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-?"
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."
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