Qualmsick grabbed Malfoy's arm before he could act against Hermione in any way and firmly instructed, "Walk away, Lucius. Come with me. Just walk away."
Hermione was frozen in lost moments of time as she beheld Lucius Malfoy's enraged grimace: Ron's death, flashes of her abuse in Malfoy manor, and Lucius' insults-all clambered around in her head, causing her to feel dizzy with vertigo, and the sensation roared down the words that she'd just heard herself say: You filth. You utter, utter load of filth!
The Malfoy patriarch, however, had found his voice. "You'll regret that our paths ever crossed again," snarled Lucius in a low voice. "You'll rue the day that you ever dared to utter those words to me."
Suddenly, the door to the Wizengamot chamber opened fully, and members started to filter out into the corridor.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Lester tugged Lucius slowly away toward the lift.
Hermione was seized by an irrational force and blurted out, "You can dish it out, but you can't take it, can you, Malfoy?"
Qualmsick gripped Lucius' arm with a steel grip to keep the former Death Eater from lunging at her.
"Dish it out?" hissed Lucius, his eyes narrowing. "Is that what you want, you little-"
"Lucius, this is neither the time nor the place," Qualmsick reminded him fiercely, and then the solicitor whispered something in the blond wizard's ear, causing Malfoy to halt immediately.
A cold chill went down Hermione's spine from Lucius' sinister visage, which then was unexpectedly mirrored by Qualmsick as well. A sickening sensation washed over her, and she had a flashback of being surrounded by Death Eaters, as she was years ago in the Department of Mysteries when helping Harry search for his prophecy. Remembering Ron, Luna, Ginny, and Neville, her other companions on that memorable day in the Ministry, she was gripped with a burning ache in her chest.
Ronald! So much has changed. Her eyes welled up with tears as she stared at Lucius and realised, And yet, so little!
Lucius smiled sardonically, noting and taking credit for her renewed painful expression, and allowed Lester to guide him away from the growing cluster of court officials to the lift.
As if hypnotised, Hermione watched and followed them.
As the lift's doors opened, Lucius turned around and balefully mouthed a curse at Hermione.
Instinctively, Hermione's wand had flashed upwards to Shield herself, but nothing, seemingly, struck her.
Lucius leered at her, satisfied, and then Hermione saw Qualmsick and Malfoy enter and disappear as the lift hurled them away. She broke out in cold sweat again and heard Minister Shacklebolt's booming low voice calling out to her as everything went dark.
Hermione had blacked out for only a few minutes. Lucius' ominous image was the first thing that appeared in her mind's eye when she came to in her office chamber. She had been carried there by Shacklebolt himself, but as soon as she had collected her wits enough, despite the concerns of her colleagues, she fled the Ministry.
Now, as she sat on the cold ground beside her husband's mound, having wept until there was only a void of emptiness left inside her, she mindlessly continued to brush the decayed foliage off his grave, here and there, unaware of time and coldness. So unaware of her surroundings, she wasn't alert to someone Apparating behind her.
The recognition of the voice registered vaguely. The touch of caring hands, carefully helping her to stand, caused a dull ache to throb in her chest. As she felt Harry's arms gently surround and hold her, she felt so very light-headed. A darkness seemed to be billowing towards her, sucking out her remaining strength.
"Hermione?" Harry squeezed and held her tighter; she laid her head on his shoulder, feeling so weak. "Shacklebolt has told me everything he knows. Lucius didn't curse you with anything that we can trace-no doubt he just wanted to unnerve you a bit." Hermione moaned pitifully, and Harry frowned in deep concern and thought, She's delirious and exhausted! Potter gave Ron's grave a solemn gaze, and then he whispered above his dearest friend's frizzy hair as he felt her relax her body weight against him, "I'm going to take you home now, Hermione. You can tell me your side of the story later."
"The children, Harry?"
"Ginny's watching them-they're with us at Grimmauld Place."
"Harry... What has happened? What have I done? I shouldn't have-I couldn't help myself. Malfoy-"
Harry's nostrils flared in controlled anger. "Don't you worry about Lucius-Kingsley told me enough for now. I've got Malfoy's number, as well as Qualmsick's-don't fret a second longer. I'll take care of them both."
"No, Harry, you don't understand-"
"With a few other Aurors, we'll put the fear of Merlin into them. Lucius won't dare come near you."
Hermione raised her head. "Lucius mouthed a curse at me-Harry, you didn't see how he leered at me-it was more loathsome than Bellatrix's was when... and I lost my control! Lucius said, you see, he said-" she gulped at the air to breathe, "He was glad Ronald's dead, one less Weasley in the world!" She began to sob anew. "He's such a horrid, horrid-"
Hermione gazed wildly around to Ron's grave, pushing away from Harry. "Nothing's changed! Ronald gave his life to rid the world of that mentality, but nothing's changed! After all this time, Malfoy is as despicable, bigoted and evil as ever! Nothing's changed, Harry! Nothing's changed!" she repeated over and over until she became incoherent, utterly exhausted.
Harry took his childhood friend into his arms again and held her until he felt her go limp, resigning herself to his help. Assured she was finally calm and still enough, he immediately seized the moment to Apparate them to number twelve Grimmauld Place.
Springtime at The Burrow brought forth blossoms and fragrances of all kinds, from the orchard behind the garden to the warm scents of sweet powders and fragrances floating, wafting to and fro, from the kitchen. The comforting coziness of Molly's hearth and home was as welcoming as ever, and little Rose and Hugo had melted under the indulgent attention given by Arthur and Molly; and as children will, they bounced back to their fervent and playful selves in no time after moving in.
It was only sporadically, at night, when one of them would awake in confusion and cry out for their father, unable to awaken from a nightmarish fear that things had become more difficult to deal with. Those were the worst nights; but as Hermione gazed out at the large, overgrown, gnome-filled garden of The Burrow, she sighed and gave thanks that the daytime hours and activities erased the dubious and unpredictable evening ones. Temporarily.
It was on these occasions, during these night terrors, that Hermione grew more and more numb, feeling more and more helpless, feeling unable to offer any solace verbally to her children from their feelings of anxiety and fear, their vivid hallucinations.
Or are they mine? She was unable to remember the specific details of many of her own turbulent dreams, and she frequently awakened in a cold sweat, overwhelmed by an elusive but intense state of agitation.
Only one recurring dream could she remember in discomfiting detail: a distorted image of Ron peering forth from an undefined blackness, his body and face half shadowed, and then Hermione would feel the sensation of indescribable pain and heat... a state of sexual excitement would occur, always followed by a sickening sensation and Lucius Malfoy appearing in dark robes; then she was falling, plummeting to her death in darkness, flailing around and grasping to cling to any substance, to any life line, but without avail. She awoke each time, panting and trembling in a state of confusion and shame, and dreaded returning to sleep for fear of the nightmare replaying.
Regarding the children, she was only able to hug them and cradle them as if they were infants, shushing and lulling them back to sleep with sweet nothings and soft lullabies. When they were once again in deep slumber, Hermione was left with little to comfort herself, and the tedium of the long, lonely nights, too often sleepless and awake with her evasive fears and worries, awaited her.
The repetitive events drained her of warmth in body and soul; a hard freeze seemed to cover and spread throughout her innermost core each time. The growth and effect of this numbness became noticeable to her more and more distinctly. She began to doubt herself in everything. She no longer knew if it was all in her mind, or if Lucius was indeed the main reason or perhaps merely partially responsible. Worse still, she felt as if her very life force were withdrawing and detaching itself even as her magical power slowly ebbed away - all from the grief of losing Ron - for she no longer had the concentration and zest she had felt so intensely before. Her heart ached, and it seemed only her children kept her tethered to the here and now; however, this cloud of depression and self-doubt had accumulatively hung over her for so long, she could not distinguish further the causes, though she knew her condition had been deeply exacerbated by the incident with Malfoy and Qualmsick.
But now, the warmth of the radiant sunbeams on her face helped to push worries aside for the moment, and she glanced back into the kitchen to see Molly bustling back and forth preparing a basket of fresh baked goodies for her and the children to take on their afternoon walks in the meadows down to the river to play.
Hermione caught Arthur giving his wife a loving kiss, and then her father-in-law grabbed a pumpkin and cinnamon muffin and waved to Hermione before quickly Flooing to work. She smiled sadly to herself, remembering what Arthur had reassured her about, The Minister said to take as long as you need for your leave of absence. Or, if you'd like, you may work from home on the litigations; whenever you feel up to it, you'll let us know. Just take your time, dear. Take as long as you need.
And so she had. For the past few months, she hadn't the slightest inclination to lift a single parchment sent from the Ministry; she'd left all the owl deliveries on her desk in the study to collect dust. A numbing inertia crept up silently on her regarding all work-related matters, and she decisively gave what energy she had to the children and daily obligations with only the slightest trace of a nagging guilt regarding her Interrogator duties.
Moreover, today was a good day. A hot spell had blown in and with it a dull restlessness on Hermione's part; the unusual heat wave beckoned her away outside and out of her brooding.
So, as Hermione stood in the main doorway watching Rose and Hugo attempting to catch frogs in the garden's pond, she resolutely decided to make the extra effort to relax and put all her cares away for the afternoon. With the sunlight beaming down, unseasonably hot and glorious, she smiled down at the two Flutterby bushes which had been planted so long ago for Bill and Fleur's wedding. The beguiling little plants still stood; the leaves fluttering softly in the mild afternoon breeze.
As Hermione gathered up a blanket from the clothing line, she gazed over the orchard towards the closest sloping hill and caught sight of puffy chimney smoke floating slowly against the bright sky from beyond the hill. She had noticed the smoke before, but she'd never thought or cared to ask about it. How odd... Whose could that be?
Before she could make enquiries, Molly bustled over and handed Hermione the prepared picnic basket. "It's ready, dear; now you best be off to enjoy the afternoon. Arthur said he heard on the wireless that a fierce storm front is likely to push through soon."
Eager to enjoy as much of the good weather as they could, Hermione and the children walked leisurely down the long lane leading from The Burrow, and instead of heading straight towards the village of Ottery St. Catchpole, they turned left and back-tracked, walking away from the cornfield, and strode over the fields towards the hills in the back of the orchard and garden.
The healing powers of the meadows surrounding The Burrow could not be overstated. There was something about the sunlight on the golden, open fields full of primroses, gilly and poppies that drew Hermione to them, and she soon began to relax.
Once over the second small hill, the lush meadow began sloping down to the slow-flowing river bed; their daily afternoon walks had become a fixed part of an unspoken regimen which Molly had gently nudged Hermione and the children into. More for my sake than for Hugo and Rose, no doubt, reflected Hermione, thinking about Molly's intense, heartfelt concern for her and the children. The death of her sons, Fred and now Ronald, was an unspeakable pain for Molly; she and Hermione could communicate and comfort each other at times with just a nod of the head, a knowing smile or a quiet hug. No words were necessary.
It was Molly who had helped them find their favourite spot on the lovely, grassy bank of the river near Bottom Bridge. And as soon as they arrived there this sunny afternoon, Hermione spread out the blanket and set the basket of fresh baked treats on top. Rose and Hugo immediately took off their shoes, over-excited to wade and enjoy the shallow, stone-bottomed water along the bank.
"Mummy, can we go in the water now, before we eat-it's so lovely and sparkly. Pretty please?" begged Rose.
Rose was soon to be eleven and did the talking for both herself and Hugo; Hugo had stopped speaking since Ron's death. He'd been a late speaker as it was-no uttering a comprehensible word until he was five, and now he was nine, the Healer's at St Mungo said that when he was ready, he'd speak again; the shock of the loss of his father was enough to regress him and that it was 'normal'. Everyone would have to be supportive and just wait out his recovery from the traumatic event of his father's death.
However, Hugo would softly say 'Mummy' now and then-in particular, when Hermione would cradle and soothe him from a nightmare, and sometimes he would utter 'Rose', but not consistently.
Unable to deny them, Hermione reminded them, "Yes, but remember, only in the shallow, pebbled area-no further."
Hugo nodded excitedly and Rose grabbed his hand, leading him down to the bank. With squeals of delight, the children took off their summer legwear, tossing it on the grassy bank, and in the blink of an eye began wading in the sunlit water.
As Hermione laid out some muffins and scones, the sounds of splashing each other was heard. She smiled, enjoying the sight of Rose and Hugo playing and able to express their happiness so freely, so innocently and joyfully.
Hermione sat on the blanket, cushioned by the thick summer grass, and sighed. A gentle breeze was blowing, and she noted massive, billowing clouds from the north in the distance. Hmm... The storm is indeed coming sooner than later, but maybe it won't get here for hours... She lay back and stretched out on the warm blanket, savouring the softness of the lush earth underneath like a big, warm eiderdown duvet, and heaved a heavy sigh again. Her thoughts drifted like the fluffy cumulus clouds quickly drawing closer and closer. Ron would've loved a day like today... the sun, the air, the children enjoying themselves-
"Mummy! It's Hugo, Mummyyyy!" came the cry of Rose.
Springing up in a flash of panic, Hermione ran and leapt into the water, seeing little Hugo bob further and further away-everything happening as if in slow motion-he was being sucked deeper into the main stream, and the faster she moved the further he was carried away. "Accio! Accio wand!" she screamed, simultaneously splashing and diving into the water in a split second decision. But her concentration for Summoning was wildly split and unfocused, and no wand appeared. As she came up for air, gasping, she could not see him above the water. She screamed madly, "Hugo! Hugooo! Rose, stay where you are! Hugo!"
Time stood still, her heart pounded with a burning pain. She couldn't breathe. Oh, God, let me die, let me die! But let him live... Accio, Accio, Hugo!
Rose's screams and cries from the bank reverberated in the air.
In blind terror and unable to feel the bottom of the river anymore, Hermione desperately swam and splashed around, groping in the dark waters for her son's body-and at that moment, her eye caught sight of another figure, a man of some sort, materialised, blurred and moving, emerging from the water with-
"Hugo!" Splashing and splaying frantically to get out, now feeling the bottom, Hermione lunged forward in spastic movements towards the figures, screaming, mad with fear. "Don't touch him! Let go of him! Is he? Is he-?"
Hysteria took over as she collapsed beside Hugo's body, instinctively and fiercely pushing the man away from her son's body. But the tall figure didn't budge. Before she knew what was happening, the soaking wet, flossy-haired stranger had pulled out a wand, and with a flick of it, Hugo had rolled over, vomiting out the river water.
The wizard was fixated on Hugo and continued to calmly cast various Healing spells on the child, ignoring Hermione's pushing and, by now, hysterical weeping.
Now thoroughly unimpeded, the oxygen was able to flow through to his little lungs, and the child cried out, "Mummy, Mummy!" Hugo sporadically choked and clung to his mother for dear life.
Rose ran over and latched onto Hermione from behind.
"There's nothing to fear," the tall wizard assured kindly, straightening up and stepping back timidly a few steps from the distressed, weeping family. "He is breathing normally. No water in the lungs. He will be fine."
Tightly clutching Hugo in one arm and Rose in the other, Hermione gazed at the wizard with a mixture of astonishment and apprehension. Through a haze of simultaneous shock and relief, she couldn't believe her eyes. "Mr Lovegood?"
Xenophilius held Hermione's gaze, seeming to have some internal conflict with himself, abashed and embarrassed, not knowing what to answer. After several seconds, he found his words to nervously utter, "Miss Gran-um, Weasley, I assume you're staying..." The man who'd just saved her son's life seemed utterly ashamed and troubled, but still he offered, "I'll Apparate to The Burrow and bring back help."
"No!" screamed Hermione anxiously. She panted heavily, but controlled herself enough to say, "Don't leave us; don't leave us alone!"
Both children looked up at the tall candy-floss-haired wizard for his answer, scared and apprehensive from their mother's plea. In a small voice, little Rose asked, "What's wrong with my mummy? Hugo's awake-he threw up the bad water! He didn't go to sleep forever like Daddy... Why is she scared?" Rose began to whimper softly.
Hermione and Xenophilius locked eyes, one soul understanding the other's past loss, as well as the detrimental fear of another narrowly escaped loss of life, all too well.
Xenophilius blinked hard. Somewhere in his distant memories something clicked. Something painful, vivid. But alive. So alive.
Frightened and confused by her mother's now uncontrollable sobbing, the child repeated, "What's wrong with my mummy? Hugo's awake-you just said he'll be all right! Why is she crying?"
Xeno ever so slowly raised his hands while gracefully kneeling down so that he was eye-level with Rose.
"Sometimes tears, my little one, are good things. Sometimes, they are tears of joy."
Rose's eyes grew wider with surprise.
Seizing the moment to further distract and take matters into hand, Xeno raised his eyebrows in a speculative way and enquired, "Have you ever seen a Patronus Charm, my dear?"
Subduing her sniffles, Rose nodded her head affirmatively. "My daddy and Uncle Harry showed me and Hugo." Her eyes shone with excited pride as she added, "Mummy and Auntie Ginny know how to do one too-even though they're witches!"
Xenophilius gave an impressed look and gently smiled, but Hermione could see his eyes were strained, covering a raw pain. "Well, that's no surprise." He lowered his voice to a friendly whisper and shared a secret, "Witches are the fairest and most powerful of magical creatures-let no one tell you different! And it so happens that your Aunt Ginny and your mother are the fairest and most magical of those."
He gave a cordial nod to Hermione, and then Xeno looked back to Rose and continued good-naturedly, "As you're surely one of the good Weasley family, what might your first name be?"
"Of course, you are, the loveliest little flower-"
"Do you know my grandmum?"
"Your grandmother is widely renowned throughout the land, as only the good Molly Weasley can be-you're staying with her, then?"
"And was she home when you left?"
Rose nodded more vigorously.
"Well, then, let's cast a Patronus, letting your grandmother know where we are, shall we?"
Xenophilius cast the Patronus Charm, and a large hare issued forth from his wand's end, hopping in front of Xeno for a mere moment before bounding off in the direction of The Burrow.
Knowing it would only be seconds before the Weasley matriarch would arrive, Xeno sat back on the grass, seemingly tranquil and serene. As he smiled at Rose and Hugo, a slight twinkle shone in his grey-blue eyes, and he waved his wand and had several daises, wildflowers and primroses animatedly dance an upbeat jig for the children.
His captivating their full attention allowed Hermione to finally voice her thoughts. "I didn't see you."
"I was under an Invisibility Spell," answered Xenophilius casually, his attention divided between keeping the flowers dancing and gauging the children's mirth as he completely avoided eye contact with her.
Now in heavy thought, Hermione blinked in consternation at the incongruous situation and the wizard in front of her. It was in another lifetime that she had last seen Lovegood, and there were still dubious thoughts attached to him and even more dubious feelings. She was conflicted because she'd never thought much about Xenophilius Lovegood since that horrible day she, Ron and Harry had visited his home, seeking knowledge about the Deathly Hallows, so many years ago.
Now and then, she'd seen and spoken with Luna and Rolf Scamander, but to her embarrassment, Hermione realised she'd never enquired much about Luna's father on those occasions. They were always quick chit-chats about their careers and their own children with only general references to anyone else not immediately involved in their lives.
Perhaps her lack of enquiry was influenced by and partially due to Ron having so strongly disliked Lovegood in the first place, followed by his keen aversion and scathing criticism of Xenophilius after that ill-fated day when they discovered and experienced his betrayal firsthand. Ron had never liked keeping silent about it all, but as only the three of them had known the truth of Lovegood's forced betrayal, and respecting Harry's wishes, primarily, both he and Hermione had resolved that they'd never reveal Luna's father's disgraceful behaviour on that horrid day. For everyone's sake, they put the matter behind them.
And so Hermione could only blink in turmoil, conflicted with random disdainful thoughts about Xenophilius, but also thanking God for Lovegood's presence as she clutched her children closer to her. It's a miracle-Lovegood saved Hugo's life!
The children's soft giggles at the delightful silliness of Xenophilius' Light magic entertaining them suddenly irritated Hermione, causing her to bluntly ask, "Mr Lovegood, how is it that you were even here? Why were you under an Invisibility Spell?"
Again the wizard diverted his eyes from her demanding ones, but he quietly answered, "Usually, one uses them when one doesn't wish to be seen." He gave her a fleeting glance and mulishly added, "By anyone."
Even in her highly emotional state, she felt slightly irked by his response and couldn't help wanting to know further details. With a huff, Hermione took in Xeno with an irritated look while he continued to entertain Hugo and Rose and thought, How dare you be pedantic with me at a time like this? An old obstinacy flared up in her unexpectedly, and Hermione belligerently demanded to know, "What were you doing here in the river in the first place?"
Giving a wary look around, but still unable to meet her intense brown eyes straight on, Xenophilius took his time and guided the dancing flowers to the top of the tall blades of grass between them before he intractably replied, "Why, fishing for Freshwater Plimpies, of course, Ms Weasley."