Nearly two weeks had gone by without Hermione emerging past the mailbox at the front of the house before her mother began to worry.
“Would you like to go with me to Bath tomorrow dear?” She asked Hermione over lunch on the second Saturday following her return for the summer holiday.
“It’s supposed to rain,” Hermione said mildly, thoroughly engrossed in The Daily Prophet and occasionally glancing at two open books crammed into the empty space on her side of the table that was not occupied by her bowl of leek soup.
“And?” Her mother replied, setting a basket of bread in front of Hermione’s father.
“Sorry, what?” Hermione said, tearing her eyes away from a paragraph she had been consulting in the book to her right.
“I asked if you’d like to go to Bath with me tomorrow to which you replied that it will be raining…but I do not see how that pertains to anything as this is England and it is only when it is not raining that anyone decides against traveling.”
Hermione did not fail to miss the note of irritation in her mother’s voice, nor the way in which she slammed her own bowl of soup down hard enough that some of it slopped over the sides.
“I’m sorry Mother, I’m just not feeling up to it. There is so much work to be done and I’ll be leaving very soon—”
“—the summer holiday just started. You deserve a break, you will have plenty of time to study for your Salamanders—er whatever it was they’re called,” her mother interjected, wiping up the bits of spilled soup, a carefully folded napkin clutched tightly between her fingertips.
“N.E.W.T.s,” Hermione corrected gently. She bit at her bottom lip distractedly; she would be leaving to stay with the Weasley’s for Bill and Fleur’s wedding in less than 8 days’ time. Normally she had no problem informing her parents of when she intended to visit Ron but this summer she neglected to do so because her departure would also mean the erasing of her parents memories and their awareness of her very existence. Hoping to ward off any further invitations and calm the anxiety that was again swelling up in her stomach Hermione grabbed her spoon, took a large gulp of it and only succeeded in burning her tongue.
“Well if you won’t come with me to Bath I’ll need you to do a few things for me while I’m away.”
“What things?” Hermione replied.
“We’re nearly out of eggs, milk, a few other things. And I need the ingredients for quiche I’d like to make for your father’s office party on Tuesday,” Her mother rose from the table and retrieved a recipe card from a drawer near the stove, “That’s the one, if you’ll just fetch me that from Hinksey’s.”
“I can apparate there now if you’d like,” Hermione said, rising from the table and stacking up her books, “I can be back in five minutes.”
“No. I think you should have a walk. You’ve barely been outside and the rain’s nearly stopped now.”
Hermione glanced out of the small window above the sink: it was a steady downpour. Her mother smiled and cleared the plates from the table. “Your umbrella is in the hall closet,” she said over her shoulder.
Hermione never argued with her parents, except occasionally over the meaning of a word but she liked to think of those as discussions rather than arguments. Nothing was unpleasantly disputed in the Grangers’ home. Hermione was chagrined to admit that at this moment this inclined her more to escape the suffocating confines of the orderly house rather than retreat to her room to do more reading as she would have been only too happy to do a few minutes ago.
“I suppose I could do with a walk, I’ll get my rain jacket,” Hermione said lightly, gathering her things and turning to go.
“Your father’s wallet is in the study, take £20 from it and buy yourself a treat if you’d like—”
“—but only if it’s sugar-free,” her father cut in, smiling in his pleasantly concerned dentist way.
Ten minutes later Hermione was jumping puddles as she splashed her way up the street under a soggy, gray sky. She didn’t mind the rain so much as the interruption from her studying. She had not been idle the past two weeks: every waking moment was spent pouring over maps, mastering new defensive spells and useful charms, packing and repacking when some necessary item occurred to her, and, in the few times when she stopped for a moment, bracing herself for the unsettling prospects of what was to come. She allowed herself very few moments of such contemplation but she could not always keep the doubts and the fear that came along with them at bay. It was rare that anything but the uncertainty of the future could make her feel so vulnerable; it was impossible to attain the knowledge of what was to come and to Hermione, the power of knowledge was equal to that of the most magical wand—without one she was weak, if she were robbed of both she would be crippled.
Her thoughts raced ahead, taunting her feet to keep pace and she arrived at the door of the food market before she realized how quickly she had arrived. She answered the grocer’s greeting with a small smile and made her way towards a shelf stacked full of egg cartons. She was somewhere between the ethnic food aisle and the bakery searching for the third item on her mother’s list, “gruyere cheese” when something caught her eye that made her halt. At the opposite end of the aisle, looking disturbingly familiar stood a man with his back to her as examined a selection of colorful cereal boxes. He was dressed unremarkably but his head was covered by a tweed hat and Hermione could just see the strands of white-blonde hair that poked out from beneath its brim. She watched him carefully but he did not turn and he did not seem to be making much progress on which cereal bran suited him best. She cautiously started to walk down the aisle towards him, her steps and her pulse quickening as she got closer. She nearly reached him when a shopping cart stacked high with groceries appeared and blocked her path from an intersecting aisle.
“I beg your—oh hello Hermione!,” the woman pushing it said brightly. Hermione recognized her as Mrs. Winn, a friend of her mother’s she would have been most glad to have met at a more opportune time. The rather tall and large Mrs. Winn with her over-stacked cart was stopped in just the right spot so that the less vertically-gifted Hermione found her view of the rest of the aisle and the intriguing man at the end of it entirely blocked. By the time she was able to extract herself from an exhaustingly long conversation about Mrs. Winn’s youngest boy’s troubles with summer allergies, the man had vanished and though Hermione glanced around the nearby aisle (and feeling increasingly ridiculous, the rest of the store) she found no trace of him.
“I must be imagining things,” she thought to herself. She hastily paid for her groceries and hurried outside, not bothering to open her umbrella even though there was more than a steady drizzle that greeted her. She berated herself for the embarrassing jolt of excitement that she felt upon seeing the man. Malfoy wouldn’t be here. He was on the run, like so many others in the wizarding world, she reasoned. Why on earth would he be browsing for Coco Crisps in a muggle grocery store? She was being silly…it was just that article she had read in the Prophet that was making her subconsciously think of him. She was rounding the corner to her street and dismissing herself completely as a fool when there her apparition appeared again, this time, leaning against the wall of a tall brick house in a narrow alleyway, a lit cigarette in his hand. Hermione blinked her eyes in shock and Malfoy did the same. He was the first to move when he flicked the cigarette away and went to turn on his heel in a way that Hermione knew would make him disappear in seconds.
“Wait!” She called out. He would have ignored her except that just as she spoke, one of the grocery bags she carried slipped from her wrist and the contents of it spilled out onto the pavement.
“Oh damn!” She muttered, bending down and scrambling to retrieve the runaway soup cans, a head of lettuce and a now crushed bag of sliced bread. Hermione started as an onion was handed to her and she glanced up to find Malfoy crouched down in front of her.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“We need to get out of the street,” he hissed, nervously glancing around. He grabbed her at the elbow and pulled her down the alley. They halted just behind a dumpster before he wheeled around and spoke quickly in a harsh whisper.
“You shouldn’t have seen me. I’m going now.”
“Wait!” Hermione said again, capturing his wrist, “First, tell me why you are here.”
Malfoy glared at her impatiently, “I’m in hiding.”
“As a muggle?”
“Yes,” he muttered irritably, but a ghost of his old sneer played at the corner of his lips. Hermione was too irked by his presence to find much humor in the irony of the situation.
“The paper reported that you are missing. I garner that your parents are not knowledgeable of your whereabouts?”
“No,” he replied, pulling his hand from her grasp, “you’re the first person from…our world that I’ve seen since…”
He trailed off but Hermione understood: since Hogwarts, since Dumbledore’s murder.
“I need to go,” he insisted, backing away from her again.
“Will you be alright?” Hermione said anxiously. She knew that the longer they stood in that alleyway together the more dangerous it was for both of them but she couldn’t let him go just yet. He stared at her quizzically.
“What’s it to you?”
“I…well…it’s just that, I hope that you will be.” She had said too much and she knew by the expression in his eyes that he too was thinking of that last, heated farewell in the Forbidden Forest. Knowing she was only treading into deeper waters Hermione ignored the protests causing a racket inside her brain and spoke to him quickly.
“Look, I know this may be strange but…I live just up this road. The yellow house with white shutters. My room is on the top floor, you can see the window from the back of the house. If you need…anything, even just somewhere to rest for a few hours…I’ll be there.”
Without waiting for his reply she gathered her bags up tighter and marched out of the alleyway, not daring to glance back in case she shouted out further words to retract what she just said. It was reckless, madness really. She had no business whatsoever in giving him such dangerous information. For all she knew, he could be summoning a band of Death Eaters to murder her the second she arrived home. It was absolute insanity; she couldn’t explain what came over her.
She sighed heavily with relief when she made it through the front door and set the bags on the ground. She turned the lock behind her though she knew it would provide no defense against magic. To her further relief she found that the house was empty, a note left by her father said that they had gone down to the Silverspoon’s Café for high tea, and Hermione busied herself with putting the groceries away to calm her jumpy nerves.
By eight o’clock that evening she had tensely made it through dinner with her parents—her mother shot her several looks of concerns when she jumped at every small noise—and she was able to reassure herself into a relatively calm state by reasoning that something would have happened already if Malfoy had reported her to Voldemort. When the grandfather clock in her father’s study chimed half-past she gave up trying to appear relaxed and content and excused herself from her parents’ company for the quiet stillness of her bedroom.
By nine o’clock she still had not changed into her pajamas and nearly every book in her room was spread across the floor of her room open to some paragraph that could not hold her interest for more than a minute.
By ten o’clock she had bathed, reorganized her entire bedroom, cataloged all of her notes from her six years at Hogwarts, and successfully changed the colors of her walls from beige to red to an incredibly bright shade of yellow, then back to beige.
By eleven o’clock she collapsed onto her bed, extinguished the lights with a flick of her wand and lay staring at the ceiling until half past twelve when her eyes blinked shut and the exhaustion finally took hold of her.
At one o’clock, there was a tap on the window.
Hermione shot straight up as if she had never been sleeping. Her heart was in her throat and she snatched her wand up tightly in her hand. Her bed was angled so that she could only see the corner of her window sill and nothing of the darkness outside. She slid off of the bed and gingerly made her way along the wall until she was crouched below the window. As she started to rise up there was another tap and this time she saw by a small glare of moonlight that it was a shiny bronze knut. As the coin descended out of sight she shot up and edged the window open to look out. Between the perfectly trimmed rose bushes she could just see a face with a head covered in silvery blonde hair in the cool moonlight looking up at her. In the next second it disappeared and there was quiet pop behind her. She whipped around to find that Draco Malfoy had materialized in her bedroom.
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