CHAPTER ONE

'The word "veteran",' Hermione Granger said heatedly, 'derives from the Latin word "vetus". Vetus means old. I am not old.'

'Yes, well.' Visibly pulling himself together, the young Healer inhaled deeply and smiled broadly. As broad smiles go, this wasn't a very convincing one, and it obviously didn't fool Hermione.

Although her back was already aching from sitting ramrod straight, she forced her protesting muscles to contract even more, wincing at the pain that scuttled along her spine. 'Yes, well, what?' she spat out.

'What I wanted to say…' Healer Blackendale exhaled and clasped a twitching left hand in a white-knuckled right. 'What I wanted to say…'

'Yes?'

'Well, what I wanted to say was… You can deny it all you want, Hermione, and yes, you can even try Latin, but however much and in whichever way you attempt to deny it, denial won't change the fact that you're twenty, you're a war veteran, and you're totally and completely fucked-up.'

Totally and completely fucked-up, Hermione thought. He's a very young and inexperienced healer, to be sure, he's nothing more than a healer pup, and he really isn't up to handling this on his own. But what he means to tell me, and quite rightly so, I guess, is that I've gone round the bend. I'm nuts. I'm crazy. I am, to express it as succinctly as possible, mad. And the fact that I don't really think I am only serves to prove it.

Her 50-minute therapy unit wasn't up yet, she knew that of course, but nevertheless she slowly hoisted herself out of her armchair, gathered her robes around herself in a failed attempt at dignity, and left the room.

Healer Blackendale's eyes followed her all the way to the door, but he didn't make a single move to stop her.

The view was, as the saying goes, a sight for sore eyes.

The window – if one could by rights call it thus, because this was more than a mere window, it was an entire wall made of glass, charmed to be unbreakable of course – invited the eye to wander aimlessly, across hills of a green so juicy that you thought you could smell the verdant humidity, across the softly undulating line that wasn't really there, just an illusion, the… nothing, really, where green hill met blue sky. There were sheep on the hills and soft, puffy clouds in the sky, two flocks oddly complementing each other. There was peace, or so they'd told her.

But peace is only where you want to see it, isn't it?

Nature isn't peaceful, it is an ongoing struggle between species, and the milky fleece of a grazing sheep is only white as long as you don't see the belly torn open and the guts spilling out, and the whole peaceful scene dissolving in a chaos of gurgling bleats and hooves flailing desperately for grip on a ground that is already slippery with blood.

There is no peace for the restless, Hermione thought.

She had returned to her room ten minutes ago, after her useless session with Healer Blackendale, and now she was sitting in an armchair – she always seemed to be sitting in armchairs these days – with nothing to do but look out of the window and into an idyll she couldn't quite make herself believe in.

They had taken away her books, her wand, and others before them had obviously taken away her sanity. In the five months or so she'd been here, she'd only had glimpses of the other patients – Ron, for example, whom she had spotted across the entrance hall, or Tonks, whom she believed to have seen in the garden. She was at Blossomwood, the first retreat for traumatized wizards that had ever existed in Great Britain. A privilege, to be sure. But she couldn't care less. She'd have been just as happy to be despatched to Azkaban.

How has it come to this, she mused. Yes, I've been through some horrible experiences, but so have countless others. Yes, I've lost people who were dear to me, but I'm not the only one. There were houses in ruins, corpses rotting under the debris, there were orphans and cripples, there was a whole society to rebuild, for heaven's sake, they needed bright young people like myself to do it. I'm alive, I'm relatively healthy, and three fingers of my left hand are all I lost. Why has my left hand suddenly become the centre of the universe for me? Why can't I look further than my left hand, why can't I feel the need to help all those poor fellow human beings out there? The only emotion I can feel is self-pity. And fear. Fear that I'm really mad, fear that I'll never get out of here.

And why, for fuck's sake, can't Blackendale, that stupid sod, that joke of a healer who probably got through his exams by the skin of his teeth, and because he has those nice, innocent brown eyes, why the hell can't he help me? It's his bloody job, so why can't he just do what he's being paid for?

From its place on the bedside table, the water jug was hurled against the window, propelled by wandless magic (this at least they hadn't been able to take from her), but, silently and infuriatingly, it bounced off the charmed window and onto the spell-cushioned floor where it wobbled for a few seconds and then stood still, perfectly still, a symbol of everything that was right and as it should be, in sharp contrast to the occupant of the room who promptly succumbed to a crying fit.

The half-Kneazle that had been peacefully snoozing on the bed stood up slowly, yawned, stretched and, with a look of patience sorely tried but never-ending, stalked over to the shivering heap and started licking the ugly pink scar on his mistress's left hand.

The next day dawned grey and heavy with rain.

While Hermione Granger sat up in her bed, unwilling to relinquish the oblivion of sleep, another occupant of Blossomwood was having his first therapy unit of the day. His still full china cup met the saucer with a sharp 'clink'.

'Did nobody care to teach you how to prepare an acceptable cup of tea?' he asked, lifting his right hand to touch his cheekbone and progress from there to his ear, only to let it drop back to his lap in mid-gesture. It was less of a conscious movement than a reflex, something he'd obviously done his whole life. But it had become conscious, and it was quite obviously embarrassing him.

The Healer noticed of course but said nothing. Instead he replied, 'No, Mr. Malfoy, I'm sorry. Nobody taught me how to make a decent cup of tea. Perhaps you'd be willing-'

A sneer was all the answer he got. 'You cannot possibly pretend to be serious. Or is this' – the same gesture again, only aborted even earlier – 'one of your tricks? Do you think you can make me talk by trying to swap recipes?'

'I wouldn't dream of it, Mr. Malfoy. Besides, I didn't seriously believe that you knew how to make tea. Really, somebody like you, with a big mansion and legions of House Elves would-'

The sight of Lucius Malfoy rising from a chair, blazing with fury, was enough to interrupt even an experienced old hand like Wilcox.

'I will not-' Malfoy paused to breathe deeply, because his voice was in danger of losing its well-bred, mellow timbre. After a few seconds he continued, 'I will not tolerate being spoken to in this insolent manner, Mr Wilcox. I have no idea what you intend to accomplish by mentioning everything I have lost, but this behaviour is unacceptable. Or maybe you intend to take your tactlessness even further? Are you perhaps burning with desire to mention…' He paused for the fraction of a second, and when he continued, his voice was almost inaudible. 'The loss of my… hair?' His gaze, which had been holding the Healer's in a death grip, flickered away for a moment and then returned to Wilcox's face. 'Is that what you are attempting to do here – although, I would like to remind you, in a very unsubtle manner? Are you trying to… provoke me?'

'Mr Malfoy. Like all the other members of the staff of Blossomwood, I am here to ensure the well-being and safety, as well as the recovery-'

'Do try not to tempt me into doing something inconsiderate by reciting that drivel written on your brochure,' Malfoy said. 'Is a prolonged sojourn in this' – a sweeping gesture of his right hand indicated surroundings that most other wizards would have described as sumptuous – 'hovel all I get as a reward for my efforts? If I had had the slightest shadow of a suspicion that the defenders of law and order were going to compensate my acts of heroism by locking me away in this decrepit facility, I would have preferred to stay at Voldemort's side and die!'

In a whirl of silken robes that hurled the teacup to the far corner of the room, Lucius Malfoy left.

Healer Wilcox stared after him, shaking his head.

Healer Abercrombie, who among her colleagues had the reputation of being able to cheer a gravestone into tango dancing, walked along the corridor, her gait noticeably less bouncy than usual. She was on her way to the next therapy unit, and not overly keen on seeing her most difficult patient. She looked out of one of the large windows and reluctantly acknowledged that the grey morning sky threatening heavy rainfall looked exactly as she felt.

She paused to breathe in and out deeply a few times.

'There's nothing for it, Kat,' she muttered. 'You've got to face him, whether you want to or not.'

Three more steps. She knocked at the door, straining to hear any noise from inside, but there was no reply. With a sigh, she forced her face into a friendly smile and turned the handle.

The first thing she saw after the door had swung back maybe ten inches was a bony hand holding a vial. The hand was trembling. Healer Abercrombie swallowed, because she knew that the hand wasn't trembling from weakness or infirmity. She had seen it often enough during her school days, and still wasn't able to get the automatic response – duck, try to get your shoulders as close as possible to your ears, try to make yourself invisible – completely out of her system.

'Good morning, professor,' she chirped, and immediately regretted the false brightness of her voice. Play-acting (and bad acting at that) had never worked with the man.

She further opened the door and stepped into the room. Turning her back to him in order to shut the door cost her more of an effort than she cared to admit.

'I daresay it isn't,' he hissed, holding the vial so close to her face that she had to step backwards. 'Who brewed this?'

The hand holding the vial had once again moved close to her face, but she decided not to give up any more of her territory and remain where she was standing. 'I have no idea, professor. But I can find out, if you want me to. What's wrong with it?'

He turned abruptly, and she felt the soft swish of his robes against her ankles. 'There is nothing specifically wrong with it, Miss Abercrombie. It is wrong, right from the beginning, when some incompetent nincompoop, who imagined himself to be capable of brewing a potion, lit a flame of the wrong temperature under a cauldron of the wrong size, in order to randomly throw in the wrong ingredients at the wrong time!' He turned to face her again, his pale skin now slightly flushed with anger.

Healer Abercrombie had to use all her willpower to prevent herself from swallowing convulsively. 'I…see,' she said once she was sure of having regained control of her voice. 'Nevertheless,' she continued more boldly, 'it can't be that bad. All wizards – and witches of course – who were hit with the Hunger Curse are taking it and-'

'And what's good for them has to be good for me as well, is that what you meant to say, Miss Abercrombie?'

'Well, yes, more or-'

'Then do enlighten me, Healer Abercrombie. Have any of these patients been experiencing muscle cramps? Random outbreaks of sweat? Rashes, maybe?'

'Now that you mention it, some might-'

'Some? Might?' His voice, which had risen in volume during their dialogue, suddenly became very soft again, almost a purr. The Healer involuntarily held her breath. 'You and your fellow healers are not doing volunteer work here, are you, Miss Abercrombie?'

'N-no, we are paid, of cou-'

'So you are paid, I see. And what, pray tell, do they pay you for?'

As it had in countless potions classes, when facing this particular teacher's wrath, her brain slipped into auto-pilot mode, making her recite what she had learned by heart. 'I am here to ensure the well-being and safety, as well as the recovery of the residents of Blossomwood, to care for-'

'Thank you, Miss Abercrombie,' he interrupted her, 'that will do for the moment. Now let us see – think of it as an experiment, Healer Abercrombie – now let us see whether the mush inside your head you seem to insist on calling a brain…' He was close to her again, and punctuated his next words by tapping a bony index finger against her forehead. 'Let us see whether that strange' – tap – 'substance inside your head' – tap – 'is able to progress' – tap – 'from step one' – tap – 'to step two.' Forceful tap. 'Does "ensuring the well-being and safety" by any chance include a duty to make sure the patients of this admirable facility do not ingest anything that might potentially damage them? Such as…' A vicious sneer bared his crooked teeth. Yellowish teeth, the colour of old ivory, like the keys of an antique pianoforte. 'Glass shards, perhaps?'

Healer Abercrombie nodded convulsively.

'Very good. Now from the obvious to the less glaringly obvious. What about poison, for instance?'

Eyes widening, Healer Abercrombie nodded again. The muscles in her neck were beginning to ache furiously.

'And now, a veritable leap of logic, Miss Abercrombie. Concentrate, this is going to be a really, really difficult question. What about a potion so badly brewed that its side effects could seriously harm the patient, unless he is a potions master and thus capable of determining that it is, indeed, unsafe?'

He stepped back and looked her in the eyes. Healer Abercrombie suddenly remembered a muggleborn colleague telling her about some Muggle technology – what had he called it? Lazy Beams or some such. They could burn right through your head…

'I'll take the necessary steps immediately,' she said, conscious of how squeaky her voice was sounding. 'If you'll excuse me…'

A second later, Severus Snape was alone in the therapy room, smiling sardonically to himself.

They may have weakened his magic to the point where it was almost nonexistent, but he hadn't lost his grip yet, not quite.

Blossomwood, Great Britain's first retreat for traumatized wizards, had been established immediately after Harry Potter had won a final, and lethal for both of them, victory over Lord Voldemort.

The newspapers had taken to calling it the Final Battle, thereby conveying to the event a kind of doomsday glamour none of the participants had ever noticed. For them, it had merely been the culmination of years of guerrilla warfare on both sides, enemies waiting in trenches until the other side raised their heads out of their trenches, to hurl curses at them and sink back into more of that monotonous, nerve-wrecking waiting.

Had Lucius Malfoy, who certainly wasn't notorious for his inclination to hang around waiting idly for either an enemy to get him or his own glorious leader to drive him insane with a randomly cast Crucio, not finally had enough of the deadly – in every sense – boredom and decided to give the Good Guys a hand, the guerrilla war might have worn on and on, until everybody would have run mad.

It was a dangerous thing to allow somebody of Malfoy's calibre too much time for pondering things – this was what Voldemort had failed to realize. And thus, after giving the situation a long hard look, Lucius Malfoy had decided that enough was enough, and instantly proceeded to action. He'd long been suspecting that Snape wasn't really on Voldemort's side, and besides he was immensely grateful to the man for having protected his son. After Narcissa had disappeared from his life (she thought, and quite rightly so, that what she had gone through during Draco's sixth year of school was all her husband's fault, and consequently divorced him) Draco was all the family he'd left, and he didn't want to risk that.

So the first thing he did after bribing his way out of Azkaban, was to find Snape and his son, strike a deal with the Goblins to hide Draco at Gringott's, and then set out together with Snape to destroy the remaining Horcruxes. Their joint memories of the successful obliteration of the first of three Horcruxes having been carefully stored in a pensieve – together with some of Snape's own memories proving that his murdering Dumbledore had indeed been part of the old man's plans – and the pensieve safely tucked into the same vault as Draco, the two wizards made contact with the Order of the Phoenix.

It took the Order members some time to come round and trust two men who, in their opinion, were only slightly less evil than the Devil himself, but in the end they had to accept Snape and Malfoy's help unless they wanted the war to continue forever.

The ensuing battle was atrocious. Voldemort's Death Eaters were a small but dangerous army, composed of men and women who didn't have anything to lose. When it became clear that Voldemort had fallen, and for good this time, his followers spread out across the country, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake, fighting to the last minute. None of them had any illusions as to the choices at their disposal: it was either fighting to the end and dying, or going to Azkaban and the unloving care of the Dementors. None of them had trouble choosing between these alternatives, and they all died fighting, except for Rodolphus Lestrange and his wife Bellatrix, who had to return to Azkaban after only five years of freedom. If killing Harry Potter in a blaze of red fire was a happy memory for them, it certainly didn't last very long under the Dementors' influence.

So the war had been won.

But, for the very first time, British wizarding society had to face a phenomenon hitherto unknown to wizardkind: Victors who, instead of celebrating, wanted nothing more than to turn away from all human contact, who couldn't stop crying while Minister Scrimgeour fastened Orders of Merlin to their robes, victors who received the gratitude and congratulations of their fellow wizards with stony faces, unable to reply, victors who looked so beaten and… defeated that the newspapers were reluctant to put their pictures on the front page and instead chose to display photos of a benignly gruff Minister Scrimgeour pulling Orders of Merlin from a velvet-lined basket like a magician pulling white rabbits out of his cylinder.

This was definitely not what anybody had expected.

The victors might not quite look the part, but they had, after all, saved Great Britain from one of the most evil wizards of all times. They very obviously didn't want gratitude, they didn't want cheering up or ceremonies or speeches. Besides, their reluctance to get back to normal and go on with their lives reminded some people – Minister Scrimgeour among others, and not too few ministry employees – uncomfortably about their own actions, or lack thereof, during the leaden years of war. Though nobody ever dared say so aloud, eighty percent of the British wizarding population would have liked nothing better than to take the whole victorious bunch and spell them off to some remote island where the climate was nice and warm, providing food aplenty, and where, most importantly, nobody would have to look at their dreary, sad, worn-out faces ever again.

And then, one day and totally out of the blue, Percy Weasley, the Minister's eternally junior undersecretary, had come out with a solution that got him immediate promotion to Permanent Senior Undersecretary.

Thus Blossomwood was born, and had only narrowly escaped being named The Rufus Scrimgeour Asylum for War Veterans. Not that the poetic choice of name changed anything about what it essentially was: A luxury prison, where bewildered Healers tried to make sense of the five books on Muggle psychology they had been given to read, and were fiercely determined not to cause too much damage with their very limited skills.

Staff meetings at Blossomwood were held every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

There were ten Healers, each in charge of five patients. There had of course been more traumatized survivors among Voldemort's enemies, but due to the scarcity of Healers Blossomwood had not been able to accept a larger number of inmates. Well-chosen inmates, of course, Very Important Wizards able to make Minister Scrimgeour's life hell if ever they came out of their stupor far enough to complain about the way they'd been treated.

The inclusion of Snape and Malfoy into the crowd of fifty had initially caused a bit of an uproar among the population, but Scrimgeour had managed to convince his fellow wizards that this was exactly the right way to go about things, if one wanted to "build bridges where there have been chasms separating our society, to extend a hand in friendship where there has been enmity, to gather all witches and wizards, regardless of age or birth, under the common roof of love and respect for each other…"

Percy had been quite proud of this speech he'd composed for his Minister, although some of his colleagues had had the cheek to call it 'pompous'.

A cloudy, blustery Saturday morning and afternoon had turned into a rainy evening, and after a final round through the premises, to make sure their charges were fast asleep, the ten Healers were sitting at a long table in the conference room, having a late supper and discussing the past week's events.

'You're looking awful, Kat,' Senior Healer Bogglesworth addressed Healer Abercrombie.

Abercrombie swallowed a bite of sandwich, chased it with a sip of pumpkin juice, and nodded. 'Yes, I imagine I'm looking every bit as tired as I feel. I did therapy with Snape today…' A chorus of sympathetic oh's and uh-huh's echoed through the room. Kat smiled. 'That wasn't the bad part – I mean, yes it was bad, but he wasn't any worse than he usually is.'

'So?' Healer Bogglesworth prompted with an encouraging nod in her colleague's direction.

'Well, he complained about the potion we've been giving to the patients who'd been hit with the Hunger Curse. The, er, conversation got a bit out of hand – I must admit that I left the room at some point, because…' She shrugged helplessly and turned towards her younger fellow healers. 'You know how he is. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to appoint an ex-student for his therapy.'

'Oh, it was an excellent idea all right,' Healer Wilcox said. He was a grey-haired, middle-aged wizard who always managed to look rumpled, no matter how tidy his robes. Moving is chair back so he sat even nearer to the warmth of the fireplace, he continued, 'Because otherwise I might have been assigned to him.'

Senior Healer Bogglesworth snorted. 'And that would mean that you would have to swap Malfoy for Snape, wouldn't it? Big loss, Wilcox, really big loss.'

'Of course, my dear. Malfoy has never yet lasted more than ten minutes before storming out of the room, so I get to have a quiet cup of coffee and a fag before tackling the next one. That's a huge benefit.'

'Not quite my idea of professional ethics,' Healer Blackendale said judiciously, making everybody else in the room groan and roll their eyes. He didn't notice their reaction, of course, but doggedly continued, 'It is our duty to ensure the well-being and safety, as well as the recovery-'

'Thanks, Blacky, that'll do,' Senior Healer Bogglesworth interrupted him sharply. 'And may I remind you – speaking of professional ethics – that telling a twenty-year old girl who lost everything in this bloody war, that she's completely fucked-up is not what I expect from any member of my staff. You do not, I repeat not, insult your patients, have I made myself clear?'

'I just meant to provoke-'

'You may provoke, but you must not insult. Is that understood?'

Blackendale's shoulders drooped. 'Yes, Senior Healer Bogglesworth.'

'All right then.' Bogglesworth motioned to the others to help themselves to more sandwiches. 'Do we agree that Granger, Snape and Malfoy are the trickiest cases we've got here?'

Everybody nodded, silently munching away at their sandwiches.

'Very well. I think it is time to take some drastic action. If we can't do anything for them, maybe it's time they did something for each other.'

The three people standing in front of Senior Healer Bogglesworth's office looked at each other with ill-concealed bewilderment. Even the kind of aloofness bred into the Malfoy genes by four centuries of targeted marriage between Europe's oldest pureblood families was unable to completely mask Lucius Malfoy's surprise. Snape had chosen to retreat behind his most intimidating teacher persona, and Hermione Granger was still too exhausted from a night spent between nightmares and bouts of crying to do much more than stare at the two men.

This, however, was enough to ruffle Malfoy's feathers. 'Is there anything in particular, young lady,' he enquired archly, 'to justify this, er, glaring breach of etiquette, pardon the pun?'

'Where's your hair, Mr Malfoy?'

'Not on my head, obviously,' Malfoy replied in a voice so cold it could make hell freeze over.

Hermione briefly wondered whether it might make pigs fly as well, but decided against it, leaving only a small margin of doubt. 'I can see that,' she snapped back, 'I merely meant to ask you what happened!'

'Then why not do exactly that?' Malfoy said. He turned towards Snape, thus deliberately excluding Hermione from the conversation. 'One often wonders,' he continued, 'where young people do get heir manners from these days. Manners being, of course, a mere euphemism for the lack thereof. Or is it that Muggles employ House Elves not merely to change their offspring's nappies, but also to teach the little brutes how to behave themselves?'

'Muggles don't have House Elves,' Hermione said and added, 'You fascist pig!' in a low whisper, sure that Malfoy couldn't hear her.

Not only had he heard her, Snape had caught her words too, and now both men turned around to look at her. "What a very interesting epithet,' Malfoy purred, 'Would you care to explain what it means?'

'It means… it means…' Hermione was just about to say 'bald' but was saved from trouble by a House Elf telling them that 'Senior Healer Bogglesworth would likes to see you, sir, sir and ma'am!'

Hermione trudged into the office behind the two men, unable to stop wondering what exactly made their robes swish so enticingly. She'd tried that swishing bit over and over again, even with the help of charms, but it just never turned out the way she wanted it.

Senior Healer Bogglesworth summoned three high-backed chairs to stand in front of her desk. 'Sit down,' she said, inviting them with a gesture to follow her example. The three perched on their chairs, and had they been capable of telepathic communication, they would have been surprised at the similarity of their thoughts: Sitting there, opposite the kind but stern-faced healer, triggered memories of school days long – and in Hermione's case not so long – past, when they had been summoned to the headmaster's office for some offence committed less than expertly, and hence discovered.

Malfoy's face was lit by an almost-smile when he felt himself taken back in time, to that moment forty years ago, when he and Nott and McNair had got the dressing-down of their lives for persuading the unicorns to recoil from the then-Minister of Magic's fifteen-year old daughter… What a scandal they had caused.

Snape's features lost some of their sourness when he fondly recalled the look on Black and Potter's faces, as they had to admit to their beloved headmaster that they had been the ones exposing one Severus Snape's greying underpants to half the students of Hogwarts.

Hermione was the only one who had tears in her eyes. Too fresh was the memory of herself and Harry and Ron trying to look guilty while Dumbledore lectured them on some prank they'd pulled, the three of them together…

'I have come to the conclusion,' Senior Healer Bogglesworth began her speech, 'that it is time for the three of you to move on to a different kind of therapy.'

The three on their uncomfortable chairs looked at each other in utter surprise. After months of isolation, to be summed up like that, to be somehow put into the same category by this white-haired matron, took some getting used to. For a moment, none of them was able to utter a single syllable, which gave Bogglesworth time to continue. 'You have been guests of Blossomwood for almost five months and, I have to say, none of you has made any discernible progress.'

By the time she had finished this sentence, Snape had recovered sufficiently to reply, 'Did it ever occur to you, madam, that the bunch of incompetent dunderheads you call your staff might have any part in this deplorable lack of success?'

'Of course.' Bogglesworth gave him a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. 'I certainly admit that none of us was ready to fulfil the expectations both you and our government may have had. But,' she cocked her head and focused her smiling look on Malfoy, 'I am quite sure that your… unwillingness to cooperate with the healers assigned to you is to be blamed as well.'

Malfoy snorted. 'If I may say so, Healer Bogglesworth, it isn't so much unwillingness as, let us say, the gap that separates-'

'Whatever,' Bogglesworth cut him off. 'You've been here, fed and pampered and costing quite a lot of money, for almost half a year, and nothing has come of it. This is reason enough for me to try and find a different solution. A better solution,' she added, nodding as if to confirm her own words.

In spite of the countless hours she'd spent ranting to Crookshanks about how she hated being incarcerated in this loony bin, Hermione suddenly felt terrified at the idea of being thrown out, because her three meals a day affected the net income of the Average British Wizard. 'We could cook our own meals,' she blurted out, 'and clean our rooms, and… And I'm sure I could manage a vegetable garden or something like that, so you'd only have to buy the seeds, nothing else, and-'

A cool, perfectly manicured white hand came to rest on hers. 'Please, Miss Granger. Try to be reasonable.' Somehow, Malfoy's cool, controlled voice seemed to stabilize her boggling mind. Hermione shot him a sideways look of gratitude.

Acknowledging it with a barely perceptible nod, Malfoy lifted his hand from hers and up to his face, stiffened for a moment as if he'd been touched by something unpleasant, then continued, 'I am sure that Healer Bogglesworth has no intention of turning us into some kind of House Elves. But I suppose that we all,' he looked at Snape, who was sitting at his left, 'would like to hear just what the esteemed Healer has in mind.'

'I'm out of my mind with nervous anticipation,' came Snape's deadpan reply.

'Glad to hear it,' Bogglesworth shot back, equally deadpan. 'I am sure you will understand that, while my first concern is for my patients, I also have to take care of my staff. While most of them seem to derive a certain amount of pleasure from working with people to whom they owe their well-being, if not their lives, it has not escaped my attention that Healers Abercrombie, Wilcox and Blackendale are getting more and more distressed.'

'Wilcox,' Malfoy said, 'has the less than enviable task of being Ronald Weasley's therapist, as he told me. If that doesn't account for his increasing distress, I am sure that listening to Madam Nymphadora Tonks's incoherent stammering would be enough to drive a saint to drink.'

The benign twinkle in Bogglesworth's eyes was replaced by something steely and definitely unpleasant. 'Remarks such as this, Mr Malfoy, are not made any more palatable by a shady past – to put it mildly – and a more than doubtful allegiance to the Side of Light. If I tell you that you're driving my healers crazy, you'll have to take my word for it. The same goes for the rest of you.' She crossed her arms and gave each of them a stern look. 'Your food and general cost of living here – just to appease your fears, Miss Granger – are not subject to this discussion. But since months of cost-intensive therapy haven't brought about even a minimal change, there won't be any therapy in the near future. Instead,' she continued after a slight pause, leaning back in her chair, 'you will move in together, into a comfortable suite situated in one of the secondary buildings.'

Three simultaneous gasps greeted this announcement.

'There will be a House Elf to see to your needs, and you will have a garden all to yourselves, undisturbed by anybody else. No healers, no government inspectors, no intrusion of any kind. Should you try to hex each other, the consequences shall be quite unpleasant. That is all, Miss Granger, gentlemen. See you in four weeks.'