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The Song of the Trees by Tinn Tam
Chapter 15 : A So Precious Friendship
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 8


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Chapter Fourteen : A So Precious Friendship



It was different from the usual journey through Floo network. Instead of spinning from fireplace to fireplace, Harry was being sucked vertiginously upwards in a large tube of green fire. The magic crackled around him, infinitely stronger and probably far more reliable than the public Floo connection; doubtless it made it near-impossible for the information sent that way to get lost or intercepted.

There was no time, however, to analyse his situation any further or even plan his next move. After one or two seconds, the great green flames around him abruptly vanished and he found himself suspended in the air, weightless and immobile in an impenetrable darkness.

Harry’s heart was racing. He could not see or hear anything; his hands trembled with the urge to draw his wand and light it — anything to lift the almost solid blackness that seemed to press on his eyeballs — but he stayed frozen, at the cost of a tremendous effort of will, counting the seconds in his mind. If in one minute nothing had happened…

The badge he had taken from the Unspeakable and pinned to his shirt started buzzing. The noise was hardly audible at first, but soon it grew louder and louder, until it grated so much on Harry’s already raw nerves that his fingers itched with the temptation to rip it off and blast it into nothingness. Once again he dominated his instinct: something was happening at last, some kind of identification procedure, he guessed. He would know quickly enough whether or not the badge was sufficient to grant him entry.

Although he had been expecting something of the sort, Harry had to bite back a startled exclamation when a cool female voice echoed in the darkness.

“Unspeakable Jean-Louis Dramont. Identified.”

Those words had barely sounded when the blackness lifted, without any warning whatsoever, and Harry’s hovering feet met a smooth wooden floor, the boards cracking in protest. He staggered a little, raising one hand to shield his eyes from the sudden and dazzling light, his other hand automatically coming to rest on the handle of his wand.

A small, but handsome, round room came into focus as Harry slowly lowered his hand again. The floor and circular wall were made out of a dark wood gleaming with freshly applied wax, and heavily loaded bookshelves ran all along the wall. Immediately on his left bright flames danced in a small stony fireplace, behind grates blackened with soot.

“What the hell are you doing here, Dramont?”

Harry spun around, his heart leaping in his chest as the dry, terribly familiar voice rang out from somewhere behind him.

There she was, sitting at a large mahogany desk lit with a magnificent gold candelabra. The desk was facing the fireplace, but it had been placed at such a distance that it stood out of the pool of light thrown on the wooden floor by the crackling fire. In the soft, dim light of the candelabra, Harry could barely make out Hermione’s features. Her head was bowed, her bushy hair tied back in a ponytail, and her shoulders slightly hunched. He knew very well that stance of hers: it was one of deep concentration. Even though she did not raise her head to look at him as she spoke, he could picture her face — her furrowed brow, her hand holding a quill she was absently chewing on, and her eyes fixed intently on whatever she was studying. This time she was studying a small object, no bigger than a chess pawn, held between her thumb and forefinger.

If he was to guess from her question, she most likely had not been able to distinguish his features as he stood in front of the roaring fire.

“Dramont is unavailable, I’m afraid,” Harry said quietly.

Hermione would not have had a different reaction if he had just yelled in her ear. She started so badly that the small object she had been peering at dropped out of her grasp; her eyes were wide and incredulous as her head shot up and back stiffened. She paled when her stare met his, and Harry saw her right arm shift slightly. Her hand was hidden from him in the shadows, but he didn’t doubt it had just slid into her wand pocket.

Harry took a few steps forward, letting the golden light of the candelabra fall on his face. It was strange to see her again. He was assailed with conflicting emotions, his memories of her from Hogwarts clashing with his knowledge of her betrayal, and at the same time he was completely numb, cold, and clinically analytic. It was as if his internal struggle was only of secondary importance, therefore had to be relegated to the back of his mind for the time being. He stared into her face and stored the details in his mind for later use, more like an Auror seeing a potential informant or suspect than a man meeting a long-lost friend. Her features were the same, he noted, yet her expression, even now that she was taken by surprise, was harder and colder than it used to be. Hermione had the white, drawn face of a workaholic.

Harry saw Hermione tense as he drew closer, and caught the fleeting, nervous flick of her eyes to the wand hanging from his belt. He did not draw it; quite the contrary, he halted and let drop the hand that had been brushing against the wand handle, remaining obnoxiously unarmed.

Hermione’s wariness did not seem to be allayed in the slightest by Harry’s apparent pacifism. However, a little colour flooded her pale cheeks and she lifted her chin, likely an in involuntary gesture of defiance.

“Harry. Nice from you to drop by, aren’t you a little lightly dressed for the season?” As she spoke, her eyes trailed on the tight undershirt and worn-out trousers, blackened and scorched in places, which Harry had worn beneath his now destroyed robes.

“An accident with an incendiary charm,” Harry answered, in the same light, unconcerned tone she was using. “Doesn’t matter, I’m not feeling cold.”

Hermione’s lips tightened in a fine line at this mention of Harry’s insensitivity. As Harry had expected, she did not let the conversation wander in that area, and asked instead, “Would you care to tell me how you found yourself in possession of Dramont’s badge?”

Harry tilted his head to one side, a lopsided grin grazing his face.

“Maybe he gave it to me.”

“Or maybe you managed to steal the badge, the spell, and the code phrase to make the secure connection to this office.”

“Yeah, I’m good, am I not?” Harry said, shifting his weight from one leg to the other as he put his hands in his pockets, his grin widening.

The shadow of a smile tugged at the corners of Hermione’s lips. She leant back in her chair, studying him through lowered eyelids, as if she didn’t want her eyes to give her thoughts away.

“How damaged is he?” she asked evenly.

“Now Hermione, why would you assume I damaged him?”

Hermione snorted. “Because that’s what you do, Harry. If someone stands in your way, they don’t walk out whole and unharmed. Hell, after you dealt with Malfoy, he was found with part of his throat missing.”

Silence fell, barely disturbed by the hissing and crackling of the fire.

Harry felt as if a bucket of icy cold water had been emptied over his head. His breath caught in his throat, his eyes widening as they stared at Hermione in stupefaction. A part of his brain screamed at him to keep talking, to prevent her from taking the upper hand, but words seemed to die into astonished silence before they reached his lips. Hermione met his incredulous gaze with a faint smile, opening her eyes to look directly into his.

“Did you think I wouldn’t guess it was you? Did you think I wouldn’t make the connection between your presence at Malfoy Manor, and the murder of Draco Malfoy by an animal leaving behind a wolf’s paw prints?”

Her tone was soft, almost kind, yet it caused a shiver to run up Harry’s spine. There was something horribly wrong about that apparent gentleness, about the way she looked at him with this strange fondness glinting in her eyes. Dread pooled in the pit of his stomach as her words sunk in.

“Of course,” he murmured, comprehension dawning upon him. “I had told you…”

She smiled again, a nonchalant, unconcerned sort of smile that did not reach her eyes.

“You had told me,” she repeated. “You had told both Ron and I. Of course Ron didn’t get the chance to spread that knowledge around, did he?”

“He would never have. He wouldn’t have told anyone,” Harry said instantly. The shock tinted with apprehension that Hermione’s words had caused was now fading; his anger, the same fury that had hurled the Third Kind magic at the late Dramont was pulsing through his veins again, white-hot and destructive.

“Nor would he have used that knowledge against me,” he finished, his voice dropping to an almost animal, almost wolfish growl.

“Your faith in Ron is absolutely touching,” Hermione retorted, irony audible in each of her intonations. “Too bad it drove him straight into St. Mungo’s.”

It took all of Harry’s willpower to refrain from drawing his wand and hitting her with a curse. His hands were shaking, and when he answered, he found that his voice was quivering with his effort to keep it even.

“And I suppose that, when you’re letting werewolves savage a village again and again, or when you’re spying on me and trying to use all I told you against me, you’re honouring Ron’s memory?” he asked, his tone thick with sarcasm.

“Who said I was responsible for the werewolves’ attacks in Hogsmeade?”

“You were there yesterday morning,” Harry snarled; the words he had heard the day before through Robards’ Tracking Spell were ringing in his mind. “You went there after every single attack, trying to track down things that were ‘out of the ordinary’, running Detection Spells.”

“You don’t know that,” Hermione quickly said, but she had not been able to suppress an abrupt twitch of her hand at his words. Harry laughed, and the sound was echoed in the room and hurled back in a sinister cackle.

“Just as you don’t know who Malfoy’s killer really is,” he harshly shot back at her, and she recoiled a little as his fury poured out of him like scorching lava. “Save it, Hermione. Neither of us was ever good at hiding things for the other. We’ve known each other for too long.”

“Then you would know it’s not wise to go against me,” she hissed, her own anger flashing in her eyes. “Even for you.”

“You’ve said it yourself, Hermione…”

Harry took the step that separated him from her desk and leant over it, his closed fists resting on the polished surface. Hermione tensed even more in her seat, one hand buried in her pocket and the other gripping the armrest so tightly that her knuckles turned white, as she poised herself for jumping to her feet.

“You’ve said yourself,” Harry repeated in a breath, “that nobody standing in my way never walked away whole and unharmed. Nobody.”

His eyes sought and met Hermione’s again. Her stare was strikingly similar to Narcissa Malfoy’s, brimming over with inexpressible hatred and pain. Something broke inside of him, somewhere in the deep, almost forgotten part of him that still linked him to what he used to be. But his anger mercifully stifled every other feeling, silenced his memory, and dulled his pain. He met her glare with one of his own, one that carried his hurt and anger at everything that had gone wrong since the end of the war, because of him and in spite of him, within him and around him.

“Get out of my office,” she ordered in a low voice. “Now.”

Harry leant his forearms on her desk, his hands clasped together, his face now inches from hers.

“I’m not done with you,” he said.

“I am. Get out. Or I’ll make you.”

Harry smirked. “Unspeakable against Auror. The eternal rivals. Maybe we’ll finally know who is the best.”

“Not quite,” Hermione contradicted him, her chest rising and falling rapidly as her breathing quickened. “An Auror against an Unspeakable, inside of the Department of Mysteries. I trust that you are an exceptional Auror, Harry. I doubt you are that exceptional.”

“That’s what Voldemort said, too,” Harry said.

The last word was barely out of his mouth when Hermione unexpectedly gave a sharp kick under her desk, hitting one of her drawers that sunk out of sight with an odd squeaking sound. Harry jumped backwards, his hand flying to his wand — but a fraction of a second later the desk exploded with the power of a little bomb, showering him with dust, splinters and fragments of parchment and glass. Protecting his face with one arm, he whipped the air with this wand, causing a shield to spring into being before him. In his haste, however, he had not calculated the strength of his own spell; and as it expanded on either side of him, dividing the office in two, he was forced to take a few staggering steps backwards.

The pieces of the desk rebounded against his transparent shield, and a surprisingly large cloud of dust started spreading over it, effectively hiding Hermione from his sight. It looked as if Hermione’s desk had been entirely filled with this thick, sand-coloured powder. Somewhere behind the screen of dust, Harry caught the sound of feet sprinting over the wooden boards, heading for the left side of the room.

He blindly followed, running along the invisible barrier he had himself created. Soon the sandy fog had thinned enough that he was able to discern Hermione: she had reached the bookshelf lining the circular wall and was now moving her wand over it in a complicated pattern, muttering incantations Harry could not hear. He tried to run to her, only to be forced backward by his lasting shield charm.

“Goddamnit!” he yelled out in exasperation. Raising his wand, he started the long chant that would bring his own shield down — he was quivering with impatience, but it was either that or waiting for the Shielding Charm to fade. Unfortunately, this would not happen before several minutes.

Before his eyes, the bookshelf Hermione had been enchanting pivoted inwards, like a door on its hinges, letting Hermione out of the room. She dashed outside, and the bookshelf slowly revolved back into place.

Harry’s shield vanished at last and he rushed forward, holding his breath as he ran through the dust still suspended in the air; he was merely three feet away from the exit when the hidden door closed completely with a neat, satisfied-sounding click, blocking his way. He didn’t wait for the locking spells to snap shut again.

“Confringo!”

The Blasting Curse hit the bookshelf, his unbounded anger making it ten times as potent as it should have been — there was a deafening explosion, powerful enough to make the obliteration of Hermione’s desk sound like a firecracker in comparison. An astonishing quantity of rubble, dust, bits of wood and fragments of burnt books were projected into the room in which Hermione had vanished, leaving an enormous, gaping hole in the wall of her office.

Harry sprang towards the opening he had created, his wand held firmly in front of him. Just as he stepped through the hole, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that the wall had already started regenerating itself. Somewhere in the back of his mind, fear started to grow, cold and gummy. Hermione was right; the place he stood in was his most dangerous opponent, unpredictable and lethal to the uninitiated, a place where every law of physics and magic no longer made sense. It was foolish to think he could get out of there on his own, let alone beat an Unspeakable on her own ground.

Harry dismissed these disturbing thoughts as decisively as he had silenced his nostalgia for Hermione’s friendship. There was no time, no room in him for fear anyway. He was all nerves and muscle. All of his undamaged senses were on alert, his brain entirely focused on the task at hand: find her, and bring her down.

His eyes quickly scanned the room he had landed in. As it turned out, it wasn’t a room at all: he stood on a narrow platform at the edge of a low-ceilinged corridor. The height of the walls corresponded exactly to the width of the floor and ceiling, so that the dimensions of the corridor made a perfect square. The passage stretched on about fifty feet between the platform and a square wooden door, which fitted precisely in the frame drawn by the stony floor, walls and ceiling.

The square corridor was completely empty, save for Hermione. Oddly enough, she had not managed to get far away from the platform yet. She walked towards the door, her steps extremely slow and careful, as if she was treading on broken glass instead of bare stone.

This was the first peculiarity Harry noted. It took him a few seconds to notice a second one: there was no trace of the explosion he had just caused. The fragments of stone and wood he had blasted out of his way had simply vanished.

Foreboding constricted Harry’s chest again. The Department of Mysteries. The worst battleground an Auror would ever see.

Mimicking Hermione’s gestures, he cautiously stepped off the platform and onto the floor of the square corridor. The paving stones seemed to be buzzing with energy beneath his feet, making it only too obvious that he had to step on them with the greatest care, lest he should trigger off an enchantment of some kind — he had a feeling it wouldn’t be a pleasant one.

They were following each other at a snail’s pace, neither gaining ground on the other. Harry didn’t dare use his wand. He wasn’t even sure that Hermione had noticed he had already followed her out of her office, concentrated as she was on reaching the door safe and unharmed.

His wariness soon gave way to a growing frustration. He lengthened his stride, managing to gain speed without treading more forcefully on the paving stones. Hermione threw a nervous look over her shoulder and caught sight of him at last, and the startled exclamation she let out showed Harry that she had not, indeed, expected him to reach the corridor so soon.

“How did you get out?” she called at him. Her voice barely carried to Harry, as if she was speaking through a thick layer of cotton. The floor seemed to tremble a little under Harry’s feet as the sound vibrations disturbed the energy flowing all around them.

“Blasted my way out,” he called back. “And I wasn’t exactly quiet. Strange that someone as intelligent and knowledgeable as an Unspeakable wouldn’t be able to guess from the noise I made.” His voice was deeper than hers, and he felt the energy beneath his feet respond to it in a slightly different way.

Hermione must have sensed the disturbance as well, for she took care to snort as quietly as possible.

“If you intend to fight me in my Department, you’d better forget everything you ever knew about conventional magic. You think something as trivial as a Blasting Curse, used in another room, would ever disturb this place in any way? I heard nothing at all.” She gestured at the corridor, her tone both scornful and passionate. “And you blasted my wall,” she added with a short, quiet laugh. “Subtlety was never your strong suit, was it?”

“If it was, I’d probably still be trapped in your office,” Harry retorted through clenched teeth. His pulse sped up; Hermione was almost at the square door and he was still twenty feet behind. He was going to lose her, and be trapped inside of the magical corridor — and there was absolutely no guarantee that he would be able to get out of it on his own.

Harry threw all caution to the wind and broke into a run.

The moment his foot hit the stone floor, his full weight leaning on it, he felt the flow of energy shatter around him; the floor toppled under his feet. Hermione cried out as she lost her balance, her scream adding to the disturbance and accelerating the movement of the floor. Harry’s ankle twisted and he was thrown against the wall.

The corridor was shifting. Harry’s growing suspicions were confirmed: it was not made of stone, but of a kind of solid, raw magical power, moulded into a stony-looking and square-sectioned tunnel. The physical shock and screams, disrupting the flow of energy, were causing it to change. From a perfect square, the section of the corridor turned into a triangular shape, an equilateral triangle standing on its point.

Harry fell on his hands and knees against one of the sloping walls. The ceiling above his head was flat, but the floor did not exist anymore, reduced to a narrow gutter where the two bent walls met. In front of him, Hermione was trying desperately to scramble to her feet, her frantic moves causing the energy around them to ripple some more.

Harry cautiously stood up again and took several steps forwards, clumsily keeping a foot on either side of the central gutter. Hermione’s face paled when she saw him gaining ground and, abandoning her own attempts at standing up, she brandished her wand in his direction. Harry caught her slight hesitation before she shouted the incantation.

“Stupefy!”

Red light shot from her wand, but before Harry could cast a Shielding Charm, before the Stunner even had the time to shape itself into a beam of light, it broke. The red light crackled as it scattered in every direction, briefly illuminating the stony walls before it vanished, swallowed by the flow of energy around them. And a second later, the corridor shifted shape again.

This time Harry managed to keep his balance as the triangle morphed into a flawless circle. He ran to Hermione, who had got to her feet at last and was hurrying towards the now round door. She had just unlocked it with a spell, she was swinging it open — she was almost out — the ground beneath his feet was shuddering again, the tunnel threatening to change once more…

And then Harry jumped onto the threshold, forced open the door Hermione was trying to close, and bolted out of the enchanted corridor behind her.

The ground vanished from under his feet.

Carried away by his momentum, Harry slid off a short ladder that hung into space from the doorframe, and with a thrill of terror he felt himself falling. He reflexively threw his left arm out, his hand bumping on several rungs without managing to grab them as he fell; then his fingers curled around the very last rung of the ladder and he gripped it with all of his strength.

For a second, he thought the weight of his falling body would cause his fingers to snap, or his arm to be torn off at the shoulder. Suppressing his urge to start kicking wildly into the empty space, he chanced a glance downwards, only to see opaque blackness stretching endlessly below him. Harry gritted his teeth on his growing panic and flung up his other arm, barely succeeding in wrapping his second hand around the rung without dropping his wand in the process.

“Impressive.”

Harry pressed his lips into a tight line and started heaving himself up, ignoring the voice that had just sounded in the darkness.

“Welcome to the Department of Mysteries, Harry. I guess you’re beaten.”

Harry ground his teeth together again and pulled on his arms, the muscles of his abdomen clenching to the point where the pressure was making it hard for him to breathe. But he couldn’t shut out Hermione’s voice. It seemed to be coming from somewhere above him, as if she was floating on empty air.

“Frankly, if it’s any consolation, no one stands a chance against the Department, especially when you’re this deep into it. For you, managing to get this deep is quite the achievement,” Hermione stated.

“I’ve felt more comfortable, to be perfectly honest,” Harry replied in one expelled breath.

A pale, flickering light appeared somewhere above him, piercing the darkness. Harry looked up: Hermione was standing on some invisible surface, like a narrow and transparent platform running along the wall over the precipice Harry had almost fallen into. Her lit wand projected Harry’s distorted shadow on the wall in front of him, which was bare save for the doorframe he had just gone through and the short ladder hanging from it. The light threw a pallid glow upon Hermione’s face, putting into her pinched features sharp relief. This time she was staring down at him without a trace of hatred or scorn.

“The only people able to stand on this platform are myself and the Head of my Department,” she explained quietly. “Without our permission, you fall through.”

Harry glanced again, reflexively, over his shoulder; Hermione caught the gesture and understood his unasked question.

“I don’t know how deep it is,” she said. “No one knows.”

“What is it?”

Hermione rolled her eyes with an exaggerated sigh, in something like affectionate impatience. “I hope you’re not really expecting me to answer that. For goodness’s sake, Harry, I’m an Unspeakable. The only thing I can tell you about this room is that it’s what I’ve been working on all these past months. See,” she added, a bitter mockery tinting her voice, “you aren’t even the main object of my investigation.”

“I’m so touched,” Harry panted. A loud clang echoed in the immense room as he chanced a grab at a higher rung and solidly coiled his fingers around it.

“You should be,” Hermione coolly said. “You’re so convinced I have betrayed our friendship, you haven’t even considered the fact that I could have had ulterior motives, have you?”

“It doesn’t take a genius to guess what your ulterior motives are,” Harry ground out. He was not high enough yet to rest his knees on the lower rung; the pressure on the muscles in his arms and chest was becoming more and more difficult to deal with.

“Oh yes? Please elaborate.”

“You’re doing it for Ron,” Harry spat between two wheezing inhalations.

There was a pause, before Hermione answered in a low, weary voice.

“That’s true. I want to heal him. And Luna, too.”

Harry raised one knee and leant it against the last rung, relieving a little the strain on his thorax and abdomen, and took several gulps of air. His heart was thumping madly in his chest, and he felt slightly dizzy from his long and hard effort.

“But I wanted to protect you, too, Harry. At least as long as I’m in charge for your case I can control what the Department is doing to you. They — we — are capable of anything in order to reach our goals. People will get hurt in the process, and I don’t want you to be one of them.”

Harry raised his head, meeting with a steady gaze Hermione’s intense one.

“You want to help me, that’s it?” he asked. “Why don’t you work with me, then, instead of working on me?”

“That’s not going to happen,” Hermione calmly answered, with the tone she would have used to tell him it was likely to rain the following day. “I told you. As long as I’m the only one who knows, I’m the only one I’ll be able to blame in case of collateral damage.”

“There’s going to be a lot more collateral damage if you keep leaving me in the dark.”

Hermione smiled, and for a fleeting second Harry caught a glimpse of her former self in her drawn, ashen face.

“I have a lot of faith in your intellectual abilities,” she said softly. “But this is something that ought to be handled with much more subtlety than you have.”

Harry averted his eyes from hers as he secured his position, his knees leaning on the lower rung and both hands gripping the vertical members of the ladder. In the light of Hermione’s wand, the transparent platform was shimmering slightly at its edges, kept in sight by Hermione’s presence. He thought he could hear a slight, almost inaudible buzzing coming from the badge pinned to her chest.

“So what now?” he questioned.

“I’m getting you out of here,” Hermione said, recovering her businesslike manner. “And out of the Department. I’ll modify your memory so that you don’t remember what happened tonight. Don’t worry, I’ll set it right again when all of this is over. You can go back to your mission without troubling yourself about anything else, and I’ll take care of everything.”

“Yeah…”

Harry slid his wand from his right hand to his left, and then ran his now free hand up the member of the ladder until he was gripping the topmost rung. He then cautiously uncoiled the fingers of his left hand from the other rung of the ladder, clenching them more tightly around his wand instead.

“You know what…” he said, looking thoughtfully up at Hermione. She was peering down at him, frowning slightly, and her white badge was gleaming in the wand light. Harry grinned at her.

“I think I prefer the hard way,” he finished pleasantly. Bringing up his wand in a lashing move, he cast a simple reducto spell at her.

He took her by surprise, and his aim was as good as ever; Hermione didn’t even have the time to understand what he was trying to do. The spell shattered the badge pinned to the front of her robes, causing her to stagger backwards with a shocked scream which grew into a yell of horror as the platform vanished from under her feet. The spell had broken along with the badge.

Harry pointed his wand at Hermione, intending to stop her fall with a Levitation Spell; but before he had the time to utter half of the incantation, a dazzling green-gold glow flooded inside the dark room, and the silence was replaced by a deafening din of metallic sounds.

The room wasn’t empty, after all. It was entirely filled with enormous brass gearwheels, some of them as big as Hermione’s entire office. They had started turning and whirring as soon as the bright green light had chased away the shadows. Hermione landed painfully on a horizontal gearwheel, where she remained lying down, her arms over her head, pinned to the metallic surface by the rotating motion.

Harry took about two seconds to calculate his fall before he jumped from the ladder.

He hit another gearwheel feet first, but the shock made him topple forward and he rolled once before landing neatly on his feet again. He remained crouched, however, keeping as close to the gleaming brass floor as he could. The additional gravity created by the fast rotation was pressing on his shoulders like a thick slab of marble. He crawled on the wheel until he reached the centre of it, a fixed disc made of darker brass, and only then did he stand up and cast a glance around him.

It was a hellish vision. The wheels, massive and heavy, overlapped each other, filling the entire room save for a small space around the door leading into the shape-shifting corridor and the ladder hanging from it. Except for that small portion of bare wall, there was nothing but spinning brass, as far as the eye could see.

A blood-red jet of light tore through the green glow filling the room and hit the cogwheel Harry stood on with a clear chiming sound, missing him by at least three feet. Harry felt energy ripple around him at the disturbance; he raised his head, wand at the ready. He caught sight of Hermione; she had finally managed to crawl to the centre of her own wheel and was now lowering her wand at him again, another spell on her lips.

Harry was quicker. Jabbing his wand at her, he hurled a dazzling-white lightning bolt in her direction; Hermione drew a Z in the air with her wand and Harry felt his spell hammer against an incredibly powerful shield, more so than any he had ever seen or produced himself. His magic broke against it and scattered in the air, and Harry instinctively crouched low on the wheel as he expected the rebounding magic to throw him off-balance.

Hermione had not had the same reflex; Harry’s broken spell, although it had no affect on her, caused her gearwheel to pitch and toss like a rowboat in a rough sea. She stumbled and slid to the side of the wheel, her eyes wide in fear as the movements of the wheel threatened to hurl her overboard. Harry straightened up and cast another spell at her, a spinning, purple light designed to tie her hands behind her back as though with manacles. Hermione, who had been busy clawing at the brass wheel in a desperate effort to secure her position, raised her wand just in time.

In her haste, she had only managed to bring up a feeble shield; Harry’s purple spell easily overcame it, merely crackling slightly as it pushed through the weak resistance. The slight commotion was the last straw for the precariously balanced gearwheel. It abruptly toppled over, saving Hermione from Harry’s spell, but also sending her flying into the air and out of Harry’s view.

Harry bit back a curse. He hated not having her within his sight. Knowing Hermione, it would not be long before she managed to land on another wheel, creep closer to him and get a good shot at him while he was looking the other way. Hell, that is what he would do, if he were in her position. Coming to a decision, he shut his eyes and lowered himself to the wheel again, crawling away from his fixed spot at the centre of the gearwheel and onto the rotating surface.

He soon found himself on the edge of the wheel. The speed of the spin was making his stomach churn and his vision swim. Through half-shut eyelids, he stared at a gigantic vertical gearwheel, its cogs overlapping those of the wheel Harry crouched on. It was approaching fast.

It thundered past Harry, following the brim of the horizontal wheel; it was almost gone when Harry sprang, clasping a cog in his hands and hauling himself up.

The rotation of the vertical gearwheel shot Harry up at breakneck speed. He had little more than two seconds of notice before the wheel threatened to squash him against another brass disc it overlapped.

Linea!” he shouted, thrusting his wand arm outwards. A thin rope, looking as frail as a linen thread, shot from the tip of his wand and went to curl around the teeth of a smaller gearwheel spinning at a few feet from where he was. Holding the end of the thread in his left hand, Harry jumped off the vertical wheel moments before his legs were crushed between the interwoven cogs.

The linen thread he hung from was twitching and swinging as the smaller wheel spun; Harry didn’t halt, didn’t pause to think, didn’t gave a thought to the precariousness of his position. It wasn’t long before he had climbed up the thin thread and onto another gearwheel.

Hermione still showed no signs of life. Harry kept jumping from wheel to wheel, scanning the room, ready to cast a spell should the need arise. After the first few terrifying minutes, moving through the brass gearwheels had become easy, almost natural. It was an exhilarating sensation, it was as if Harry’s body was in complete harmony with the magic flowing around him, with the powerful moves of the great wheels. The low rumbling and ticking of the wheels reverberated through his whole body, right into the marrow of his bones, perfectly in harmony with the blood roaring into his ears. The dread of the treacherous ways of the Department of Mysteries had left him.

But Hermione still was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly, a shimmer of light, too pale to come from the rich green glow reflecting on the brass flashed at the very periphery of Harry’s vision. He spun around, bending one knee to keep his balance on the tilted gearwheel he was standing on.

She stood with her back to him, at a significant distance, and held her left hand up; it was curled around something that shone with a bright, white light. The gearwheel under her feet had stopped turning, as well as the wheels immediately next to it; and the green light filling the room seemed to be fleeing before the harsh, cold light spilling from her hand, leaving her in a relative darkness.

It wasn’t before Harry saw the invisible platform he had destroyed earlier shimmer back into life that he understood what was happening. Hermione had somehow collected all the pieces of her broken badge, and she was now activating the spells again. She was fleeing.

A shiver ran up Harry’s spine. He could feel it now: the wild, green-gold energy that kept all the gearwheels in motion was being bound by something else — something cold and harsh, neat and precise and merciless. The room was darkening. The wheels were slowing down. The platform running along the wall was now fully formed, and glowed with the same white light as the badge in Hermione’s hand.

Harry lowered himself to the gleaming floor again and moved, swift and silent, covering the distance stretching between him and Hermione before she could escape and lock him inside the room. The slowed motions of the wheels made his approaching a lot quicker, but he still feared he would be too late, and ached with the need to use his wand again to stop her. But she was his one ticket out of the Department; following her was a better option than cursing her.

The ladder Harry had clung to earlier lazily lengthened, reaching out to Hermione; she took a step forward and grabbed it. Harry quietly got down from a gearwheel onto another, the closest to the ladder, completely still now. Hermione climbed up a couple of rungs, before abruptly turning around to peer at the gearwheels behind her.

Harry dropped to the floor again, dragging himself in the shadow of an immobile wheel that stood vertically, at the brim of his gearwheel. Through the teeth of the wheel, he could see Hermione’s eyes sweeping the room in a circular glance, her body twisted at the waist as she gripped the ladder with one hand and held her wand in the other. He was struck to see how her features were drawn in total exhaustion.

Hermione apparently did not notice anything. Turning her back on him again, she started ascending the ladder, her moves slow and weary. At the back of the room, the last feebly whirring wheels gave an ultimate creaking sound before they too fell quiet.

Leaning back against the wheel, Harry turned his wand upon himself and performed the best Disillusionment Charm he could muster. Deprived as he was of his Invisibility Cloak, it was his best option.

Sneaking out of his hiding place, he silently made his way to the bottom of the ladder. Hermione had almost reached the door, and nothing in her stance hinted that she worried about him following her at all. She just tiredly grabbed one rung after the other, heaving herself up with grunts of effort. Harry started climbing after her, taking great care not to shake the ladder or lean too heavily on it.

Hermione reached the door, muttered an incantation that opened it without a sound, and walked out.

The door remained ajar.

Harry literally flew up the last few rungs of the ladder, knowing it was only a matter of seconds before the door was locked; he reached it in turn and pushed it open very slightly, slipping sideways through the gap, silent and swift as a snake.

He was not fully out of the Gearwheel Room, his right side, from shoulder to hip, was still trapped between the almost closed door and the wall — when the door slammed shut on his right arm with astonishing violence. Harry heard the dry, sharp snap of a bone breaking before the heavy wooden door rebounded off his arm. With a cry of shock he jerked himself completely out of the doorway. A Stunner bounced off the wall at the exact spot where his head had been a second before.

“It’s really quite irritating,” Hermione’s voice panted, “that you keep underestimating me. Sort of vexing.”

Harry looked up from his crouching position on the floor. A knot tightened in his chest as he recognised the room he was in. He was in a stone pit, circled with tall stone steps rising in all directions, at the centre of which stood the crumbling archway Sirius had fallen through years before. A couple of steps below him, her wand raised level with his head, was Hermione.

Her expression and voice, calm, almost bored, clashed with her heavy breathing and the sweat glistening on her pale forehead. She was running out of strength. Harry slowly straightened up, his wand still clutched in the fingers of his right hand. He now towered over her, and although she clenched her jaw in a defiant expression, he saw her knuckles whitening as her grip on her wand tightened.

“You know what?” Harry said, eyeing her thoughtfully. “It has lasted way too long already. How about stopping the chitchat and getting this over with?”

“Oh, I’m all for it,” Hermione said in the same offhanded voice. “It shouldn’t take too long actually; your wand arm looks in a pretty bad shape from where I’m standing.”

Her spell rocketed at him before she had even finished talking. Harry didn’t pause to think. His wand flashed in the air, his counter spell hitting Hermione’s jet of light in midair in an explosion of sparks. He flicked his wand upward then jabbed it in Hermione’s direction, two incantations jumping immediately to his mind, as mechanic and reflexive as the wand-moves themselves. Hermione’s wand clattered to the floor, ripped from her hand by a Disarming Spell, and a Stunner sent her flying down a few steps. She bounced as she fell a first time on the hard stone, the sound surprisingly loud, and then rolled limply from step to step down to the bottom of the pit.

Harry slowly lowered his left arm again. The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of seconds. It left him a little dazzled, and he found himself unable to believe he had won so easily; and when he finally started walking down the steps to where Hermione lay unconscious, his walk was cautious, hesitant, the still-lasting rush of adrenaline not allowing him to relax a single second.

Harry reached the bottom of the pit and knelt beside Hermione. She didn’t stir at all. Without counting the Stunner, her fall alone would have been enough to knock her out; and after summoning her wand and tucking it inside his pocket, Harry felt safe enough to tend to his broken arm. It was likely he would need his two hands in the very near future.

Harry’s healing skills weren’t quite as good as to mend bones in a few seconds, but he was able to effortlessly set the fracture and stabilise it with a splint; and since he didn’t have to worry about the pain; that was good enough for now. Satisfied, Harry cautiously turned Hermione over, his wand still warily pointed at her face.

“Enervate.”

Hermione stirred and her eyes fluttered open. She blinked in confusion when her hazy gaze fell on the tip of Harry’s wand, which hovered dangerously close to her nose, then very slowly turned her head to stare at him.

“Hey there,” Harry said without smiling.

Hermione’s eyes travelled to his left hand, which held his wand in a firm grip, and comprehension dawned on her face.

“Of course,” she sighed resignedly. “How could I be so stupid — you can use both of your hands ambidextrously.”

“Yeah. It’s annoying, how you keep underestimating me,” Harry said. “Keep still,” he snapped as she seemed to want to sit up.

Hermione fell back, looking a little queasy — which wasn’t surprising, considering she had just fallen down a dozen hard stone steps.

“So what now?” she asked, tiredly closing her eyes.

“I don’t need you anymore,” Harry said. “I know how to get out of the Department from here. But I do have a few questions for you.”

“Whatever, Harry. You’re the one behind the wand.”

Harry absently nodded in agreement as he gathered his thoughts, trying to formulate the hundreds of questions swirling about in his mind.

“What’s inside the Gearwheel Room?” he asked at last.

Hermione’s eyes opened again and she slightly tilted her head to him, her expression unreadable.

“Why would you ask this, of all things?” she said in a neutral tone.

“I ask because you’re the only one allowed to stand in it, along with your Head of Department. And you’re in charge of the case. My case. No matter what you said back there, you’ve only worked in that room because it had something to do with me.”

Hermione smiled faintly. “When I think they’re all convinced you’re dumb...”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Harry impatiently said, digging the tip of his wand in Hermione’s cheek. “What is in that room, Hermione?”

“Why should I tell you?” Hermione shot at him. “What if I don’t tell you? What are you going to do, torture me?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Harry lashed out, speaking over her. “You’re off the case, Hermione. It’s over for you. I’m going to get out of here and resume my investigation, and don’t think I’ll let you spy on me as you’ve done until now. If I have to, I’ll make sure you’re transferred to another position — don’t you believe for one second that I don’t have the connections for that. I don’t have to make you tell me. You want Ron and Luna to be all right? The only way you’ll achieve that is by telling me what you know; because you are not going to work on this case. Ever again.”

Hermione averted her gaze, and her skin greyed again with exhaustion, all defiance having vanished from her face.

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I — I don’t even know how it is connected to you. My Head of Department, Alphonse Martin — you’ve met him…”

“Yes, we did meet, that was the conversation you eavesdropped on,” Harry said shortly.

“Well, rumour says he was the one to bring the gearwheels here. To tame whatever is inside the room, I think. He assigned me to work on it, but so far, all I was able to do was invent a spell to freeze all that energy running around, and create the platform you saw me standing on. There would be more to tell you, but it’s highly advanced magical theory. I doubt you would understand a word.”

“That’ll have to do for now,” Harry said. “Why are all those Frenchmen running about, anyway? Don’t they have their own Ministry in France?”

Hermione’s mouth twisted in distaste. “Martin’s crew. He basically forced them down our throats. Most of the people I work with are French; they seem to be familiar with the case, maybe they’ve met something similar in France...”

“...which would explain why Scrimgeour named Martin as Head of the Department,” Harry went on, more to himself than to Hermione. “He’s interested in the case, as well.”

“Yes, he’s interested in it, whatever it is,” Hermione agreed. “Whatever they are.”

Silence stretched between them for a few seconds.

“Harry,” Hermione said, sounding tense again. “Some people here are convinced you’re one of them.

“One of whom?”

“You know who I mean. The non-wizards. Those ancient beings you and I have been trying to track down for months. They believe that you’re one, that it explains your... particularities.”

Do you?” Harry asked, rather curiously.

He was shocked to see that Hermione, for the first time, looked more hurt than angry.

“Of course not,” she vehemently said. “I know you. You were my best friend once. How many times have you proven to the entire world that you were a wizard, and one of the best, too? Regardless of your opinion of me now, do you really think I’d believe for one second that you have anything in common with those monsters?

She took a deep, shuddering breath. “It’s something else,” she firmly said, but it sounded as if she was trying to convince herself. “Maybe you were infected, somehow, or influenced by them. Maybe you just have an abnormally high affinity to them. But it’s something else, I know it.”

Harry stared at her for several long moments, contradictory feelings and thoughts battling in his mind at this strange confession; coming to a decision, he abruptly changed the subject.

“And the shape-shifting tunnel?”

“Pure magic,” Hermione answered, grimacing as she shifted uncomfortably on the hard stone floor. “Pure wizarding power shaped into a corridor. It’s used as a source of power to counterbalance the wild energy of what you call the Gearwheel Room. A kind of security airlock, if you will. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Harry thought of the hard-edged, flawless geometry of the magical tunnel. “In a way,” he admitted. “It’s part of the case?”

“I told you. I use it as an airlock, to protect my office from the energy leaking from the room.”

“And the room we’re in? It’s not protected by anything?” Harry asked, gesturing toward the door they had come through.

“I activated a code that led us straight here,” Hermione explained. “It’s dangerous, but I had no choice. I couldn’t fight in the magical tunnel...”

“...since you had exhausted yourself summoning all the pieces of your badge, putting them back together and reactivating the spells on it,” Harry finished, nodding to the roughly repaired badge still pinned to her chest. “Which is also why you threw all your reminding strengths into a few spells afterwards, trusting I couldn’t use my wand arm anymore, and got beaten by a fourth-year spell.”

“Must you rub it in,” she said, a shadow of her old smile playing on her lips as she rolled her eyes in annoyance, in an expression Harry was very familiar with.

Harry blinked and looked away from her face. He couldn’t afford letting old memories distract him from his resolve. There was no time for that.

Now he thought of it, if he didn’t move soon, someone was bound to find them. A late-worker might stumble into the room, which would make things quite uncomfortable for Harry — he was, after all, an Auror, without authorisation to be in the Department of Mysteries, and keeping an Unspeakable at wand point.

“I don’t have much time to waste. I’ll be on my way shortly,” he said, his gaze still attached to the stones paving the floor of the Archway Room. He couldn’t quite keep the hesitation out of his voice as he went on, “Before that, though, there’s...one last thing I need to do.”

He lifted the tip of his wand slightly and leant it against Hermione’s forehead, straining to stop the slight trembling of his hand. It was easy enough to curse Hermione when she was fighting back, but this was harder than he thought it would be. Cursing his own weakness, Harry forced himself to look at her face again. She stared at him, her eyes wide, with a mixture of apprehension and incredulity.

“What are you going to do?” she whispered, and her voice shook on the words.

Harry nervously licked his lips. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll set it right again when all of this is over.”

Hermione’s face blanched as she realised what he was about to do. “Oh, no,” she whimpered. “Oh, God, no, anything but this...”

“You can go back to your mission,” Harry went on, his voice barely above a murmur, his knuckles turning white as his fingers curled more tightly around his wand, “without troubling yourself about anything else. I’ll take care of everything.”

Hermione opened her mouth one more time, wild fear twisting her features, but she didn’t have the time to say a word.

“Obliviate,” Harry intoned.


***

It shouldn’t have to be this hard. She had betrayed him, worked with others behind his back. She had considered him to be too reckless, too stupid for her to bother sharing information with him. It was unfair that Harry should feel guilty about cursing her, even though she had been lying helplessly at his feet, even though he knew that the very idea of having her mind tampered with terrified her more than anything else.

And she was trying to protect me. She thought that leaving me in the dark would keep me safe from her own colleagues. Her intentions weren’t bad.

Yeah, well. One could have paved a new road to Hell with Hermione’s good intentions. It didn’t change the fact that she deserved what Harry had done to her. He had faced her, fought her, and had won fair and square. And if he wanted to continue investigating, he had no choice but erase her memories of the evening. That was all there was to it.

All there was to it.

Harry pushed open the gate leading into Daphne Greengrass’s garden. His trip back from the Department of Mysteries had been eventless, the Ministry being almost completely deserted at this hour of the night. It had left Harry plenty of time to think about the recent occurrences. But somehow, every time he tried to focus on the Gearwheel Room or Martin’s strange obsession with the Third Kind, he always ended up picturing in his mind Hermione’s face; pale, tired, hard and pained, like a living reproach. He knew he wasn’t thinking rationally, that he wasn’t to blame for finding himself estranged from everything he had once held dear. Yet the guilt and pain were there, and maybe all the stronger since they were illogical.

Harry unlocked Daphne’s door with an irritated wave of his wand. The memories. The nostalgia. Useless things that weighed him down. As if mourning his lost happiness was going to solve anything. He had a job, and he needed to get it done, end of story. There was no time for this kind of pointless regret.

He silently made his way through the corridor and into his minuscule room; grabbing his bag from under his bed, he rummaged inside for a few seconds before pulling out the small leather pouch that contained his healing potions. He picked from it a vial filled to the brim with a dark purple liquid and, uncorking it, drank it all in one gulp. Discarding the vial, he untied the splint from his upper arm, testing the effects of the potion with cautious fingers. The bone had apparently mended perfectly; he would just have to be careful for the next six hours or so.

Harry put his hands on his desk and leant over it with a tired sigh. Now that his arm had been taken care of, he needed to think back of all that had happened and draw the conclusions. He needed to plan his next moves. He needed to make decisions.

He couldn’t.

He simply couldn’t. After so much time spent fighting back his emotions, stifling his memories and focusing on his duty, after so many sleepless days of struggling alone against invisible enemies and mistrusting everyone, he suddenly found himself unable to take it anymore. He was sick of it, he was exhausted, and he needed to let it go — just for a short while — just a little break from it all…

He did not hear the door of his room opening. He kept his head bowed, squeezed his eyes shut, and clenched his teeth on the bitter tide of tiredness and revolt rising in his throat like bile.

When two slender arms wrapped themselves around his waist, he sucked in a surprised breath before releasing it in a slow, barely audible sigh of relief.

As if this was precisely what he had been waiting for.

Harry didn’t turn around or open his eyes. He remained as he was, leaning over his desk with his head bent; he could dimly feel Daphne’s body, pressed full against his back, her cheek resting between his shoulder blades. His mind had gone mercifully blank. Thinking was pointless. He would think tomorrow.

Daphne’s hands snuck under his dirty, torn, scorched shirt, softly running over the skin of his stomach, leaving behind a trail of fire as Harry’s numb senses abruptly awakened. Harry shuddered; her hands were soothing and cool on his skin, and contrasted with the warmth of her entire body that he could now feel on his back, through the material of his shirt. A primal need to have her started to build up inside of him, so violent that it left him breathless.

Daphne’s hands grew bolder, exploring and caressing him, and the sensation was intoxicating. He straightened up at last and felt her take a step back; the loss of the contact was unbearable. He turned around to face her, reaching out and grabbing her wrists to pull her close.

She was wearing her old dressing gown again, and from the way it clung to her curves, he was willing to bet she had nothing underneath. Her hair fell around her face, still wet from the shower, her eyes huge and avid as she stared up at him, her breathing quick. Her features glowered with an almost animalistic hunger, matching Harry’s growing need.

Not a word was spoken between them. Never did Harry pause to wonder at her motivations for coming down there, or at the consequences of his actions. He just leant forward and crushed his lips to hers, the kiss greedy, demanding, almost brutal, and she kissed him back just as aggressively. Her hands were all over him again, and his had found their way under the material of her dressing gown, feeling the soft, warm, supple flesh — God had he missed this...

The investigation would have to wait.

Harry took his break.

***

The room was completely dark, the nightly silence barely disturbed by Daphne’s slow, deep breathing. Harry’s bed was so narrow that she slept sprawled on top of him, and for the first time in three years Harry was mildly bothered by the heat. He held her distractedly, keeping one arm coiled around her body and playing with her hair with his other hand. His body ached in multiple places from when he had got bruised and scraped in the Department of Mysteries, but his mind was clear and calm again, which was not surprising given how eagerly he had just worked on releasing his tension.

He had replayed his trip to the Department of Mysteries in his head multiple times, but still didn’t know what to make of the information about Alphonse Martin and his gearwheels. As for Hermione, she didn’t seem to know any more than he did about the case, of course he’d had little time to question her, so he couldn’t be sure. He would have to ask Robards to take care of the mess he had left behind him. Doubtless there were surveillance devices at the ninth floor, and maybe a couple of them had recorded some of his actions. The last thing he needed was being the object of an investigation for breaking into the Department and duelling a high-ranked Unspeakable.

Harry frowned at the ceiling. The outcome of the evening was, on the whole, favourable to his mission; the spy had been caught, the evidence destroyed, and Hermione neutralised. Yet he had the nagging feeling that there was a small detail he had overlooked...

The lazy moves of Harry’s fingers in Daphne’s hair suddenly stopped. He had destroyed all the small recordings the spy had brought with him at the Ministry—all but one. One that had fallen into the Floo fire when Dramont had died. A small twig-like object the size of a chess pawn.

Hermione had been holding it. She had already listened to it. She would probably find it again in the wreck of her desk, and have access to the information on it. What did it say again? Dramont had opened it in front of Harry...

“…me falling asleep wasn’t exactly planned…”

That was the one.

Harry’s stomach twisted painfully; Hermione knew he usually couldn’t sleep. She would understand how significant the recording was. She would know that something in Daphne’s house had been able to cure Harry’s insomnia, if only for a short while. She would want to learn more, to study the phenomenon closely.

Daphne probably wasn’t safe if she stayed here. It would be the first place the Unspeakables would look into.

Harry quickly made up his mind. Removing his hand from Daphne’s hair, he seized her shoulder and shook her slightly.

“Daphne,” he said, raising his voice a little. “Wake up.”

She stirred a little, snuggling deeper into his chest with a soft sigh. It was only when he called her name a second time that she muttered an answer that, although inaudible, was obviously a not too polite invitation for Harry to be quiet and let her sleep.

“Come on, Greengrass, we don’t have time for this!” Harry impatiently hissed, shaking her a little roughly.

This time she raised her head and blinked owlishly at him.

“What the hell...” she mumbled.

“We have to get out of here. Get up.”

Without further ado, Harry rose, causing her to tumble from the bed to the floor with a startled squeak. The second he stopped touching her, the mild pain and discomfort he had been experiencing from his multiple bruises vanished, and with it the sensation of sultry heat hanging in the air of his bedroom. He ignored the twinge of regret and longing for Daphne’s contact and went searching for clean clothes.

Meanwhile, Daphne struggled on the floor to disentangle herself from the sheets of his bed, which had coiled around her body as she fell. Harry paid her little attention, only vaguely aware of the muttered string of curses issuing from her mouth as he checked the contents of his small bag. His feeling of urgency was growing. The longer they waited, the more they gave the Unspeakables time to pick up their track and come after them.

“What the hell, Potter?” Daphne snarled, sounding widely awake this time.

“I think we’re both in danger if we stay here,” Harry said. “Go get some clothes. Hurry, we’re leaving.”

Leaving? Wait, what—”

“I don’t have time to explain,” Harry snapped, cutting across her. “I’ll tell you everything later. Right now we need to get the hell out of here.”

“But — to go where? The Ministry?”

Harry shook his head. “They’ll find us. I’ll have to take you to a place they won’t dare to follow us.”

Daphne straightened up, having finally found her dressing gown in the mess of sheets and dirty clothes covering the floor. She threw it on her bare shoulders and closed it over her chest with both hands, her stance somewhat defensive. “And, where would that be?” she slowly asked.

Harry tilted his head as he stared pensively at her.

“Do you like forests?”



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