In Hermione’s defense, refusing the ouzo outright could’ve bungled the entire mess and brought about the end of the world. That’s what she writes in her report once she’s back in London, hands wrapped in layers of gauze and healing potion, a glass of Pepper Up at her elbow and Crookshanks glowering reprovingly from the top of the bookshelf under the stairs. She’s brushed her teeth but she can still taste the blood, like she’s holding a hot penny under her tongue.
Minister Stephanopoulos then offered Minister Malfoy and myself a glass of ouzo with the traditional Greek phrase yiamas, meaning ‘to our health’ in its original form, but later added to wizarding contracts in the twelfth century B.C., see Appendix F, to signify that the symbolic health of both parties is reliant upon the success of the contract.
This, like most of the sentences in Hermione’s report, is mostly true and very misleading.
“So,” says Malfoy.
“Uncouth of you,” observes Hermione, pulling at the hem of her shirt and fanning herself lightly with her portkey ticket. “Such an introduction, from a Malfoy?” She’s rambling, in the heat, and between the lack of hair and brilliance of the sun, her head feels slightly detached from the rest of her body. “I’m shocked.”
“Are you hearing the words coming out of your mouth?” he asks her, pursing his lips. “You’re a mess, Granger.”
“Aren’t we all?” she mutters, fanning harder and squinting for some sight of the bus. “How’s your Ancient Greek prophecy, Malfoy?”
“Minister Malfoy,” he snips, and adds, “Isn’t that why we have these magical things called translation charms, Granger?”
“I’m looking forward to the moment when I get to Obliviate you,” Hermione tells him, frankly, and he bares his teeth at her in a smile that would be more intimidating if she didn’t work with three werewolves. She and Malfoy haven’t been put together on a case in six or so months, which had barely given her enough time to miss his occasional spurts of competence. He has more true grey mixing in with the blonde at his temples than the last time they were together; he must be vain enough to think that it’s flattering.
“I eagerly anticipate forgetting the sight of your face,” Malfoy assures her. He says this every time they work together, as well as the handful of times they’ve both been emotionally blackmailed by Teddy’s enormous eyes into attending some sort of family function. “Your hair is a pleasant change though, I must say. It didn’t once attempt to choke me during the portkey.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Hermione says. Her voice is thick and scratches out of her dry throat. She digs through her purse, looking for the charmed flask of cold water she’d stashed there that morning. “My antipathy grows every day,” she says absently, and then, with a triumphant ah-ha pulls out the water and a handful of Whispering Mints. “Here,” she says, shoving one into Malfoy’s hand, which is curled with aristocratic disdain on the handle of his smart leather satchel.
“What,” says Malfoy, and then, “Oh,” in a faint tone of surprise that he quickly manages to swallow with a dry, “Are you keeping an apothecary’s in there, Granger?” He just manages to hide how pleased he is, but Hermione isn’t so stupid from the heat that she misses the flash of it in his eyes.
“Yes,” says Hermione, emerging from her flask of water feeling refreshed. She runs the edge of the flask, charmed to coolness, along her hairline and against the back of her neck. “Would you like some, Malfoy? We have three days, I might as well be civil.”
“How progressive of you,” he says. “All the same, I would rather not.”
“Suit yourself,” says Hermione with a slight shrug. She finishes the motion and hates herself a little for it—her mother had taught her not to shrug, as well as French, how to write a thank you note, and the recipe for a cinnamon pound cake famous in some bridge circles—such a Weasley sort of action, as Malfoy would no doubt say.
They stand for silence for another seventeen minutes, which is how long Malfoy manages before getting thoroughly bored. “This is ridiculous,” he finally huffs, seventeen minutes to the second, which Hermione had timed on her pocketwatch. “Haven’t they the slightest bit of respect for a well-known Ministry official?”
“This is Greece,” says Hermione. “With all due respect—no, they haven’t. British wizards were still talking to tree bark and squabbling over face paint when Alexander besieged Persia and Egypt developed wandless spell-casting.”
“Bah,” says Malfoy, who couldn’t be more English if his eyeballs were made of Hobnobs. “The ministry here still operates on a fas/nefas system.”
He’s not wrong, but, “Fas/nefas is Roman,” Hermione can’t help pointing out. “The terminology was adopted by the Grecian ministry for consistency in explaining to foreign ministries, but if you start in on Minerva and Mercury, I’m not saving you from getting hexed all the way to Budapest.”
“I won’t need your help,” sneers Malfoy. He can’t hold the expression for very long; the heat seems to melt it right off his face, and he sighs and rolls his eyes back in his head. “I haven’t figured out quite how offended I am going to be when I get my hands on Stephanopoulos, but it’s going to be quite a sight.”
“I’m sure,” agrees Hermione, who put on her sunglasses at minute four and is rereading the casefile, pulled out of her charmed purse. “Very terrifying and cold.” She pauses for a second, and thinks with a little bit of regret of the English winters. “Oh, to be cold. How lovely.”
She goes back to reading. Malfoy lasts four more minutes. “Have you got any more of—” he says (whines, really), and Hermione shoves more Whispering Mints in his general direction. He pulls open the cellophane wrappers, the sound barely audible over his sigh and the sound of his shuffling from foot to foot and the warm blood, hot and full in Hermione’s head. She’d glad she made him put on a sun-guarding spell before they left—he’d be red and peeling with that complexion in the Grecian sun.
Forty-seven minutes after their portkey’s arrival, the bus from the Grecian ministry arrives. It’s driven by a dark, bored-looking man who accepts Hermione’s silver coins and is listening to music at a volume unacceptable to anyone older than sixteen. Malfoy looks ready to complain at the first thing with ears, but Hermione snags his elbow and bodily hefts him to the back of the bus, where she begins to rapidly fill him with information, some of which is unnecessarily complex, about the important members of Stephanopoulos’ department.
Three miles outside of Athens, the bus rattles through a barrier that makes Hermione’s ears pop. Malfoy grimaces and says, “Bloody fecking,” as he lifts a hand to his head, and Hermione immediately reaches for her wand, eager for the comfort. “They work now?” asks Malfoy, and Hermione casts a cooling charm, tapping herself on the head, mostly just to feel the shivery sensation of the magic fall down her neck and across her skin.
“Ooh,” she sighs, leaning back in her seat. They’re the only people on the bus, and she rests the flat of her palm against the skin of her collarbone, above the neck of her shirt, relaxing for the last time before they are handed into the care of the Grecian ministry. Her skin doesn’t feel sticky anymore, and it makes her gracious, even to Malfoy. “Yes, our wands work now,” she tells him.
“I figured that out,” says Malfoy. “Oh blessed Merlin, civilization.” The bus has outstripped the suburbs and is quickly maneuvering through Grecian traffic—loud, clogged, lights blinking from buildings, carts of pastries and rows of olive trees—with the characteristic flash and sizzle of hot magic that Hermione is used to attributing to the Knight Bus. “I don’t suppose we’re stopping at the hotel first?” he asks her, raising an eyebrow.
“I doubt it,” she agrees. “Haven’t you got a spare set of robes in that satchel? I’ve got a pressing charm, if you need one.” She is already digging into her bag for a tube of lipstick. She’s thankful for the haircut—shorn around her ears, there’s not much chance for it to do anything except curl, and even that is confined to the area directly around her head. “Stephanopoulos likes a bit of pomp,” she adds.
“So I suspected,” mutters Malfoy, a bit hypocritically. “He sounds like a right shite of an Unspeakable.”
“Hmm,” says Hermione noncommittally. “There’s a room in the back, if you need space to change.”
Malfoy stands, and keeps going. He’s become taller than George Weasley, who is the tallest of Hermione’s acquaintances, and he’s sharp and linear under his traveling robes. His hair, slicked back, almost brushes the roof of the bus.
Hermione finds herself watching his back as he moves away, the purple color of the shadows under his knuckles as he grips the guardrail during a particularly dangerous turn. Six months ago, he’d broken every single knuckle in that hand trying to dig them out of a cave-in in Waitomo. Hermione hadn’t been able to breathe; there had been enough dust coating the inside of her mouth that she couldn’t generate saliva to swallow. Because of the Obliviates that are mandated for extra-departmental liaisons, Malfoy probably thinks that he and Hermione last saw each other at Pansy and Parvati’s wedding.
Which is, of course, useless to think about for long. Hermione slicks on her lipstick, not needing a mirror, and runs a fingernail along the dip under her nose to catch any excess color. Another cooling charm, two spots of perfume at her neck and wrists, and she’s as presentable as any Unspeakable can really be expected to be directly after four hours of travel.
Malfoy, when he comes back in a pair of sharp business robes, his hair falling forward—softer, it looks nicer, more approachable, something he’d told her that Theo Nott had suggested during his campaign for his current position—smirks at the lipstick and says, “That’s a bit dramatic for you, isn’t it, Granger?”
“There’s no shame in being presentable,” says Hermione. “I’m not sixteen, Malfoy. You learn things by thirty-two.” She means about the lipstick, her hair, looking nice and projecting competency, but Malfoy has an odd look on his face at her words. “What? Have I got something on my face?” she asks, rubbing at the corner of her mouth, in case she’s missed some of her lipstick.
“You’ve always got something on your face,” says Malfoy, and after a slightly awkward pause, he clarifies, “That look of constipated pretentiousness, Granger.”
Hermione doesn’t even need to be at her most deadpan for her reply. “You cannot possibly expect me to believe that, Malfoy. I have yet to meet a person suffering more from pretentiousness than you, at age eleven.”
“I’ve always been distinguished,” he says, with a flash of good humor. “It’s the Malfoy nose, you know.”
“I thought your nose looked better after I broke it,” she opines. “More character, and you needed the help.”
As usual, any mention of that instance makes his face pucker up. “Excuse me,” he says, “you did not break my nose,” and to prevent the rant that she knows is coming, she offers him a Whispering Mint.
Minister Stephanopoulos, two Aurors, and a small contingent of Unspeakables—among them Halkias and Georgiades, her two least favorite, and Medea, an old friend—are waiting at the stop near the base of the Acropolis. Malfoy steps off first, immediately shaking hands and receiving introductions, and that leaves Hermione to hug Medea and glare slightly at Halkias and Georgiades, who are both cretins and bullies.
“Medea,” she says, coming out of the brief but tight embrace, “how have you been? I received your last owl just before I left—thank you so much for the candy, I’m sure my godson will be the envy of his house when he gets it.”
“You should eat some of it,” says Medea with a small grin. “My Aunt Alkyone always talks about how skinny you are. She made lamb for tonight, and she expects you to eat all of it.”
“Oh god,” says Hermione in English, before she can stop herself, and then she laughs and turns her mind back to Greek. “It’ll be delightful to see your family again.”
“Of course! My nephews think you tell the best stories.”
They don’t have time past that to catch up; Minister Stephanopoulos, who has met Hermione four times and doesn’t even have the excuse of being Obliviated afterwards, has to be reintroduced, and the two Aurors are ignored as background noise. “We must get to work,” says Minister Stephanopoulos, “but of course, it has been a long journey, and you want to rest and enjoy Athens for the night?” He can’t help the instinctive leer that accompanies his words; Hermione’s past four visits, he made the same insinuation.
“Yes, thank you,” says Hermione, stepping on Malfoy’s foot when he looks likely to demand that they immediately get on with everything. “We will meet our contact here, tomorrow morning, to be conducted to the ministry building.”
“Good, good,” says Minister Stephanopoulos. He and the Aurors and the Unspeakables toddle off, but Medea stays long enough to make sure Hermione remembers her address, and then she too is gone.
In the following silence, Malfoy says, “Do we have a hotel?” in a slightly confused voice.
“Yes,” says Hermione. “How is your head? It’s the translation charm—it won’t work at all tomorrow, we'll be too near the Acropolis. You’d best not cast it, or you’ll have a monstrous headache. It’s not specific enough to seal out the god magic.”
“God magic,” says Malfoy blankly, in the sort of voice Hermione used to use in reference in Divination. “Oh, of course.”
“I know,” says Hermione, who does, very well. “It’s not my favorite part of this trip, either. Especially the bit with the goats and the hallucinogens, but we’ve all got elements of our job we don’t enjoy.” Liar, she thinks, but it’s hardly like Malfoy’s in a position to call her out on it.
“Hallucinogens,” repeats Malfoy, picking out what he no doubt identifies as the most important piece of information.
“Didn’t you read the file?” asks Hermione. “I read it to you, Malfoy. Honestly, worse than Ron. Come on then, it’s a bit of a walk to the financial district, and I’ll remind you why we’re here. We can catch a spot of tea on the way, I know a lovely shop.”
She does. She talks the entire walk there, pausing once to transfigure his dress robes, with permission, into a smart suit.
They sit down; Hermione orders herself an iced coffee and Malfoy a pot of tea. “Are you hungry?” she asks him. He shakes his head, so she gets herself a bowl of yogurt with honey and nuts, and settles back in the metal chair to enjoy the shade of the outside terrace. Tourists and people walking dogs and families with toddling children stream around them, as Malfoy fiddles with the silverware.
“I see,” he finally says, clearing his throat. The waiter reappears with the tea, coffee, and yogurt, and Malfoy reaches into the inner pocket of his suit for his cigarette case. “Do you mind?” he asks, and doesn’t wait for her answer to pluck one out and slip it into his mouth.
Hermione throws a packet of matches at his head before he reaches for his wand, and says, “Honestly, you’re horrid at this--every single time like clockwork. How on Earth are you an Unspeakable liaison if you react this way about a little prophecy?”
“A little prophecy?” hisses Malfoy, pausing and staring at her. “Is this what you call a little prophecy, Granger?!”
“Yes,” she says. “You’re going to light your sleeve on fire, Malfoy, give me those.” She snatches the cigarette out of his mouth and the book of matches. “It’s a little prophecy, Malfoy, because it’s already been translated and the solution is clear enough.” She puts the cigarette in the corner of her mouth and swiftly strikes the match, cupping her hand around the end of the cigarette and lighting it. “There, take your cancer stick.”
“You’re a Muggle menace,” says Malfoy, accepting his cigarette gratefully. “Is that what they call these?”
“I’m continually surprised that you managed to graduate from Hogwarts, Malfoy, being that gullible.” She takes a generous sip of her coffee, thick and cold, to wash the harshness of the tobacco out of her mouth. “At any rate, this sounds like a relatively simple procedure. All things considered, this could have turned out like Milan.”
Malfoy makes a distrustful face. “Was I at Milan?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says. In Milan they’d eaten buckets of drowned risotto that Hermione had been forced to cook over a shoddy flame in a jar and she had finally figured out the only thing that made Malfoy shut up long enough to let her think: Whispering Mints, of all the children’s candy. “You did superbly, it’s where your Order of Merlin, Third Class came from.”
“I’m never going to be able to tell my grandchildren about that,” he says, sounding as if he is recycling an old argument from one of his hideously middle-aged dinner dates with his school cronies. “All I’m going to be able to tell them is ‘services to Her Majesty’s empire that some old twat Obliviated me over’; it’s unacceptable.”
“Cry me a river,” says Hermione, “hypothetical little Malfoy brats won’t have another story to lord over their schoolmates, it’s a right tragedy.” She pauses, and decides to be a little offended. “Also, I am not an old twat.”
“No, you’re a ruddy spring chicken of a twat,” agrees Malfoy, “that’s hardly the most relevant part of this, Granger. I think the world ending is slightly more important, at the moment.”
Hermione says, “Enjoy your tea, Malfoy, and worry about the prophecy tomorrow.”
“How Grecian of you,” he says, upper lip curling.
“I want you to say that again,” says Hermione, “but this time, try for a little more disdain—I’m not sure it was quite audible enough in England.”
“I assure you,” laughs Malfoy, leaning back to breathe smoke in a stream towards the sky, “my disdain knows no limits.” His neck stretched upwards, the sharp point of his chin in relief against the conspicuous blue-grey smoke of his wizarding cigarette, makes a compellingly draconian image.
Hermione swallows a large spoonful of yogurt and lets the honey melt on her hot tongue.
Dinner consists of Medea, her sister, four of her seven nephews, and her aunt. The invitation had implicitly included Malfoy, but Hermione had left him to stew in his hotel room and look disinterested in the wireless. It seems fair enough; she still hasn’t forgiven him for that moment in Milan when he’d refused to cut her ulnar artery and nearly cost them the ritual.
Medea’s aunt has cooked squares of lamb with soft pearl onions, a bowl of garlicky spinach, and bread steaming into the cool night air. From the roof of their house, Hermione can see the lights set up so the tourists can see the ruins on the Acropolis projected against the night sky. She twirls the stem of her wine glass between her fingers as Medea’s aunt and sister politely leave to put the nephews to bed, so Hermione and Medea can talk shop.
“Thank you,” Hermione says, after the door to the stairs has clanged shut. “Dinner was lovely.”
“It’s my aunt,” says Medea with a shrug. “I can’t cook a blasted thing except moussaka from a frozen container, and even that’s a bit of a stretch.”
Hermione laughs and imagines Malfoy’s snippy, That’s why we have house elves, enjoying the thought of how pink his hair would turn if she upended her glass of wine over his head. “You must convince her to give me the lamb recipe—if I go home without it, my mother will kill me.”
“So you rave to her about our fabulous Greek cuisine, do you?” grins Medea. She is liquid and lovely, turned brown and gold by the lanterns and Hermione’s three glasses of wine. There was a time, right after Ron, when Hermione had deeply contemplated accepting her invitation to join the Grecian ministry. It seems ages ago, now, but it can’t have been more than seven or eight years.
“I have to rave to her about something,” Hermione explains. “My parents are Muggles—the Floo network is a bit of a stretch for them, let alone the layers of spells that my job necessitates.” She’s tried, of course, but--they still flinch at the sight of her wand, in the most literal sense of reflexory; an involuntary muscle reaction. “I spent most of a Saturday on the floor with drafting paper and a map, trying to show them the ley lines across England that the network taps into,” she says, neglecting to mention that this had been when she was fourteen, “but all it ended in was headaches all around.”
“Our Hermione,” says Medea fondly, reaching across the table to grab her hand. “You try so hard.” Many people have told Hermione this, over the years, most of them saying it as a way of appeasing her for her few failures—at being married, which she’d ceded to Lavender Brown; at raising Teddy, which she’d left to Harry and Ginny—but Medea is the nicest. Hermione turns her hand so she is grasping Medea’s dry, rough palm. There is grit under her nails, but the beds are strong and well-kept, shiny from a new coat of clear varnish.
“We should talk,” Hermione finally says, three minutes after staring at their clasped hands. “About this prophecy.”
“Yes,” says Medea quietly. “I suppose we should.”
Three glasses of wine or not, the cool breeze on the air and the reminder of business matters puts Hermione’s head back in the right place. “The solution seems reasonable enough,” Hermione continues, reaching into her bag at her feet to pull out her notebook. “I was looking through a few scrolls, however, that gave me pause.”
“The god’s blood bit?” Medea mirrors her, pulling a small scroll from the pocket of her cardigan. She taps it with her wand, and it expands into some of the dishes, which she impatiently pushes aside. “I know; it’s troubling. We don’t have much precedent in the modern ministry for dealing with this sort of prophecy, and only a quarter of the ancient provisions have survived.” She makes a little face, scrunching up her nose. “You know that, of course. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” says Hermione. “After spending a lot of time with Unspeakable liaisons who literally cannot remember working with you before, you get used to repeating information.” She flips forward in her notebook, past wriggling hieroglyphs and runes and lines of her small, curving hand, and then she finds the pages she’s marked. “Here we go. I’ve got both the Ancient Greek and Latin translations—have you gone through both?”
Medea takes a second to light a cigarette from one of the candles on the table. She gives Hermione’s spiral-ring notebook a brief, envious glance, and then quickly scans her scroll. “I’ve got the Ancient Greek, but my Medieval Latin is rough.”
For a few seconds, Hermione stares at the Latin until her brain almost audibly clicks, making the shift between languages. “They’re not completely compatible,” she tells Medea in Latin. “Especially with the god’s blood. We’ve only got Jean le Brun’s hypothesis about the multiple meanings of blood in the vocative like this, but we should hesitate before taking 13th century scholarship as law.”
Not for the first time, Medea says, “We need to reorganize the way that we deal with prophecies in this profession.” Her Latin is crisper than her Greek, and she organizes the words the way a schoolgirl would, with her nouns in the front and her verbs at the end of the sentence. There has always been something comforting about Medea’s order.
“It’s hard to do that; you risk making a mistake.” Unspoken but acknowledged is the greatest mistake their profession has ever made: Harry, of course. It’s always Harry. “At any rate, we’re getting down to the wire and I’ve been combing through records for months. I can’t think of it being anything except the spell-caster’s blood. Not in vocative like that.”
“Well, it certain isn’t the prophet’s,” agrees Medea. “If it is, we’re shit out of luck—they didn’t start preserving prophet’s blood until the 11th century.” From down the street, the faint strains of the violin float on the night air. “Tourists,” mumbles Medea in Greek, before returning to Latin. “That brings its own question, of course.”
“Of course,” echoes Hermione, with a faint grimace. “Numinis. It has to be substantive here, but it could be divine power, not divinity.” For ease of clarification, she switches to Greek for the definitions. “Not a great set of circumstances, but better than the ones that would lead to us trying to track down a god before Tuesday.”
“I know what the standard practice is for this,” says Medea, flicking the ashes from her cigarette to the left of the table. “You take the potion, you slaughter the goat and do the ritual, and hope that the Dionysian trance pulls you through with enough godly power to make it count.” She and Hermione have both scrubbed goat’s blood from underneath their fingernails enough time to be on intimate terms with this procedure. “It doesn’t mean we should rely on it.”
“You’re worried about the repetition of blood,” Hermione says. It’s phrased like a question, but it isn’t one. “It bothers me that we don’t know whether the original trance was in Greek or Latin; maybe then we’d have an idea about what to do with this extra blood floating around.”
“There’s always the Wetherby Theory,” Medea points out, with a quick smirk. “The repetition of blood in any prophecy,” she recites in accented English, “indicates to those performing analysis one of two alternatives: the duality of the chosen, or the duality of the sacrifice.”
Flatly, Hermione replies in English, “Wetherby is a prick.”
“English is bad for analysis,” Medea reminds her. “Back to Greek. And it’s true, as a man he is small and useless. However, he has a point—it can’t be duality of the sacrifice, not with the word order, but it could be duality of the chosen.”
“There’s nothing in the Greek to suggest that,” Hermione says. She is, however, a consummate professional and very good at her job; momentarily setting aside her loathing of Reginald Wetherby, she reads through the Greek prophecy slowly, tapping her pen against the side of the table. Halfway down, she pauses. “Oh fuck.”
Across the table, Medea drops her cigarette and almost lights a napkin on fire. She swears in full, rolling Greek, and begins to scribble in the margins of her scroll. “We’re like first-year students, Hermione, this is unacceptable.”
Frantically, Hermione paws through her bag and unearths her set of color-coded quills, which are self-inking and won’t stick like the fidgety ball of her pen. “The forest fires were only a few years ago—no one would have been able to predict the connection, least of all any of the medieval analysts.”
“Not an excuse,” hums Medea, attention full turned towards her scroll. “Stephanopoulos won’t like this, you know.”
“It’s the end of the world, he’s not allowed to have objections.”
It is almost three in the morning by the time Medea and Hermione have finished re-diagramming the prophecy. Stretching her arms over her head and muttering self-deprecating things about her old age, Medea goes off to rustle them up some coffee and Hermione begins to transfer the diagram from their combined notes onto the flat roof of Medea’s house. She hates working with chalk runes, and she’s rubbish at them, but they’re the only way to diagram this sort of thing out without accidentally summoning something.
Curled in an unattractive half-crouch over a particularly tricky set of glyphs, Hermione hears the metal door slam and slithery sound of Medea’s sandals over the wood of the stairs. “I’m not great at chalk,” she notes over her shoulder, sketching out the full line of a bull. “I’ve got a school friend who’s doing fieldwork in Pakistan right now who does truly amazing things with it, and she’s told me I’m hopeless.”
When Medea speaks, her breath curls over the back of Hermione’s neck; she always smells like salt and olives. “You’re not awful at it, you’re just not incredibly better at it than anyone else.”
“That’s what I said,” Hermione replies primly. She finishes with her (awful) logogram and settles back on her heels. “Is that for me?” The proffered cup in hand, she gestures to the wide circle of runes and hieroglyphs. “It’ll be different once we bring in blood and ash, but this should be the general idea of things.”
As Hermione sips her coffee, thick and heady and with a dollop of something that leaves an alcoholic burn down the back of her throat, Medea moves through the diagram, making corrections and fixing smudges. “We’ll need to talk about tree versus leaf,” she finally says, moving back to sit next to Hermione under the shadow of the table. “But let’s put this down and work on it tomorrow, when we aren’t dead on our feet.”
Hermione makes a face, puts down her coffee, and picks up her quills. “I might be dead tomorrow—it depends on how generous Stephanopoulos is feeling.”
For a few seconds, Hermione thinks she might actually have sent the minister into apoplectic shock. “Excuse me?” he finally squawks, breathless and ruddy.
Malfoy, who has been up until this point clearly bored by all of the proceedings, snaps to attention to watch with something like awe as Stephanopoulos’ blood pressure rises to truly unhealthy levels.
“Not much of it,” Hermione assures him. “A branch with at least four leaves would be sufficient.”
Stephanopoulos, the overdramatic ass, clutches at his heart and collapses backwards into his desk chair. “Awfully pompous, isn’t he?” murmurs Malfoy, apparently unconcerned that anyone else in the room speaks English. “Be careful; if he pops that vein in his forehead, it’ll be weeks before he’s replaced and you’ll never get your foliage.”
“Be quiet,” Hermione hisses out of the corner of her mouth. “I have to concentrate on politics.” She gives Stephanopoulos the friendliest smile she has, which is unfortunately only half as charming as the best ones in Malfoy’s repertoire. Not for the last time, Hermione wishes Malfoy knew enough Greek to manage this conversation himself. She’s woman enough to admit it.
“Do you know what you’re asking?” Stephanopoulos demands, pounding on the edge of his desk with a closed fist. “Sacrilege!”
Hermione spreads her hands and shrugs. “The gods ask what they will,” she says. Stephanopoulos looks as though he is seriously considering hexing her back into England.
“Never before have we had such a request!”
“Hopefully you never will again.” Hermione smiles and this time abandons charm in favor of displaying the most teeth possible. “Gods willing.”
Stephanopoulos does not follow the old religion—very few modern Greeks do, outside of the most remote of the islands—but he runs the department that runs the Greek ministry’s Unspeakables, and he knows how prophecies work. Reluctantly, he makes the sign of the evil eye and says, pained, “I will need to speak to the Minister.”
“Of course,” agrees Hermione pleasantly. “I will need to remove the branch tomorrow afternoon.” At this reminder, Stephanopoulos shudders minutely. “My business now having been concluded, would you like me to remain and serve as an interpreter for Minister Malfoy?”
Hearing his name, Malfoy straightens the cuffs on his dress robes. “No,” says Stephanopoulos, “I have a meeting now I cannot miss. If Minister Malfoy can return after lunch, I will provide an interpreter.”
“Marvelous,” says Hermione, first in Greek and then in English. “We’re dismissed, Malfoy, just in time for lunch.”
Malfoy, who’d been deeply bitter about being awoken at eight that morning to accompany Hermione to the Greek ministry building—“Do you need a hand catching the bus, Granger?” he’d sneered in the doorway of his hotel room, knuckling sleep out of his eyes; his hair had been hilariously terrible—perks up a bit at the mention of food. “I’m starved,” he says. “There must be somewhere worth patronizing in the ministry district.”
Hermione swallows a snort at that. “We’re eating with Medea,” she says, before Malfoy can get the idea of some kind of swank Ministry-funded luncheon into his tiny rodent brain. “She’s brought us extra spetsofai. Working lunch, I’m afraid.”
“English, if you don’t mind,” Malfoy says as they make their way out of Stephanopoulos’ office, towards the lifts. He says it in the kind of way that makes it a statement of fact, not a request, which never fails to put Hermione’s hackles up. She’s opening her mouth to share an uncouth opinion about Malfoy’s parentage when she feels his hand against the small of her back, pushing her around the corner slightly ahead of him. Is it audible, the rustle of the starched linen of her shirt, or is she imagining it?
As she summons the lift, Hermione manages, “Your monolingualism is frankly appalling.”
Malfoy says, “I’ve lasted thirty-two years with one mother, Granger, I hardly need a second,” and the metal grates of the lift screech open to reveal a handful of black-robed and irritable-looking Greek ministry employees and, thank the gods, Medea.
“Hermione!” she says, delighted to see Hermione even after a separation of only a few hours. It’s gratifying, to be missed. “And Minister Malfoy, hello again.”
“Unspeakable Fotiou,” Malfoy says, thin-lipped. “I hear we have a working lunch ahead of us.” The other occupants of the lift wedge further into the corners, allowing Hermione and Malfoy a small space in the exact center.
Malfoy’s just tall enough to have his hair ruffled by the cranes occupying the top of the lift; they’re crinkling over and over as they flap their wings, creating currents that send Medea’s hair tangling around her earrings. She’s wearing bright fuchsia lipstick. Three or four disasters ago, Hermione and Malfoy had been sent to Venezuela to liaise with the Ministry in Caracas and had ended up helping a dozen Wayuu witches save humanity from assured destruction; there had been fuchsia flowers everywhere, so many different species that it had been impossible to distinguish between them. The color of Medea’s lipstick is so bright that it nearly hurts Hermione to look at it for very long.
Medea guides Hermione and Malfoy off of the lift and around to her office. Medea’s cubicle looks appallingly like Hermione’s, with scrolls on every available surface and piles of dissected cranes on the desk. She has two cauldrons in her fireplace; one is bright blue and smells like pine needles. The other contains coffee, which Medea ladles out into glass cups for Malfoy, Hermione, and herself. “Here, wait a moment,” she says to Malfoy in her unexpectedly formal English, enchanting some scrolls out of a wooden chair and kicking it with her foot towards him. “Hermione, can you--” she says in Greek, and Hermione clears space on top of a metal filing cabinet where Medea can deposit the displaced scrolls.
“I’ve brought some lunch--Aunt Alkyone, of course--” Medea continues. Her coffee cup is hovering in the air where she had left it immediately after pouring, slightly to the right of her shoulder, and she looks almost frazzled as she rifles through the bottom drawer of her desk. “It’s not much,” she tells Malfoy, just a hair below apologetic. Hermione has never heard Medea quite like this; it unsettles her, to see it.
“I’m sure it will be delicious,” Hermione interrupts, lest Malfoy offer his unsolicited opinion and completely wreck the afternoon. “Have you had a chance to mock up some of the more difficult runes? I tried, but there was some kind of cleaning spell on the carpet at the hotel and my chalk wouldn’t stick for more than a few seconds.”
“Oh, yes,” Medea says into the drawer; something metallic rattles and then she says, “ah!” and straightens, holding a dish tied with a handkerchief. “I’ve got those somewhere--would you--”
Hermione takes the dish and spells it warm. “Here, Malfoy,” she says, shoving it at him. “Enjoy Aunt Alkyone’s spetsofai.”
Malfoy looks like he would rather eat his package of cigarettes but Hermione transfigures a nearby quill into a spoon and hands it over, promising herself to forget his presence thereafter. Medea seems to feel the same; once they are engrossed in their rune study, all of her self-consciousness disappears.
“Ah,” says Medea, what must be hours later, “but the hectacomb went not solely to Athena. We worry about invoking Hera in this city. She does not favor us.” Medea’s smile is wry; her fuchsia lipstick has smudged off on the rim of her cup of coffee, still faithfully floating at her shoulder.
“We’re not talking about a hectacomb,” Hermione points out. “Just one cow.”
“In a ritual designed to be a representative sacrifice, I don’t think it is unreasonable to be concerned that a single cow might be conflated with a hectacomb,” Medea says. “However, Dionysus is not so dangerous.”
“Dionysus is absolutely dangerous,” Hermione says drily, “as well you know. I agree that the benefits of using a goat alongside a Dionysian trance have been well-documented. I’ve slaughtered goats before and had this go quite well. The issue here is the size of the sacrifice.”
“Trust me,” Medea says, “Aunt Alkyone can get her hands on a very respectably-sized goat.”
Hermione laughs. “I believe it,” she assures Medea. “However, the question remains: how much blood we can get out of a goat. No more than eight or nine litres, I think. And runes of this calibre and dimension--drawing those runes prior to the trance itself will need far more blood.”
Medea frowns pensively down at the notes spread around them. She and Hermione are on the floor beside her fireplace, where they can easily refill their coffee as well as have the space to spread out. Malfoy had been collected some hours before by Stephanopoulos’ harried assistant and spirited off to his bureaucratic meetings. Hermione had been glad to be rid of him, frankly, although she’d noticed after he left that he’d eaten all of the spetsofai.
“It worries me,” Medea finally says, placing a finger of the corner of a drawing and pulling it towards her. “Taking the divine spirit of this city and using her with other rituals, like this. I don’t like it.” She rolls her eyes very briefly towards the ceiling and then smiles at Hermione from them. “Superstition and nonsense, your least favorite nouns.”
“Superstition is unsupported nonsense,” Hermione says. She has the sudden urge to place her hand over Medea’s, but physical comfort, like chalk runes, is not a task at which she excels. “I’ve averted enough prophecies to be suspicious of feelings categorized as superstition, especially when the person having the feelings is a respected colleague and friend.”
Medea says, “Respected?” and raises both of her eyebrows. “Hermione, how gushing of you.”
“Shut up,” Hermione says in English, and then they are both laughing; Medea upsets her coffee and some of the thick grounds splash out of the cup and land on the fire with a harsh sizzle. Medea’s office suddenly smells deeply of burnt coffee, which never fails to remind Hermione of her parents. She hasn’t been to their practice in years, but almost instantaneously she is transported back to the waiting room of their tiny office; a Pensieve’d portrait, with the adult Hermione egregious and out of place.
“Mm,” Medea says. “It smells like school.” She grins at Hermione in a conspiratorial way, as if she’s about to suggest they run down to the kitchens for a midnight snack. Hermione refuses to become the kind of person who waxes rhapsodic about their school days--for the simple reason, if nothing else, that her school days had frequently involved attempted murder, successful murder, and abusive faculty members--but there are days where the simplicity of Hogwarts life becomes appealing again in the abstract.
Hermione tells her, “No, let me,” as Medea reaches for her wand. As she hoovers up the coffee with the tip of her wand, she asks, “What do you suggest? To make the ritual feel right, for Athens.”
“Gods know,” Medea says on a sigh. “I just--have a bit of a gut feeling about the cow. Back when I first apprenticed as an Unspeakable, my mentor was a little old lady named Kyria Omirou. She always used to say that your gut feelings are the things you’ve read that your body remembers instead of your mind.” Here she shrugs and makes a face at Hermione. “Homespun wisdom, I thought at the time. But the older I get, the more right I think she was. I can’t recall why, but I know the cow is wrong.”
“An Obliviate?” Hermione suggests. “Truly?”
“No, probably not,” Medea says, “although obviously I cannot rule that out. But we should look at other options. Perhaps two goats. Will fourteen litres be enough to write the runes?”
Now it is Hermione frowning at her notes. She’s only ever performed this kind of ritual with a single chicken or goat; multiples gets dicey, because the magic can respond poorly to the second sacrifice. Back when she’d done her first few rituals, she’d suggested blood-typing them to check for compatibility and gotten a whomper of a lecture from none other than Reginald Wetherby himself, professional pompous windbag and Unspeakable Emeritus at the Ministry. The art of the Unspeakable is not for Muggleborn dabblers, Miss Granger, he had said in a very cold, thin voice. When we make alterations to a practice that has been utilized for centuries, we do not undertake it on a whim.
“Have you performed a multiple sacrifice ritual before?” she asks Medea.
“No,” Medea says. “But you have legions of school friends in the field, don’t you? As do I. We can write to our network and see what we unearth. They’re always making do out there and discovering fabulous things that never get written up. You only hear about it in rumors, months or years later.”
“Well, legions,” Hermione says. “But yes, I suppose I can send a few owls.”
I hope things in Pakistan are going well, although I understand if you don’t want to comment on them through the open post. I’ve hit a snag with a ritual in Greece and I haven’t the time to look into multi-sacrificial rituals. Have you any suggestions about dealing with these? I’d greatly appreciate it.
All my best to you and Pansy,
Somehow, having been left to his own devices for the afternoon, Malfoy has--possibly literally--scared them up a reservation at a nice restaurant on the fringe of the ministry district. Hermione wants to go home and sleep for eight or nine solid hours before waking and repeating this hellish day, but she instead reapplies her lipstick and quickly spells the worst wrinkles out of her shirt. She’s the only one at the restaurant not in formal robes.
“What is this?” she hisses at Malfoy across the table as they’re seated. “There’s no way the Ministry is going to swallow the bill for a dinner here as a travel expense, Malfoy.”
Malfoy shakes out his napkin with a brisk wave and places it on his lap. “We’ll have a bottle of red for the table,” he tells the waiter. “Something dry and not too acidic, tell your sommelier.”
“Yes, sir,” says the waiter, who then disappears, presumably off to deliver these unspecific directions to the restaurant’s sommelier.
“We’re traveling, Granger,” Malfoy continues, “and this is an expense. Ergo, it qualifies. I’m hardly going to dine at a street cart every night. This is Greece, not Caracas. We can be civilized.”
“We only ate at a cart once in Venezuela,” Hermione points out, “and you had a look of such rapturous delight on your face that I was tempted to spell you to have it stick that way forever.”
Malfoy says, “Don’t be absurd, Unspeakable Granger.” He looks like he might want to laugh; just a little bit, in the corner of his eyes. His eyes had been very wide when Hermione had shoved a cachapa at him and said, Eat this, we’re already late for the portkey to La Guajira. It had stuck Hermione then, like it always did at the strangest times, that Malfoy had once been her greatest tormentor and now occasionally approaches something almost bordering on a friend.
“How did the meeting with Stephanopoulos go?” Hermione asks. The lure of succumbing to Malfoy’s dry insults is too strong. Unlike Medea--and Harry, and Ron--Hermione often ignores her gut.
Malfoy makes a dismissive noise in his throat and leans back in his chair. “Well enough, for that measly creature,” he says. “The Greek Ministry’s in dire straits. Worse than ours, certainly, so the next time you feel the need to complain in a budget request that you’re being bled dry, think again--”
“Well, of course you’re opposed to increasing our budget,” Hermione interrupts. “Wasn’t the entire last month of your campaign centered around promises to slash the Department’s wasteful spending? It’s wasteful right up until you’re the one being transfigured into a singing teapot.”
There’s a gleam in Malfoy’s pale eyes as he says, “No one was more desolate than me when the Department was successful in changing Brothaigh back into himself, Granger. If curbing your budget is all that’s required to make Ministers into entertaining cutlery then I’m willing to do my duty and see it through.”
The wine comes before Hermione’s finished pointing out that a teapot doesn’t count as cutlery; Malfoy is, meanwhile, loudly talking over her and insisting that the distinction is less important than the fact that they both hate Minister Brothaigh.
“Your wine, sir,” says the waiter politely, handing Malfoy a crystal wineglass that’s clearly been charmed to be free of fingerprints; it glitters brilliantly under the floating candlelight. Hermione’s mother had polished their crystal by hand every year before Christmas supper and it had taken her hours to approach the effect of a bare second’s charm work. No magic on these, dove, she says every year. Not on your grandmother’s things.
“Ah,” Malfoy says after he sips. “Yes, this will do.” He’s still looking down into the glass as he says to Hermione, “It’s far too dry for your taste, but we can’t have something fruity with the lamb.”
“Who said anything about the lamb?” Hermione asks irritably. “Maybe I want chicken.”
“Ha!” Malfoy says. He hands the glass back to the waiter. “When in Athens, always have lamb. Isn’t that what you said to me?” The look he cuts Hermione across the table is very direct; Malfoy has always been a weasel but there’s something about his purebred confidence that enables him to be a weasel who can maintain eye contact.
Hermione’s throat feels as dry as the wine. “Yes,” she says after a moment, “I believe I did.”
Things are going about to be expected; I’m sure my report’s going to be one of those that end up going through the office, because we’ve hit one disaster after another. I’ve asked again and again to be fitted with apprentices with experience in non-Western magic and yet somehow I keep ending up with these pasty Durmstrang infants who think that curry is an ethnicity and wandless magic is for heathens.
As for multi-sacrificial rituals, I haven’t needed to do any myself but I was talking with Rich and Lysander the last time I was in London and they were talking a lot of shite about some disaster in Tanzania and how the local shaman had them run to a chemist’s to purchase Muggle aspirin--I assume it was aspirin, because Lysander kept calling it ‘asprick’ like an ARSE--which he then had them grind into powder to mix bloods. This was their way of bragging that they’d done a sheep and a goat sacrifice in the same ritual, although it sounds like the shaman did the real heavy lifting and Rich and Lysander just sat around with their dicks in their hands.
I think Muggle aspirin is a mild anticoagulant, so it’s possible that keeping the blood from clotting allows for them to mix. Any apothecary shop or, in a pinch, more generous Potions Master than our dearly departed arse of a professor should have willow bark that you can lift. Like I said, though--remember the source! I wouldn’t trust Rich and Lysander to tell me how to charm a teacup out of a rat.
Hope you haven’t set Malfoy on fire (or have, and taken pictures),
Hermione sleeps late, deeply. The silencing spell cast on the window leaves the inside of her hotel room muffled and insulated, like being in her childhood bedroom with the curtains shut. When she first wakes, she pushes the extra pillow, which smells of dittany, under her head and concentrates on remembering what she’d dreamed about. Something with lacewings--dancing, maybe? And some kind of pie.
Dutiful and irritated about it, Hermione digs her dream journal and self-inking quill out of the bedside table. She licks the tip of the quill forcefully to get the ink flowing and then writes
25 September 2011. Lacewings approx. 2-3m wingspan dancing & eating aphid pie. Aphids erupt out of pie & consume lacewing. Music accom: crystal? violin? Shades of David Bowie. Hrs: 9.
God forbid any of Hermione’s dreams turn out to ever be prophetic. Pie-eating lacewings, indeed.
The appointment with Stephanopoulos and Medea to collect the branch is at half past one, which gives Hermione time to pack her bag with the various accoutrements of her profession, as well as the rest of the half a kilo of Whispering Mints she’d bought in London. She dresses in thin linen robes, pale orange and flatteringly bright against her skin, and slicks on her omnipresent lipstick. These are the modern witch’s armor, as Ginny would say.
“Malfoy?” she yells, banging on his door at one. “Are you ready?”
“Merlin, Granger,” she hears from somewhere inside, “give me a second before blasting the door open.”
“We haven’t got all day for you to primp,” she shouts back. “Get out here, we have to go if we’re going to make it to Stephanopoulos’ office in time for him not to change his mind.”
“Whose fault would that be?” Malfoy wants to know irritably, but he opens the door. He’s just finished slicking back his hair; Hermione can smell the oil on his hands. “You smell like a Manchester tart,” he says to Hermione, not kindly. It’s difficult to say if he intends the double entendre.
“It’s the coconut oil for my hair,” she says. “So you’re hardly one to talk.”
“And even after all of that, it’s still enormous,” Malfoy says. Behind him, Hermione can see the contents of his satchel disgorged across his neatly-made bed: a pair of robes, three cosmetic potion bottles, piles of professional scrolls. “How terrifying.”
“I’ll take your advice regarding my personal appearance some time after hell freezes over,” Hermione tells him. Her voice has gone stiff and polite.
“Your loss,” Malfoy says. “Now who’s holding us up?”
Hermione thinks, Bite me, and walks briskly to the stairs. She’d mostly been joking about Stephanopoulos changing his mind, but it’s still enough of a concern to make her tense as they walk to the Ministry building. She and Malfoy quickly match pace, because all the Obliviates in the world can’t eradicate the muscle memory of the many miles they’ve had to walk together. There is no second option, if Stephanopoulos refuses to take them to the tree. The world will end.
It’s all so depressingly familiar, is all.
“Unspeakable Granger,” Stephanopoulos says as his assistant opens the door to this office. “And Minister Malfoy! Hello, hello.” He looks a shade too cheerful for someone who is convinced that Hermione will have him committing sacrilege by the end of the afternoon. Then again, it’s hard to tell what’s cheer and what’s determination to hold his cheeks up.
“Good afternoon, Minister,” Hermione says. “Is Unspeakable Fotiou here?”
“Yes, I am sure she’s on her way,” Stephanopoulos says. “I have spoken with the Minister, and he has acknowledged the necessity of these actions.” Here, Stephanopoulos’ large, expressive face becomes serious. “As unfortunate as they are, these are the times in which we live. Sacrifices are unavoidable, we know this as Greeks.”
Hermione can’t tell if he’s speaking along the lines of, say, Iphigenia, or the recent austerity policy the Greek Ministry has adopted. “Yes, of course,” she says instead of asking.
“Once Unspeakable Fotiou arrives, we will depart--” Stephanopoulos continues. “Ah, here she is, I believe.” He moves to the other side of his desk as the door to his office opens and in Medea is ushered. “Good afternoon, good,” he says, almost to himself, as he rustles in the cabinet behind his desk. “Now, before we begin.” He turns and gestures Hermione forward with an enormous crystal decanter. “If these are traditional times, let us be traditional.”
“Pythagoras’ balls,” Medea mutters under her breath as she comes to stand next to Hermione. The instant that Stephanopoulos uncorks the decanter and begins to pour its contents into four tiny glasses, Hermione can smell ethanol and anise. It sends the tiniest tremor down Hermione’s spine, to sit against her lower back like Malfoy’s cool palm.
Stephanopoulos gestures for them all to take glasses of ouzo; when they’ve done so, he raises his and says, “Yiamas!”
“Yiamas,” Medea repeats grimly, with an aborted lift of her hand. Malfoy is looking across the rim of his glass at Hermione, one eyebrow a fraction of a centimeter higher than the other. Just eat the cursed cachapa, Malfoy, Hermione had said. When you’re in Athens, you eat lamb, when you’re in Venezuela, you eat this. It’s delicious and fast so shut your gob. She incrementally lows her chin in the barest approximation of a nod.
“Yiamas,” Hermione and Malfoy say in unison, and then they drink.
The saltwater well is the only portion of the Acropolis protected from Muggles. It is on the southwest edge, closest to the sea, and the god magic of the site is so strong that they can’t take a portkey further than the base of the hill on which it sits. All around them, Muggles in shorts and t-shirts and wearing backpacks are talking loudly and taking pictures and trying to feed stray dogs. Their numbers thin out the higher the party from the Ministry climbs, until they’ve reached the site of the well and the area is deserted entirely.
"Are you absolutely sure that this is necessary?" Stephanopoulos asks Hermione on the last leg of their hike. His face is drawn, ruddy from the climb.
Hermione buries the urge to shake him and says, "Yes," as firmly as she can manage, hands twitching at her side. "To save the people of this city, we need this."
After a few seconds' worth of staring at her--trying to judge her sincerity, perhaps? This is why Hermione would be a terrible politician, she wants to strangle him--Stephanopoulos nods and looks away.
Beyond the edge of the cliff, the rest of Athens stretches towards the sea. Between them and the vista is a small stone well and a dozen olive trees, all ancient and stooped.
“Isn’t this picturesque,” says Malfoy under his breath to Hermione. He’s looking at the well disdainfully. It’s small and smells terrible, like things rotten in the sea. It looks its age, which is thousands of years.
“Be respectful,” Hermione hisses back. “A god built that.”
Malfoy rolls his eyes. “Right,” he says. “So, which one’s the right tree?”
“The grove is an illusion,” Medea says in English. “There is only one.”
Stephanopoulos, meanwhile, has turned about and is staring determinedly at the Muggles swarming around the Parthenon. Hermione ignores him and begins to dig through her purse for her silver knife. “Have you got anything to wrap it in?” she asks Medea. “I have a handkerchief but it’s cotton--linen might do better, domestically woven if you have any--”
“Of course,” Medea says, patting over the pockets in her robes and pursing her fuschia lips. “I’ve got one somewhere, don’t worry.” She and Hermione have begun moving closer, taking incremental steps towards the grove. The trees have begun to look very bright, like their branches have been dipped in liquid gold. Hermione’s ears are buzzing, quietly.
“Should we talk to her?” Medea suggests. She sounds a little ironic.
“By all means,” Hermione says. They take another step together. “She’s your patron goddess.”
“She’s hardly mine,” Medea says. She rubs her left ear with her index finger. “If anything, I am hers.”
Hermione’s feet have begun to hurt in their sandals, so she kicks them off. “I’m not an Athenian,” she points out. “So I may not be hers.”
“All wise women belong to her,” Medea says.
The buzzing has gotten much louder. Hermione can’t quite focus on the trees, which seem both taller and closer together than they had a few moments before. If Hermione stares at them--which she can’t, not for longer than two or three seconds--they begin to blur together. She raises up her hand to shield her eyes and says, “I’m not feeling particularly wise at this moment.”
When they are only a meter away--Hermione has her eyes closed but she can still see the light through her eyelids, bronze and gold--the trees in the grove stop moving and finally become one. If Medea is still next to her, Hermione can’t tell. Her whole head reverberates with the buzzing, like her skull has become a hive of bees. She can taste the light in her throat. Her nose feels clogged with olive oil; it hurts to breathe.
“Please let me take this,” Hermione asks the tree in Latin. That doesn’t quite feel right, so she frames it formally, in Ancient Greek. “We request a gift of divine spirit for our purpose.”
She has to open her eyes to cut the branch, which hurts terribly but is necessary. She grips the leaves closest to her between the fingers of her left hand and cuts upward with her right, pressing the edge of her silver knife up and away. There’s a heart-wrenching moment wherein Hermione thinks her request will be refused and she is about to be incinerated by centuries of ancient and volatile magic, and then the tip of the branch comes away in her hand: four perfect leaves.
“May I?” Hermione asks when they’re just in the doorway of the Greek ministry building. A small-scale replica of the Athena Parthenos is staring over their heads out into the bustling street, the marble fabric of her gown rustling as she shifts her weight. Hermione has spent twenty years in the wizarding world and she’s still continually discomfited by the moving sculptures.
“If you must,” Malfoy says, too distracted to manage long-suffering convincingly.
“I should just leave you as is,” Hermione mutters, tapping her wand on the shoulder of his dress robes and watching them fold up and away, peeling back to reveal a Muggle suit. It's the same one from yesterday, as Hermione doesn’t have much time to keep up with whatever nonsense well-dressed Muggle men are wearing nowadays. “Let them think you’re crazy.”
She has to struggle to put her wand somewhere inconspicuous; finally, giving up on fitting it inside of her bag without breaking something important, she stuffs it into the outside pocket. “You still use Aunt Bella’s wand,” Malfoy observes, sounding combative. He’s been surly and argumentative all day; Hermione can tell that he wants a fight. “Walnut and dragon heartstring, isn’t it? ‘Unyielding.’”
Hermione says crisply, “Well, mine certainly wasn’t in any condition to be used again.”
Malfoy doesn’t speak again as they leave the Ministry building. Finally he asks, sneer firmly affixed, “What is this we’re collecting, again? Some kind of medicine?”
“It’s an anticoagulant,” Hermione explains, for easily the third or fourth time today. “It will keep the sacrificial blood from clotting until we’re done.”
Malfoy makes a face. “Quite.”
“There’s no need for you to be squeamish,” Hermione tells him. She has to fight to keep her voice light and reasonable. “A chemist is hardly the most barbaric experience I’m going to subject you to today.”
“I’m not squeamish,” Malfoy says. He’s stuffed his hands in the pocket of his suit trousers, looking uncomfortable either with the cut of the suit--unlikely, he’s worn this one a number of time in Hermione’s presence--or the crush of the crowded streets. Muggles on mobiles are on sidewalks and motorbikes as far as the eyes can see. There’s graffiti on some of the stone- walled buildings that have yet to be washed away, left over from the weekend’s riots.
These are the people who will die, if Hermione and Medea and Malfoy don’t do their jobs--businessmen and lawyers and young tourists and taxi drivers. Hermione will never forgive Harry and Ron for teaching her how addictive it is to save the world, damn the consequences, nor her parents for raising her to care about the lives of people she has never met.
She knows Malfoy also cares, because she has seen the tangible proof so many times over the course of their years of working together. Unfortunately, that has made him only marginally more tolerable to deal with.
“Merlin,” Malfoy says, staring at the rude Greek phrase scrawled in bright red paint across the glass-fronted automatic doors of the chemist’s. They must be far enough away from the Acropolis for his translation spell to be working again. “How crude,” he says.
“Yes,” Hermione says drily, “crudity, truly the issue of deepest concern here.” She elbows past him and goes into the chemist’s. Even if Malfoy is no longer a source of personal terror for her, he is still a font of never-ceasing personal vexation. If she looks at him for longer than two or three seconds, she can feel all of her frustration with his ilk distill down into hatred just for him. Surely he feels the same.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Malfoy calls out behind her, but she ignores him and makes a beeline for the pain medication aisle.
He catches up to her when she’s trying to find the best way to buy a huge amount of aspirin. Probably anywhere between five and ten grams will be enough for their purposes.
“Granger,” he says, looming over her shoulder like some kind of Boggarted vampire, “will you stop storming away from conversations, it makes you look very unreasonable.”
“Oh no,” Hermione says tightly, sarcastically, “that won’t do.” A box of 200mg tablets--for five grams she’ll need around 250 tablets--
Malfoy huffs out a huge sigh, his breath ruffling the hair around Hermione’s ears. His hand’s on the small of her back again--now it’s just on the edge of her hip, two cold fingertips whispering against the linen of her dress. “What in the bleeding hell is going on,” he wants to know; there’s just enough pressure on her hip to encourage her to turn around and face him, which she stubbornly ignores.
“It's not--I don't--,” Hermione tries to lie, through her teeth. “I’m trying to do some maths, not that you’d be aware of what that means, as you never even had a proper education.”
“Oh Merlin, not this again,” Malfoy says. “Stop deflecting.”
“Excuse me--” Hermione says, although of course she is. “Here, hold these,” she tells him, and she shoves three bottles of aspirin into his arms, forcing him to release her hip. She feels off-footed, oversensitized to how her robes feel against her skin.
Malfoy says, “Hermione,” in a tight, exasperated voice. “At some point this always becomes absurd.”
“Shut up,” Hermione tells him. “What on earth do you even think you know, for God’s sake--” and she storms off to the registers, feeling like a Weasley, buffered by righteous rage and endless frustration. She wants to go back to sleep, in a sudden and overwhelming way, like a veil of exhaustion dropped over her head. She wants to be back in her hotel room with her spelled curtains and her cool nest of white cotton sheets, none of which she wants to smell like dittany ever again.
Medea is waiting in her office when Hermione and Malfoy come back from their shopping trip. Hermione feels a little shameful at the childish way she’d acted, but not enough to actually apologize. Malfoy has, to her knowledge, never apologized about anything in his entire life.
“Good afternoon,” Medea says to Malfoy. “Are you assisting us today?”
“Purportedly,” Malfoy says crisply. Hermione can all but see the icicles dripping off of his words.
“Beneath that pampered exterior is a very good Potions-maker,” Hermione tells Medea in Greek. “If we have him at the cauldron while we begin to write the runes, this process will likely run far more smoothly.”
“I honestly wouldn’t have guessed it of him,” Medea says. “But I trust your judgement.”
The trance potion recipe, which has been used and unmodified for centuries, is balanced on top of the precarious piles of scrolls on the metal filing cabinet behind Medea’s desk. Between the three of them, they manage to move most of the contents of Medea’s office down the hall to an empty workroom. It’s shaped like an enormous octagon, with two empty workbenches and a tile floor that looks like it’s going to be hell for painting runes. Two goats are there already, bleating half-heartedly in the cold and tied to an iron ring set waist-high in the wall.
“Respectably-sized, wouldn’t you say?” Medea says critically, hands on her hips. Behind her, Malfoy is squinting down at the crumpled parchment of the potion recipe, spelling ingredients out of an open box onto his workbench. Hermione had--silently, begrudgingly--transformed his suit back into dress robes and now he looks tall and pale, like one of the ghosts that haunts the Department of Mysteries only more of a prat. He appears to be ignoring the goats very successfully.
“Yes,” Hermione agrees, looking away from Malfoy and concentrating on the issue at hand. “Have you got a big enough cauldron? I’ve got the bag of aspirin in my bag somewhere.” As Hermione digs through her purse--Whispering Mints have gotten everywhere, of course, because the bag full of them has exploded--Medea goes off to find the department’s 50L cauldron.
Slaughtering the goats is miserable work. Hermione has enchanted half a dozen mortar and pestles to grind the aspirin and it still takes over an hour before the powder is fine enough to be mixed in, which turns out to be acceptable because it takes that long to fully drain the goats.
At the end of it, they have twenty litres of goat blood, six and a half grams of aspirin, a jar full of something slimy that Malfoy had sworn up and down was reconstituted bezoar, and a sulking Malfoy who hadn't appreciated Hermione's skepticism regarding his ability to identify it.
"I haven't had to use bezoar in this form since I was in NEWT-level Potions," Hermione says to Medea as she tips a teaspoonful of the jar into the 50L cauldron, "and yet the smell brings me right back."
"Thank the gods all we had to do was bleed the goats," Medea says. She's stripping her robes off as Hermione stirs the bloody contents of their cauldron, folding them neatly and piling them on the spare workbench next to her scroll and Hermione's notebooks. This is the dodgy bit, what Hermione's been dreading ever since No Ra had sent her a crane that said, My office now, you & Malfoy have another one.
Hermione stays dressed, rationalizing that she knows enough cleaning spells to remove extraneous blood from her clothes but conscious nonetheless of the marks on the backs of her thighs and skin of her collarbones. Medea, who is wearing a tank top and dark shorts under her robes, says, "Modesty is unbecoming on you, Hermione," with a quick grin.
"They're very easy to maneuver in," Hermione replies. She wants to stick out her tongue, but she can see Malfoy pretending (badly) not to be interested in the proceedings over by his workbench and she'd rather not give him the satisfaction.
Then she thinks, for fuck's sake, and sticks out her tongue.
"You're going to freeze," she tells Medea, "and then we'll see how unbecoming frostbite is."
Medea laughs, throwing back her head so her hair goes everywhere. Hermione is hit with a pang, low in her chest; she misses her own hair suddenly, fiercely.
Behind Medea, Malfoy loudly says, "Before this becomes any more dreadfully pagan, how thick do you want this to get?"
"When it's light brown, it's done," Hermione tells him. She doesn't want to look at him and lose the centering effect of the pain in her chest. What she feels when she looks at Malfoy is often much lumpier and murkier than regret.
"Oh, thank you, very helpful," Malfoy says sourly.
Hermione focuses on knotting the hem of her robes so they're caught up around her knees. She says, "The thickness should be irrelevant as long as the color is correct."
"Light brown, how descriptive," Malfoy continues. He's pretending to talk to himself, but loudly. "Could she mean ochre? Or caramel? Or fucking kneazle-hide?"
Hermione looks up sharply at this, to see that Malfoy's hand is white-knuckled as he chops Gurdyroot. That strand of hair he's always missing has come loose to fall against his forehead. What Hermione feels for him is never tender, but to ensure that she always seems to be squashing down some kind of unhelpful and delicate emotion.
"It's like walnut," Medea says, quietly but firmly. She's looking at Hermione's kneecaps and then up, so when she smiles gently she's looking at Hermione's face. God knows what Hermione ever thought she could keep from Medea. Secrets from another Unspeakable; how ridiculous.
"Oh, see," Malfoy says. "Walnut. Was that difficult?"
"Things with you are always difficult," Hermione tells him, settling into a crouch and dipping her fingers into the cauldron of goat blood. "It seems to be a particular skill of yours."
"Yes, well," Malfoy says after a few seconds. He sounds a little pleased. There's a brief pause, and then the steady sound of his knife chopping picks up again. Hermione, consulting the map that she and Medea had finished yesterday, begins to draw a Luwian logogram with her fingertip.
This bit, the dodgy rune-drawing bit, takes hours. At some point, Hermione tells Malfoy to stop whining and eat some Whispering Mints; when she looks up what she thinks is only a few minutes later, he's completely asleep, slumped over on his workbench with his head tucked up under his arms. He looks like a gangly schoolchild; like Teddy, who had responded to Hermione’s owl last week to thank her for the planner she'd sent to keep him organized for the new school year.
"This is not new, is it?" Medea says quietly in Greek; it takes Hermione an embarrassing amount of time to catch on.
"Oh," she says, almost weakly.
Medea is gracious, and gives her time to pull together some kind of farcical scramble of words; at the end of it, Hermione says, "It's--complicated."
"If these things are complicated, they hurt," Medea says. "Of course, you know that."
"Yes," Hermione says. She dips her index finger in the cauldron of blood, traces out the fourth line of a square to close it, and begins to draw the Egyptian glyph for village inside of it. "I am--well aware. Of that."
"Obliviates are leaky," Medea adds minutes or hours later; they've circled the room and are nearly done. It is unbelievably cold in this tile-floored room; only Hermione’s fingers are still warm, from the goat’s blood. "You've read Chopra's Theorem, of course--an Obliviate functions by spreading a thin net over a memory or multiple memories, and often spellcasters have the same weak spots that compound with additional castings."
Hermione frowns down at her glyph, which is missing something. It takes an intensive minute’s worth of staring at the map to realize that she’s forgotten the plural indicator on the previous glyph; she has to sketch in three quick lines with her pinky nail, to make sure it all fits. "Yes," she remembers to say, eventually. "I've read Chopra's work. She is correct. I've noticed that the same place always leaks."
"The sex?" Medea asks.
"No," Hermione says absently, "the food," and then she looks up at Medea and says, "What?"
Medea is also staring at her, wide-eyed. "Shit, Hermione, I'm sorry," she says, "I don't know what came over me."
"Well, I answered," Hermione says. She has a terrible feeling all of a sudden, lodged low in her stomach where the ouzo had fallen in a bitter stream. "You don't think Stephanopoulos could've--the ouzo?"
"What purpose would it serve?" Medea points out, although she looks queasy. "We still took the branch."
“He asked me,” Hermione says; her mouth feels sour. “When we were hiking up to the Acropolis, he asked if it was truly necessary to take a branch from the tree. I told him yes, of course.”
Medea says, “Of all the small-minded idiots,” in a voice so loud that it echoes, shocking Malfoy awake in a loud shuffling noise.
“What?” he says sleepily. His hair is a fright, which would normally make Hermione feel much better about the world at large. Right now, however, she’s far too busy being offended that she was just dosed with Veritaserum by the representative of a foreign ministry.
“He’s broken easily a dozen laws!” she says to Medea. “Unbelievable! There are restrictions on Veritaserum usage longer than my arm! Longer than Malfoy’s arm!”
At this, Malfoy becomes microscopically more alert. “Did you just say Veritaserum?” he says. “For Merlin’s sake, stop shrieking in gibberish and say something sensible.”
“I want to strangle you,” Hermione tells him in English. “And I really mean it, because Stephanopoulos was apparently so skeptical of our need for a branch from the tree of Athena that he dosed us with Veritaserum. It can’t have been more than a drop per glass, I didn’t feel the effects at all--”
Malfoy says, “The Minister’s going to hear about this,” a little gleefully. He seems pleased that he now has something legitimate to complain about, that rat.
Looking dreadfully worried, Medea asks, “Can you perform the ritual, if we’ve been dosed? I’m worried the trance won’t take if you already have a powerful potion in your system. The Veritaserum antidote takes days to brew; I’m not sure we have any in the stockroom--”
She’s interrupted by Malfoy, of course, who is being smug even though his hair looks like Harry’s and is escaping in every direction. “Do you have any of that goat’s blood mix left? It’s got reconstituted bezoar in it, dilute enough that it probably won’t kill you.”
It’s comforting, in a way, that Draco Malfoy dosed with Veritaserum sounds exactly the same as the normal and irritating Minister Malfoy.
“Blech,” says Medea, peering into the 50L cauldron. “Yes, there should be enough here for you to drink some of it. Have you finished that section? I’m done.”
Hermione looks down at her now-plural glyph for head. “Yes,” she says, truthfully but reluctant. “I’ve finished.”
“Perfect,” Malfoy says. He stretches his arms out above his head and then shakes them, managing somehow not to knock something off the edge of his workbench into the trance potion. “I’m freezing. Drink the blood, drink the potion, burn the stick, and let’s get out of this bloody place.”
Hermione says, “Eat another Whispering Mint, Malfoy, and shut up,” and goes to find a ladle.
Her righteous indignation powers Hermione through digging up a ladle and spooning up some of the goat’s blood mixture; it evaporates as soon as she drinks, her throat convulsing around it. The metallic taste bites into her tongue and she has to force herself to swallow repeatedly lest she regurgitate the blood out onto their meticulous rune map.
Malfoy is watching from behind the workbench; he can’t quite manage the insouciant slouch that he wants, his hands visibly tense against the tabletop. “Well?” he finally says, after a full minute of Hermione convulsively swallowing.
“Well?” she croaks back.
Medea reaches out across the cauldron and grips her forearm. “How do you feel?” she asks. “Reconstituted bezoar overdose results in headaches, hallucinations, and muscle spasms.”
Hermione’s head has been pounding for the last hour, as the magic of the rune map began to coalesce into something precise and powerful; she can hardly blame it on the bezoar. “I think it wasn’t enough for that,” she tells Medea. She turns her hand over, grips Medea’s wrist so they are holding each other. “I hate your lipstick,” she says.
Behind them, Malfoy says, witheringly, “How inspired of you.”
Quietly, in Greek, Medea observes, “I hope the sex is worth it.”
“The food is,” Hermione assures her; it feels like it takes an age for her to crack a rusty smile. Her teeth must be red; she can feel Medea’s pulse jump for a half-second under her palm.
“If I can interrupt this charming moment, can we please get on with this ritual?” Malfoy says loudly. “At this rate we’re going to miss our portkey.” He’s making a show of standing and shaking out his robes, still not nonchalant enough to manage the display that he wants. Hermione fails to see the point of this charade, but it is impossible to keep Malfoy from performing whatever small theatrics he desires.
“How’s the trance potion, then?” Hermione asks him in English. She gives Medea one last, quick squeeze and releases her hand, then skirts around the edge of the rune map to stand at Malfoy’s left. Together they look down into the cauldron. The potion is the right color; it smells like rotting leaves and is bubbling thickly.
“To your standards, I hope,” Malfoy sneers somewhere above her head. This close, she can see that he’s managed to dust himself down the front of his robes with a fine grey powder; ground eye of newt, most likely.
“Yes,” Hermione says into the cauldron, “I suppose it will do.” She might mean it to be teasing, but she is still upset with him--in the vague, overarching sense that she is always upset with Malfoy, but also in the more sharp, specific way that relates to everything that has happened today. Tomorrow, undoubtedly, the sharper edges of her ire will be because of something new. Her words are therefore cold.
“Great,” Malfoy says. She looks up and sees that his sneer is in a frozen, lopsided grimace, like it’s taking more effort than he has to maintain it. His eyes are impossible to read; in the dim light of the workroom, they look like flat stones. “Well?” he says, the lines of his face drawn harshly. “Start the ritual, Granger, I’d like for the world not to end.”
From somewhere in the depths of the department’s storeroom, Medea has unearthed a ceremonial bronze cup. Ignoring Malfoy now, which seems far more profitable than arguing with him about something nonsensical, Medea comes closer and dips the cup into the potion with a brief prayer for Dionysus. As a pair, Medea and Hermione move together into the center of the rune map, stepping carefully on bare feet to avoid smudging anything. The tile is so very, very cold; it’s a deeply inhospitable room, a blank slate against which many different kinds of rituals and purposes can be performed.
“Do you accept the blessing of Dionysus?” Medea asks Hermione in Ancient Greek, holding the cup between her palms. She has her wand tucked into the waistband of her shorts; she’ll need it to light the olive branch on fire before Hermione uses it in the ritual.
The surface of the potion looks like polished wood. Hermione has drunk it easily half a dozen times, and she feels her tongue curl in her mouth in anticipation and revulsion. “I accept,” she says to Medea, lowering her mouth to sip from its rim. Medea carefully tips the cup, sending the potion down her throat.
For a half-second, just as she opens her mouth, Hermione worries that the Veritaserum will manage to interfere with the trance. Almost instantly upon drinking does she feel the force of divinity slam into her like the front of a speeding Hogwart’s Express, a kind of blazing light that erupts from somewhere inside her mouth to consume her from the inside out. How curious, she thinks, I’ll have to mention in my report that the moment of possession began differently this time, and then she whites out completely, subsumed by the god magic.
Between the blood and the trance potion, Hermione’s stomach feels riotous and her head seems to be hovering somewhere a metre above her shoulders. She can’t remember most of the Dionysian trance--which is to be expected, she’s never remembered a trance very well--but that’s why the Ministry will have Malfoy’s report before he’s Obliviated. There are burns on both of her palms in the shape of olive leaves, and she smells like a goat more than probably warranted for someone who only drank a teaspoon of blood, but: the world is saved. Hermione can handle petty nuisances.
“You have to come back,” Medea says as she hugs Hermione at the portkey stop. The trance had taken two hours longer than expected; there hadn’t been time to do more than rush back to their hotel for a quick wash before catching their portkey. Hermione’s hair still feels grimy; she must not have rinsed all of the blood and sweat out of it.
“Yes, of course,” Hermione agrees, but she says it automatically. Feeling badly about this, she adds, “As soon as I’m able. You’ll send me an owl, of course?”
“Of course,” Medea says. She is still warm to the touch; her hair tickles Hermione’s nose in a way that feels affectionate. “I’m sure there will be some disaster soon that will bring us together.”
“Give my best to Aunt Alkyone, and thank her for the goats,” Hermione whispers, and then she kisses Medea’s cheek and releases her, taking a step back. Malfoy is hovering somewhere to Hermione’s left, back in his professional robes and holding his smart satchel, looking icily down his long nose at Stephanopoulos’ assistant. The poor assistant, who had driven the Ministry-arranged car that took them to their portkey, looks like she wants to be swallowed alive by the Grecian countryside.
“Come on, Granger,” Malfoy says. His voice is silky but cold; he sounds so much like his father that it pulls an instinctive spurt of loathing out of Hermione, like a Pavlovian urge to punch someone in the nose. “We’ve got a portkey.”
“Yes, thank you,” Hermione tells him. She squeezes Medea’s hand, says, “Good-bye,” and then comes to join Malfoy where he’s standing by the side of the road. He’s holding a square of parchment that says ATHENS-LONDON, 3AM in bad handwriting.
“Safe return,” says Stephanopoulos’ assistant, awkwardly.
“Thank you,” Hermione says to her as nicely as she can manage, which is not terribly well but at least better than Malfoy’s audible sniff of disgust. They stand there for a moment, Hermione and Malfoy both holding the portkey between their thumb and forefingers, and then it must turn to three o’clock, because the portkey activates.
They land in the portkey office in a ear-popping rush, insides completely disoriented and Hermione’s bag crashing painfully into her hip. The night porter, reading in his portrait, doesn’t look up as he says, “Welcome to London. Local time is 1AM. If you need bag assistance, please ring the bell.”
They walk together to the Floo networked fireplaces. Hermione doesn’t have a chance to anticipate Malfoy’s hand on the small of her back--it’s there as soon as he ushers her out of the portkey office ahead of him, like it’s been magnetized for her lumbar vertebrae. The most amazing thing about Malfoy is not that he managed to build a successful Ministry career out of the total disgrace of his family, but that somehow Hermione only despises him half of the time that they spend together.
“I’ll come by your office on Wednesday to perform the Obliviate,” Hermione says to the air in front of her as they walk. “I should get my report in to Unspeakable Lee by Thursday morning.”
“All right,” Malfoy says lazily; the words spool out of him like they have all the time in the world. “I’ll tell my secretary. Shall we say--noon?” His steps are much more audible than Hermione’s--he’s wearing dragonskin wingtips oxfords; they are easier to look at than his face, which is above Hermione’s head, or the necktie that draws his robes closed, which is level with her eyes. It’s impossible not to hear Malfoy as he walks down the corridors of the Ministry. That’s the point of expensive shoes, undoubtedly.
“I have a staff meeting at noon,” Hermione tells the toes of his shoes, and then she realizes that she is slouching and straightens her shoulders, looks ahead again. They’re coming up on the Floo fireplaces. “Three o’clock?”
“I’ve got an assembly until five,” Malfoy says. How does any human being live with fingers this cold? For a second she thinks she’s hallucinating, and then she realizes that he’s untucked her shirt from the waist of her pants and his fingers are pressing against the bare skin of her back. “Come by at five-thirty. My secretary will be gone but I’ll tell her to leave the door unlocked.”
The Floo fireplaces are all hissing aggressively, sending vigorously twisting shadows up the walls of the darkened corridor. When Hermione stops at the nearest one and gropes for a handful of Floor powder, Malfoy follows closely behind her. It would be cowardly not to look him in the eyes at all; Hermione looks up, first to his necktie and then to his face.
“Yes,” she says. Against the warmth of the fireplace, his cool fingers are anchoring. “Five-thirty on Wednesday.”
“Good night, Unspeakable Granger,” Malfoy says, and he kisses her so quickly that she almost doesn’t realize he’s done it; she’s left with her mouth slightly open, wet from his breath, and the strong smell of oil of dittany clogging her nose. “Congratulations on averting certain disaster.”
“Good evening, Minister Malfoy,” Hermione says. She hates how breathless she sounds, like some kind of hideous romantic heroine, so once she’s thrown the Floo powder into the fireplace and told it her address, she firmly adds, “See you on Wednesday.”
“As always, I look forward to the pleasure,” Malfoy says.
Hermione doesn’t realize until she’s gotten home--of course, he hadn’t needed to drink any of goat’s blood. No wonder he had sounded so strange; not sarcastic at all, and his voice very thin. His dose of Veritaserum won’t wear off for hours yet.