Being one's own boss was brilliant.
Hermione Granger, still not quite used to her newfound status as inventor, founder, owner and boss of England's first curse breaking agency, rose from her chair and, feeling very much like a cat prowling its territory, wandered over to the window. She stopped on the other side of her desk and let her fingertips brush the polished surface of the sturdy, two-hundred-pound Victorian mahogany behemoth. The brass fittings gleamed. Sunlight bounced off them and onto the whitewashed wall, where it rested, lazy and a little blurred.
The desk had belonged to her grandmother; after her death Hermione had claimed it for herself, much to the relief of the movers, who had gladly believed her assurances that friends were going to help her get it out of the flat and down the narrow staircase. She'd returned later that night, when the streets were sleepy and deserted, and only a faint orange glow on the horizon betrayed that miles away there was a city that never slept. Gently and without making a noise, she had unlocked the door to the flat, as if the old woman that had died was still tucked away there in fitful, birdlike sleep.
She'd lingered for a while, motionless in the empty rooms, mourning her grandmother. Then she'd shrunk the desk, put it in her pocket and silently Disapparated.
Two days later she'd found the ideal space for her new business venue. Handing in her notice to the Ministry had felt like taking a deep, cleansing breath after surviving on stale air deprived of oxygen. Entering the empty office, unshrinking the desk and putting it on that very spot, where it felt right, had been like exhaling. A chapter had been closed, and a new one began.
Not only for Hermione Granger, though.
'You do like being the office cat, big boy, don't you?' Hermione addressed Crookshanks, who was having a nap, curled tight on a blanket on the windowsill.
While still working for the Ministry of Magic, she hadn't been able to take her familiar to work with her. Now, however, they travelled every day to the office together. His surly charm had already beguiled her two employees. Hermione strongly suspected that they were feeding him tasty bits when she was looking the other way. Crookshanks was definitely becoming portly in his old age. It suited him, though.
Now he raised his head and stared at her out of half-closed, yellow eyes. Then he blinked once and returned to sleep.
'Stating the obvious, I know.'
Hermione scratched him behind the ears and strolled over to the other window, where a dozen or so cacti, sitting in earthenware pots, were soaking up the sunlight. The air that came in through the half-open window was warm and mellow with just a hint of an early-autumn bite. It was the first of September, and Hermione thought that, right now, the Hogwarts Express was chugging out of King's Cross station, slowly gathering speed. So many years had passed since the first time she'd walked through a wall and onto the magical platform, and still she felt wistfulness tug at her heart. The memories had become a little hazy – unsurprising, after almost twenty years – but when she thought of that very first day she'd boarded the train, excitement welled up, as fresh as if she'd been a first-year only yesterday.
But, she reminded herself, she was not eleven anymore. In less than three weeks' time, she was going to turn thirty, and she had a business to run.
Her diary was open on the desk, and Hermione tapped the entry for 10.30 with her wand. To anybody but herself, Penny and Padma, it would only have shown the word "Appointment", followed by either an H or a P. When she pronounced a specially designed revealing spell, more text appeared next to it. It was a complex incantation she had devised together with Penny, her assistant, in order to keep information about the clients as confidential as possible.
Penny, aged twenty-four, used to work for the Ministry as well, in the same department as Hermione, and she'd been only too happy to be offered a job as her former supervisor had left the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad.
Apart from Penny, there was only one regular employee: Padma Patil, the twin sister of Hermione's roommate at Hogwarts, who'd been working for Gringotts as a curse breaker but had quit her job after a serious fallout with her employers. As she had told Hermione, being passed over twice for promotion was bad, but three times was just too much. The Goblins didn't much care for witches (the females of their own species were never to be seen in public), and even less for witches in superior positions.
The meagre salary the goblins had paid her hadn't left Padma with enough capital to become a partner right away, but the two witches had drawn up an agreement: a part of Padma's monthly payment was to be redirected into the company's account, so that she would automatically become a partner after five years of paying these instalments. She already shared most of the responsibilities with Hermione.
This morning's client, marked with "Appointment P" would actually have gone to Padma, but since her son Oliver (one of many children born on the cusp of spring 1999 as a result of a celebratory post-Voldemort shag) was among the first-years who'd just left for Hogwarts, she'd preferred to see him off at the station and asked Hermione to take the case.
There were few enough details in the diary to go by. Usually, Penny was brilliant at squeezing information from clients when they made their appointments by Floo, but obviously even her skills hadn't been equal to this one's reticence.
Gives her name as Lucy M., in her late forties, Penny had scribbled, good-looking, visibly embarrassed. Refused to state her full name and nature of problem. Asked four times about client confidentiality. Threats of dire consequences in case of indiscretion. Money apparently doesn't matter (you ought to have seen the jewels!!!) Snobbish bitch.
It seemed that Padma was indeed lucky to have escaped this one.
When the woman flounced into Hermione's office, ten minutes late and with the air of an acclaimed diva stepping into the limelight, sure in her knowledge that behind the luminous barrier hundreds of hearts are beating only for her, Hermione silently upgraded her from "snobbish bitch" to "insufferably arrogant, condescending, stupid peahen".
Lucy M., whatever her real name, strongly reminded Hermione of Grace Kelly. Or at least, that was what her rational mind tried to tell her. The platinum blond hair, swept up in a deceptively simple twist, the slender body that would have looked elegant even if wrapped in rags, the pearl-grey robes that must have cost a fortune… Her eyes, though, weren't blue but grey. There was something familiar about those eyes and their haughtiness, something she couldn't quite place but was acutely aware of.
'Miss Granger, I presume?'
The woman had a surprisingly pleasant voice. A rich and rather nice contralto, as Hermione reluctantly admitted to herself. She would have expected a sound more in keeping with the peahen image, screechy and metallic. With a mental shrug, she composed herself and held out her hand. 'Hermione Granger, pleased to meet you, Ms…?'
Her client didn't answer the unspoken question. Instead she took Hermione's hand in a firm grip. The sensation of something almost, but not quite, breaking through a barrier and into her conscious mind returned, and with it the awareness that, again, her preconceived notions had been wrong. Women of Lucy M's ilk weren't supposed to shake one's hand in this manner. They had cool, dry fingers, limp and reluctant to be soiled by the contact with lesser humans.
'For now, Lucy will be sufficient,' the woman said and proceeded to sit down on the chair opposite Hermione's.
'As you wish.' Hermione forced her face into a smile. 'Have a seat, please.'
She'd meant it as a put-down, but all the woman did was smirk at her and cross her legs.
Hermione went round the desk to sit in her own chair, sneaking a glance at Crookshanks while her back was turned towards her visitor. He was fast asleep, his ribcage rising and falling slightly but steadily. If Crookshanks didn't sense any danger… But still, the odd sensation persisted. Something was poking and prodding at her mind, fleeting but insistent, something obvious and tantalisingly close to the surface.
Her attempts at identifying what was troubling her so had distracted Hermione, and she flinched when suddenly – and Merlin, had she been quick! – there was a wand in the woman's hand. Hermione's own wand was out in a flash, and while mentally berating herself for being so inattentive, she had already cast a strong shielding spell.
It wouldn't have been necessary, though, for Ms M. merely laid a series of strong wards on the floor, walls and windows, and then put some complicated-looking spells Hermione had never seen on the fireplace. Then she shoved the wand back into her left sleeve, allowing Hermione a glimpse of the Auror-issue holster concealed there, relaxed against the backrest of her chair and smiled at Hermione.
'Any chance of coffee?' she said.
While busy preparing the required double espresso for her client – and one for herself, because her nerves definitely needed something stronger than her usual cappuccino – Hermione tried feverishly to make sense of her own puzzled perceptions. The movements – the eyes – that smirk – the way she'd crossed her legs – the handshake – the no-nonsense wand holster – it had all been so… male?
She still hadn't managed to regain control of her expression when she slowly turned round to face her client.
'Ah,' drawled the woman in question. 'The knut seems to have dropped. It took you longer than I'd thought.'
'Mr… Malfoy?' Hermione felt as if a complicated knot in her mind had finally come undone. With elucidation came an irresistible urge to laugh. She turned back to the espresso machine, hoping that her shoulders weren't shaking too visibly.
'A modicum of professional restraint would be very much appreciated, Miss Granger.'
She bit her lip. 'Sorry. It was just…' She turned round, cups in hand, and had to fight another wave of hilarity. 'Are those your wife's, I beg your pardon, ex-wife's robes and jewels you're wearing?'
The snarl she got in return was pure Malfoy. How could it have taken her so long to recognize him, even in this female incarnation? Probably, she mused while handing him his cup of espresso and returning to her side of the desk, it was her own unwillingness to be alone in a room with Lucius Malfoy that had impeded her thought processes. But now she was alone in a room with Lucius Malfoy, and he'd warded the office so that it was likely more impenetrable than a Gringotts vault. She would have to be on her guard.
'Do you know who did this to you?' Hermione asked. A very slight movement of her left wrist reassured her that her wand was just where it ought to be, ready to be drawn in a millisecond. It made her feel a little better.
Malfoy took a sip from his cup. 'No. If I did, rest assured that I wouldn't have needed your services. The perpetrator would have been only too glad to oblige me and reverse the curse. Whichever curse they used,' he added gruffly.
'How can you be so sure it was a curse? It might just as well have been a potion, or some magical artefact – something unobtrusive, like an enchanted coin, for example.'
'Do give me some credit, Miss Granger. You may be a clever witch, but you are not the only clever… person in the room. I have been on the receiving end of too many curses -'
'And on the giving end as well,' Hermione interrupted him sweetly.
He looked as if he'd bitten on a vomit-flavoured Bertie Botts Bean. 'Such a lack of tact, Miss Granger. The past is dead and buried, so kindly let it rest. I have paid for my crimes, literally as well as metaphorically.'
'Somebody seems to think you didn't pay enough, though,' Hermione replied, glancing pointedly at his breasts and noting with satisfaction that he half-raised his forearm as if to shield himself. 'When did this happen, anyway?'
'Yesterday, in the late afternoon, in Diagon Alley. I had just left Gringotts and was on my way to the Apparition point, when I felt it.'
'Hm.' Hermione picked up a quill and started making notes. 'And was the effect immediate?'
'No. I had been at home for maybe fifteen minutes, performing detection spells, when I felt my body change.'
'And I suppose the detection spells didn't yield any results?'
'They told me what I already knew, that somebody had hexed me. As to a way of recognizing or countering it, nothing.' Malfoy put his empty cup on the saucer and deposited both on the desk. He frowned at her. 'Do not nibble your quill, Miss Granger. It's disgusting.'
'You'll have to put up with it, I'm afraid. Just write it off as a filthy Mudblood habit, I'm sure that will help.' She'd made him wince again. It was a petty satisfaction, but she wasn't above enjoying it. Not where Lucius Malfoy was concerned. 'And now I'll have to try my own method of detecting curses. Please get up and stand over there.' She gestured at a spot next to the fireplace, where a quadrangle of greyish-dull titanium inscribed with magical signs had been inserted into the parquet floor.
'And what, pray, is this supposed to be?'
'A very useful device.' Wand drawn, Hermione crossed the room. 'The Japanese Unspeakables, or equivalent thereof, invented it a few years ago. Take your shoes and stockings off, please.'
A blond eyebrow shooting upwards was all the response she got. Hermione countered with a smirk of her own. 'Don't be shy. I'm sure your legs will pass muster.'
Malfoy growled deep in his throat, a sound very much at odds with his current appearance. The bracelets on his delicate wrist tingled when he pointed at the metal surface. 'I don't care whether it's Japanese or Paraguayan. What is it?'
Hermione's patience was wearing a bit thin, but a client was a client, and it was still early days, too early to turn anybody down. In a few years' time, she'd be able to choose her customers, but not now. And even with a solidly established reputation, throwing somebody as influential as Lucius Malfoy out of her office probably wouldn't be a good idea. So she'd better start digging her meagre diplomatic skills out from wherever she'd put them.
'It's a combined magical insulator and detector,' she said, as evenly as she could, 'and if you deign to look up, you will see the counterpart of this piece lodged in the ceiling. Now, if you step onto it, feet and head bared, and I activate it, two things will happen: firstly, only magic that belongs to you – whether your very own or a spell or curse currently anchored to your body – will be made visible to me as a kind of luminous trace or string.
'Secondly, different kinds of magic will visually manifest themselves in different colours, and they will be separated into individual strands, which in their turn will be drawn to different signs. Your own, innate magic, for example, will show as a shade of blue and go straight into your zodiacal sign. Curses are usually green. The shade depends on their intensity and malignity. By identifying which sign attracts the curse that was cast on you, I'll be able to determine its nature more accurately.'
'You call it a magical insulator and detector,' Malfoy said tonelessly. 'But that is not what it is. I have heard of this device, although I have never seen it before. Not that I ever wished to...'
Again, he had drawn his wand before Hermione had even been able to raise hers. The tip was resting lightly against her throat, as he snarled, 'How dare you! Did you really think you could fool me? Take my magic away and turn me into a squib?'
Now he was smiling, and not in a good way. 'Ten years in Azkaban, I daresay, and you'll be fit to be tried only if I don't exercise my right to legitimate defence…'
'It has been modified for use in curse-breaking. It won't strip you of your magic,' she ground out, hating herself for sounding so terrified.
There was a flicker of doubt in his eyes, but the tip of his wand didn't budge. 'Has it indeed? Would you care to prove it?'
Hermione closed her eyes. 'There's nothing I'd be less willing to do than allow you to analyze my magic, but if it makes you take your wand off my throat, yes, I will.' She glared at him when he deftly removed her own wand from her fingers. 'That was unnecessary.'
'I'll give it back to you when I'm done. You may keep it as a souvenir, to look at while you're stacking shelves at a Muggle supramarket.'
'It's called supermarket,' she said wearily. 'And I already told you the thing's been modified, for heaven's sake. It merely does what I already…' She fell silent; he didn't seem inclined to listen to reason, and his wand was still resting against the quickly pulsing artery in her throat.
He stepped backwards, away from her, and cocked his head.
Hermione rubbed the spot where his wand had poked her. 'You don't know how to activate it.'
'I'm a fast learner, Miss Granger. Now take off your shoes and stockings, if you please.'
Half an hour later, they were again seated on both sides of Hermione's desk, drinking espresso. Malfoy even had the good grace to look slightly sheepish.
'Well,' he said finally, 'have you come to any conclusions?'
'Apart from you being a paranoid bitch, you mean?'
'I'd prefer bastard, if you're sure you have to insult me.'
'Rather,' she muttered darkly, trying to force her mind not to dwell on how he'd looked at her legs when she'd removed her shoes and stockings. The creep. The perverted, unmitigated swine. She had to admit, though, that he could've hexed her to the Hebrides and back, defenceless as she had been. Cast Cruciatus on her, even killed her. Got away with it, too, probably, pleading legitimate defence. But he hadn't. Hermione grudgingly admitted it was a point in his favour.
Her mind had wandered again, and she jumped when he cleared his throat. 'Erm, yes. Well.' She took a calming breath. 'The curse – let's call it that, for the time being, although I'd rather tend towards calling it a charm with a malevolent twist – materialized as a flickering, yellow light. The colour is… unusual.' Malfoy opened his mouth, but she raised her hand to silence him. 'First, let me line up the facts. We'll have to interpret them, but later. At first, the curse seemed unsure which sign to choose. It wavered between the Greek aleph and the Egyptian Ankh, and finally settled on the Ankh.
'This isn't surprising per se, since the Ankh has long been believed to be a sign symbolizing both the male and female element. Closer examination of the strand of yellow light showed that it wasn't flickering, but composed of a multitude of smaller strands in constant movement. That tells us that he curse has been, well, cobbled together from very different elements and lacks stability. The time-release factor built into it might also be responsible for the apparent instability.'
Malfoy, who had been playing with the clasp of his pearl necklace, tilted his head. 'Permission to speak?'
'I suppose so, yes.'
He smiled faintly. 'Interesting and, dare I say, fascinating as your rendition of this in-depth analysis doubtlessly is, does it bring you any closer to a solution for my problem?'
Hermione bristled. Having her skills doubted or belittled – either because she was a woman or due to her Muggle ancestry – was something she thought she had got used to, but Malfoy's mocking tone and the prejudice it betrayed made her so angry that she needed every ounce of self-control to remain calm. 'No,' she said icily, 'that was just a bit of cheap hocus-pocus for the clients' sake. If you don't like my way of doing things, you may leave, Mr Malfoy. I'm sure the Aurors will be delighted to be of help.'
She'd expected him to go, but he remained in his chair. His anger was palpable, though. 'I have no intention of leaving. I need this problem to be solved, and fast.'
'Then I'm afraid you'll have to accept my methods.' She glanced at the clock on her desk. 'My next client is due in little under two hours, so we've got enough time for a few preliminary tests. I hope that the results will be sufficient for me to work with. If they aren't, you'll have to come back here tomorrow, and-'
Robes rustling and pearls softly clattering, Malfoy stood up. Hermione frowned at his back, surprised that he would leave now. But he merely walked over to the window where Crookshanks was still sleeping – and now she did of course notice that, while elegant, his gait was by no means feminine – and leaned against the sill, arms crossed.
'I… would appreciate it,' he said slowly, 'if you could temporarily leave any other clients you might have to Miss Patil. As I already mentioned, I do not wish to remain in this state much longer, and I assure you that you will be compensated most handsomely for your willingness to deal with my case exclusively.'
Hermione contemplated this. 'I'm afraid that won't be possible,' she finally said. 'We don't have that many clients yet, and-'
'Money, as I said, is not an issue.'
'Kindly let me finish. This isn't about money – you'll have to pay a fee according to our tariffs, but even if you offered to double or triple it, it couldn't make up for our letting down a client at this early stage. We need to build up a reputation, and if people begin to think we're unreliable, that won't help at all.'
'Miss Granger, either you are a superb actress, or you truly are an ingénue. If you rid me of this curse quickly and successfully, the right words spoken to a select few will ensure that you never lack clients, believe me.'
'I don't need a pimp, Malfoy!'
'Then you're more of a fool than I thought. Every business needs advertising. If you do a good job, I'll pay for it and recommend you. Or are you worrying that a recommendation coming from my good self might harm you?'
'N-no. I just don't want…' She fell silent.
'To be indebted to me?' he finished her sentence.
'Something like that, yes.'
He idly scratched Crookshanks behind the ears. 'Then consider whatever I can do to further your business to be a recompense for any damage I may have inflicted upon you in the past.'
Crookshanks rolled over and began to purr loudly as Malfoy rubbed his furry belly. When a minute had gone by and he still hadn't sunk his claws into Malfoy's fingers, Hermione's resolve began to crumble. Crookshanks was more reliable than a foe-glass when it came to detecting malicious intent. So Malfoy obviously didn't mean her any harm. And he was of course right: if he recommended the agency, such approval would carry a lot more weight than Mrs Goatwendle's enthusiastic praise of her abilities after she'd successfully removed a hex from the old lady's wardrobe so that it stopped chewing her robes.
She sighed. 'Very well, Mr Malfoy. I'm going to deal with you exclusively and leave the rest to Padma and our subcontractors.'
The classical beauty of his face marred by a moue of disgust, Malfoy dangled a phial from between thumb and index finger, holding the offending object as far away as his outstretched arm would allow. 'Do I really have to drink this?'
'Do you think I'd waste valuable Polyjuice Potion unless it was absolutely necessary?'
'Considering how awful it smells, I wouldn't put it past you.' He sniffed the liquid again. 'Is there no other way?'
Hermione, who had just lifted a Pensieve from a shelf, put the heavy object down on the table. 'I believe I already told you there isn't. I need to establish if the curse has affected your DNA, and doing it the Muggle way would take at least a week.'
His shoulders sagged. 'I suppose I have to believe you.'
'That's what I've been trying to tell you for the last five minutes.' And you've been a royal pain in the arse for the last two hours, she added silently, watching with a sardonic smile as he drank the concoction down in one go.
Malfoy glared at her. 'Well, that was a big success,' he said snidely.
'Patience, Mr Malfoy. The potion might take longer to become effective, for one, and if it doesn't have an effect, we can at least be sure that the curse has penetrated your body down to the cellular level.'
'And will be harder to counter,' Malfoy added morosely. 'Well, if that isn't…' He bent over and fell to his knees.
'Thirty-three seconds,' Hermione stated, unmoved, adding the number to her case notes. 'Are you feeling any ill effects apart from the usual cramps and muscle spasms?'
The hiss of ripping fabric made her look up from her writing. She had to dodge a small hailstorm of pearls set free when a bracelet yielded to tension. Again, the impulse to laugh was overwhelming, but she managed to rein herself in. Just in time, because the transformation was complete, and Malfoy scrambled to his feet.
As a woman he'd been a couple of inches taller than Hermione, but now he'd regained his own height; that and the dimensions of his shoulders, arms and chest had been rather detrimental to the fine silk of his robes. Hermione was reminded of a snake shedding its skin but chose not to put the thought into words. Not when he was hopping on one foot, face twisted in pain, while trying to get the remaining shoe off his other foot. He may not intend to harm her, but there was only so much humiliation a man could bear without losing his temper.
'Your DNA hasn't been affected then,' Hermione remarked. 'But the curse was still strong enough to delay the effect of Polyjuice potion for more than twenty seconds. And now,' she continued, ignoring Malfoy's attempts at pulling his robes down so they'd cover his knees, 'we wait until you transform back. In the meantime, I would like you to extract your memories of yesterday afternoon. Starting with your departure from the Manor and finishing with your return there. Somebody must've come within curse-casting distance, and maybe we can identify the culprit right away. That would certainly make things easier.'
Malfoy had obviously acknowledged that his efforts at tugging down his robes were futile. The hem had been just above his ankles in his female form, and not only was he taller now, but the sudden broadening of his chest had also bunched up the fabric under his arms, and it was hopelessly stuck there, so that he now seemed to wear some kind of A-line mini dress from the sixties. Extracting his wand from under the tatters of his sleeve, he conjured a dressing gown which he wrapped around himself with a theatrical flourish.
Hermione was rather disappointed to see that it covered all of his legs and most of his feet. Although certainly not a foot fetishist, she knew a pretty pair of feet when she saw one. Malfoy's feet were very pretty, as were his calves. And while not particularly choosy when it came to feet, Hermione had very strong views on calves: she found stick-thin as unattractive as bulgingly muscular (Ron!) and the complete absence of hair (Harry!) as unsightly as a bristling miniature shrub (Victor!).
Suddenly aware that she was ogling Lucius Malfoy's legs, Hermione pulled herself together, grateful that he was busy tying the sash of his dressing gown. She shooed him over to the Pensieve where he set about extracting strands of memories.
'I suggest that we have a look at them together,' she said when he was finished. 'Two pairs of eyes and all that, and besides I need to keep watching you – it's impossible to predict when you're going to change back, and I must have the exact time.'
He merely nodded and stood next to her, hands braced on the table and ready to dive into his own memories.
Before the end of the war, Hermione had never used a Pensieve. She'd heard Harry's accounts, of course, during their fourth and sixth year and after the final battle, and she'd read about the theory and history of this magical artefact.
Although Harry had assured her that memories looked like silvery fog, as they emerged from the head, and a bit like quicksilver once they'd solidified, Hermione had never been able to forget the almost-black, tar-like slush that had bled onto dirty floorboards from the temples of a dying Professor Snape.
She'd been horribly afraid that her own would look rather like Professor Snape's: dark, glutinous and repulsive.
After the Battle of Hogwarts, when the Aurors had asked her permission to extract some of her memories, which might prove useful for their inquiries, she'd refused and opted for Veritaserum instead.
A few months after their victory over Voldemort, when even her obsessive determination to keep going and her strength of will hadn't been enough to keep the nightmares and panic attacks at bay, she'd spent some time at St. Mungo's and finally consented to the healers temporarily removing her memories of the past year. This had allowed her some much-needed rest, both physical and mental. When the Healers had deemed her sufficiently recovered, they'd visited her memories together with her, bit by bit, always close to her, kind and understanding, until she was ready to have them reinserted into her mind, one by one.
Having her worst memories taken away from her, even for a short period of time, had been her salvation, but it had also made her understand the responsibility required of a wizard who dealt with memories. In the wake of this realization had come horrible, suffocating guilt: what had seemed like a necessary, if desperate, measure to save her parents now appeared like the most reckless, irresponsible action she'd ever committed. She cringed with helpless remorse, because not only had she been reckless, she'd also felt a secret pride at the time, because of her prowess with a wand – casting Obliviate was beyond the abilities of many a seasoned wizard.
Hermione's parents had been retrieved from Australia, and the memory spells had been successfully reversed. She'd told them everything, and forgiveness had been asked and granted. Once, when she and her mother had prepared a Sunday lunch, her mother had dropped a glass bowl; Hermione had whipped out her wand to repair it with a simple spell. There had been a spark of such fear in Mrs Granger's eyes, just for a moment… Hermione had seen it, and pretended she hadn't, and her mother had pretended it hadn't happened. It had been one of the worst moments of her life.
It had also been a determining factor in Hermione's choice of profession: the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad dealt out memory spells like cheap candy, and it had been Hermione's firm intention to make a difference. It was common knowledge that the AMaReS was composed mainly of wizards and witches who'd failed their entrance exams for both Law Enforcement and Aurory, and their Obliviates bore, as a rule, more similarity to sledgehammers than to the finely crafted scalpels they ought to have resembled.
She'd tried to make a difference, but all she had made were enemies. And in the end she'd given up and left. She still felt like a coward. It was preferable, though, to tearing herself to pieces in an ongoing struggle she could never win.
Aware that she'd got lost in her thoughts, Hermione glanced sideways at Malfoy. He was staring at the silvery liquid in the bowl, head bent and frowning. The surface danced and rippled, stirred by his breath.
'Ready to go?' she asked, picking up her quill and parchment, and slinging the strap of her magical camera over her shoulder.
He nodded, without looking at her. She counted to three, and they both touched their foreheads to the swirling pool of silver.
They were standing back to back, Malfoy watching the entrance of the Gringotts building, Hermione scanning the opposite side of Diagon Alley.
Whoever had cast the curse couldn't haven chosen a better time: the day before the students returned to Hogwarts, when everybody seemed to be doing some last-minute shopping. Only on Christmas Eve had Hermione seen more people crowding Diagon Alley.
From what she'd seen of the curse, Hermione was sure that no one but a fully trained wizard could have created and wielded it. The children, who made up at least half of the masses thronging the street, could therefore be discarded as suspects. That still left lots of people, though, some of whom she knew. Whenever she glimpsed a familiar face, she made a note on her parchment. Persons unknown to her were photographed.
'I've entered the building,' Malfoy said from behind her.
'Then I suggest you follow yourself, while I keep observing the street.'
'What if I transform?'
'Bugger.' Hermione stamped her foot. 'Well, never mind. Stay here with me, and we can still come back and have a look inside, if canvassing the crowds out here doesn't yield any result. Meanwhile, I'd appreciate it if you could give me a hand in identifying people – I can't watch properly while I'm taking photos.'
They worked assiduously for about ten minutes. Hermione's list was growing to impressive proportions, and she silently marvelled at the number of people Malfoy knew. He had to have an excellent memory, seeing as he was able to put names to so many faces within seconds. Hermione admitted to herself that she secretly envied him this ability.
'I'll leave you to it,' Malfoy said after a while. 'I didn't spend much time inside the bank and will probably be coming out shortly.'
She nodded, her eyes never leaving the horde of passers-by, and felt Malfoy return to his previous position, his back touching hers. Ridiculous though he'd been looking clad in the shreds of his wife's elegant robes, Hermione had been unable not to appreciate the body under the grey silk. She'd only seen the front side, but now that her shoulder blades encountered solid muscle, and she felt his buttocks brush her lower back, her treacherous mind quickly converted tactile input into visual imagination.
The result was such that she had to refrain herself consciously from rubbing against him.
Her physical reaction angered and distracted her, but not sufficiently to miss Ginny Potter, who was behaving in a very strange way indeed. Strange, that is, unless one was looking for the person who'd attacked Lucius Malfoy.
Hermione felt herself go rigid. If Ginny turned out to be the culprit, what was she to do? Talk of being caught between a rock and a hard place… This had to be the worst conflict of interests in the history of mankind. Mind working furiously, she watched as the red-haired witch opened the latest issue of Witch Weekly and, while pretending to be deeply engrossed in her reading, surreptitiously cast a series of carefully measured Engorgio!s on the potted rosebush next to her, until the plant was sufficiently large and bushy to provide cover. Then, still holding up the magazine, she stepped behind the shrub and kept her wand trained on the ornate entrance door of Gringotts Bank.
Unlike most people, Hermione had never underestimated Ginny. It hadn't taken her long to recognize how the youngest Weasley, instead of trying to escape the overwhelming shadow of her older brothers, had used that shadow as a camouflage for her own, not inconsiderable power. Hermione looked at her in awe, as she cursed Malfoy and Disapparated almost at the same time. A masterpiece, if ever she'd seen one.
'You seem preoccupied,' Malfoy said when they re-emerged from the Pensieve.
He'd whirled round as soon as he'd seen his memory self being hit with the curse, but she was absolutely certain he hadn't spotted Ginny. Inwardly thanking all the deities she could think of, and apologizing to those she couldn't, Hermione nodded. 'It's been an hour and twelve minutes, and you still haven't transformed.'
He merely raised an eyebrow, conjured a chair for himself and sat down.
'I think,' Hermione said, as briskly and businesslike as she could, 'that I ought to develop the photos now. I've run all the tests already, and we have to wait for your transformation anyway, so we might as well do something useful in the meantime.'
'What about analyzing the curse?' he asked, crossing his legs and thus revealing a perfectly chiselled foot and ankle.
Feeling doubly guilty, because she was betraying a client – never mind that it was Malfoy, it just went against her professional ethos – and drooling over his legs at the same time, Hermione told herself that she had to act normal. What was more normal, though, snapping at him because he was criticizing her methods or conceding that he was right? Damn it, she was starting to feel like the proverbial centipede trying to determine which leg it used first.
'Erm, right. Yes. Well, developing the pictures will only take me five minutes, and you can have a look at them while I do a bit of Arithmancy.' There, that had been brilliant. If she said so herself.
Malfoy shrugged and leaned back. 'As you wish.' He adjusted the lapel of his dressing gown. 'I'm feeling a bit peckish, now that I have recovered from the nauseating effect of that foul potion.'
'I brought some sandwiches for my lunch,' Hermione said, feeling horribly inadequate, as she always did in matters of hospitality and housekeeping, 'and Penny can make us some tea. If that's all right with you.'
'I am entirely at your mercy.' He half-bowed.
Hermione found herself staring at the thigh the motion had half-unveiled and swallowed. 'I'll just…' She was about to say "lick" but caught herself at the last moment. 'I'll tell Penny, then. Back in a sec.'
Unsurprisingly, Malfoy's perusal of the photos didn't lead to any tangible result. The wizarding world was a small community in which he had been living for more than fifty years. A few years ago he had been readmitted to Hogwarts' Board of Governors; that, and his variegated social contacts, enabled him to identify all but four people, none of whom he deemed capable of casting a curse of this complexity.
Hermione had expected a good deal of impatience and snide remarks. He'd merely complimented her on her sandwich-making skills, though, and seemed to be in a rather mellow mood. And he still hadn't changed back, three hours and four minutes after having taken the potion.
Regardless of Malfoy's quite uncharacteristically placid behaviour, Hermione was used to working alone and felt unable to concentrate in his presence. Besides she was altogether unsuccessful in attempting to convince herself that it was his presence, and not her failure to stop herself from glancing at his legs more often than she cared to admit, which had such a detrimental effect on her ability to focus.
'I think,' Hermione finally said, when another peek at his knees had resulted in a grave Arithmantic error, 'that it would be best if you went home now. For the time being, all I can do is analyze the curse – just a lot of Arithmantic equations, boring stuff, which I have to do on my own – and try to find a counter-curse. I think it's clear by now that the Polyjuice Potion remains effective for an unusually long time, and I'm pretty sure that it isn't going to wear off anytime soon. I don't have to tell you to stay put at the Manor, I guess. And I'll contact you tomorrow morning. Please make sure to check the time when you change back, and write it down.'
He didn't look particularly pleased, but returned to her office with her and stepped into the fireplace without further ado.
Alone and finally free to vent her emotions, Hermione blocked the Floo – that sneaky bastard was capable of coming back – and, after casting a strong Muffliato, allowed herself to emit a loud scream, jumping up and down and tearing at her hair. While this outburst left her looking like a sheep blown backwards through a hedge by a hurricane, it helped her get rid of the pent-up anger and frustration she'd felt building since she'd spotted Ginny in the Pensieve.
Crookshanks, rather used to his human's bouts of self-therapy, merely flicked his tail.
Slightly calmer, Hermione removed the silencing spell and sat down at her desk. She meant to pay Ginny a visit, but first she had to put some order to her thoughts.
Fact number one: Lucius Malfoy was a bastard. Nice legs, nice feet, pretty hair, but still a bastard.
Fact number two: Lucius Malfoy was a client. He was going to pay her a hefty sum of money for analyzing the curse and either finding a counter-curse or identifying the culprit and wringing the counter-curse out of him or her. Well, her, but Malfoy didn't know that yet (and hopefully never would).
Fact number three: Lucius Malfoy wasn't just any old bastard, he was a vengeful, dangerous bastard, and therefore highly unlikely to let the matter rest even after the curse had been reversed. It seemed doubtful that observations on his female version being rather the dashing belle would slake his thirst for retribution.
Fact number four: Ginny was her friend. Whatever her reasons for turning Lucius Malfoy into a woman, he must never learn that she was the culprit. The consequences were too dire even to imagine, especially since Harry wasn't going to stand by idly while Malfoy took his revenge on his wife.
Having established these facts, Hermione saw clearly that there was only one path for her to take: Visit Ginny and try to make her see the possibly disastrous outcome of her foolish actions, and hope that visions of Harry dead or in Azkaban would suffice to make her spill the information Hermione needed, which she could then present to Malfoy as the result of her own research. A result for which he'd pay her good money, but then it was the result that counted, not the way it was achieved. Make Ginny promise or, if necessary, swear that she was never going to do it again. If Ginny balked, she could always threaten to tell Harry.
Risk assessment, then. What could possibly go wrong?
There might be no counter-curse. Since Hermione was pretty sure, though, that by putting pressure on Ginny she was going to obtain the formula for the curse, she was confident that, sooner or later, she'd find a possibility to counter it. In the meantime, Malfoy would have to experience the joys of womanhood. In case of pressing business engagements Polyjuice was always an option.
Malfoy might use Legilimency on her. In which case she was dead. Or he might find out about Ginny some other way, in which case she was equally dead. Harry had taught her a bit of Occlumency, so she might have a slim chance of blocking an attempt at invading her mind. There was no way she could stop Malfoy from investigating on his own, though, or prevent the inevitable consequences, should he be successful.
Hermione buried her head in her hands. This wasn't the kind of situation she liked to deal with. When she planned, she did so thoroughly, considering every tiniest potential risk and providing solutions for every problem that might possibly arise.
But this… This was a mess. A complete muddle, riddled with uncertainties and what-if's. She hated it.
So it was probably preferable to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Her professional qualms she'd have to deal with later, if ever. True, she was going to lie to a client. Considering, though, that this lie would benefit everybody involved and, more importantly, keep them out of Azkaban, it wasn't likely to bother her overly much. At least she hoped it wasn't.
With a weary sigh, Hermione got up to tell Penny that she'd be back in two or three hours and returned to her office. The tin of Floo powder seemed to be grinning at her in an insufferably mocking fashion, and of course she singed the hem of her sleeve when she threw some powder into the flames.
It was just one of those days.