Author: riptey PM
*1st Place both Readers' & Participants' Choice at dramione remix* Hermione stares down the limitations of linear time, while a memory-less fragment of Draco's conscious mind looks for a place to spend the night. D/Hr, EWERated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Drama - Draco M. & Hermione G. - Chapters: 5 - Words: 28,102 - Reviews: 34 - Favs: 46 - Follows: 1 - Published: 04-28-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8068437
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter or any related characters or ideas.
Full Summary: While working her first big case for the DMLE, Hermione finds herself staring down the limitations of linear time-with the help of some thoroughly unhelpful people. Meanwhile, the majority of Draco's mind is trapped in a comatose state, but some of it's still wandering around. Even Seers and queens can't be expected to put up with that sort of nonsense, which means someone else will have to. All this, when Hermione was already more confused than any one person should ever have to be.
A/N: Written for dramione_remix on LJ with the couple prompt Alice/Mad Hatter. First place winner for both Readers' Choice and Participants' Choice. I was quite excited to claim that couple, and I hope fellow Alice fans will enjoy my take. Beta'd by Dayang Lucilla from H&V.
He was in a protected area of the Potions Misuse Ward at St. Mungo's, under some unspecified "quarantine"—it could have been to protect others from his unidentified malady, or it could just as easily have been instated to protect his prone body from the media madness that waited outside. On her way to the ward, Hermione passed no less than three reporters. Two of them were flashing their press credentials to irritated nurses, and one was in plainclothes, trying to convince a Mediwizard that he was a relative of the Malfoy family. Hermione recognized his face despite the blond wig that made up his pathetic disguise. She stopped on her way to tell the Mediwizard that he was with the Prophet, and the reporter gave her a dirty look for blowing his cover.
At the entrance to the protected ward, Hermione claimed that she was there to check security on behalf of the DMLE, but that wasn't true at all. She was there for the same shameful reason as those reporters: curiosity. She had to see it for herself. The person she had once known as a childhood bully, who had morphed slowly into a war-torn teenager and stopped just short of becoming a murderer, now a man who'd nearly killed himself in a desperate bid to remove his Dark Mark.
A nurse escorted her to Draco's room, where Hermione persuaded her to leave in the interest of privacy. She was reluctant to go, having been tasked with giving a tour of the ward's security, but she also had many other patients. Hermione convinced her that her other duties were more important.
"Just pretend I'm not here," she had said.
Another nurse stood in the room beside his bed, staring out the window with her back to the door. Hermione rapped her knuckles against the doorframe as she entered, but the woman didn't move. She stepped cautiously into the room and saw him: Draco Malfoy slept in a maddening contradiction, his face impossibly serene while a horrible silent war was fought on the surface of his skin. All of his exposed flesh was covered in black markings, each one moving independently. Some darted quickly across his skin, while others crawled as slowly and deliberately as the sun across the sky. Graceful and jagged, ugly and elegant, they battled. They broke each other, separated, grew back anew, and multiplied. They skimmed his fluttering eyelids, climbed the refined slope of his cheekbones, and hid beneath his hair.
"May I help you?" asked the nurse from the window. Now that she'd turned around, Hermione noticed her small, bony hands clasped in front of her stomach. Her grey hair, dry like straw, was wrangled into the tightest possible bun behind her head, but errant strands stood out around her face. Backlit in the waning sunlight, it looked like some twisted mockery of a halo. Her name tag said "ARLEY."
"I'm here on behalf of the DMLE," Hermione said. She showed her badge again, and the woman scrutinized it with evident suspicion. "In response to security concerns."
"Security concerns?" Nurse Arley smiled with crooked teeth as grey as her hair, and Hermione was becoming deeply uncomfortable. "I knew you were coming, but not for that."
"You were told otherwise?"
"Yes," she said. "You could phrase it that way." She glanced at her wristwatch and furrowed her brow. "Please excuse me—I've a prior engagement."
"Of course," Hermione said. As soon as Arley left the room, she felt relieved.
She turned her attention to Draco. He looked so small, so weak and disfigured, and who was she to see him like this? She, who had flagrantly abused her authority, taken advantage of her position in order to fulfill a whim that was voyeuristic at best. Now that she was here, she could not find the strength to leave. He was too fascinating—too strange.
She moved closer in the heavy silence, softening her footsteps so as not to disturb it. At his bedside now, she noticed his left arm, the site of the wound that had started the war. The first shot, Muggles might say. It looked like someone had sewn an ink bottle under his skin and then shattered it. His whole hand was black, shiny like it was wet, but no ink escaped—his white sheets were clean. His fingers twitched violently, and she jumped.
No, he hadn't awoken. It was only a nerve malfunction.
As though of its own free will, Hermione's right hand reached itself toward him, extended its own twitching fingers capped with ragged-bitten nails, with paper cuts on the index and middle digits from earlier that morning. Centimetres away from the subcutaneous oil slick, Hermione's hand hovered. And then, without her permission, it moved down and down, and it touched him.
His skin was so ice-cold that it froze her, but only briefly. When she thawed, she snapped that errant hand back, gasping, and cradled it against her chest. A harmless gesture, she told herself, and no one would ever know. All she'd done was graze his arm with her fingertips—she was backing up now, stumbling, not looking where she was going, oh no—far from a violation, far from anything that could have caused harm. Yet, maybe from the ice crystals that lingered on her fingertips—still gasping, she had backed up into the doorframe and bumped her shoulder, but her eyes stayed on him, and she could not look away—it felt somehow like the worst thing she had ever done.
She grasped for her former professional demeaner. She placed one foot in front of the other with calm, even steps out of the room and into the hall. She kept going until she was outside. She pushed her fingers into her mouth and sucked them hard like a snakebite.
Hermione's dreams that night were fantastically mundane, which was the odd part. During the week before her visit to St. Mungo's, she'd been plagued with unsettlingly strange near-nightmares; the sort of dreams where nothing bad happened, but everything about them was unnerving somehow. Something about the colours or the way things moved or didn't move. But it was over now, or at least she'd earned a reprieve. In her dream, on the night after she touched Draco Malfoy, she was drinking tea alone in her own kitchen. It was exactly what she did every morning. Nothing unusual happened.
She woke at seven o'clock the next morning, and the dream came true. She read the Prophet, which contained more articles about Draco. They could only speculate, since no one had gotten to his room except her. They guessed what his condition might look like, and they got it wrong. She looked down at her fingers and noticed that the newspaper ink had smudged and left a mark. She wiped her hand on her black robes, but the ink didn't come off. It must have soaked into her paper cuts, and so she went to the sink and washed her hands. The stain had deepened when she was done: once a greyish echo, there was now one shining black dot on each finger. She washed her hands again. She washed them a third time, scrubbing her fingertips hard with a scrap of steel wool for stubborn, baked-in grease. It hurt badly, but it did not help.
Hermione was no stranger to ink stains, of course. Her fingertips had been black for the better part of the last decade, leaving stealthy spots near her lips and eyes when she touched her face. Usually the ink was outside her skin, though.
Fixating on it would have made her late for work, and she put it out of her mind. The marks would rub off in time as the broken skin healed.
Work distracted her in the worst way. Right after Draco had landed himself in the hospital a week ago, they'd put her on her first big case with the DMLE: the grisly murder of two young children, six-year-old identical twins who'd already lost their mother. The primary suspect was their father, who had prior domestic disputes on his record. A neighbour could place the father at the scene within hours of the killings, but he'd fled soon after and hadn't been seen since. As soon as she found him, it looked like it was going to be an open-and-shut case. As chief investigator, Hermione's first task was to coordinate the manhunt. She had a map on her desk of wizarding England—no unauthorized international Portkeys had been detected since the murders—and she'd blocked it off into colour-coded sections for each of the teams. She gave the team leaders their regional assignments and sent them out for the day.
Since it was such a high-profile case, she also had to deal with the media. After impassioned appeals from grieving family members and tabloid-reading busybodies alike, she'd yielded to the pressure to bring in a Seer. She had another appointment that day to assess the woman's progress, which had thus far been negligible. She knew that real prophesies came out every so often, but they were rare, and her main problem with Seers and other mystics was their compulsive opacity. There were only two reasons to be so deliberately and consistently vague: either a person didn't know anything, or they didn't want to tell. Seers loved to claim the latter, to say that a skeptic like Hermione didn't deserve or couldn't comprehend their truths. The underlying issue, of course, was that only a terrible person would willfully withhold information that could provide justice for those children—regardless of how unworthy the skeptics of the world might be. Hermione found it unlikely that one hundred percent of Seers were sociopaths, which only reinforced her conviction that they had no idea what they were talking about.
The Seer, Haigha, had been offered a temporary office at the Ministry, but she didn't "respond to the energy of the space." As though Hermione needed another reason to be annoyed with her, she insisted upon working from home. Checking her progress meant walking all the way down to the Atrium and taking the Floo to Haigha's personal residence in Grimsby—its proximity to the sea, apparently, made it a far more "lucid" place to "scry." There really were not enough scare-quotes in the world to describe dealing with Seers.
Since these visits always took a great deal longer than they needed to, Hermione organised her desk and locked her office before leaving. She fished around in her bag for a protein bar, which she ate in three large bites while waiting for the lift. It was so thick and sticky that she was still chewing when she landed in Haigha's sitting room.
"Ah, yes," Haigha called from the next room, "her majesty has arrived." Her majesty the skeptic, in other words. As Haigha puttered around her kitchen, like time meant nothing, Hermione used her fingernail to dislodge a caramel-coated oat cluster from between her teeth. If extra clutter could be counted as progress, she would congratulate Haigha on the several new crystals littering the coffee table. There were all different sizes and colours now, each one attached to a slim leather cord. They lay in clusters around a print of the same map that Hermione had in her office, except this one was marked with unfamiliar symbols in glowing purple ink.
She took a seat in one of the floral-print armchairs, which all looked much more comfortable than they actually were, and waited. Haigha liked to keep her waiting—some kind of psychological power game, most likely. As a strategy, it was more or less effective. After a few more minutes, Haigha brushed aside the beaded strands covering the doorway and brought in a tea tray.
"Care for a biscuit?" she asked. The cups and saucers jangled precariously as she set the tray in a clearing between crystals on the table. Spending time with Haigha meant resisting the constant impulse to ask for her age: one moment, her wrinkled hands barely seemed functional. The next, she was as nimble and sharp as an owl on the hunt. In Hermione's estimate, she was somewhere between fifty and one hundred and thirty.
"No, thank you," Hermione said. "I've just eaten."
"That's a relief—I haven't got any." She gave a low, brittle laugh and eased herself into the armchair opposite Hermione's. The wooden frame creaked, and so did her bones.
"Then why did you offer?"
"To be polite, dear," she said, like reprimanding a child. "You could stand to learn a thing or two about being polite."
"All right," Hermione said gamely. There was no point arguing with someone incapable of logic. She also knew better by now than to start asking questions right away: Haigha would offer a progress report at the precise moment that she was ready, and challenging her internal clock could set that moment back by an hour or more. She watched in silence as Haigha poured the tea, this time without a tremor in either hand. She hummed an odd, disjointed tune while the steam rose over her fingers and clouded the stones on her rings.
She handed one cup to Hermione, with a wedge of lemon on the saucer. "Sugar?"
"Yes, please," Hermione said. "One lump."
"Sorry, dear." Her forehead creased in concern. "Ran out this morning." After this, she leaned forward and looked into Hermione's eyes; this time, it was a test.
"No, I'm the one who should apologise." She had to force herself, but she said what she needed to say. "I should have asked if you had any first."
Haigha leaned back, satisfied, and nodded slowly. "Precisely. One should never assume."
"I agree." Hermione picked up the lemon wedge, squeezed it, and dropped it into her tea. She closed her eyes and inhaled the medley of citrus and herbs, congratulating herself on how well she was doing now that she knew the rules. Perhaps, she fantasized wildly, she could be walking back into the Floo within the hour—
"No, no, no!"
She jumped hard enough to spill all over her lap. "What?" she asked, forgetting her hard-won illusion of Manners. Her robes had soaked up most of the liquid, but still the heat stung. "What's the problem now?"
"You're cheating, that's the problem!" Haigha pointed one shaking, crooked finger at her while the other hand, perfectly steady, held her tea. "You are not patient, and you shan't insult me by pretending you are! As though I'd never met you before in my life. Some nerve." She clucked her tongue and shook her head. "Shame on you."
Once again, Hermione swallowed her pride. "I'm sorry," she began tersely, "for attempting to—"
"No. Too late." Haigha narrowed her eyes, and the shadows sank deeper into the wrinkles above her brow. "You should go. Come back tomorrow at the same time, and we shall try again." She stood, earning another round of high-pitched complaints from her ancient chair, and exhaled heavily from the exertion. Hermione could only stare, with her mouth hanging open. She had really thought she'd learned the rules this time, and so she felt the stupidity twofold: once for thinking she could reason her way to proper madness, and twice for trying this hard to get answers that wouldn't help her anyway.
"Fine," she said. She slammed her teacup onto the table, and it rattled around in its saucer with tea spilling over the sides. "I'll come back because I have to—some of us have real jobs, you know—but if you had any decency at all, you'd tell me everything you knew about who killed those children."
"And if you had any sense, you'd know that events can't just go happening higgledy-piggledy! They'll occur at the proper times, else there wouldn't be a schedule at all."
Hermione was officially finished with this conversation. She shot one final hard look in Haigha's direction and stepped into the Floo without another word.
After she landed in the Atrium, she attempted to brush the soot off her hands, except it wasn't soot. Some of it was, but there was another substance entirely on the first two digits of her right hand. Her ink stain was spreading, shiny and black all the way down to the first knuckle. It shocked her when she saw it, and for a moment all she could do was stand in front of the fireplace, blocking the foot traffic, and stare at her fingers. She turned her hand this way and that, moved it closer and farther away, bent and straightened each finger one at a time. The light hadn't tricked her. This was real.
"Hermione?" Cassandra, a woman who worked down the hall in the DMLE, stood before her. "Are you all right?"
In response, Hermione held out her right hand with the first two fingers extended. She watched for a reaction, hoping for a mirror of her own concern, but there was only confusion.
Cassandra examined Hermione's hand, and the problem was right in front of her face. "I don't understand," she said. "What's wrong?"
"Can't you see it? Look at my fingers." She wiggled them around, as though to demonstrate, and it occurred to her that she was maybe not acting so mentally-stable at the moment. "They're... stained."
"Are you talking about these paper cuts?"
She took her hand back and smiled as naturally as possible. "Oh, those—no. I just... I'm sorry, it must've been the light. I thought I saw something odd. Sorry."
"Oh, don't worry about it," she said. Because she really, honestly could not see what Hermione saw. "I've done the same thing! Did you have a lot of caffeine or Pepper-up today?"
Hermione nodded, even though she hadn't. She didn't want her coworkers to spread rumours that she was insane.
"That'll do it," she said sagely. "If you drink too much of that stuff, you'll start to see odd colours and funny little shapes in your peripheral." She used her fingers to demonstrate, swirling them in random patterns along the sides of her face. "That's how you know it's time to cut down." She smiled, patted Hermione on the shoulder, and brushed past her to the Floo. "'Til tomorrow," she called over her shoulder.
Hermione returned to her office with her hand in her pocket. She locked the door behind her, closed the blinds, and sat at her desk. With her wand in her left hand, she cast several cleaning spells on her fingers, each more powerful than the last, but none of them had any effect. A glamour would hide the problem, but there wasn't any point if no one but Hermione could see it anyway. She knew, then, that she could not fix this on her own; she also knew that she couldn't concentrate on anything else until she found a solution. The teams were due to return soon with their findings, but they could report just as easily to her boss. She went to his office and gave him an update: Haigha had nothing, and Hermione wasn't feeling well. She needed to go home and rest, and he should owl her immediately with any important updates. Hermione did not typically take sick days, and so her boss wished her a speedy recovery and sent her on her way.
She didn't go home, and she didn't rest. She went to the hospital.
The press frenzy had died down by then, since Draco's coma had continued with no interesting developments—or, at least, none that anyone knew about. The staff wasn't talking, and neither was he. The speculation continued unchecked, but the reporters must have realised that the hospital wasn't on their side. Hermione walked the same path she'd taken two days ago, past nurses and Mediwizards who saw her badge and waved her through, until she was in the empty hallway of the quarantined area.
In Draco's room, a nurse she'd never seen before was grinding something in a marble mortar & pestle beside the bed. This time, Draco's prone body was enveloped in an iridescent magical forcefield. She could still see him clearly, though, with all the violent ink on his skin. The nurse, who wore a paper mask and elbow-length white gloves, turned when she heard Hermione at the door. Her name tag said "SHARMA."
She pulled her mask down and let it hang around her neck. "May I help you?"
"Yes." She held up her badge and reverted to the same script she'd used before. She didn't want to talk to a stranger about her hand; she wanted to talk to Arley. "I'm Officer Granger. I'm here on behalf of the DMLE to check the security of the ward."
Nurse Sharma set down the mortar and pestle on a glass counter beside several open jars of medicinal herbs, so potent that Hermione could smell them from the doorway. "Good afternoon, Officer Granger," she said. "I wasn't informed that you'd be returning so soon."
"There were a few things I forgot to look at. It was difficult before with all the reporters."
Sharma nodded. "They made everything harder around here."
"I'm sure they did." She gestured to Draco's new force field on the bed. "How long has the patient been magically contained?"
"Weren't you here two days ago?"
"Yes, I was."
"He was covered then." She narrowed her eyes, either suspicious or confused. Possibly both. "He's been covered constantly since he arrived. I thought you'd visited his room."
Hermione grasped desperately for an excuse, but she'd been thrown off-balance. Her pulse sped up, even as she stood so still. "He has?" she asked. Sharma nodded. "Is the cover removed during treatments?"
"No. Our gloves are charmed to pass through the field." She held up her hands, and Hermione noticed the similar iridescent magic that flowed over the fabric.
"Well. I spoke with Nurse Arley last time. Is she here today?"
"'Arley,' did you say?"
Sharma took a few cautious steps toward her. "Are you certain you're remembering the name correctly? We haven't got a Nurse Arley on staff that I know of."
"I read it on her name tag," she said. "A-R-L-E-Y."
"That doesn't sound familiar." Sharma moved closer, tilting her head with an expression of concern. "May I see your badge again, Officer...?"
No, she could not. Hermione backed out of the room without saying another word. She broke into a run as soon as she was through the door, and behind her Nurse Sharma was calling for security. She reached the fire escape and took the stairs down two at a time.
She tried to Disapparate when she left the building, but a protective magic rejected her attempt, which didn't make sense. Apparition wasn't possible in the hospital, for the safety of the patients, but she'd never run into a restriction outside. She caught her breath and started running again, without a thought to where she was going or why she was in such a hurry. She wasn't an impostor, after all; her badge was valid, and she could have simply showed it to Nurse Sharma and made up an excuse about misremembering Arley's name. It wouldn't have been true, though. She was certain of what she'd seen, both the letters on the name tag and the missing forcefield. She had touched him, for heaven's sake, without any gloves—and Arley hadn't been wearing them, either.
It had simply been too strange to stay and talk, to stand there in a hospital and explain the inexplicable. Gradually, as the pavement slid by under her feet, her pace decreased. No one was chasing her. Soon she was walking slowly, acutely aware of her sore legs and what they said about her current level of physical fitness, and she had finally started to notice the cold. Her ears and nose were numb, and the icy wind whipped around her face. She was far enough from the hospital that she could certainly Apparate, and she should have, considering her inadequate jacket and the fact that she didn't know where she was.
She'd been trampling through the alleys behind sleek and indistinguishable commercial buildings, dodging their dumpsters and their rats, straining to see in the waning light as the sun set behind her. The streetlights came on, and she stopped completely. She'd long since entered Muggle territory, and ahead of her lay a residential neighbourhood, with dead grass on the lawns and warm lights behind curtains in the windows. A walk would do her good, she decided. The unfamiliar scenery made her feel free and open.
She wandered down the pavement, taking time to admire the Muggle lawn decorations. She liked that Muggles had so many things that did nothing; things that only sat still and waited to be looked at; things that never had to justify their own existence. She kept a healthy collection of such things at her flat. In fact, she had a whole album full of Muggle photos she'd surreptitiously taken at Hogwarts. Early on, she'd been embarrassed enough to charm her camera to look like the magical ones, and even now she rarely showed the pictures to people she didn't trust.
She took her hand out of her pocket and held it in front of her face, and the stain remained. It seemed to have spread just a little bit farther down, but she couldn't be sure because she could barely look straight at it without panicking. Now that she thought about it, she wished she'd have asked Nurse Sharma about the ink stains on Draco—could she see those, or were they invisible to most people as well?
She heard rushed footsteps coming from behind, the sound of high-heels clicking on stone in a hurry, and turned around. Backlit in the streetlights, she recognized the halo of white straw-hair, pulled tight, shining above a black shawl. The woman looked up and made eye contact, and there was no mistaking her. "Nurse Arley?" she called.
"Do I know you?" Arley asked. She kept moving at a steady clip until she reached Hermione and passed her, but she looked over her shoulder with curiosity.
Hermione caught up and fell into step beside her. "Yes, we met a few days ago at St. Mungo's. Officer Granger, from the DMLE." She offered her hand sideways, and Arley shook it without stopping. It was odd to walk and shake hands at the same time, but it was better than losing track of her only lead.
"Oh, yes, it's you! I should have known. What are you doing here?" For an older woman, Arley moved with incredible speed. Hermione found herself nearly running to keep up.
"I was going for a walk," she said. "I just came from St. Mungo's—do you know a Nurse Sharma?"
"No," Arley said. "But I don't know a lot of nurses."
"But you're a nurse."
"I most certainly am not," she said, as though it were an offensive accusation. "Where on earth did you get that idea?"
"You were at the hospital," Hermione said, "wearing a uniform and name tag."
"And so you jumped to the conclusion that I was a nurse?" Arley shook her head and tutted. "That's what being young'll do to you. Always coming up with the most preposterous of notions."
"That's not preposterous at all," she argued. "Why else would you have been there, dressed like that, caring for a patient? You know, it's illegal to impersonate a medical professional."
"Which I wasn't doing," Arley said. "I was only visiting Mr. Malfoy."
"Why? Do you know each other?"
"No," she said. Hermione really was running now—Arley's speed steadily increased, but it didn't seem to take any effort on her part.
"Then why were you visiting him?" Hermione, on the other hand, was gasping for breath and nursing a monstrous stitch in her side as she tried to keep up. As soon as her schedule let up, she'd make it a priority to get back to the gym.
"I don't see how that's any of your business," Arley said. "Besides, your reason wasn't any better."
She almost lied again about security matters, but she was so out of breath that it wasn't worth the effort. "Wait," she said desperately. "Can you stop walking for a moment?"
"I want you to take a look at my hand." She held it out to the side, since Arley clearly had no intention of stopping, and the woman took it and dragged her along.
"Hm," she said. "Definitely infected."
"So, you can see it?"
"And now you think I'm blind!" Arley shoved her hand back so hard she nearly lost her balance, and she had to sprint to catch up again. "My eyes are still sharp as a hawk's, young lady."
"No, that's not it at all." Blatant absurdity aside, Hermione couldn't risk offending Arley—she'd just proved that she was the only person who might be able to help. "It's just that no one else can see the problem."
"If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?" Arley looked at her sideways and held eye contact for a few seconds, and then Hermione ran into a wall.
They'd stopped while she wasn't looking, and now Arley held the handle of a large stone door beside the aforementioned wall into which she'd just crashed. Her left elbow had taken the brunt of the impact, and she held it with her infected right hand and hissed in pain. She counted herself lucky for her height, though: if she'd been only a few inches taller, she'd have cracked her head open on the steel lamp directly above.
"Look where you're going, dear," Arley admonished. In the improved light, Hermione could see her familiar grey teeth. She made to open the door, but Hermione moved in front of it and stood in her path.
"Please wait," she said. "I need to know what to do about my hand."
Arley looked annoyed at first, but she softened surprisingly quickly. "Fine," she said. "But you'll need to make an appointment—I'm much too busy right now."
"Of course. Where is your, er... office?" This woman could not possibly have a job, Hermione thought, but she kept acting like she did.
Arley pulled her wand from her pocket and used it to conjure a business card. She turned it over to the blank side, tapped it again, and an appointment date and time appeared in elegant script: 2:17 A.M, the next night. She handed it over and tried to open the door again, but Hermione grabbed her arm.
"Does this say 'A.M.'?"
"Yes," Arley said. "You need to move, or you'll make me late." She wrenched her arm free and pulled on the door, and this time Hermione stepped aside and let her open it.
Her mind filled with questions as Arley disappeared, but she was still breathing hard and hurting and more than a little confused. The door slammed shut, followed by an audible click as it locked. Hermione tried it anyway, but it wouldn't budge, even with the aid of her wand. She looked at Arley's card, which listed only her full name—Blanche Arley—and a Floo address. The Muggle neighbourhood was just barely still visible in the distance. For some time, they'd apparently been walking down a straight cobblestone path through a field. She stepped back to get a better look at the building she'd run into, and it couldn't have been much larger than her office at the Ministry. There wasn't anywhere Arley could have gone unless there was a staircase leading underground, and Hermione wondered what must exist below her feet.
The moon and stars were in position, clearly visible from the centre of the wide-open field, and it was long past time to go home. She tucked the card safely into a pocket inside her robes and Disapparated. She wished she could have called Harry or Ron, even just to see a friendly face, but they were both working on their own assignments for the Auror Office: they all had important work to do the next morning, and she wasn't about to disrupt their sleep just to make them look for something they wouldn't be able to see.