A knock on the door jolted Hermione awake. Her head felt like it had been stuffed full of cotton. Groaning, she glanced at the clock by the bed. She had slept until two in the afternoon. And she had been hoping to get an early start.
“Come in,” she called. It was probably the cleaning staff.
The door handle shook, but it was locked – Hermione had forgotten about that.
“Just a minute.” She threw off the covers and hurried to the door. Her hand had just closed over the handle when she realized that the hotel staff would have a key card. So who was it? She hadn't contacted anybody yet. Nobody should know she was here.
Wary now, she peered through the peephole. A man and woman, both dressed in sharp business suits, stood outside. The man was carrying a large briefcase, and they both seemed to be in their mid-forties. They looked harmless enough, but what were they doing here?
Well, if it’s the Ministry, they’ve certainly got better dress sense than most wizards I know, she thought. She opened the door.
“What can I do for you?” she asked pleasantly. “Please excuse my appearance – I got in on a train from Cardiff early this morning, and I’ve only just woken up.”
“I’m sorry for disturbing you, ma’am," the man said, "but we need to ask you a few questions.”
“About what?” Hermione said, gripping the door handle tightly, ready to slam it closed. “I’m really very tired, and have got my own business to be getting on about. And what authority do you have to question me?”
“We’re from the Ministry of Magic,” the woman said. “My name is Amel and this is Garen. We’re in charge of a research team. You are Mrs. Hermione Weasley, correct? From the parallel universe?”
“Y-yes,” said Hermione startled. “But how-?”
“-did we know you were here?” Amel cut in shrewdly. “We have been keeping tabs on the crack, of course. We have a number of spells in place to alert us if anyone comes through. As you did.”
Hermione appraised them suspiciously. "How do I know you're actually from the Ministry?"
"Here." Amel fumbled in her pocket and pulled out a Ministry ID. Its layout was similar to Hermione's, but she didn't recognize any of the signatures. It did seem very official.
"We mean you no harm," Garen said. "We just want to talk."
“Well, all right,” said Hermione, though she was still a bit suspicious. She opened the door wider to let them through. "Come in."
“On the contrary,” Garen said, “how about we retire to the little café downstairs? I know you haven’t had any breakfast yet, and it will be easier to talk there.”
After Hermione ran a quick brush through her ever-curly hair and changed her clothes, she came back outside, and Garen and Amel escorted her to the café. It wasn’t much to look at. A handful of battered tables and chairs were scattered about, with a TV in the corner and bad country music playing over the speakers. The food was served from a small bar in the corner. It was mostly empty, as two in the afternoon was not a typical meal time, but there were enough people about, bustling in and out of the hotel, that Hermione and the two Ministry workers wouldn’t be conspicuous.
They ordered coffee and scones and carried them to a small table. Once they had sat down, they began.
“So, how do you know who I am?” Hermione asked. “You couldn’t have gotten that just from your spells.”
“Let’s just say we have been more – profitable – at gaining information from the crack than you have.” Garen said, fiddling with his untouched mug. “The spells you lot cast on your side were quite revealing. Among other things.”
It wasn’t really an answer, but Hermione let it slide. There were more important things to discuss.
“That doesn’t matter, though. The reason the Ministry – my Ministry – sent me here is because the crack is causing problems on our side. Energy surges have been coming through randomly, and every time that happens, the crack gets bigger. And if you’re near it” – Hermione swallowed at the memory – “well, we’ve already lost a couple of our researchers. We’d figured out that your world was on the other side, and we were pretty sure it was livable. I came here to find our missing people and figure out what is causing the crack.”
“I see,” said Garen. He exchanged a quick glance with Amel. “Unfortunately, we have no knowledge of anyone coming through the crack other than you.”
“Are you sure?” Hermione asked. “If they didn’t come here, what could have happened to them?” She thought she already knew the answer, and Amel’s next words confirmed it.
“Based on our observations, it seems likely that random surges would pull them into the void between worlds, but would not be able to push them into this universe. I’m afraid your friends are lost.”
The news was delivered gently, but it hit Hermione like a physical blow. She’d worked with them for months, and now they were gone. Liza's jokes, which had always lightened the mood. Henry's comforting resilience. Both gone. And Sylvia. She and Sylvia hadn't always seen eye-to-eye, but Hermione had always admired the older witch's strength. She fought back the tears. Before, at least, there’d been hope.
But there was no time to grieve. She swallowed and said “I can still prevent more lost lives. Please tell me – do you know how to stop these surges? They have been growing stronger lately, and they’ve started pulling larger and larger things in. And the crack just keeps getting bigger. We’re worried that it could eventually consume the entire world.”
“We are very sorry, but we don’t know how to stop the surges. They have not been happening on our side. Of course, we would be willing to begin looking into it,” said Garen.
“Would you, please?” Hermione asked. “You clearly understand this crack better than we do. Maybe if we work together we can find a solution.”
“We will talk to the Minister right away,” Amel assured her.
Just then, a buzzing sound emanated from Garen’s wristwatch.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I’ve got to take this. Ministry business.” He got up and went to the other side of the room, out of earshot.
Seeing Hermione’s puzzled look, Amel said “It’s just a communicator – don’t you have those on your world?”
“Well, yes,” said Hermione, “but they don’t look like watches. And besides, only Muggles use them usually – complicated electronics go haywire if they’re around magic too long.”
“Oh – these are magic,” Amel clarified quickly. “We just put a charm on a normal watch.”
Hermione made a mental note to ask her how that was done. A watch that doubled as a cell phone would be a great tool for her Ministry. She took advantage of the lull in the conversation to finish her scone, watching as a dark-haired, middle-aged man wearing a leather jacket and a young, blond girl walked in. They went up to the check-in desk, and the man started talking to the clerk. After a minute, he turned away and scanned the room. His face lit up at the sight of the café, and he and the blond girl came over to get some food.
By the time Garen came back from his call, the man and the girl were seated only a few tables away with their food. A thought occurred to Hermione.
“Shouldn’t we be worrying about Muggles hearing us?” she asked Garen as he sat down. “We should at least have cast the Muffliato Charm before starting.”
“No, no, it’s not necessary,” he said. “You’d be surprised how much people don’t hear if they don’t want to.”
Hermione supposed that was true. Still, this Ministry was awfully lax about security. She’d expected to be discussing this in the Minister’s private office, not in a café in the middle of Muggle London. She would have thought they’d be a little more careful, what with all the effort they took to looking and acting like Muggle businessmen.
"We might as well," she said. "Better safe than sorry."
"Well, all right then," Amel said. "Go ahead."
Hermione thought it was odd that they were having her do it, but she performed the charm without protest.
“Now, back to the topic at hand,” Garen said. “How did you manage to come here? I thought you said your people didn’t know very much about the rift.”
“Well, we focused our research on the areas that would prove most useful. We wanted to know what was on the other side, especially after our people were sucked in, so we concentrated on developing spells and research equipment for that. As soon as we established that this world was livable, we started trying to find a way to come here and find them.”
“I see. And how exactly does it work? Is it a spell?”
“Well, sort of, yes,” Hermione said, “but it’s a rather complex set of spells. I’d be happy to explain it to you, but it requires quite a lot of technical knowledge. It’d be better if I could explain it to your scientists. Why don’t we just go to the Ministry, talk to the Minister, and work out what to do from there? I don’t have to go back right away, and I’d rather not until we find our people and know more about what causing the surges.”
Amel glanced at Garen, who nodded in reply.
“Yes, yes, that would be a good idea,” she said. “Let’s go now.”
“Oh, well,” Hermione said, taken aback at the abrupt turn of events. “I need to get my things first.”
“We’ll have someone pick them up for you,” Garen assured her, picking up the remnants of their food and tossing them in a nearby bin. “Come on.”
Still bewildered, Hermione followed them.
They stepped outside into a warm, clear morning, Amel ahead of Hermione, with Garen bringing up the rear. Around them, London teemed with noise and life, the streets filled with cars and taxis, the sidewalks filled with people.
“Did you lot bring a car, or did you come by taxi?” Hermione asked Amel.
“It doesn’t matter,” Garen said behind her. To Hermione’s astonishment, she felt something cold and metal press into her back.
“Yes, that is a gun,” Amel said quietly. “Walk quickly, act natural, and don’t scream. Do you need further persuasion?”
“You wouldn’t shoot,” Hermione managed. “Not here, not where everyone could see.”
“You want to bet?” the woman said coldly.
Hermione swallowed and started walking.