When the sun rose on Monday, Hermione and Mr. White were in the same condition as when it last set. They had slept on and off, kissing and having meaningless little almost-conversations, while she tried to forget what the morning would bring. Far too soon for her liking, she removed herself from Mr. White's embrace. He stirred and asked her to come back, voice heavy with sleep, but she could only brush back his hair with her fingertips and bid him goodbye. When she did so, she noticed that her entire right hand was black.
She went to the kitchen and laid out some food for Mr. White, to tide him over during the day. As she finished getting ready for work, she thought of all the lies she would need to tell to get through the day. No one would believe her if she explained what was really going on or what she actually planned to do about it. She'd come up with more and more tricks in the past few weeks to avoid unnecessary social interaction at the Ministry, and they were coming in handy: she went in early that day and walked quickly to her office, head down, avoiding eye contact with the few people she passed. She closed her door, drew her blinds shut, and made herself look as busy as possible by spreading papers all across her desk. Once everything was in place, she could begin the secret work of bending the limits of time. If Mr. White was correct about the aversion to moving forward, it could become a useful tool. Haigha had told her that they couldn't catch the killer because she always left just before they arrived—would it change anything if they could move more quickly?
With her eyes fixed on the clock on the wall, she made it her mission to launch herself as far forward as possible, using the same process that had worked before but intensified. The minute hand sped up almost immediately and soon blurred away entirely, whipping around in maddening circles, so fast that she was afraid she wouldn't be able to stop it. Perhaps she would grow old like this, with nothing to show for her life but spinning clock hands and a wave of dizzy colours that would only stop when her heart did. But, no, it ended. She'd only skipped to an hour past lunch. The taste of what she'd eaten still lingered on her tongue.
She had sent her teams back out to investigate the crime scenes, although she knew it wouldn't help, and she was almost ready to try another time experiment when there was a knock at her door. "Officer Granger?" her assistant called. "I know you're busy, but you have a visitor. She says she needs to see you right away."
"Who is it?"
The name sent a jolt along her spine, composed of surprise and a little trepidation. "Send her in," she said.
Her assistant opened the door, and Arley side-stepped her quickly. Before anyone could react, she'd already seated herself opposite Hermione's desk. The secretary blinked a few times and left without another word.
"I gather you weren't expecting to see me again," Arley said.
"No, I wasn't."
"Well, I believe that misunderstanding has a lot to do with Haigha." Arley crossed her legs and bounced her top foot repeatedly against the side of the desk. "She'd rather that we take care of things on our own, but I believe that Mr. White is more important than we realised."
"More important to catching the killer?"
"Yes, perhaps. To be perfectly honest, our investigation isn't doing much better than yours." Arley's foot moved faster and faster, causing her chair to squeak as well, and Hermione tried to think of a polite way to ask her to stop.
"But Haigha still doesn't want us to help?"
Arley shook her head. "Don't take it personally—she just doesn't like you because you work for the government."
"Why should that matter?"
"She used to work for our government a long time ago, and it didn't end well. I've tried to explain that it's different here—believe me, I've tried—but she's afraid of what you lot can do to her if the right person says the word."
Hermione couldn't help but notice the gaping hole in Haigha's strategy. If someone were afraid of Ministry workers, that person should avoid being so surly with them. "What happened to her before?"
"She was banished by our former queen." At last, Arley's legs stopped moving. She placed both feet flat on the floor, leaned forward, and began to drum her fingers on Hermione's desk. "That's why she has to tell fortunes in your world for Galleons, which hasn't been easy on her pride. She used to hold one of the highest-ranking positions in our kingdom."
"She was banished from your world to ours?" She hoped she'd misunderstood, because it wouldn't be the least bit safe or fair to use someone else's perfectly good universe as a makeshift prison.
"No," Arley said. Her hands went still on the wood, and Hermione breathed easier. "Normally those banished go to Over There."
"Over There. That's the name of the place—well, more accurately, it doesn't have a name, so that's what everyone calls it. It's a deserted land at the outskirts of our world." She saw Hermione's relief and touched her arm reassuringly. "Don't worry—we wouldn't just dump our criminals off on you. It's only the ones who don't deserve banishment that find their way here, because they have friends to help them. People who deserve to be banished usually have no friends at all."
"I suppose that makes sense," she said. "Back to the situation at hand, how can Mr. White and I aid in your investigation?"
Arley folded her hands in her lap and rocked back and forth in her chair, and Hermione wondered if it would cause her physical pain to sit still. "We have reason to believe that our suspect has been visiting Draco Malfoy at St. Mungo's," she said. "Therefore, she must be looking for something that she thinks he has. Our working theory is that she wants the time we gave to Mr. White—I doubt she knows he exists at all, so she's trying to understand where the extra years went."
The pieces fell into place, resulting in a complete yet lopsided and entirely bizarre puzzle. "What does the suspect look like?" she asked, just to be sure.
Arley lifted her hand and held it just over a metre off the ground. "About this tall," she said, "with white skin and black hair."
Hermione's suspicions were correct, but she wished they weren't. "Is she... a child?"
"Good heavens, no," Arley said. "She's much, much older than she looks. She used to be our queen, back when we still had queens. In those days, time was passed down through the royal families—whenever there was a court-ordered execution, they'd divide the rest of the prisoner's life between their children. Sabine was an only child, and her mother was an especially violent ruler: she executed more than five hundred men in the first three years after her husband's death. I can't say for certain, but I think Sabine holds more time than any single person ever has before."
"If she already had so much time, why did she take more?"
Arley frowned, sad and grey. "That's just how she is. If she hadn't taken it, someone else would've gotten it, and she hates it when other people have things. I doubt she'd be satisfied unless she had all of everything, and nobody else had any at all."
"And she used to be your queen?"
"Only for a few years, until we banished her, which was no small feat. She was demanding peasants' babies for sacrifices and taking the rest of their lives. That's what she's doing here as well, with the twins." Arley leaned forward conspiratorially, as though she were about to reveal some juicy gossip. "She's always had a special obsession with those: rumour has it that she got her first taste of stolen time when she ate her own twin in the womb. But there's no way to confirm it, for obvious reasons."
"How did she escape from Over There?"
"If we knew that, we would have put her back by now. Haigha's convinced that it had something to do with Draco Malfoy's accident, but that may have just been a coincidence." She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "You never know when those little buggers are going to pop up and confuse everyone."
"Of course," she said. It was best to just agree. "Well, how did you banish her in the first place?"
"Since we couldn't take her time away, we used it against her." Arley tilted her head this way and that, probably trying to think of a good way to explain whatever they had done. "I'm not sure if you'll be able to understand this, but I'll try. Given: time is just another way to measure a change." She waited for a response, and Hermione nodded. "Which means minutes aren't really so different from metres, if you can get past a few nasty little preconceptions. We don't experience them the same way, but that's our limitation, not time's—it was only because of that ingrained idea that Sabine was able to store her time in a way that didn't hold her back. She was keeping it all in the future, which is a place that doesn't actually exist. It was the equivalent of someone stealing several thousand metres' worth of empty space, winding it around itself, and putting it on a shelf like an invisible spool of thread. Do you understand?"
"Mostly," she said, which was mostly a lie.
"To sum it up, there was nowhere for her to keep her time. She only thought there was."
"So, how did she keep it in the first place? How did the royal families pass it down?"
"This is where it gets confusing," Arley said. "They were only able to keep their stolen time because they believed in the future."
"But if the future was never a real place, then they never really had the time at all."
"Yes, they did. They had it when there was a place for it in their minds."
"That doesn't make sense," she said, as though that were unusual.
"I know," Arley said sympathetically. "I know, but that's what happened. Anyway, the hardest part of banishing Sabine was figuring all this out. Once we did, all we had to do was go to the palace and tell her that there wasn't a future."
"I told her exactly what I just told you," she said, "and it paralyzed her, and she surrendered. Ever since then, she's been looking for a place to keep her time. She still has it, you see, but she hasn't anywhere to put it."
"How can she still have it, then?"
Arley pressed her lips together. "I suppose that's a subjective question: if a person owns something, but it's so vast and fragile that there's nowhere big enough or safe enough to keep it, do they have it or not?"
"I don't know," Hermione said quietly, but that was an understatement. It was a not-knowing so powerful that it ate her whole mind.
"I don't know, either. No one does. That's why it worked." Arley paused, tapping her fingers together. "We think that when Sabine entered your world, she was able to convince herself that the future existed here. If we could catch her, we might be able to prove her wrong again, but we can't. She has too much time."
There were too many contradictions to process all at once. "Haigha said you two took several years between you," she said, beginning with the first one that came to mind. "Where do you keep that?"
"Away from Sabine," she said. "Unlike the future, that is a place—it's anywhere that Sabine isn't."
"Where does Mr. White keep his?"
"It doesn't matter, since he doesn't care that he has it."
Hermione tried to think and failed. All she had left were questions. "What do we do now?"
Arley shrugged. "That's the extent of our progress. Haigha doubts this greatly, but I think Mr. White will have an idea. He's the most flexible person in the world, because he isn't a person."
Hermione checked the clock, and its function seemed so foreign and arbitrary that she almost couldn't bear it. Time was time, anyway. Time was time was time. It did not matter whether she stayed at work or left. "He isn't doing anything at my flat," she said. "Do you want to go talk to him now?"
"Yes," Arley said. "But we aren't going to tell him any of the things I just told you."
"He'll stay fresh that way. Currently, the greatest strength of his mind comes from his not knowing." Hermione opened her mouth to speak and thought better of it. She could only stare at Arley from across the desk, wishing she could still believe in the future. "Don't worry about it, dear. Just let me do the talking."
She looked at the paperwork on her desk, the complex illusion of doing something important, and decided to leave it all exactly where it was. With Arley behind her, she left her office and took the Floo back to her flat.
Mr. White was at the kitchen table when she entered, playing Queens by himself. It was probably more fun with two people, but it made sense that a person could play alone, what with the sentient cards and all. "You're home early," he said. Then, when Arley popped in beside her, his face went cold and dark. "What's she doing here?"
"She needs our help," Hermione said. All the cards had frozen in place on the table, waiting for Mr. White's next move, and several of them offered her a greeting.
"Don't worry, my lady," Queen Spades called, cupping her tiny hands around her mouth to project her voice. "We've remembered our places from your previous game. You may continue it at your leisure."
Arley stepped forward and smiled widely at the cards. "I was looking for that deck," she said.
"Sorry," Mr. White said, although he didn't sound at all like he meant it. "I was going to give it back."
"No, keep it. I have others." She studied the game board fondly and then turned to Hermione. "This is a historical game, you know. It's about the beginning of our kingdom—how we went from four factions down to one."
"Interesting," she said. She wondered which came first, Muggle decks in her world or Queens in theirs, and if it mattered. Perhaps their similarities were only a coincidence.
Mr. White left his chair and stood beside the table. "What do you need help with, Arley?"
"We need to find the little girl from your dreams," she said. She shifted her weight back and forth, always in motion.
"Why?" he asked. "Who is she?"
Arley rolled her eyes. "He really is one of yours," she said to Hermione, like they were suddenly on the same side. "Mr. White, you ask entirely too many questions. Let's keep things simple this time."
"Of course," he lamented. "We'll keep it nice and vague, just how you like it."
"Good," she said, deliberately ignoring his sarcasm. "All we have to do is find that girl so that we can talk to her."
"What do you need to talk to her about?" He cut himself off and lifted his hands in desperation. "Oh, wait—I'm not allowed to know."
"Don't take it personally," Arley said. "There's something important that we need to tell her, and it's none of your business."
"Is it a secret, then?" he asked.
"No, not really."
"Then why do you have to say it in person? She comes back every night. Write her a note and pin it to my real self's blankets."
Hermione could tell right away that he only meant to be dismissive, but that sort of cynicism must have belonged firmly in their world. Arley's jaw went lax, and for the first time all day, her body was stiff as a board. "Mr. White," she said after a moment, "I take back everything I've ever said about your questions. They're brilliant."
Hermione was considerably less impressed. "Honestly? You didn't think of leaving a note until now?"
For once, Arley was cowed—embarrassed, even. It was a terrific sight, although Haigha would've been better. "That's why I knew you two could assist us," she said. "We couldn't ask things like you do even if we wanted to. We don't think that way."
A truth clicked into place just then, something that should have been as obvious as leaving a note: their two worlds were fundamentally incapable of mutually satisfying communication. They all kept trying, all kept failing, and all it did was make them angry at each other. It wasn't anyone's fault. The languages they spoke sounded identical, but they were as different as Draco Malfoy and Mr. White.
"We're happy to help," Hermione said.
"I appreciate it," Arley replied. She looked at Mr. White and opened her palms in front of her. "And we know this wasn't really your other self's fault. It would be entirely impossible for one of your people to cause this sort of problem intentionally."
"Well, good," Mr. White said, gradually deflating. "I'm glad you understand that."
Arley closed her hands and crossed them over her chest. "Do you have something to write with?"
Hermione went to a drawer in her kitchen and rummaged until she found a quill and parchment. She placed the supplies on the counter, and Arley hurried over. She picked up the quill, pressed the tip to her lips as she thought, and then began to write in large block letters: THE FUTURE DOES NOT EXIST HERE, EITHER. And then, in small print below: (there will never be anywhere to keep your time)
"That should do it," she said when she was finished.
"I hope so," Hermione said.
Arley rolled up the parchment, stowed it in a pocket of her robes, and walked back to the Floo. "Thank you," she said, before leaving. "For the parchment, I mean."
"You're welcome," Hermione said.
She called out her destination and stepped into the fireplace, leaving Hermione alone with Mr. White. "She's really not so bad," she said.
He smiled at her in a dazed sort of way that made her knees feel weak. "You think that about everyone."
Shyly, she placed her ink-soaked hand over her face. "More often than not, it's true."
"Whatever you say. Would you like to finish our game?"
They had to, she realised, because Mr. White might not be with her much longer. If all went right, he'd melt back into Draco Malfoy's body and forget her forever. The children would be safe, and Hermione would be lonely, and she knew that it was a fair trade. "All right," she said.
The cards must've overheard their conversation, because they'd already returned to their former positions by the time their players reached the table. "Welcome back," said Queen Spades.
"Thanks." She lowered her head close to the table. "If I ask you a question, will you answer it honestly?"
"Of course, my lady."
"If we lose, will you be disappointed?"
"No," she said. "I've played this game thousands of times, and I always either win or lose. After a while, they don't feel so different anymore."
"That's good, because we're going to lose." She looked up at Mr. White's fortified royal families and confirmed what she had known all along: there were no tricks left. The situation was every bit as hopeless as it had first appeared. "Head north," she said to her cards. "When you're close enough, try to get to the queens."
"That's our strategy?" Jack Spades asked incredulously.
"No," Hermione said. "We don't have a strategy."
Her cards shrugged off their bewilderment and climbed down from the mountains in a triangular formation, Jack in front. They marched proudly across the fields and flowers, past the trees and across the river. As soon as they were in range, Mr. White's aces lifted their bows in unison and struck. In an instant, all of Hermione's cards were dead, and she made sure not to watch as her tiny queen sank into that pool of black ink.
The game wasn't finished, of course. As soon as all of the Spades were gone, Mr. White's three suits attacked each other. "Wait," he said. "One of you has to live!"
They weren't paying any attention. When the dust settled, Queen Diamonds was dead, and Queen Hearts and Queen Clubs were both on their knees with swords waiting against their throats. Queen Clubs had a larger army, since one of her soldiers had killed Queen Diamonds, but it didn't help her. Hermione and Mr. White watched the standoff for a moment, but it quickly became clear that nothing was going to happen. Neither queen was willing to negotiate.
"What now?" Hermione asked.
"They wait like that until one of the cards makes a move or gets bored and surrenders," Mr. White said. "I've seen it take hours."
"Do we have to keep watching?"
"Probably not," he said. Then, to his cards: "Work this out amongst yourselves, and let us know when you're finished."
The cards agreed, which was a relief: she didn't want to sit around staring at them and waste the rest of her time with Mr. White. She left the table and checked her refrigerator, looking for something nice to cook—the least she could do was send him off with a good meal. "Do you have any requests for dinner?" she asked.
"No," he said. "Whatever you want is fine."
He watched her from the table while she selected her ingredients and set them out on the counter along with pots and pans. She kept her hands busy and her mind on the present—a forward time hiccough was the last thing she needed. As she chopped, boiled, and stirred, she talked herself through the situation: it was unreasonable to be so upset about losing Mr. White. He wasn't even real, and she hadn't known him long at all. It only felt longer because the time hadn't been as predictable as usual. In the future, which didn't exist, she would take better care to enforce a logical basis for her emotions. Eventually, he broke the silence to ask about the little girl from his dreams, since Arley had never bothered to tell him what was going on. Hermione filled him in as best she could, but it wasn't easy to explain. After a while, he claimed that he understood, even though she could tell he didn't. Neither did she.
They ate on the living room couch, since the cards hadn't made any progress, and Mr. White complimented her cooking. She enjoyed every second, every word he said in that voice she had once so hated, every fleeting expression on the face that used to only show hatred for her. It was like wiping clean one pain from her past, and such opportunities were so rare that they had to be savoured. Such a chance would never come to her again. Even better, her companion was entirely oblivious—despite her attempts at explanation, he didn't believe that Arley's note would work. He had every confidence that he would see her the next morning, just the same, again and again. It saved her the trouble of goodbye.
He helped her clean the dishes after the meal, and she offered him a class of sweet white wine. With his arm around her, she rested her cheek on his chest, and they watched the night sky through the window.
"Do you really think I'll be gone tomorrow?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said. "I mean, I have to hope so—if this doesn't work, we'll still need to figure out how to stop her. They're already out of ideas in the Warren."
"Well, if I do go back, I hope my real self remembers this," he said.
"I hope he doesn't."
"He'd be horrified. I'd be so embarrassed." She pictured Draco Malfoy waking up screaming in his hospital bed, praying it had all been a dream. It made her very sad.
"If I'm as identical to him as everyone keeps telling me, he won't be horrified."
"Either way," she said, "I hope he never finds out."
"I guess we'll see what happens."
When the wine was gone, he kissed her like he meant it, exactly the way that Draco Malfoy never would. The couch was too small, and she took him back to her bed, where wonderfully unlikely things happened until she couldn't make sense of anything at all.
Sometime later, Mr. White shook her awake. In the darkness, his eyes were wide with fear.
"Granger," he said, "she saw it. She's panicking."
"Who what?" she asked, not awake enough to form real sentences.
"The little girl saw the note," he said, as though it were some great disaster. "I think it's going to work."
"Oh," she said. "Good. But I'll miss you."
She was too tired even to pick up her head, and Mr. White pressed his body against her. "I'll miss you, too," he said. "I'll have my real self come find you."
"No, no, no," she whispered. "Bad idea."
He stopped speaking, and she drifted away. Later, in the cold reality of morning, she found herself alone. The stain on her hand was gone.
Draco Malfoy awoke from his coma that same night, but it wasn't until two days later that the Prophet covered it. When the newspaper showed up with Draco's face on it, she stopped and stared: without colour, he was indistinguishable from Mr. White. It drew her mind back to unpleasant places.
In the interim, Hermione had spent most of her energy cleaning up the mess at work—she couldn't very well call off the search, but there was nothing left to find. The families would never be able to make sense of their tragedies. All she could do was go with the flow, collect evidence, and reassure them that she was trying as hard as she could. In a way, it was true: she was trying her best to think of something to tell them that would help, some way to close the case without solving it, but she hadn't found a way yet to explain it.
The cards had finished their game, which Clubs had won, and she had packed them up and stored them safely in her nightstand drawer. They waited sadly to collect dust, because she couldn't bring herself to play alone.
Later that night, though, there was a knock at her door. She looked through the peephole and, in a flurry of misplaced hope, mistook the visitor for Mr. White. In fact, it was his real self. She opened the door cautiously and looked into Draco Malfoy's eyes for the first time in years. For reasons that she hoped he didn't know, she blushed. She expected him to speak, but he only stared.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, after an awkward silence.
He looked all around, as though the answer were written on the walls, and then shrugged. "No one else knows how to play Queens," he said.
With a sharp intake of breath, her worst fears and highest hopes were confirmed. "But you do."
"Yes," he said, because he remembered. "Are you going to invite me in or not?"
She let him wait for a moment, so he wouldn't take her acceptance for granted. When she turned away to retrieve the game, she allowed herself the most secret and lovely of smiles.