Hermione finished the puzzle and the jumble in the Daily Prophet and turned the page over. She smeared apricot marmalade on her toast with the back of a spoon as she skimmed the articles without reading any of them in depth. She licked the excess marmalade off the spoon, then dunked it into her cup to stir sugar and cream into her orange pekoe tea. It wasn't much of a breakfast, she knew, and in the back of her mind she could hear Molly Weasley shouting and demanding that she eat more to keep her strength up. Alone in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place, she stuck out her tongue in childish refusal before jamming the corner of one toast slice into her mouth.
She focused on the paper, ignoring the gossip columns and sale adverts, skipping over the gardening and herbology sections, and passing straight by the wedding announcements and Quidditch scores. The last page of the paper had an article that caught her eye, even though it was below the fold and squashed between a notice about auditions for a Wizarding Wireless Network radio play on sea life, with special auditions for witches and wizards who could speak Mermish, and a blurry photo of a young, grinning wizard holding a litter of squirming Crup puppies. Hermione dusted the toast crumbs from her fingers and leaned back in her chair, pressing her knees against the edge of the table and kicking her feet beneath it. She sipped her cooling tea and scanned the aerial photo of a village, then read the article closely.
It was written in a tone of slight amusement and was light on details, as if the writer had been too busy giggling to take any serious notes. Titled 'Muggles Mystified', it described a small village in the Cotswolds, Faith-In-Hart, where a ghostly figure had been appearing for several months, bewildering the residents. It was only too clear to her that the article had been written by one of those wizards who thought that Muggles were a little on the dim and immature side for not recognizing magic when they saw it, as the writer described in a far too jocular manner how the Muggles of Faith-In-Hart were attempting to explain the phenomenon as the result of unusual weather patterns or cloud formations drifting low over the village. Only a few of the village's four hundred residents were taking the appearance as a true ghost, and those few were being soundly ignored by the remainder of the villagers, including the council. The author ended the article with a quip about Muggles and their foolish ways.
Hermione made a face as she tossed the paper on the table. She chewed on her toast, rubbing a bit of marmalade against the roof of her mouth with her tongue as she considered, just for a moment, writing a letter of complaint to the Prophet about the journalist's lack of respect for his subject. She decided against it, knowing that it would do very little good in the long run. Despite the greater interaction between the wizarding world and the Muggle world since the end of the war, many wizards and witches, especially those who were raised fully in a magical society, treated Muggles, and Muggle-borns by extension, as little more than people to be pitied.
She'd tried, over the years, tried and tried again, but every time she heard another wizard, plump and smug in his outlandish robes, make another comment about those 'poor Muggles' that made it clear he thought every Muggle was just a step or two higher than a house-elf, it twisted something deep inside her. Six months previously, at the end of September, she'd reached a breaking point, shouting and hexing, her hair as wild as it had ever been in her teen years and her eyes bright as lightning. At least, that was how one of the witnesses had described it in the report given to the Ministry psychologist. She'd gone on sabbatical the day after, a sabbatical that had been 'strongly, most strongly encouraged' by her supervisor in the Department of Magical Creatures.
Her enforced downtime was due to end that week, and she could report back to work on Monday. Hermione drew the paper close to her again and picked up her swan-feather quill to circle the article about Faith-In-Hart. She could investigate this ghostly figure, determine whether it was a true ghost or simply a quirk in the weather. It would ease her back into the bustle of the Ministry, give her something to do, and allow her to do something good for a handful of Muggles. She smiled to herself and tapped her wand on the edge of her tea cup to warm it up again.
"I never like that smile," a voice said from the other end of the room. Hermione looked up to see Harry shuffling into the kitchen, his black hair even messier than usual with sleep and his loose, ragged Quidditch jersey as wrinkled as his nose when he yawned. "That's your planning smile. Am I going to come home from work tonight and find a hundred books scattered around the house? I couldn't find my Cannons tickets for days."
"I'm not planning," she said, shaking her head. "Well, not very much. I found a case I can take on when I go back to the Ministry on Monday. Something to do, get my brain back into shape." She gestured with her cup, careful not to slosh tea over the rim and onto her toast. "You know, something that won't have people checking in on me every fifteen minutes to see if I'm going to explode again."
Harry plopped into his seat on the long side of the table and lifted his wand to start a kettle of water boiling. He cracked open a bottle of orange juice and took a long drink, swirling it around in his mouth as he looked at her. "Are you?" he asked after he took another drink. "Going to explode again? That wasn't like you, Hermione. You're usually the one who's laying out a calm, rational set of facts to convince everyone of your side of an argument. Hexes and all that, it isn't your style."
Hermione dropped her eyes and stared at the twining blue pattern of ivy on her plate. "I had other things on my mind. It was the last straw."
Harry was quiet for a minute, then he cleared his throat. "Did it have anything to do with--"
"Don't." Hermione lifted her head and stared at the wall near the fireplace, her arms crossed tight over her chest and her hands twisted in the sides of her cardigan. "Don't, Harry. I don't want to talk about it."
"You haven't talked about it for months."
"And I'm not going to." Hermione ground her teeth, her throat tense and closing. "I'm not going to talk about it. That's my last word on it. I'm going to focus on taking this case, getting back to work, and moving on. That's all."
The only sounds for a few minutes were the pop and hiss of logs in the fireplace and the slow whistle of the kettle of water as it came to a boil. Harry coughed, pushed his chair back, and went to the kettle to fix his tea. He brought the kettle back to the table to stir into a bowl of oats. "What case?" he said, finally, as if they'd mentioned nothing else since he came into the kitchen.
Hermione relaxed at Harry's silent agreement to drop the previous topic. "This," she said, pushing the paper across the table and tapping the feathers of her quill on the circled article. "I thought I would investigate this."
Harry looked at the paper. Hermione expected a smile, a nod, or an agreement that it was a good idea and something she should pursue, but Harry turned the paper over and shook his head. To her surprise, he said, "I don't think that's something you should get involved with. Nothing really for you in it. Besides, it's not your division. Ghosts don't fall under your duties."
Hermione stared at him, her tea cup poised halfway between the table and her mouth. "I work in any of the three divisions. Creature, Being, or Spirit, wherever they need help. You know that very well, Harry. And what do you mean, there's nothing for me in it? It's perfect for me." She put down her cup and held up her hand to tick away her points on her fingers. "First, it's potentially a true ghost, which puts it under the Spirit Division of the Department of Magical Creatures, which means it does indeed fall under the duties of my employment with that department. Second, it's in a Muggle village, which means that anyone sent to investigate should be someone who has a familiarity - no, make that a sympathy for Muggles, and as a Muggle-born, I'm definitely in that category, probably more than most. And third--"
"Stop, stop." Harry held up both hands in surrender. Hermione pressed her lips together. She didn't look away from him as he took off his glasses to clean them on the hem of his jersey. He sighed and shoved them into place on his nose, ruffling his fringe out from behind the lenses. "It's too early to have you go on like that. All those points. I'll accept that you have good reasons for why you should be assigned to the case, but I'm telling you, it's nothing you should bother with."
Hermione slapped her hand on the table. The cups and flatware rattled; Harry jumped. "Why not?" Hermione demanded. "It's a simple case, it falls under my duties, and it's something I want to do. I'm ready to go back to work. More than ready. I was ready months ago, but I wasn't allowed to go back just yet. Now I'm about to climb the walls! There's only so many times I can go to the library or go for a run. I'm bored, Harry, and I want to do this!"
Harry slurped his tea, avoiding her eyes. Before she could slap the table again, he looked at her. The serious expression on his face made her hesitate. "What? What is it?" She bit her lip, eying him with some wariness. "What aren't you telling me?"
"The case has already been assigned," he said. He twisted his spoon between his fingers. "It's been assigned and someone's already investigating the ghost, so you don't need to bother with it. When you go back to work on Monday, find something else, Hermione."
She knotted her brows. "You couldn't know that it's already been assigned. You're MLE. Aurors. That has nothing to do with Magical Creatures, and don't tell me that you'd know because you're head of the department. The Ministry's bureaucracy doesn't share information that easily and you skip every inter-department meeting you can."
Harry grimaced. "I know because.... Well. Er. Because the person who's investigating the case is someone who's the responsibility of my department. He doesn't work for me exactly, but he does have to report to me, so in a way...."
As Harry drifted into silence, a slender thread of an idea wriggled into Hermione's head. Harry's attempts to get her to back off and his reluctance to name the person involved in the case? That would be suspicious enough on its own, but when added to the tense and anxious look in his green eyes, she could only come to one conclusion.
She needed to hear him confirm it. Out loud. Hermione wrapped her fingers around the handle of her spoon and slowly lifted it. Pointing the bowl at Harry as if it were the tip of her wand, she narrowed her eyes. "Say it. Say it right now. Who's already investigating this case, Harry James Potter?"
He slumped in his chair, closed his eyes, and sighed. "Draco Malfoy."
Hermione tightened the laces of her running shoes and hopped down the steps of Grimmauld Place. She focused on the route she had in mind for her run instead of on the conversation she'd had with Harry. Draco Malfoy. Draco Malfoy had been assigned to a case that should have been hers by right. Hermione deliberately ignored that she'd only found about the ghost in Faith-In-Hart that morning, and even more deliberately ignored that she hadn't been at work for months and wouldn't have been assigned in any case. As far as she was concerned, as far as she wanted to let herself think, that case was hers. She should be investigating it.
Not Draco sodding Malfoy.
Of all the people who were ludicrously inappropriate for an assignment involving Muggles, Draco Malfoy was the most ludicrous choice possible. It was as ridiculous an idea as she'd ever heard. It was worse than when Hagrid had decided to bring his half-brother Grawp back from the giants. It was worse than when she'd taken Cormac McLaggen to Slughorn's Christmas party. It was worse than when she'd attempted to help the house-elves at Hogwarts with her poorly knitted hats. It was, without doubt, the worst idea she'd ever heard.
Harry had refused to tell her anything further about the case, no matter how hard she'd pressed. He'd finally told her, with the firm look of determination she remembered from the war, that she was to drop the subject. Malfoy had the case and that was that. No more argument.
Hermione sniffed. "That's what he thinks," she muttered to herself, startling a young woman waiting at the corner for the traffic to clear. The woman edged closer to the street and watched Hermione from the corner of her eye. Hermione grimaced and shrugged, giving an apologetic wave before jogging down the street to the next crossing. Now she was letting him distract her enough to talk to herself in public. She pretended she didn't know, deep inside herself, which 'him' she'd meant.
She headed into the park and turned up her favorite running path. Normally the sound of the wind in the leaves of the centuries-old oaks and walnuts that lined the sides of the path would be enough to calm her thoughts and leave her mind a blank, focused on nothing but the pound of her feet against the path and the pound of her heart in her chest, but today, she couldn't focus on that. Every step said Malfoy, Malfoy, and every breath said Draco, Draco.
Growling, Hermione stopped by one of the larger trees and slumped down onto a knee-high root that had been worn smooth by years and years of passing Londoners using it for a seat. She put her elbows on her knees and leaned over, staring at the ground between her feet and trying to focus her thoughts. She had to get any thought of him out of her mind.
Hermione concentrated, trying desperately to think of a way, any way, that would allow her to get through this. Whatever she had to do to get this case, even if she couldn't explain her reasons to herself, she would do. This was something she needed to do. The thought that someone else, that Draco Malfoy, had a case she could do and do well, made something twist inside her. It made her angry.
She sat up and exhaled sharply. That was it, she thought. Anger. If she let herself be angry - not enough to be reprimanded or suspended again, of course - just angry enough to talk Draco out of the case, she could take it, and then everything would work out the way it should. The best way possible. It would let her find her place at work again and let everything return to normal.
Nodding, Hermione stood to finish her jog. She'd found the way, she was sure of it.