24Closer to a Memory
"I propose the following: if the shape
can alter memory, then our understanding
of memory must change. Instead of a record
of our own perspectives, unique and created
by how we perceive causation, memory can't
be so confined. To see it that way would imply
that the shape changes our remembrance
intentionally, and with a skill beyond any
surgeon. But I don't believe that to be true.
Altered memories are simply a by-product.
Reality transforms with the shape; these
transformations write themselves in our minds,
automatically. To change the root, is to change
the leaves. So, it follows that our memories are
influenced by us, but not created by us, nor
dependent on individual perspective. We all
translate the pages we are given in different
ways, but read from the same book."
–Cecil DuMont, Inviolate: Forgotten Sciences of
the Shape and the Modern Monopoly of Thought
The book she was reading was not quite involving enough.
Typically, Hermione did not suffer much difficulty losing herself in a novel – or anything written, really, it didn't have to be fiction. Words were her speciality, a world she understood and connected to on a fundamental level. Escape through the vector of books had allowed her to survive primary school, a pen and ink shield against the harsh reality of the social strata and her place within it. In retrospect, she thought she must have been a truly insufferable child to have failed to connect with even the other outcasts. Or perhaps she had been consistently unlucky.
Hogwarts had changed all of that. It had taken a little time to happen, but soon enough she'd gained the truest friends a girl could ever wish for. And, as they had grown together, she had begun to hope that her luck had changed so thoroughly that one of those friends might become something more.
He had, eventually. Ron had given her some wonderful memories. Which was good, as they were all she had left.
She lowered her book and stared hollowly at the coat of arms above the great stone fireplace that dominated the far wall of the manor's sitting room. It was a fireplace big enough to burn a body, she morbidly considered, and probably had. Malfoy Manor was full of secrets, all of them unpleasant.
And it was her Manor, after all. Hermione Granger-Malfoy must have owned at least half. It was right there in her name.
In reality, she knew that she owned nothing. She was little better than the furnishings around her, another prize possession for the master of the house. She belonged to the son, not the senior (bad as it all was, it could have been even worse), but the Manor was a family collection. She had been added to the rest of the curios through the machinations of a Ministry far past the point of insanity. Utter, incomprehensible insanity.
A Marriage Law! The madness, the inhumanity, the trespasses against civil rights, the repudiation of the most basic liberties and human dignity! It could not be borne. Most days she could scarcely comprehend how a rational world could allow such a thing. Then her knowledge of history caught up to her outrage, and she remembered that far worse things had been allowed to happen. It was scant comfort. It was all she could do to bottle up her indignity, and keep the uneasy peace.
In a perverse sort of equality, at least Muggle-born men had also been treated like chattel by the pure-bloods desperate to avoid losing what little control they had over spousal arrangements. They all had to choose, or the Ministry would choose for them. The fact that the choosers were pure-bloods had to be a purposeful attempt by a corrupt regime to placate its wealthiest members, even as it forced them into matrimony with those they viewed as inferior at best and mere animals at worst.
Did they not see how draconian it all was, how unfair, unprincipled, untenable? Those cursed fascists in office didn't care about the human cost, the barbarity, the ludicrous absurdity of the entire affair. It was so illogical it just made her want to scream.
She swallowed her freshly bubbling indignation when Draco walked into the room. He nodded coolly towards her on his way to the rear stairwell. She did not return the gesture, watching dispassionately as he went, her features impassive.
Gone were his sneers and general aura of contempt. He treated her with a cold civility, distant but generally polite. He was fairly indifferent to how she spent her time. She didn't know for certain, but she speculated that he had used her to dodge out of another arranged marriage, perhaps to someone he couldn't ignore. So he had what he'd wanted, and there was little further use for her, even as a target of scorn. He probably didn't even remember he was married until he saw her on occasion.
He didn't have everything he wanted, though, she reflected vindictively. She had never gone to his bed. But that small kernel of victory was lessened by the fact that he had hardly tried to bring her into his bed. He'd made some half-hearted suggestions on their wedding night, but he didn't really want her for sex. No doubt he had another woman, probably more than one, for that. No, Hermione knew that, beyond whatever motivation he might have had to escape a different Marriage Law victim, she represented one last, spiteful blow against Harry, and against Ron.
Draco had held the power to take away Harry's best friend and entrap Ron's love. So he did it, of course. She doubted he'd ever entertained second thoughts before, during or after the process. Petty vengeance was less of a consideration for the Malfoys than it was a standard impulse to be indulged.
Thinking of Ron and Harry brought back the waves of loneliness and deep despair. She dropped her book upon her lap and passed a hand over her eyes, fighting back helpless tears. She wanted so badly to be free of the whole mess. But what would be the point of escaping if she would just be found again? The law was the law, and she hadn't been able to change it, despite… Well, she couldn't recall any specific examples, but she was sure she had tried.
Harry might be able to protect her, at least for a time. He had married a pure-blood despite the Law. Even a Ministry gone mad could not deny the triumphant hero his chosen bride: no one told Harry he couldn't marry Ginny, not with his fame and public support at an all-time high. For once, his name had worked for him. Ron and Hermione were lesser known, always had been. They lacked the same protections.
Hermione didn't know who Ron was married to, if he was. She assumed so; it was the law, after all. She hoped it was someone sweet, and kind, who could handle his temper, bolster his confidence, and value him for who he was.
At least Harry had Ginny. In her best moments, Hermione was able to be happy for them. She frowned slightly, thinking about Harry's sway with the public. Why hadn't he been able to help her? With his money and prestige, surely he could have done something. She would have had ideas, public relations tactics, governmental loopholes she could research. It didn't seem right. Harry had always jumped to her defence before. It was in his nature.
Perhaps he had tried, and she just couldn't remember, given all the fuss and her state of mind. Come to think of it, she couldn't even remember how Harry had defeated Voldemort. She must have blocked it out: as soon as the question occurred to her, bits and pieces of that night began to return. She recalled a great battle in a forest, all flashing light and dark swathes. There, Riddle had been struck down at last.
Had it truly been so simple? She shook herself. Perhaps spending so much of her time removed from reality was beginning to affect her. She decided to take a walk in the garden, one of her frequent pastimes. The garden was tended by the house-elves, and none of the Malfoys made much use of it. It was an excellent place to find her preferred state of solitude.
The garden path was as perfectly manicured as everything else about the Manor. Money bought cleanliness and order, among other things. Like her, apparently. She quashed the thought and pressed deeper into the hedges. There, beneath the arched branches, was the closest thing to tranquillity she had found since the Law had passed.
It had been forced upon her, that was true enough, but she still felt as if she had failed. Not just Harry and Ron, but herself. She was the bright one, the one who could find a way out of situations that required more than bravery. If anyone could discover a way around the Law, or, barring that, a way to escape the Manor cleanly, it would be her. That wasn't egotism, it was simple fact. Solving such problems had been her purpose ever since two reckless boys had saved her from a troll.
So why hadn't she escaped? Even protections as mighty as those surrounding the Manor could be breached more easily from within. A single shopping trip to Diagon Alley, one visit to her parents – little more would be required to allow her to disappear. Yet, she sat, mired in self-pity. She felt a wave of bitter disappointment wash over her. She was better than she had been acting. She didn't need to escape into books, she needed to escape to the outside world!
She had no idea why she had been so inactive, downright passive, in her
handling of the situation. But she resolved that would change. Starting immediately, she would do whatever she had to in order to return to Ron. They could run away to Australia, or America. They could live like Muggles if they had to. It would be hard for Ron, at first, but in time he could be taught everything he needed to know. She began tallying a mental list of the most vital things he would need to memorise in order to pass as a Muggle effectively, and then noted that there would be some other, different cultural considerations if they integrated into American society.
She stopped, thought about what she was doing, and smiled. That was more like it. She was herself again. Hermione Granger was a force to be reckoned with. She had simply forgotten herself for a time.
Yes, integrating into America. Most British pure-bloods had little to do with American wizarding society, almost entirely Muggle-born as it was. She and Ron could be safe there. It would be easy enough to configure a method of communicating with Harry and the rest of the Weasleys. And she had known someone… Someone she associated with that word, 'integrating'…
Well. It would come to her, eventually.
Sections of the garden were almost like a maze, though only in the sense there were hedge walls that couldn't be seen over. Everything was neatly laid out along the paths, and there was no danger of becoming lost. She passed by a marble bench, deciding she would rather stroll and think, and crossed over a small ornamental bridge. On the other side, four hedges lined an intersection on the pathway. Randomly, she stepped to the left, which was the way to the orchids.
She immediately recoiled, one hand groping for her wand, when she almost ran into the looming form of a person standing there – a person with a weapon.
The gun barrel which nearly stopped her heart lowered, revealing a familiar, and somewhat sheepish, visage. "Did I scare you?" he said.
Oh, damn it all. It was just Scott.
Hermione dropped her hands to her sides, still trembling, though it was more from embarrassment and anger than shock. She took a deep breath and slowly let it out, not trusting herself to answer right away. "You," she began, shakily. She shut her mouth and took another deep breath, this time through her nose, and tried again. "You hulking, inconsiderate lout! What are you doing, lurking around corners, giving me such a fright? How did you even get in here?" When Scott quirked an eyebrow at her, she sighed. "Silly question. But, you startled me!"
"Us hulking, inconsiderate louts are known to do that," he said.
She flushed slightly. Perhaps she had been a bit harsh on him, but he had just about scared her half to death. "Well, I'm sorry, but you're quite tall, and the first thing I saw was your chest and a gun barrel!"
"I wasn't sure it was you. I knew you were in here, somewhere, but it could have been Malfoy," Scott explained.
"And you were prepared to, what? Shoot him?"
Scott gestured towards the Manor. "And deprive you of all this?"
Becoming a widow, courtesy of Scott, would be one way to fix the problem, she supposed. A rather awful way. It wasn't as if she hadn't wished death on Draco several times already, given what he had done. However, whilst she wouldn't shed a tear should something happen to her husband, premeditated murder was a step further than she was willing to go.
"I doubt I'd miss it. You can put that away," she told Scott, indicating his firearm. "We're alone out here."
"This deep into enemy territory? I'll keep it out, thanks."
She rolled her eyes. "We're not at war, any longer. If you get caught, you might be charged for trespassing. Shoot someone, and that's attempted murder."
"Like it would be attempted," he scoffed.
"Of course, yes, you never miss, you're the best murderer ever, and so on. What are you doing here?"
"Gee, I'm happy to see you, too."
She sighed again, wilting a bit. After a moment, she reached out and took his hand, squeezing it with rediscovered affection. "I am happy to see you. I'm sorry, I'm not in the best of moods."
"I don't know how you could be." Scott looked up at the Manor with an expression of distaste. "What do you say I torch this place and take you home?"
A tempting offer, indeed. "I wish it were that simple."
"It isn't?" Scott seemed genuinely surprised.
"I…" Hermione paused. Was it not? She had been so certain about the complexity of the details that kept her trapped under the Marriage Law, but they had become vague in her mind. No doubt it would take a while to sort it all out, and who knew how much time she had with Scott. "I don't have time to explain it all. Just, please don't make things worse."
"I don't know what's going on, I wasn't even at your wedding," Scott complained.
"Of course you weren't. No one was." Even Hermione's parents had not been allowed to attend, being Muggles. It was strange, though, that she hadn't had any say in that at all. The wizarding world wasn't that backward, was it? Had she no recourse?
"Did you at least have a cake? Is there any left?"
Either Scott was trying to make her laugh, or he had finally lost his tenuous hold on reality. Though, all of the sudden, previously unrealised questions assaulting her made her feel as if perhaps she were the one going insane. There was a fog of war being lifted. Scott's presence was galvanising. She couldn't remember the last time she had seen him, but she knew she had never been so glad to see him before.
"My memory seems to be impaired," she said with a growing sense of urgency, "as well as some other aspects of my personality, I'm sure it's all related. I don't know if Draco has done something to me, or perhaps the Manor itself, but I need to leave, regardless of the Marriage Law."
"'Marriage Law'?" Scott echoed, mouthing the words as if they tasted strange. "That explains where you're shacking up. I thought you were, like… undercover, maybe. Or here for tea. You're British, you'll take tea with anyone if they invite you."
"Where on earth have you been?" she said impatiently. "Did you just decide to stop paying attention? The Ministry has completely exceeded its authority and forced pure-bloods to marry Muggle-borns in an attempt to repopulate and lower the rate of Squibs. Wizarding Britain has been shrinking for a long time, you know that. Part of that being their obvious propensity for the worst possible solutions."
"What a messed up country," Scott sighed. "This is some paperback bullshit, we're reaching fanfiction levels of self-serving stupidity at this point. So fucking contrived."
"You think I don't know that? It's absurd," Hermione hissed. "Someone in the upper offices clearly longs for a return to feudalism. I should have refused to begin with, consequences be damned. But I won't keep living here for a second longer than I have to. Now, can you take a message to Harry for me?"
"I can, yes."
"Ask him if Grimmauld Place is still protected. If it is, I want to know if I can hide there for an indeterminate amount of time. Hopefully, not too long. I may have to flee the country."
Scott nodded. "I can help with that, too, if you want. Or, I could dynamite this shitheap, and then the Ministry."
"Don't be hasty, Guy Fawkes," Hermione said dryly. "Rather than unleashing your inner arsonist, why don't you help me escape?"
"Fine. But I get to dynamite one public edifice of my choice."
"Your terms are ridiculous, so are you, and we aren't even bargaining right now! Now, please go, I don't want to spend another second here that I don't have to." She paused, biting her lower lip. "And… If you see Ron…"
Scott raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"
"Tell him… Oh, never mind. I don't know what to say. What can I say?" There was so much that had been left unspoken that she doubted any words could suffice after the time that had passed. "Do you know anything about his…?"
Hermione blanched. "Wh–?! Why would you think that would be the next word?! Situation. I was going to say sit– Oh, you are, you're impossible, just go, I don't want to talk to you any more!"
"This isn't a very welcoming environment. I think you need to develop your skills as a hostess."
"They hide me when they have visitors. Sometimes I'm not sure who my in-laws hate more: me, or Draco for marrying me." Surely she had to be right about Draco dodging a different, more responsibility-laden marriage to some other Muggle-born. She wondered who the luckier woman was.
"Poor Hermione in her big, lonely castle, trapped with a brutish man," Scott simpered.
She glared at him. "It's a Manor, and I don't need your pity."
He grinned widely. "'Taaaaaaaale as ooooold as tiiiiiime…'" he began to sing.
Hermione loved the Disney animated films – not liked, loved. She was not impressed by the comparison. She had seen the one to which Scott was referring in the theatre, a rare Muggle moment with her parents. And the behaviour of the Malfoys was, even at their best, still far more ugly beneath the surface than the Beast had ever been.
Still, she couldn't quite suppress the smile brought about by Scott's exaggerated warbling. It felt too good to be around someone who tried to entertain her, again. "Oh, shut it, you prat. Now I remember why I didn't miss you."
"Not even a little?" Scott sniffled, blinking back imaginary tears.
"…Perhaps very slight modicum," she allowed. "Will you please go? I want to leave here."
"I'll see what I can do," Scott promised. "If Grimmauld has completely decayed
in Sophie's absence, I'll come up with something. How about an apartment by the Thames? Think of all the jellied eels you could eat," he enthused, as if that were a major selling point.
"No, thank you, I prefer my eels un-jellied. Or not at all, really."
Scott wandered back off into the garden, presumably to disappear. He seemed to dislike opening apertures in front of people, which she thought probably had less to do with trade secrets than with his own sense of dramatic mystery. Or, perhaps not, but whatever the case was, she didn't know why he had to be by himself first. Maybe he just knew it would annoy her.
That would be like him, but no matter. She needed to consider her plans, build contingencies. If she were to simply disappear for awhile, she rather doubted that Draco would go looking for her. He would likely be relieved, or indifferent. In fact, were it entirely up to him, he'd probably not bother to report it. He already lived his life as if she weren't around, her departure would be more a convenience than anything. Lucius might worry for the family's reputation, but not for long, she wagered. Being forced to accept a Muggle-born into the fold had been the ultimate indignity for the Malfoy patriarch. He would likely view letting her go as being worth the embarrassment.
No, the government would be the real issue. And she was done accepting their authority.
A shadow fell across her, followed by footsteps. She rolled her eyes, wondering if Scott was having trouble with his mysterious apertures, and, more to the point, what he expected her to do about it. "Was there something else, or are you–" she turned, and was greeted by a very different visage than the one she had expected. Her mouth dropped open. "…Harry?"
With a whoosh of air that sent her hair fluttering, Ginny slammed her bedroom door shut and leaned against it. She could feel her absolute humiliation in her burning cheeks, nearly bringing her to tears.
It wasn't fair. She hadn't been ready!
She abandoned the hard surface of the door and turned to the comfort of her bed, flinging herself onto the soft sheets and burying her glowing complexion into her pillow. The cool cloth was soothing, though not enough. She wished she could Transfigure it into a Time-Turner. That would be dead useful, and she didn't need more than a few minutes to fix everything.
She had known that Ron and the twins had been up to something, even if they refused to tell her what. She'd heard them leave in the middle of the night, which, at least in the twins' case, was not all that unusual. So when she'd traipsed down to breakfast in the morning, yawning widely and peering blearily out from behind the curtain of her brilliant red hair, she'd had nothing on her mind but the forthcoming meal.
She certainly hadn't expected Harry Potter to be at the table.
Harry Potter! The saviour of the wizarding world, the mighty hero, the living legend, the… the skinny, black-haired boy with the amazing green eyes she had seen at the station. He'd seemed so alone, then. Now he was with Ron and the twins. They'd corrupt him before she even had a chance to say anything!
Not that she could say anything. Unless she counted the mortifying squeak she had unleashed, something akin to a mouse being squished. Scabbers made noises like the one she'd made when she saw Harry Potter in the kitchen with nary a warning. And there was only one chance to make a first impression.
If she could do it again, she would dress nicely, and be ever so polite, with dazzling manners and a pretty smile and maybe he would smile back! She'd be intelligent and charming, and have so many questions, and soon enough he would be her friend, too, not just Ron's. And it would be wonderful. He'd take her on adventures and tell her all about himself.
Oh, who was she fooling? She couldn't say a word to him, never mind be witty. He was Harry Potter! She was a small red-haired girl from a big family without much money. The Minister would want to converse with Harry Potter, all the Aurors and the Daily Prophet, Dumbledore and Quidditch stars. They would be his friends and confidantes. Not little Ginny Weasley. Not if she couldn't just speak to him!
It wasn't that she lacked self-confidence entirely, she knew she was an all right sort, she had opinions and ideas, she could be interesting. None of that did her any bloody good when her body betrayed her, turning red as a tomato and squeezing her jaw shut with invisible force. She'd imagined talking to him for so long, and, now that she had the chance, she couldn't!
To top it all off, she'd been right rude, running out like that, and walking in not fully dressed in the first place. Her fury focussed on her brothers, abandoning its internal direction. If they'd had the simple courtesy to tell her that Harry Potter had been downstairs, the whole affair might have been avoided. It was like they wanted her to make a fool of herself. Oh, that would be just like them, wouldn't it. The ruddy prats.
She'd be sure to get them back for it, but, in the meantime, she resolved to do better. Harry Potter would notice her, and she would speak to him, and they would be the best of friends and maybe even boyfriend and girlfriend, eventually, once they were a bit older. She didn't want to wait too long, though.
Well, she wasn't going to accomplish any of that feeling sorry for herself in her room. As she dressed, she tried to think of a good way to make up for her earlier embarrassment. Perhaps she could show Harry how good she was on a broomstick. She knew he liked watching her play, and had always taken pride in her Quidditch skills.
Except he'd never seen her fly. And the rest of her family didn't know she even could. So why had she thought that? Harry liked Quidditch, of course, and was an amazing Seeker. Or, he would be an amazing Seeker. She knew he would… Though, he'd never been on a team before and was even raised a Muggle, as she understood it, so…
She shook her head, wondering just how barmy the incident downstairs had left her. Such weird thoughts besieged her – almost like memories. She would be worried that she was finally confusing fantasy with reality, but she couldn't recall ever fantasising about playing Quidditch with Harry Potter. Adventuring, fighting Dark Lords, holding hands, sure, but not Quidditch. It was a very odd train of thought.
But not a bad one, all together. Flying might be just the thing to make Harry her friend. She'd just have to sneak into the shed again, and invite him. He looked like he could keep a secret (she knew he could, somehow).
Thus at least momentarily bolstered, she dressed herself as quickly as she could, pulled her door open, and strode out straight into someone standing there.
She stumbled back and almost fell to the floor, just catching herself on the edge of the door frame. She found herself bent over nearly double, resting on her heels and staring at an unfamiliar pair of trainers. Her heart sunk in her chest. Oh, no. Surely she hadn't just walked into Harry.
With great trepidation, her eyes travelled upwards until they met the person's face. Recognition sparked immediately, and she just about let go of the frame in relief.
It was only Scott.
"Were you eavesdropping out here?" she snapped, pulling herself up.
"Why? Were you talking to yourself?" he responded blandly.
"No! I was…" She stopped, not wanting to explain what had happened. "It's none of your business."
"Yeah, probably not. Hey, have you seen Harry?"
"He was just at the table," Ginny replied without thinking. Then, she frowned. "Wait, 'Harry'? Are you friends with him already?"
Scott squinted down at her. "I feel like you're setting me up for a joke, but I can't guess the punchline. Okay, I'll bite: yes, I'm friends with him already."
"Great. Now you can tell him all sorts of lies about me, if you haven't already," she huffed.
He pointed at her. "Hey, I was on your side when you didn't even know it. Who was dating Dean, again? Yeah, not me. Don't blame me for not being able to work around your baggage fast enough. I brought you up to Harry just about every goddamn day."
She gaped at him. "What are you even talking about? Who's Dean?"
Scott dropped his hand and stared blankly back at her for a long, silent moment. "…He's a guy," he said at last. "He's a guy who you… something. And it was a problem. For me. And possibly the universe. Maybe I should keep a journal…"
"You've finally gone completely 'round the twist, haven't you," Ginny said ruefully.
"No, no. That's not what's happening here. I'm just delivering a message, because Harry wants to talk to you."
A jolt of excitement shot through her. "He does?" she said weakly. After what had happened? She hoped he wanted to talk about something else. If he tried to apologise for startling her or something like that, she would just die. But, wait– "You just asked me if I'd seen Harry."
"Right. Because he wants to talk to you. I didn't know if you'd run into him before I found you."
Scott must have just arrived, which made sense, as she hadn't seen him in the kitchen with the others. He sometimes walked over to The Burrow from wherever it was he lived, she couldn't remember where that was, or why he came over, or how she had come to be on such informal speaking terms with a grown man. But, none of that mattered. Harry wanted to speak with her!
"Is he still in the kitchen?" she asked.
"No, he's out in the orchard. I don't know what he wants, but he was pretty tense. Hermione was there, too. Something must be up." Scott
shrugged, apparently unconcerned with whatever that something was.
Hermione being there put a bit of a damper on things. It wasn't the private conversation Ginny had hoped for, but she still brushed past Scott (thankfully, he didn't follow) and hurried out of the house, crossing the lawn and heading for the orchard. It was very pleasant out, and the dew from the grass soaked her feet as the air slowly heated with the sun. Her heart pounded in her chest, dizzy with anticipation.
Her bold flight lasted until she reached the trees. Hesitation took over, and she carefully wound her way around the trunks and branches until she saw Harry standing in the shade.
He looked tired, dark circles apparent beneath his eyes and the faint hint of his still-sparse stubble dotting his chin and upper lip. He was wearing clothes that were too big for him, giving him the appearance of being underfed again, even though she had seen him put on weight over years of Hogwarts feasts and Quidditch training. Except, had she? There were years, and there were none. He was younger, but not. She glanced down at herself and saw a different form than she had in the mirror of her bedroom, with breasts and hips and unfamiliar marks. There was a tiny scar on her left index finger, and she couldn't remember how she had come to have it. The Harry from the table was superimposed over the new Harry, older and more worn, blurring together and making her blink. Hermione stood just behind him, her stance worried, and she was the same as always, singular, unwavering in age.
Harry smiled tightly. "Ginny, it's all right," he said gently. "Or, I think it's going to be."
"We shouldn't have let Scott go," Hermione fretted. "We don't know if he'll go to Ron."
Harry sighed. "He has to. You saw him when we tried to explain, he forgot the second we were done talking. This thing is trying to stop him, I'm positive."
"Thank goodness he's so hard to pin down. He's doing what he thinks is his job, regardless, which is a sort of comfort. I never thought I'd be grateful he's so stubborn." Hermione worried at her lip. "When he finds Ron, what will we–"
"One step at a time," Harry interrupted. "Gin, I can explain. Well… some of it, anyway."
Ginny didn't know what was happening or who (when?) precisely this Harry was. But she remembered that she trusted him. "All right, Harry. What's all this?"
Scott steps out into the hallway, letting the door slide shut and seal behind him. The soft 'click' and subtle hum of the hermetic locks is familiar to him, almost a sort of comfort. The world behind each door could not intrude.
The halls of the Transferral have an odd, muffled acoustic quality to them. The ceilings seem a bit lower than natural and noise doesn't travel far in the partitioned sections, muted and dull. There is only the constant thrum of distant machinery, droning somewhere deep behind the walls and beneath the floor.
He takes a step and then pauses, unsure of his destination. Unsure of where he'd come from, actually. He turns back to look at the door he had just exited. Matte grey metal, featureless, without clue. He frowns, waving at the emitter. It doesn't respond.
He rolls his eyes, turning away. Fucking place was falling apart, per usual. He understands that Transversal Station is a massive expenditure, but, come on. It is the major hub of travel. Someone could pay to fix the fucking 'mits when they broke.
Still, he should really remember what he was doing. The door directly across from him lights up. Instead of the standard designations, it scrolls only two words across the air.
It's a pretty unusual objective, a little succinct for the bureaucratic tendencies of the Imperiarchy. But it's clear enough, and it's the direction he was looking for. He palms the door open and steps confidently through.
Ron's fingers dug into the upholstery with growing tension as he watched her from his perch. Some of the other students had probably noticed his fixation, he thought grimly. It was all a real laugh, he'd wager. But that was less important to him than the task which he had set himself. He had to ask Hermione to the Yule Ball. And he was going to ask her. He just hadn't quite sussed out how.
She was assisting Harry with his homework over at the couches, meaning she was doing at least some of it. Harry had an impatient look on his face, probably wishing she would stop explaining how something was done and just do it for him. She would, eventually (she couldn't help herself), but not before she did her best to aid his comprehension. That wasn't what Harry wanted, but it was what he was going to get until she became frustrated enough with his inability (unwillingness) to understand, and took over.
Ron had been on the receiving end of that kind of help more times than he could remember. Observing it from the outside made him think that perhaps he and Harry relied on her too much. It wasn't fair to expect her to do their revision at least partially and then all of hers, too. Even if she seemed to enjoy it.
He didn't understand that side of her. He secretly admired it, but could never summon that level of academic interest. He understood one thing about her, though: she wanted him to ask her to the Ball.
That understanding was in direct contrast to his previous position of doubt, which he had attempted to mask with false indifference. But, that morning, he had awoken from a dream that had seemed so intense, so real, that in the moment of breaking consciousness he had felt as if he were going into a dream instead of coming out of one. He couldn't remember the details, left with haunting after-images and unintelligible segments of conversation.
Despite its unclear nature, his dream had bestowed upon him an inexplicable certainty: Hermione wanted him to ask her to the Ball. He knew it with the surety of hindsight, a truth obvious only in retrospective. Which didn't make much sense, but he'd take whatever sources of confidence he could find, even if, in this case, it meant he was completely mental.
So, all he had to do was think of the proper way to ask her, right? Couldn't be too difficult. Maybe if he–
"The cycle is shortening," a voice mused from the chair next to Ron's, jolting him from his thoughts.
Ron turned his head to glare at the intrusion, intent on giving whoever had startled him a piece of his mind. He was trying to think, damn it! But the unwelcome voice proved to have emerged from a familiar head sporting an unkempt top of straw-blond hair. Ron made a face and subsided back into his seat.
It was only Scott, the bugger.
Ron wasn't going to waste his breath having a go at Scott. He'd been watching Hermione do just that for years. "What's that?" he said disinterestedly. Hopefully, Scott would pick up on Ron's half-hearted replies and go bother someone else.
"This thing we're in. This cycle, though I don't think that's the right word. Unique occurrences may have obvious repetition, but that doesn't necessarily evince they are cyclical in nature."
Ron turned to look at him, incredulous. "What?" he said.
Scott ignored him. "I'm not where I was before, but I haven't gone anywhere. We're narrowing it down, whatever 'it' is, whittling away. The decimal shifts with each new instance, like a countdown, the number is approaching a real integer. But, every decimal place erases the previous digits… I don't recall where I was, or where I'm going, but I am going, and iteration brings us closer to the true paradigm."
Usually, it was Harry who put up with that kind of rubbish. "Oh, I thought you were talking to me," Ron said, turning away.
"I am if you're listening."
"What's the point?" Ron sighed, wishing Scott would just shut it or go away. Ron had Hermione to think about.
"I know something is wrong. But I don't know what, or, as I suspect, I can't remember what. I've been here before."
"You've been to Hogwarts lots of times, mate," Ron said dryly. "At least in body, your head is anyone's guess."
"Have I, though? Here, yes, but now? I'm trying to think about it and I run into walls, there's nothing to remember, half the time, or it comes to me at the last second and still doesn't really fit." Scott stared into the fireplace. "This may be invention. This may be a cage. This is wrong. I was somewhere else, a minute ago."
"Yeah, you were standing over there," Ron told him. He started to raise his hand to point, and then he dropped it, eyebrows pulling together in confusion. Scott hadn't been over there, actually. Where had the Kharadjai been? And what was a Kharadjai?
Scott watched Ron's aborted attempt at indication with detachment. "This is wrong," he repeated. "I know that much."
Ron began mentally assembling a refutation of Scott's daft assertion (probably just a, 'shut it, you nutter'), but then he thought about his dream, and the way it seemed to take over his reality. He couldn't entirely dismiss the overall feeling of strangeness that had descended over the day. "Did you see a Grim in your bacon?" he said with attempted levity, though he couldn't quite make himself mean it.
Scott did not reply, returning to his study of the fireplace.
Ron almost took the opportunity to drop the entire mess and watch Hermione again. Almost. He couldn't quite shake the disquiet that Scott's words had created, stirring remnants of his clinging dream. He tapped his fingers against the arm of his chair a few times,
debating whether he really wanted to encourage Scott. Then he said, "What do you think it is?"
Scott grunted in disgust. "If I knew, I wouldn't be talking to myself."
"Yeah, enjoy your company, too, mate."
"So this is considered a conversation."
"Not if it was anyone but you, probably. You may be slightly different, but I reckon you knew that."
Scott shook his head, though it didn't seem to be in response to Ron's jab. "This sense of recursion is not natural. I believe any recurrence is a sign of the same pattern being applied. It's not that we've done this day already: it's that we never did this day, in this fashion. The shape tells me that what I think is happening is not what is happening."
Ron raised his eyebrows, nonplussed. "So what does that mean?"
"It means…" Scott pursed his lips. "It means this isn't…"
"Real?" Ron finished, and the disorientating sensation of his dream stole back over him, tilting the world strangely. He must have still been dreaming, it was the only thing that made sense.
Scott made a quiet noise of frustration. "What would that imply? If this isn't real, if we accept that this is… What? Some kind of enforced solipsism? If we… But, wait, didn't I just tell Harry…"
Ron glanced over towards Harry, but his friend was gone, as was Hermione. In fact, almost everyone was gone. The common room had suddenly emptied, leaving only a few vague faces moving in the distant corners. They seemed to disappear at the periphery of his vision, fading into the shadows. A chill came over him.
Scott's eyes were unfocussed. "I remember that. And there's an orchard, too, and a garden. Multiple steps, or tiers, this is a complicated structure. This is a cage. But I've been biting at the bars. I see. I see."
Ron was thoroughly unnerved. The common room was now completely barren. Even the couches by the fire had disappeared, and the fire itself was low. There were no longer any staircases to the upper dormitories. "What the bloody hell is going on?" he said unsteadily.
Scott looked over at him, face serious. "I have to report this. Stay here and wait for Harry. I'll be back as soon as I let my superiors know what's happening."
"What? Wait! Come on, don't leave me!" Ron pleaded. The edges of the room had grown blurry, as if there were something outside that was slowly devouring the entire tower and all the light within it.
"I have to go, man. Don't worry, this should stabilise after I'm gone. I have to report this."
"But, what do I do if–"
Scott jumped up and strode through an aperture before Ron could finish his question.
Ron had no idea what was happening. All he knew was that he didn't like it. He drew his wand and stood, wanting to be able to rotate to view the entire room, or what was left of it. He didn't think Scott would just leave him to die, but it also didn't seem like a very safe situation.
"Fucking brilliant," Ron muttered to himself, keeping his wand up as he slowly turned around. "Now what?"
He spun towards the sound of a voice; it took half a second for his brain to recognise it as Harry's. "Harry?"
"Ron!" That was Hermione. She appeared from seemingly nowhere, near where the portal entrance would usually be. She rushed forward, and threw her arms around him.
"Hermione," he stammered, taken aback. Just minutes before he'd been thinking about asking her to the Yule Ball. Now she was visibly older, prettier than ever, with stress stamped across her features. "What's going on?"
"Thank God we found you," she sighed, relaxing a little in his arms. "We waited for Scott to move forward, and hoped for the best."
"We're still here, though," Harry said, coming up behind her. Ginny was with him. She was wearing clothes that Ron hadn't seen on her in years, though they somehow still fit. Harry looked like he was wearing a shirt made for someone twice his size, and his trousers were cinched tight with an enormous belt. "Glad to see you in one piece, mate."
"Yeah, you too," Ron said genuinely, though he still had no idea what was going on. He was beginning to understand that he wasn't at Hogwarts, and probably never had been.
"I guess this wasn't the real end," Ginny said tightly, her worried eyes scanning the darkened shell of a room.
Hermione pulled away from Ron, still gripping his hands. "But Scott was here. Once we explain things to Ron, we'll move on. What's the last thing you remember?" she asked, looking up at Ron.
"I was going to try and ask you to the Yule Ball," he admitted, and it already felt like an old memory, even if it had happened moments ago.
Her eyes brightened. "Oh!" she said softly, her lips curving upwards. "And how did that go?"
"Scott started spouting a load of bollocks and I got distracted."
"Oh," she said flatly. "So much for changing history. I mean, not really, but it would have been interesting to see the result, nonetheless."
"We were at Grimmauld. Try to remember," Harry urged. "We got back from Hogwarts and then… Something happened."
Grimmauld? Ron visualised the darkened halls and grimy décor of the place he knew well. In his mind he saw the kitchen where they had discussed many things – like Horcruxes. They'd found one of them, in Hogwarts, in the Room. He remembered. They came back from their mission, they were going to kill the diadem… Nothing. Nothing came after.
"I remember we were going to take care of the Horcrux, but I can't remember anything after that," Ron said.
"Same here," Harry told him. "I think it did something to us."
Ron looked around at the blurry, half-finished common room. "Are we inside of it? Is that what this is?"
"Not literally, I don't think," Hermione said. "It's a kind of mental trap. We were all stuck in our own… dreams, I suppose we can call them."
"You weren't at Hogwarts?"
"No. We all had different dreams. Mine was very unpleasant," Hermione said with a small shudder.
"Which is weird, isn't it?" Harry mused. "Mine was like a good dream."
"Mine really happened, sort of," Ginny said.
"Yeah, mine too," Ron added. "Except for…"
"Scott?" Harry guessed. "Same here. He's the reason I snapped out of it. I sent him to go check on you and Hermione, since it was, um, we were back. Back before I found out I was a wizard, it was like time travel. And I wanted to see what you were doing, if you remembered the future like I did. So I sent Scott off, and I guess he went into Hermione's dream, but, when he didn't come back, I started to… I, it was like it didn't make sense anymore. I even forgot about him for a bit, then I remembered, and then I remembered the real past, without him in it, because it was still all mixed up."
Ron frowned, confused. "You knew he wasn't really there?"
"No, I… I'm not explaining very well. It was so strange. But, when he was gone, I knew he didn't belong there and that he wasn't really a part of it. The way my memories kept changing, they kept trying to fit him in. The diadem seemed to think he was there originally, it was like it wasn't entirely my dream, it was Scott's, too, his idea of a replay, and without him the diadem didn't know what to do about it." Harry frowned. "I don't think he was supposed to be able to leave."
Hermione nodded. "I'm sure he wasn't. The diadem can't work on him the way it does us, just like the locket."
"He still forgot. He said he understood, then he forgot all about it afterwards," Harry pointed out.
"I have a theory," Hermione said, unsurprisingly. "We are progressing because the diadem is fighting with Scott. He broke out of the dream with you, which I'm not even sure was his original dream. Let's suppose it wasn't; perhaps he was doing something else before he went into yours."
"Why would he go into mine, though? Wouldn't the diadem just give him a different one if he were able to leave?"
"Well… What if it was a work dream?" Hermione conjectured. "What if he was dreaming about his job, then… Then he would go to you, to our universe, because that's his mission. And his aperture took him to you, right through the magic. He's our connection. We sent him to Ron, even. I doubt he realises what he's doing. The diadem seems to be making him forget, but has been unable to lock him in place."
"When I understood that my memories weren't real, my whole dream fell apart," Harry said. He gestured at the partially disintegrated surrounds. "Sort of like this. Then I was in Hermione's."
"You can see it's already happening here," Hermione said.
Sure enough, the space was growing dimmer. The stone walls were replaced by vague barriers of indeterminate material, and the corners had been swallowed by shadow. There was no longer any resemblance to the common room.
"This is just as spooky as last time," Ginny said, crossing her arms uneasily.
"The diadem must be trying to stop Scott." Hermione leaned against Ron's chest as the room turned dark, and the blackness fell over all of them. "Whatever is next, it will be for him."
Ron stared out into nothing. He couldn't even see Hermione's hair right below his chin anymore. The light was gone, and the darkness was complete and utterly still. "This is supposed to happen, right?" he said, trying to keep calm.
Harry's voice came from somewhere to Ron's left. "Yeah. It's bloody awful, though. Every time."
Ron could no longer feel Hermione's presence. There was absolute silence and darkness, a sensory deprivation of total completeness. He squeezed his eyes shut and hoped that it was just a transition, nothing permanent. He had a brief falling sensation, and then the faintest breeze tickled his scalp.
He thought he could hear the ocean.