Chapter 15: The Wind from Morrow.

Disclaimer: The copyright to Harry Potter characters belong to J. K. Rowling. Any other characters are purely work of fiction and any resemblance is co-incidental. No money or profit is being earned from this writing.

Chapter 15: The Wind from Morrow.

Was it fate or just a co-incidence that certain events kept repeating themselves over the course of time?  Or was it part of a bigger plan, beginning of an ominous end?

Hermione met her future friends – Harry and Ron, on her first ever train journey to Hogwarts. She met Eva and Edmound on her first ever train journey to Beauxbatons. Her parents or those whom she regarded as her parents, Grangers and Delacours, were wonderful people. Her son, Adrian, like her cat Crookshanks was, was very protective of her. They were also unwanted: no one would buy the cat and no woman, after such a brutal incident, would keep the baby born from it.

Until today, Hermione was happy that these histories have repeated themselves. But now she wondered.

She had to let go of her Hogwarts friends, Harry and Ron. Would she be forced to let go of her Beauxbatons friends, Eva and Edmound, too? She had to send her parents to Australia in order to protect them. Would she be sending the Delacours to a distant land to save them? Hermione’s cat was her favourite and yet Crookshanks was taken away from her by a subtle conspiracy of time. It didn’t require telling one how much Hermione loved Adrian. Would time take him away too?

Following Edmound’s near-drowning incident in the Palace Hotel’s swimming pool, Hermione and their group of four including little Adrian, was very quiet during the supper. No one felt like going to the Dining Hall for dinner and Monsieur Leopold, after apologizing what it seemed like the thousandth time, had their supper sent to Hermione’s suite.

Eva has long stopped crying but her eyes were red. This friend of Hermione was a very strong minded person; now she looked shaken. Gabrielle was grave and lost in thoughts. She was the one laughed most in the entire group. Hermione was trying her best to eat. The Gryffindor normally gave others strength and hope at peril and would discourage them to skip meals. Now food kept sticking in her throat, her mouth full of bitter taste from unpleasant thoughts. Adrian was watching the silent ladies, his grey eyes round and pink lips pouted. Even for a kid his age, he has sensed the grave aura around him and was playing with his food.

“Adrian, finish your steak please.” Hermione said wearily. This horrible silence was pressing down on her from all sides.

“Mama? Was it really a Hafgufa?” Adrian, instead of finishing his steak, pounded it roughly with his fork, as if it was the convicted tentacle of the legendary giant squid that had made his dear uncle almost drown.

“Adrian, there is no such thing as Hafgufa.” Eva replied firmly before Hermione could; her steak was untouched and turning cold. “The Healer said that it was a leg cramp. It’s all his imagination.” She said, looking away.

“But Uncle Edmound never lies!” Adrian protested, holding up his fork like a spear, “He told me! Hafgufa lives in the North and it eats mermaids.”

“Jean?” Eva addressed the boy’s mother this time, her features dead serious, “Do you want your son to be brought up with such ridiculous ideas that Hafgufas exist and they eat mermaids?”

“Of course not, Eva.” Hermione replied calmly. There was no point in being so silent and spoiling their supper. She needed to pull herself together. “But it’s a legend and like most legends it is prone to distortion of actual truth.” She said reasonably, more to herself than to her friend. She needed to believe that Edmound’s incident was just an accident and nothing more. Her friends would live, she would live with the Delacours and Adrian was going to be with his Mama, always.

“Most squids,” She next turned to Adrian, “are very friendly, little rabbit. They don’t make humans drown. At Hogwarts we had a giant squid in the lake. It was the same lake where merpeople used to live.” She recounted and Adrian listened, his mouth half-open, “I have never heard of the squid eating the merpeople. In fact, one day a student named Dennis Creevey fell in the lake and the squid saved him. Threw him back on the boat he was in.”

“Really?” Adrian’s innocent grey eyes were as big and round as a squid’s. “The squid saved him?”

“Yeah.” Hermione nodded with a smile and Eva snorted. “So you see, maybe the Hafgufa was a good squid. Maybe he never hurt a mermaid. But it’s a legend and legends are not facts.” She explained, “What happened to uncle Edmound today was a medical condition called cramp. There was no Hafgufa in the pool.” She assured the innocent boy, “And even if there was one, I am pretty sure it’d never attack your dear uncle Edmound. We know how he can tame even the wildest of beasts.”

“Jean is right.” Gabrielle spoke for the first time since returning from the hospital. “I don’t think animals, not matter how dangerous they are, would attack Edmound. He loves them.”

“Yeah, he loves them a little too much.” Eva sighed wearily. “Jean, would you mind if I stay here tonight? I am not feeling like sleeping alone in that big suite of mine.”

“Why not?” Hermione, too, wasn’t feeling like parting with her companions. What if something happened to Eva? Strangely Katie Bell’s name came in her mind and a shiver went down her spine. She shook her head, trying to get rid of the horrible thought. “I’ll have the Hotel authorities install another bed in Gabrielle’s bedroom.”

“She needs time to recover from the shock.” Gabrielle commented wisely, once the supper was over and Eva went to her suite to change into nightclothes. “I still remember Fleur. After that incident during the tournament, for a week, she wouldn’t let me out of her sight.” She reminisced. “Wouldn’t even allow me in a bathtub alone.”

“What happened at the tournament?” Adrian asked, smelling a nice story in the air. Hermione’s little story about the good squid seemed to have made him hungry for more information on it. But his mother intervened. After last night’s incident, especially with the story of the Evil Witch, the boy couldn’t be trusted with such true tales. Besides, the day’s memory was still fresh on his tender mind, not to mention that they have had a discussion about the legendary squid, Hafgufa.

Hermione, not intending to have another nightmare and scare her poor son, took one mouthful of Dreamless Sleep before climbing into bed with Adrian who was clad in his favourite red pajamas.  The Hotel authorities have added another bed in Gabrielle’s bedroom, Eva was there and sound of their low chatting was drifting into her bedroom, acting like a nice background music. Normally, she reads to him storybooks. The boy, she has noticed, loved stories, especially of animals. But tonight she decided to solve some logic puzzles with him, to have his mind focused elsewhere.

“What’s this?” Adrian piped, his curl adorned head resting on Hermione’s bosom, when she showed him a new book.

“Read the title.” She offered instead. This was what she did in such cases, let her son read the title and develop his English reading skills.

“The…Puzzled book… of puzzles!” Adrian declared with a flourish and looked up at his mother, his eyes bright, “I love puzzles! Gina and I solve puzzles. I am good! She can never beat me!” He said happily.

“Really Mama’s love?” Hermione kissed on Adrian’s little forehead. This little fact that her son has gone after his mother when it came to solving puzzles was unknown to her until this sweet and tender moment. “Let’s see if you can beat Mama this time.” She challenged sportingly.

“I don’t want to beat you.” Adrian protested, looking slightly shocked at the idea, “You are my Mama!” He reminded Hermione of the unknown fact.

“Really? Ohhhh!” Hermione felt a great rush of affection for her son and hugged him, “Okay, let’s solve the puzzles together then.”

“Okay.” Adrian squealed and tilted his head. This was his signature style of agreeing with someone or something. Hermione read out the first quiz. It was almost like the one she had solved in her First Year.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

What’s the 6th letter on the left of the 14th letter from the right of this series?

“Fourteenth letter?” Adrian started counting the English alphabets on his fingers, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N.” He paused, “N!” he said and started counted backwards to the sixth, “M, L, K, J, I, H.” he stopped and looked up at his mother, “It’s an ‘H’!” he declared.

“No.” Hermione smiled kindly. She has already solved it in her head and knew the correct answer. “You didn’t take the right side the series, little rabbit.”

“I did.” Adrian protested, visibly annoyed that he couldn’t solve the puzzle on the first run, “I took the right side. A, B, C, D, is the right side.”

“No, my love.” Hermione perceived her son’s annoyance. She too used to get annoyed when she couldn’t do a job correctly on the first turn. “The right side of the series is the one on your right hand side. Look!” She showed him the series with more care, “A, B, C, D…is on your left hand side and Z, Y, X, W…is on your right hand side. So now count the fourteenth letter from your right hand side and see where you get to.”

“Okay.” Adrian accepted the explanation and counted the alphabets from backwards. “M!” he declared and proceeded to count to its left, without further instruction from Hermione, “S!” he proclaimed happily after twenty seconds.

“Excellent!” Hermione clapped, proud of him, “I knew you would do it, little rabbit.”

“How do you know?” Her son asked, sounding half-impressed and half-awed.

“Like Mama like son.” Hermione replied affectionately, “I was in my First Year at Hogwarts when I solved a pretty hard logic puzzle. Our Potions professor had set it. Since wizards do magic, little rabbit, they tend to forget that there are more things on earth. Logic is one of those.”

“What is logic, Mama?” Hermione knew that question would inevitably follow. “And what was the puzzle the teacher gave you?”

There it goes again. If Hermione told Adrian about the Philosopher’s Stone, he’d surely have a dream on it. Speaking of it, she remembered Devil’s Snare, the odd way Jacob Jordeans was offering her his hand and the horrible dream about him trying to take Adrian away.

“Let’s solve some more puzzles.” She smiled brightly and offered. She was on Dreamless Sleep and wouldn’t allow herself to have another nightmare on that painter. Adrian nodded.

They continued solving puzzles until the clock chimed eleven. Adrian was really good at them; he solved a few difficult ones that even Hermione was finding hard. But the little boy was more comfortable with riddles, she noticed, something that she lacked. Riddles were distorted, metaphorical truths and Hermione, was good with straight, solid facts. It was with promise to get back to solving more quizzes and a considerably light heart that she turned off the lights and hugged her son, preparing to sleep.

“Mama?” Adrian piped, snuggling against her. “Can I ask you something?”

“Why not?” Hermione asked the semi-dark form. She was thinking about Adrian’s mental skills that were rare for a kid his age. Drawing, riddle solving – were they from the other person who had contributed in his conception?

“Mama, do you miss your mama and papa?” Adrian’s tone was very tender and honest and she jerked back to reality. His innocent question hung in the air like a giant balloon, waiting to be punctured and cleared off their way.

“I do.” It was Hermione’s heavy sigh that told her how greatly she missed them, deep down. “They are my parents, little rabbit.”

“Why don’t we go to them?” Adrian’s next question was the most logical sequel to the previous one.

“In Australia?” Hermione knew there was no other place to meet her parents; she had modified their memories so. “I told you. It’s very far from here.”

“But we can go.” Adrian supplied reasonably, “If they can go there, we can go too.”

“Yeah we can,” Hermione admitted, “…but Mama doesn’t have time to go to Australia.” She was calm and patient outside, while inside her heart broke. “You know the goblins. Mama works for them. She can’t leave her work and go for a long vacation in Australia.”

“Goblins are bad!” Adrian said, sounding sullen. “They make my Mama work a lot.”

“No. Mama’s love.” Hermione smiled, trying to hide her tears that were threatening to pour out any moment. She missed her parents and her son missed her, when she worked late in her office. In a way, they were both similar. “Mama’s boss, Geccemp, is a very good goblin. He gave Mama two weeks leave, didn’t he? But it’s not professional to leave your work and go for a long vacation just because your boss is good.” She explained kindly, “Now let’s go to sleep, little rabbit.”

“Okay.” Adrian yawned and became silent. For a long minute there was no sound except for their breathings. The little boy’s breath was scented with peppermint of his toothpaste. It brought to Hermione the memories of her dentist parents.

“Mama?” Adrian piped again.

“Yes, Mama’s love?” Hermione said; she was thinking about her mother; her green eyes, her curls, her kind smile.

“I made a poem for you.” The boy declared.

Poem?” Hermione’s eyebrows were automatically elevated. “For Mama?” She was wondering what more wonder that little boy could hold?

“Yeah!” Adrian squealed, his tone cheerful, “I made it this morning, after I drank almond milk.” He seemed to consider that particular drink as some kind of Wit Sharpening Potion, “But I forgot to tell you.”

“Really? Let’s hear it then.” Hermione offered, realizing that Edmound’s incident has affected the kid more than he displayed. Adrian cleared his throat importantly and started.

Mama! Mama! Mama!

I love my Mama!

I have red pajama!

And I looooove my Mama!

For the first time since Edmound’s accident, Hermione burst into laughter. It felt wonderfully good and warm, like eating chocolate after a Dementor encounter, its taste filling her up from inside and chasing away her perilous thoughts and worries. Her son did know how to cheer his mother up.

Adrian’s laughter had followed his mother’s and it continued for a while; they laughed under her sleeping robes just like a bird would protect its babies under her wing and sing. Then Hermione kissed Adrian goodnight and closed her eyes. She wished the sleep would be a dreamless one.

The boy soon fell asleep, but Hermione, even under the spell of Dreamless Sleep, couldn’t. Figments of the previous night’s dream played before her eyes, intermingled with the image of a half-dead Edmound, floating in the pool. Faces of her parents, family members and friends came flying by. Intense guilt gripped and paralyzed her heart. How very cruel and heartless had she been on them! Would she ever be able to forgive herself?

But it was all for a greater good, for an innocent life that needed her, Hermione tried to reason herself. With all the hard decisions and sacrifices she had to make alone, she has never resented keeping Adrian. The boy was the best thing that happened to her from the worst thing that could ever happen to a woman. It was not his fault that his father was a rapist.

In a corner of her mind, she didn’t know why, it almost felt like the day Ron was nearly killed from the poisoned mead. The mead on question was actually intended for professor Dumbledore. But when it fell into Slughorn’s hands, it found its way to innocent victims. The man behind it was never apprehended. Like his most grievous crime against Hermione and her son, he got off.

Hermione felt as if that history has repeated itself this morning; that Edmound wasn’t the real target but a mere showdown before the actual game began. Why she felt it, she didn’t know. The Healers have already explained the scientific reason behind his near drowning. Then why was she brooding over such superstitions?

Then there was this mystery of her addressing Jacob Jordeans as Draco Malfoy in her dreams. Hermione knew it was impossible, that the two men could never be the same. She has left Malfoy in France. In fact, why was she even considering that Jacob was Malfoy? Because of that one key word ‘tentacle’ that was present both in her dream and Edmound’s version of the accident?

At half past midnight, Hermione, discarding all her efforts to sleep, left the bed. She adjusted Adrian’s limbs on a side pillow, covered him with a thin sheet and went out in the balcony, to have her head cooled.

The night sky was starry and wonderfully beautiful, the summer air crisp but pleasantly cool. They caressed her skin like the lips of Ron on her lips and she wondered where the red-headed man was now. Was he married? Did he have children? The Weasleys were famous for their large families, something Ron’s Auntie Muriel never missed an opportunity to mention. Hermione was in regular correspondence with Bill. Had she wanted, she could have asked him about Ron. But somehow, it never happened and Bill, too, sensing her discomfort, never talked about his brother.

Memories of their beautiful school days replayed in her mind: finding secret passageways, taking meals in the Great Hall, rushing between classes, worrying about homework and exams, making banners for Quidditch matches and supporting Gryffindor, setting Snape’s robes on fire, solving his Potion puzzle, basking by the lake while Fred and George annoyed the giant squid, having classes at the greenhouse with magical plants: Venomous Tentacula, Devil’s Snare, Snurgaluff pods. Life was wonderfully simple and goals, so clear: defeat Voldemort. After that Hermione was planning to make her career in Magical Law Enforcement, fight for the elves’ rights, marry Ron and have her own little happy family.

What she now? Where did she live? Who were her family and who was her son’s father?

Like that storm out of blue, one storm has struck and turned her life upside down. Hermione suppressed a sigh. Life was not meant to be like story books portrayed, one would never get everything they wanted. Regardless of the storm and its aftermath, she had Adrian, he was a wonderful kid, he made poems for her and she could live like this for the rest of her remaining life, happily.

That being settled, Hermione’s thoughts moved to a completely different topic. She had read somewhere that women never commenced a kiss; it was so against their persona and dignity. It was a man’s job to lure, to tempt the lady into kissing him; and yet it had been she to start hers with Ron. For him and him only, she had broken that one golden rule.

Hermione might be a bookworm but she was a woman. First kiss was something very special for them, a memory to be cherished and smiled upon, forever. There would be a little touch of awkwardness, a little spice of forbidden romance, a little garnishing of shy smile – all of which made the concept so enticing and the experience, so thrilling. In fact that was what Hermione had been dreaming her first kiss to be: tender and sweet.

While girls of her dormitory, Lavender, Hannah, even Ginny who was a year younger than she, had had their first and giggled about it in the girl’s bathroom, their ears red, and Harry had his in the Room of Requirements with Cho, Hermione had been keeping hers for the man she truly loved and not just dated.

Who became her first kiss then? Was it Ron?

Hermione closed her eyes, hot tears finally leaking down her cheeks. She was finally blissfully alone, no one would stop her from crying, no one would to pry and worry. Like everything that was precious and priceless to her – her home, her parents, her friends, and her maidenhood – that kiss of hers was also robbed away. Her first kiss had been Draco Malfoy, who almost tore her lips away in an attempt to punish the Mudblood for touching his pureblood mother.

Hermione touched her lips. In the darkness of night, under its mighty mysterious realm that sheltered many unheard cries, unseen horrors and unspoken sighs, she still felt that forced kiss of Draco Malfoy on her lips. Could it be called a kiss? A kiss was a divine feeling, a sacred way to express someone’s love and affection. Malfoy hadn’t kissed her that way. He had chewed her lower lip, as if it was a piece of filthy rubber. Gagged, Hermione hadn’t been able to make a single sound; only tears rolled down her cheeks, like it did now.

A soft hand touched her shoulder. It didn’t press, it didn’t squeeze hard, it didn’t turn her to face the person; but Hermione knew it was Eva. Then, without even thinking what she was doing or why her friend was still awake, she turned around and embraced her, breaking into frank tears.

They stood on the balcony, under the starry sky and a moon that has witnessed human sorrows and tales of their lives since time immortal. Hermione cried, reliving her worst nightmares. She cried for her parents; she cried for her friends; she cried for her son who knew nothing of the terrible truth; she cried for the one man she loved. Eva didn’t protest, for once. She just rested Hermione’s head on her right shoulder and patted gently on the back, just as Edmound had done.

“Jean, it’s okay, dear! Edmound is fine.” Eva consoled her, though her own voice shook slightly.

“I don’t know, Eva.” Hermione sniffed, trying hard to pull herself together, “But I feel I am responsible for what happened today.”

“Why should you think so?” Eva asked gently, “You didn’t push him into the water. Or it is because he was giving swimming lessons to Adrian?”

“No.” Hermione replied weakly. That possibility hasn’t occurred to her. Should she tell Eva about that dream? “I had a very bad dream. There was a storm and…tentacles came up…rooting me to the ground…preventing me from running…”

“So you think that this tentacle and that tentacle are related? Symbolic?” Eva didn’t sound remotely annoyed by her friend’s senseless words.

“I don’t know.” Hermione confessed truthfully, “But I am having this…horrible feeling that something…something bad will happen and Edmound…” she sighed. “Maybe, I shouldn’t have asked you two to come with me.”

“Are you blaming yourself for that?” Eva sounded slightly appalled. “Nostradamus! It’s not your fault, Jean. What happened was an accident. Okay? Didn’t you hear what the Healer told us? It was a leg cramp. Edmound was dehydrated. Even you explained it to Adrian.”

“Yeah, I did but…” Hermione admitted, not feeling like releasing Eva from the hug. It felt so good, like embracing Harry was: safe and supportive.

“You are one of the most logical persons I have met, Jean.” Eva said, her semi-darkened features honest. “The way you explained Hafgufa was a really nice one. Even I felt like visiting Hogwarts only to see that friendly squid.”

“We’ll go there, one day.” Hermione said, wiping away her tears and clearing her throat. Yes, she would go to Hogwarts one day, even if she turned old, her bones became brittle, her hair turned white and she had a big hump on her back, she would definitely go to Hogwarts one day. She would walk through the corridors, sit in the Great Hall, visit her old dormitory and the most important place of all – the library.

“Adrian asked me to take him to Australia.” She told her friend and sighed. “He wants to meet his real grandparents.”

“Do you know where they live?” Eva asked her.

“No.” Hermione replied truthfully, “Why?”

“Edmound and I could go and see how they are living there.” Eva suggested, “We could bring you their photos.”

“Thank you, Eva, but,” Hermione didn’t know how to thank her friend for her thoughtfulness, “I don’t want to spoil my memory of them. Wherever they are, in my heart I know they are fine.  And that’s enough for me.”

“Okay. As you wish.” Eva said casually. “But I think Edmound might like to visit Australia one day, you know, to look for fire-breathing kangaroos or fanged-koalas.”

Hermione laughed. This was what made Eva so close to her heart. She could talk so simply, like Luna did. Should she tell her about Jacob Jordeans? But it would inevitably lead to the topic of Draco Malfoy and how she almost ran into him at Gringotts. If she knew Eva, which she did, the woman would simply ask her to curse one of the items of the Malfoy Vault so that he either died or was left to live, paralyzed.

“When I saw Edmound in the pool, for a moment, l felt like I was watching Ron when he got poisoned.” Hermione decided to address the issue differently and told Eva the incident that happened in her sixth year, “I had warned Harry about Romilda. But when Ron kept calling me in his poisoned state, I thought…I shouldn’t have left him…after all, he was my friend.”

“I understand, Jean.” Eva finally allowed Hermione to release her and they stood facing each other. “You thought you left a friend because you couldn’t get the man you loved. It’s a very rational feeling. But you know, Jean that good friends are not always good lovers and even less so, good husbands. Nothing destroys a good friendship than misjudged love.”

Hermione nodded in agreement. “A lot of people took Harry and me as a couple. Even Ron did, once.” She remembered the incident in the tent; true that Ron was under the influence of a Horcrux locket but it has always pained Hermione that her best friend could even consider such a possibility.

“Even I made the same mistake.” Someone said and startled, Hermione looked at the direction of the sound. Gabrielle was leaning against the balcony door and watching them, her arms crossed over her bosom. When she came to stand there, and how much of their conversation she has heard, Hermione didn’t know.

“I took you and him as a couple.” She said, slowly walking to them, “But in Fleur’s wedding, I noticed that you mostly danced with her brother-in-law.”

”I thought you were asleep.” Eva suggested cautiously. Hermione wondered if she disliked a third person’s presence in their private conversation.

“Non!” Gabrielle dismissed it with a wave of her hand, “Couldn’t sleep. Then I heard someone crying in the balcony. So I came to see if it was Jean, crying alone.”

“So, when did it happen?” Hermione decided to bypass that topic. The only positive outcome of Edmound’s near drowning had been Gabrielle’s preoccupation in his thoughts. She has forgotten all about writing to Apolline that she had a bad dream and woke up in her bed.

“You mean ‘us’?” Gabrielle took the innocent bait and smiled shyly. “Last Easter. Edmound had a rare Macao to deliver me a letter and a present.” She looked down, “It was really awkward. I mean…I have always seen him as your friend.”

“So?” Hermione sensed a subtle hint in that sentence, “Just because he is my friend doesn’t mean he can’t ask you out. Is he too old for you?”

“No, it’s not that!” Gabrielle cried softly, “Bill is seven years older than Fleur and they are happily married. Age is not the factor here, Jean. I thought…I thought…that you two…were…dating.”

“Dating?” Hermione cried, flabbergasted. “Merlin, Gabrielle! What made you think so? Edmound is my friend! Adrian calls him uncle! I never saw him that way.”

“Yeah, but…you know…you two are…quite close.” Gabrielle was choosing her words very carefully now. “You are friends…he understands you…Adrian loves him…so I thought maybe…” she trailed away, “Please, Jean! Don’t misunderstand me!”

“Just because I am frank with my friend and Adrian loves him, doesn’t mean we are lovers.” Hermione looked around helplessly, not knowing how to explain it to Gabrielle. Why do people take good friends as lovers and spoiled the relationship, she couldn’t comprehend. Does every relationship have to have romance in it?

“Look Gabrielle,” She decided to clear the cloud of confusion once and for all, “Edmound is like a child, innocent and carefree. Like Adrian is. And I love him for it, because he is different. With him around I don’t have to worry that he is a member of the opposite sex; that I am a woman and he is a man. Even Harry and I were like that; we lived in the same tent for almost a year and I never felt like I was living with a man. But with Ron, I never felt that way. From the moment I realized my true feelings for him, I…” Hermione stopped, not knowing how to express it all.

“I know, Jean.” Gabrielle was being patient now, “But it took me some time to figure that out. Frankly, I have hardly seen a boy and a girl to be just friends. The ones I saw ended up married and having kids.”

“But Edmound for me, is just a friend, Gabrielle, just a friend.” Hermione said firmly. She hated being misunderstood by those close to her. It felt like Ron. But at the same time, she knew it wasn’t Gabrielle’s fault. It was a trend to consider two members of the opposite sex as lovers and not as friends; as if only their physical differences mattered and not their mental similarities. “I am sorry if I over reacted, but there is nothing between us; there never was; there never will be.” She turned to her friend to clarify the point, “Eva, did you ever feel like I was dating your brother?”

“No, and I wouldn’t mind if you did.” Eva shrugged, “But my maman would, you know her, Jean. She is pretty backdated.”

“Does mother think that I am dating Edmound?” the topic of Eva’s mother brought forth the question. Hermione bit her lip, wondering if the Delacours were taking Edmound and her as a couple. This was so embarrassing!

“I don’t think so.” Gabrielle replied thoughtfully, visibly relieved that the awkward topic was over, “Actually she…” she paused and grimaced as if accidently let slip something.

Actually she?” Hermione prompted. What was Gabrielle hiding from her?

“Leave it, Jean!” Gabrielle was regretting her slip of tongue. Her eyes kept fleeting at any direction but Hermione’s. But the Gryffindor wouldn’t let the matter die so easily.

“No, Gabrielle.” Hermione said firmly. “I have the right to know. Your maman is my mother too.”

“It’s nothing!” Gabrielle cried desperately, trying her best to repair the damage. “Nostradamus! Why did I ever say that?” She threw her hands in the air and cried, looking mortified.

“Gabrielle!” Hermione took the young lady’s hands in hers and made her to face her. “Please.” She bade solemnly.

A flicker of apprehension lit up in Gabrielle’s blue eyes, as if she was being asked to walk on thin ice. “Maman just…” she licked her lips nervously, “…wants you…” she screwed her face “…to…”

“To?” Hermione squeezed Gabrielle’s hands gently, “To what?” Her heart was suddenly beating in her mouth. An unknown feeling gripped her senses and chilled her spine. Did Apolline secretly wish that Hermione left their home? Was she tired of having to look over Adrian while Hermione was at work?

“To be her…” Gabrielle closed her eyes in horror, “Bru!” she declared in French.

Bru! The word hung in the air like thin layer of mist over Avalon, obscuring all tangible and intangible thoughts. Bru? Apolline’s bru? Gustave’s bru? The Delacour’s daughter-in-law?

Her grip slackened, Hermione left Gabrielle’s hands.

Images of Bill and Fleur’s wedding played before her eyes. The tent. The aisle. Fleur walking to Bill with her father. Her simple white dress flowing by her side. Her tiara. She was glowing. Was that how Hermione had dreamt her wedding to be? A tent? The aisle with flowers? She was walking up it with her father, Thomas Granger. She was in a simple white dress. Ron was standing and waiting for her. His red hairs were messy. Harry was his best man. His black hair was even messier. Ginny was her bridesmaid. Her mother, Adeline and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Weasley, happy from the union, were weeping in their handkerchiefs. She came and stood by Ron. The red-head took her hands. They took vows. He kissed her and led her to the dance floor. They danced as man and wife.

It was night. She and Ron were lying on their bed, on petals of roses. They were under a thin white sheet for she was feeling really shy to be naked. Thousands of candles were floating around them. They started extinguishing once Ron’s lips caressed hers; then his hands were playing over her body, like a pianist’s on the keys. He was going down…down to the core of her femininity…

Then the face Hermione was looking up at suddenly changed. It wasn’t Ron anymore. It was Draco Malfoy. She was on a cold dungeon floor. She was alone and he was tearing her from inside.

Hermione jerked violently, like a cat would when doused with cold water.

“Jean…Jean…” like a badly tuned radio Gabrielle’s squeaks reached her brain, being carried from a distant. Malfoy’s face vanished and the young lady’s came into view. She looked downright terrified.

“Jean!” Gabrielle looked at Eva for help, who wrapped an arm around Hermione’s shoulders and gently guided her to the nearest seat. She sat there like an ice statue; spine erect and looking straight ahead, at a dream that like many others, was shattered.

“Look I am sorry! Okay? I am really really sorry!” Gabrielle sat on the ground before Hermione and mummbled, “I knew you will feel bad.”

“No, Gabrielle.” Hermione said, her eyes glassy and staring vacantly in the air, “You don’t know how I feel.” Even she didn’t know what she felt or if she felt anything at all, “I pray that you don’t have to. Ever.”

“It’s not that.” Gabrielle looked positively scandalized, “I mean…I was shocked when Edmound sent me that letter. Like you I never expected him to…”

Shocked? Letter? Edmound? Hermione didn’t argue. In fact she had nothing to argue. She knew Gabrielle meant no offence. She was being honest, as honest a seventeen year old, newly in love and with dreams of a happy life and bright future before her, could. But Gabrielle didn’t know the cruel realities, the tortures that could break and damage one’s soul so much that she feared sleeping alone, or letting someone in her life.

“Jean, it’s not your fault. Okay?” Eva spoke at last, her tone calm and measured. As always she could understand Hermione very well, without even having her to utter a word. “What happened in England can happen to anyone, anywhere in the world, including me and Gabrielle. But it doesn’t mean that it’s end of our lives. I know it’s a very traumatic. But there are thousands of survivors out there who are leading a happy and respected life, with someone who truly loves them. I have Dominique and Gabrielle has Edmound. They’d help us to heal if it were us.”

“Heal?” Hermione took up the one word that she had left behind long ago. Hot tears came down her already wet cheek, thoughts that were never spoken came up like bubbles. They blocked her throat and blurred her vision. What was healing, she knew not of. Her best medicine was her son, Adrian. “Alexis?” She rasped after a while.

“Is my brother too ugly?” Gabrielle asked timidly, trying to lighten up the grave mood. “Fleur’s friends still die on him. Mine swoon.”

“It’s not that, Gabrielle.” Hermione rubbed her forehead. Her head was spinning. “Alexis is a good man. He deserves someone good.”

“Oh really? Please define good.” Gabrielle bade firmly. She seemed to immensely dislike Hermione’s choice of the word.

“You know what I mean, Gabrielle.” Hermione sighed wearily, “I am not the right person to be your brother’s wife.”

“Who said that?” Gabrielle demanded, “Maman loves you, papa loves you.” she counted on her fingers, “Bill and fleur love you. Victoire loves you. I love you. Even Alexis…” she paused. “…if you don’t believe me, ask maman. She knows everything.”

“Did he tell you that?” Hermione tried to rearrange her thoughts. It was all getting mixed up. First Edmound, then Apolline and now Alexis!

“You know my brother, Jean.” Gabrielle replied matter-of-factly, “He never speaks his mind. It is in his eyes.”

“Eyes?” Hermione was perplexed and looked at Eva. What the hell was wrong with Alexis’s eyes?

“I am surprised that you never noticed it, Jean!” Her friend nodded solemnly, “I saw it every time he looked at you. It was there.”

Hermione tried to remember Alexis’s eyes. They were black, like Snape’s was, except for the latter’s were expressionless and the former’s: ever-pensive. She couldn’t recall seeing any particular emotion for her in them.

“Gabrielle, I am really sorry,” She held up her hands, “but I don’t want to talk about this.” She needed to go, take another mouthful of Dreamless Sleep and sleep at all costs.

“Jean, don’t do this.” Gabrielle pledged and prevented her from leaving the seat.

“Don’t what?” Hermione was extremely confused now. It seemed everyone knew something about her that she didn’t know.

“Don’t punish yourself for someone else’s crime.” Eva replied evenly. “I know why you never noticed what we all did.”

“No, you don’t!” Hermione protested. Were they playing with her, match-making for her or manipulating her into a relationship that was non-existent?

“I do.” Eva said, her eyes steadily fixed on Hermione’s brown pair. “I am your friend, Jean. I know you. The reason you never saw it in Alexis’s eyes is because you don’t feel comfortable with man as your lover. You can be wonderfully open to your friends, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, or to my brother. But whenever it’s someone who might see you differently, you shrink. You think they want you…physically. Am I right?”

Hermione didn’t reply. Even she couldn’t have put it so well. It was such a feeling of shameful helpless; she was a Gryffindor and she was frightened, downright terrified to be touched that way.

“Jean,” Gabrielle leaned forward, deciding to utilize Hermione’s silent contemplation on her favour, “do you think my brother is like that? You saw him since before Adrian was born. Is he like that?”

“I…” Hermione stammered, not knowing how to reply that question. Indeed, Alexis has never given her an impression that he treated woman as sex toys. In fact, he was reserve with them, a feature that, though, did go well with his position in the Ministry, didn’t go accordingly with his image as a quarter-Veela.

“I have nothing to give him…” She said at last, defeated, “…or anyone.”

“You think all men are after virgins who could be good bed partners?” Gabrielle asked Hermione, her chin defiantly lifted. In the moonlight, with her silvery hair flowing down around her, she looked just like her mother, Apolline. “I hate it when women stand on the sideline and wait for men to approach them. We are not on sale, based on our physical structures and degree of attractiveness.”

“I didn’t mean that.” Hermione said wearily. This conversation was wringing out all her stamina and she felt emotionally empty. “What I meant is that I don’t love him, never saw him that way. In fact, he never told me that felt anything for me.”

“Alexis knows that you don’t love him, Jean.” Gabrielle said evenly, her tone calm once again, “He must have taken that if he approached you, you might take it the wrong way and leave our home with Adrian.”

Hermione couldn’t rule out the possibility. She loved the Delacours. They were like her family. But she wasn’t going to have her used to pay their debt.

“Listen, dear.” Gabrielle was completely her Veela mother now, her tone, personality and the authority with which she talked to Hermione, “Not every man on earth is bad; not all of them run after a woman’s body. I am a quarter Veela. Ask me how it feels like when they imagine you as a piece of meat in thin lingerie. But Alexis is not like that. If he loves you, which we all know he does, he loves you for what you are and not for what you can give him.” her tone was gentle, assuring, like balm on an open wound. “If he never told you this it’s because he is afraid to you lose you as a family member. Nothing destroys a friendship and a family relation like a misjudged love.” She quoted Eva’s earlier statement.

Hermione didn’t argue, nor did she agree. A clock in the Hotel chimed thrice and Eva yawned loudly.

“Go to bed, Jean.” She patted on Hermione’s shoulder and left with Gabrielle. Whether it was a strategic move to have her to reflect on the matter wasn’t clear to her.

Hermione looked up at the sky. From last night’s dream to the events of this morning and now this revelation, it had all been an emotional rollercoaster. She had been frightened, relieved, frightened again, sad, confused and now skeptic.

Was Gabrielle right? Was she indirectly punishing herself for what Malfoy did to her or her distrustful attitude towards most men? Could it be true that Alexis loved her, respected her? Could she finally be able to be live behind her past and have a normal life?

•••••

Draco waited for the lights of Hermione’s bedroom to go out and then left his sanctuary, the balcony. He had been watching Adrian and the ladies from there, as they took supper, talked about something called Hafgufa, and retired for the night. His little son looked very sorry for his dear uncle; he couldn’t even eat his steak properly. Somehow it made Draco angry at himself. He was the reason that little boy was suffering, his precious son was sad. He was such a failure of a father!

He remembered what Audré had told him during their little chat just an hour ago.

‘As a sufferer yourself, nephew, you must realize that it’s not an easy job to be a good father. I am not saying that your father didn’t love you or was a bad father. But if you want to be a better father than he was, Draco, then you need to listen to your child. Listen to what he says, what he feels and learn from him. He might be a kid but he is a human. He sees, feels, and understands. Learn from him, nephew, learn from him.’

Draco wondered how much of his son he actually understood. What he did to Edmound was a prank and a moment’s impulse. Yes, it was deadly prank but he hadn’t meant to kill him. Ever. Actually he couldn’t kill anybody even if tried to, with all his heart. That much he was sure of himself.

But it, too, was not in his nature to take it easily if someone tried to take away those who were dear to him, and that was exactly what Edmound was doing: playing a father to Adrian. How could Draco tell Adrian that he and not Edmound was his real father; that he was reason this broken man wanted to live again, that this world was worth living again just because of that boy, that he has defied his father, the mighty Lucius Malfoy, only for him and had bled continuously but never stopped while breaking those mirrors that trapped Adrian? How could he tell him that? How could he tell Adrian what was he to his father?

Cautious and contemplative, Draco stood by the sleeping pair, his whole attention fixed on Adrian. The Mudblood had never tempted him to spare her a second look and he wasn’t at all interested in watching her sleep. In fact, it annoyed him greatly that the kid hasn’t been given his separate bed. Merlin! These Muggles and these Mudbloods! On one side, they could easily forget their kids, leave the country and to let them to die in a war, alone; on another side, they couldn’t sleep without their kids plastered to their bodies! If Draco was in charge of the situation, Adrian would have received his own full furnished apartment and a pack of elves, when he was two. To hell with these Mudbloods!

His eyes next fell on the book of puzzles and quizzes. Tonight a new side of Adrian has been revealed to him: the kid was good at solving puzzles, especially riddles, just as his father did. Draco was a Malfoy and they never went for nasty common things as puzzles. It was so Mugglish! The poor brainless things had no magic and therefore resorted to boring logic. The Mudblood could keep that trait of hers. Besides, solving riddles looked very impressive. Girls especially liked clever men and Draco was feeling proud that his son was going to be as clever like his father was, when he grew up.

He heard them talking in whispers. Then Adrian recited a strange poem and the Mudblood laughed. Draco stood at two feet’s distance, his heart bursting from jealousy for the woman and tenderness for his son alike but he couldn’t dare to go further. It would be a disaster if he got caught. He would land in the prison and by the time he somehow managed to come out the Mudblood would vanish from the face of earth with his precious son. She might even get married to Edmound and have his son brought up by a step father. A shiver went down Draco’s spine at the very thought. No, that could never be allowed to happen. Adrian was his and his only. No other man could ever be his father.

At quarter to midnight, Draco returned to his suite and after casting off the Disillusionment Charm threw away the broomstick. Like it should be for a Malfoy, his bed was made; he could slip into it and retire for the night. Tomorrow morning, he needed to find a way around this problem of spying on Adrian. His aunt was right. This was not England where he could get off using his influences.

Draco took off his robes and threw it carelessly over the chair. He took off his socks next and aimed one under the table and the other, on it. They landed neatly on their aimed targets and Draco leaned back, his body supported only on his elbows. It felt wonderfully good to have something to play as he liked, be the boss and take his anger out. He sat pondering over the little poem Adrian has made for his mother.

Mama! Mama! Mama!

I love my Mama!

I have red pajama!

And I looooove my Mama!

Even in his enraged state, Draco smiled. With each passing moment he realized how much that kid was like his father. Draco too was good at making little jingles. In fact one of his works went viral among the Slytherins until it was modified by those copycat Gryffindors. He could still remember the original lines very clearly.

Weasley cannot save a thing,

He cannot block a single ring,

That’s why Slytherins all sing:

Weasley is our King.

Weasley was born in a bin

He always lets the Quaffle in

Weasley will make sure we win

Weasley is our King,

He always lets the Quaffle in

Weasley is our King.

With a considerably light mood, Draco climbed into the bed and lied down, one ankle crossed over the other and hands folded under his head. Staring at the painted ceiling, he wondered what that strange dream about the House of Mirrors meant. Adrian was standing beside him in all the reflections, but wasn’t actually present. Did it mean that his son was an illusion? Draco loved solved riddles. But this dream was giving him a hard time.

When he drifted into sleep, pondering over the mirror dream, Draco didn’t know. He had another dream tonight, a very strange one.

Malfoy Manor in Wiltshire was just built after the Norman conquest of English lands. The thousand years old structure was only one and half hundred years younger than Hogwarts Castle and like the former, housed an enormous library. It was actually a small museum of Italian sculptures and paintings, Greek scriptures on their Gods and Goddesses and books on Dark Arts. The Malfoy tradition dictated that the valuable collections passed from father to son, from one generation to the next generation.

Draco was Lucius Malfoy’s only son and a spoiled one. He was always curious to things that were forbidden, except perhaps for the Forbidden Forest. The Dark Arts books in that family library were out of limits to him and it was Lucius’s strict orders that his precious son was not to touch them. ‘Touch nothing, Draco!’ was his signature command, be it at the Borgin and Burkes or at the Manor. He didn’t know what those two simple words incurred.

Draco knew he’d inherit it all one day: the Manor, the gardens, the Gringotts vaults and the library with all its Dark Arts books. He could examine them at leisure then; no one would stop him. But where was the thrill of touching something forbidden in that? It would be boring; he might even lose interest and throw the books away. So the best time to examine those books’ contents were when he still had that fire of curiosity burning in him. The time was now.

It was the Christmas of his fifth year. He was going to receive a special present for being selected as the leader of the Inquisitorial Squad. Draco, confident that finally his father would be proud of his son, was at Manor for Christmas holidays. Narcissa was busy with the party arrangements; they would be having the creams of Wizarding society as their guests. Lucius was mostly out, keeping in touch with the Dark Lord and the Minister of Magic, that moron Fudge. Draco, as always was alone with no one to share his moments of glories in helping Umbridge to hunt down Potter and his sidekicks. There was no Crabbe or Goyle to kick some fat butts. It was so boring. And whenever bored, he sneaked into that forbidden library to find something that fitted his curiosity.

That night Draco, after ensuring that his parents were securely in their master bedchamber, came out of his and tiptoed to the first floor, where the library was. On his way, he passed his grandfather Abraxas’s chamber. Sounds of some old songs reached his ears. The old man was listening to the radio. Draco passed his parents’ chamber next, and pressed his ears to the door. There was no sound. Maybe they were asleep. Relieved, Draco sprinted to the staircase and in five minutes was standing before the locked door of the library.

The inside was semi-dark with outlines of marble statues and lamps. The men and women in the paintings were dozing and snoring. Draco ignored them and walked straight to the back of the library, where the Dark Arts books were. He had never felt this way for the Hogwarts library restricted section. That old crap Dumbledore, he knew, wouldn’t keep any real Dark Arts books in there, should they find their ways to innocent students. If one wanted to find the real gems, it was in the Malfoy family library.

Soon Draco found something that interested him. It was a book on human transfiguration. The cover had some very gruesome images and feeling rather nauseated but curious, he opened it and checked the table of contents. Maybe he could try them on Potter or that Mudblood. In ten minutes, he was sitting on the foot of the bookshelves, engrossed in the book.

The book provided him with wealth of information on some very dark spells: like turning humans into objects. He has seen McGonagall turn a mouse into a goblet. She has never shown them how to turn a human into a piece of dry bone. Wondering if it would be a nice change to turn Potter into a thighbone and give him to Fang, Hagrid’s boarhound, he was about to turn to the next page when the library door creaked open.

Draco froze. He has narrowly escaped a punishment the previous day, when he tried to turn one of Lucius’s precious white peacocks into a white ferret. Now, if his father caught him red handed, reading books from the forbidden section, his Christmas was done for. His present would be taken from him and he’d shake him by his scruffs, something that Draco immensely disliked. He closed the book and slipped it into its place, preparing for a flight.

‘Mistress Cissy!’ a high pitched voice exclaimed and Draco, his whole body’s balance on his toes now, closed his eyes. Who on earth had such a horrible voice?

‘Kreacher.’ Came Narcissa’s kind and elegant voice. ‘I knew you’d come whenever you could escape from that prison. I have never seen a more loyal elf!’

 Kreacher? Loyal elf? Prison? Draco frowned and from behind the shadow of a sofa, tried to get a better view of the untimely visitors. He saw his mother, with an elf he couldn’t recognize. He has old and wheezing but looked happy to be in Narcissa’s presence.

‘Master Sirius,’ the elf took the name in a deep venomous tone, ‘screamed at me and told me to go away. I thought to visit my Mistress Cissy.’

‘Very well thought, Kreacher, very well thought. You are always welcome here.’ Narcissa was treating the elf as if it was the Minister of Magic and offered him a seat beside her, ‘So how is everything at Grimmauld Place?’

‘Not going well.’ Kreacher grimaced and replied, ‘Mudbloods and Bloodtraitors treading on my poor mistresses house like it’s some barren land. If she only knew…’

‘Mudbloods and Bloodtraitors?’ Narcissa repeated after the elf, looking thoughtful, ‘Look Kreacher, I know my dear cousin must have ordered you to not breathe a word about what’s going on in the House of Blacks. I know it pains you see them treat that home like that. It’s my family home too.’ she said sympathetically and leaned forward, ‘I can help you restore the place, bring the old glory back. That was my aunt Walburga’s dream, wasn’t it, Kreacher?’

Nice job, mother; Draco thought and patted his mother on the back mentally. So they were using the elf to get inside information about his uncle Sirius.

‘Oh Mistress Cissy!’ Kreacher squeaked and started crying. He banged his head on the lamp, it toppled over and smashed but Narcissa didn’t even move a muscle to punish the elf for breaking a Malfoy family heirloom. Normally, Draco knew, his mother was less severe to the elves than his father was and was therefore barred from treating them directly. All her orders were carried out once Lucius finalized them, to ensure that the elves were always under pressure. Draco watched as Kreacher wailed about his poor mistress and finally, after fifteen minutes when he was calm, Narcissa offered him a nice cup of tea.

‘Master Sirius was asking Kreacher for a two-way mirror this morning.’ Kreacher told Narcissa, sipping the tea, ‘It was the one he used to communicate with that filthy Potter’s father, James nasty Potter. Kreacher found it for him and master packed it. Maybe he is going to give it to someone.’

‘Really?’ Narcissa could be very charming and persuasive when she wanted to. It was her key to controlling Lucius, Draco knew. What followed in the conversation next he didn’t pay much heed. The concept of a two-way mirror has totally grabbed his attention. If he had one, he could use it for the Inquisitorial Squad.

Draco sat bold upright, his eyes wide open, as if he had never slept. He stared at the air, the question to his spying on Adrian finally answered.

•••••

The first shard of Monday morning brought to Hermione an unknown feeling. For the first time since starting to live to with the Delacours, she felt aware of her own presence, her own being, her own self.

Before this morning Hermione Jean Granger was Adrian’s mother, the first female Chief Curse Breaker in the history of Gringotts, Apolline and Gustave’s third daughter, Eva and Edmound’s friend and Ron’s ex-girlfriend. But after the last night’s revelation, she felt the presence of another person, someone inside her who has left neglected to suffer alone. It was like watching one’s naked reflection in a mirror and discovering a feature that one didn’t know existed.

Hermione stood before the bathroom mirror and gave herself a good look. It was something that she had never done and after that fateful day in the Malfoy Manor dungeons, didn’t feel like doing, ever. She knew it wasn’t her fault, but somewhere deep inside her battered soul she blamed herself for not being able to protect herself. It was so strange, for her body and her soul didn’t feel one, as if there was a thin and invisible barrier of assault keeping them apart: her soul was clean and her body, dirty. Her eyes roved down her form. Her bosoms were a bit pendulous, since she was a mother and had breastfed her son; the rest of her body was curvier than her young form was, with some fats around the thighs. Her abdomen was flat but there were stretch marks upon it. She looked at her body for something that could appeal someone like Alexis and failed to find one.

Not every man on earth is bad; not all of them run after a woman’s body. I am a quarter Veela. Ask me how it feels like when they imagine you as a piece of meat in thin lingerie. But Alexis is not like that. If he loves you, which we all know he does, he loves you for what you are and not for what you can give him.’

Gabrielle’s last words before leaving reverberated in her head and Hermione frowned, fixing her eyes on her nipples. Faint bite marks were still visible around the dark pink areola, a small reminder of her encounter with Malfoy.

‘If he loves you, which we all know he does, he loves you for what you are and not for what you can give him.’

‘…he loves you for what you are and not for what you can give him.’

Could that be true? Could there be a man who would love her for what she was? She was an assaulted woman, her body bore scars, her soul bore scars, her entire existence was nothing but a poisoned apple tree. Could someone love her, love her and not her body? Could someone look beyond the hard exterior she put on every day and see the decayed skeleton inside? Could someone help her heal it? Heal Hermione, Hermione the woman?

“Mama, we are getting late!” Adrian rapped the bathroom door and cried. “Uncle Edmound is waiting for us!”

“Ye…ah!” Hermione stammered, “Mama will be out in a bit.” She said and leaving the close examination went to get dressed.

Since the day of her assault, Hermione didn’t feel like showing her body, though she never showed much before, to anyone. Before, she could wear sleeveless dresses whenever she was attending a party, but now: no, absolutely not. Now her dresses were very modest, with full sleeves and of a length that touched her ankles and most importantly loose-fitting to hide her curves. She also avoided vibrant colours. Whether it was unconsciously done or a part of blaming herself, Hermione didn’t know, but she just didn’t feel like putting on something very fashionable and cheeky.

She slipped into a light blue long dress and combed her hair in haste. With nothing but a lip balm as her only cosmetic, she came out and saw Adrian standing by the bed, reading a pamphlet.

“…Scents… colours…lights…” he was reading aloud for the whole suite to listen, “…and sounds…”

“What’s it Mama’s love?” Hermione walked to her son, curious to learn he was reading with such earnest interest when moments ago he was getting impatient to go to his uncle Edmound. Her friend would be discharged today and they would be going to the hospital, St. Waltrude, the Belgian equivalent of St. Mungos, to bring him home.

“Monsieur Leopold sent it.” Adrian replied, handing her the pamphlet. It had colourful photos of large carpets and one look at it, she understood what it was all about.

Every other summer, on the weekend of August 15th, a gigantic carpet was made using begonias across the Grand Place, in a festival called ‘Flower Carpet Festival’, Hermione had read in the hotel travel guide book. Since it was a one of a kind festival, hundreds of witches and wizards from European countries came to Brussels to witness the carpet. Beauty did speak a divine language that could break all barriers.

“It’s an invitation for the Flower Carpet Festival.” She told her son about the carpet, “How nice of Monsieur Leopold to send us one.”

“Mama, are we going?’ Adrian asked, his innocent grey eyes lighting up at the words of flower and lights. Hermione knew her son loved flowers and more importantly, drawing them.

“Of course, we will.” She replied at once and checked the pamphlet for date. “Today is 9th August. The carpet will be opened for wizards and witches on the night of 12th. So we have plenty of time. In fact we could go out in the Grand Place and see how Muggles make the carpet.”

“Yay!” Adrian cried and hugged Hermione. “Muggles are very clever, Mama. Look how they make a big carpet without magic.”

“I am glad my little rabbit understood that.” She ruffled his curls, messing them and smiled, “Most grown up wizards don’t.”

Breakfast being over, they started for the hospital with Eva and Gabrielle, who to Hermione’s immense relief, didn’t show any signs of having had a serious discussion the previous night. Eva was cheerful again and Gabrielle, ever elegant silent. When they arrived at the hospital, the Healers of St. Waltrude discharged Edmound with some advice. They assured Hermione that he was fine now, though he would have to avoid being outdoors in sun for long time. They also told her to give him fruits as a diet to replenish the lost electrolytes and prevent further attacks.

“I have given you a list of fruits that are safe to give him.” the middle aged Healer with kind features told Hermione. He was the one who had talked to them about Edmound’s condition. “Be careful not to overdose him with potassium. It can cause cardiac arrest.” He warned.

“I’ll be careful, doctor.” Hermione assured him using the Muggle term. “…er…sorry, Healer.” She corrected immediately.

“It’s alright.” the Healer shook his head, smiling kindly. “I assume that you a Muggleborn witch.”

“Yes, I am.” Hermione tried not to sound rude. She has had very unpleasant experiences with that one word.

“And that handsome little boy is your son?” the Healer asked, his eyes on Adrian who was chatting with his dear uncle, maybe about the flower carpet.

“Yes, he is.”  Hermione replied, wondering where the conversation was going.

“Saw him in the newspaper.” The Healer finally answered her unasked question, “It’s a rare talent. You and his father must be very proud.” He said brightly.

Hermione cleared her throat. “Y..es..” she gritted her teeth and replied.

“Where is he, by the way?” the Healer asked, looking politely interested, “Don’t mind me asking it, please.”

“No…” Hermione recovered the shock fast, “…it’s alright…” she tried to smile but grimaced instead, “…he’s in England.”

“He must be a very busy man. Even my wife and children complain that I am not with them when something special happens.” The Healer shook his head sadly, “Last month my daughter participated in a writing competition and won a trip to Eiffel Tower. She is only six and writes very nice poems.” He smiled, looking very proud, “But they had to go without me because I couldn’t manage a leave.”

“I understand.” Hermione nodded and smiled. Internally, she was relieved that the Healer wasn’t at all concerned about the blood status of Adrian’s father or her marital status.

“But I’ll say,” The Healer was about to leave and said, “that he a very fortunate man to have such a beautiful wife and a talented son. Good day and take care.” He left with a kind smile.

Hermione stood there, rooted to the spot, watching the Healer’s retreating form. Did he just say that she was a beautiful woman? An image of her scarred body came into view, the one she had examined in the bathroom mirror. Though the scars were well covered underneath her modest dress, Hermione wasn’t wearing any make-ups to be considered as beautiful. Besides, she was with Gabrielle. Beside her beauty, she was nothing. Then why would the Healer say that she was beautiful? Was it just a polite complement?

‘If he loves you, which we all know he does, he loves you for what you are and not for what you can give him.’

Gabrielle’s words kept playing inside Hermione’s head. Was it true then? That she was beautiful? Beautiful in a way that common men couldn’t see? Alexis had a Veela grandmother, a half-Veela mother and two quarter-Veela sisters. If he was running after beauty at all, he could have married one of his Veela cousins. That would have been a very convenient match for both parties. Then why would he choose her over them and Apolline, too, would support it?

“Jean?” Edmound’s call brought her back to reality and shaking her head, Hermione turned to face her friend. He looked better, his usual colours back and less pale. “Adrian tells me about a squid you had in Hogwarts lake.” he said brightly, forgetting that his sister was watching him closely. “Is it true that he saved a student?”

“Yes.” Hermione shook her head in disbelief. Love for animals, perhaps, was burned in Edmound’s genes. No matter what happened, how much he was rebuked, how many times he drowned, he wouldn’t be able to leave them, truly. “It saved a boy named Dennis Creevey. He was crossing the lake in a boat and fell in suddenly.”

“I told uncle what you told me.” Adrian piped. “He says he wants to go to Hogwarts and meet the squid.” He hugged Edmound, “Mama? When are we going to Hogwarts?”

Hermione thought it was too much for her. Alexis, Edmound, the Healer and now Hogwarts! For a boy whose entire world was his mother, Adrian neither knew nor understood the complications the world around him held. She could return to her country any time she liked but doing so would endanger Adrian’s life, not to mention thousands of questions that would strangle them. But how was she going to explain it to him? How could she tell him that his own father would have him killed? That if he somehow survived, he would be ridiculed for a crime he never committed! How? It was enough that the child was growing up fatherless. Should she poison his mind with truth at such a tender stage of life?

“Jean told me last night that she’ll take us all to Hogwarts one day.” Eva replied to Adrian’s innocent query. She seemed to have understood Hermione’s false position. “We’ll meet the squid, take photos and if possible, shake hands…sorry shake tentacles with it.” she said with a pointed glance at her friend.

A roar of laughter followed her statement and Hermione, feeling immensely grateful towards Eva, joined it. Even Edmound seemed relieved that his sister wasn’t mad at him and he changed into normal clothes, ready to leave the hospital.

“You three go to hotel.” Hermione checked the list the Healer had given her. Some of the items needed to be bought. “Adrian is taking Mama for a shopping.” She said, taking the little boy’s hand.

“Okay.” Adrian agreed immediately. Hermione knew he liked to be in charge of his precious mother sometimes. It made him feel like a grown up man. “But I don’t have any money!” he out-turned his pockets to show them.

“Who said you don’t have any money?” Gabrielle rounded her blue eyes in fake astonishment, “Who won those ten thousand galleons then?”

“I won.” Adrian piped simply. “But I gave it to Mama. She’ll keep it. When I grow up, we’ll spend it to help the orphans.”

“Oh, Mama’s love!” Hermione felt such a tender rush of admiration and love for her little son that it almost suffocated her. What would she have done without him? At five and half, Adrian was so thoughtful, considerate and innocent! Who would believe that he was a child of violence? That his other half contributed by a Malfoy, the most despicable species that ever walked on this planet?

They left the cabin, chatting happily. Edmound’s voice was still hoarse from near-drowning and Gabrielle told him not to talk much, which he complied most ardently. At the exit door, Hermione and Adrian parted with the rest of the group and started for the nearest Muggle superstore.

•••••

When Audré was born, her mother had said, that she had delayed to cry. Josée Laval Chombrun was the wife of celebrated lawyer René Chombrun and daughter to French Minister of Magic, Pierre Laval. Naturally her going into a labour meant calling the best Obstetric Healers and midwives to conduct it. Josée had screamed her throat raw while her husband and father waited outside the labour room, pacing in barely hidden anxiety for none of the men were very apt at showing their emotions.

After a ten hour long labour, Audré was born and when she didn’t cry, Josée was close to passing out. She was red on face, numb from pain and yet she stared unblinkingly at the little girl that was dangling by its feet from one of the Healer’s hands who was patting the newborn on the back. The father was allowed in immediately, to see the condition of his baby and René walked in looking downright terrified. The invincible man on court now looked like a timid hare, not knowing what to do. He stood by his wife’s bed, holding hands, and prayed that their firstborn lived.

Finally, after almost seven minutes of her arrival to this world, Audré cried and let the air into her lungs to inflate it. Everyone present at the labour room, from the venerable Healer to the lawyer and the Minister of Magic, started crying in a happiness that they didn’t know only tears could bring. The Head Obstetric Healer wrapped the baby in a towel and handed it over to her mother, Josée. René kissed tenderly on her daughter’s forehead and decided to name her, Audré which meant Noble Strength, something that the baby would desperately need if she wanted to survive in this cruel world.

Just a few monthes before Audré was born, René had bought Château de la Grange-Bléneau. Everyone close to him thought that a male heir was on board and therefore the purchase of such a magnificent castle has been done. But when the child turned out to be a girl, many wrinkled their noses and shook their heads in sympathy. Who was going to inherit the Château after René died? He had no sons.

Proving them wrong, René brought up a son in his only daughter. He loved his wife from heart and vowed to not make her go through more pains in childbirth. The couple didn’t take any more children, which roused a lot of criticism among the Chombrun kin who wanted to see a male heir. Some even advised René to take a mistress to produce a son. It resulted in René asking them to never visit the Château again.

It was almost fifty years since that incident now. Audré’s parents were no more. Her mother died when she was ten and her father almost a decade and a half after that. She never had any siblings and was brought up exclusively by her father and grandfather, to whom she was the apple of their eyes. She has inherited her mother’s looks except the blue eyes which were her father’s. But backbiters said that in was more than that, that she has inherited her father’s brain and his grandfather’s cool art of diplomacy; that her smiles meant something other than just pleasant state: it meant that something was playing inside that cunning head of hers. Among those who knew her, she was feared as a cool headed manipulator.

In men Audré valued only a few virtues. Being faithful to their partners was one of them. Her father was loyal to his mother. She has never seen a loving couple like them and therefore saw men who were loyal to their wives even under the immense pressure of having to produce a male heir, differently. That was how Draco, Lucius Malfoy’s son, made his first positive impression on Audré’s mind when he visited her home. In that man clad in black suite, shirt and trousers, with a pair sad grey eyes, Audré saw his father, René when his wife had died. She had taken care of that man. Surely she could take care of this man and bring some life into him. Also she was curious to see how much Lucius’s son has gone after him.

But that was before Draco met Adrian. After they met and when Draco said that he didn’t know how the little boy was born, anyone would have thought that he was lying, that he was trying to save his face from being labeled as a man who had regular mistresses. But Audré believed in what she saw more what everyone speculated. The horror and hurt that appeared on Draco’s eyes on the thoughts of being considered as a womanizer was enough to tell her what she wanted to know. He, in all honesty, didn’t know who the mother was and how the boy was conceived.

Curious to see what plan Draco had in his head, Audré decided to accompany him to Brussels. The man didn’t object of course. He was starting to trust her. They found Adrian and his mother, Jean Granger, whom Draco seemed to know from before and for some reason was very angry at.

This was where Audré’s thoughts came to a dead end. Draco knew Jean. He was curious to find out how or better say why she ended up in France with Adrian. Did that mean that he knew how the boy was conceived too? Was she was his girl friend before he married Astoria? Adrian was almost over five and a half now. If Audré counted backwards, that meant that the boy was conceived sometime in the first half of 1998. That year was the year of the Second Wizarding War. The Malfoys, Draco has already told her, were being imprisoned in their own home. Only he was allowed out, in order to attend Hogwarts. Did they do it while at school? Did he take out his helplessness and frustration on bed with a girl? Was that how Adrian was conceived?

But then there was the most interesting question of all, the one that Audré looked for the answer. Why Jean Granger chose to leave the country to have her baby? She could have pressurized Draco to marry her once she found out that she was pregnant. Could it be because she was afraid that her son would be another Draco Malfoy? Last night Audré had seen a little Adrian in Draco and wondered about it. But if Jean could sleep with Draco, what was wrong if their son became one? The boy was already a miniature Draco, wasn’t he?

Or was it something else? Audré had some very unpleasant suspicions. Was it Lucius’s doing? Has he impregnated Jean with Draco’s seed and sent her to France to safe keep the future heir of Malfoys from Lord Voldemort’s clutches, to ensure that the Malfoy line didn’t die should that maniac killed them all? Audré knew her brother-in-law and there was nothing impossible for a Malfoy when it came to saving their thousand years old pureblood line. Now the question was did he or did he not take the seed with Draco’s knowledge?

Audré rubbed her eyes wearily. How the night has passed pondering over these points, she never knew. Now the clock on the mantelpiece said that it was eight o’ clock of a sunny Monday morning. She stood up, stretched her arms and started for the bathroom. Today she was going to visit the local superstores and buy some chocolates for her daughter and kids of her neighbourhood. It would be an injustice if she stayed at Brussels and didn’t take for them the famous Belgian chocolate.

Audré had her breakfast at nine and Draco wasn’t present. He wasn’t in his suite, she has checked.  But she wasn’t bothered to the slightest. The man was under her total control. Draco wasn’t going to do anything without consulting his clever aunt first, Audré was confident. Somehow the knowledge gave her a cruel satisfaction. Lucius Malfoy’s only son depended on his infamous aunt; the man surely was turning in his grave.

At ten o’ clock, Audré left the Palace Hotel for a nice day out. It was never in the nature of a woman like her to sit around and wait for her nephew to take her out. She could stretch her own legs.

The Brussels Town Hall, a magnificent gothic structure, acted as the portal between magical and Muggle world in Brussels and today it was heavily guarded. Sturdy faced Aurors in deep blue uniform were patrolling the exit and entrance doors, carrying wands and batons. They were checking everyone in and out if they were properly dressed in Muggle clothes. Audré showed them her hotel keys. As soon as they saw that she was guest of the Palace Hotel, they let her out with a bow. Audré nodded elegantly and passing through the gates of Town Hall, came to stand on the famous Grand Place, the central square of Brussels.

Immediately the reason behind such tough patrolling dawned upon her. Grand Place was packed with Muggles today, tiding up the vast square for the upcoming Flower Carpet Festival. The pavements were more crowded than usual, with thousands of Muggle tourists thronging the streets of Brussels. The Aurors were ensuring that the magical community didn’t draw unnecessary attention to them by wearing full length robes on a bright summer day.

Her head full of thoughts and plans, Audré started walking for a Muggle superstore. She was around fifty now and jumping Chocolate Frogs or squeaking Ice Mice or earwax flavoured beans hardly tempted her. Those were for kids, not for women her age. Soon Audré found a Muggle superstore. It was just a few streets away from the Wizarding hospital, St. Waltrude. She knew Jean’s friend was taken there. Should she check if he was alright?

Audré discarded the idea immediately. It would only raise suspicions if she went to ask his health. Besides, her main targets were Jean and Adrian. She needed to know them first.

Audré walked into the superstore and found it crowded with French, German and Dutch tourists. They must have come to see the Flower Carpet which was in three days. Like Audré, most were looking for Belgian chocolates and the sales assistants were having a very hard time dealing with the sudden rush of customers. Growing up alongside Muggles, Audré was very comfortable in dealing with them. She confidently asked a shop assistant about the chocolate section. The young man’s eyes roved down Audré’s elegant form and attire and he smiled.

“Come with me, Madame.” He beckoned her, “I’ll take you to a less crowded section. We keep our best and most expensive chocolates there.” His smile broadened, “Away from the common customers.”

So he was taking her as a rich lady ready to spend galleons on chocolates? Interesting! Audré thought, feeling amused. But she followed the assistant nonetheless. Soon they came on a side of the superstore that was quieter. Audré looked up at the mountainous piles of best Belgian chocolates that stood on her either side, like the raised columns of water of Nile, threatening to break down on her any moment.

“Would you like me to help you, Madame?” The shop assistant asked politely. Audré thought that he was a good salesman because he has correctly read her confusion on seeing rows and rows of chocolate of different colours, sizes, and shapes. “We have pralines, truffles, eggs, animals.” He showed her the huge assortment of chocolates on her right. “And if you are looking for a special brand, we have that too.” He waved at the many coloured luxurious gift boxes on her left. “There is Neuheus. They supply chocolate to the Belgian royal court. We also have Guylian, Leonidas, and the Belgian. They are the best quality of chocolate in the world, favoured by kings, queens and statesmen.” He stated proudly.

Audré wanted to tell the salesman that she was not a queen and therefore would do with normal ones. But then she remembered that Lillian loved good quality chocolates. Wouldn’t she be very delighted to have a box of branded chocolates?

“I think…” she started, deciding to take some Neuheus pralines. The shop assistant said that this company supplied chocolates to the Belgian royal court. “…I’ll take…” she couldn’t finish because a certain tender sweet voice reached her ears.

“Mama, I want some chocolate truffles!”

There was no mistaking to whom that voice belonged to. Adrian. Audré picked up a large box of pralines and in pretence of checking it, turned it slowly, bringing the bottom of the tin to face her. The shiny bright surface acted as a mirror and she saw on it, what she had expected. Adrian, in a bright yellow T-shirt and jeans, was standing beside his mother, Jean Granger who was examining two chocolate boxes intently. The boy was holding up another box and asking her to buy it for him.

“Merci, Monsieur.” Audré turned to the waiting shop assistant and smiled. She had a very good plan and wished to execute it, undisturbed. “I think I’ll take some time in choosing the chocolates. Meanwhile, you can attend to the other customers.”

“Very well, Madame.” The assistant bowed and left her by the mountains of chocolates. Like a good salesman he knew when to leave his eccentric and rich customers be and when to persuade them. Audré waited for him to fully leave. Then she hid herself behind a large heap of chocolate coated wafers and casted a very quick and effective Glamour Charm on herself. She came out a minute later, her blue eyes black and with some patch of grey on her dark hair, wearing a pair of spectacles. On her way, she picked up a box of chocolate wafers.

“Mama, look at these truffles!” Adrian cried for his mother’s attention when Audré came and stood by their pair.

“Wait, Adrian! Mama is lookin…” Jean Granger was in the middle of examining a box of pralines when she turned to her son and stopped abruptly, noticing Audré standing there solemnly.

“Excuse me, Madam.” Audré started in her most elegant tone that would instantly grab the listener’s attention. “I was here to buy some chocolates for kids but they have so many brands…” she trailed away deliberately and glanced at the staggering piles around them, conveying her undecided state, “It’s my first time in Belgium and I don’t have any relatives here. I was wondering what to do when I saw that you have a lovely little son.” She looked down at Adrian. The boy was gaping at her. “Can you please help me in choosing some good chocolates for kids?” she stated the entire matter in simple and appealing terms and with a very charming smile.

“I…” Jean blinked twice. Her chocolate brown eyes were no less enticing than the chocolate truffles her son asked her to buy. “…I am also new to this city.” She said with an apologetic smile.

“It’s okay.” Audré nodded solemnly, conveying to Jean that she understood her helplessness. “I’ll see what I can do. Good day.” She said and left the pair.

One step…two steps…three steps….four steps…

“Mama, we can help the old lady!” Came Adrian’s voice from behind her.

It was just as Audré had expected. Pressing someone to help a stranger would always make them suspicious of one’s real motive, especially when the person had a kid that attracted a lot attention. The town was full of tourists now and who knew which of them was a child trafficker. So Audré had feigned that it was alright and she would look for help elsewhere, making her out of Jean’s suspicion list.

Five steps…six steps…seven steps…eight steps… Audré returned to her previous spot, examining the box of wafers intently.

“Sssshhhh…” Jean hushed her son, checking if Audré had heard that, “It’s rude to call someone ‘old day’.”

“But she was an old lady!” Adrian protested innocently.

From her stand just a few feet from them the mother and son pair, Audré could hear them clearly. Her disguise had been perfect. Jean couldn’t recognize her. Now she waited for her to approach her on her own free will. She was sure Jean would.

“Maybe she is, Adrian but it is rude to call someone an old day. Okay?” Jean told her son, “Mama forbids you to call anyone an old lady.”

“Why?” Adrian asked. He seemed unable to comprehend that why such an innocent term could be regarded as rude.

“Because ladies don’t like to be called old. Okay?” Jean replied, sitting before him, “Imagine when your Mama becomes an old woman, with white hair and a large hump on the back. She’ll look like those old ladies in the story books. Will you like it if someone calls her ‘old woman’?”

“My Mama will never become old!” Adrian cried and hugged his precious mother protectively, as if hugging her would prevent her from aging, “You’ll always be brave and beautiful.”

Audré smiled. She liked the way Jean was explaining certain matters to her son rather than snapping at him or asking him to follow something blindly. It was something Draco, the boy’s father, never would and nor would his father before him.

“Really?” Jean pulled Adrian’s cheek and stood up, smiling. “Okay, let’s go and help the lady.”

Audré straightened her face immediately. Like most of her plans, this one has worked well and Jean and her son were coming to help her in choosing the chocolates. She left the wafers and picked up two boxes of Neuheus and Leonidas trying to appear very confused.

“Sorry Madame.” Came Jean’s voice and Audré turned to her with a puzzled expression.

“Pardon?” She said.

“My son tells me that he wants to help you to choose chocolates for your kids.” Jean said with a pleasant smile. “He loves to help others.” She said and ruffled the boy’s messy curls.

Audré, trying to appear very astonished but pleased, looked down at the little boy who was looking up at the pair of ladies, his grey eyes round. “Thank you very much, little gentleman.” She said with a special charming smile of hers. Adrian’s eyes lit up at once. He seemed to highly like the term he was addressed as: little gentleman.

“I’ll help you, Madame!” He piped happily. He rushed to the nearest stack of chocolate truffles, grabbed a box and showed it to her. “You can buy truffles. I like them a lot!”

“I’ll buy truffles.” Audré declared dismissively. She indeed was going to buy what her grandson liked.

“Okay!” Adrian squealed and started filling a shopping cart with them. His mother tried to restrain him, alarmed but Audré placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, assuring her that it was fine, that she could afford buying the expensive chocolates.

“It’s not every day that an old lady finds a charming little gentleman to help her.” She said with a smile.

Jean’s ears didn’t miss the innocent tease in that line. “I am sorry for that.” She said apologetically. “He’s just five and a half and doesn’t understand few things.”

Audré felt that the young mother herself was very well-mannered and polite. It was no doubt that she was trying to bring up her son accordingly. But at the same time, it struck her quite odd. Why would Lucius or Draco choose a woman who was completely their opposite? Wasn’t she supposed to be too full of herself or be very proud to mother a Malfoy heir?

“Oh, come on!” Audré waved aside Jean’s apology. She was here to observe and learn more about Jean and not judge her for mothering Adrian. “I didn’t mind at all. In fact I liked it. An honest complement is thousand times better than a fake praise.” She said simply, “So you are here for the Flower Carpet Festival?” She started conversationally.

“Oh no!” Jean replied. “I came here on a little tour. My son has been asking me for ages to take him abroad.”

“I see…” Audré commented, “He’s a…”

“Madame, do you like chocolate animals?” Adrian interrupted, showing Audré a box of animal shaped chocolates. His small form was almost obscured behind the pile of chocolates he has already heaped in the cart for her. It was such an endearing sight.

“I just love chocolate animals.” Audré replied solemnly and turned to Jean. She too was watching the boy diligently collect the chocolates. There was a tender expression on her face. Audré identified it as a mother’s musings on watching her child grow up.

“He’s a very nice boy.” Audré returned to her watching of Adrian and continued on her previous remark, “Would you mind if I ask you his name.”

“Of course not.” Jean shook her head, her eyes still fixed on the busy little boy. “Adrian. Adrian Thomas Granger.”

“Adrian?” Audré repeated after her, as if hearing it for the very first time. “It’s a very nice and uncommon name. And you are?”

“Her…” Jean paused and turned her head to Audré. Her earlier tender expression was now replaced by a cautious smile, “Jean Granger.” She replied.

Not for anything was Audré considered one of the cool masterminds of chess. She never missed how a piece moved across the board and this time, she didn’t miss the way Jean corrected her name. Name, address, country – these identities were a human’s spontaneous reply. If she remained cautious, she might collect information from Jean which would definitely come handy in the future. “Jean, this is Josée Laval.” Audré extended a hand to the young mother, which she took and shook, “You must have noticed that our names start with a J.” she said, smiling pleasantly and Jean nodded in agreement, her guards fallen, “So, where are you from, Jean?”

“England.” Jean replied, her eyes back on Adrian. The little boy was now busy weighing two boxes of chocolate. “He looks like a little leprechaun, collecting chocolate instead of gold.”

England? Audré frowned. Then Jean Granger must have finished her schooling at Hogwarts. Did she meet Draco there? “I am from France.” She said conversationally, eager to find out more.

“France?” Jean turned to her, astonishment etched on every line of her young and innocently beautiful face, “Where do you live in France?”

“Not in Paris.” Audré replied tactfully. “Most people think that French people live in Paris.”

“No, it’s not that.” Jean blinked rapidly twice, wondering what to say in response. Was she hesitating to tell Audré the truth? “Actually we, I mean me and my son, live in France. I am English but I work in France.”

“Really?” Audré would certainly receive an award in acting, so impeccable was her astonishment.

“Yeah and I live in Paris.” Jean’s smile returned and she added pointedly.

“I am French and I work in France.” Audré said casually, “It’s my first time abroad. Actually I think that it’s fate that we’ll meet here of all places.”

“Why?” Jean took the innocent bait that Audré was deliberately keeping for the end.

“My husband is an Englishman.” Audré stated with a flourish.

“Englishman?” Jean almost gasped.

“Yes.” Audré replied, pleased that her plan was going on well, “I am a lawyer by profession and he was a judge.” She said, trying to worm out more information on what Jean did in France.

“Was?” But the young mother noticed the use of a past tense.

Audré winced internally. Somehow her use of the past tense has ruined the punch line of the carefully constructed conversation. “Yes, was.” Audré nodded somberly, “He passed away almost ten years ago.”

“I am really sorry.” Jean said, looking sincerely sad.

“No, it’s fine.” Audré smiled and assured her, “By the way, you said you work in France? So is your husband a Frenchman?” Since the topic of her husband has come up, why shouldn’t she use it on her benefit?

“My…” Jean’s face hardened. “I am a single mother.” She replied after five seconds, looking forced confident.

“Madame, do you like eggs?” Adrian cut in at that moment. He was showing Audré a box of chocolate Easter eggs.

“Put them in.” Audré nodded, motioning him to do as he pleased and turned to Jean. She looked lost in some thoughts. “I am sorry if my question offended you in anyway, Jean. It was unconsciously done.” She tried to lighten the situation.

“No! No!” Jean cried, looking highly embarrassed now. “It’s fine! He and I are…not together… anymore but I am very happy with my life.”

Not together anymore? So that meant that they were together once. Jean seemed like a very easy-going and friendly woman. Audré wondered how she ended up in bed with Draco, the ever moody and proud man. But one thing was clear to her. No matter what had happened between them Jean was happy with her life. She also noticed how she too, like Draco had done, didn’t mention the boy’s father’s given name and addressed her nephew as a plain ‘he’. Audré wondered if she was angry or bitter on her nephew or both.

“I can see that.” She commented brightly. “Adrian is a wonderful kid.” She turned her attention to the little boy. But he wasn’t there.

“Adrian?” Jean has also noted the sudden disappearance of the boy. “Adrian? Adrian?” She kept calling and walking forward, crossed the chocolate boxed filled cart. Audré followed her; somehow her own heart was thumping in her chest. They turned a corner and the little boy came into view. He was talking to a teenage girl who looked close to hitting him.

“Hey! You!” Jean pointed a warning finger and cried. Startled, the girl looked up and ran away. Audré couldn’t get a better look of the girl but noticed that she was on a green T-shirt, a pair of baggy jeans and a jacket. It struck her odd. Who’d wear a jacket on a sweaty summer day of August?

“Adrian? What happened? Why was that girl trying to hit you?” Jean ran to her son, who was sitting on the ground, grabbing a box of chocolate truffles to his heart. A shop assistant came running by, looking startled.

“She was trying to steal them!” Adrian cried, “I tried to stop her but she didn’t listen. Then she tried to hit me. I dodged it and fell on the floor.”

“Adrian, never pick a fight with boys or girls older than your age.” Jean said sternly as she helped her son on feet and dusted his clothes. The shop assistant was gawking at the little boy, watching the strange scene. “If it happens again, come to Mama or call someone who can help.” She showed him the shop assistant.

“But I didn’t try to hit her!” Adrian protested, his tone accusing and hurt, “She tried to hit me! I just tried to stop her!”

“Whatever!” Jean snapped and retrieved the box of truffles that was behind all the trouble. She returned it to the shop assistant who shook his head in disbelief and apologized.

“I am very sorry, madam.” He said sincerely, “We are actually having a nightmare today. Every year a lot of people visit the city this time of the year, to see the Flower Carpet and the rush increases. Not all of them are well brought up like your son. Some only come to take advantage of the crowd and to shop lift. We have CCTV and hire more stuffs but, somehow it always happens.” he looked down at Adrian and smiled, “This little man has helped us. I think I’ll ask the manager to give you a generous discount.”

“Oh no! There is no need for that!” Jean shook her head vigorously, though she looked pleased that her son stood up against the girl. “Adrian didn’t do it for the discounts.” She said, ruffling his curls.

“No, I didn’t do it for the discount.” The little boy quoted his mother. Audré, who was watching the entire interaction, felt a tender rush of love for the kid. Adrian was an amazing boy. No wonder Draco was mad for his son; anyone would be.

“Well, I think he deserves better than that.” Audré suggested. Looking around, she spotted a big box of chocolate truffles. It contained a hundred of those round chocolate balls. She picked it from the stand, sat before the boy and took his little hand in hers.

“Merci, my dear little gentleman.” She fixed her eyes on those that belonged to her nephew’s and for the first time realized why he was in trance while looking at Adrian’s eyes that day at the Tuileries. The little boy’s eyes were amazingly honest and innocent, as clear as water and as true as his soul. “It’s been very long since I last saw such honest courage. I am so sorry to have caused these little hands such pain.” She kissed the hands softly, “Please forgive this old lady.” She offered him the box of truffles.

“Old lady?” Adrian looked up at his mother, silently asking her if he should accept the gift.

“Madame…” Jean tried to restrain Audré from giving her son such an expensive gift. “…that’s certainly not necessary. He did it solely from the goodness of heart. Didn’t you, Adrian?”

“I did.” Adrian piped, though his innocent grey eyes were fixed on the box of truffles.

“Then that goodness of heart should be rewarded.” Audré looked up at Jean, smiling serenely. “There are things in this world that can’t be bought, my dear lady, no matter how much you pay. Honest help is one of them.” Audré placed the box on Adrian’s hands. “This is not a gift. This is my blessing for your son. I pray that he grows up to be a true gentleman.”

The look that appeared on Jean’s eyes told Audré that the words have touched her heart. No mother on earth would refuse to accept blessings for her child. She nodded, slightly tearful and with a last bow and goodbye, left with Adrian, who waved at Audré. She waved back, her heart strangely empty but heavy and watched as the shop assistant escorted them to the billing counter and ensured that Jean received a discount. They left with Adrian hopping happily by his mother’s side.

Casting off her Glamour Charm, Audré returned to her cart.  For the first time in ten years she felt a fire has been ignited in her soul: a fire of longing, a fire of hope, a fire of love. It was only her second meeting with the boy and she has fallen in love with her little grandson, Adrian.

Audré was a Chombrun and they never missed an opportunity to get back to their enemies. The salesman who had earlier taken Audré to the expensive chocolate section looked beside himself when he saw her cart. It was loaded with enough chocolates to serve half of Brussels. She waited patiently in the queue while he pushed the cart for her. It was then that she saw the teenager girl who had tried to hit Adrian. She was standing by the counter where her mother was paying the bills. Audré’s well practiced eyes immediately noticed a small lump in her trouser pockets that the girl was trying to hide under her baggy jacket.

So that was why she had put on that jacket? To hide her stolen goods. Audré smirked. That meant that the girl needed to be taught a little lesson.

When Audré was little girl, as little as Adrian, her mother loved to read her bedtime stories. She had her own separate suite but at night, Josée would come and slip under her comforter, take Audré’s little head on her bosom and read to her a new story every night. There were so many of them. Audré especially liked the Muggle stories with the touch of magic in it. The wizard of Oz, the magic lantern of Aladdin, Pinocchio and so on. Josée was a big lover of Muggle books. She thought it was interesting to learn about magic from their point of view. Audré loved listening to them. She would lose herself in those tales and visualize her as Dorothy or Aladdin. A thousand nights have passed since those golden days of her life. Audré was half a century old now and still missed those stories. Would there be a day when she’d read them to her grandchildren?

Adrian’s face swam into view, his round grey eyes, his tender and sweet voice, his innocence and his courage. With it came a unique idea.

Audré asked the shop assistant to take care of the bills while she examined some Belgian laces. The man, eager to have his goods sold to such a wealthy customer, was more than happy to comply. She smiled and withdrew in a corner, behind a rack filled with delicate laces. From her hideout she aimed her wand at the girl. What followed was a complete mayhem.

The teenager girl in green t-shirts was about to leave behind her mother, relieved that her thieving wasn’t caught when suddenly something started wriggling inside her jeans pockets, as if it was filled with fat and hungry worms.

“Holy shit!” she cried, panicked and without thinking what she was doing, took off her jeans before the entire crowd. A pair of white knickers came into view.

“What the fuck, Nancy!” the girl’s mother exclaimed, “What the fuck do you think you are doing taking off that jeans?” She took off the shirt she was wearing over her tank tops and wrapped it around her daughter’s loin.

“What do you mean ‘what the fuck’?” Nancy retorted angrily, “Look there, you silly woman!” She pointed at the jeans. It was lying on the floor and something was wriggling inside its pockets, trying to come out. “Maggots! Maggots! This bloody shop sells maggots!”

“Maggots?” one of the shop assistants cried, “We don’t sell maggots! It must be something else.” He said and went to investigate the matter more fully. The entire shop was holding its breath when the security officials arrived at the scene. They prodded the pockets carefully, as if it contained explosives.

One by one the contents of the both pockets came out like caterpillars. There were several chocolate sticks, sweet cones, gummy bears, chocolate bars, liquorice sticks and different types of treats. They crawled on the shop’s cold tiled floor as if alive.

“Maggots? Right?” the shop’s manager was on the scene and lashed out like an angry bull. He seemed completely oblivious of the fact that the inanimate objects were moving across the floor.

“I didn’t steal them! I didn’t steal them!” Nancy squeaked, looking horrified. She seemed not to notice that no one has asked her how got those treats entered her pockets. “No! No! Someone must have slipped them into my pockets! Maybe it’s those bloody salesmen.” She looked around wildly. “They are trying to frame me! I didn’t steal them!”

But around her, the crowd only gaped, not paying heed to what she was screaming about. For they have never seen anything like this.

With every squeak that escaped Nancy’s lips, her nose grew half an inch. “I didn’t steal them! I didn’t steal them! Don’t take me to police!” She cried and ran to her mother with a six inches long nose protruding like a flag stick. Then she suddenly realized that her nose was dangling half a foot away from her face. Panic stricken she tried to cover her growing nose chanting the same mantra: that she hasn’t stolen those sweets that crawled on the floor. The nose continued to grow until it reached a foot’s length.

Enough, Audré thought and lifted the charm from her hideout. The sweets stopped wriggling and the nose shrunk back to normal length. Nancy fainted and her mother started crying. Aghast and helpless, the shop manager asked his employees to close it for the day and took Nancy and her mother to the nearest hospital.

Audré came out behind the rows of customers who were discussing what just happened inside. Some said it was a ghost’s work, some said it was a trick planned by the shop manager, some said it must be a curse, that the shop was haunted. She listened to them, her hands full of packages that were filled with the chocolate boxes Adrian had chosen for her.

Audré smiled and walked back to the Palace Hotel. What happened just a few minutes ago was nothing but an inspiration from a childhood story and a small tribute to Josée’s bedtime reading.

The idea had visited her when she remembered Pinocchio’s adventure. It was strange that none of the Muggles remembered it and she, being a pureblood, remembered it too well to ever forget.

Audré walked into the Town Hall. Life was suddenly beautiful, with Adrian in it.

•••••

By implications of his given name, Draco, if not twelve, there were at least half a dozen uses of his Malfoy-Black blood. Curiosity was one of them, which the Muggle playwright had fortunately missed to portray in his works. The second trait was being focused.

It was almost six o’ clock in the morning when Draco woke up. It was really strange how his focused mind had found a way around the problem using references of a dream with mirrors and an almost forgotten memory. He remembered seeing that elf, Kreacher several times, later, at the Malfoy Manor. Narcissa and Bellatrix were trying to extract inside information on the Dumbledore’s loyal followers and their activities. Draco was curious to learn what they were but Lucius would simply give him a stern stare, which meant he didn’t trust his son on these delicate matters.

Then one day after his father’s arrest in the Department of Mysteries, when the Daily Prophet was boldly claiming the Dark Lord’s return, his followers’ capture and Sirius Black’s death, Draco returned to manor.  Narcissa was concerned for her husband and impassive, almost unaffected on her cousin’s demise. In a manor that was silent and anxiously awaiting the Ministry’s next raid, the only person gleeful was Bellatrix.  She has finally got the Blacks rid of that nasty Sirius.

That day, for the first time in his life, Draco considered not joining the Dark Lord’s service. If being a Death Eater meant killing one’s brothers and sisters, then that job was best suited to the likes of Bellatrix. It was true that Draco’s service would bring him glory, his father would be forgiven and he had no cousins except his Aunt Andromeda’s daughter. But what if the Dark Lord one day asked him to dispose of his parents? What would he do then? Save himself or save his parents?

All these thoughts had engulfed Draco’s mind until the day he was called before the Dark Lord and given his Dark Mark.

Draco rubbed his eyes and left the bed. His aunt’s subtle accusations have somehow affected his mind and he was drifting into thoughts that were not concerned with his current mission: knowing more about his son, Adrian. With a decisive sigh, he left the bed and got ready for the day. He had a lot to do.

Finding a two-way mirror wasn’t going to be easy in a foreign country. If it were England, Draco would simply visit Borgin and Burkes and threat the proprietors to have a pair arranged for him or he would have a werewolf set on them. But as Audré rightfully had said: this was Belgium and he needed to be careful if didn’t want to land in a prison, Draco took a different route.

At half past eight o’ clock Draco left his suite. Walking through the spacious corridors for the nearest Floo and elevator foyer, he noticed the room service trolley. They were on the day’s job of cleaning the suites and remembering his aunt’s cautious advice, Draco smirked. The Malfoys did know how to use pawns.

The shops of Laan Grote Markt haven’t even opened properly when a shop that sold mirrors received a strange customer. From hair to toe, the man was clad in all black; black hair, black eyes, black suit and polished black shoes where one could see one’s face. He asked the shopkeeper for hand mirrors. His was drawling and his accent was English.

“We have all kinds of mirrors, Monsieur…” the shopkeeper led the black-clad customer to the back of his spacious shop, where he kept the valuable items.

“Nott.” The man replied impassively.

“Yes, Monsieur Nott,” The shopkeeper gave him an oily smile. “We have all kinds of mirrors; talking, whistling, ones that sings lullabies, one that’ll advice you on your haircut or makeup, ones that’ll magnify your image for a better shaving experience, anything…anything at all…Monsieur.”

“I want two plain hand mirrors…” The man scratched his clean-shaved cheek, “…three actually…and they are not to be the talking variety. Just make sure that the frame is ornate, something that attracts ladies. That’ll be all.”

“That’ll be all?” the shopkeeper repeated, crestfallen. He had thought that he’d sell the eccentric customer some of his best and most expensive mirrors. That hope was gone now, the man was asking for plain hand mirrors with ornate frames that would attract ladies. But like a good salesman he hid his resentment and smiled broadly, “You are in the right place, Monsieur Nott. The Belgians are very famous for their mirrors.” He said proudly. “It has outstanding quality…” he paused when the man held up a hand.

“My mirrors.” He almost barked and the shopkeeper, nodding bemusedly, ran to fetch what his customer has asked.

At half past ten Draco finally returned to his suite. His job was perfectly done. The hand mirrors that he had purchased were all now imbibed with Protean Charm. It was something that he had specialized in during his sixth year. Using the stuffs of the room service, two of those have already found their ways into Hermione Granger and her friend’s suites, in two boxes that bore signs of ‘with the complements of the Palace Hotel’. The third one was with him; it was the receiver of all information, images and news. If anything happened now, no one in the world could link it to him, Draco Malfoy.

He entered his suite and had breakfast, a very relieved and contended breakfast, something that he hasn’t taken in a few years. Then he sat in the balcony and checked the day’s newspapers, waiting patiently for his clever little trick to work. The mirror was on his lap while he read the papers.

Draco was reading the news on Adrian for the fifteenth time in a row when the mirror finally buzzed. The charm has worked very well.

“Look at what they gave us today?” Came Eva’s voice. “A mirror! How beautiful!” she admired the ornate frame that he had chosen after half an hour’s browsing.

Draco smirked contentedly. He knew most women were partial to trinkets, pretty hand mirrors and painted combs and brushes; his mother was and so was Astoria. It was something their weak gender couldn’t help.

“Eva, what’s wrong with Jean?” came Edmound’s deep voice. The man must have returned from the hospital. He seemed to not hear what his sister was telling him about the pretty hand mirror the Palace Hotel has given them with the day’s room service.

What’s wrong with Jean?” Eva repeated, sounding confused.

Draco’s mirrors might not a real two-way mirror but his Protean Charm was working very well. He was receiving good signal of what was happening in those two suites.

“She was very quiet in the hospital.” Edmound said, sounding thoughtful.

“Was she?” Eva’s tone suggested that she was trying to avoid the question.

“Eva, I am your twin brother. Okay?” Edmound said firmly, “I know you as much as you know me. Now tell me what’s wrong with Jean?” Draco narrowed his eyes and strained his ears. What was wrong with that Mudblood and why was Edmound so concerned about it?

“Er…” Eva stammered. “It’s nothing. It’s just a little chat that we had last night.” she sighed.

“About me?” Edmound asked. From where he was suddenly getting all those wits was a mystery to Draco.

“Not entirely…” Eva replied cautiously, “…well, um…but you came up too.”

Draco was suddenly very interested to learn what that Mudblood had discussed with Eva regarding her brother. He remembered her shifting in the bed and had left the suite. Did she leave the bed later and talked to Eva about Edmound? Was she planning to marry him?

His assumptions however were proved wrong. Through the Protean Charmed mirror, Draco listened closely to Eva who told her brother how Gabrielle had mistakenly taken him as Hermione’s lover and hesitated in accepting his proposal.

“Dragon’s eggs!” Edmound cried in horror when Eva finished, “What’s wrong with you ladies? How could even think that?”

“Don’t blame me, okay!” Eva lashed out, equally horrified, “I never took you as Jean’s boy friend. Why don’t you go and ask your dear Gabrielle?”

The brother and sister quarreled in French but Draco didn’t care to listen. He was suddenly feeling very relaxed. The Mudblood wasn’t engaged to that muscular guy and his son wouldn’t be brought by a step-father. That knowledge was enough for him.

“Look, I don’t know why this thing happened but I never saw Jean that way.” Edmound said finally, when their hot brawling was over, “She is just a friend.”

“I know, brother.” Eva too sounded sorry to scream at his ill brother over such a silly topic.

“And it has nothing to do with her past.” Edmound said firmly. “We just…don’t…click as a couple.”

“I know that too.” Eva sighed.

So the twin brother and sister knew about that Mudblood? How much did they know? That she was Potter’s pal and was assaulted during the war? Draco frowned. The answer followed immediately.

“Adrian is a very nice boy.” Edmound said, “It’s not his fault that his father is a criminal.”

Draco fisted his hands. What was that moron saying? Was he calling him, Draco Malfoy, a criminal? What did they know of their precious friend, Hermione Granger? Did they know that she was going kill his mother had he not intervened? Did they know that Draco was forced to punish her that way? Did they know that he too hated touching woman that way but that Mudblood was an exception? Then how dare they blame him without knowing the whole truth?

“I was just trying to be a good uncle to Adrian.” Edmound was saying, “I don’t want him to ever feel the absence of a father.”

Draco almost jumped to his feet, ready to curse Edmound for saying those words. How dare he? How dare he pity his son? How dare he say that Adrian didn’t have a father? How dare he blame that assault on Draco? How dare he even think that he could play father to his son? How. Dare. He?

He writhed in agony and anger alike and regretted, for the first time since yesterday, for not drowning Edmound. That man was talking taller than his tongue allowed him. He was going to be a good uncle to Adrian so that the boy never felt a father’s absence? Like Draco would let him? He could get rid of him anytime he liked. It was just a matter of time.

Draco paced in the balcony, hatching a new plan to turn Edmound into some filthy slug or decayed bone. The mirror lay forgotten on his couch. He paced for fifteen minutes and then suddenly a voice spoke inside his head. It was Audré:

‘I wonder what will happen when your only living son comes to know that his dear father once tried to kill his uncle Edmound.’

Draco stopped abruptly and collided with one of the columns.

‘You can’t buy a child no matter how much you spend. You have to earn them, earn their trust and love. Killing Adrian’s mother’s friend surely isn’t going to earn you his respect.’

‘If you want to be a better father than he was, Draco, then you need to listen to your child. Listen to what he says, what he feels and learn from him. He might be a kid but he is a human. He sees, feels, and understands. Learn from him, nephew, learn from him.

All his anger evaporated miraculously, Draco sighed and sat down on his couch. This was why he liked Audré so much. The woman knew how to tend to wounds and address the real problems rather than worry about the side ones. She was right. Edmound wasn’t Draco’s concern at all. His real concern was Adrian, about whom he knew almost nothing. Besides, he was the child’s biological father. Who could take that right away from him? No one. Then why was he wasting his time and energy on that moron Edmound?

Draco leaned against his seat, finally relaxed. The Mudblood wasn’t engaged to that dickhead and that was all that mattered. The rest was on Draco’s hands. He was going to know his son, earn his respect and love and be a good father. End of story.

He resumed reading the newspapers, with half an ear to the mirror. The one in Hermione’s suite was still silent. Maybe she was somewhere else. But Draco didn’t mind. She could fly as much as she liked before the dragon captured her.

“Uncle Edmound!” Came Adrian’s tender squeak at last. Draco checked the watch. It was almost midday and he has finally returned to the hotel with his mother. “Look what I got!”

For the first time since sneaking those mirrors to their respective owners, Draco peeped into his one. They were charmed in a way that only he could see through the others while they couldn’t. He saw Adrian carrying a large box of chocolates and showing it to Edmound who was showing great interest. He was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt and Muggle jeans. Draco liked Adrian but not the yellow attires he wore. It was so Hufflepuff! He should wear green, like his father did. It would make him look carelessly handsome, though he was already too good looking for his age.

“Truffles?” Edmound asked brightly. Draco mimed vomiting. Was he going to act like a Muggle joker to be Adrian’s father? Merlin’s rotten balls and Salazar’s condoms!

“I won it! A good old lady gave it to me!” Adrian said happily, sitting on Edmound’s lap. “You know I love chocolate truffles!”

Adrian loved chocolate truffles? Draco smiled, impressed. The kid surely had good taste on food. Draco too was partial to sweets, the reason his mother sent him daily packages from the manor when he was at Hogwarts. He would never share them with anyone, of course.

He listened to the boy’s account of how he helped an old lady to choose some chocolates, fought with a girl who was trying to shop lift and was presented with a box of chocolate truffles that had a hundred of them.

“I’ll give some to Louis and Gina.” Adrian said in the end.

“Louis and Gina?” Edmound asked, puzzled.

“Uncle, you always forget!” Adrian complained heavily, “Louis and Gina are my best friends.”

So Adrian had made two best friends already and their names were Louis and Gina? Were they purebloods? Draco frowned. And why was he going to share his prize with them? It was his.

“Where is your Mama, Adrian?” he heard Eva asked Adrian.

“She’s talking to Monsieur Leopold.” The little boy replied. He was running a hand over the large box, fondly, but not opening it. Draco wondered why. Had it been he, he would have already finished half of the box’s contents and never even thought about sharing it with anyone.

“Eva! Edmound!” finally came Hermione’s voice and looking though the charmed mirror, Draco saw her walking into the suite, wearing a light blue dress. “I just met the hotel manager. He said that they are going to make arrangements for us to visit that Flower Carpet separately.”

“Why separately?” Eva asked, checking the pamphlet the Palace Hotel had given them that morning.

“Where is Gabrielle?” Hermione asked instead, noting her absence.

“She’s in your suite.” Eva replied, “But why separately?” she asked the question again.

“Because hundreds of witches and wizards have already arrived at Brussels to see the Flower Carpet and the Ministry is keen to avoid any unpleasant incidents.” Hermione replied, sitting on the bed beside Eva, “Trust me, Eva. It’s better this was. In last Quidditch World Cup I saw a man wearing woman’s dressing robes. When the ministry officials asked him, he said that Muggle wear them.” She shook her head, “Maybe if the Belgian ministry doesn’t take care of the tourists we’ll see someone on drawers. He’ll probably say, it’s summer.”

Everyone excluding Adrian roared in laughter. “What is drawers, Mama?” he asked innocently.

“Drawers are like boxers that women wear.” Eva replied before her friend could, “Tell me Adrian, would you go out wearing just boxers?”

Why not? Draco thought. He was man after all and they could show their bodies.

“No, it’s a shame!” Adrian cried.

Draco was extremely annoyed. What were Granger and her pals doing, raising his son like some virgin queen? Adrian was a man, he needed his own bed, own suite and own liberty to go out as he pleased, with boxers or without.

“Monsieur Leopold told me that the ministry will allow the magical community to visit the Carpet on the night of the 12th, right after it’s inaugurated.” Hermione was telling her audience, “Brooms will be arranged and kids can take a ride across the carpet.”

Her words ‘brooms’ and ‘kids’ caught Draco’s attention immediately.

“Mama, I want to have a ride!” Adrian cried and Draco, from the other side of the mirror thought that his heart would burst from happiness. Yes, that’s it. He wasn’t interested in some blasted Muggle flower carpet or toe rug. But if Adrian was going there, so was his father. He was going to buy Adrian some more truffles, and take him on a ride across the carpet. Draco was going to be a good father.

The rest of the conversation continued on why magical community thought it was worthy to visit a Muggle flower carpet and how it was different and all that rubbish only a Mudblood and her pals would think. Draco didn’t pay heed to the nonsense chat. His sole concern was taking Adrian on a ride.

“I assume that that Slytherin brain of yours is formulating a plan, dear nephew.”

Draco jerked his head, returning to reality. Focusing his gaze, he found Audré sitting before him, her hands folded on her lap and her eyes, calm.

“Adrian will be going to that flower carpet or whatever with his mother and her friends. It will be a terrible waste if his father doesn’t accompany him there.” He said smugly.

“I guess no one will drown or thrown from the roof this time.” Audré enquired solemnly. There was something about her that it never occurred to Draco to ignore her warning.

“I hope not.” He replied confidently, “So you’ve been shopping.” He said, looking down at the shopping bags that lay on her feet. For some strange reason, they were full of chocolate boxes.

“So have you, nephew.” Audré’s eyes were on Draco’s mirror, “You did very well with the Protean Charm.”

“I learned all its variations in my sixth year.” Draco stated proudly. Indeed he had, following the secrets behind coins of Dumbledore’s Army was revealed. Clever charms as that, always drew him like a magnet.

“My nephew is a very intelligent man.” Audré smirked. “Pity he doesn’t know himself.”

Draco knew that smirk. It was the one that proceeded before a serious talk. “Aunt, can you please talk straight?” He sat straight and bade politely. “I can’t always fathom your schemes.”

“Let’s play chess then.” Audré offered pleasantly, “You’ll fathom my scheme once it’s over.” She waved her wand and a chessboard appeared. The pieces were old and used, not new and shiny. “It’s my grandpa’s. He taught me all about chess. Zilek, my personal elf, never forgets to pack it for me.”

Draco eyed the pieces. He wasn’t a champion at chess but could play reasonably well, at least better than that Potter did. He had seen him and that Weasel king playing chess at the Great Hall and snorted at the moves the Chosen One chose.

Draco eyed his opponent next. Audré. She was sitting with such a pleasant smile that he wondered what could the reason be.

“You’ll find out soon, nephew.” Audré said, as if reading his thoughts, “Let’s play chess now.”

“Okay.” Draco shrugged and let his aunt choose the pieces. She chose the black pieces, leaving Draco to deal with the whites.

They played chess until lunchtime and Draco had to admit that his aunt was way better than any player he has ever seen or met. She wouldn’t take Draco’s pieces or attack him from a hidden corner for he was an alert player and always made cautious moves. All her pieces were there and yet he couldn’t stop it when her black queen check-mated his white king.

“You are a chess genius, aunt!” Draco was impressed and accepted his defeat, which was a rare phenomenon for a Malfoy.

“No, Draco, I am not.” Audré waved her wand and the board disappeared, “But I won because our focuses were different.”

“Meaning?” Draco frowned.

“You asked me what my scheme was.” Audré said simply, “I showed it to you. In that game of chess, you were focused on winning while I was focused on learning the moves of my opponent. It doesn’t matter to me if I lose, Draco, but it matters to you if you lose.”

Draco remained silent, letting his aunt continue.

“Last night, dear nephew, I asked you learn from your son how to be a good father. I don’t know what you took my words as, but you got up this morning, bought some mirrors, placed Protean Charms on them and slipped them into Jean Granger’s suites. Right?” Audré asked.

Draco nodded.

“See? You did the right thing for the wrong purpose.” Audré shrugged.

“Wrong purpose?” Draco repeated, skeptic.

“You purpose was to know what Adrian likes and dislikes so that you can play accordingly and win his heart.” Audré it seemed knew how to phrase complex things in very simple terms. “I arrived here when you were engrossed in listening to that conversation and you didn’t even notice my presence. So I stood and watched your facial expressions. One doesn’t need Legilimency if they can read faces, nephew. Your eyes lit up when you heard that Adrian liked chocolate truffles. You fisted your right hand, which meant that you were planning to buy them for him. But you frowned deeply when you heard that Adrian was planning to share his truffles with his best friends. Could it be more obvious that you don’t like him to share his things, just as you said you don’t like people touching your things?”

“Adrian is not a thing, Draco.” Audré undoubtedly could facial expressions than the Dark Lord could read minds. “He is a human being, a moving, living, feeling human being. And you share him with his mother, Jean Granger. I met them in the Muggle superstore. She is nice lady.”

“You met her where?” Draco sat straight, the word Muggle not missing his sensitive ears.

“I knew you’d react that way, dear nephew.” Audré said casually, her features calm and very relaxed. “I met them in the Muggle superstore, where I bought all these chocolates.”

Draco stared at her in disbelief. Suddenly everything was making sense: Adrian’s story about the shop, a girl trying to hit him when he prevented a shop-lift. His hands fisted themselves automatically. How dare a Muggle, a filthy Muggle, a toe rag, a dirt under their shoes, tried to his son, a Malfoy? It was all that Mudblood’s fault. How dare she take his son to a Muggle shop?

“The way you are breathing fire, Draco, my nephew, I guess I should call the fire fighters in advance.” Audré said, looking so serene as if it was Draco’s wedding day. “Relax. That girl’s issue has been taken care of.”

“What? You hurt a Muggle?” With so many new information Draco didn’t know which one to react to.

“No.” Audré replied, “I just taught her a lesson for lying.”

“What did you do to her?” Draco asked seriously. Granger could go to hell. He was eager to learn if the girl was punished well enough. If not, he’d hunt her down, punish her accordingly and bring her on knees before Adrian.

“That I’ll tell you when we are done discussing this important issue.” Audré ignored his question, “As I was saying, I met Jean and Adrian in the Muggle shop. I needed someone to help me buy chocolates for the Muggle kids of my neighbourhood. So asked for the boy’s help. His mother agreed and Adrian helped me buy all these chocolates.” She waved at the shopping bags.

“Adrian helped you?” suddenly all those meaningless chocolates were like treasures to Draco. He picked up a box. His son had helped Audré in buying them. How very thoughtful!

“Exactly, Draco.” Audré said, “How very charming of that little boy to help an old lady! Don’t you see, nephew, you love him for his innocence, his simplicity, his kindness and yet you hate the person who brought him with all those qualities, his mother: Jean Granger.”

Draco looked up at his aunt, finally getting the point she was addressing.

“You hate sharing you things.” Audré went on, “But you share the most important person in your life with a woman you apparently hate. You treasure the chocolate box Adrian helped me to buy and you tried to kill his favorite uncle. You are an intelligent man, Draco but you don’t know what you really want. You spy on your son to know what he likes and dislikes, rather than understand the person he is. You play chess to win, not to learn the moves, not to learn the opponent, or in this case, your only living son.”

Draco couldn’t argue when he knew Audré was right in saying those words. Indeed he has made his precious son sad; it was true that he loved the boy for his unique innocence and hated the woman who was behind that upbringing. He played to win him, not to understand the person he was and has ended up hurting his tender feelings. Adrian would hate his father if Draco didn’t learn from the mistakes.

“If you continue to do this, Draco, you’ll very soon lose your precious son.” Audré sighed sadly, “Look at yourself! Your father gave you everything; expensive brooms, clothes, his name, manor, property, everything he had and yet you resent your relationship with him. Why, nephew, why?”

“Because he never understood that I tried my best to fulfill his wishes.” Draco replied in a small voice. The idea that he’d share the same kind of relationship with his Adrian was paining him greatly.

“Which Narcissa understood.” Audré said evenly, deciphering the hidden meaning very well, “See with everything that money could buy, you father couldn’t actually win you. But your mother won you, even though she never spent a sickle on you.”

“I got your point, aunt.” Draco finally admitted. “I can’t buy a child no matter how much I spend.” Indeed Audré’s using him as a living example had been very well thought and clever.

“That’s the reason I said you did the right thing for wrong purpose.” Audré returned to the mother topic. It marveled Draco how she always knew where to begin, how to proceed and how to finish a fruitful conversation. “Your real purpose should be to learn from that kid to be a better man and earn his respect. You can’t earn his respect by buying him all the truffles in the world, at least not in the long run.”

Draco remained silent for a very long moment following those honest words. Audré, like the clever and diplomatic person she was, didn’t puncture it.

“How did you punish that bloody Muggle?” Draco finally thought it was safe to ask.

“It’s a Muggle story which I am sure you never read, nephew.” Audré replied, her smirk back on her features, “Pinocchio. He was curved as a wooden puppet. Whenever he lied, his nose grew in length.”

Draco suddenly had a great vivid vision of a girl crying as her nose grew like a wooden rod before her and laughed out loud.

“You have great sense of humour!” He said once the laughter finished, “Even I couldn’t have punished anyone that way.”

“Firstly my dear nephew, it wasn’t punishment. It was teaching a lesson for a wrong doing. There is a very thin line of difference between the two. We, as flawed human beings ourselves, are in no position to torture someone in the name of punishment.” Audré said calmly but firmly, “Secondly, I somehow find a similarity between you and Pinocchio. He was carved as a puppet; you were carved as a Malfoy. Pinocchio dreamt of becoming a real boy. You, Draco, are set on a path to become a real man, one who would be Adrian’s dear father, someone he’ll love and respect.”

Her last words kept ringing in Draco’s ears long after Audré left.

Yes, he, Draco lived for that day, when his Adrian would be proud of his father.

•••••

Alexis Delacour, the Junior Undersecretary, hasn’t spoken much except for five ‘yes’s, three ‘no’s and several curt nods on Monday morning. This wasn’t his usual mode of communication; under normal conditions he talked more, a dozen ‘yes’s and two dozen ‘no’s would do while he was at office. But today, there was a special reason behind the silence. Today, the office of the Minister of Magic had a very important interdepartmental meeting with the Office of Magical Law Enforcement.

The Minister of Magic of the French Republic was an amiable man by the name of François Guizot. He was a Muggleborn wizard whose father was a teacher and mother, a seamstress. Hailing from a middle-class family, he was considered as one of best ministers the magical population of republic has ever seen, after the legendary Pierre Laval. It was also an open secret that he has made himself a number very high profile enemies, mostly purebloods, who detested being ruled by a Muggleborn.

On the other hand, the Head of the Department of Magic Law Enforcement was a half-blood, middle-aged Auror by the name of Singer Sergeant. No matter what his given name implied, he was never a singer and could ever be. When he talked, his voice boomed and those in the vicinity either covered their ears or screwed their faces. Sergeant was an ever-severe looking, cold, calculating, no-nonsense man who when walked, created a small earthquake among his juniors.  He considered himself very highly among his colleagues, for he was handpicked and trained by the celebrated French Auror, Adrian Jourdián, Alexis Delacour’s uncle.

On Monday morning the interdepartmental meeting proceeded as usual, with the Minister presiding over it. From his seat on his left, Alexis kept stealing solemn glances at Julian de Chombrun Malfoy, the Second-in-Command in the department of Magical Law Enforcement. This man was the real reason behind his silence. He was wondering if he could take advantage of the situation and worm out some inside information about Julian’s cousin, Draco.

Alexis returned his gaze to the Minister. He was discussing an issue regarding sudden increase in illegal wand import. Sergeant was telling him his plan to raid the traders and the Minister was asking him to observe them for a while. Julian, Alexis knew from their very few interactions, was normally very enthusiastic about raiding and would certainly support his boss, Sergeant. But this morning, he looked subdued, as if immersed in his own thoughts. Was it because of Draco? Has he done something? Has he misbehaved with Julian’s younger sister? Alexis knew Julian had a sister by the name of Lillian. Given what Draco had done at the age of seventeen, it wasn’t much unexpected of him that he would try it on his French cousin should opportunity permit.

Alexis’s fingers automatically fisted around his quill. Draco Malfoy! That one monster has ruined Jean’s trust on men.

The meeting finished with Sergeant and Guizot agreeing that they would wait for another week before going into an action against the illegal wand traders. Alexis was wondering if he should try to whip up a conversation with Julian to learn more about his cousin when the Minister solved the problem.

“Julian? My lad!” He called the silent Second-in-Command good naturedly, “Why are you so quiet today? Is it Sergeant?” he gave the Head a pointed reproachful look.

Sergeant snorted. To those who didn’t know him, it would sound like a rhinoceros snorting loudly. “The chap’s been quiet since his famous cousin barged in.” He said or rather boomed, “Draco Malfoy.”

“Draco…Malfoy?” a wrinkle appeared in the Minister’s forehead, “Is he…” he looked at Alexis for help.

“He is Monsieur Chombrun Malfoy’s British uncle, Lucius Malfoy’s son.” Alexis replied impassively. As the Minister’s Undersecretary it was his duty to maintain all his correspondences and supply him with references or information. “It’s a common knowledge that Monsieur Malfoy and his family were active followers of the Dark Lord.”

“Oh! Now I see why my ever jolly lad is so quiet today.” The Minister nodded, getting the subtle hint, “It must be terrible to have a Death Eater’s son to visit his place.”

“No, it’s quite the contrary, Monsieur Guizot.” Julian finally spoke up, looking confident, “We are very happy to receive them at our home. My mother thinks it’s high time that we reforge the old relationship and work on the family differences that created a rift between two brothers. The next generation should not pay for what happened between our fathers.”

“No offense, dear lad!” the Minister cried, sensing Julian’s defensive tone, “No offense! I was just putting myself in your place. With what happened between the two brothers, it would have been hard for me to accept my cousin.” He said with a smile. For a man who was a Minister, Guizot was wonderfully friendly, “But I think it’s Madame Chombrun Malfoy who deserves to be truly praised. She must be a very kind and great lady to invite them here.”

Julian smiled and nodded. Alexis has noted how this man liked his mother being praised, even though the occasions were very few. He knew Audré Chombrun Malfoy has retired from her work as a brilliant lawyer when her husband died.

“And what’s wrong with my own little chap, Alexis?” the Minister attacked his Undersecretary next, patting heavily on his right shoulder and breaking his musings. “He’s been too quiet since morning. I noticed that.”

“Maybe he found out that he’s pregnant.” the Senior Undersecretary, Philippe Merle, suggested. He was a man notoriously famous for his obscene taste in humour and it was his favourite sport to tease Alexis for being a single man with a shamefully spotless image.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Philippe!” the Minister cried reproachfully. For a moment Alexis thought he was going to chastise the Senior Undersecretary.  “For that Alexis has to have some sex!” he said instead.

Everyone roared in laughter except Alexis, who shook his head. It has been always like this, men ending up in dirty talks after serious discussions were over. He stole a glance at Julian. He was examining his fingernails, not caring to join the smutty talks. So Madame Chombrun Malfoy has invited the British Malfoys to reforge their old relationship? Interesting.

The dirty talks proceeded for a while with the Senior Undersecretary suggesting some kinky bedroom tricks to the Minister which he claimed every woman secretly wished their men tried on them. Alexis displayed an impassive face all throughout the ordeal and bore down with it. When the meeting ended, he let out a sigh of relief, thanked the Minister and returned to his office.

Alexis’s office was one of the two offices directly connected to the Minister’s, with one door leading to it and another, leading into his one from a wide corridor that acted as a common conduit. It was a room spacious enough to accommodate all his books, school medals, filing cabinets and a polished mahogany desk. On the walls were photographs of Alexis shaking hands with Ministers of different countries, a stationary portrait of his uncle Adrian and his sister, Fleur, wearing a medal for outstanding bravery during the Second Wizarding War and standing beside her proud husband, Bill Weasley. On the desk was propped a Delacour family photograph with two little kids on it: Adrian and Victoire, waving at the camera. Hermione could be seen smiling beside her son. She was sitting on Apolline’s right.

Alexis took his seat behind the desk and focused his gaze on the photograph. Hermione looked good when she smiled, like she didn’t know what pain was. Would Edmound be able to keep her smiling like that? Alexis knew the man as much as a man would about the man his love interest was interested in. Edmound worked at the Ministry, as a Magical Animal Explorer. Collecting and researching on rare magical animals was both his passion and profession. He was an easy going man with a carefree attitude towards life, a complete opposite to Hermione. Would he be able to keep her, keep them – Hermione and Adrian, happy?

Alexis didn’t know the answer. So far it was clear that Adrian was very fond of Edmound. They both shared a common love for animals. But was it enough for Hermione to choose him as a life partner? Alexis frowned. It was very hard to know what was happening inside that brilliant mind, for she was as secretive as he was. Maybe she purposely chose Edmound because he was opposite to what she was.

There was a knock on the door and his musings broke. It must be his secretary.

“Come in.” Alexis bade.

The door opened and in came the last person he expected to visit him at this hour of the day.

“Maman!” Alexis gasped and stood up. Indeed Apolline Delacour was standing on her son’s office, looking very serious. The signature harpy look of Veelas, when they were angry, was clearly visible in her pretty features.

“Maman, is everything alright?” Alexis’s first thought was Fleur. She lived abroad and only something serious of that magnitude could bring Madame Delacour to visit her son in his office. “Is Fleur okay?” he asked anxiously.

In response Apolline only pursed her lips, walked to his desk and took a seat. He was still standing before her, perplexed, when she took out a letter and held it for him.

“I have never seen a bigger fool!” Apolline said tersely, “You gave a heart attack, Alexis.”

“Heart attack?” Alexis got neither head nor tail of that unfair accusation.

“Read the damned letter, will you?” Apolline almost barked. This happened only when she was exceptionally angry. “It came just half an hour ago. From Brussels.”

Alexis took the letter, his mind now jumping to Gabrielle. They have already sent Apolline a letter the day before, about Adrian’s winning the competition. Then why again? Was something wrong there? Was she okay? Was Hermione okay? Has she had another meltdown?

Holding his breath, Alexis unfolded the scented piece of parchment and read it on one go. Then he slumped on his seat, holding the letter and staring blankly.

Nostradamus! What a fool had he been! What. A. Fool. And he claimed to be a Junior Undersecretary? Shame! Shame!

“I could have waited for you to come home, but…” came Apolline’s thoughtful voice. Like her son, she seemed to be on her wit’s ends, “Alexis, do you know why I never pressed you to get married and settle down even though your younger sister, Fleur, got married before you? Many, including your aunts, asked me what was wrong with you. They asked me why you always avoid woman. Do you have some disease? Are you impotent? We have so many beautiful ladies in our family, I am talking about your Veela cousins. They dream about you and you don’t even look at them!”

“Maman, I am sorry.” Alexis sighed, “I am really really sorry to have you go through this.”

“Don’t be.” Apolline said firmly, “Because I know you can’t help it. It’s not your fault Alexis, that you can’t express yourself before women. Even your uncle Adrian was like this: very serious when it came to work and a complete jerk when it came to women. It was his wife who finally succeeded in bringing some change into him. I guess that’s how it is with Veelas. Females are more dominant than males.”

“I am sorry maman that I couldn’t play up to your expectations.” Alexis shook his head. It pained him even more that his mother had been silently waiting for her son to get over his awkwardness.

“Just two nights ago Gustave was asking me if you are our son.” Apolline continued, ignoring his apologies. “At twenty three, that man, who is a head shorter than me, had the courage to go to my papa and ask for my hand. He had nothing but the family business and his family was against our marriage. Now look at yourself! At twenty nine, you are a junior Undersecretary, you run half of the Ministry, you talk to foreign delegates, you help the Minister to solve numerous problems and yet it never occurred to you that Edmound was Jean’s friend and nothing more? If you don’t believe me, read that letter again. He has proposed to Gabrielle. Not Jean!”

Alexis didn’t know whether there was a moment so beautiful and relieving while listening to his mother’s harsh reprimands. He knew he deserved being screamed at but somehow it felt immensely good; as if a heavy load has been removed from his soul.

“I am sorry that I misled you.” He apologized for the third time in a row.

“Are you going to stop that ‘I am sorry maman’?” Apolline snarled, “I am not going to lose Jean for your foolishness. Did you get me, Alexis Delacour?”

“Yes, I do, Madame Apolline Delacour.” Alexis nodded solemnly. Indeed, his way forward was now clear and he was not going to lose another moment. He left his seat and went to his mother. Feeling a great rush of love for the kind hearted fierce woman, he sat before her, took her pretty hands into his and kissed them softly, “I love you.” He whispered.

Apolline’s expression softened immediately. She twisted his left ear affectionately.

“Alexis, I want you to listen to me very closely.” She said, held a firm finger before his eyes. “It’s a man’s job to propose a woman and not the other way round, okay? Even with Bill and Fleur, who were smitten in love, it was he who proposed to her. So did Edmound to Gabrielle. That man may be an animal maniac, but he too knows the universal rule. So if you want the woman you love, Alexis, you have to take matters into hand. Okay?” Apolline’s features were dead serious, “You can’t seat here, hands on hands waiting for Jean to approach you, ask you about what Gabrielle told her. If you don’t talk to her now, if you hesitate for one moment, she might think that you are not interested and it’s all a matchmaking scheme by us – Gabrielle and I. Do you understand?”

Alexis nodded solemnly. “I understand, maman.”

“Fine! So when are you going to talk to her?” Apolline demanded.

Alexis considered the question and stood up, leaving for the Minister’s office.

“Where?” Came his mother’s confused query.

His hand on the door knob Alexis turned to her. “You know, maman, the Minister was ridiculing me this morning.” He told her matter-of-factly, “He thinks even I can become pregnant, if I try.”

“What?” Apolline spat, thundered.

Alexis ignored her. “But I think I like the idea. I am going to Brussels and see if I can conceive, like the minister said.” He turned to leave.

“Alexis! Don’t you dare…” Apolline’s horrified exclaim couldn’t complete when her son held up a hand.

“Maman, it was just a joke.” He said, sporting a sincere smile, “Something you can’t help if you work with Philippe Merle.” He winked.

If one listened to his heart now, they would hear sounds of rain falling after a long drought, soaking its cracked surface with water where soon flowers would bloom.

•••••

Hermione’s workshop on Cursed Diamonds was supposed to end on 11th August and on that day she arrived at Gringotts after lunch, while Adrian was taking a little nap under Gabrielle’s care. So far one thing was clear to her: the Belgian goblins did know how to treat their precious diamonds. As a famous book worm, there were hardly any books left on this planet that hasn’t passed under her nose. She has even collected ancient scriptures from Babylon, to broaden the horizon of her knowledge. But after this workshop, Hermione wondered if she has ever read anything at all. Like Elves, goblins too were seriously underestimated by wizards, who were too full of themselves and their precious magical abilities. Somehow during their thousand years of living side by side, it has never occurred to the wizards that behind that twisted ugly face and bat ears lied a race that not only protected their gold but also harboured invaluable knowledge any book could ever give them.

The workshop had eight working days but Hermione was especially waiting for the last one. Today the Head Goblin was going to demonstrate some secret methods they used to wandlessly detect a poisoning curse. Diamonds, as it was believed from ancient times, was a toxic gemstone, something that magnified its alluring value even more. As it was with Potions, in curse breaking too, not everything was just wand work. Hermione knew most of the spells on tracing curses with a wand; but without wands it was almost impossible. She listened in rapt attention and noted down all the points the Head Goblin told them about detecting curses by simple observation. It marveled her how they could tell so much about an innocent looking diamond just by looking at it.

When the workshop ended, outside the mullioned windows of the Chief Curse Breaker’s Atelier, the night was slowly falling. Hermione closed her notebook and smiled. She had come to Brussels with an empty notebook. Now except for one the rest of the six hundred and twenty two pages were filled with diagrams, instructions and notes.

But was it all that she would take back to Paris? Certainly no. In Brussels, a mother has come to know her child from close, a son has made his mother proud and happy, a sister has finally stopped yelling at her brother and two people have discovered their love: Gabrielle and Edmound. What more could one ask from one trip?

Hermione carefully stowed her precious notebook into her bag and stood up, preparing to leave. There were altogether five Curse Breakers from around the globe: Brazil, Croatia, France, The Netherlands and New Zealand, attending the workshop and Hermione was the only woman in the group. One by one she shook hands with all of them, with promises to be in regular correspondence in future. Then the Brazilian Curse Breaker presented everyone with a jar of best Brazilian coffee as a farewell gift.

“Eet ees veree chocolatee.” He said in his deep voice, looking proud. Hermione was already accustomed with the Brazilian accent and understood what he said: Brazilian coffee was very chocolaty.

The Dutch Curse Breaker examined the coffee jar with interest before stowing it inside his robe. He admitted apologetically before them that it was his first time in a workshop like this and therefore he was unaware of this little custom of exchanging gifts. The other Curse Breakers didn’t seem very much bothered by it at all. The Croatian Curse Breaker gave them all a special necktie that was native to his country. It was called Croata. The Kiwi Curse Breaker had brought a pair of Silver Fern cufflinks. They looked slightly appalled to hand the male items to a lady.

“Don’t worry.” Hermione assured them, “My son will love to have some men’s things in his wardrobe.” She had a vivid vision of Adrian in a foot long necktie and cufflinks larger than his palm’s size and laughed.

Savon de Marseille.” The gift exchange almost at its end, she gave the men a bar of Marseille Soaps, “The makers use best quality natural ingredients from Marseilles, like sage and lavender. It leaves a beautiful scent long after the bath is over.”

“I seeee.” The Brazilian Curse Breaker sniffed the soap and nodded. He was already wearing the silver fern cufflinks. “My daughter weel likee it a lot.” He smiled brightly at her.

Hermione smiled and had one last gift to deliver to the Head Goblin when he called her.

“Mademoiselle Granger? Can I have a word?”

“Yeah, sure.” Hermione nodded and with a last wave of goodbye at the Curse Breakers walked to the Head Goblin’s desk.

“Please.” The goblin showed her a seat. Even for a goblin his manners were very elegant. “I was wondering if I could ask you a personal question.” He enquired once she settled down.

Hermione’s immediate thought was the little farewell gifts she had brought for the fellow Curse Breakers. She knew she couldn’t gift a goblin with soaps; they might take it differently. Therefore she has brought for the Head Goblin, a bottle of best quality wine.

“Mademoiselle, can I ask you where you got those gold bars?” the Head Goblin asked her something completely unexpected.

“Gold bars?” for a split second, Hermione didn’t know what the goblin was talking about. Then she remembered the three gold bars Monsieur Leopold had given Adrian as his ten thousand galleons prize money. She had deposited it to the Belgian Gringotts and asked them to transfer it to her account in France.

“Oh yes, gold bars. My son, Adrian, won them in a Drawing Competition.” She replied, wondering if there was some legal issue in transferring such a large sum of money. “Is there any problem, Head Goblin?”

“No, no, not one.” The Head Goblin waggled a long finger, deciphering her concern very well. “Actually, it’s not the source but the substance that has made me curious.” He said, placing the pointed chin on the flat of his palm, “During my service in Gringotts, I have come across such quality of gold only on three occasions.” He held up three fingers in the air. “The first two were when two royal weddings took place. I believe you know that a part of the Belgian royal family carries magical blood. Muggles don’t know it, of course; we do. And the third time was when I saw those gold bars you gave us to transfer to France.” His beady black eyes glinted, not in greed but in astonishment, “The gold in those bars are very pure. Only aristocratic and old pureblood families are allowed to use that gold. We, goblins, call it The Aureus Gold.”

“I…see…” Hermione commented vaguely, not knowing how to react. She had read all about the Aureus Gold in books on Roman cursed gold coins. They indeed were very rare, and found only in Italy. “Are those bars cursed?” She asked, though she knew that possibility was very distant. Monsieur Leopold knew that his esteemed guest, Jean Granger, was the Chief Curse Breaker of French Gringotts. What more, the Head Goblin of Belgian Gringotts, who had personally booked her suite in the Palace Hotel, was an expert in detecting curses. Most importantly, the bars were for the winner of a competition. The hotel manager certainly wouldn’t do such a mistake of giving her son some cursed gold bars, knowing who she was. Besides, how would Leopold know that Adrian would win the competition? That was up to judges’ pane to decide, not him.

“No! No!” the Head Goblin shook his oblong head violently, looking startled, “The bars are fine! You can check them yourself once you return to France. I didn’t mean to alarm you, Mademoiselle.”

“No, it’s alright.” Hermione smiled, slapping herself mentally. “I am not alarmed. It’s just that I am so much surrounded by cursed things that sometimes I forget that there could be normal things too.”

“I understand.” The Head Goblin nodded, his twisted features sporting a very kind smile, “Well if you were not a Muggleborn witch, Mademoiselle, I’d have thought that you have hidden royal connections.”

“Royal connections?” Hermione stared.

“Well, isn’t it pretty obvious? The Goblin asked, “The insignia on the bars says that they were forged by British goblins. You are a British yourself. The British have a world famous royal family…”

“I got it! I got it!” Hermione nodded, finally making the connections, “No…no, I don’t have any royal connections. In fact, I have never been near one. Like most British people I, too, have seen them on TV or in news. But…” she frowned. Did the goblin just say that the bars were made in Britain? “Monsieur Head Goblin, can you please tell me where those bars actually came from? From Italy or from Britain?”

“Tracing gold is not our job, Mademoiselle.” The Head Goblin replied with a polite smile, “Our job is to protect them, which no one does better than us.” He stated proudly, “But the gold is surely the prestigious Aureus; it originated from Italy and was made into bars in Britain. And it’s completely safe for you or your son to use them.”

She or her son? Hermione didn’t miss those words. Somehow it rang a bell inside her head. Among aristocratic Romans, she had read, it was a centuries old tradition for fathers to present their firstborn sons with The Aureus Gold, for any grand occasion. Aureus was a special family gold and passed from a father to his firstborn son only, not to other sons and definitely not to daughters who’d leave the family once they got married. Since men had multiple wives then, only the boy who was presented with The Aureus Gold and his mother would be able to use the gold for themselves.

Hermione decided not to press the point with the Head Goblin of Belgian Gringotts. Once she returned to France, she could show Geccemp the gold bars and check how much of that legend about Aureus was true. She didn’t have a husband, let alone a Roman and Adrian’s father was definitely not an Italian. But if the gold was indeed Aureus, then according to the Wizarding Law, he wouldn’t be able to use them. It was not that ten thousand galleons mattered to Hermione; she earned a lot more than that. But a mother would never like to have her son cheated into receiving gold he wouldn’t be able to actually use.

They talked for another five minutes during which the Head Goblin thanked her for joining the workshop and delightedly received his farewell gift. Hermione thanked him and left for the Palace Hotel.

The hotel not being very far from the Wizarding bank she decided to go on foot; that way she could have some time to think alone. While walking through the alleys of Laan Grote Markt, two sentences kept playing in her head: Old pureblood and British goblins. Old purebloods subconsciously reminded her of the Malfoys and the Lestranges and British goblins reminded her of Griphook and his betrayal. The Malfoys were in France, the Lestranges were dead, and Griphook was murdered by Voldemort himself.  Then why were those words bothering her?

She remembered the dream she had early on Sunday morning. That horrible rasping voice of Jacob Jordeans was still ringing in her ears.

“He’s mine…he’s mine… he’s mine…give him to me…he’s mine…I need him…he’s mine…”

Completely lost in her thoughts, Hermione collided with a passer-by and her bag fell. She stooped down and reached towards it. The passer-by mirrored her movement and their heads bumped.

“Ouch!”

“Offf!”

“Jean?”

Rubbing her forehead Hermione straightened up and blinked, trying to focus her eyes on the man who picked up the bag, dusted it and held it out for her. No, her eyes were not deceiving. There he was, Alexis Delacour, in black robes, standing on an alley of Laan Grote Markt that came down from the Belgian Ministry of Magic.

“Ale…xis?” Hermione stammered, the memory of that night’s conversation suddenly rushing in and occluding all other thoughts, “When…did…er…you come?”

“Just now.” The man replied solemnly, his ever pensive black eyes fixed on Hermione. “I was going to the Palace Hotel when we bumped.” He didn’t seem remotely surprised to see her, as if he already knew they’d meet like this on the road. “Your bag, Jean?” He offered when she continued gaping at him.

“Mer…ci.” Hermione took the bag, adjusted the strap and swung it on her shoulder, taking more time on purpose to recover from the initial shock. Why was she so nervous? Wasn’t she a Gryffindor? And this man was Alexis, for Merlin’s sake! Just Alexis! Okay! It was not that she loved him or something.

“Shall we go then?” Alexis asked, examining her pensive features.

“Yeah, sure.” Hermione, keen to utilize the awkward moment, nodded. They started walking.

It was evening already. The cafés on either side of the wide alley were roaring with business, serving the tourist wizards and witches with Belgian delicacies. Delicious wafts of coffee and famous Belgian wafers reached her nostrils. And here she was, walking down a winding alley with Alexis, the last person she expected to meet at this hour of the day, when she was returning to her son. The cafés, the men, the night air fragrant with scents of sweet begonia and chocolate, the entire atmosphere felt strangely surreal, real but not exactly real; as if she was walking but didn’t know who was controlling her feet.

“So…er…” Hermione racked her brain for a polite way to enquire why Alexis was here when he had said that he had some important works at the Ministry and couldn’t accompany them to Brussels. Was he here for her? Has Gabrielle written something about that night to Apolline? But she couldn’t finish her words for Alexis suddenly stopped and looked around.

“Is there any place we can have a cup of coffee?” He asked. His gaze returned to Hermione, “You look pretty tired, Jean.” He commented.

“Er…” Hermione has never felt so stupid in her life. It was more embarrassing than standing before Krum when he had asked to take her to the Yule Ball. Merlin! Why did Gabrielle do this? Why did she tell her about Alexis? How was she going to talk to him now? This was so embarrassing!

“Is everything alright, Jean?” Alexis asked cautiously, trying to decipher the reason behind Hermione’s strange silence. For the first time, her middle name, Jean, sounded very different when Alexis used it, like it was some kind of spell. “Am I ruining your holiday?”

“No!” Hermione blurted out, suddenly back on her senses. Enough is enough, Hermione Jean Granger. You are a Gryffindor! Pull yourself up! “I…” her eyes fell on a café just behind them. They were serving chocolate ice creams and coffee. “We can go there, if you like.” She suggested, looking past his left ear.

Alexis followed the direction of her gaze, turned his head and saw the café. With big glass windows that looked out on the main alley of Laan Grote Markt, it bore a sign that read Café Blanc. “After you.” He smiled and bowed.

Hermione took a deep breath, like the one she had taken before she was Sorted and started for Café Blanc. ‘Hermione, it’s okay! It’s fine! It’s just a cup of coffee! It’s not that he is going to propose you or something!’ she kept telling herself.

Alexis followed her silently. When they reached, the café door swung open and allowed them in. They stood on the doorway and scanned the place for an empty table.

“How about that one?” Alexis asked pointing at a table near the glass windows that had some privacy from prying eyes.

“Fine.” Hermione nodded not giving any particular thought to where they sat. Her thoughts were centered on the man who stood beside her. Why was it that she never noticed that Alexis was almost as tall as Ron? Or that he flanked and protected her when they stood side by side. Or that underneath his black robes, he had a well built body.

“After you, Jean.” Alexis’s silky voice brought Hermione to reality and she started for the table. For the first time in her life, she was acutely feeling the presence of a man beside her and not Fleur and Gabrielle’s brother, Apolline and Gustave’s son, Adrian’s dear uncle or the venerable Junior Undersecretary. They walked by the tables and reached theirs. Hermione was about to draw her chair when Alexis drew it for her.

“I hope you wouldn’t mind me showing you a little courtesy.” He said, smiling, “I know my little nephew would greatly love to see his mother well taken care of.”

“Yes, he would.” Hermione smiled as politely as she could, all the while trying to be confident and not just some flimsy and frail glass doll who couldn’t take a step without a man’s help. They sat, with Hermione placing her bag on her lap.

“I had heard that Brussels is full of tourists.” Alexis said conversationally, looking around the café where witches and wizards chatted, “The Flower Carpet must be something really attractive to tempt even the Wizarding population.”

“Mostly they come to see how Muggles make a gigantic carpet of flowers without magic.” Hermione said, watching Alexis from the corner of her eyes. He was wearing a midnight blue shirt and black necktie with little blue dots on it. As always he was clean shaved and with neatly trimmed black hair, the perfect look for a Ministry official. Was he handsome?

Hermione couldn’t deny that Alexis was quite good looking, even though he hasn’t inherited his mother’s pretty features. But there was a suave look about him that gave one a strange mental peace. She remembered meeting him for the first time at the Paris train station, Gare du Nord. She had been expecting a man with silvery blonde hair who’d be proficient at handling three or four Veela girl friends. But Alexis turned out to be nothing close to her imagination. He was a workaholic man with no visible interest in women. Well that was what she thought until Gabrielle told her the truth.

“How’s Edmound?” Alexis turned his gaze to Hermione and asked. It was on that moment that she remembered what Gabrielle and Eva had said about those eyes:

‘You know my brother, Jean. He never speaks his mind. It is in his eyes.’

‘I am surprised that you never noticed it! I saw it every time he looked at you. It was there.’

Were they right? Was it really in Alexis’s eyes? Was it she who never noticed them? Was Eva right in saying:

‘The reason you never saw it in Alexis’s eyes is because you don’t feel comfortable with man as your lover. You can be wonderfully open to your friends, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, or to my brother. But whenever it’s someone who might see you differently, you shrink. You think they want you…physically. Am I right?’

“Jean? Are you alright?” Alexis waved a hand before Hermione’s eyes and she closed them, mortified. Merlin! What was she doing staring at him like that? What was he going to think about her?

“I guess you are more tired than you actually appear as.” Alexis said thoughtfully and Hermione opened her eyes, slightly relieved. He has already conjured a glass of water. “Here, Jean, take some water.”

“Merci.” Hermione accepted the glass, her throat clearly dry from all the nervousness. She finished it slowly, using it as an excuse to avoid talking. Meanwhile a waiter in white apron came and stood by their table. He handed her a menu.

“Please do the honours.” Alexis offered.

Hermione finished the water and checked the menu card. Like most cafés, they had hot, cold and bakery items. “Two scoops of Dulce de Leche, please.” She told the waiter, feeling the need of something to keep her head cool.

“And a caffè latte for me.” Alexis didn’t even glance at the menu and said. The waiter nodded and left. Hermione, waiting for the ice cream and coffee to arrive, looked around the café. The place was pretty well decorated with half a hundred colourful votive candles floating in the air and casting a golden aura around them. An accordion was playing by itself in a corner; the music was cheerful, like the air around her.

“I hope you won’t grudge me for making you late, Jean.” Alexis said checking the watch.

“No. It’s fine.” Hermione said, deliberately keeping her eyes off the man and on the other diners. She would be damned if she gaped at Alexis like that again. “Actually you are right. I am really tired. I had a very busy day. Today was the last day of the workshop on Cursed Diamonds and they showed us a lot of things. Before that I took Adrian to Planckendael Zoo. It’s a zoo in Antwerp. They have a nice collection of rhinos, bison, and antelope. Needless to say, it was Edmound’s suggestion.”

“It must be really very hard for women.” Alexis commented thoughtfully, “I mean they have to manage both their home and work. For men, we can work outside and return home, expecting a nice supper and a warm bed.”

“No, it’s not always that.” Hermione said, glad that they were talking about a casually safe topic. “My dad helped my mum in housework. They are both dentists and were very busy. But dad never expected mum to do all the housework alone. So, I think it depends on one’s partner’s willingness to help the other.”

“Your parents were great people.” Alexis smiled gently and the waiter arrived, serving them with coffee and ice cream. Hermione tasted hers. The Dulce de Leche was fine, superb actually, the taste of caramel nicely blended with cream. With dentists as parents, she never liked ice creams that were too sweet or sugary.

“So are you here for the Flower Carpet Festival?” She asked the most nagging question at last.

“No. I have a more important work to do.” Alexis replied simply, taking a sip from his coffee, “But I guess I can spare an hour for the famous carpet too.” he smiled.

“Wh…sorry…where are you staying?” Hermione almost choked over her ice cream. What was Alexis’s important work, actually?

“Not at the Palace Hotel.” Alexis replied. “Ministry workers have their own place to stay when they visit a foreign country. I am staying at their quarters.”

It didn’t occur to Hermione to ask Alexis when he would be leaving, with them or separately. She had a strong feeling that Eva and Gabrielle were behind his sudden visit and therefore returned to her safe occupation: eating ice cream and watching the other diners.

But soon she started regretting it. The couple sitting beside their table was holding hands and the woman was playing tricks into tempting the man to kiss her. Hermione felt her ears getting hot and shifted her gaze to the glass window. She saw Alexis’s reflection on it. He was examining the floating candles with earnest interest.

‘You know my brother, Jean. He never speaks his mind. It is in his eyes.’ Gabrielle’s voice spoke inside her head again. Hermione’s eyes moved down Alexis’s features: his eyes…nose…lips. Somehow, her eyes focused on his lips.

Hermione recalled her kiss with Ron. It was strange that she remembered every second, every little detail of that short kiss but not the lips of the man she has loved so ardently. Ron’s lips were…Hermione blinked. Merlin! She could no longer remember how Ron’s lips looked like. But she could see Alexis’s. Clearly. They didn’t look very…she cleared her throat mentally…sexy. In fact, Alexis’s lips were far from being attractive. Like the rest of his feature, his lips too were very solemn and thoughtful. There was no lewd look on them. Then they twisted into a kind smile. Somehow Alexis’s smile reminded her of another one. The woman she had met in the Muggle superstore. She too smiled like Alexis did: gentle and assuring.

“Josée Laval!” Hermione blurted out, not knowing why she remembered that name.

“Pardon?” Alexis asked, confused.

“There was a woman I met…in…in a shop.” Hermione said vaguely, “Her name was Josée Laval.”

“Josée Laval?” Alexis repeated, a frown between his black eyebrows, “Josée Laval, Jean?”

“Ye…ah.” Hermione stammered. What was wrong with her? She was here to have a scoop of ice cream. Then why was she talking about a complete stranger to Alexis? Was it because of the nervousness? Or was it the Aureus Gold? Or was it something that she didn’t know herself?

“Are you sure her name was Josée Laval?” Alexis asked solemnly.

“Yeah, she said so.” Hermione replied, wondering why was it such a big deal for Alexis if someone’s name was Josée Laval. “Well, why is it so astonishing? Can’t a person have that name?”

“Of course, she can.” Alexis replied calmly, “I just happen to know a woman of the same name. Josée Laval, daughter of Pierre Laval, the famous Minister of Magic. He led France during the regime of Lord Voldemort.”

“The one I met, Alexis,” Hermione was determined to pull herself together and not sit like a mannequin, “could never be the Minister’s daughter. She was a Muggle woman.”

“I thought so too.” Alexis said, his features thoughtful. “Because the Josée Laval I told you about died many years ago. In fact she is…” he trailed away and sighed, “Leave it, Jean. You know, I kind of find it really strange that we lived under the same roof for almost six and half years and never talked about casual things.” He said, sipping his coffee, “I guess that’s the reason why you are so silent now.”

“No…um…” Hermione didn’t know what to say. Indeed they have never talked about casual things.

“Let’s talk about something and have this ice melted.” Alexis offered, “I know I’ll sound like a foolish to ask this to an Englishwoman, Jean, but have you read Orgueil et Préjugés?”

“Pride and Prejudice?” Hermione asked, now feeling at ease. Books were her favorite topic and she could talk about them for hours without getting tired. “Yes, I have. It’s a novel by Jane Austen and it’s one of my favourites. Don’t tell me you have read it too.”

“It so shamefully happens…” Alexis looked down at the coffee, “…I have. My roommates laughed at me, of course. They said novels are for girls and this was a Muggle writer’s novel.”

“Oh, come on! That’s so silly!” Hermione prodded the ice cream a little too hard and it broke into pieces, “Novels are for girls? Rubbish! Actually your roommates were hypocrites who never knew to appreciate a good thing.”

“I guess so.” Alexis nodded, looking up at Hermione, “And who is favourite character?”

“In Pride and Prejudice?” Hermione considered the question. “Er…mostly people love Lizzi…for her strong personality and courage…her honesty with herself and others…her simple little pleasures…little dreams…” she said thoughtfully, “…and yes, her walks…” she added.

“Like when she walked to Netherfield to see Jane?” Alexis asked, showing genuine interest.

“Yeah and that look of horror on Bingley’s sister’s face!” Hermione spooned some ice cream and nodded, “My goodness, did you see her hem, Mr. Darcy? Six inches deep in mud!” She quoted and laughed.

Alexis watched Hermione laugh and then broke into a laugh. Suddenly they were like two kids laughing carelessly, with no ice of silence holding them back.

“And what about every lady’s dream man, Darcy?” He asked once they composed their faces as a few diners were staring at them. The kissing couple was giving them a very disapproving look.

“Not every lady’s dream.” Hermione corrected Alexis, “I like Colonel Brandon more. He is so sophisticated…a dedicated man. Darcy is just…you know…too quiet.”

“Sense and Sensibility?” Alexis it seemed has read almost all the books that Hermione has. “But isn’t he too old for Marianne?”

“Age differences matters, of course, but not if the man is sensible.” Hermione opined, “Everyone thought Willoughby was perfect for Marianne; he was handsome, well mannered, established and young. But he wasn’t a sensible man; never realized Marianne’s true love. For him, women were like toys, and ladders to reach the High Society.”

“So in men, you admire loyalty?” Alexis asked, his features pensive.

“Yes, loyalty and a certain degree of respect for women.” Hermione replied, sensing the sudden change in Alexis’s tone. “Not for every woman, of course, because I know that’s not possible even for the greatest man. But they should at least treat them as humans.”

“I think they are interrelated.” Alexis commented, “If you don’t consider someone as a human being, how can you be loyal to him or her?”

“Yeah, I agree.” Hermione nodded and finished her scoops, “…Er…Alexis…I think we are getting late.” She checked the watch, “Adrian must be waiting for me.”

“I think he’ll not complain if his Mama returns a little late with two generous scoops of best chocolate ice cream.” Alexis said and waved at the waiter who appeared immediately. “Can I have a large box of chocolate chips and raspberry ice cream?”

“Yes sir.” The waiter nodded and left. Feeling apprehensive, Hermione looked outside the window. It was clear to her now that he has been building this friendly atmosphere with something in his mind; ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was all a part of that.

“Am I annoying you Jean?” Alexis’s question brought her to reality. Looking at him, she saw that his coffee was almost finished.

“No.” she shook her head. What was there to worry about, actually? If Alexis had something to say and came all this way for it, it was better that he finished saying it. Why should she be so agitated?

“I believe we both know that I am here to tell you something.” Alexis finished his coffee and carefully placed the cup on the saucer. “If you are uncomfortable with me or my talking, please tell me. I’ll stop. I value our family relationship more than anything in this world.”

“No, it’s okay.” Hermione said calmly though her heart beat quickened.

“You know Francis Bacon?” Alexis’s next question threw her off guard.

“Ye…ah…” Hermione blinked rapidly, “He was an English philosopher and critic.”

Alexis’s long finger played absentmindedly around the rim of the empty coffee cup. “He once said ‘Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses.’ Do you agree with him?”

“I…er…” Hermione wondered how it was related with what she was thinking he was going to tell her, “Well, it might be the norm in his time. But times have changed.”

“Has it?” Alexis asked, his black eyes on Hermione.

“Well the society is still very hypocrite when it comes to treating woman.” Hermione admitted. In fact who knew better than her?

“It’s not society, Jean. It’s individual mindset. It’s how we men are conditioned to see our partners.” Alexis said, “Like Pureblood supremacy, elf rights, and status of Muggles, this is an idea that is planted in our minds when we are young. We see our mothers as our fathers’ partners, nurses, and companions. But how many of us have seen their fathers as their mothers’ partners, nurses or companions? Almost no one. Maybe you saw it because your father helped your mother in every step. It was his mindset, Jean but that is not the entire population’s mindset.”

Hermione listened in rapt attention. It certainly wasn’t what she had expected from their little detour meeting.

“I have three incredibly beautiful women in my life; my mother and my sisters: Fleur and Gabrielle.” Alexis went on, “I have Veela cousins who would be glad to be betrothed to me. But that is not what I am looking for. I am not looking for a mistress, a nurse or a woman to carry my children.” He shook his head, “I am looking for someone with a strong personality, courage… honesty with herself and others…simple little pleasures…little dreams…and yes, walks…” his black eyes were fixed on Hermione’s chocolate brown pair, “Can you suggest someone like that to me…” he said, “…Except Elizabeth Bennet.”

“I…” Hermione opened her mouth but no sound came out.

“I never saw you that way, Jean…” Alexis’s told her the truth Gabrielle told three nights ago. “You were the first person I met who stood up for someone she loved from her heart, her baby. She fought the entire world and the fate to have him…and by doing so she earned my respect. She can never be used as a toy, as a bed partner; she is above that.”

“But I…” Hermione’s voice was half broken.

“Don’t love me. I know that.” Alexis said calmly. “But I am not asking you to love me. It’s not possible; you can’t make someone love you. All I am asking, imploring you, Jean, why I came all this way, here in Brussels, to tell is that you give us a thought. Please?”

“But…you…” Hermione shook her head, not knowing why Alexis’s words have moved her so much, as if he has seen right into her damaged soul, “…I can’t give you anything…I have nothing…”

“Do you trust my judgment?” Alexis didn’t look remotely alarmed by her words, as Gabrielle had been.

“I do.” Hermione replied honestly.

“Then trust my judgment this time.” Alexis said calmly, “I am not here to ask something from you, Jean. Long term relationships don’t work on just giving and taking. Fleur didn’t marry Bill because he could satisfy her needs. Gabrielle didn’t choose Edmound because he is a macho man.” he smiled, “Oh yes, she told us about them and that’s why I came here, to break the misunderstandings. Otherwise you’ll think it’s a matchmaking scheme that my esteemed mother and dear sisters hatched and not actually me.”

Hermione couldn’t deny that she had been thinking that while sitting here. But now it was all over. Alexis has explained things very simply. It was almost like the ending of Pride and Prejudice when all misunderstandings were cleared.

“You are so much like Darcy, Alexis.” she said and the ice cream package arrived just at time. Adrian certainly wasn’t going to complain about his mother’s delay; the chocolate chips and raspberry ice cream looked so tempting to Hermione.

“And you don’t like him.” Alexis said ruefully.

“Maybe this Elizabeth will think a little more kindly about this Darcy.” Hermione said, leaving her seat. Alexis paid the bills, took the ice cream package and followed her.

“Thanks Nostradamus, you didn’t say Percy.” He said, as the café door swung open for them.

For the first time since that night in the balcony, Hermione truly laughed. Its ringing sound washed away some of the stains she carried in her heart.

Walking along side Alexis to the Palace Hotel, she looked up at the sky. Suddenly it was beautiful, its blackness matching that of Alexis’s eyes and its vastness that of his broad mind.

Life was beautiful.

Only one has to look for its beauties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Chapter 15: The Wind from Morrow.

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