In the end, she dozed off despite her alert state of mind. Though it felt like she had closed her eyes for only a few seconds when Viktor gently shook her awake. However, she knew this to be untrue due to the first signs of dawn which were visible through the round windows and which made the dark room ever so slightly lighter.
She sat upright with a mutter and a stretch, blinking herself awake. She surveyed their unfamiliar surroundings. Yellow? Why yell- the Hufflepuff common room, she reminded herself. We are temporarily staying in Hufflepuff's House.
Hermione turned around and looked blearily eyed at her lover. He smiled apologetically and explained unnecessarily, "I need to prepare for training."
"Yeah..." She muttered, she was still not entirely awake and listened with her eyes closed to him as he gathered the books and papers scattered around them, accepting his kiss on her cheek with a satisfied hum. Then she remembered the decision she had made just a few hours ago.
"Wait," she said to his back, Viktor was already at the door to the boy's dormitory and turned around to look at her in a mingling of surprise and amusement. She smiled sleepily back at him and asked, "Do you have some sports clothes for me as well?"
Sweat was pouring from every plausible place on her body. It had drenched the bandages wrapped over her underarm, the salt festering in the wound, making it prickle and tender. She was clearly not as fit as she had believed her regular duelling would keep her.
As if reading her mind Viktor encouraged her, "You're doing great."
"It certainly doesn't feel like it," she said between her panting.
Dawn had made way for the fresh morning sunlight. They were running their second lap around the lake, before which they had done jumping jacks, sit-, push- and all kinds of other-ups, planking, knee and leg raises, squads, other muscle-specific exercises and all kinds of stretches.
Viktor had not once been impatient with his instructions. In fact, he had been smiling - if not grinning - whenever their eyes met, despite the fact that she clearly held him back on his training schedule, or perhaps that was the whole reason why this amused him so, because he knew perfectly well why she had joined him and thought it entertaining.
When they slowed down to a walk to give their muscles a cooldown, Viktor cleared his throat, "Fleur came to our tent the morning you went to see the Death Eater."
"Oh?" Hermione panted, her interest was piqued, though a foreboding took hold of her all the same.
"She was looking for you."
"Was she? What did she want, did she say?"
"She wanted to talk with you about the previous night, told me she had drunk too much wine and had been intoxicated when you arrived." He elaborated whilst he began to bring his knees to his chest with every step, effectively stretching some leg muscles. "She had come to apologize."
Hermione copied his stretches, a groan spilling from her every now and then, but she did not say anything else.
"How did she react when you apologized for the... outburst?" Viktor asked, hesitating momentarily on what to call Hermione's reaction to Fleur's appearance during the argument.
She looked over to her lover, not at all surprised to hear that he knew she had apologized to the French woman even though she had not given him any reason to believe this. He knew her well. "It didn't go... I...," Hermione hesitantly conceded, "I panicked and left too quickly, we parted with an icy awkwardness."
He was silent for a few seconds, then he commented, "She is of a proud culture."
"Isn't every nation?" Hermione asked this with a rhetoric air, though Viktor replied nonetheless. She stopped with the stretches and continued to walk normally.
Viktor did a few more before he too continued to walk, "I meant her Veela heritage."
She grasped his hand, squeezed it gently and let go as she said, "I am aware, Viktor."
Hermione frowned as she surveyed the scenery to her right, her eyes landed on a few ducks who were paddling over the lake's surface, quacking excitedly to one another. The knowledge that Fleur had tried to reach out to her only for Hermione to snap at her the moment they had been face-to-face did not sit well with the Muggle-born. Guilt had still lingered inside her even after she had apologized and now it re-manifested itself in her stomach, cramping it in a knot.
"I like training with you," he said out of the blue, effectively breaking through her train of thoughts. His expression was earnest. All the while they came to a halt next to the few discarded items they had left underneath a tree. He grabbed the water bottle and offered it to her.
She took the bottle and said drily, "Well, aren't you lucky, I planned to tag along every morning from now on." Though she knew she could not fool him, he would see through her attitude and know she was pleased at hearing his comment.
His charming grin appeared at the news, then he pointed with his thumb over his shoulder, "Are you ready for more?"
Hermione shook her head carefully as she took a drink and when the bottle was from her lips she elaborated, "No, I want to pay Hagrid a visit, see how he is doing. It has been a few days since I last saw him." She handed him the water bottle.
"Don't sit still for too long, try to keep moving throughout the day, that will lessen the sourness in your muscles," Viktor instructed, bent down to give her a peck on her lips, turned around and ran in the direction of the Quidditch stadium. His pace was faster now that he did not have to match Hermione's. She observed his posture as she watched him go and wondered if he truly needed to be in even better shape than he already was. Silly man, then she thought fondly, my silly man. She tried to ignore the heat that spread to her cheeks, For Merlin's sake, I am not a blushing schoolgirl.
She took her wand and banished the items that were still left in the grass to her bed in the Hufflepuff dormitory. After that, she made her way to Hagrid's cabin.
She found the half-Giant behind his house chopping wood. Uprooted trees laid near the edge of the forest, there was a trail of footsteps and the trees that had been dragged that came from the depths of the wood. Hermione had a suspicion that these trees were specifically selected by Hagrid, perhaps they had a sickness within them?
While Hagrid chopped, Grawp was helping him by breaking the uprooted trees in smaller pieces, first, the branches were torn from the trunk, then the trunk was broken in halves, and the halves into quarters.
To her delight, Hermione saw that Grawp's head was no longer covered in bandages, though the bruises which still covered his face were all the more visible, colouring it dark blue, yellow and all the stages in-between. As Grawp put down the most recently broken trunk he noticed the human walking their way. He bellowed 'Hermy' and showed a gigantic smile, he no longer flinched from the motion. His shout made Hagrid stir from the chopping, though the smile he showed was wan; he looked like he had slept little since she had last seen him. Unease and guilt settled inside her, she should have visited him sooner.
"Good morning, you two," she called as cheerily as she could.
"Hermy," Grawp rumbled in excitement, he practically bounced on his place. The stones and other loose objects on the ground around him rolling, bouncing and stirring with every impact.
Hermione heard that Hagrid truly tried to sound and be cheerful, but the smile did not reach his eyes, which seemed to have sunken in, much like his cheeks from what she could see of them from underneath his bushy beard.
"Hagrid..." She could not suppress the worry, when she was close enough she reached for his arm. And that was enough to break the dam, Hagrid had always been an emotional person and the war had not changed this. Tears gathered in his eyes as he looked down at her and covered her hand with his.
"It's just -" the first tear rolled down his cheekbone and into his beard, "- it's so -" the second and third tears followed, "- silent. The little feller -" Hagrid cleared his throat to try and get the croak from his voice; it did not work, "- always had somethin' ter bark about." And at finishing this recollection he broke out into sobs, hanging his head as his shoulders and body shook.
Grawp came closer and sat down, ignoring the broken trunks and branches, and hunched forward. "Hagger," this was clearly meant as a soft rumble, but with his face this close, his voice still sounded loud to Hermione's ears. He reached out and tried for a gentle grip, just like when he had last lifted Hermione from the ground, holding both his half-brother's shoulders with one hand. "Hagger," he repeated, this time sadness evident in his voice and features.
Hermione reached with her other hand for Hagrid as well, now holding both his arms as she battled her own tears. She did not dare open her mouth, afraid that she too would start crying. There was nothing she could say to lessen his pain.
Time trickled on, the Muggle-born had no idea how long they stood there, but by the time Hagrid's tears ceased there was a strain in her neck muscles from looking up at the two Giants.
"Sorry, I -" he began
"Hagrid," she interrupted him. His name, spoken in an admonished tone, was enough.
"Right," the ghost of a real smile appeared for a second. He cleared his throat again, "Can I brew ye some tea?"
"Yes, please," she smiled warmly at him, gave his arms gentle squeezes and let go of him. She mentally resolved to pay him a visit every day for the time being, as she should have done from the very moment she knew Fang had died.
Hagrid blinked furiously, his lower lip trembled a little but he turned and disappeared into his cabin before new tears could spring from his eyes.
Hermione turned her full attention to Grawp now that they were alone, ignoring the painful strain in her neck, "How have you been, Grawp?"
He did not move from his place, but he did lower his face a little more. "Hagger," he said, forlornly. The hand which had laid on his brother's shoulders now reached for her.
She let herself be picked up, though not without a simple request, "be gentle, please."
He scooped her up, gently, and brought her nearer to himself. He smiled anew, though it fell when he repeated, "Hagger."
"Yes, Hagrid is sad," she wondered if she should explain why, if Grawp would understand. "He is mourning -" No, too complicated. She tried again, "Hagrid is sad, he misses Fang."
The Giant looked at her, he blinked. Silence. He scratched his chin with his free hand.
For a moment she felt foolish for even trying, but then she reminded herself that he had learned not only names but also how to be gentle. This heartened her. Surely, given time, he could learn to understand basic emotions as well, "Hagrid is sad."
He grunted, looked over at the open door where Hagrid had disappeared inside and back at the young woman sitting in the palm of his hand. He grunted again.
She smiled ruefully and patted his calloused skin. It pleased him, calmed him down even, his confusion at the situation ceasing. He began to play with one of the branches on the ground, softly grunting to himself. Hermione was pleasantly surprised, for it sounded to her as if he were humming. And, all the while, she watched him. Only now that she was this close did she see how the previously bandaged eye was a bit milky compared to the other. She had a sinking suspicion that his eye was permanently damaged.
"Yer have to put her down, Grawp," Hagrid said as he came outside with a kettle and two bucket-sized cups. "Tea's ready."
Grawp objected to this with a frown and an indignant 'Hermy', as he lifted his hand with Hermione on it higher from the ground. The sudden movement made her yelp and clutch some of his fingers.
"Grawp!" Hagrid gasped, worry clear in his voice, "Gentle! Be gentle. And put her down. Now."
A gloomy grunt came from him, but he did listen this time.
When Hermione stood on her own feet she was slightly shaky, being reminded of her fear of heights like that was all but pleasant. Despite her distress, she patted Grawp's hand thankfully. He had not meant anything wrong.
"Okay there, Hermione? Here drink some, ter calm down." He gave her one of the bucket-sized cups, steam twirled through the air. Then he guided her to one of the trunks to sit upon.
"Thank you, Hagrid."
"Still learnin', Grawp is. Helps around with the heavy work. McGonagall is mighty kind for allowin' him on the grounds and out in the open, says he can until the start of term."
"That is very nice of her," she concurred. "Gives ample time to restore Grawp's previous cave. If it needs restoring at all?"
"Dunno," he shrugged and took a gulp of his tea, "haven't been there yet..." As he admitted this he gazed at Grawp's face.
Given this opportunity, she asked at once, though kindly, "How is his sight?"
Hagrid was silent for a while as he watched how his half-brother sulkily prodded the earth with the branch in his hand, "Has been better. Pomfrey can't do much, Grawp won't let no one near his eye but me. And I can fix a broken bone alright, or any festering body wound, but eyes... Nay, that is somethin' difficult. And I have no more Unicorn tail hairs, my house was burned to ash, remember?
"But I mix potions in his food, Slughorn sends new ones every few days. The eye is less milky than it was. There is hope."
As they drank and refilled their tea, they talked about Grawp, both their plans for the summer, a little about Fang - though this upset Hagrid once more to tears, thus there was little said - and about the upcoming medal ceremony.
After Hagrid's second cup (Hermione had barely drunk half of her first) they started on one of the patrols over the grounds, to survey that nothing was amiss. Between them hung the unspoken awareness of Fang's absence, these patrols had always been a joy for him; running about, retrieving whatever was thrown for him. And she noticed several times how Hagrid, when the truth slipped momentarily from his mind due to being distracted by their conversation, looked around for his dog only to remember that Fang would not come crashing through the wild shrubbery with a newly-found, prized possession. Hagrid's words would still on his lips or his voice would become strangled and Hermione patted his arm, or she gave it a squeeze and tried to bring him back to their discussion or simply let him be and waited.
Like this, they walked over the grounds and returned half an hour later to Grawp, who had stayed behind continuing with his work: breaking the felled trees into smaller pieces.
"Thanks, Hermione," Hagrid said, "this meant a lot ter me."
She smiled warmly at him, wanting to show without words that this was important to her as well, "Perhaps we can do the morning patrols together, I am going to be out and about early from now on and it is good to give the body a prolonged cooldown."
"I saw yer two runnin' this mornin'," he nodded, "trainin' for somethin'?"
"Yeah, Viktor wants to get back into Quidditch now that..." the war is over. Saying it aloud was still surreal, despite the fact that she was slowly going through her mental 'when the war is over to-do list'.
"Well, do both yer bests! See ye tomorrow." His smile was more evident than the earlier ghostly ones, though it was still broken and sad.
She hoped that Charlie's response would come soon, she was certain that it would do Hagrid good if he were able to see and perhaps work with Norberta, if just for a little while.
Once back in Hufflepuff's dormitory she gathered fresh clothes. The rooms were deserted, not strange since it was time for breakfast which made her realize how empty her stomach was. Her eyes momentarily wandered towards Fleur's bed, or, rather, what had been her bed, for William and Fleur had gone. To France or to Shell Cottage Hermione did not know but she was glad that there was no more risk for awkward meetings or charged silences.
In the bathroom, she undid herself from the sweat-stinking clothes, while her mind was elsewhere. Hagrid's tears were plentiful, something which did not surprise her, his love for Fang - and animals in general - transcended beyond the love he felt for (most) humans, or so it had always seemed to Hermione. And was it really so questionable, when many a wizard had treated him negatively merely because of his ancestry? Never had an animal judged him for his size, as it should be for wizards alike. Still, Hermione suspected the emotional state of Hagrid was more than mourning. Now that she could ponder over it in silence, she realized that this, Hagrid's pain over missing Fang, was likely a way to start processing the war, the battle and all that had happened, a way for him to mourn not only his beloved dog but everyone - the few humans who had loved him for who he was - who had given their lives willingly or not, in the battle against Voldemort.
She sighed as she tapped the shower and the spray of water rinsed away the sweat from her hair and body, though her thoughts were not as easily quietened.
It was during lunch that Hermione and Harry were reunited, though his relieved smile faltered when he saw how the red envelope went up in flames above the table in front of Hermione. The other people resumed their conversations now that the yelling had stopped. An uncomfortable tension hung in the air. Though he saw that Hannah Abbot - who sat a few paces away from Hermione with friends of her own - leaned towards Hermione, muttered something to her and smiled kindly afterwards. Hermione nodded and smiled back, then she returned her gaze to Harry and welcomed him.
"First howler?" He asked as he sat down beside her and put one hand comfortingly between her shoulder blades. He noticed the untouched Daily Prophet on the table.
"You didn't hear the voice bellow all the way down the corridors?" She asked instead of answering.
"I thought it was Filch raging at something Peeves had done," he shrugged, reached out a hand for the pumpkin juice and poured himself a cup. "Didn't really listen to the words."
"It is the third."
"The third?!" He straightened in shock, almost spilling the content of the cup in his hand.
"I received two during breakfast," she took a bite from her sandwich.
"Damn..." He muttered, momentarily lost for words, "how can people be so obnoxious? If it wasn't for you the war would -"
"You don't know that, Harry," she interrupted, not willing to hear it. "People are scared. Not all Death Eaters have been captured and here I am brandishing the wand from one of them."
"They are using you," he said angrily, "using you to vent their frustration on. Does McGonagall know of it?"
"She hasn't been down yet, but I bet that she will hear one of them soon enough. Though there is little she can do, I believe."
"Hm," was all he said. After which they sat in silence while they ate and drank their meal.
"Want to go get Neville's presents?" Harry whispered when he had eaten the last morsels from his plate.
Hermione eyed him sideways and replied softly, "Last I heard the Aurors are still investigating down there."
"Since when has something like that stopped us? Need I remember you of St. M-"
"Alright, alright," she cut in, ignoring the grin on Harry's face as she did her best to keep a straight face, "Let's get going."
They were underneath the Invisibility Cloak as they entered the lavatory on the second floor. On their way, they had been met with Nearly Headless Nick, who floated up and down the corridor, patrolling it to keep any wanderers at bay.
As expected the door to the tunnels was wide open, an Auror stood 'guard', though apparently that meant he could lean lazily against one of the sinks whilst he inspected his reflection in the mirror, all the while muttering to himself at the flaws he saw, blaming 'that bitch of a war'.
Hermione recognized the man, it was Anderson, the same one who had grinned at Bellatrix' humiliation. Disgust for his vanity and his earlier behaviour rooted deep into her being.
A gentle prod from Harry moved her forward once more. He had no doubt seen the change in her body language. She prodded him back, just because she could and smiled overtly innocent at him when he shot her a look. He rolled his eyes and made for the entrance, she followed obediently. As they walked and reached the descending staircase another memory stirred in her mind.
"Stolen, my wand was stolen! Filthy fucking Mudblood has it! I am going to -"
Her eyes landed on the place where Bellatrix had laid slumped on the ground. What was Bellatrix going to do? Torture and killing afterwards? Or murder her at once, to not take any risks? She did not believe Bellatrix capable of such 'underwhelming' revenge.
A hand closed around hers and Harry pulled her down the stairs into the darkness.
Half an hour later they were no longer invisible, instead, they walked in the shadows cast by the torches. Which had not been here before, clearly the Auror department had made some changes in these tunnels.
A charm trailed behind the duo, ensuring them that no trail was left in the dirt and dust. Their Animagus forms enabled them to walk silently to human ears, though Harry's massive frame was a problem. Luckily, the Aurors were still a far way off, all they heard were the distant echoes of human noises. And since they were not here for the same reasons as the Aurors it was likely their paths did not even have to cross.
Both were sniffing their surroundings for any scent from the rare plants and mosses they knew were down here. They only had to suspend their search twice by diving away into the shadows of an adjacent, unlit tunnel when they heard how echoes of footsteps slowly came nearer. Once they watched from the dark as a witch hurriedly trotted past, the second time the nearing footsteps grew distant again, the two people - for they could discern two pairs of footsteps - had gone into another direction.
It was a while before they had found what they were searching for, but they did. Harry's triumphant snorting gradually transformed into soft whispers, "Snnn - fo - orrt - und, Her - sn - mione, come back here."
The vixen came galloping towards him and by the time she crouched down beside Harry she was human once more. "Ahh, you found Forked Arktiskadreao, fantastic! Neville will have difficulty cultivating it."
"He will love the challenge," Harry agreed, then he asked, "Do you know how to handle this moss?"
Hermione was already pulling a small pot, a hand shovel and gloves out from her bag. "You shouldn't touch it, it doesn't fare well when in contact with heat, even a human's body temperature is too much, makes it gradually die off."
"We haven't had this in Herbology, right?"
"No, not this specific moss -"
"Good, I am not demented yet," Harry said as he took the gloves and put them on. Then he took the shovel.
"- but the family has been brought up," Hermione continued unperturbed and watched her friend set to work. "Its class is called Arktisopsida. And the genera are commonly used in poisons to re-create the effect of frostbite. Though it can also be used in potions as well, the preparations for that are far more difficult, however, and the chances of failure are very high.
"The class is a close relative of Oedipodium from the family Oedipodiaceae. As well as the Andreaeobryum family. Those mosses can be found in Alaska and other northern European and Scandinavian countries. Even in some parts of Canada, I believe."
"Ah, but how come that this species is here in these tunnels?" By now Harry had cut the ground around the moss and was slowly, carefully working the shovel in the ground underneath.
Hermione did not answer at once, she had pulled out her wand and was currently enchanting the pot. It had to keep the ground and moss cool once it was put in there. "That is what I am wondering as well," she said after she was done. "I suspect that it has been smuggled here, but what I am most puzzled by is how it has survived without so much as a sliver of sun- or moonlight."
Harry abandoned the shovel once he was certain the clump of ground wherein the moss was rooted was truly loose and used his gloved hands to pick it up. With the utmost care, he put it in the pot, pressing on the earth to solidify the ground. "Well, this is something entirely different than a Mandrake or a Devil's Snare, isn't it?"
"You do know that you need to know this information if you want to become an Auror, right?"
Harry sighed and grumbled slightly, "Yeah, yeah."
She ignored his dismissive tone and kept her thoughts on the subject to herself.
"Perfect," Hermione commented as she held up the pot to inspect Harry's work. "I don't think we can put this in any of our bags, I doubt that our little plant would handle that well."
He nodded, "If we search further down this unlit tunnel I doubt we will encounter any of the Aurors."
Hermione hummed her agreement and transformed partially, so that her eyesight and hearing were just good enough to function in the complete darkness. Harry kept the gloves on and held the shovel in hand as he started forward, he too was partially transformed; his ears were still of human flesh but pointed like those of a stag, his pupils had become horizontal ovals and his irises a dark brown. She momentarily wondered how she looked, but did not ask.
They had been searching in silence for a while when suddenly Harry cleared his throat and spoke softly, "I have written to Andromeda, asking if I can come to visit Teddy and her."
Hermione was looking closely at a plant on the wall, but after a short inspection, she dismissed it as a relatively common sewer plant. "Truly? Has she responded yet?"
"Not yet, I sent the letter yesterday, so I expect she received it this morning."
She took five more steps before she stopped again and said softly, "I think I spotted something."
Harry came to stand beside her, "That looks an awful lot like a Snare or another one of those stranglers."
"But it is not. Look," she said and pointed at the buds gathered at the end of every slim, curly branch. "This is a Nightly Waker. They bloom only once a year, during a random full moon; there is no pattern to it, at least no one has found any yet.
"Their petals are among the ingredients used in the Wolfsbane potion. Which is one of the reasons why the potion is so expensive to make, for the petals are useless the morning after the flower has bloomed. They need to be plucked and preserved that very night."
"So, how to get it off the wall...?" Harry muttered as he walked around to see if there was a weak spot he could take advantage of. He wedged the blade of the shovel between two stones and moved it slightly up and down. Slowly the stone upon which the Waker had rooted itself started to stir with the movement. He did the same at other places.
The Muggle-born put the pot she had been carrying on the ground a safe distance away and reached up to manoeuvre the stone out from the wall. Dirt and dust fell when they finally freed the stone and plant, though as she heaved the stone away from the wall it became apparent how long the roots truly were. Two metres long roots had found their way between the stones to get to the earth which had been hidden behind it.
"Can you get a pot from my bag and enlarge it?" She asked as she carefully laid the stone and plant on the ground to start the process of detangling one from the other.
"Why not Banish the stone?" Asked Harry as he tapped the pot three times with his wand, with each tap it grew larger, and when he thought it big enough he began to shovel earth into it.
"I would rather not take any chances. The stone could take vital parts of the Waker's root system with it," she explained.
A quarter of an hour later they had the Nightly Waker potted.
"Let's go to Professor Sprout and ask if we can put these in the greenhouses," Hermione said. "She would be delighted to help us take care of them until we can give them to Neville on his Birthday."
"She will want to know where we got them," Harry argued.
"I believe that she will know the truth, or at the very least suspect it, without having to ask."
He was silent for a few seconds, "And what about Hagrid?"
Hermione snorted, "You aren't serious."
Indignantly he defended his opinion in a rising whisper, "He can be careful!"
She shook her head, "Let's get out of here before the Aurors will hear our disagreement."
Harry grumbled, took the Cloak from his pouch and threw it over them. Meanwhile, Hermione took a rope from her bag and wrapped and knotted this around the biggest pot to create handles, to make transportation easier.
"Accio Forked Arktiskadreao." The small pot came zooming into her outstretched hand. Then they both took a handle from the bigger pot and started their journey back to the castle in silence. All the while their eyes and ears were still partially transfigured.
Which was for the best, for there were a lot more Aurors in the tunnels than before. There seemed to be excitement; if it was from panic or triumph Hermione could not decipher. Was there a breakthrough? The Aurors did not give anything away, their faces were taut, even though some smiled in relief. Yet others had frowns of dismay on their faces. And most of them said not a word.
Harry and Hermione kept to the wall of the tunnels, once more in the shadows even though they were completely invisible, to keep out of the way. Their heightened senses came to good use. It was only when two important people came in their sight that they halted, rooted to the spot. Unaware of it herself, Hermione even stopped breathing.
Gawain Robards and Professor McGonagall were in deep conversation with one of the Aurors who clearly updated them on whatever he was leading them to. Their stride was determined and, in a way, even intimidating. Others parted for them.
As they passed the invisible duo, Hermione swore she saw her Professor's eyes glance in their direction. The Muggle-born froze but kept from making any noise.
When Gawain and Minerva were far enough away, Hermione let go of her breath and turned to look at Harry. She saw the desire in his eyes, he wanted to go after them, to get to the bottom of this. But she did not share these feelings and he knew it. For a few moments they communicated without words; it was their usual argument, the one they had several times each school year. At last, he gave in, slumping his shoulders before he continued to lead the way back up.
"Fascinating," Professor Sprout mumbled for the fifth time as she, once more, took a closer look at the two rare plants in front of her on the workbench. "And in the tunnels right underneath Hogwarts no less -" she clapped her hands in excitement, "- I have to ask Minerva to let me make a visit as well."
"So, you will help us to keep these secretly here until we can give them to Neville for his birthday?" Harry asked to clarify.
"Yes, yes, of course! My pleasure!" There was not a trace of insincerity in Pomona's voice nor features, she was practically beaming with giddiness. "Could take some samples," the Professor started mumbling to herself again, "cultivate them... useful to Poppy..."
Harry and Hermione shared a look.
"Right!" Pomona said promptly, coming out of her own reverie. "Let's make a cold and dark corner to put the plants and see if we can get the Nightly Waker accustomed to sunlight over time."
Harry and Hermione followed their Professor's every instruction and answered all her questions as best they could. And when those two plants were taken care off they helped with other tasks in the greenhouses. Professor Sprout was glad for the extra hands, she praised their hard work whenever she walked by.
And whenever their Professor was out of earshot the duo talked about the past couple of days. Hermione relayed her experience in St. Mungos, her first therapy session and the dream journal, and about the apology she had given Fleur.
"I should go to her as well," Harry grunted as he tried to wriggle stubborn roots into the soil. "Tell her I am sorry."
Hermione, who knew - and had shown Harry - where to grip the roots to pot them without as much of a struggle, took a new pot and reached for her third plant to repot as she said, "There was little you did wrong in regards to Fleur, it was I who snapped at her for no reason other than being caught off guard."
"Maybe," he muttered, took a moment to consider the wriggling roots and tried to grab them on the places which Hermione had pointed out to him earlier. "She and William visited the Burrow, but now that I think of it she hardly spoke to me, though we did greet each other."
Professor Sprout came walking in their direction, large, cotton bags filled with fertile soil hovered behind her as she led the way into a different greenhouse.
Harry cleared his throat in a manner that made obvious that he had something else to tell as well, but for a long while, he kept silent. Hermione waited patiently whilst she worked. Then, suddenly he said in a rush, "The other day Ginny and I had a long walk, we talked about certain things and decided to get together again."
The Muggle-born could not help the surprise from showing on her face as she looked up from her work, her hands stilled in their ministrations. The plant she had almost potted took this moment to wriggle from her grasp and start the journey back to its former, familiar pot.
"Well," Hermione began hesitantly, looked down, saw the escapee and reached out to grab it again, "congratulations. What..." What about Luna? "What has changed? Just a few days ago, you told me things weren't as they used to be."
"Yeah, well... they still aren't, but my feelings have not changed, I suppose. I still think about her a lot when she is not with me. And she makes me laugh, like Ron. The Weasleys are very important to me. And there are times that she just gets me."
Hermione did not respond for a few moments; she continued to work, careful to keep her touch gentle for the plant's sake. Though her mind was elsewhere; to her ears, Harry's words had made it sound like she was among the people who did not get him. And maybe she was, because she had thought she had seen a budding romance where there was none, apparently. "I am happy for you then. How did Ron take it? Do Molly and Arthur know?"
"Thanks," Harry said, "we haven't told them yet. How do you even tell that? It just happens, right? Ron is already suspicious though."
"It depends on what you prefer, I suppose. Viktor introduced me as his girlfriend to his family and friends right away, but perhaps it is just a difference in culture. Or maybe it's the situation, the Krums had never met me before, whereas you have lived with the Weasleys for at least a few days every summer since our first year."
"Yeah," he agreed and then made a happy noise, for he had finally managed to pot his plant. He thought it weird how the plants struggled until they realized that their new and bigger pot came with fresh and good soil. He turned to his companion expecting the slightest smile at his expense and a few kind words at his achievement, but she seemed oblivious of him, too preoccupied with her own thoughts. "Hermione?"
"What's the matter?"
She blinked, looked at him and shook her head, "Nothing, just reminiscing." And she started to gather the freshly potted plants in the air to put them back on the plank they had previously occupied.
Half an hour later the duo was walking out of the greenhouse, Pomona having dismissed them with 'you two have done enough, come by whenever you like. See you at dinner!'.
They walked in comfortable silence back to the castle. At the oak doors, Harry turned to her to say something, but there was no need to, she saw it in his eyes. He wanted to know what was going on in the tunnels, why Minerva and Gawain had been brought down there.
"I know," she said, "keep me updated."
He closed his mouth and smiled slightly, "will do." And he went with determined steps in the direction of the Headmistress' office.
For a few moments, Hermione stayed outside, looking at the Quidditch stadium and wondering if Viktor was still there. But instead of going to look for her man, she went inside; she was going to make the visit she should have made a long time ago.
The matron glanced up from the potion she was brewing when she heard someone enter the infirmary. She turned her eyes back to her work once she saw that the new arrival was in no immediate danger.
"Miss Granger, welcome, please close the door behind you," she said whilst she stirred the blueish liquid - three times clockwise followed by half a counter-clockwise stir, only for the pattern to be repeated. "What can I help you with? Are you feeling unwell?"
"Well... sort of." Hermione began hesitantly as she took to stand and wait a few metres away from Madam Pomfrey and the cauldron, lest she would stand in the way. "There is something I should have asked your help with the second after the war ended."
"I see, take a seat in my office," she said and waved a hand in the direction of said room, the lock of the door opened with a click. "I will be with you shortly."
The young woman took a seat at the desk. It was a wait during which Hermione eyed the drying herbs which hung from the ceiling, identifying them one by one. Their scents wafted and mingled through the air as a breeze came from the window that was opened a crack. There was a single painting in the room, though it currently framed an empty chair; the one portraited was clearly elsewhere.
The matron entered the office and closed the door behind her. "Now let's have a look at you, dear," Pomfrey said kindly as she sat down, not in the chair behind the desk but on a stool with wheels. She rode next to the younger woman to start her examination. "Tell me what ails you."
And while her head was turned this way and that, the reaction speed of her pupils tested, her heart and lungs listened to, and her pulse taken, Hermione told of the wound on her left underarm. Not the why and who, nor the previous situation leading to the wound, just the facts. That it was a cursed wound, that she had the dagger that had been used to make it in her bag, that the curse made her dream the same nightmare over and over, that she did not feel rested without taking a Dreamless Sleep Draught, and how the wound could fester with and without apparent reason.
Pomfrey's eyes were worried and angry, filled with unshed tears at the end of Hermione's story, "Who did-" She stopped herself, took a deep breath and asked instead, "could you roll up your sleeve, please?"
The Muggle-born did as she was asked and all the while Madam Pomfrey gathered from several different closets and shelves fresh bandages, a small glass jar, a medium-sized bowl with lavender-scented water, a sponge, a hand towel and a pair of gloves, the latter was made of small, minty-green scales. She placed everything on her desk, sat down on her stool, took the bowl in her lab, let the sponge fall in the water and put the gloves on. Then she undid Hermione's bandages. At the sight of the word, the matron did not flinch but Hermione thought she saw her shoulders tense. Pomfrey said nothing about it, instead, she said sternly, "What I am going to do will hurt, you may grasp one of my knees with your other hand and hold it in a death grip for all I care, as long as you let me work on your underarm."
Pomfrey took Hermione's left arm by the elbow and held it above the tub. The Muggle-born gasped in shock and pain the moment the water-soaked sponge was carefully held against the letters M, U and D. The matron held it there for a few moments, took it off and began to dap the letters and the flesh around them. It stung and Hermione balled her right hand into a fist, while she bit on her lower lip.
The whole of her left underarm was meticulously cleaned, the water in the bowl was coloured red at the end of it. And she was relieved when it was over.
The towel was soft and Pomfrey was careful not to touch the wounds directly this time, she only dried the uncut skin. When she opened the jar, Hermione saw a beige salve of which she did not recognize the scent. She gave a questioning glance to which came a softly muttered 'Helios root'. And that was when Hermione knew that the previous pain was a mere laughing matter to what was to come.
Once she cried out, at the letter B, where Bellatrix had cut deepest of all. And by the time the ointment covered every letter, silent tears trailed down her cheeks. And, to her embarrassment, she had indeed a white-knuckled grip on one of Pomfrey's knees. But she did not let go until her underarm was skilfully wrapped in fresh bandages.
Pomfrey gently patted Hermione's right leg, "You did well, dear. Give it a few more minutes and you will feel the pain completely disappear." Then she stood up, took her wand and made the bowl and other objects fly to the basin to be thoroughly cleaned. She turned back to Hermione and looked down at her with a small smile, "You are in good health; your rosy cheeks are a testimony of it. What I am worried about are those dark circles under your eyes, not to mention the curse.
"That's why I propose that you sleep here for a while, then we can regulate your sleep pattern and make sure your body will truly be able to rest."
"T-that would be nice, to e-enjoy a regular amount of sleep," Hermione stuttered softly, all of a sudden, she felt battered. She had functioned on very little sleep that day and after all this pain exhaustion seemed to have caught up with her.
Madam Pomfrey's eyes roamed over her, scrutinizing her, then she took to stand at Hermione's right side and said, "Let me escort you to one of the beds, Miss Granger. I will help you into your pyjamas, make a call to the kitchens for some dinner to be served here and inform the Headmistress and your friends on your whereabouts. I will make sure you will learn how to take better care of yourself."
And the matron kept her word, she took care of everything.
Viktor came by at once and stayed to eat dinner with Hermione, sitting next to her on the bed. They told each other about their days in whispers, she also asked him if he could make sure that Harry had a bed to sleep in and knew where she was, and they made plans to sport early next morning. Their plates were empty for barely more than a minute when Madam Pomfrey announced that she planned for Hermione to be asleep within ten minutes, 'to get a head start in the recovery of a normal sleep pattern.'
When her lover had gone and she had brushed her teeth the matron came to Hermione with a glass of water and a potion bottle in hand. "How late do you want to wake up, dear?"
"I... I need to be in Diagon Alley before daybreak," she said hesitantly.
The matron gave her a scornful look, "Ridiculous, Miss Granger. How do you plan to get enough rest if you keep such inhuman hours?"
Hermione started to explain, hoping that her arguments would be enough to persuade the stern woman, "It is only for this once, Madam Pomfrey. I have no doubt that you read the Daily Prophet and the article Rita Skeeter wrote about me. I plan to..."
Abigail watched with a neutral expression as the figure stirred, she was at ease even though she sat in a cell with a killer. Instead of her wand she held a quill in her hand and had a clipboard with parchment on her lap. She waited patiently for Mrs Lestrange to wake up, ready to scribble down whatever would be relevant to the ongoing investigation and for later reference.
Bellatrix stirred underneath the blanket, the movements erratic and weak. First, a hand became visible, it clutched the edge of the blanket. Unhealthy thin fingers balled into a fist. Though it was a long time before the blanket was slowly pulled off, with moments that movement ceased altogether, at such times a rattling cough sounded.
When the blanket was lowered enough to enable light to fall through a crack inside the pit of darkness a hiss could be heard from the woman, the hand let go of the cloth and disappeared underneath the blanket once more. And for a long while, there was no more movement other than Bellatrix' rhythmic, wheezy breathing.
Abigail could not yet see Bellatrix' face but she knew that the woman was adjusting to the light, letting her eyes get used to it.
Once more fingers came in sight and the blanket was again being pulled off, this time with a constant movement. At last Bellatrix freed herself, though not without more coughs crashing through her body.
When she had been brought in, among the first thing the Healers had done was bathe her in herbal water; to try and stabilise the weak body and cleanse all the mud, piss and vomit from her hair and body. It was a huge improvement but now one could see all the better how ill and underfed Mrs Lestrange was.
The Mind Healer wrote it all down; she had known that her patient was far from healthy and that it was not ideal to wake her yet, but keeping anyone in a comatose state for too long brought more damage to their mental health than the person's awareness of the illnesses that raged inside their body. Besides, they had not the luxury of time, both the Auror and Mysteries department breathed down Abigail's neck, wanting answers from the Death Eater.
With uncoordinated movement and a grimace of pain, Lestrange was able to sit upright in bed and swing her legs over the edge of the mattress. Her naked feet touched the cold floor. The blue hospital garment almost made her innocent-looking, with her confused and pained expression.
"Wha -" Bellatrix croaked, but an intense cough interrupted her. When it subsided after a minute the woman tried again in a whisper, tired already because of all the effort sitting upright had taken from her, "What... what date is it?"
Abigail sighed heavily, though no real emotions were evident on her face nor in her voice as she said, "As you should know from your previous imprisonment, I am not here to answer any of your questions or demands.
"Now, let's talk business," she continued in all seriousness, "are you hungry?"
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