The phone-booth offered a tight, uncomfortable squeeze for the two nearly-strangers as they entered into the safe confinement of the red box. A few passing Muggles offered the pair a curious glance, which made Malfoy grimace unpleasantly.
Hermione picked off the telephone and with one finger extended she slowly pushed the secret entrance code that only a real witch or wizard could know.
6. 2. 4. 4. 2.
"Welcome to the Ministry of Magic. Please state your name and business." A sleek, female voice said in the other end of the telephone line.
"Draco Malfoy and H-" Hermione started, but Draco wrenched the phone out of her hand and glared at her urgently. "What-" Hermione began, but she was cut off by Draco's voice.
"Draco Malfoy and... Astoria Greengrass." he said, ignoring the nasty look on Hermione's face. "We're here in an official errand... concerning the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts office, for which I work."
There was a metallic clink, and Hermione bent down slightly to retrieve two square, silver badges from the chute into which the change usually was exerted. One of them read Draco Malfoy, the other one Astoria Greengrass.
"What the hell, Malfoy?" Hermione barked as Draco took his badge and pinned it to the front of his coat without as much as looking at her. "Astoria?"
The floor of the phone-booth quivered, and a second later it began to descend.
Malfoy looked slowly into the dark eyes of his partner in crime. "Do you seriously think they would let you into the Ministry with your Muggle name?"
"It's not a Muggle name." Hermione countered, rather sourly, before reluctantly pinning the badge engraved with 'Astoria Greengrass' to her chest.
Malfoy did not dignify the statement with an answer, and instead stood in a lackluster silence as he waited for the platform beneath his feet to stop its descent into the Atrium.
When it finally did reach its destination, with a dump sound drowned by the bustling of hundreds of witches and wizards going about their day without taking any notice of the newcomers, Hermione was about to step onto the floor only to find Malfoy holding her back by the arm.
"Remember, if anyone asks, you are Astoria Greengrass." he said through the corner of his mouth, looking as though he was practicing ventriloquism.
Hermione wrenched her arm out of his grip and shot him yet another ugly look of contempt and dislike. "Fine." she said.
"And don't speak unless spoken to."
"You'll just mess up something."
By this time Hermione was fuming, her cheeks growing red with anger and impatience. "Can we please just get moving?" she hissed. "We're only going to burrow a fireplace for two seconds. What could possibly happen?"
There was a dark, mumbling sound emanating from Malfoy which sounded a lot like "A lot."
Hermione and Malfoy started navigating through the crowd, and Hermione felt like they were lost at sea, dodging tall waves of strangers, with nothing but an endless ocean of heads and no horizon in sight. Pretty soon, however, they found themselves stopped by two brute wizards that greatly resembled Malfoy's cronies from their school-days; Crabbe and Goyle.
"You did not go through the wand-control." One of the brute-looking wizards grunted, holding up one open palm in a stop-sign while nodding towards the counter behind which sat a bored-looking, young woman chewing gum. A purple sign sticking to the counter-front read 'Wand-Checkpoint'.
"We... we didn't bring out wands." Draco said swiftly, giving Hermione a sharp elbow to the ribs when she opened her mouth to offer a more thorough explanation.
The Crabbe-and-Goyle-like security guards lifted their own wands, and for a second Hermione was sure the pair was going to hex them. "You better come with us." the most sociable of the two wand-guards said, holding his wand aloft as an overhanging threat should either of the two victims object.
"I told you," Malfoy said through the corner of his mouth, half an hour later, after he and Hermione had been dragged to the dungeons, manhandled and narrowly escaped an interrogation of their business at the Ministry, mainly kudos to Malfoy's shameless flirting with the homely woman supposed to cross-examine them. "I told you a lot could go wrong."
"It wasn't my fault!" Hermione growled as the pair walked through a dark, dungeon-like corridor of the lower levels of the Ministry.
"You were the one who suggested to go to the Ministry!"
"Well, what else could we have done? I didn't exactly hear you shout out any bright suggestions!" Hermione said, irate over the lilliputian arguments and the never-ending bickering she always seemed to land in the middle of.
"You could have just given me the wand and the book and all of this could have been avoided."
Hermione and Malfoy came to a halt before the shiny doors of the elevator. Hermione pushed the button repetitiously, as though pushing it more than once would make it open faster. "You're worse than Ron..." she said through gritted teeth.
"Oh, you mean the boyfriend you never met?" Malfoy said bittersweetly as the doors slid open to admit the pair.
Hermione was still trying to think of a fitting argument to counter this latest invective with when the doors to the elevator began gliding shut and a loud, female voice echoed through the corridor outside.
"Wait! Hold the lift!"
Hermione and Malfoy both reached out for the 'open'-button immediately, causing their hands to touch mid-air. Both pulled back instantly, as though they had been burned by each other's skin. Realizing that neither had actually pushed the button Hermione hurried to push before Malfoy could arrive at the same thought.
The doors slid open slowly and a six-months-pregnant belly entered, quickly followed by a pixie-like brunette carrying a stack of yellow paper.
"Thank you," she breathed, smiling, shaking a few locks of auburn hair away from her face to reveal a winsome, unblemished visage. She looked up and her dark eyes fell on Hermione first, and she offered her a soft smile and a curt nod, before her eyes dropped to the badge pinned to Hermione's chest. An inkling of a curious frown crossed her soft features before she turned her gaze to the lift's other occupant.
Her expression changed immediately, like ice-cream washed away by hot coffee. Her almond-shaped, dark eyes narrowed and her lucius, pink lips became a dangerous, white line. "Malfoy." she said, in a cold voice which did not suit her.
"Beckett." Draco said, in a voice dripping with unpleasantness and dislike.
Hermione gasped and Malfoy stomped on her foot, hard and not very subtly, as though he was trying to squash a cockroach beneath his sole. Hermione, however, barely noticed the pain. Everything paled in comparison to the sudden ache she felt in her chest; the worry, the confusion, the sudden stroke of angst.
"It's Weasley now," The woman responded at once, faking a smile and bending forward to press the button marked 'Atrium' with a delicate finger. Then she stepped aside.
The elevator began to ascend into a gloomy silence.
Hermione could only stare at the woman, noticing now how one of the small, slender-fingered hands was marked by a golden band: a wedding ring. She brandished a bob of nutty brown hair, sleek and shiny, framing a heart-shaped face. She was petite and professional-looking in a purple suit from which her pregnant stomach poked out like a globe.
Hermione felt dizzy and sickened by the mere presence of her, yet she could not tear her eyes away from the woman.
She was... pregnant?
First married, now pregnant, and both scenarios with Ron?
Undoubtedly noticing her stare, the woman, presumably the infamous Meredith Beckett-Weasley, looked up to meet Hermione's eyes a second time. Hermione looked quickly down, blushing furiously.
"What are you doing here, Malfoy?" Meredith asked, turning sharp eyes to Malfoy again.
"Turning in an unidentified dark object." Malfoy quickly lied with a careless shrug.
Meredith lifted an eyebrow. "Yeah, the hell you are." she hissed, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Ron's onto you, he knows you're up to no good, and he's going to prove it."
"I can't wait." Malfoy snorted.
"A leopard does not change its spots."
"Good thing I'm not a leopard, then."
There was a tentative silence, the elevator stopped on the fifth floor to admit a couple of messengers in the form of fluttering bits of paper, before it closed again.
"So where is your dark object?" Meredith asked, feigning interest, bending around Malfoy's body as though trying to see if he was hiding the made-up dark object behind his slender frame. "Are you sure you still have it with you? Fictional objects are easily lost, you know."
Malfoy responded with a hollow laugh.
Hermione simply stood leaning against the wall of the elevator, feeling queasy, no doubt turning a nasty shade between green and red right about then.
Meredith shot her a glance and lifted an eyebrow. "Who's your friend?" she asked, and looked once more at the badge pinned to Hermione's chest. "Or is this your dark object?"
Before either Malfoy or Hermione could manage to think up a fitting lie the lift reached its final destination, a cool female voice said 'The Atrium', and Meredith smiled brightly.
"An unpleasure running into you, Malfoy. I hope it won't ever happen again."
And with that she joined the bustling crowd beyond the silvery elevator doors, leaving Malfoy and Hermione in a speechless silence. The doors closed again, without anyone exiting, and the second they enclosed the pair in silence Malfoy punched one of the walls of the elevator and caused the entire box to rattle and Hermione to wake up from her funk.
"We have to follow her!" Hermione gasped, as the doors opened to admit another familiar person blocking the view of the wizarding masses.
Kingsley Shacklebolt was standing in the doorway, giving Malfoy a curt nod before turning curious eyes to the brunette that just spurted by his muscular frame, as though unsure if he had just imagined the wind.
"A word, Mr. Malfoy?" he said in his deep voice, catching Malfoy by the arm as the blond attempted to follow the fleeing woman scorned.
"Sorry, Minister." Malfoy said, as Hermione's bushy mane disappeared out of sight behind a group of foreign wizards speaking loudly in what sounded like Dutch. "My, uh... I, er... There's an... unidentified, possibly dark object on the loose, in urgent need of supervision."