damn it." he muttered, looking out into the whiteness of the wild outdoors. "The wind is blocking it."

Hermione let out a breath of relief, just as a wave of discomfit overcame her. She was trapped inside a small, dusty bookshop together with Draco Malfoy, a boy who might or might not exist but in any case had a wand and lacked a conscience.

Draco turned to her and crossed his arms over his chest, his gaze stabbing her as though she was the one who had lured him into the shop and trapped him there. "What do you say we just don't talk?"

Hermione bit her lip. "I-"

"Great." Malfoy said, and he pushed her aside rather rudely, walked over to the counter, grabbed 'the Grimoire' and sat down on a chair between the tall shelves to read in peace and quiet.

Hermione was left standing in the middle of the shop, hugging herself as she fought against the tears threatening to well up in her eyes as her thoughts were free to reign over her.

Ron was married.

To another woman.

Meredith Beckett.

"Do you know where I might find him?" Hermione asked Malfoy.

She had approached him silently from behind, and it became clear quite suddenly that he did not appreciate the surprise of finding a girl standing less than a foot behind him, quite capable of reading over his shoulder and seeing into his world.

"I thought we weren't talking.", he snapped, shutting the book angrily. 

"I never agreed to that." Hermione said angrily, before shaking off the annoyance. "Ron Weasley. Do you know where I can find him?"

"No." Malfoy said, just as fiercely. "Now, if you don't mind, I would like to continue reading the book that I just bought."

"You didn't buy it." Hermione pointed out after the shortest pause.

"Excuse me?"

"You didn't buy it." Hermione repeated. "The book cost sixteen pounds. You only paid me fourteen pounds and one galleon. Ergo, the book is not yours."

Malfoy fumed as he ransacked the pockets of his frock. He usually didn't carry Muggle money; the only reason he had the fourteen pounds he had given Hermione earlier was that he had used Muggle money to retrieve a Dark Object that had fallen into Muggle hands earlier that week. "A galleon is worth more than two pounds." he said sourly, once he was certain that he did not have as much as a cent on him.

"Then I'm sorry." Hermione said, snagging the book out of his hands. "We don't accept Wizard currency." She knew she was acting like a child, it was obvious that Malfoy shared her view from the disgusted way he stared at her. Nevertheless she did not feel stupid or guilty; she only did what she needed to find the truth.

"Do you want me to hex you?" Malfoy snarled.

"Sorry." Hermione pulled a sarcastic grimace as she raised the wand she had stolen from his pocket when she had snuck up on him moments ago. "I don't think you can."

Malfoy looked exasperated, as though he was dealing with an impossible five-year old. For a second he looked as though he had called a truce, but a moment later he struck, snagging for the wand and missing it by inches. "Fine!" he said angrily, looking down into Hermione's triumphantly shining eyes. "What do you want me to say? I don't know where he lives! I don't know anything, except for that he married that Mudblood. And I only know that because his ugly face was all over the newspapers for months!"

"Don't call him ugly!" Hermione shrieked, pointing the wand at its owner; a gesture which made Malfoy snicker.

"What are you going to do, Muggle-girl? Hex me? Why don't you give it a shot?"

Hermione swallowed and looked at Malfoy through narrow eyes filled with hatred. "Levicorpus!" she shouted, waving the wand wildly, but nothing happened to Malfoy except for that he blurted out in blatant laughter as though she had struck him with a tickling-charm.

"That's great!" he laughed, rudely, before the laughter came to an abrupt stop. "Give me back the wand. You can't use it anyway." He held out his hand, but Hermione stepped back and kept a vice grip on his wand.

"No." she said. "I can't. But I'm not giving it back to you, either."

"Why not?"

"Because it's the only thing keeping you here. That, and this book." she added, holding up the book in her other hand.

"And don't forget the raging snow-storm outside."

"And that." Hermione admitted, looking out the window. She could see no further than to the other side of the glass, where deep green letters spelling 'Newman's Bookstore' were glued, meaning that the blizzard showed no signs of calming.

There was a pause, in which the two strangers or enemies, whichever they were, stared at each other. Then Malfoy broke into a nasty smile. "You know what's causing this chill, right?" he said, motioning to the windows.

For every second that Hermione looked clueless Malfoy looked more triumphant.

"I knew it." he said, grinning broadly. "You're just a clueless Mugg-"

"Dementors, right?" Hermione said, not even trying to hide her smugness when she recalled how the Dementors had caused an unseasonable mist during summer a few years ago. Why it had taken her so long to recall it, she did not know.

"You could have read that in a book." Malfoy said, obviously annoyed. "Or no, wait! I bet you have a brother or sister that's a witch or wizard, and that you've just been jealous for all these years. Or perhaps you're the only squib in your family; one of my fellow students' dirty little secret."

Hermione snorted, shaking her head.

"So who is it?" Draco said, and his eyes sparkled maliciously.

"Who is who?"

"Your brother or sister." Malfoy said. He had closed the book completely now, and all his focus fell on Hermione. "The one you've been living through all these years?"

"That would be myself." Hermione said, and lifted an eyebrow. "Ask me anything about our time at Hogwarts. I'm sure I can answer it."

"Okay..." Malfoy said slowly, obviously thinking hard on something to ask her. "The Hogwarts groundkeeper?"

"Rubeus Hagrid." Hermione answered immediately, feeling a stab of longing when she thought of Hagrid, and how she had sought his friendship whenever Harry or Ron cut her off. How he had patted her back with his dustbin-lid sized hands, how he had looked down at her and smiled, and told her in a gruff voice that everything would work out in the end. "Next."

"Who won the Quidditch championship in 1994?"

"Ireland, but Victor Krum of Bulgaria caught the snitch."

Malfoy frowned, and slight wrinkles formed on his previously flawless forehead. "Who did I go to the Yule Ball with in fourth grade?"

"Pansy Parkinson." Hermione answered, flushing slightly for blurting it out, for even noticing while she was walking arm and arm with an international Quidditch player. She bit down on her tongue, telling herself that she had only remembered because the sight of Pansy pressed into candyfloss colored dressrobes three sizes too small for her was unforgettable; and not in a good way.

Malfoy nodded slowly. "Very impressive.", though he did not look impressed at all. If anything he looked scared, like a little boy just realizing that death is reality. Then he lowered his voice several notches, so Hermione almost had to lean in to hear what he was saying. "Who attended the Yule Ball with Victor Krum?"

"I did.", Hermione answered immediately.

"Who either tied with or beat me on every exam, all six years we attended school together?"

"I did."

"And what girl hit me towards the end of my third year at Hogwarts?" Malfoy was actually blushing, but his sharp eyes warned Hermione against mocking him for the pinkish tinge on his cheeks.

Hermione was too preoccupied to taunt her former enemy. She looked him into the eyes, scared, as she saw her own reflection looking back at her in confusion and despair. "Me." she whispered. "I hit you."

The silence was thick, as though someone had cast Muffliato over all of London. The windows were white, and the rest of the world did not exist; the only real things were Malfoy, Hermione, and the thousands of books providing them their soundproof shelter.

"Wrong." Malfoy breathed. He looked Hermione into the eyes, and now there was no doubt about it; fear and insecurity were written all across his face. "The girl that did those things... her name is Meredith Weasley."


Chapter 10: Calming Storm, Raging Tension
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"The blizzard is calming."

Hermione looked out the window to see that what Malfoy was saying was true. The blizzard was calming. The snow lay lustrously upon the street outside, shining and glittering in the sudden sunlight.

Hermione looked from the Christmassy sight, and over to Malfoy, who was sitting by the small reading table reserved for customers. His legs were outstretched, resting upon the table, muddy droplets of melted snow pooling on the table from his dirty soles. He had his arms crossed over his chest, and his pewter eyes were resting on her with an expression of fatigue; like a babysitter not wishing to play games with the child.

"May I have my wand and book now?"

Hermione was standing at the same spot as she had stood in when Malfoy had first entered the store; behind the counter, safely shielded from Malfoy's potential fury by the thick wood.

"No." she said simply, unyieldingly, and she saw Malfoy's jaw clenching.

"Please?"

The doorbell rang, making both of the occupants of the store jump and turn towards the ringing sound.

"Horrible weather, isn't it?" Miss Bakery from across the street said. She was still wearing an apron with flour on it, and the subtle remains of white, sticky dough clung to her wild and reddish hair. "I think I might be slightly claustrophobic. And it's not good for the business, either, Hermione, this chilly weather in the middle of-"

She stopped dead, her eyes falling upon the handsome, snub youth by the reading table. He did not as much as offer her a glance as he continued to stare directly ahead at the laden bookshelves. Nevertheless the woman from the bakery, who was at least twice his age, hurried to smooth down her rueful hair and compose her face into the pleasant folds of a smile.

"Who is that?" she mouthed to Hermione, not so subtly, so that Malfoy undoubtedly heard.

Hermione grimaced and shrugged, wishing very much that the woman would pick a book and disappear back into the bakeshop next door.

"Is he your boyfriend?"

Hermione shook her head frantically, and Malfoy actually turned to glower at the newcomer.

"Well, I'll leave you two to it then.", Miss Bakery said with a wink and turned, and before she closed the door she added, "I'll come back for that book when you're not busy, Hermione."

There was a ringing silence left in the store when the visitor had left, and Malfoy broke it with a snort. Finally there was the sound of wood against wood which signalized that he was getting to his feet, pulling his coat tighter around his slender body and approaching the counter in a quick pace more suitable for the subway than a quiet bookstore such as Newman's.

"I don't want to hurt you," he said, once he was leaning threateningly over the counter to where Hermione was standing, at least a head shorter than him and much less muscly.

"I'm not afraid of you." Hermione said plainly, and to her surprise she felt that she wasn't. She doubted he would lay a finger on her, because brutality had never been the way of Draco Malfoy. He enjoyed to tear down his enemies by the effective use of stinging words and invectives, like a spider weakening its prey before spinning its web around it.

"You should be."

"You couldn't even kill Dumbledore on Lord Voldemort's-" Draco cowered. Hermione ignored this little display of cowardice and went on. "-orders, so do you really think that I believe that you will hurt me on your own accord, without your wand?"

"How do you know..." Malfoy began, but when he realized who he was talking to he quickly cut himself off and instead extended his open palm with a dark expression on his face.

Hermione stared down at the pale hand with one raised eyebrow. "I'm not giving them to you." she said, backing into the shelf behind her in which the Grimoire and Malfoy's wand lay, as though she would protect them with her body and life.

"What can I do to make you change your mind?" Malfoy asked her smoothly, obviously changing his tactics. When Hermione did not reply he sighed in a resigned, dramatic fashion. "Fine, if I get my wand and my book back I can take you to Weasley."

"I thought you didn't know where he lived?" Hermione uttered slowly, lifting an eyebrow ever so slightly at her sworn archenemy.

"I lied." Malfoy said. "Unfortunately, I have to fraternize with the weasel quite often. It's the drawback of my job."

"What do you work with?" Hermione asked curiously.

"I'm a freelance curse-breaker for the Ministry. Weasley is an Auror, so sometimes I'm forced to hand over my findings to his sorry hands."

Hermione smiled a little sadly, reflecting on how Ron had finally achieved his dearest ambition to become a dark wizard hunter. He could not be too thrilled that he had to 'fraternize' with a former dark wizard.

"So what do you say?"

"Empty your pockets." Hermione said abruptly, to which Malfoy's pale lips parted ever so slightly.

"Excuse me?"

"Empty your pockets." Hermione repeated, pointing in annoyance towards the two seemingly bulging pockets of Malfoy's Muggle coat.

Malfoy swore underneath his breath, and by obeying the orders of a supposed Muggle he proved just how badly he wanted the book and his wand back.

He did not have too much of interest in his pockets. A heavy keychain, a deck of seemingly innocent playing cards, a vial containing some golden liquid and finally, what Hermione had been hoping he had, a small glass bottle filled with what looked like sand only it was emerald green and sparkling.

"Floo-powder!" she said excitedly, repressing the urge to punch the air.

"How exciting." Malfoy said in a deadpan voice. "Want to trade?"

Hermione laughed as she took the book and the wand, and for a second Malfoy looked hopeful, until Hermione turned and to Malfoy's great surprise the unmoving portrait of a flowery garden swung forwards to reveal a small safe. Making sure that her back was covering the scene and the combo Hermione opened the safe. When she closed it and turned back to face Malfoy he was quite obviously fuming. Hermione put on her coat and stuck the little, green bottle into her pocket before rounding the counter and heading for the door.

"Where are we going?" Malfoy asked in obvious dislike of whatever idea had just sprang up in Hermione's mind.

"We're going to see Ron." Hermione said determinedly, "And find out what the hell is happening."

She strode past Malfoy, successfully whipping her now shortened and friseured hair into Malfoy's befuddled face. She turned the open/closed sign around and waited for him to exit the shop before she stuck a key into the keyhole and twisted it around.

"You're crazy." Malfoy spat. "You have the powder, why don't you just go yourself?"

"I don't know the address." Hermione said, pocketing her keys and continuing the stride down the frostbitten street with an irate Malfoy at her heels.

"It's 'Starbeck Road, 347'," Malfoy said. A second later he slipped on the icy film upon the cobblestone and fell backwards, potentially gaining a few very nasty bruises to his bum.

The sight was priceless, and Hermione laughed loudly and rudely. Malfoy, too humiliated for words, hurried back on his feet and casually brushed snowflakes from his coat and trousers, his face blotchy red. "Go!" he hissed, and Hermione obliged after giving him another Cheshire cat smile. "Where are we going, anyway?" He added, once the pace had picked up.

"My landlord has a rather fine fireplace." Hermione said as she rounded the corner to where she lived. She was surprised to hear Malfoy laughing from a few steps behind, and she turned to see him standing at the corner.

"Do you really think you can just floo from any fireplace in England to another?" he asked mockingly, leaning against the brick wall. "It has to be connected in the floo-network, remember?"

Hermione was about to hit herself on the forehead with her open palm, but she resisted. Why hadn't she thought of that? It took her a fraction of a minute to think of new plan, foolproof this time.

"You have to take me to the Ministry." she said slowly.

"No way." Malfoy said. "I'm not taking you to work, not a chance."

"We just need to use one of the fireplaces in the lobby for half a minute. No one will even notice."

Malfoy looked as though he considered this for a second before he said "No."

"Fine." Hermione said, "I know where the Ministry is, anyway." She smiled sweetly at Malfoy. "Six, two, four, four, two. Isn't that right?"

"Granger!" Malfoy growled as Hermione turned and strode quickly down the street, her destination altered now. She could feel the blood rushing in her veins and a part of her felt she did not need Malfoy's bothersome presence any longer, yet another part of her felt that he might still be useful somehow.

"Careful so you don't slip and fall again." she chirped, when he finally caught up to her and struggled to maintain her quick pace.

They rounded a few corners in silence, walked quickly down a few frosted and deserted streets, until they found themselves standing in front of the bright red phone booth that marked the main entrance to the Ministry of Magic.


Chapter 11: Unidentified Dark Object
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The phone-booth offered a tight, uncomfortable squeeze for the two nearly-strangers as they entered into the safe confinement of the red box. A few passing Muggles offered the pair a curious glance, which made Malfoy grimace unpleasantly.

Hermione picked off the telephone and with one finger extended she slowly pushed the secret entrance code that only a real witch or wizard could know.

6. 2. 4. 4. 2.

"Welcome to the Ministry of Magic. Please state your name and business." A sleek, female voice said in the other end of the telephone line.

"Draco Malfoy and H-" Hermione started, but Draco wrenched the phone out of her hand and glared at her urgently. "What-" Hermione began, but she was cut off by Draco's voice.

"Draco Malfoy and... Astoria Greengrass." he said, ignoring the nasty look on Hermione's face. "We're here in an official errand... concerning the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts office, for which I work."

There was a metallic clink, and Hermione bent down slightly to retrieve two square, silver badges from the chute into which the change usually was exerted. One of them read Draco Malfoy, the other one Astoria Greengrass.

"What the hell, Malfoy?" Hermione barked as Draco took his badge and pinned it to the front of his coat without as much as looking at her. "Astoria?"

The floor of the phone-booth quivered, and a second later it began to descend.

Malfoy looked slowly into the dark eyes of his partner in crime. "Do you seriously think they would let you into the Ministry with your Muggle name?"

"It's not a Muggle name." Hermione countered, rather sourly, before reluctantly pinning the badge engraved with 'Astoria Greengrass' to her chest.

Malfoy did not dignify the statement with an answer, and instead stood in a lackluster silence as he waited for the platform beneath his feet to stop its descent into the Atrium.

When it finally did reach its destination, with a dump sound drowned by the bustling of hundreds of witches and wizards going about their day without taking any notice of the newcomers, Hermione was about to step onto the floor only to find Malfoy holding her back by the arm.

"Remember, if anyone asks, you are Astoria Greengrass." he said through the corner of his mouth, looking as though he was practicing ventriloquism.

Hermione wrenched her arm out of his grip and shot him yet another ugly look of contempt and dislike. "Fine." she said.

"And don't speak unless spoken to."

"Understood."

"You'll just mess up something."

By this time Hermione was fuming, her cheeks growing red with anger and impatience. "Can we please just get moving?" she hissed. "We're only going to burrow a fireplace for two seconds. What could possibly happen?"

There was a dark, mumbling sound emanating from Malfoy which sounded a lot like "A lot."

Hermione and Malfoy started navigating through the crowd, and Hermione felt like they were lost at sea, dodging tall waves of strangers, with nothing but an endless ocean of heads and no horizon in sight. Pretty soon, however, they found themselves stopped by two brute wizards that greatly resembled Malfoy's cronies from their school-days; Crabbe and Goyle.

"You did not go through the wand-control." One of the brute-looking wizards grunted, holding up one open palm in a stop-sign while nodding towards the counter behind which sat a bored-looking, young woman chewing gum. A purple sign sticking to the counter-front read 'Wand-Checkpoint'.

"We... we didn't bring out wands." Draco said swiftly, giving Hermione a sharp elbow to the ribs when she opened her mouth to offer a more thorough explanation.

The Crabbe-and-Goyle-like security guards lifted their own wands, and for a second Hermione was sure the pair was going to hex them. "You better come with us." the most sociable of the two wand-guards said, holding his wand aloft as an overhanging threat should either of the two victims object.

"I told you," Malfoy said through the corner of his mouth, half an hour later, after he and Hermione had been dragged to the dungeons, manhandled and narrowly escaped an interrogation of their business at the Ministry, mainly kudos to Malfoy's shameless flirting with the homely woman supposed to cross-examine them. "I told you a lot could go wrong."

"It wasn't my fault!" Hermione growled as the pair walked through a dark, dungeon-like corridor of the lower levels of the Ministry.

"You were the one who suggested to go to the Ministry!"

"Well, what else could we have done? I didn't exactly hear you shout out any bright suggestions!" Hermione said, irate over the lilliputian arguments and the never-ending bickering she always seemed to land in the middle of.

"You could have just given me the wand and the book and all of this could have been avoided."

Hermione and Malfoy came to a halt before the shiny doors of the elevator. Hermione pushed the button repetitiously, as though pushing it more than once would make it open faster. "You're worse than Ron..." she said through gritted teeth.

"Oh, you mean the boyfriend you never met?" Malfoy said bittersweetly as the doors slid open to admit the pair.

Hermione was still trying to think of a fitting argument to counter this latest invective with when the doors to the elevator began gliding shut and a loud, female voice echoed through the corridor outside.

"Wait! Hold the lift!"

Hermione and Malfoy both reached out for the 'open'-button immediately, causing their hands to touch mid-air. Both pulled back instantly, as though they had been burned by each other's skin. Realizing that neither had actually pushed the button Hermione hurried to push before Malfoy could arrive at the same thought.

The doors slid open slowly and a six-months-pregnant belly entered, quickly followed by a pixie-like brunette carrying a stack of yellow paper.

"Thank you," she breathed, smiling, shaking a few locks of auburn hair away from her face to reveal a winsome, unblemished visage. She looked up and her dark eyes fell on Hermione first, and she offered her a soft smile and a curt nod, before her eyes dropped to the badge pinned to Hermione's chest. An inkling of a curious frown crossed her soft features before she turned her gaze to the lift's other occupant.

Her expression changed immediately, like ice-cream washed away by hot coffee. Her almond-shaped, dark eyes narrowed and her lucius, pink lips became a dangerous, white line. "Malfoy." she said, in a cold voice which did not suit her.

"Beckett." Draco said, in a voice dripping with unpleasantness and dislike.

Hermione gasped and Malfoy stomped on her foot, hard and not very subtly, as though he was trying to squash a cockroach beneath his sole. Hermione, however, barely noticed the pain. Everything paled in comparison to the sudden ache she felt in her chest; the worry, the confusion, the sudden stroke of angst.

"It's Weasley now," The woman responded at once, faking a smile and bending forward to press the button marked 'Atrium' with a delicate finger. Then she stepped aside.

The elevator began to ascend into a gloomy silence.

Hermione could only stare at the woman, noticing now how one of the small, slender-fingered hands was marked by a golden band: a wedding ring. She brandished a bob of nutty brown hair, sleek and shiny, framing a heart-shaped face. She was petite and professional-looking in a purple suit from which her pregnant stomach poked out like a globe.

Hermione felt dizzy and sickened by the mere presence of her, yet she could not tear her eyes away from the woman.

Pregnant?

She was... pregnant?

First married, now pregnant, and both scenarios with Ron?

Undoubtedly noticing her stare, the woman, presumably the infamous Meredith Beckett-Weasley, looked up to meet Hermione's eyes a second time. Hermione looked quickly down, blushing furiously.

"What are you doing here, Malfoy?" Meredith asked, turning sharp eyes to Malfoy again.

"Turning in an unidentified dark object." Malfoy quickly lied with a careless shrug.

Meredith lifted an eyebrow. "Yeah, the hell you are." she hissed, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Ron's onto you, he knows you're up to no good, and he's going to prove it."

"I can't wait." Malfoy snorted.

"A leopard does not change its spots."

"Good thing I'm not a leopard, then."

There was a tentative silence, the elevator stopped on the fifth floor to admit a couple of messengers in the form of fluttering bits of paper, before it closed again.

"So where is your dark object?" Meredith asked, feigning interest, bending around Malfoy's body as though trying to see if he was hiding the made-up dark object behind his slender frame. "Are you sure you still have it with you? Fictional objects are easily lost, you know."

Malfoy responded with a hollow laugh.

Hermione simply stood leaning against the wall of the elevator, feeling queasy, no doubt turning a nasty shade between green and red right about then.

Meredith shot her a glance and lifted an eyebrow. "Who's your friend?" she asked, and looked once more at the badge pinned to Hermione's chest. "Or is this your dark object?"

Before either Malfoy or Hermione could manage to think up a fitting lie the lift reached its final destination, a cool female voice said 'The Atrium', and Meredith smiled brightly.

"An unpleasure running into you, Malfoy. I hope it won't ever happen again."

And with that she joined the bustling crowd beyond the silvery elevator doors, leaving Malfoy and Hermione in a speechless silence. The doors closed again, without anyone exiting, and the second they enclosed the pair in silence Malfoy punched one of the walls of the elevator and caused the entire box to rattle and Hermione to wake up from her funk.

"We have to follow her!" Hermione gasped, as the doors opened to admit another familiar person blocking the view of the wizarding masses.

Kingsley Shacklebolt was standing in the doorway, giving Malfoy a curt nod before turning curious eyes to the brunette that just spurted by his muscular frame, as though unsure if he had just imagined the wind.

"A word, Mr. Malfoy?" he said in his deep voice, catching Malfoy by the arm as the blond attempted to follow the fleeing woman scorned.

"Sorry, Minister." Malfoy said, as Hermione's bushy mane disappeared out of sight behind a group of foreign wizards speaking loudly in what sounded like Dutch. "My, uh... I, er... There's an... unidentified, possibly dark object on the loose, in urgent need of supervision."


Chapter 12: Through the Fire and Flames
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Meredith Weasley spun into existence in the fireplace in Starbeck Road, 347; a stout little house, complete with a carefully manicured herb-garden and a garage in which stood an ancient Ford which rarely ever served any purpose.

She stepped into the dimness of the dining room after brushing ash from her violet suit so as not to dirty the carpet-clad floor. "Ron?" she called, her voice echoing through the room and up the staircase. "Are you home?"

It was more a question of wether or not he was awake, seeing that he had been home ever since the Accident three months previous. It was rather a question of wether or not he was still asleep, or if he was simply laying in bed, awake, waiting for her to come back home from work and make him dinner.

"Mary?" Came Ron's voice from upstairs, groggy; sleepy.

Meredith sighed exasperatedly.

She walked over to the entrance door and the clothes cabinet next to it, reflecting on how it would really be much more convenient to have the closet by the fireplace, seeing that she, and usually also Ron, always flooed to work.

She hung her violet blazer neatly on a hanger and turned to stare directly into her own eyes in the mirror on the door. She looked tired; she expected that it was the pregnancy taking hold of her. Her skin looked nearly transparent and her eyelids looked heavier than they usually did, as though she hadn't slept for weeks. She looked, in lack of a better word, ill.

She turned her back on the wardrobe and took in the view that met her critically, trying hard to forget her own appearance. The entire ground floor of her and Ron's house was actually one room, naturally excluding the bathroom. The different 'sections' of the floor were only separated by doorless archways, which gave the house a distinct feeling of freedom and openness, or at least it did so in Meredith's keen-sighted opinion.

From upstairs there was a sudden metallic clunk and an exclaimation of pain.

"Ron, what are you doing?" Meredith called up the stairs, the alarm growing inside her, rushing through her blood and making her heart beat faster even if she managed to keep her voice levelled and calm. "Are you hurt?"

"No," came Ron's answer. His voice sounded strained, as though he really was hurt but trying hard not to let his voice betray him. "I'm fine!"

Meredith frowned. "Why don't you come on down?" she called up the spiraling staircase, on the walls of which hung immobile photographs from her and Ron's wedding day less than a year ago. "It's your birthday. I have a surprise for you."

"I have a surprise for you!" Ron retorted insufferably. Meredith highly doubted that anything he could show her would take her by surprise, but nevertheless she began climbing the stairs, one step at a time.

"Where are you?" she called, once she reached the topmost step and looked around at the doors. There were four plain white doors on the peach walls surrounding her; one leading into her and Ron's bedroom, the second leading to the bathroom, the third to the cozy guest-room in which Meredith's mother usually slept, and the last one leading directly into the abode of Ron and Merediths' unborn child. "Ron?" she called again when her husband issued no answer the first time around.

"Here," came Ron's voice, from inside nursery.

The odor of turpentine nearly knocked Meredith backwards when she opened the door. She looked around, not quite believing her own eyes and definitely starting to doubt her own sanity.

In the middle of the room stood Ron, tall, scraggly, yet a lot healthier-looking than he had been for months now, surrounded by sky-blue walls, several buckets of paint, an assembly of various tools including, but not limited to, hammers, chisels, a screwdriver and a big, red toolbox, and, lastly, a baby's crib complete with blankets that matched the walls perfectly.

Ron smiled, gesturing at the walls with his hands. His fingers were tinted blue and he had a smudge of paint drawn across his left cheek. "What do you think?"

Meredith was speechless. "I, I mean, this-" she looked at Ron and cocked her head to the side. "How do you know it's a boy?"

"I'm a Weasley." Ron said, shrugging, grinning stupidly.

"What about Ginny?" Meredith said, raising an eyebrow. "And my parents only have daughters!"

"Your parents only have you!" Ron argued, caressing the hammer absentmindedly as he looked around to admire his handiwork.

Meredith was too tired to argue, plus, she felt oddly dizzy, perhaps from the strong odor emitted by the countless buckets full of paint.

"So what do you have for me?" Ron asked, grinning, sneaking an arm around Meredith's once slender waist and nuzzling the few inches of neck visible between Meredith's bob and her turtleneck sweater.

Meredith hesitated. She had thought she would prepare a wonderful meal consisting of all his favorite foods; veal fricassee, stuffed cabbage leaves, horseradish sauce and a desert of caramel pudding and stewed rhubarb, but her encounter with Malfoy in the Ministry elevator had wiped all the groceries she needed from her mind.

"You will never guess who I ran into at the Ministry today-" she began, but at that exact moment the loud ringing of a cell-phone issued from downstairs. Meredith frowned deeply; Ron looked rather alarmed. "Wait... Is that a cellphone?"

***



"What the hell is that thing?"

Malfoy was staring at Hermione's vibrating jeans pocket, in which a square of light was flashing through the fabric.

They had come but one step out of the Weasleys' fireplace, having decided to make the invasion a covert operation, when Hermione's cellphone had started ringing and rendered any discretion unnecessary.

Hermione withdrew the modern device from her pocket and Malfoy backed away as though she had just pulled up a lethal weapon. Hermione fumbled with the phone, catching sight of her mother's name on the display before she managed to turn the gizmo's sound off and stew it back into her pocket.

It was too late.

Two pairs of footsteps were already rustling down the stairs, and a second later the light in the dining room was switched on, momentarily blinding the intruders.

When Hermione's eyes adjusted to the light she saw two silhouettes drawn up against the window behind them. One of them was small, distinctly female and vaguely familiar. It was the other one, however, who really drew Hermione's attention.

He had red, shaggy hair and a face of which every inch was covered in freckles, blue streaks of what appeared to be paint, and, also, quite a few healing scars. His long, skinny frame was clad in loose jeans and a horrible, bright orange t-shirt featuring one of the players of the Chudley Cannons; a team Hermione knew very well, despite having never nurtured any interest whatsoever in Quidditch.

"Ron!" Hermione exclaimed, her heart banging against her chest.

The woman by his side, paled until she disappeared completely, and Draco Malfoy, the handsome blond who surveyed the entire scene with an expression of wishing to be anywhere else, faded alongside her, leaving Hermione and Ron the only two people in the room; the only two people in the world.

Ron looked positively moonstruck. He looked at Hermione, like he had done before, and Hermione felt as though she was falling victim for his amazing, deep blue eyes.

"Who..." he started slowly, shaking his head before returning those sapphire orbs to Hermione once more. "Who are you?"

***



The silence in Starbeck Road 347 was one of the extreme, the kind in which no one breathed. It was, in fact, so quiet one could fear that his or her thoughts could be audible through the stillness.

Hermione was staring at Ron, who stared back at her as though he was twisting his brain almost painfully in a hopeless attempt to remember her.

Malfoy was staring at Meredith, and she was looking back at him; loathing written upon both their faces.

Meredith became the first in the quartet to speak.

"You have soot on your nose, Malfoy," she said reproachfully to the blond, who reluctantly lifted a hand to rub his aristocratic nose, which admittedly was tainted by a stain of ash that contrasted to the paleness of his skin.

Ron tore his eyes eyes away from Hermione at long last to gaze Malfoy and his freckled face contorted immediately when he realized the identity of Hermione's companion. His face attained a look of the utmost bitterness; the one only a Malfoy was able to inspire in a Weasley, after years and years of hostility between the two pure-blooded families.

"Malfoy," Ron growled. "What the bloody hell is going on?!"

"We were hoping you could tell us that," Malfoy said, seemingly entirely unfazed by the sudden chill breeze in the room and the notion that he was very much unwanted in Starbeck Road.

There was yet another, confused silence, in which no one seemed to know what to say, think, do or believe. Hermione still couldn't tear her eyes away from Ron, and even though she saw the golden band on his finger, saw the way he lay a protective arm around Meredith's narrow shoulders, she could not quench the excitement she felt from simply being near him, being close enough to count the freckles on his nose if she wanted to and being able to talk to him, even if she could not muster a single word.

Ron Weasley was real.

Ron noticed her staring, and he squirmed uncomfortably, trying to ignore the burning gaze of molten chocolate for as long as possible before he finally cracked. "What?" he asked, bewildered, turning deep, blue ponds to gaze at Hermione, who got immediately breathless. "Do I have a smudge on my nose, too?"

Hermione bit her lip and looked down in shame. "No, it's not that..." she muttered, her cheeks burning, her eyes glazing over. "It's just... I-, I just..."

"Who are you?" Ron asked her again, his voice softer now. His eyes fell to Hermione's chest, on which a large, silver badge bearing her false name was still pinned. "Astoria Greengrass?" Ron read quizzically.

Hermione shook her head, feeling as though her thoughts and mind were reeling. Ron didn't remember her. Ron was there, but he did not know her; he did not recognize her. To her he was everything, yet she was nothing to him in return.

"Hermione," Hermione responded, in a shaking, somber voice. "My name is Hermione Granger," She closed her eyes, and pictures of her and Ron flew through her head like a slideshow of memories that had never been.

Her and Ron, and their first kiss right before the second war broke out.

Her and Ron, and the day he proposed to her, on one knee, holding forth a diamond.

Her and Ron, not Meredith and Ron, approaching the altar for their wedding rehearsal.

Ron looked uncertain and wrapped his arm tighter around his petite wife, who slipped a hand into his and squeezed it tightly. Though Hermione knew she was standing quite alone in the cold dining room, she though she felt a blanket of warmth being thrown around her shoulders and the palm of her hand burning as though by a lovers' touch.

Her eyes swelled with tears. "My name is Hermione Granger," she said, swallowing, willing herself to look at Ron through a veil of tears. "-and I... I love you."

The silence following this bold statement was even more supreme, and both Ron and Merediths' eyes were huge as galleons and locked unblinkingly on Hermione, as though she was their shared hallucination. Naturally a girl didn't just walk in on Ron's twentieth birthday, introduce herself and claim to love him without ever meeting him before?

Only Malfoy seemed to be totally unaffected by the situation as he slunk around the baffled trio until he stood behind the married couple.

"Really smooth," he drawled, making both Ron and Meredith jump and spin around to face their archenemy. "Looks to me like you have a lot to catch up on, so you won't mind me just leaving."

"Malfoy, what-" Ron started, but with a flicker of two wands and a loud crack Malfoy was gone and the spot on the floor which had previously been stained by his long shadow lay empty.

"My wand is gone!" Meredith cried out after a moment's shocked silence.

Ron quickly checked for his own, his face livid, before his hands returned empty and luckless.

A hard dunk, like a head hitting hardwood floor, sent echoes through the modest house, and Meredith and Ron turned in unison to find Hermione on the floor, her long, curly hair fanned out around her like a halo.

Chapter 13: Who Are You?
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Ron and Meredith looked speechlessly from the seemingly lifeless mass on the floor, to the spot Draco Malfoy had disappeared a moment before, then slowly back to the unconscious girl again. 

"What the ruddy hell is going on?", Ron said finally, after several minutes had ticked by in complete and utter silence.

"I don't know.", Meredith replied, and Ron turned to stare at her instead. He was so used to her having the answers to everything that it felt weird to hear the three helpless syllables leave her lips. 

They looked back to the immobile girl in front of the fireplace. 

"Is she... dead?", Ron proceeded to ask as his wife bent down by the stranger's side to examine her further.  

Meredith rolled the girl over on her back and located her wrist to search for a pulse. "She is alive, but I don't know what's wrong with her.", Meredith announced a minute or so later, after having checked the girl's vital signs only to find out that she appeared to be in mint condition; apart from the obvious fact that she unconscious. "I think we ought to call an ambulance."

When Ron didn't immediately answer Meredith turned to find him brandishing an extremely apprehensive expression upon his freckled face.

"What?" she demanded.

"It's just that... If she's affiliated with Malfoy, do we really want her to wake up?", Ron said slowly. "I mean, she might just be pretending to be unconscious so she can jump up unexpectedly and Avada-Kedavra the pair of us."

"Don't be a twat, Ron. We have to help her.", Meredith said matter-of-factly as she began searching the girl's pockets. There wasn't a whole lot there apart from a key, a cellphone and a small, black, leather-bound book. No wand, and no clue towards who this stranger might be. "She doesn't have any ID on her. What did she say her name was again?"

"Hermione Granger.", Ron responded, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back against the wall behind him.

Meredith turned her attention back to the girl, whose frizzy, brown hair covered most of her face. "Well, we can't just leave her laying here." she said. "Help me move her."

The girl weighed close to nothing, but since Meredith was seven months pregnant and Ron was still physically weakened from the accident, it had taken a toll on them both to move her unconscious form from the hard floor to the considerably more comfortable sofa. As a result of the physical exertion they had both collapsed into the cream-colored love-seat directly facing Hermione to consider what their next course of action should be.

"She said she loved me," said Ron, turning to Meredith with creases on his forehead. "-But I've never seen her before in my life!"

Meredith shook her head in agreement of his first statement, then remembered what she had been about to tell Ron when they had heard the uninvited visitors downstairs. "I met her and Malfoy today at the Ministry."

Ron pulled a disgusted grimace. "What was that git doing at the Ministry?"

Meredith resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Ron was determined to hold onto his grudge against Malfoy for dear life, even if the blonde in question had been cleared of all charges and hadn't bothered either of them since Voldemort had fallen. At least not until today. "He works there, Ron, as you very well know.", she said huffily. "The real question is: what was a Muggle doing there with him?"

"How do you know she's a Muggle?", Ron asked immediately. "We didn't find any ID. She might be a witch, and just because we never saw her at Hogwarts doesn't mean she can't have attended Durmstrang or Beauxbatons. She might be foreign-"

"She didn't have a wand on her and she spoke in a British accent.", Meredith pointed out. "But I suppose you could be right. Either way, we need to find out what to do with her."

They fell back into silence once more, both of them watching Hermione intently as the snow continued to fall outside.

***


Draco Malfoy was furious.

First he had been thwarted by a Muggle and forced to go on a mission that led him into the home of his two least favourite people to walk this earth, with the possible exception of Harry Potter. Then he had splinched himself trying to Apparate in the blizzard and spent about an hour trying to locate his ear somewhere in Wales. His jacket had gone missing during Apparition as well, so by the time he arrived back in London he was frozen to the bone and in an extremely bad temper.

He finally located the Muggle bookshop where the crazy Muggle had so rudely locked his book and wand into the safe, and pulling up another wand, the weasel's or the Mudblood's, whichever, he whispered the charm that unlocked the door.

Inside the toasty bookstore the snowflakes that clung to his hair and clothes begun to melt and he was positively dripping as he angrily ripped the colorful painting off the wall to reveal the safe behind it. One lazy wave of his wand was enough to break the simple Muggle combination and he reached to open the safe with shivering fingers. The Grimoire would finally be his, after years of frantic searching, countless unannounced house-inspections in former Death Eater abodes and fruitless visits to every bookstore in England.

The door of the safe swung open, and Malfoy's eyes widened almost comically as a grin spread across his face, although both these expressions were wiped plainly off his face once the light fell upon the contents of the safe.

His wand and some worthless Muggle money.

No book.

He spun around and began searching through the bookstore at all the places he had taken the book. He begun in the occult section, proceeding to the the counter, then, in desperation, he fell to the floor and crawled upon the dusty hardwood, scanning the surface with his eyes.

The Grimoire was gone.

***


"I suppose we could always hand her in to the Ministry, or bring her to St. Mungo's..."

The sound of the familiar voice was music to Hermione's ears, and it was that, more than anything, that brought her back to consciousness.

"Ron?", she moaned, as her eyes fluttered open to find him sitting across from her on a cream-colored couch. Upon catching sight of him her features lit up until they resembled those of a fangirl coming face to face with her favourite celebrity.

"She's demented.", Ron said through the corner of his mouth, though he hadn't bothered to lower his voice to the point where Hermione couldn't pick it up. Hermione's mirthful expression fell slightly, then collapsed completely as she caught sight of the pregnant woman sitting next to Ron on the love-seat. A familiar wedding-band glittered upon one of her slender fingers. The sight of the two of them together provided a sick, twisted image that made jealousy and despair flare up inside the core of Hermione's being. She should be the one sitting there, next to Ron, wearing the ring he had given her and cradling a pregnant stomach.

The woman gave Ron an elbow to the ribs for his tactlessness, then met Hermione's scowl from across the table and frowned slightly.

"Who are you and what were you doing together with Malfoy in our house?", Ron demanded, successfully calling Hermione's attention back onto him. He was glaring at her, and though he had glared at her many times before, during all of their quarrels and heated arguments, Hermione couldn't help but notice that this was a different glare. A glare deprived of any underlaying affection beneath the hard blue.

"Hermione Granger.", Hermione said, knowing full-well that the statement was an utterly unsatisfying answer to his question, yet she had no idea what else to say. She had no idea who she was anymore or what was going on. Not knowing was the worst feeling in the world, and to not be able to look up the answer in a book was the equivalent of torture as far as Hermione was concerned.

Ron huffed. "Are you a Muggle?", he proceeded to ask, and Hermione hesitated to answer.

"She doesn't even know what a Muggle is, Ron.", his wife said in a hushed voice, obviously misinterpreting the blank look on Hermione's face.

"I know what a Muggle is." snapped Hermione. "In fact, I know all about Hogwarts, the Ministry of Magic, Harry Potter and everything else related to the Wizarding World."

Ron looked triumphant for a second and shot his wife a smirk before he remembered the situation and adapted his face accordingly. "And how have you come to know that?", he asked Hermione.

"Because...", Hermione hesitated, eager to word herself in a way that didn't make her sound as though she had just escaped a mental institution. Before she had the time to decide what to say, however, Ron threw another question at her.

"How do you know Malfoy?"

"I... I ran into him today. He came by the bookshop I work in, and I recognized him and-", she trailed off. She suddenly remembered the battered old book Malfoy had seemed so keen on getting his clawlike hands on and broke off mid-sentence to search her pockets for it. They were empty. "Where's my book?", she asked her hosts, who responded by looking even more convinced of her mental instability than they had done a minute ago. It was a look Hermione knew well, too well, and it contributed to enraging her even further. "Do you have it?"

"Here.", Ron's wife said, handing it to Hermione across the table. Hermione snatched it out of her hand without a word of thanks.

"You were saying?", Ron prompted, still eyeing Hermione suspiciously.

"Right.", Hermione said, tucking the black book away behind a pillow and attempting to pick up where she had left off before he could shoot another nosy question at her. She didn't much fancy Ron in the role of interrogator, and yet the sound of his voice made her heart beat so hard that she could barely hear her own stumbling explanation. "Malfoy came into the bookshop and wanted this book, and I recognized him and I knew he knew you, so I convinced him to take me here so I could talk to you."

Ron exchanged a glance with his wife, providing Hermione with the opportunity to stare shamelessly at the couple for a second or two. She noticed that Ron looked rather tired and careworn, and he had a scar on the side of his face that could easily outdo the famous lightning-shaped scar that marred Harry's forehead. Hermione wondered what had happened to him, but she didn't think she was in any position to ask questions, so she contended herself to admire every inch of his beloved face.

The happy couple turned back towards Hermione and she quickly looked away to hide the fact that she had been ogling them. Her eyes landed on a framed photograph of Ron and his wife on their weddingday, her weddingday, hanging on the wall to her left. Meredith was wearing the same wedding dress that Hermione had spent so many months searching for and Ron was staring down at her with an expression of undisguised mirth; the very same expression he had given Hermione when she had agreed to marry him.

Hermione felt her throat constricting as tears threatened to well up in her eyes.

"Why do you want to talk to me, then? I don't even know you!", Ron demanded from somewhere in the distance.

Hermione fought down the saltwater which tried so desperately to force its way through her tear ducts. "I...", she began, and both Ron and the woman beside him leaned an inkling towards her in anticipation of the answer before both their gazes snapped towards something behind Hermione; their faces identical masks of alarm.

Hermione glanced over her shoulder to see what had caught their attention.

The fireplace had roared to life and painted the white walls emerald green.



Chapter 14: Full House
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Hermione and Meredith backed simultaneously into the cushions of their seats and stared towards the fire with wide eyes as something, or rather someone, began to materialise within the emerald embers.

Hermione chanced a glance at Ron, just because she could, because he was there, and she saw that his hand had jumped towards his pocket on reflex, searching for the wand he no longer had. Remembering how he lost his wand, Hermione suddenly had a sneaking premonition about the identity of the person appearing in the fireplace and she found herself pushing the little black book, the Grimoire, deeper into the pillows of the couch.

"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Ro-on..."

A birthdaycake with some twenty burning candles became the first thing to come out of the fireplace, closely followed by an uneven chorus of the infamous birthday song. Said chorus was cut short, however, as Harry and Ginny Potter crawled out of the fireplace in the cake's wake and gazed blankly at the strange scene they had just entered.

Ron and Meredith were sitting in one couch, both wearing identical expression of wide-eyed shock; as if they had been expecting a visit from the Dementors rather than their two best friends. In the other couch sat a young woman, equally pale and stunned-looking, staring at them with big, brown eyes as though she had never seen a person before.

"What's going on here?", Ginny asked curiously, torn between worry and laughter at the sight of the shocked looks upon her brother and sister-in-laws' faces. When Ron and Meredith failed to respond she took a few steps out of the fireplace and extended a hand towards Hermione, smiling politely as she appeared to assume that this was a friend of the family. "I'm Ginny, Ron's sister, and this is my husband Harry."

Harry stood in the corner, still holding the burning birthday cake. Hermione felt an ache in her heart as she met his green eyes. He gave her a polite smile to match that of his wife and ran the hand not busy holding the cake-laden tray through his hair; obviously embarrassed underneath her unblinking gawk.

Hermione stared into his familiar face, willing him to recognize her, searching for even the smallest, faintest hint of recognition, but there were none.

None at all.

Ginny's smile faltered slightly and she lowered her hand, glancing over her shoulder at Harry. "Yes, that's Harry Potter," she said, and her voice sounded a bit flat, as though she had grown weary from affirming peoples' suspicions over the past year or so. She looked back at Ron and Meredith, who had yet to utter a word. Ginny frowned. "What's happ-?"

Crack

Draco Malfoy appeared in the middle of the room and the birthdaycake Harry had been holding fell to the floor; splattering the walls with pink icing.

Malfoy looked like he had been through an ordeal since the last time Hermione had seen him, which could not be more than a few hours ago judging by the setting sun outside. His hair was wet and wild, he had blood smeared across his neck, seemingly coming from his ear, and when he noticed the two newcomers in the room his expression turned positively livid.

"Accio wands," Malfoy shouted, waving the stick in his hand to make Harry and Ginnys' wands leave their pockets and soar into his grasp before either of them could react.

"Malfoy!" Ginny snapped when she reganied her voice from the shock of having Malfoy appear in the midst of Ron and Merediths' usually peaceful living room. Hermione could see pure loathing etched upon every feature of Ginny's face as the redhead glared at Malfoy from across the living room. "What the hell are you doing here?!"

Ginny's voice did not betray as much as a flicker of fear, and Hermione could only admire her unfaltering courage in the face of a crazed man pointing three wands in her direction.

"Sit down!" Malfoy spat at the Potters, and, no doubt seeing the manic gleam in Malfoy's eyes, they hesitantly obeyed. Hermione scooted over in the couch to make room for the pair, feeling a sudden jolt of excitement somewhere near her heart. The prospect of having all three of her best friends within the same room as herself felt nothing short of thrilling, even given the unfavorable circumstances of their reunion; the presence of Malfoy and the fact that no one seemed to have the faintest idea who she was.

Malfoy strutted to the end of the coffee table, observing the five faces that stared up at him with various degrees of hatred, distrust and fear. "Scarface," he said, nodding at Harry before he greeted each of them with a curt nod, like a teacher ticking them off his attendence list. "Weasel King, Ginger, Mudblood..." His silver eyes landed upon Hermione last and he hesitated for a split second, seemingly trying to think of a fitting nickname for her. Then, a gentle smirk crossed his haughty features. "Thief."

"She's the thief!", Hermione exclaimed. The statement had escaped her in spite of better judgement and her hand had sprung to life to point at Meredith, who in turn looked positively scandalized at Hermione's accusation.

There was a moment's complete silence before Meredith appeared to regain her voice. "Excuse me?" she exclaimed, and her tone expressed a mixture of shock and denial. "I've never stolen anything!"

"You did steal the Boomslang skin for the Polyjuice potion during our second year at Hogwarts," Ron reminded her through the corner of his mouth; a statement which earned him a sharp glare from his wife. "What? It's true," Ron countered defensievely.

"I'm not talking about that, that was ages ago!", Hermione snapped, successfully reganing the couple's attention. "I'm talking about her stealing my magic!"

Meredith frowned, deeply, and Ron, Harry and Ginny followed her example; all of them stared at Hermione as though she was every bit as mental as she felt.

"What are you talking about?" Meredith asked finally, eyebrows creeping together in an insufferable expression of total and utter bewilderment and incomprehension.

"Did you put me in a coma?", Hermione demanded furiously. "How did you manage to make everyone forget? What have you done to me?!"

Meredith looked as though she was about to explode with invectives, but before she could do as much as part her lips, Malfoy intervened from the end of the coffee table.

"Whilst this is all very interesting and all," he drawled, obviously not taking kindly to being ignored by his hostages. "Could we get back to the point?"

"And what exactly is the point of this, Malfoy?" Harry asked from Hermione's left, his green eyes flaring behind his glasses.

Malfoy glanced towards Hermione. "My book," he spat, holding out the hand that was not busy pointing wands towards his former enemies.

"I don't have it," Hermione lied bluntly, leaning against the pillow that hid the book from his sight.

"The hell you don't," Malfoy snared, and he took a threatening step towards her. The second he moved, however, Harry jerked forward and attempted to grab the wands, forcing Malfoy to retreat.

"Sit down, Potter," Malfoy hissed, and when Harry did not immediately slump back into the couch Malfoy knocked him backwards with a flick of his wand. Ginny got up angrily and Malfoy pointed his wand towards her instead. "Don't think I won't, Weasley," he threatened. Ginny looked defiant for a second before resigning. She slouched back into her seat; her pretty, freckled face twisted in fury.

Malfoy continued to keep the wands directed towards the Potters, but his eyes wandered towards Hermione. "Where is it?" he spat.

"I don't know," Hermione replied. "I think they might have taken it during wand-control at the Ministry," Her eyes moved towards Ron and Meredith, who knew the truth and could easily give her up at any second. Ron looked pale and shocked, and hopefully speechless. Meredith still looked offended and met Hermione's glance with narrowed eyes.

Malfoy seemed to ponder the statement's validity for a split second. Before he had the time to say anything, however, there was yet another loud crack and a roar of "Expelliarmus", causing all five of the wands Malfoy had acquired during the course of the day to fly in random directions across the room.

Everything happened at an amazing speed; one second Malfoy was standing before them, proud as punch; the next found him on the floor, disarmed and bound by magical ropes, twitching slightly.

"What the bloody hell is going on!" Ron exclaimed, getting to his feet to overlook the suddenly crowded living room.

In the blink of an eye ten witches and wizards had appeared, all dressed in matching lime-colored robes.

One of the witches stepped out of the crowd and towards Malfoy. She was blond, rather chubby and wore a horribly smug look upon her face as she gazed down at the struggling man. She snapped her fat fingers and two bulky wizards hoisted Malfoy onto his feet by his shoulders.

"Draco Malfoy," the blond woman spoke in a screeching voice laden with authority. "You are hereby under arrest for breaching the International Statue of Secrecy."

"W- what?" Malfoy spluttered, clearly infuriated. His face had turned an unflattering shade of pink as he struggled against the two guards holding him up.

The blond witch smiled, quite obviously enjoying herself immensely. "You have previously received a letter from the Improper Use of Magic Office, reminding you of the consequences of performing magic in the presence of Muggles and warning you that if you failed to comply with the present laws set by the Ministry of Magic again the Ministry would have no other choice than to snap you wand," she said without once pausing to draw her breath.

"I... I..." Malfoy stammered, trying and failing to maintain whatever dignity he had left.

The woman from the Ministry ignored Malfoy's splutters and went on. "You will attend an official hearing at the Ministry of Magic in precisely two hours, during which you will have a chance to defend your actions."

Hermione simply stared at the shocking display, and she was surprised to feel a sudden surge of symphathy go through her at the sight of Malfoy wriggling helplessly between the two Ministry employees that held him. Harry, Ginny, Ron and Meredith all appeared to be having the time of their lives watching Malfoy fall from grace, and Hermione even heard Ron leaning over to his wife and whisper, "This is the best birthday ever!"

Hermione, however, knew first hand what it was like to have your magical abilities taken from you and it was a fate she did not even wish upon her worst enemy; with the possible exception of the woman sitting next to Ron wearing Hermione's wedding ring.

As Hermione continued to look at Malfoy she caught his eyes, and he stared back into hers as he parted his lips and mouthed something.

Hermione had never been a great lip reader, although he moved his lips so slowly, so deliberately, that the sentence seemed as clear as if he had spoken it aloud.

I know how you can get your magic back.

A second later the blond witch snapped her fingers again and the two guards at either side of Malfoy disappeared with yet another loud crack, taking Malfoy with them.

"Now," the witch from the Ministry said, as though nothing in particular had just happened. "Where is the Muggle?"

***



The wheels inside Hermione's head were spinning.

Malfoy knew something.

No, she thought, frantically trying to sort through her disorganized thoughts. Malfoy is an arrogant, selfish arse, and clearly he's just making things up in order for me to help him out of the mess he's landed himself in. He doesn't know anything, he can't know anything. Even I haven't heard about anyone ever stealing magic, and I was the top witch in my class.

Yet, even as the top witch in her class, Hermione had no way of explaining what had happened to cause her to lose her magical abilities. She had never neither heard nor read about anyone just losing their magic the way she appeared to have done.

Or had she?

The plump, blond witch was standing at the spot before the coffee table that had previously been occupied by Malfoy, hovering menacingly over Hermione, Ron, Meredith, Harry and Ginny. "Well?", she prompted, when they failed to point out the Muggle in their midst.

Slowly, but just as certainly, four heads turned to stare in Hermione's direction.

"I'm a witch.", Hermione piped up helplessly, because the blond woman was reaching towards her wand, no doubt seconds away from wiping Hermione's memory.

The plump witch raised an eyebrow. "Really?", she said sarcastically. "Can you prove it?", she withdrew her wand and offered it to Hermione, her lime-clad cronies closing in around the couches with their wands raised so as to keep the situation under control. "A simple Lumos will suffice."

"No.", Hermione said, shaking her head and refusing the wand. "I can't because... Because I've lost my magic."

The woman from the Ministry raised both her eyebrows this time, looking over her shoulder to exchange an amused glance with her collegues. "May I ask how that came to be, miss..?", she trailed off, eyeing the badge still sticking to the front of Hermione's sweater.

"Astoria Greengrass.", Hermione said with conviction. "I attended Durmstrang." She had quickly concluded that assuming the identity of a fictional foreigner would be her best option, seeing that the Hit-Wizards were likely to have a register of some sort to crosscheck her information.

Carefully avoiding the sharp eyes that pierced her from every angle of the room Hermione drew a shaky breath, putting all her efforts into looking as depressed and forlorn as humanly possible. It proved surprisingly easy, seeing that Ron was still clutching Meredith's hand. "I... I came to England a few years ago for a study-trip and I fell in love with a boy I met here, Ron Weasley.", she glanced over at Ron, whose only response to her statement was to gape blankly. "I went back to Bulgaria to finish school, and when I came back to England a year ago I found that he had married another woman. I fell into a dark depression, and slowly my magic began to suffer as a result. I have not been able to perform even the simplest spells for months now."

The room fell silent after Hermione's touching, yet entirely untruthful, speech. When Hermione finally chanced a glance towards the purple-clad crowd it was to find the lot of them frowning and murmuring amongst each other. Admittedly it had been a longshot, but the story of unrecruited love temporarily zapping all traces of magic from an unhappy witch or wizard was not unheard of.

"In other words, there's a glitch in your system.", Hermione said smartly, looking directly up at the plump, blond witch again. "I was branded as a Muggle by whatever means you use to detect the misuse of magic. I might be a squib now, but you can't call me a Muggle, and if you wipe my memory of all traces of magic there won't be anything left."

The blond woman looked sour for the first time since she had popped into existence in the Weasleys' living room. "Well,", she said, a hint of anger prominent in her voice. "I guess we are done here, then."

Hermione could not believe her luck nor how easily the Ministry employees had been willing to believe her heartbreaking tale. She had not expected it to work; at the very least she had expected that she would be dragged to the Ministry for a more thorough interrogation, but her triumphant expression was wiped plainly off her face as she watched the employees from the Misuse of Magic Department prepare to Apparate.

She was still no closer to solving the mystery of what had actually happened to her, and, even though she felt reluctant to ever leave Ron's presence again, she didn't know wether or not she could handle another round of prying questions from the people she had once considered her best friends.

She needed more time, Hermione reckoned; more time and more information. Information that Malfoy might have. In any case, if she sprung the fact that she was somehow sharing all of Meredith's memories on Harry & co. they were likely to ship her off to St. Mungo's before she could utter another word.

Heart racing, she got up from her couch to approach the witches and wizards dressed in green.

She allowed herself one last look at Ron, though. His face was still frozen, open-mouthed, as it had been ever since she had revealed her infatuation for him in front of half the Ministry. The notion that he had no idea who she was was simply more than Hermione's could bear. The nasty look Meredith shot her when she noticed Hermione staring at her husband was just the drop that made the tub overflow.

Hermione turned from them and tapped the blond witch's shoulder.

"What now?", the witch snapped, eyeing her with great dislike.

"I...", Hermione hesitated, but what other choice did she have? If Malfoy knew something, anything, she had to know. And even if he didn't, Hermione thought, he would have no other choice than to help her if she, by some miracle, managed to save his magic.

The blond woman was staring at Hermione impatiently.

"I would like to present myself as a character witness in Draco Malfoy's upcoming hearing."


Chapter 15: Hear, Hear
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Draco was infuriated, and as far as he was concerned this whole debacle had been that inane Muggle’s fault.

Admittedly, he had received a letter of warning back in July after his first run-in with Hermione Granger, but as she had remained blissfully absent from his life until today both the letter and the warning it carried had slipped Draco’s mind. He hadn’t even thought twice about using using magic in front of Granger during the course of this extremely long and eventful day, seeing how she already appeared to have advanced knowledge of the Wizarding World and all it encompassed. There had even been moments where Draco had forgotten that he was in the presence of a Muggle; Granger’s conviction that the Mudblood had stolen her magic was so strong it had somehow rubbed off on him and made his mind wander towards things he had read about long ago, in an extravagant manor house overlooking a Muggle village...

Draco barely paid attention to the corridors he was dragged through by the two brutes on either side of him. His mind was too preoccupied, and his thoughts seemed to have a hard time wrapping themselves around the challenges ahead as it seemed they would rather revolve around the Muggle who had caused this uproar. Placing blame on anyone but himself had always been a favourite pastime of Draco’s, and no matter how he twisted the situation he couldn’t fault anyone but Hermione Granger for the situation he was now facing. It was she who had cornered him in London nine months ago; it was she who had stolen his book, and his wand, and dragged him along on this ridiculous journet that was finally at its end.

He felt a sinking sensation in his stomach as Hermione Granger’s face faded away from his memory to be replaced by a much more unnerving prospect than some Muggle losing her mind: him losing his magic. Draco inwardly shivered. He was familiar with the Wizengamot; he had attended several trials with his parents following the Great War and seen for himself just how ruthless the upholders of the Wizarding Law could be. Though they had fought valiantly and defended themselves as best as possible considering all the evidence that pointed in their direction, both his mother and his father had been sent to Azkaban for life.

Draco tried desperately to come up with a scheme that could let him off the hook this time, but he was tired, and hungry, and his brain did not appear to be as sharp as it used to. Truth be told, he was paralyzed with fear. The Wizengamot had wanted to stick him in Azkaban with his parents and everyone else who had the Dark Mark etched upon their skin, and, to Draco’s utter annoyance, it was a statement made by a certain Harry Potter who had saved him at his last hearing.

"Draco Malfoy was there with me in the Room of Requirement just before the Second Wizarding World came to an end, and without his help I would likely died in that room."

This was overstretching the truth to the limit. Draco had only yelled for Vincent not to kill Potter because he knew that the Dark Lord wanted to be the one to finish him off, and besides, Vincent had not listened to his shouts. The whole disaster in the Room of Requirement had ended with Potter saving Draco’s life, which meant that Draco owed his life to Potter twice over by this last count. If anything, this fact only made him despise the boy with the lightning-shaped scar even more.

Draco grinded his teeth together in concentration. Potter should be the last thing on his mind now, seeing how there was no chance of him stooping in to save Draco this time; especially not after what had just happened in Starbeck Road. Speaking of, Draco shuddered, recalling how he had in a moment of pure desperation appealed to the Muggle for help. There was no chance in hell that the deranged Granger-girl could make her way into the Ministry a second time that day. And even if she by some miracle managed, what could she possibly say to make the Wizengamot drop all charges against him?

Karma is a fickle thing, Draco reflected glumly, as he allowed the lumpy guards to escort him into court.

He was placed upon an uncomfortable wooden chair. There were chains coiled around the chair’s arms, which Draco had seen spring to life and pin his parents to the spot during their hearings two years previous, but today the chains remained limp and lifeless. Apperantly he wasn’t considered much of a threat, which made the fact that the Ministry had sent a squadron of Hit-Wizards to fetch him seemed rather inconsistent.

‘Stop it!’, Draco ordered his thoughts, which continued to swivel around anything but the fact that he was minutes away from watching his wand being snapped. ‘Focus, Draco.’, but, somehow, he couldn’t. Perhaps he was in denial; not an altogether uplifting idea, yet perhaps this would make the blow of having his magic taken from him seem less of a calamity than it would have if he had been in his right state of mind.

Draco glanced around. The members of the Wizengamot were sitting on benches raises high above his seat, staring calmly and unblinkingly down at him as though he was a cockroach on the floor. The highest seat in the room was located on the top of the podium directly in fron of Draco. He had to crane his neck in order to meet the cold, dark eyes of an absurdly fat man brandishing an impressive handlebar mustache. Draco felt a surge of pure loathing rush through his veins; Grant Dodderidge, the man who had mercilessly convicted his parents.

"Disciplinary hearing of the first of March," Dodderidge spoke in a pompous voice that sent echoes off the courtroom’s walls. "-into offences committed under the Statue of Secrecy by Draco Lucius Malfoy."

Draco glared up at the Chief Warlock as the man began listing off the the Ministry officials present at the hearing, his mind working feverishly behind his gray, unfazed eyes. He did, of course, have some knowledge of Wizarding Law, yet for the life of him he could not think up a single flicker of information that might defend his crimes.

Before he had the time to organize his thoughts, the Chief Warlock directed a question at him. "You are Draco Lucius Malfoy?", Dodderidge asked contemptously, the slightest inkling of a smirk on his lips as Draco’s last name escaped them. Draco made a mental note to never smirk again.

"Yes," obviously.

"You received an official warning from the Ministry of Magic for casting a stunning spell on a Muggle last July, correct?"

"Yes," Draco said again, striving to make his voice sound bored rather than breathless. His mind flew once more towards the Granger-woman and reflected on how, had she never entered his life, this would not have been happening.

"And yet you performed magic in front of a Muggle on several occasions throughout the course of this day, fully aware of the illegality of your actions?"

"Yes," said Draco for a third time, adding a glare at Dodderidge for good measure. The case seemed as though it was already over for his sake, and he wondered vaguely wether or not he would be facing worse punishments than losing his magic if he seized this opportunity to declare his hatred for the man in front of him.

Draco continued to stare up at the man with the handlebar mustache, waiting for his next question, but Dodderidge’s cold, black eyes were fixed on something behind Draco.

Draco shot a glance over his shoulder, and what he saw made his jaw drop.

There, in the doorway, was none other than the mad Muggle herself.

***


"Who are you?"

This was a question Hermione had been asked so many times over the course of the day that it was getting rather old. She shot the people on the benches surrounding Malfoy a quick glance, taking in each of their faces in quick succession in order to dechiper wether or not any of them had been present back at Ron’s house and borne witness to her explanation there. The hasty scan told her that none of them had, and it was only with an effort Hermione managed to keep a self-satisfied smirk from spreading across her face.

She turned back to the man on top of the podium, the Chief Warlock, she presumed. "Astoria Jean Greengrass," she replied, more confidently than she felt.

"And what are you doing here?" the Chief Warlock inquired sharply, his eyes almost disappearing underneath his thick, hairy eyebrows as he frowned down at her.

Hermione hesitated for the merest moment before answering, meeting Malfoy’s wide eyes. "I am here as a character witness for Draco Malfoy," she announced, looking back up at the Chief Warlock just in time to catch the disgruntled expression on his face before it disappeared without a trace.

"Very well," he said coldly, giving his wand a flick to make another hard, wooden chair appear next to the one Malfoy was occupying. Hermione sat down, wishing very much that Malfoy would stop gawking at her as though he had never seen her before. This was crucial for her plan to work.

"So, enlighten us," the Chief Warlock spoke, his voice as hard and unpleasant as its owner. "How do you know the offender?"

Malfoy had finally stopped ogling her and settled back into his chair, but Hermione’s next utterance brought his stare back with interests. "I am Draco Malfoy’s fiancée."

The courtroom became deathly silent for a few seconds following this statement. Many of the witches and wizards seated on the benches surrounding them began whispering amongst one another and the Chief Warlock started skimming through his papers at top speed. Hermione chose this moment to stamp on Malfoy’s foot, hard, in the hope that it would wipe the look of shock and outrage off his pale face.

"We have no record of anyone named ‘Astoria Greengrass’," the man with the handlebar mustache said when he resurfaced from the paperwork.

"That's because I am what you refer to as a Muggle," Hermione quipped smartly, and even though her voice was bright and conversational, the words left a bitter taste in her mouth. She would much have preferred to assume the identity of ‘Astoria Greengrass; the foreign Squib’ once more, but had concluded that the members of the Wizengamot were likely to know wether or not foreign Squibs would register as Muggles on their tracking devices. She had decided that it was not a risk worth taking, even if finally admitting to being a Muggle felt like having a dagger gauged into the core of her very being.

A few of the witches and wizards seated in the rows around them stirred uncomfortably. "Preposterous," Hermione heard a witch mutter to her neighbor. "A Muggle inside the Ministry of Magic!"

Hermione glanced sideways at Malfoy and was relieved to see that he had finally taken the hint and recomposed his face into its usual expressionlessness. She raised her gaze to the Chief Warlock again, prompting him to interrogate her further. "So, you are the - er - offended?"

"Offended?" said Hermione with a sweet smile, reflecting miserably that, had Malfoy been lying about knowing how she could get her magic back, she could always pursue a carreer in acting. "I wouldn’t say offended, sir."

An annoyed grumble issued from beneath the handlebar before the Chief Warlock turned to Malfoy instead and fixed him with an angry glower. "Is this the Muggle you have knowingly, illegaly and repeatedly performed magic in front of?"

"Yes," said Malfoy, letting out a small, dramatic sigh. "Yes, it is."

"Why, then, did you not follow protocol and send the Ministry a letter to inform them that you were in a serious relationship with a Muggle and planning on using magic in front of said Muggle?" the man with the handlebar mustache demanded.

Malfoy hesitated, and Hermione was afraid he was at a loss for words. As it turned out, however, he was merely an extremely skilled actor. He shot Hermione an apologetic look of deepest remorse before he turned back to the Chief Warlock again. "I was embarrassed," he said. "My family has always prided itself on being pure-blooded and I’ve spent most of my life believing Muggles and Muggle-borns to be second-class. When I met Astoria, however-" in a surprise move he grasped Hermione’s hand, interweaving their fingers. His hand was freezing and he squeezed Hermione’s unneccisarily hard.
 "-I knew that my parents were wrong because, Muggle or not, she is the loveliest woman I have ever met."

A few of the oldest witches of the Wizengamot smiled and one wizened woman even clutched at her heart as though this was the most moving display she had ever witnessed. The Chief Warlock, however, did not look impressed. He scrunched his big nose at Malfoy and Hermione's interlaced fingers before he turned back to the papers on his desk once more, flicking through the pages at an impressive speed. He appeared not to find whatever he was looking for, because there was a distinct look of disappointment on his face as he looked back up. "That still doesn’t excuse your failure to send the Ministry a letter to notify them about what was going on, Mr. Malfoy," he said, rather grumpily.

"I didn’t expect to use magic in front of her yet," Malfoy replied smoothly, giving Hermione’s fingers another tight squeeze. Hermione suppressed a wince. "I was going to send the letter this week, actually, but I managed to splinch myself when Apparating home from work because of the blizzard," he indicated the dried blood besmirching his white neck. "And, well, things got a bit out of hand," Malfoy finished in an apologetic tone Hermione had thought him incapable of procuring. Several of the wizards and witches in the rows above them smiled knowingly. Hermione gathered that the dreadful weather had caused quite a few splinchings over the course of this extremely prolonged winter.

The man with the handlebar mustache looked around at the rest of the Wizengamot and, seeing the looks on their faces, appeared to give in. "Those in favor of conviction," he barked and Hermione looked up through her lashes to see a hand or two reaching into the air.

"Those in favor of clearing the criminal of all charges?" the Chief Warlock called and, despite his obvious emphasis on the word ‘criminal’, at least forty hands rose into the air.

Chapter 16: In Debt
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Harry Potter had once spared Peter Pettigrew’s life, and from the second that happened a connection had spung to life between them. It was this inexplicable bond, this indebtment, that had ultimately led to Wormtail’s failure to kill the Boy Who Lived.

If Wormtail, who had been a weak and dispicable man, ultimately proved to have a conscience, Hermione had reasoned that Malfoy was bound to have one as well, and it was this notion that had led her to the courtroom in which she had gone on to sacrifice her pride in order to defend one of her least favorite people in the world.

True enough, she had saved his magical abilities, and not his life, but Hermione felt sure that Malfoy hardly knew the difference. Without his magic Malfoy would be condemned to a life amongst the Muggles he so despised; a life like the one Hermione was currently living and hating.

He owes me, Hermione thought smugly, feeling completely and utterly victorious as she strode down the dimly lit corridors leading away from the courtrooms. She had managed the impossible twice now, and all during the course of this extremely lengthy, though undeniably eventful, day. It was nearly incomprehensible to her that less than twelve hours had passed since Malfoy had walked into the bookstore and handed her a Galleon by mistake; that less than twelve hours ago, she had actually believed that the Wizarding world was nothing but a product of her own comatose imagination. He owes me.

She felt so elated, in fact, that she didn’t notice that Malfoy was still grasping her hand in a vice-like grip until they were nearing the elevators.

Hermione cracked a frown and cast a sideways glance at the blonde beside her. Malfoy looked tired; there was an inkling of thoughtful creases on his usually flawless forehead and his eyes were misty, like two silvery moons obscured by rolling clouds. He did not carry the same look of joy that Hermione was wearing, but rather the expression of someone lost on a winding trail of deep thoughts. Hermione wondered what could possibly put a damper on his spirits when he ought to be doing cartwheels down the corridors.

Hermione freed her hand from Malfoy’s rather forcibly; an act which seemed to wake him up from his reverie. He made rather a point of wiping his hand on his trousers, as though to cover up the mistake of holding hers for longer than what was strictly neccessary.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Are you even going to say ‘thank you’?", she snapped.

Malfoy arched an unperturbed eyebrow. "If it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t have been in court in the first place."

Hermione felt a surge of annoyance go through her, momentarily clouding her rapture. She hadn’t forced him to stun her back in June, and she certainly hadn’t forced him to Apparate and Disapparate into Ron’s house that afternoon. Admittedly, she had taken the book, The Grimoire, but until he paid her the last two pounds it wasn’t technically his. Before she had time to enumerate this list of valid arguements, however, Malfoy had snatched her hand again.

A couple of wizards from Malfoy’s hearing walked by, smiling and nodding curtly as they passed.

Malfoy released Hermione’s hand as soon as the members of the Wizengamot were out of sight, but he refrained from wiping his hand on the leg of his jeans this time. Perhaps he forgot. "Thanks," he spat at her. "Happy? Can I go home now?"

Hermione, who in any case found this to be a completely inadequate thanks, merely surveyed him with great dislike. "No."

Malfoy laughed sardonically. "And what are you going to do about it, Muggle-girl?"

"What’s to stop me from going to the Wizengamot and tell them the truth?" said Hermione.

"You wouldn’t," Malfoy snorted, though he didn’t look one hundred per cent certain once he caught sight of the stony expression on Hermione’s face. "They’ll wipe your memory."

"Do you honestly think I would be sorry to forget that this day ever happened?" Hermione asked him coldly. She reflected on the truth of these words. Whilst it no doubt had been encouraging to discover that the Wizarding World was real, she could not help but wonder if her life wouldn’t have been easier if she hadn’t. To see Ron again had been nothing short of thrilling, but she was certain that the blank, unrecognizing look on his face when he had looked at her would haunt her nightmares until the day she died. What was more, Ron was married to another woman, one whom had seemingly stolen Hermione’s life, and together they looked like the epitome of a happy couple. It broke Hermione’s heart just thinking about it.

Malfoy looked a little unnerved for a moment, watching Hermione closely as though to decipher wether her threat had merely been a ploy. "What do you want, then?" he demanded finally. "Do you want me to confund the weasel so he falls in love with you instead?"

"No!" Hermione said, horrified. She wasn’t dismayed at the fact that he had suggested it, she did not consider Malfoy to be above doing so; but she was baffled to discover that a little part of her seemed to like the idea. Her heart, which had been shattered to pieces so many times that day, gave a hopeful jerk. "No, of course not," she said sharply. "I want you to tell me how I can get my magic back."

Malfoy was, and there was no doubt about it, inconveniently good at hiding his emotions. His face remained a cold, unfeeling mask as he looked at Hermione, but in his eyes, in the mirrors of his soul, Hermione thought she could see a flicker of something. "I lied," Malfoy admitted, and there was the faintest hint of mea culpa in his tone. "I don’t know."

Had Hermione been a witch her anger would no doubt have caused a magical explosion powerful enough to wreck the entire Ministry of Magic. Instead, she was a Muggle, and her hands curled into fists in order to inflict as much pain on Malfoy as humanly possible.

Malfoy noticed her reaction and glanced down at her shaking fists with a mildly amused expression. She knew she couldn’t seem like much of a threat; nearly a head shorter than him and frail-looking, still in the process of rebuilding her muscle tissue after spending half her life lying comatose in a bed, yet she felt certain that her fury could inflict at least a few bruises on his pale skin before her anger subsided into hopelessness once more.

She was in the middle of debating where to place the first blow, his snooty face seemed an ideal target, when Malfoy spoke again; "I do have a theory about what might have happened to you."

It was only with an effort that Hermione managed to keep her fists in check, her curiosity and hope peaking in spite of her better judgement. Hadn’t the man before her proven himself untrustworthy on so many occassions throughout this day, let alone their time together at Hogwarts, that she ought not to listen to a single word uttered by Draco Malfoy? And yet, Hermione found herself asking; "And what theory is that, exactly?"

They had reached the elevators now, though Hermione couldn’t remember walking for the past minute or so. Malfoy, who seemed utterly unfazed by their conversation, pushed the button and the silvery doors slid open. The pair entered into the confined space, Hermione’s heart beating fast as she eyed the man next to her with suspicion, dislike and badly repressed interest. His lips parted, Hermione felt an unbidden surge of excitement go through her, then another person climbed into the elevator just before the doors closed shut.

The elderly witch who had clutched at her heart during Malfoy’s hearing beamed when she noticed who they were. "Congratulations on your engagement!" she said brightly, and Hermione heard a soft hiss coming from Malfoy’s direction. "Have you two lovebirds set the date yet?"

"No, we haven’t," Malfoy said in a remarkably hearty voice that did not match his expression. "Astoria wants a winter wedding, but personally I think the sooner the better."

"No time like the present, now, is there?" the elderly woman chortled. She was clearly one of those old people whose friends and family had long since perished, leaving her alone with no one to talk to but strangers.

She smiled wistfully at the pair of them for a moment; Hermione and Malfoy smiling back rather stiffly. Then, the old witch opened her wrinkled mouth to pose another question: "Can I see the ring?"

"Er-" Hermione exchanged a quick glance with Malfoy, who looked as though he would like nothing better than to Apparate as far away from this conversation as possible. "Er. I didn’t bring it."

Malfoy rolled his eyes at her lousy excuse. Hermione shot him a glare that clearly said ‘Well, I didn’t hear you come up with anything better!’

Thankfully, the elevator reached its final destination at that moment and the uncomfortable conversation was cut short.

"Well," the ancient witch piped, still grinning broadly at the pair of them. "It is lovely to see that you’re not following in your parents’ footsteps, Mr. Malfoy. Best of luck to you both!", and with those words she departed and blended in with the bustling mass in the Atrium.

Malfoy made to follow her lead, but Hermione grabbed him by the arm to keep him from slipping out of the lift. "Don’t think you can just-" she began, but the rest of her sentence was drowned out by half a dozen witches and wizards climbing into the elevator and pressing the various buttons.

Malfoy dragged Hermione out of the elevator and said, through the corner of his mouth; "Do you honestly think this is the ideal location to chat?" before he began making his way through the crowded lobby.

Hermione had to jog to keep up with his brisk pace. "Maybe not," she said irritably, slightly breathless. "Where do you propose we go, then? Because you are going to tell me everything you know, you owe me."

Malfoy marched past the green fireplaces, without offering her neither glance nor an answer.

"Where are we going?"

"I am going to wand-checkpoint to get my book back," Malfoy replied grimly without looking at her, picking up the pace a notch as though hoping that doing so would shake off the incensed Muggle at his heels.

"The book isn’t there," Hermione said, successfully halting Malfoy’s stride.

"What do you mean?" he asked, disgruntled, his forehead creasing. "You told me they took the book when we went through security."

Hermione tried to look as smug as she could manage while clutching at the stitch in her side. "That’s right, Malfoy," she breathed. "You’re not the only one who can lie."

Malfoy was quite obviously fuming, having been outsmarted by the Muggle yet again. "Where is it?" he demanded in a sneer, glaring down at her.

Hermione hesitated. She knew exactly where the book was; squashed in between the cushions of a couch in Ron’s house; and she was sure Malfoy wasn’t going to appreciate it.

"It’s in Ron’s house," she murmured finally. The prospect of gatecrashing Starbeck Road 347 was not altogether alluring. Hermione had a strong feeling that doing so would make Ron dislike her even more than he appeared to do already.

Malfoy’s jaw was clenched and he looked angrier than Hermione could remember ever seeing him before, including the numerous times Harry had beat him in Quidditch. "Brilliant," he spat, before turning around and setting course back towards the fireplaces.

"Are you going to Ron’s house?" Hermione asked as she caught up with him again, glancing up at his vexed expression. For a second time that day she realized that she wasn’t afraid of him, not one little bit; watching his face contort in anger was merely amusing and she doubted that anything he could say or do to her could even begin to compare to the sight of Ron with Meredith, as far as pain went.

"No," Malfoy snapped. "I’m going home. I’m not stupid enough to take on four witches and wizards at once."

"I’m coming with you," Hermione said as she trotted alongside him. The look on Malfoy’s face suggested that he would like for her to come with him so he could lock her up in the dungeons of Malfoy Manor and torture her senselessly. Hermione couldn't care less. "I saved your magic, you owe me. If you don’t tell me everything you know I’ll go back to the Wizengamot and-»

"Fine!" Malfoy cut across her, accepting defeat with a snarl and an angry glower as they came to a halt in front of one of the emerald fireplaces. A triumphant expression spread across Hermione's face.


Chapter 17: Quid Pro Quo
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Her only other excursion to Malfoy Manor was rather vague in Hermione's memory. Due to the nature of her last visit she had not gotten a good look at any aspect of the house other than the hard stone floor she had lain upon whilst Bellatrix Lestrange had mercilessly tortured her, but now that she was here under more pleasant circumstances she had time to appreciate the refined beauty of the manor house.

The wall opposite the marble fireplace she had materialized within was entirely obscured by a vast floor to ceiling bookcase. Acrylic paintings framed in ornate gold and several glint mirrors that looked as though they were polished on a daily basis were affixed to the delicate, dark wallpaper. Hermione caught sight of her own haunted reflection in one of the mirrors and hastened to look away from the tired face set within a tangled mess of brown hair. Her eyes landed instead on a huge window with its black, velvety curtains drawn back. The snowstorm outside showed no signs of calming.

There was only one piece of furniture in the room: a silken armchair that stood a few feet away from Hermione’s current location, which led her to believe that she had appeared in some kind of study.

"Don’t make yourself at home," came Malfoy’s snide voice from somewhere to Hermione’s left, interrupting her silent appraisal of his home. Hermione turned to take him into eyesight instead, reflecting on how he, too, looked worse for wear. His flaxen hair, once sleek and shiny, stood upend; he looked even paler than usual and he still had dried blood smeared across his neck.

Malfoy noticed her critical stare and huffed. "I’m still easier on the eyes than you’ll ever be," he said, looking her up and down with a fraction of his usual smirk.

Hermione reckoned he was right, but she would be damned if she accepted defeat at this point. Before she had the time to make a snap retort however, someone, or rather something, came scurrying into the room and emitted an excitable cry.

"Mr. Malfoy, sir!"

Hermione’s heart skipped a beat and a smile spread across her features as she laid eyes on the miniscule house-elf now sprinting towards them as fast as its spindly legs would carry it. As usual with elves, it was hard to tell wether the creature was male or female, but either way it had enormous, popping eyes the shade of forget-me-nots, big floppy ears and a nose that looked as though it had been broken on at least one occasion. Hermione reckoned that this elf was tinier than the house-elves she had grown accustomed to seeing in the kitchens at Hogwarts; perhaps it was younger, too, because it appeared to be less wrinkled than Dobby, Winky and Krecher had been.

"Flimsy," Malfoy addressed the elf as he swiftly took off his coat and threw it at the creature. The creature disappeared beneath billowing, black material. "Take that to my room," Malfoy instructed. "And bring me something to eat."

"What does Mr. Malfoy want?" issued the elf’s muffled squeak from beneath the woolen fabric.

"Whatever," said Malfoy irritably. "Just make it fast, don’t dawdle."

"You disgust me," Hermione snarled at Malfoy as soon as the elf had stumbled blindly out of the vicinity, still hidden from sight underneath its master’s coat.

"I’m glad to hear that my feelings towards you are reciprocated," Malfoy replied unconcernedly as he walked over to the chintz-armchair and fell into it, looking more drained than ever before.

"Why did you get another house-elf?" demanded Hermione, glaring in his direction and putting her hands on her hips for emphasis. "You’re a grown man and I’m sure you’re perfectly capable of cleaning up after yourself, and making food, and doing chores, without the assistance of a slave!"

Malfoy gave his grey eyes a roll, but did not bother to defend himself as he sank further into the cushions and massaged his white forehead with his fingertips. Noticing how Hermione was still scowling at him half a minute later, a look of exasperation crossed his features. "Look, Granger," he drawled. "I’m tired and hungry, and I would prefer to have this conversation over and done with as soon as possible."

Hermione had momentarily forgotten why she was in Malfoy Manor in the first place; the apperance of Flimsy the house-elf had temporarily erased everything else from her mind. Malfoy’s words served as a wake-up call and her indignance on the elf’s behalf gave way to her selfish curiousity.  "Right," she said. "Just... tell me everything you know."

Malfoy considered her for a moment before speaking. "So, if what you're saying is true and you really are sharing all of Beckett’s memories, I’m sure you remember the Muggle-Born Registration Commission?"

"How could anyone forget?" Hermione said bitterly. The mere memory of the corrupt Ministry of 1997 enough to send shivers up her spine. "That had to be the most ridiculous, far-fetched attempt to-"

"Well, now," said Malfoy, the half-smirk returning to his countenance. "Admittedly it was a bit crude, but there was a lot more to it than just prejudice."

"What do you mean?" Hermione inquired sharply. Of course, she thought, Draco Malfoy would have been all in favor of the Comission: Muggle-borns being accused of stealing magic and shipped off to God knows where, to be kept locked up at a safe distance from the Magical World. For him to pretend that the Comission was based on anything but pure-blooded pigheadedness was nothing short of insulting, and Hermione felt her blood begin to boil as she stared down at the object of her dismay.

"The Dark Lord-" Malfoy began.

"Coward," breathed Hermione, unable to help herself.

Malfoy stopped speaking abruptly, as if she had slapped him, and adopted the same look of outrage and ire that he had worn when Hermione had told him the true whereabouts of his beloved Grimoire.

"Sorry," Hermione muttered, and when Malfoy continued to look infuriated; "But Voldemort has been gone for years now, and don’t you think it’s about time we started calling him by his real name? Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself, and there’s hardly anything left of Voldemort to be scared of at the moment."

"I thought-" Malfoy said frostily, contemplating her through narrowed eyes. "-you wanted to hear my theories. But if you came here to lecture me about Elf-rights and proper language you might as well leave right now, because I’m not interested in taking advise from a Muggle."

"I’m not a Muggle," Hermione responded automatically, ignoring the familiar stabbing pain near her heart. "I’m sorry, please go on."

Hermione’s halfhearted apology may have soothed Malfoy's ego; in any case he went on as though the interruption had not taken place. "At all times there is a fixed amount of magic present in the world. The amount of magic can never be increased, nor can it be decreased-"

"Where did you hear that?" Hermione asked him suspiciously. She had never heard nor read anything of the sort, and she considered herself to be rather more well-informed than Malfoy. "Is that what Voldemort told you?"

"I’ve read about it, okay?" Malfoy snapped impatiently.

"Where?"

Malfoy was starting to look aggravated, but Hermione could not have cared less about how he felt. This was her chance, possibly her only chance, to learn what had happened to her, and she wanted to make sure that the information she was given came from a reliable source. "In a book," said Malfoy unhelpfully, and then: "That’s about time-"

Hermione turned to see the tiny house-elf stumbling into the room once more, now struggling to balance a silver tray laden with an assortment of different foods above its ugly head while navigating clumsily towards the small mahogany end table by Malfoy’s chair.

Her gaze wandered from the miserable elf to the food it brandished and her stomach gave a sudden twinge. Her excitement over finding a way back into the Wizarding world, her happiness over seeing Ron again and the shock of finding him married to another woman had driven such trivial things as regular meals from her mind, but the sight of the delectable food reminded her that she hadn't eaten anything since breakfast that morning.

She watched as the elf carefully sat the tray down on the small table, gave a graceless bow and departed the room without a word.

Malfoy reached out greedily, grabbed a pasty and shot Hermione an unexpected glance before she had the time to hide her ravenous expression behind a mask of sniffy indifference.

Think about the poor elf,’ Hermione told herself sternly, but the tactic didn’t work much better now than it had done during her imaginary fourth year at Hogwarts. Her stomach growled loudly, despite her best efforts on keeping her hunger in check, and she stared down into the extravagant rug, embarrassed, ignoring Malfoy’s piercing, grey eyes as he contemplated her for a long moment.

Malfoy snorted. "Fine," he said. "You can have some."

They began to eat in silence, and Hermione made a mental note to thank Flimsy in person if she ever got the chance. She doubted that Malfoy had ever complimented the elf on its culinary excellence, but even her indignation at seeing a house-elf treated badly was not enough to make her stop tucking in on the delicacies the elf had prepared.

The meal was interspersed by an awkward moment during which Hermione and her host both reached for the last sandwich. Hermione, who had not been prepared to fight Malfoy over bread, was surprised, and a little amused, to find him letting go of the sandwich immediately and settle for a crumpet instead. She supposed that the idea of a Muggle touching his food made it instantly inedible to him, and she savagely chowed down on the chicken sandwich while debating whether or not she should claim all the food on the tray as her own just to irk him. She decided against it, however; she did not want to cause poor Flimsy more work that night.

Fifteen minutes later, when there wasn’t as much as a crumb left on the tray, Hermione felt fuller than she could remember ever being before. She had slunk onto the floor by Malfoy’s chair at some point during their little feast and was now trying her best to ignore the creeping drowsiness that suddenly threatened to overtake her.

"Are you even going to say ‘thank you’?" Malfoy inquired in a high-pitched voice that Hermione recognized as a rather poor imitation of herself.

"Thank you," Hermione responded sweetly, thinking she could take the higher road. "Now, continue where you left off, if you please."

Malfoy heaved a great sigh and Hermione shuffled over on the floor in order to look at him as he resumed his story. "Basically, the idea is that when a witch or wizard dies, his or her magic does not.»"

Malfoy paused, because Hermione’s hand had flown into the air.

"Yes?" Malfoy prompted her snappishly.

"I’ve never read or heard about that," said Hermione.

Malfoy’s jaw clenched and unclenched. "I doubt even the bookwormish Mudblood has read all the books in the universe," he said shortly. "Now, if you would let me continue uninterrupted, I’ll let you ask questions when I’m done."

Hermione thought this seemed a rather charitable offer, considering that it came from Malfoy, and resolved to keep her mouth shut throughout the rest of his anecdote.

"Like I’ve been trying to say three times already, there is always a fixed amount of magic present in the universe. Back in the old days, long before Hogwarts was founded, witches and wizards lived a sheltered life away from Muggles. They bred with each other and kept the bloodlines clean. You did study History of Magic, didn’t you, Granger?"

Hermione, slightly taken aback at being addressed when she had been so intent on keeping quiet, simply nodded.

"Did it slip your notice that there isn’t a single mention of any Muggle-born witches or wizards before this millenium?"

"It didn’t," Hermione admitted. "But I did some research and discovered that most of the magical historians come from ancient Wizarding families, and ancient Wizarding families tend to be prejudiced against Muggle-borns."

Malfoy smirked. "Did you ever stop to think that maybe the reason why Mudbloods aren’t mentioned much during ancient history is simply because they did not exist?" he asked, but when Hermione opened her mouth to respond, he held up a hand to silence her. "Don’t answer that. There’s a limit to how much I can listen to your snooty voice in one day."

Hermione fell back into an aggrieved silence, biting her tongue to keep herself from uttering the spiteful words now fighting to escape her.

"Anyway," Malfoy continued. "If you take my word for it, Mudbloods did not exsist until about a thousand years ago, when the magical society clashed with the Muggles and witches, wizards and Muggles began mixing blood."

Hermione gave a stiff nod. 

"You see, when a witch or wizard died in the good old days, his or her magic would go on into the next child born into the magical society. As the magical blood became diluted, however, magic began to settle within any unworthy Muggle with an ancestor who had, once upon a happier time, belonged in the Wizarding world."

Malfoy paused and caught sight of the look on Hermione’s face. Hermione did not doubt that her face was turning blue by this point; she was caught in an internal struggle to fight down the urge to shout him down; to tell him he was wrong; that he had no proof that what he was saying was true.

Malfoy snickered softly. Hermione was under the impression that he was rather enjoying himself despite his preliminary reluctance to speak about the matter. "Magic no longer waits to bestow itself on a worthy candidate the way it did when the magical society was contained from Muggles. Magic still has a tendency to settle in those with a strong pedigree, but if a witch or wizard dies and no child is born to magical parents within the hours following his or her death, the magic will settle for a Mudblood."

"What does any of this have to do with me?" Hermione asked in annoyance, unable to keep her silence any longer. The smugness on Malfoy’s face was simply too much to bear.

"I was just getting to that," said Malfoy sleekly. "You are a Mudblood, correct? Or you imagined you were one, anyway."

Hermione gave another stiff nod, hating Malfoy.

"So you probably had a distant relative who was a blood-traitor and started mingling with Muggles, and when you were born, generations after your last relative with any trace of magical blood had perished, it was just a lucky coinscidence that no child with a stronger bond to the magical world was born at the time. However, sometimes, if a Mudblood is too weak to contain the magic inside it, the magic might leave to find a more suitable host."

"That’s absurd," Hermione growled. "I’ve never heard about anything like that happening."

"It’s the knowledge that the Dark Lord based a lot of his-"

"You can’t call plain guesswork ‘knowledge’!" Hermione bit him off. The disappointment she felt inside was overwhelming; the idea that Malfoy had actually known something, anything, that could explain what had happened to her, was diminishing by the second; as was his credibility.

"You were in a coma, right?" inquired Malfoy suddenly.

"How do you know that?" Hermione sneered.

"I got the sloppy love letter you wrote to Weasley, remember?" said Malfoy smoothly. He looked utterly unruffled by her anger and merely contemplated her calmly over the distance separating his armchair from her spot on the floor. "Well, my theory is that, when you fell into the coma, your magic left you to find another body."

"Even if that is the case, it still doesn’t explain anything!" Hermione said, getting up, wishing more than anything that she was somewhere far removed from Malfoy’s cold, grey eyes; somewhere she could bawl and wallow in her own misery. "Why can I remember everything? Why did I wake up in the belief that I was a witch, that I had attended Hogwarts, and that me and Ron were going to get married, when it turns out he’s never seen me before?" 

Hermione had to cut herself off and turn her back on Malfoy in order to focus all her efforts on pushing back the tears now threatening to escape her.

"I haven’t heard about a case quite like yours before, so I can’t be sure," Malfoy admitted from what seemed a great distance. "But it is my theory that some kind of connection sprung up between you and Beckett the day your magic left you for her. The magic was a big part of you, even if you didn’t know it back then."

Hermione was furiously blinking back tears, her back still turned on Malfoy as she chewed over his words. Somehow, the idea that Dark Magic was involved, that Meredith had somehow stolen her magic, had been much comforting than the theories Malfoy was serving her now. The notion that her magic had left her simply because she was too weak was intolerable; as was the prospect of not being able to blame Meredith for everything that had happened. 

"Where did you say you read about this again?" Hermione said thickly, a minute or two later, when she had calmed herself enough to muster speech.

"I read it in a book in the Dark Lord’s private library," Malfoy said, just as calmly as ever. His tone suggested that he was bored; he might as well have been talking about the weather.

"And you read nothing there about how someone who has lost their magic might be able to regain it?"

"I didn’t," admitted Malfoy, and Hermione’s heart sank. «But I left one book on the shelf unread, and I’m pretty sure that, if any book in exsistence gives instructions on how to steal magic, it’s that one."

Malfoy paused, and Hermione swiftly wiped away the tears that had finally spilled from her eyes and turned to face him; upset but determined.

"And where is this book now?" she asked him, though she felt she already had a sneaking suspicion.

"Incidentally," said Malfoy softly. "It was the book I bought from you today at the bookstore."


Chapter 18: Breakfast at Malfoy's
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March 2, 2000

Hermione awoke with a start to find herself in a strange room with no immediate idea of where she was or how she came to be there.

The room was ample, at least thrice the size of an average master bedroom, and she was sprawled across an absolutely massive four poster bed, draped in emerald chiffon.

Definitely not in a hospital, then.

While her eyes swept the unfamiliar room, Hermione tried to remember what had happened. She had a slight headache, but that was hardly as disturbing as her most recent dream. In the dream she had been in a considerably smaller and shoddier bedroom, but Ron had been next to her on the bed and she had felt safe.

Happy.

Her eyes traced the ornate silver frame of a large mirror hung against the deep green wallpaper. Silver and emerald, she thought. Slytherin colors. Draco Malfoy.

Malfoy!

Suddenly, last night came back to her in perfect clarity as she realized, with a pang, that she was in the last place she had ever imagined to find herself in: The guest bedroom of Malfoy Manor.

The night before, after Malfoy had made the cryptic revelation that the information she sought might be found between the covers of the Grimoire, he had gotten up from the chintz-armchair and made to leave the room.

"Where do you think you’re going?" Hermione had demanded from her spot on the floor, next to the abandoned armchair.

"I’m tired," Malfoy had announced, one long-fingered hand reaching for the doorknob. "So I’m going to bed."

"You said I could ask questions and I’ve got plenty of those, so you better sit back down and-"

"You know, I rather resent Muggles telling me what to do," Malfoy had cut her off, insufferable as ever, his pale fingers enclosing the doorknob.

"And what am I supposed to do while you go catch up on your beauty sleep?"

At this point Malfoy had shot her a condescending glance over his shoulder. "You might do with some beauty sleep yourself, although I hardly believe it will make much of a difference in your case." His cold eyes had settled on her bushy hair and his trademark smirk had flitted past his features.

"Can I sleep on the floor, or do I have to go outside in the blizzard so as not to stain your carpet?" Hermione had asked, ignoring his smirk and her own burning desire to slap him.

Malfoy had surveyed her for a split second before speaking. "Well, if I tell you to go outside there’s a chance you might freeze to death," he had said slowly. "Usually I wouldn’t have minded, although unfortunately I’m afraid I might need you to get that book." He had paused again and looked down at her from his elevated point. "You can have the guest bedroom."

Before Hermione had had the time to say anything, to protest or demand answers to any of her questions, Malfoy had called upon Flimsy the house-elf and given it instructions to escort Hermione to the guest bedroom. Then he had departed the room without a word of good night.

Hermione remembered feeling as though sleep would be impossible with all the new information circulating in her head, but she must have fallen asleep instantly because she could not even remember crawling into the bed she was currently occupying.

Hermione was just reflecting on how many Galleons she would have given for a fresh pair of clothes and a few basic toiletries, a hairbrush prominent amongst them, when the sound of something heavy breaking sent tremors throughout the old woodwork of Malfoy Manor.

Instinctively Hermione slipped out of the extravagant bed and hurried out of the room to see what had caused the rucus. Just as she opened her door, another door along the corridor slammed open and Malfoy appeared, wearing only a towel draped like a toga around his slender hips. His entire person was glittering with droplets of water and his flaxen hair was wet and slick: he had evidently just emerged from the shower.

Hermione could hardly help her eyes from traveling the length of his body, and as they did so, she realized that she had never fully appreciated just how attractive Draco Malfoy was. She reconked that his pure physical appeal tended to be overshadowed by his vile nature and superior attitude, but this didn’t stop her eyes trailing along the silvery outlines of scars marring the otherwise flawless form of his muscular torso. Her gaze paused for a split second at the black skull emblazoned on his left forearm, then began climbing upwards.

She regretted her lapse in attention immediately as her eyes collided with his silvery ones. The expression on his pointed face was horribly smug as he arched an eyebrow at her. "Did you break something, Granger?"

"Excuse me?" said Hermione, blushing furiously and cursing her own reaction in the face of a partially nude Malfoy.

"Did. You. Break. Something?" Malfoy repeated, putting a great deal of emphasis on each word, sounding as though he was trying to teach proper speech to a two-year old. "I thought I heard something breaking."

Hermione suddenly recalled why she had stormed out into the hallway in the first place. "It wasn’t me," she said quickly, eager to wipe the smugness off his pale face. "It sounded like it came from downsta- It wasn’t me!" she repreated angrily, because Malfoy’s face had adopted an expression of amused sceptisism to go with the complacent one. "Maybe someone broke in?" Hermione suggested, successfully wiping Malfoy’s face blank.

A moment’s disconcertion crossed his handsome features before he turned his back on her and sallied down the corridor. Hermione hesitated for a moment in the doorway before following him down the staircase to search for the source of the disruption, which turned out to be Flimsy.

Broken shards of something littered the kitchen floor "Flimsy not mean to do it, Mr. Malfoy, sir!" the cowering house-elf squeaked from underneath the dining table.

Hermione hurried forwards and knelt down before the elf. "It’s okay, Flimsy," she said consolingly before glanced over her shoulder at Malfoy. "It’s easily fixed with a mending charm, so no damage done. The spell is Rep-"

"Yeah, I know how to mend things, thanks," Malfoy spat, clearly not taking kindly to the fact that a Muggle was trying to teach him how to do his spellwork. "Now, if you’re done admiring my body, Granger, I think I’ll go back upstairs and get dressed."

"Don’t flatter yourself," Hermione hissed, but she wasn’t sure wether Malfoy heard her. He had already turned and strut halfway up the staircase by the time she had gathered herself enough to come up with the feeble repartee.

Fuming, Hermione turned to Flimsy. "I’m sorry your master is such a prat, Flimsy."

"Master is not a prat, miss! Mr. Malfoy is a good master to a house-elf!" Flimsy squeaked earnestly.

Hermione couldn’t think of anything to say to that. Instead she straightened up and reflected glumly on how unfair it was that house-elves had to defend their masters, no matter how unpleasant said masters might be. "Listen, thank you so much for the food you brought yesterday, Flimsy," she said. "You are an excellent cook."

"Miss is too kind!" Flimsy beamed, shaking her head so vigorously that her floppy ears danced around her swarthy face. "It was no trouble, no trouble at all!"

Flimsy shouted down Hermione’s request to help with breakfast and Hermione, not sure what to do with herself, pulled up a chair and watched the tiny elf taking multitasking to a new level; squeezing fresh oranges into juice, cutting up fruit, boiling tea and coffee, baking bread and supplying the table with plates, glasses and utensils. Under different circumstances Hermione might have told the elf that there was no need to prepare such a lavish breakfast when there were only two people dining, but at the present Hermione’s head was too wrapped up with her own thoughts.

By the time Malfoy came back downstairs, fully clothed, a full English breakfast stood waiting on the table. Hermione watched him as he slunk uncerimoniously into the chair furthest from where she was sitting, grabbed a bagel and took a bite. His mood was inscrutable. Hermione didn’t know how to interpret his silence but was glad, in any case, the he seemed to have shelved the subject of their embarassing morning encounter.

Malfoy did not spare her a single glance while devouring the bagle, but once he was done chewing the last bite he wiped his slender fingers on a napkin and turned his cold eyes to glare at her. "What?" he demanded.

"Can I ask my questions now?"

Malfoy gave a non-committal grunt as he reached for the steaming teapot.

Hermione rummaged her brain in order to select the most pressing queries from the bunch. "Why are you so hell-bent on getting that book?" she asked suspiciously. She had seen the lengths he would go to in order to get his hands on the book and, remembering the fanatic gleam in his eyes from the day before, she felt deeply uneasy. "What exactly do you expect to find in there?"

Malfoy looked up through the steam rising from his teacup and considered her austerely for a moment before answering. "No personal questions."

Hermione frowned, but rallied almost at once. "So, suppose we do manage to get hold of the book," she said, "What’s to stop you from just taking it and Disapparating, leaving me just as empty-handed as I am now?" This was an idea that had nagged her ever since she had realized that they both wanted the book, but if she had expected Malfoy’s words to sooth her discomfit she was sorely disappointed.

"Nothing," said Malfoy complacently, and when he glanced up to find Hermione glaring at him from across the table; "It’s the sad truth, Granger. You only have two options: Either you can trust me and take the risk, or you can give up, go home and enjoy the remainder of your sad, pathetic Muggle life."

"You’re not exactly doing a good job at earning my trust," Hermione pointed out after an aggrieved moment’s silence.

Malfoy actually smiled. "I could tell you that I would never have done such a thing, that deceit wasn’t in my nature, but you seem to know me..." he trailed off and fixed Hermione with a searching gaze. "I decided that honesty would be the best tactic. If you’re looking for comfort and reassurance you’re searching for it in the wrong place, Granger."

Hermione bit her lip and grabbed an apple in the hope of dispelling Malfoy’s intense eyes. Everything would have been so much easier if she hadn’t known Malfoy, if she hadn’t seen what he could do; the wretched person he was. Still, as Malfoy had rightly said, she only had two options. She could either put her loathing for him aside and choose to trust him, just this once, or she could go back home and continue to pretend that Ron wasn’t out there. As Hermione contemplated the shiny, red apple she had a premonition that it was going to prove much, much harder to coax herself into believeing that Ron was a figment of her own imagination after yesterday’s foray into the magical world.

"Well then," said Hermione, "Assuming that your theory is valid, why did my magic settle into her? Why didn’t it settle into a newborn baby or a Squib, or anybody else? Why her?"

"Magic matures along with the witch or wizard in whom it is contained-"

"Yesterday you said that when a wizard die the magic settles into a newborn, and now you’re saying it matures along with the host-"

"You truly are the most insufferable Muggle I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across," said Malfoy, his voice even but his lip curled into a sneer as he spoke. "Think of magic as a sort of phoenix. It grows and dies with the wizard, before being reborn within another. My theory is that the magic settled into that particular Mudblood because the two of you are approximately the same age, and both derived from a besmirched, distantly magical lineage."

The breakfast drifted into a silence as Malfoy continued to sip his tea and Hermione reluctantly grabbed a slice of bread and began buttering it, all the while mulling over the theories he had presented the night before. She found it hard to rely on information that did not come from a reliable source; somehow it was much easier to place confidence in words written in black and white between the pages of books than it was to trust the boy who was sipping tea across from her. Still, even Hermione had to admit that what he had said made sense, the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and she had a hard time seeing how he could have managed to make up something that complex at the spur of a moment.

Her train of thoughts was interrupted by the gale outside rattling the brittle windows, threatening to break in. "You said it were the Dementors that’s causing this bad weather," Hermione said after swallowing a mouthful of toast. "Why are they still at large?"

"Do you know how to actually kill a Dementor, Granger?" said Malfoy, and without waiting for a reply; "Neither does the Ministry."

Hermione frowned. "Are you saying that nobody at the Ministry can produce a Patronus?" she asked sceptically.

"A Patronus doesn’t kill a Dementor, it just wards it off," Malfoy said, lowering his teacup. "The Ministry has set up protective barriers around all the inhabited areas in Britain, so the Dementors are contained to roam the countrysides. They’ll die out eventually, of course, but until then..." he trailed off thoughtfully, before adding, "There are a few of them gliding around in the woods outside here."

"What?!" Hermione exclaimed, whipping around in her chair, half-expecting to see a Dementor clawing at the windowpane. Then came the depressing realization that she was a Muggle now, and that she would not be able to see the Dementors even if there were a hundred of them camping out in Malfoy’s backyard. She turned back to Malfoy. "Are you capable of producing a Patronus?"

"More capable than you," Malfoy said tersely, but when Hermione continued to look unnerved he added; "Dementors feed off human happiness, and since there’s not a lot of it going around in here, I reckon they will keep their distance."

Hermione did not feel altogether reassured, but she had more pressing questions in queue than those concerning her own safety. She glanced up at Malfoy, who was now poking the spongy eggs on his plate with a fork. "So, what’s the plan?" she asked, and she could hear a note of reborn determination in her own voice.

Malfoy looked up from his eggs, his expression blank. "What plan?"

"Your plan," Hermione said, annoyed. "Your masterplan for getting the book back. You said you needed me-"

"I said I might need you, as in you might make getting the book easier," Malfoy corrected her sleekly. "Make no mistake, Muggle-girl. I don’t need you and I never will."

Hermione glared at him. "And how exactly might I make getting that book easier?"

Malfoy leaned back in his chair and looked as though he was steeling himself for something that would cause him great internal pain. "As much as I hate to admit it," he said, and his voice was somehow quieter than it had been a moment ago. "You seem like a clever Muggle."

Hermione could hardly help herself smiling. It was the one stake she had claimed throughout her imaginary life, and Malfoy was the first person to call her ‘clever’ since her rude awakening at St. Mary’s hospital nearly a year ago. "Thank you."

"It’s not a compliment," Malfoy said, eyes narrowing. "It’s a statement that has yet to be verified. But I can’t deny that your display at the Ministry yesterday was... impressive."

Despite his assurance that he wasn’t complimenting her, Hermione felt rather flattered. "Go on," she prompted, grabbing for the orange juice in order to hide her smile.

Malfoy hesitated for a moment before speaking. "Getting that book will require weeks of planning, because Weasley and Beckett will be on their guards. Rest assure that they will put up protective enchantments around their house to prevent uninvited visitors from Apparating directly into their house. They might even put up an Infidelius charm on the cottage-"

"An Infedelius charm?" Hermione snorted. "Surely not! You’re making that tiny cottage sound like an impenetrable fortress."

"Infedelius charms became popular when the Dark Lord became powerful again, and a lot of people still cast them over their lodgings because it provides a sense of security." Malfoy said seriously. "We should expect and prepare for the worst case scenario."

"You say ‘we’ as though I’ve agreed to this scheme," Hermione pointed out.

Malfoy raised an eyebrow. "I thought we had already established that you didn’t have much of a choice."

"I could always go to Ron and try talking to him again, explain the situation and ask him to help me out," Hermione mused, knowing that the chances of Ron recognizing her the second time around were slim indeed.

"If you do that he’ll turn you over to the Ministry, they’ll wipe your memory and you’ll be stuck in a Muggle mental institution where you belong."

Hermione felt a sudden surge of anger flare inside her. "Thanks for the food," she said acidly, pushing her heavy chair away from the table and standing up. "Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll leave."

She didn’t intend to actually go through with the threat, but she had expected Malfoy to panic and change his attitude towards her. Instead her actions procured quite the opposite effect. Malfoy burst out laughing, though his mirth was scornful rather than genuine and, perhaps realizing this, he quit rather abruptly. "And how are you going to do that?" he drawled. "The nearest Muggle village is about ten miles from here and you’ll have to go through a dense forest full of Dementors to get there. Somehow I don’t think you’re up to the task. And just so you know," he added, grey eyes twinkling maliciously, "I’ve hidden all the Floo-powder."

"So you’re holding me hostage here?" Hermione snapped, outraged.

Malfoy didn’t respond; he didn’t even look at her. He simply reached over the table to grab a crumpet.

"If I’m going to stay cooped up in this house for months, helping you out with your petty scheming, I’ll need stuff!"

Malfoy looked up in the middle of buttering the aforementioned crumpet. "What kind of 'stuff' are you refering to, exactly?"

"Well, I don’t know!" Hermione exclaimed. "Some clothes! A hairbrush!"

Malfoy actually smiled. "Very well," he said, lazily wiping his fingers on a napkin before getting slowly to his feet. "Let’s go to your place, then. And make sure you pack enough hairbrushes for a few months’ worth of petty sceming."

Chapter 19: Meet the Parents
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Since it was Saturday, and since the weather was frightful, the streets of London were positively brimming with people running from one toasty shop to the next. No one spared a moment to stop and chat in the chilly morning; the blizzard that had raged that morning had settled somewhat, but walking outside still felt like walking through an icy veil. Most people were so heavily wrapped in their winter things that they could barely see through the gap between hat and scarf, and much less notice two people appearing out of thin air in one of the city’s numerous alleyways.

Hermione gave her person a quick check to make sure she had fully materialized before quickly letting go of Malfoy’s arm. She had nearly forgotten how uncomfortable the sensation of Apparating was, but Malfoy left her no time to regain her composure as he sped off into the bustling street beyond.

"Wait up!" Hermione called as she staggered after him across the slippery cobblestones.

Malfoy made no sign that he had heard her, but simply wove seamlessly into the crowd at high speed. Hermione felt rather aggravated. A glance at the surrounding shops told her that they had Apparated several streets away from her flat and she anticipated that walking to their destanation would require about fifteen minutes of tedious slipping and sliding.

"Where are you going?" Hermione asked, already breathless, as she caught up with Malfoy and noticed him changing course. He appeared to be making a U-turn towards one of the stores lining the street.

"Just wait here," Malfoy grunted before slipping into the shop in question. Hermione crossed her arms and glared at Malfoy through the window displays of the fancy jewlery store. For the life of her she could not imagine what errand Malfoy had inside it.

The blonde was back in the chill before two minutes had passed, holding a small black box in his hand. He reached it out for Hermione to take and she obliged, popping the lid open and staring down on the content. It was a beautiful, and enormous, diamond ring. She squinted up at Malfoy, uncomprehendingly. "What..?"

"Put it on," Malfoy said shortly, a hint of impatience seeping into his voice.

Hermione stared at him. "What?" she repeated. "Why?"

"Because-" Malfoy said, once again adopting to air of an intellectual explaining something to a neanderthal. "-the job at hand will require a certain amount of planning and investigation, and if we run into anyone from the Ministry it will look highly suspicious if the bride-to-be left her ring at home again."

Hermione glanced down at the ring once more. It was the most magnificent thing, a thousand times grander than the one Ron had bought her from a pawn shop in what seemed to be another lifetime. She was aboslutely certain that she had never held anything this expensieve in her hands before. "You could have bought something a little less extravagant," she muttered as she slipped the ring onto her finger. It fitted her snugly and weighed her hand down. "I might accidentally blind someone."

"I need this scheme to look authentic," Malfoy muttered, glancing around shiftily, as though expecting the brick walls around him to sprout ears. "I can’t afford the Ministry to start an investigation. If I had bought you cheap ring people might have gotten suspicious."

"Paranoid much?" Hermione said under her breath as she tucked her hands, and the ring, into her pockets. Malfoy merely grunted in response as they set off towards her flat at a brisk pace.

They had barely walked two blocks when Hermione noticed that they appeared to turn heads. At first she reasoned that she was merely self-conscious because of the ring now nestled out of sight in her coat pocket, but after a while she began to wonder wether it was really all in her head. They seemed to draw a fair few number of eyes, and several gogglers stuck their heads together and whispered in hushed, excited voices as they passed.

Hermione frowned and glanced up at Malfoy, who seemed to be harboring the same apprehension as she was judging by the wrinkle that had appeared between his eyebrows. "What’s going on?" Hermione whispered out of the corner of her mouth. "Why are people staring at us?"

Just as Malfoy shrugged they walked past a streetlight and Hermione felt an uncomfortable jolt of recognition as her eyes landed on a poster attatched to the cold steel. A fairly unflattering photograph of herself in all her bushy-haired glory was positioned under a bold headline.

"MISSING"

Hermione, uncomprehendingly and as though in a trance, made for the poster to read on.

"Hermione Granger vanished without a trace early afternoon on March 1. She was last spotted at the bookstore in George Street, in which she worked.
Witnesses in neighbouring stores have reported seeing Miss Granger talking with a young man they had never seen there before. The man is described as being tall, muscular and blonde.
Police asks anyone who has information they believe to be useful to step forward."


The poster also featured a rather poor sketch of someone who could be Malfoy, although the blonde hair upon the sketch’s head was the only characteristic pointing readers in the right direction.

Malfoy, who had apparantly noticed nothing, had almost disappeared into the crowd by the time Hermione had finished reading. "Malfoy!" she exclaimed, unintentionally drawing, not only Malfoy’s, but the eyes of a huge crowd of passing shoppers onto herself. Mutters broke out as their gazes flickered from her face to the photo of her on the poster.

Malfoy broke away from the crowd and rushed to her side. His eyes scanned the poster briefly before he grabbed Hermione by the arm and hauled her into a deserted alleyway, away from the limelight.

Hermione felt completely and utterly speechless. She was officially a missing person, Malfoy was a suspect in her kidnapping and all of London were on the look-out for the pair of them.

"Who reported you missing?" Malfoy demanded, his cheeks flushed from either anger or cold, or possibly a combination of the two.

"My parents, I suppose," Hermione said, her voice sounding unusually high.

"I thought you Muggles had ways of communicating without owls," Malfoy said in an unneccisarily sour voice. "Why the hell didn’t you think to tell them some story about going away for a month or two? I thought you were supposed to be smart."

Hermione felt some of her blind shock give way to anger. She didn’t appreciate the accusations being thrown her way. "I didn’t exactly plan this," she spat. "If you hadn’t tried to ditch me at Ron’s house none of this would have happened."

"None of what, exactly?" Malfoy asked coldly.

"If you would have just cooperated with me from the beginning-"

"If I had just blindly followed the orders of an obnoxious Muggle who stole my wand and my book-"

"How many times do I have to tell you?" Hermione bit back, her temper flaring up. "You. Didn’t. Pay. For. It."

The sound of approaching footfalls interrupted their bickering match. Their gazes briefly met and Hermione saw her pale, livid face reflected in Malfoy’s silvery eyes.

"Where does your parents live?" Malfoy demanded in a whisper.

Hermione mouthed the directions, and by the time a homeless man stumbled around the corner the alleyway was just as deserted and unremarkable as he had expected it to be.

***


Hermione was impressed in spite of herself at the accuracy of Malfoy’s Apparation, especially concidering the fact that the weather was not ideal. Soft snow was once again falling from the sky as the pair of them materialised on the doorstep of Hermione’s parents’ house. The sharp crack of Apparation must have alerted the inhabitants, leaving them no time to plan their next move before the door swung open to reveal Hermione’s mother standing in the doorway. She was pale, had bags underneath her eyes and her hair was more untidy than Hermione could remember ever seeing it.

A breathless moment persisted before Hermione was nearly knocked over as her mother threw herself around Hermione’s shoulders and began sobbing uncontrollably into her hair.

Hermione saw something flash past them throughout a veil of her mother’s hair, and a moment later their reunion was interrupted by the sounds of grunts and yelps from somewhere behind them. Wrestling free from her mother’s grip, Hermione turned to see something that very nearly made her laugh.

Her father had tackled Malfoy to the ground and was trying to land a punch on him. Malfoy, while distinctly ruffled, was doing a remarkably good job of avoiding her father’s fists considering the fact that he was flat on his back in five inches of snow.

Hermione struggled with a sadistic urge to watch how the situation played out, but decided to resolve the scuffle before serious injury was inflicted. "Dad, stop it!" She rushed down the stairs and grabbed a hold of her father from behind. "Dad, don’t!"

She was relieved when she felt her father go from rigid to limp and, summoning all her strength, she helped him to his feet. Without a word he enveloped her in a tight hug and seemed reluctant to ever let go. For a moment, while feeling safe and happy in her father’s arms, Hermione caught herself questioning wether all of this was even worth it. Joining forces with Draco Malfoy to regain a spark of magic that, in any case, would not be enough to win back Ron’s good favor. She was roused from her thoughts by the sound of laughter.

Ophelia had appeared out of nowhere and was giggling at the sight of Malfoy clumsily regaining his foothold, shaking snow from his hair and shrugging back into his coat. Hermione resisted the temptation to join in.

Revenge was so very, very sweet.

***


Ten minutes later found all four Grangers plus Malfoy in the Grangers’ living room, each cluthching a cup of scalding tea. Hermione was wedged in between her parents in the love seat. Ophelia was occupying one of the room’s two armchairs, humming as she added spoonful upon spoonful of sugar to her tea, while Malfoy sat quite stoically in the other one.

"So..." Hermione said, thinking that she ought to say something before Malfoy turned to stone beneath her father’s hard, unblinking gaze. "I’m not missing."

"But... What happened, Hermione, dear?" her mother asked, voice still quavering. "We’ve been so worried. We tried calling you on your mobile phone, but some strange man picked up instead."

Hermione frowned. Where was her mobile phone? In all honesty she had not offered the device a single thought during everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours. The last time she could remember having it was when she and Malfoy had flooed into Ron’s fireplace and the ringing had blown their cover. She had fainted shortly afterwards, and when she had awoken the cell phone had definitely not been there. How ironic that the man my parents have paid countless psychologists to convince me is not real picked up the phone when they tried to reach me, Hermione mused.

"I’m really sorry I didn’t call," Hermione said sincerely. "I know you must have been so worried, I don’t know what got into me, I-" she looked down at her hands as the guilt welled up inside her. Her parents had been so protective ever since she had awoken from her coma, calling her several times a day just to check that she was still conscious.

"It’s quite all right, Hermione," her mother said consolingly, putting a hand on top of Hermione’s. "But what happened? Mr. Newsman called us last night to tell us that there had been a break-in at the bookstore and that he hadn’t been able to reach you on your phone, and that lovely woman from the bakery across the street told us that she had seen you with a sinister blonde-" She fell silent and shot the sinister blonde man in question a tentative look.

Hermione felt that introductions were implied. She cleared her throat, mind racing. "This is Draco Malfoy, my, ehm-"

What had she been about to say? Friend? Co-conspirator in a plot to regain the magic her parents believed to be codswallop?

Unfortunately, Malfoy beat her to the punch. "Fiancé," he said, in a strong, clear voice that could not be misheard.

Hermione watched in wide-eyed shock as her parents changed colors. Her father turned bright red, while her mother’s complexion resembled nothing more than the snow that covered the lawn beyond the living room window.

Ophelia broke the silence. "Can I be the flower girl?"


Chapter 20: Too Close for Comfort
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”Hermione Jean Granger, you can absolutely not marry that man!”




Hermione stared shamefacedly down at her striped socks, unsure of what to say to her own mother. A part of her wanted to explain that this wasn’t real, that it was all just a ploy to ensure Malfoy’s continued usefulness with a wand, although doing so would require her to admit that she still believed that magic was real and that Ron Weasley was alive and well and living somewhere outside of her head. She knew she was justified in her faith now, but she feared that admitting this to her mother would result in her being comitted to a mental institution for the remainder of her life. Besides, her mother believed that she was making such good progress, and Hermione couldn’t bare to face the unavoidable disappointment in her mother’s eyes at the bare mention of this other world.

 

Hermione steeled herself, fighting hard to keep her face soft and lovelorn, the way actresses did in movies when professing their affections, rather than disgusted at the mere thought of harboring feelings above grudging respect for the man currently sipping tea in the Grangers’ living room. ”I love him, Mum,” she said, unable to keep a certain note of stiffness from her tone, though hoping that it would pass by unnoticed.

 

Hermione and her mother were pressed into the Grangers’ humble downstairs bathroom, which barely allowed the two women enough space to stand between the sink and the toilet. Hermione felt a certain obligation to return to the living room to prevent her father from throtthling Malfoy, but her mother was blocking the door.

 

”What has gotten into you?” Mrs. Granger demanded of her daughter, hands on her hips, red roses flaring in her cheeks. Still, indignation and disbelief were better than disappointment and resignation, Hermione reasoned.

 

”I’m in love,” Hermione muttered, wrenching the words out, hating herself for lying to her mother.

 

”Since when?” Mrs. Granger shrieked. ”You barely know the man! You can’t have known him for more than a few months, and that’s hardly long enough to make a lifetime committment-”

 

”We plan on a long engagement, Mum,” Hermione said in what she hoped was a reassuring voice. ”Just call off the search, and give us some time to sort everything out.”

 

”How did you meet this man?”

 

”He came into the bookstore and we got to talking,” Hermione said, which was perfectly true. She omitted informing her mother that this exchange had taken place the previous day, and that what had followed had been a whirling rollercoaster of revelations. ”We actually have a lot in common. We both like books.” One book in particular, Hermione reflected glumly. Where was it now?

 

”But you’re still so young, Hermione,” Mrs. Granger said, changing her tactics from outrage to reason. ”You have so much yet to experience-”

 

”And I can experience all those things with Mal- er – Draco,” Hermione said, biting her tongue. If they were going to keep up this charade, they were going to have to get on first name basis. ”I’m just getting married, Mum. I thought you’d be happy for me.”

 

She could see that she had played the right card, the ace in the hole. Tears sprung up in her mother’s eyes before she enveloped Hermione in a tight hug. ”All I want is for you to be happy, Hermione,” Mrs. Granger whispered into her daughter's frizzy hair.

 

Hermione felt a stab of guilt, but repressed it as she freed herself from her mother’s arms. ”Then trust my judgement,” she said, smiling up at her mother’s tearstained face. ”I have a good feeling about this.”

 

***

 

 

The two women returned to the living room to find Malfoy more uncomfortable than Hermione could recall ever seeing him in all her eight years of memories, or dreams, or whatever they were.

 

Mr. Granger was glaring at Malfoy from the love-seat opposite, whilst Ophelia was kneeling on the floor in front of his armchair, ogling him with apparant adoration.

 

”Ready to go, sweetie?” Hermione said, wrenching the term of endearment out of herself. ”We have a lot of stuff to do today, you know.”

 

Malfoy took a moment longer than he should to realize to whom she was speaking, although once he did he sprang promptly to his feet and cast her a short, grateful glance. ”Sure, whatever you say, er, honey.”

 

”Already?” Mrs. Granger squeaked. ”We hardly got to chat at all. And in this ungodly weather…”

 

Hermione and Malfoy shouted down Mrs. Granger’s offer for them to stay for supper, both equally eager to get out of the house. They departed on foot, waving heartily to Hermione’s family until they had rounded the corner and passed out of sight.

 

”God, your sister is even more vexing than you are,” Malfoy hissed once they were out of the Grangers' earshot. ”I didn’t think that was possible.”

 

”Oh, shut up,” Hermione snapped back. ”None of this would be happening if you hadn’t waved your wand around, left, right, and center. Now, where to?”

 

Malfoy was visibly fuming as he grabbed Hermione’s arm, and the pair of them disappeared with a loud crack.

 

Moments later they reappeared outside of Hermione’s flat in London.

 

”Your aim’s getting better,” Hermione commented snootily as she retrieved her keys from her pocket and unlocked the front door. They made their way up the rickety stairs to Hermione’s flat on the fourth landing. It was a small space, but to Hermione this was home. The creaking floorboards, the neighbour’s voices sounding through the walls, the leaky kitchen sink, and the spotty carpet were all home to her, and she was already dreading having to leave the place, if only for a limited time. ’Or forever, if all goes well,’ she reminded herself.

 

Malfoy obviously did not share her affections for the place. ”Is that a cockroach?” he asked, crinkling his nose and pointing towards something scurrying along the living room wall. Hermione glanced in the direction indicated.

 

”Nah,” she said, squinting at the corner. ”Just a beetle.”

 

”How can you live like this?”

 

”Not all our parents go to jail and leave us a comfortable mansion in their wake,” Hermione pointed out, slightly stung. She has always been proud of her living quarters and dreamed fondly of the day when she would have friends over for dinner. Unfornately, as she had come to learn, your supply of friends were rather sparce when you had been in a coma for the entirety of your teenage years. The only people her age that she fraternized with were her co-workers, most of whom had more than enough friends of their own, and now, of course, Draco Malfoy, who could hardly qualify as a friend even if he were her make-believe fiancé.

 

“Stay here,” Hermione told him and ducked into her bedroom. She found an old bag in the closet, flung it onto her bed and started cramming all of her wordly possessions into it. There wasn’t much to take from, once you subtracted the furniture. Hermione felt bad taking handouts from her parents, and the wages she made at Newman’s barely covered her rent. She fished a few ratty sweaters, some secondhand jeans, and all of her socks and undergarments out of the closet and crammed them into the bag. She made a detour into the bathroom to cram some basic toiletries into a make-up bag, giving her hair a quick once-over with the brush, and upon her return was disgruntled to find Malfoy standing by her bedside, lifting an eyebrow as he gazed down at the contents of her bag.

 

Malfoy snorted. ”Is that it?” he said. ”That was hardly worth the trouble of going to London in the first place.”

 

Hermion slung the bag over her shoulder and pushed past Malfoy, shutting the lights on her way. ”Coming?” she said icily.

 

Well outside of Hermione’s appartment building, the pair located an empty one-way street and Apparated back to Malfoy’s considerably more extravagant living quarters.

 

”So,” Hermione said, once she had parked her bag in her makeshift bedroom and the pair of them had sat down for a spot of tea in Malfoy’s dining room. ”Ready to start scheming?”

 

”Sure,” Malfoy drawled. ”Feel free to air any brilliant ideas you may have concerning how best to approach this thing.”

 

Hermione thought for a second, but her thoughts were tainted by images of Ron and Merediths’ wedding picture. ”How about we put Meredith in a coma? If your theories are correct, that should restore my magic, right?”

 

Malfoy looked for a moment as though he rather enjoyed the idea, but his dreamy smile was quickly wiped away by a sneer. ”The objective isn’t to restore your magic. It’s getting the book, remember?”

 

”Fine,” Hermione said, faintly agrieved. ”You come up with something, then.”

 

They sat in silence for a while, each of them staring down at their steaming cup of tea, contemplating.

 

”Maybe we should get some paper?” Hermione suggested after a few minutes had passed in silence. ”We could write down everything we need to concider, like the fact that they might put an Infedelius charm-”

 

”Flimsy!” Malfoy suddenly barked, the unexpected outburst nearly causing Hermione to fall off her chair.

 

The tiny elf scurried into the kitchen.

 

”Bring us some paper and two quills,” Malfoy ordered, his eyes following the elf out of the dining room.

 

”You could have done that yourself,” Hermione said, outraged at being a first hand witness to the blatant explotation of House Elves. ”And there’s no need to use that tone with her.”

 

”She likes feeling useful,” Malfoy said, taking a sip of tea.

 

”That’s because she doesn’t know any better!” Hermione hissed. ”Honestly…”

 

Flimsy returned with a stack of blank parchment and the quills Malfoy had requested. After placing them at the center of the table, she bowed her way out of the dining room. Hermione wanted very much to continue lecturing Malfoy on the proper treatment of House Elves, but Malfoy had already grabbed a piece of paper and a quill. He dipped the end of the quill into an ink bottle and began scribbling.

 

Hermione found it rather disadvantageous, everything considered, that they were seated on opposite ends of the long dining table, so she got to her feet, bringing her teacup with her, and settled into the seat next to Malfoy. He flashed her an inscrutable glance, but otherwise made no objection to their sudden proximity as he continued writing.

 

”Your handwriting really is awful,” Hermione commented as she sipped her tea. ”I can hardly make out a word.”

 

”Then make your own notes, and we can compare afterwards,” Malfoy grumbled without lifting his gaze from the paper.

 

Hermione obliged, grasping the remaining quill and a piece of blank parchment, and she began to write.

 

1. Ron and Meredith are suspicious and might have put an Infedelius charm on their house.


2. Ron and Meredith know that there is something special about the book, given my indiscretion when I asked for it.


3. Ron and Meredith both work at the Ministry, so around midday would be an ideal time to strike, providing that they are actually keeping the book at their house and that their house has not been given additional security (pending confimation)

 

She paused in her writing, an idea just occuring to her. ”You work with collecting Dark objects, don’t you?”

 

Malfoy didn’t respond, but he stopped writing and glanced up at her with a cocked eyebrow.

 

”Wouldn’t you hear about it at work if Ron handed the book over to the Ministry?”

 

Malfoy shrugged. ”I mainly work with cursed objects, and that book isn’t cursed.”

 

”But you can’t deny that the book could be considered Dark.”

 

Malfoy shrugged again. ”Possibly, but-”

 

”Wouldn’t it make sense for Ron to hand something like that over to the authorities? Given that he’s an Auror?”

 

Malfoy seemed to consider it, his brow creasing. He appeared unwilling to concede that she made a good case. ”Maybe I should poke around the Ministry for a bit, see if I hear anything interesting…” he said slowly.

 

”Wouldn’t that look suspicious, if you didn’t have anything to hand in?”

 

”Oh, I have plenty of things to hand in,” Malfoy said sleekly. ”I was just rather hoping to avoid it.”

 

Hermione gasped. ”You’ve been… er… embezzling from the Ministry?” she said, shocked at his lack of moral conscience.

 

”Hardly ’embezzling’,” Malfoy snorted. ”The Ministry doesn’t own every Dark object out there. The ones that might come in handy I consider just as well off here as there.”

 

Hermione was practically fuming. ”I don’t believe you.”

 

”And here I was, thinking that you knew me so well,” Malfoy said, smirking. ”Besides, I don’t know why you’re complaining. My hoarding is serving your purpose right now, in case you haven’t noticed.”

 

”That’s not the point…” Hermione said, somewhat lamely, deciding that she would be better off dropping this subject. He had a point, after all. ”When can you go to the Ministry?”

 

”I can leave straight away,” Malfoy said, getting to his feet. ”In fact, I think it would be for the best. Catch this early on, before they destoy the book or something.”

 

”What should I do while you’re gone?” Hermione said, getting to her feet and following on his heel into the foyer. She did not know why, but for some reason the idea of Malfoy leaving her in this huge, empty house was unappealing to her. Perhaps it was the memories of her last visit here, or the thought of how much Dark magic had flourished in this house over the centuries.

 

Malfoy turned and looked down his nose at her. ”Why don’t you take charge on the plotting.”

 

”But we don’t even know if the book is at Ron’s place or if he’s turned it over to the Ministry! Plotting is somewhat pointless until we know, wouldn’t you agree?”

 

”Fine,” Malfoy said, exasparated. ”Do whatever you like. Take over Flimsy’s household duties, for all I care. Just don’t go poking around the house. You might find things you’re better off not finding.”

 

”Like what?” Hermione inquired as she watched Malfoy unlocking a door leading into the cellar.

 

”Like Dark objects that might kill you if you as much as touch them,” Malfoy said darkly as the door swung open. He climbed down the staircase and was soon swallowed up by the darkness. ”Come to think of it,” he called back up as Hermione hesitated in the doorway. ”Come right on down here and touch something.”

 

”I think I’ll pass,” Hermione muttered.

 

Malfoy returned upstairs, patting his pocket with a smug look upon his face as he shoved Hermione out of the doorway, closed the door and proceeded to lock it with a silver key that he then stowed away in his pocket. “Well, then. I’ll head over the Ministry and check wether or not the Weasel has turned the book over. You stay put.”

 

Hermione had no time to do anything but frown before Malfoy disappeared with a loud crack, leaving her standing quite alone in the middle of the impressive foyer.


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