Chapter Five

When she woke, it was to stabbing pain and the sensation that she was on a very jerky carnival ride. Her ability to whimper returned, and she made full use of it before realizing that there really was no need to make obvious how much pain she was really in. She was stronger than that. If only the jerking movements would cease and give her time to catch her breath.

"Almost there," she heard someone mutter, and she realized that she was being carried by none other than the person who had gotten her into this mess in the first place.

Her first response was to hit him again and demand that he put her down (what she wouldn't give to have her two feet planted on firm ground again!), but each step he took jolted her body, and from the various stabbing pains, she knew that she couldn't walk.

"Apparate," she finally managed to gasp. Why on earth hadn't the man Apparated them back to the house? What was he thinking, carrying her Circe knows how far? Was he a wizard or not?

"Can't," he said grimly, and she noted with a small measure of satisfaction that his breath was coming in short pants—he wasn't having an easy time of it, either. Of course, it wasn't particularly flattering to realize that she was much too heavy for the carrying a damsel in distress act to be in any way workable, but still. If she was miserable, he should be, as well.

"Wards," he further explained.

Even through her anger and pain, she looked at him in surprise. He owned the home, and he couldn't Apparate into it? What kind of insane wards was he using?

"Dumbledore," he continued, and she was halfway impressed that he'd managed a word of three syllables rather than the one syllable answers he'd given her so far.

"But he's dead!" Hermione exclaimed, almost forgetting that she was still furious with him. "You don't mean to tell me that his magic is still messing with your wards?"

He shrugged. "Said it was... to protect... us," he said, obviously trying very hard to get the statement out without panting, and failing miserably.

"We'll see about that," she said grimly. She'd helped repair Hogwarts after the war and had a fair idea of how Dumbledore's wards tended to work.

It wouldn't be easy, since he'd strengthened the wards to a point where they would hold after his death, but she had no doubt she could do it. She lapsed into silence as she tried to recall every memory she had of Dumbledore's personal wards at Hogwarts. Surely they would be slightly different here, but casters tended to have their own preferences, and she didn't think he would have deviated too much...

Her thoughts grew disjointed, and she found she had a hard time concentrating. She tried to pick up the thread of what she'd last been reviewing in her mind, but couldn't quite seem to manage it.

"Almost there," Mr Peters said, and she thought that he now sounded worried rather than exhausted. But why would he be worried, if they were almost home?

"Try to keep your eyes open," he advised.

Had they been closed, she wondered with surprise. Surely not. He must have looked down when she was blinking.

"Mona will get you out of those wet clothes, and you'll be right as rain in no time," he promised.

Wet clothes? She tried to twist so that she could examine herself, but her head was suddenly so heavy. But then, for the first time, she felt the chill seeping into her bones, and realized that her teeth were chattering.

"Cold," she said, feeling both surprised and numb. Why had it taken her so long to realize it?

But then the Manor was in sight, and Mr Peters called for Mona in an uncharacteristic bellow. The house elf popped into view, meeting them at the edge of the well-maintained lawn leading to the house. Tutting what Hermione strongly suspected was a severe remonstration for the state they were in, she escorted them inside and provided them with a cup of strong, hot tea before doing anything else. Hermione clutched the steaming mug, willing the heat to transfer to her fingers and stop them from shaking so badly.

"Miss Hermione must have a hot bath," she clucked. "You will comes now."

Without further ado, Hermione found herself whisked along by elf magic to her bathroom. By the time she'd peeled her wet clothes away from her body, the tub was full of water and Mona herded her into it. She sank into the blessed warmth and felt the worst of the chills fade away, even as her shivers continued.

"You must go straight to bed," Mona said, looking distressed.

But it seemed an inordinate amount of work to haul herself from the tub, and downright impossible to dress herself in the pyjamas Mona had laid out for her. Mona finally draped a fluffy bathrobe on her naked form and coaxed her into drinking several different potions as she climbed into her curtained four-poster.

"You will be feelings better in the morning," Mona assured her, wringing her hands. "The fever will pass by then."

She had a fever? Well. It would explain her body's constant shivering, and the dull ache that seemed to encompass every limb. Her last thought was to remember to thank Mona for tucking her in so gently as she drifted off to sleep.

She was falling. Through space, and through time. Memories of her first disastrous attempt at flying. Clutching an invisible dragon and trusting that she wouldn't fall to her death. Watching Harry as he seemed to cheat death while taking incredible risks to capture the snitch.

Why did everything always have to be so dangerous, she asked herself, forgetting that for the last number of years, her life had been anything but dangerous. In fact, it had boring, pedantic, and insufferable. And a part of her knew this, even as she felt the horrifying sensations of plummeting towards the earth, falling from a great, unknown height for an equally unknown reason.

But there was a reason. Always a reason. The only reason that had ever really mattered—helping Harry to defeat Voldemort. And she'd succeeded, hadn't she? Harry was now perfectly free from the ongoing battles they'd faced as children.

"You're safe, Harry," she murmured, and felt her rapid descent slow. The ground still rose up to meet her, but her fall was cushioned, and it wasn't the terrifying end that she'd anticipated.

She opened her eyes and saw the familiar black hair of her best friend. She let out a relieved sigh and brushed back his fringe, only to frown. His trademark lightning bolt scar was missing, and his eyes were the wrong colour.

But, whoever he was, the man holding her hugged quite as well as Harry, and she closed her eyes. Sinking into her embrace, she reflected that as much as she'd always enjoyed Harry's hugs, they'd never made her want to burrow deeper, and cling tighter.

This hug did.

"That's better," the voice soothed. "See? The fever's almost gone. Go back to sleep, love."

She must still be feverish, she decided, because the voice was so similar to Harry's that she was almost motivated to open her eyes and check for herself. Almost. Instead, she relaxed against the man holding her, and found comfort.

She had never thought that she would tire of reading. It hardly seemed possible. All those Quidditch games she watched, secretly wishing she were in the library. All those evenings at the Burrow, when she ran out of conversation approximately two hours before anyone else. All those nights she'd had to force herself to go to bed, instead of reading just one more chapter.

But it had finally happened.

With a petulance normally reserved for people who pronounced ambulance "ambliance", she allowed her book to fall roughly to the coffee table. The sound echoed so much, even in the acoustic trapping book, rug, and cushion-filled library, that she almost felt bad about treating a book harshly.


"Finished?" Mr Peters asked mildly, barely glancing up from his own book.

"I read it several years ago," she said shortly. "It hasn't changed."

It was true. For the three days since what she was coming to term "The Unfortunate Broom Incident", she and Mr Peters had been holed up in the library, reading every book it contained on wards. Hermione was appalled that the owner of the estate wasn't able to Apparate freely, and Mr Peters was still, she thought, shamed from the delay in care she'd received. After The Unfortunate Broom Incident.

Which he had precipitated.

Just thinking about the ill-devised flight caused her stomach to roil. She'd burned off most of her anger by exploding the pillows in her room once she'd recovered from her fever. Giving Mr Peters a thorough tongue-lashing on the subject of "no means no" had also been cathartic.

Spending three days in the library, researching the properties of wards she already knew perfectly well, was not cathartic. There was no new information to be found, and she was confident that she was perfectly capable of dismantling Albus Dumbledore's wards without any further study.

Mr Peters, however, seemed to think otherwise.

She supposed it was guilt that made him tuck her into a comfortable chair in the library, provide her with tea, and force her to take a break at each two-hour interval. It was probably sweet and caring of him.

Which meant that she probably shouldn't hex him to develop hemorrhoids if he forced her to sit still for another hour.

She eyed her wand.

"I can do it," she said for what was most likely the twentieth time that day.

Mr Peters wasn't so obtuse as to ask her to what she was referring. "You need to be at full strength," he rejoined mildly. "You're still recovering."

"If I recover any further, I'll be comatose," she warned. "I mean it! I'm perfectly capable of judging my own strength and I'm telling you that—"

"Are you telling me that you're not still waking up chilled and aching every few hours at night? Are you telling me that you haven't had to have Harry Potter fetch you Muggle medicine through the Floo?"

"It's not my fault that magical pain relievers don't work well for me," she grumbled. "The Healers said it was because I ingested so much acetaminophen as a child due to ear aches. And didn't that turn out to be a good thing? I was able to tweak the wards so that Harry could pass it through without triggering any negative repercussions." She frowned. "I'm still not entirely sure why it worked..."

"You've proven my point, Miss Granger," he said, picking up the book she'd discarded and returning it to its proper place in the stacks. "If you were fully recovered, you never would have taken such a risk. Or, if you had, you'd have sussed out every last nuance of what happened."

He was right. It bothered her immensely that she had no idea why Harry had been able to pass the Muggle medicine through the wards without difficulty. Instead of motivating her to read further on the subject, however, it merely seemed to cause an itchy sensation deep inside that told her she needed to be doing something, getting her hands dirty, taking apart Dumbledore's wards, layer by layer. Even now, it was hard to keep from snatching up her wand and starting on it.

In fact...

She sneaked a glance at Mr Peters. He was seated in an easy chair, a copy of Wards: Safety First! in his hands. His glasses were sliding down his nose, but he appeared to be engrossed in the text. Her eyes flickered to the shelf between them where her wand was placed. Several hours earlier she'd deliberately put it out of reach, in the hopes that she wouldn't allow her frustration to get the better of her and hex her employer. She now regretted that safety net. Not that she planned to hex Mr Peters. No. That would be wrong. But if she could just get to her wand, she could cast a revealing charm on the wards, and at least get an idea of how many layers they were dealing with. It wasn't as if she were going to try to break through the wards. That would be premature. Foolhardy. Tempting.

No. She was just going to, going to tinker a little. No real changes at all. Surely that would be safe enough?

"Did you read the article by Agatha Carmichael?" he suddenly asked, and her gaze flickered guiltily away from her wand.

"Er..." The name sounded familiar, but she couldn't immediately place it with an article.

"The secondary healing properties of mandrakes," he continued, nose still buried in his book. "They're not just for reviving petrified victims anymore."

Blanching at the memory of the debacle of her second year, she managed to divert her attention back to her book. It would be foolish to start tinkering with the wards when he'd expressly told her not to. Especially when he was in the room.

If she didn't know better, she would have said that her wand twitched, just slightly.

Not that she was looking at it, of course.

That would be silly. And counterproductive, seeing as how she was supposed to be reading. One didn't need a wand to read.

But one did need a wand to cast a warming charm. And her feet were chilly. Even though they were extended toward the roaring fire. And covered in a plush blanket.

Mind made up, she kicked off the blanket Mona had tucked around her and slowly got to her feet. To her immense relief, she wasn't even dizzy. Well. Perhaps just a little. But that was normal after sitting for two hours, wasn't it? Perfectly normal. Expected, even.

She walked along the bookcase, trailing her fingers over the spines of the books and reading the titles. Not that she could repeat any of those titles. But she could locate her wand to within a quarter of an inch. Just to be safe, she walked slightly past it. This drew her closer to Mr Peters, but as he was still reading intently, she couldn't think that it mattered. It would be a simple matter to pluck the wand, take it back to her spot, and cast a warming charm. Just in case he was paying more attention than it appeared. After that, he probably wouldn't even notice her tinkering with the wards.

With a satisfied smile, she kept her eyes on the book in front of her and reached to the side with her left hand and—

"Looking for this?"

The startled squeak she let out was nothing compared to her stomach's valiant attempt to crawl up her esophagus. She jolted backward, only to find her back pressed against a man's firm chest. She made a last, reflexive bid for the wand, and ended up smacking her own hand down on top of his.


She turned around in slow increments, waiting for her heart rate to slow to something perhaps a little less like a startled jack rabbit. She found that Mr Peters was closer than she had anticipated, even after feeling him pressed to her back only a second earlier. She was now trapped between his arms, her wand in his possession. Staring up into his dark eyes, she froze, proving, perhaps, that the startled jack rabbit impersonation was still going strong.

He pressed just a little closer, and suddenly, he was not Mr Peters, her employer. He was a man. A mature, good-looking, intelligent man. And Merlin, if she couldn't drag her eyes away from his! He appeared to be experiencing a similar difficulty, until he managed to shift his gaze a few inches lower. She licked her lips, and he moved closer yet. He was a hair's breadth away from being perfectly in line with her from shoulder to knee, and she could feel the heat radiating from him. Had she been cold? In any case, this warmth was more tantalizing, more compelling than anything she could conjure with her wand, and she itched to close the gap between them.

The faint pop of Apparition caused her to jump a second time, and she blinked unfocused eyes at the appearance of Mona. "Miss Hermione must be goings to beds," the house elf said sternly, and Hermione had the distinct impression that Mr Peters was being chastised. "You is needings your rest," she continued, standing as close to Hermione as possible.

Mr Peters stepped back, and Hermione expected him to bolt. Indulging in sexual tension, after all, seemed like a very poor idea, seeing as how they were the only human adults in Merlin knew how wide of a radius. It could only lead to trouble. And though she felt the absence of his body's warmth against hers, she told herself it was for the best.

"I'll walk you to your room," he offered, and he placed his hand on the small of her back and her wand in her hand in such smooth moves that they were at the main staircase before she had quite realized that they'd left the library.

The hand guiding her was warm, comforting, and something that she couldn't quite identify. By the time they reached her room, she was almost comfortable with it, despite the fact that it was a bit of a departure into the unknown. Harry, bless his soul, was physically affectionate, but limited it to hugs and a solid presence near her on the couch. Ron, though a Pureblood, had the manners of a garden troll, and hadn't tried to touch her, other than hearty thwacks on her shoulders, ever since they'd realized that they weren't suited to be more than friends. Frankly, based on where his hands had reportedly been, she didn't want them anywhere near her.

Other than the few dates Ginny had set up for her, that was her extent of physical interaction with men.

He stopped at her door, and his hand grazed her spine as he stepped away from her. She felt its absence even more clearly than when he'd edged away from her in the library.

Merlin, this was stupid! He was an older wizard! Her employer! And she was young and woefully inexperienced. No good could come of this.

But she hesitated at her door, and he turned back to her.

"Good night, Miss Granger." He took a step closer and raised her hand to his lips. "Sleep well."

It was just a brush of soft lips on soft skin, she told herself. It meant nothing.

But as she entered her room, after watching him disappear down the corridor, she couldn't help but think that perhaps, it was something significantly more than that.

And the butterflies that had mostly settled in her stomach took up flight anew.

back    next


Author's Notes

Characters from the Harry Potter series are the property of J.K. Rowling. They are used without permission and not for profit.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional