Hands on hips, Molly stared in expectation at Hermione, looking alarmingly like a sabre-toothed tiger in place of her usual kind-faced countenance. In the silence that followed, Hermione watched Molly snap a look at Xenophilius, who was staring at the diminutive matriarch in slack-jawed horror, and then back again to her.
When neither answered her, Molly bustled forward, pulling her shirtsleeves up to her elbows, "Good heavens, look at you two, you're soaking wet-and whose wand is this on the floor?" Molly Accio'ed it into one hand while swishing her own wand first at Hermione and then Xenophilius in order to dry them. "Arthur and I," Arthur entered as she rattled on, "received your Patronus while we were in the middle of... Xeno-what on earth has happened? ‘Your family is with me-they need you-down on the banks beyond Bottom Bridge,' your hare said-we Apparated there, but couldn't find a soul in sight! Told Arthur we should try the next nearest place-and it turns out you are here! Thank goodness, but what a goose chase! What with it raining Kneazles and Crups out there!"
Molly was flustered and clearly put out, her clothes were askew and her face flushed with emotion. Hermione suddenly wondered what activity Molly and Arthur had been in the middle of doing when Xeno had sent his Patronus. She bit her lip to prevent a small smile crossing her features at the thought, and softly said, "We were waiting-and it began to pour down..."
Hermione was saved Molly's exasperated response by Arthur appearing at the doorway, looking similarly disheveled and flushed. "A little bit of water never harmed anyone," Arthur joked good-naturedly. "Sorry, Molly and I were, um, delayed. But Mollykins got here first, I see."
His wife shot him a look. "I searched for them on the other bank's side a bit, but then Apparated straight here, Arthur. Couldn't bear not knowing whether we had to continue looking for them." She folded her arms again, clearly not mollified.
Arthur walked over to Molly and squeezed her shoulder gently. "Alls well, love," he murmurred. "I spot-checked on the way on up here... through your orchards, Xeno. Looks to be a fine harvest this year." The offhanded compliment clearly intended to lessen the tension in the air.
"But what in heaven's name happened to warrant sending a Patronus?" demanded Molly.
"Grandmum, Grandmum!" cried Rose, running into the room followed by Hugo. She lunged and threw her arms around her grandmother, and Arthur also found Hugo suddenly clinging to him as well.
There was a hubbub of gasping and cooing as Rose burbled out the chain of events which had occurred. "Oh, goodness me! Oh, Hermione! Oh, Hugo! Oh, Xeno!" The litany of exclamations poured forth from Molly while Arthur stood by, wide-eyed in astonishment, only to slowly gravitate toward Lovegood and grab him by one shoulder as he shook his hand in deep gratitude.
Molly crossed over, too overcome to say anything, and gave Xenophilius a hearty hug. When she finally could, she gently uttered, "This'll be your wand then, dear Xeno," and she placed it reverently on the side table he'd been leaning on.
Hermione saw the flaxen-haired wizard stare at the wand with a peculiar expression on his face, almost as if he was evaluating something in his mind. His silver grey eyes meeting hers for a fleeting glance as Arthur scooped Rose up in one arm and took Hugo in one hand.
"Let's be getting these two back to The Burrow-"
Hugo broke away from his grandfather and ran over to the footstool to grab the picnic basket of goodies that had been saved from the downpour by Xeno.
To everyone's surprise, the littlest Weasley then crossed over to Xenophilius and tugged at the tall wizard's tunic to get his direct attention.
"Yes, little one?" asked Lovegood, forced out of his contemplation.
The young child reached in the basket and pulled out a muffin. He held it up to Xeno, and to everyone's surprise, blurted out, "Puffskein!"
All froze in shock.
It was the first word that Hugo had uttered to someone else other than Hermione and Rose since Ron's death. Hermione gasped and batted away tears welling up and threatening to flow. She felt Molly's supportive touch on her arm and mustered the control to hold her tears in. I have to be strong in front of everyone-can't let them see tears!
Xeno raised a speculative eyebrow, clearly understanding Hugo. "Ah, yes. A treat for the admirable beast. Well done, little one. I will make sure the deserving creature receives your kind gift of Weasley goodness."
Xenophilius gently placed his hand on the boy's head and smiled tautly.
"That'll do, Hugo," said Hermione, gently nudging her son away from Lovegood.
Arthur hoisted Hugo up, now holding both grandchildren to him like a grandfather bear with two little cubs. He waltzed them to the front door. "Here you go, you little rascals; like Fred and George, you are, getting yourselves into all sorts of mischief."
At the mention of her beloved twins, Molly gave a tight, sad smile, but quickly covered it up with a forced cheerful announcement, "Yes, we best be getting back and let Xeno here get some rest from us all."
Meeting each other's eyes, Hermione gazed at Xenophilius and he gave her a fixed look back. Words stuck in her throat, and she could only give him a terse nod and quietly acknowledge, "Mr Lovegood."
She trembled with pent up emotion and bit her lip, reigning in her perplexed feelings about the conflicting impulses she was battling with at the moment. She wanted to cling to the wizard and hug him in gratitude as her mother-in-law had had the freedom to do, thanking and pouring her heartfelt appreciation out to him. But I can't! He's... he's... Xenophilius Lovegood... Lovegood, who happened to be there in the river just when we were... who just happened to be under an Invisibility spell, and just happened... to save Hugo's life-when I couldn't-why couldn't I? Why wasn't I enough? What was wrong with me that I couldn't respond fast enough, and he-the renown nutter, Xenophilius, thank God-could?
Hermione flinched, startled. And his wand aglow when we both touched it-what did he mean when he said, "It was you!"? I have nothing to do with the Deathly Hallows, at least, not in relation to him... But a nagging thought flashed across her mind, a memory she had pushed aside and buried a long time ago. He-he couldn't have meant... He couldn't remember that I-I Obliviated part of his memory that day? She swallowed hard at the distasteful reminder that she had had to Obliviate any traces of their discussion of the Deathly Hallows from Xenophilius' memory on that horrid day, so that the Death Eaters wouldn't know-that Voldemort wouldn't find out! We had needed time, time was of the essence! Hermione had had to do what was needed to secure for them protection, secrecy, as long as she could within her means, against Voldemort's followers. It was all too dangerous! For everyone! She had had no choice but to use the brutal charm on him.
Confused and conflicted, Hermione backed away from Xenophilius. As she reached the door, she turned back to him and managed to utter, "Thank you for Hugo, for everything... I must go now, but perhaps..." She wasn't quite sure what it was she wanted to say further, and so Hermione could only repeat, "I must go..."
"Quisque facere debet, quod ab illo factum oportet, Ms Weasley."
One must do what one must? she translated silently to herself, and suddenly became concerned at the possible implications attached to Lovegood's comment. Hermione held Xenophilius' gaze, her brow furrowing, and she quietly replied, "Yes, Mr Lovegood... One must do what one must..."
And with that, she closed the door behind her, troubled by her thoughts, before catching up with her family, leaving the pensive wizard to his own solitary thoughts.
Hermione tossed and turned in her bed, unable to get to sleep. She reflected on the day's events with a heavy but grateful heart. Staring through the darkness and quiet of her room, out the window into the starry night, Hermione remembered how her eyes had smarted witnessing Lovegood's kindness to her son, even though she had seen it was with great difficulty for him. Let alone his saving Hugo's life!
With a sharp intake of breath, she recalled how being reminded of the Deathly Hallows by Lovegood was painful for both of them; it caused her emotions to surge in turmoil and conflict even now. She turned away from the window's view, onto her other side, and scrunched her eyes tight, determined to get some sleep. But her mind kept racing, flitting from thought to thought. Memory to memory of the day's events. Hugo almost drowned! Xenophilius... What was he doing there? She flipped again to her other side... and stared again out the window into the vastness of the fathomless sky. Slowly, lying there in the stillness of the night in her bed, Hermione's tears welled up, mixed with bittersweet happiness, her heart opening to allow a spark of joy upon remembering Hugo speaking to the quiet man, and how gently Xenophilius had responded to him.
At the thought that Lovegood had triggered some spring of need to communicate in her son, a small smile crept upon her lips, and with this conflicting but thankful memory, she allowed herself to relax into a deep slumber.
Ron's fading image disappeared completely above her. Hermione clawed. She grasped in vain. Higher and higher. The rope she was trying desperately to hang onto evaporated in her hands. She was falling. Surrounded by infinite dark space.
She hit rock bottom, and the darkness surrounding her lightened to a grey haze. As she peered through the heavy mist, she slowly made out what seemed to be a large triangular area of black dirt, a dark wooden border framing it, surrounded by tall tuffs of dead grass on the outer side. Then she distinctly made out the outline of jagged rocks in the centre of the triangle, forming a circle.
It's... It's for... Hermione trembled in her sleep. ... to conjure the spirit into the physical...
No sooner had she thought it then a conjuring figure appeared. A wizard sent a baleful curse nonverbally. She felt a wave of nausea pass over her as she recognized to whom the long blond hair belonged. She felt a force. The runic symbol of the em wah repeatedly flew in her mind's eye. Then Hermione had the sensation that she was caught inside the top corner of the earthen triangle. She felt pain. As if she were bleeding. And to her added horror, she saw Hugo and Rose lying still; each in a different corner of the equilateral triangle. The image of Malfoy came into the foreground closer. But then, suddenly, Xenophilius was before her. Like lightning, the em wah symbol flew around in her mind again but then morphed into a triangle and circle and was joined with a third-a wand-like line. The Deathly Hallows!
She woke up gasping for air. Runes! That shape... the Hallows... that shape... The equilateral triangle burnt in the ground... the circle of stones... Her heart was beating fast as she rose and threw on her robe, and as quietly as possible, she crossed the hall, opening the children's bedroom door, checking if they were well or...
Rose and Hugo were safely snuggled under their covers, fast asleep.
Hermione hurried back to her room and crossed directly to her worktable. She felt afire with energy, and a tingling coursed through her that had lain dormant for too long. Magic! Her inner core of magic was awakened once more. She felt it sporadically coursing through her, causing her fingers to itch, sensing inanimate objects being animate; her perception of her environment was felt more keenly, even the cool night air seemed to flow and whirl with a vibrant energy around her. Feeling flushed with excitement and relief, knowing she was back... Her magic was back... She would use the last ounce of her being to protect her children-and could! Comforted by the flow of force clinging around and within her, she allowed herself to embrace the tiny but significant measure of healing that she was experiencing... She stood stock-still, deliberately quiet, feeling the wash of healing magic soothing the dreadful wound that had been opened by Ron's death. She felt like she was waking from a terrible lassitude. She had never felt so... vigilant!
As she lit a candle, she concentrated hard and whispered, Accio!
The onrush of magic prickled through her as the intended objects landed in front of her on the desk, tomes and tomes on Runology. Hermione searched through Ancient Runes Made Easy, The Oxford Rune Dictionary, Magical Hieroglyphs and Logograms, Spellman's Syllabary, Advanced Rune Translation... But it was the last old book she'd summoned which she searched and cross-referenced the most. She rifled through Ye Olde Magick Tome of Runes, desperately seeking the symbols that kept appearing, repeating themselves.... Taking quill in hand, she noted down what each reoccurring one was possibly indicating, and then she sat down and drew out on a parchment a squared grid, carefully drawing the geometric design from her dream with the precision of the skilled Arithmancer that she was.
Feeling ablaze with determination, Hermione jotted down several formulae, measuring distances from one point to another, calculating the space and time of the finite forms, and ebulliently writing down their meanings. But her exuberance fell as every other couplet of one Arithmantic formula resolved itself with the same meaning: one repeating Arithmantic solution's meaning paralleled to the runic eh waz symbol: Partnership!
But the other-the other equated to... Death!
Her hand shook as she forced herself to check and check again, getting the same solutions over and over: Partnership! Death!
She desperately compared the measurements of the triangle, the magic circle of the dream so vividly detailed in her mind's eye with that of the Deathly Hallows' circle. Those measurements of the Deathly Hallows, then the magic circle's difference in the circumferences, were then cut by the elder wand's formidable line, narrowing and changing the Arithmancy formulae and meaning, and the Runes... The doubt crept in...
She plopped down in her desk chair. Reliving Lucius Malfoy's malevolent curse, she tingled with nausea at the thought of Rose and Hugo being entrapped in her night terrors as well. She huffed and swallowed down the bile that rose in her throat as the thoughts of Malfoy, partnership and death swirled around in her mind... My children-they were lying on the ground as if ... as if they were ... Between a partnership and death, I'd embrace death, but Hugo and Rose-what does this truly mean? I've never given over to mumbo-jumbo, and this... This is maddening... If only there was someone to ask... to discreetly share this with... How could anyone else possibly understand?
She felt she couldn't turn to those closest to her, as they were already skeptical of her theories and too concerned about her to be able to offer impartial advice or support as it was. Her colleagues at the Ministry were equally unlikely to be of help. She did not want to stir up trouble at work or within the family if she could not prove anything, anyway.
Her eyes gazed intensely into the early morning sky; the stars twinkling down were slowly fading, challenging her to see beyond them whilst they lasted in the soft heaven's mantle.
Xenophilius! Lovegood might be able to help... He's a renowned Runologist... and the Hallows... She swallowed hard as she admitted to herself, He knows more than anyone... about the Deathly Hallows...
But doubt raised its ugly head, causing Hermione to second-guess herself yet again.
But my children! I have to protect them... Hermione's rational constitution took its rightful place; her pragmatic nature reasserted itself, and she reasoned, It's just-that horrid nightmare, Malfoy... It can't absolutely mean anything-it's a dream, only a dream-this horrible scare we've all had with Hugo... and seeing that symbol today: the Deathly Hallows!
But as Hermione stared at the solid calculations and the finite solutions, she felt a chill go down her spine attached to the uncanny feeling of Lucius Malfoy's presence so darkly, profoundly present in her night terrors, his having wormed his way to her very core... Frustratingly, her inability to ignore or deny the Arithmantic geometric predictions niggled away at her, even as she tried to deny that which kept repeating itself, They must be wrong... wrong... She gave over to the little voice, which said, A second opinion is needed!
To seal her decision came the image of Malfoy's silent mouthing of his curse-but this time, she heard it in her mind's eye like a grotesque children's rhyme, The blood of three shall needed be!
With a terrifying fear, freezing her, she realised, Myself and the children!
There's nothing else for it, decided Hermione, resolutely resigning herself to the obvious. I must go... to Xenophilius Lovegood! But it's unforeseeable how Lovegood will react to me; he's so... so ... unusual... She sighed. Possibly, truly bonkers... She bit her lip. What if he causes more harm than good? No. No, if he was sound enough in mind and body to save Hugo, he's sound enough to give me his scholarly opinion about my formulae-his Ravenclaw wit will see to that! Without a second opinion, without help, my children's lives could be at risk-if my Arithmantic formulae hold true, if Malfoy's curse has been cast to ensnare Hugo and Rose as well-how can I risk that? I can't!
"Tell me about him."
"Well, dear, you know," suggested Molly, motioning her hand in a rotating way.
"No. No, I don't understand." Hermione gave Arthur a puzzled look and then turned back again to Molly.
Arthur cleared his throat and, buttering his bread, matter-of-factly said, "After the War... after Azkaban, well, Xeno had never been-always been considered a bit unusual... and what with the-"
Molly made a hign pitched sound, clearing her throat, indicating that Arthur should watch his words. The elder Weasley frowned, paused and, surprising Molly, continued on, "The Death Eaters had done a good number on him, torturing him until he was already well broken when they dumped him into Azkaban... The Dementor's didn't have much left to play with-"
"Arthur!" reprimanded Molly sharply.
"The point is-when he finally earned his parole, he was... well... let's just say that there wasn't much left by the time he came home... It's a miracle that he was able to help Hugo at all, given the nearly catatonic state he'd been reduced to by those-"
"Now, Arthur," Molly reproofed her husband. "Xeno's always been a little aloof, hesitant to react-it goes way back, ever since poor Hibiscus' accident. Still blames himself, he does-and that, coupled with how he was treated by Bellatrix Lestrange in Azkaban-" Molly clearly had caught herself saying more than she meant to and clucked, "Well, enough of that, Arthur! We all survived... and if some of us are more... damaged than others, then that's the way the snitch flies. You should stay away from Xeno, my dear. He is better on his own, without distractions that bring back painful memories."
"You knew his wife, Luna's mum? What happened, Molly? Luna has never spoken about the details of her mother's death... Did you know her well?" Hermione was beside herself with curiosity for details about the tragic events.
Molly heaved a heavy sigh. "Not surprising that dear Luna hasn't spoken about it more than necessary... It was horrible. A horrible way to die. And the poor child saw it all. Xeno was a minute too late to save poor Hibiscus."
"Why? How? What exactly happened?" asked Hermione, her voice in a tight whisper.
Now it was Arthur's turn to clear his throat, clearly unsettled by the topic and not wishing for further details to be elaborated on. "The official report was that it was an unfortunate accident, Mollykins, remember? No one was too blame, Hermione. Perhaps, Hibiscus herself, only. But then, she was a very free spirit, even by Xenophilius' standards... The marks of trauma from her unfortunate spell experimentation scarred her daughter and husband for life." The Weasley patriarch cleared his throat again and pushed back his chair. "Well, I do believe I must finally mosey on back to the Ministry." Arthur crossed and gave Molly an affectionate peck on the cheek. "Ginny and Harry will bring Hugo and Rose back after lunch with their own lot along. Can't wait to see little James, Albus and Lily. I'll try to sneak off and back home earlier today if I can."
Hermione noticed Arthur's slightly sober look as he added, "That is, if we haven't any raids to carry out."
Hermione frowned as a melancholic wave of emotion washed over her at all of the different signals she was receiving from Molly and Arthur. Molly knows more about Lovegood than she's told me, much more, as does Arthur... What are they hiding? Why did Molly imply that Xenophilius was at fault? How horrid!
Hermione stood in the opened back doorway and gazed at the distant puffs of chimney smoke floating softly against the sky. From Lovegood's home! Her forehead furrowed in thought and concern, and she reflected. How much more was Xenophilius damaged by the war? Her brow knitted further as it dawned on her that in all the times she had run into Luna since the end of the war, Luna had never spoken about her father. Is it possible Xenophilius and Luna are estranged? How... how sad... Why? But Molly and Arthur are wrong about him being utterly damaged... A damaged man could not have acted as he did, plunging into the river and rescuing Hugo. Arthur's right; it is a miracle. Lovegood saved Hugo's life... and the dreams... Why has he appeared in my dreams? With the Deathly Hallows-my Arithmantic formulae have shown me that he could possibly-that the Hallows could possibly counter whatever odious, malevolent sigils that Malfoy may have planned for me and my children... Perhaps... perhaps Lovegood could help... He's a Runologist, like me... and the Hallows...
Hermione could no longer keep secret her urgent need to visit their unpredictable, eccentric neighbour. She sighed heavily and announced to Molly and Arthur, "I have to see him. I have to speak with Xenophilius Lovegood. Today."