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.
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."
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