Chapter Three

As they popped into existence in the middle of an office that was an odd mix of modern and Victorian, in both architecture and furnishing, Hermione immediately pivoted to face Bucky. The witch ignored that familiar ripple of nausea that accompanied Apparition, more concerned about her traveling companion. Blindly stowing her wand, she gripped her free hand around the elbow of his metal arm, her left hand still clasping his right one.

"You okay?"

Blinking hard a few times, he gave his head a shake—worrying her momentarily in the way that it looked like he might be sick for a second, there. After a few breaths, he nodded. "Yeah, that was, um . . . yeah, I'm good. Where are we?"

She relinquished her hold on him as she looked around. Thank Merlin, Harry was elsewhere, but she couldn't know when he was coming back. "My boss' office, and," she spoke as she started rooting about in Harry's belongings, "he's also my best friend. I can explain our, uh, unique situation to him later, but if he were to stumble upon us right now, he'd . . . . Well, he'd be obligated to draw more attention to this than might be any good for either of us. A-ha!"

His brows shot upward as she returned to him with a bundle of multi-hued fabric. He watched the velvety sheen of the material as she shook out what looked like a cloak. Well, he guessed he shouldn't be surprised, what with there being witches and wizards, memory-wiping mystical energy explosions, and magical artifact crap.

"Okay, um, set the body down, would you? I'll have to levitate him to the proper department, anyway. It'll be odd if I walk over there, alone, and then he appears out of nowhere."

"I have no idea what you're talking about, but okay." Nodding, he carefully laid the corpse on the ground beside her feet and straightened up. As he did so, he felt her draping the material around his shoulders. "What are you—?"

"Shh, just look down at yourself."

Bucky did as instructed while she pulled the cloak closed around him and then stood on her toes, reaching behind his head to tug the hood down into place. "Oh . . . oh, what?" He could see right through where he knew perfectly well he was standing!

"It's called an Invisibility Cloak. I think the reason for the name should be self-evident."

"I'll say."

She shrugged, disliking that she had to force him into such unfamiliar territory so many times today, but then with his memory loss, she wasn't certain anything could be considered familiar territory for the man. "I'm sorry, I'll answer whatever questions you've got when we're . . . oh, bollocks. I'm going to have to take you home with me."

Sooner than he could offer a response, she waved dismissively. "It's fine, it's fine. Not as if you've got anywhere else to go, now is it? I was only saying I'll answer whatever you want to know once we're sure we're in private and you can take that thing off." After all, it was also hardly as though he could stroll openly about the streets of Muggle London—weapons strapped to him and a gleaming metallic arm that appeared far too futuristic—without drawing unwanted attention their way.

If he really was some sort of experiment, Hermione wasn't certain she wanted him going back to whatever that life was. She didn't imagine it could be an existence much worth calling a life, anyway.

"Okay, so I guess, after y—" Bucky cut himself off when the office door opened behind her.

Her eyes shooting wide at the sound, she whirled on her heel to face Harry as he stepped inside.

"'Mione? You're back, already?" Moving closer, he squinted behind his glasses. "You look exhausted. Should I take it things didn't go as smoothly as you'd thought they would?"

"Well, um . . . ." She shook her head. "I know we should have a formal debriefing, and all, but I'm really wiped out. So, can I possibly just turn over what I found, give you the basics and go get some rest? Debrief first thing in the morning?"

As she'd talked, his gaze had fallen to the floor beside her. "So, this is what you found?"

Wincing, she looked at the body. "Kind of. Um, there were four of them, I think, at least I saw four. I managed to retrieve what was left of the artifact they had, but I have to tell you there was an explosion. It was really just a burst of magical energy, so no physical damage to the surrounding area, or anything of that sort. But I barely made it out. When I came back they were gone, this one was dead on the ground, and the outer shell of the artifact was all that was left." She paused, taking the time to extract the capsule from the bag on her wrist and hold it out to him. "Careful with that. I have no idea what they were doing with it, only that it was extremely powerful, and I think they took something out of it, maybe?"

Eyeing the capsule, he asked as he accepted it, "Wait, so the artifact in here contained another artifact?"

"I don't know that for certain, though it is my best guess at the moment. But I really . . . I really am wiped out, Harry. So . . . ?"

Nodding as he withdrew his wand, he murmured the charm to levitate the body. "Sure, sure. I'll take care of this, but seriously, 'Mione. First thing in the morning, yeah?"

She offered him a grateful smile. "Yeah, absolutely."

In a show of being helpful, she crossed the office, opening the door wide for Harry and his unpleasant parcel. As the wizard directed the body through and then followed it, she looked about the visibly empty office, her expression a bit frantic. "Bucky, c'mon," she murmured under her breath.

She couldn't be sure if he'd moved or not, but she allowed him more than enough seconds to exit. So many, in fact, that Harry turned to look back at her.

"Um, Hermione?" His brows shot up over the wireframes of his glasses. "You coming?"

"Hmm? Yeah, yeah. Sorry, just needed a moment, there."

He frowned as she joined him in the corridor. "You sure you're okay? Maybe we should have you go to the infirmary and—"

"I'm fine, Harry, I promise. I just need some rest, is all, and I'll be good as new."

She just barely refrained from jumping in place as she felt the brush of a hand against hers. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw nothing, but the touch persisted. Bucky. Well, he had presence of mind to figure out a way to let her know he was there, that was good. And it was just a simple press against the side of her hand, nothing that would be obvious, by say, her fingers vanishing, or something.

"All right. I'll check in on you later, though. Just to be safe, okay?"

She nodded, offering him a smile. "Of course. See you later, Harry."

Turning toward the lift, she waited until she felt that delicate press against her hand, once more, and then she started forward on measured footfalls. She was deliberate in making it appear as though she was merely tired as she moved, complete with small, lethargic stretches—which she thought probably looked quite odd, given that she was only stretching the side of her body opposite where Bucky was walking, maybe Harry'd think she strained a muscle—and yawns. For a few heartbeats there, she even worried she might be overdoing it a bit.

Luckily, it was late in the day, not very busy, so there weren't many people to risk bumping into. Regardless, she whispered out of the corner of her mouth, "Please, just stick close to me and try to avoid tripping over anyone."

They entered the lift and started down to the ground floor. Though they were alone the entire way down, she didn't want to risk starting any conversations here. Being in a confined space with him without being able to see him made her more acutely aware of his presence, somehow. She thought she could actually hear him breathing.

Just when she'd begun to relax, however, the lift stopped. As they exited . . . she felt that pressure of his hand disappear from the side of hers.

"Oh, no." Swallowing hard, she looked about.

The golden statues and the immense indoor fountain, the pillared doorways and twisting corridors . . . . She knew many things about the Ministry of Magic's resplendent ground floor were eye-catching, but this was no time for curiosity!

Darting her gaze about, she hissed his name in a whisper. "Bucky?"

No answer.

Fantastic. She looked around, assuring herself no one was near enough to notice, and withdrew her wand. With a quick flick of her wrist, she sent a light gust of wind billowing through the ground floor's main corridor. She kept up the breeze as she scanned the floor.

There! Heading toward the nearest of those beautiful golden sculptures she spotted a rippling effect in the air close to the floor. Just beneath it, a quick glimpse of the soles of black boots was visible.

Stowing her wand, she glanced about again as she hurried across to him. She could just picture him reaching up to touch one of the statues and the cloak falling away from his arm. Oh, the fun it would be explaining why she was chasing after a disembodied metal hand!

She collided with him, but recovered quickly—she wasn't at all certain if that was aided or complicated by the way he turned at the impact and caught her, managing to set her back on her feet. Sure, it was helpful to not let her fall hard on her bum, but if anyone had witnessed his moment of assistance, the way she had been suspended in the air for a second, there, would have raised eyebrows, for certain. Not to mention the problematic issue that she'd liked the way his hands had caught her around her hips as he'd righted her.

Not the time for curiosity, and certainly not the time for any of that, either.

Clearing her throat as quietly as she could, she scolded him in a low, muttering voice. "What d'you think you're doing? I asked you to stay close to me!"

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice equally quiet, "I just . . . I know I don't remember much, but I feel like I've never seen anything like this place."

Her shoulders slumped. "I didn't mean to snap. I'm the one who's sorry; I know this situation can't be easy on you, but this simply isn't the time to be wandering about, okay?"

He sighed, and she thought it a strangely petulant sound given his gruff appearance and, well, the whole Muggle military thing. "Yeah, yeah. I got it. Let's go," he said, once more touching the side of his hand to hers.

She held in a breath, knowing it was probably dangerous to wonder just how much stranger things could get, but unable to help the question from skittering across her mind, all the same.

As they made their way toward the exit, a pure-blood wizard in truly ridiculous dress-robes came out of the lift and crossed the floor to enter one of the pillared doorways.

Hermione frowned, speaking preemptively. "Don't even think about it."

Bucky tried to feign innocence by remaining silent, but after a moment, he murmured, "Sorry."

Snickering in spite of herself, she shook her head and continued along. She grasped his hand in hers through the folds of the cloak—mysteriously vanished fingers, or no mysteriously vanished fingers—to ensure he was beside her the entire way.

. . . And perhaps just a little bit because she simply liked the feel of holding his hand.