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Operation Witch Hunt

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Contrary to what Tony Stark believed, Steve was well aware of the many faults of his character. He knew he had a tendency to be self-righteous and stubborn. He could also be reckless and uncompromising. He, more often than not, dove headlong into trouble without a backward glance. So really, going after Bucky had only been natural for him; he didn't even hesitate. 

 

But as Steve shook away the disorientation teleporting had induced, his head spinning and his stomach roiling in a way it hadn't done since he'd ridden that roller coaster on Coney Island for the second time in the space of less than an hour, he wondered if he should try to be more reflective of his actions more often. Steve rarely regretted his decisions, especially when it came to helping a friend in need, but he conceded that he could learn to be more cautious next time he did so.

 

Looking around, Steve surveyed his surroundings with the efficiency and deduction of a seasoned soldier and saw nothing but towering trees and overgrown brush around him. There was no sign of modern civilization in sight, save for what seemed like a cozy campsite sitting not too far from where they'd 'landed', a welcoming fire crackling merrily in front of the medium-sized canvas ridge tent.

 

Steve's brows wrinkled, thrown off by the sight. Whatever and wherever he had been expecting to end up in, he hadn't thought it would literally be in a camp in the middle of nowhere. But they were definitely not in New York City anymore. He wasn't sure if they were even still in the state.

 

“This is perfect, Winky!” Steve heard the woman – Granger – exclaim and he shifted his gaze just in time to see her give a satisfied and approving nod as she inspected the wilderness around them. “Well done!”

 

The thing – Winky, she'd called it – seemed to puff up at the praise and tittered happily. “Winky is happy to be helping, Missy Granger!”

 

And with that, it popped off to who knew where, disappearing again from sight – just like that.

 

Steve blinked and shook his head, trying to shake the last of his disbelief. He'd seen many strange things since waking up from The Ice – gods, aliens, robots – but none of them had ever been so friendly. In a way, it was nice to know that not all otherworldly beings were out to get them, but it was still no less jarring to learn of their existence.

 

He cast a sideways glance at Bucky standing as still as the trees close by and cocked a questioning brow. “Does that happen often?”

 

To his relief, Bucky seemed less defensive now and took his casual question for what it was, merely shrugging carelessly, unconcerned. “Apparently that's what elves do.”

 

Steve nodded slowly, trying to take things in stride. “Right. Elves. Makes sense.” 

 

House -elves,” Granger corrected matter-of-factly as she turned to them, overhearing their conversation. “There's a difference. The elven-kind that muggles often refer to haven't been seen in centuries and there have been doubts that they even existed at a-ah—” she stuttered to a halt then, seeming to realize something. She cleared her throat, embarrassed. “That is to say, Winky is a house-elf and she'll take great offence if you call her otherwise.”

 

House-elf . Well. Steve couldn't say he'd ever heard of such a thing before and he honestly didn't know how to respond to that. After a quick glance at Bucky, whose face remained an unreadable mask, Steve figured his friend didn't know what to make of that explanation either. So with his brows knitted in bewilderment, he nodded his head in acceptance. After all, the last thing he wanted was to offend anyone; least of all the one supernatural being that didn't seem to hate humans and wished their destruction.

 

“Now, gentlemen,” Granger chirped with false cheer, the change in her tone ushering an obvious change of pace. She waved a hand towards the homey camp behind her, lips quirked up in a dry half-smile. “I’m going to have some tea before supper. You are, of course, welcome to join me…” Then she gave them both a long assessing look in turn. “When you’re done hashing things out between the two of you here.” 

 

Her point now delivered across, Granger promptly walked across the campground, past the campfire and headed for the tent without waiting for any further response from either of them. It was only when neither of them moved from where they stood did she glance over her shoulder at them again and hesitated, a wary look in the furrow of her brows. “Just... don't get too crazy, okay? We need this place to lay low for a while,” she cautioned before she finally disappeared inside the tent, the fabric flap swishing silently behind her.

 

Steve stared after her a moment longer, vacantly wondering how she expected them to join her in such a tiny tent, before he turned his gaze to the man he knew as a friend for, well, several decades now – even when the said friend wouldn’t admit it at the moment. Bucky had moved to sit on one of the logs situated around the fire, staring into the bright orange flames, lips pursed in consternation. When he spoke, his voice was humorless and raspy. 

 

“I should have known you, of all people, wouldn’t leave me well enough alone.”

 

Well, it wasn’t a friendly invitation, nor was it an acknowledgement, but Steve thought he’d take it. He strode over and took a seat perpendicular to the sullen man, placid and open. “I’d been looking for you for over a year, and then you resurface with HYDRA on your tail. What was I supposed to do?” There was no way he could have left Bucky knowing that, especially when he knew about the things they’d done to him. His lips quirked up in a wry half-smile, despite the concern he felt. “I couldn’t let you have all the fun.”

 

Bucky scoffed and cast him a sardonic glance. “Nothing that HYDRA does is fun .”

 

“No,” Steve conceded with a nod, placing a firm hand reassuringly on the other man’s tense shoulder, “but I’m with you ‘til the end of the line, Buck. Please remember that.”

 


 

Meanwhile, in the sitting room inside the tent, Hermione was at the end of her line. Everything she had learned tonight about HYDRA and their knowledge of her magic had blindsided her and she was left reeling. Question after question bombarded her every thought and Hermione intended to find the answer to each one.

 

Standing by the sofa, she placed her satchel on the coffee table and proceeded to summon numerous books from its endless depths. She unearthed tome after tome she possessed on quantum physics, magical spacial theories, along with her notes and anything she had on her that even had a brief mention of alternate dimensions – which, admittedly, was sparse and close to none at all. She cursed herself once again at having left her tote bag at the warehouse; her most recent notes on the data collected on the Convergence had been in there. 

 

Completely wound up now, Hermione took a deep breath, steadying herself, and stepped back, watching her reading materials fly out and arrange themselves into three and a half tall stacks on the table. No matter . She needed to start from the beginning anyway, review what she knew. She settled into one of the armchairs and reached for the book on top of the stack closest to her. She flipped through the pages with a ferocity she hadn't felt since Hogwarts and the war.

 

For the last year, Hermione had been pursuing her theory that The Convergence was the reason for her displacement in this world, and her research, though far from producing any real results, had been promising enough to support her suppositions. But how did HYDRA tie into that? What did they have to do with an astrophysical phenomenon that happened only once every five thousand years? It was far too random.

 

After several minutes of browsing, Hermione traded one book for another, and another, and another , skimming through nearly all of them in dissatisfaction. She’d read each and every one of these books already, but no new information was popping up that could even remotely help her with her conundrum.

 

No, for the first time in her life, the answers she sought weren’t found in the pages of a book. Hermione stood and started to pace. No, what she needed to do was to retrace her steps, back from the very beginning, find any hints of HYDRA around the time it happened – the day she’d been transported.

 

Oh, what she wouldn't give to have access to a pensieve right now! 

 

Hermione jerked to a halt, a thought occurring to her like a bolt of lightning. Actually , she didn't need a pensieve and there was something she could try; an obscure spell that few people knew about and even fewer practised. Feeling inspired by her idea, she summoned a heavy tome the colour of deep mahogany from the depths of her satchel. The title The Mental Arts: Mastering the Layers of the Mind stood out in stark relief in bold, gold letterings.

 

She wasted no time cracking the book open, skimming through the scratchy parchment and paged through its contents, looking for a particular section she remembered reading about when she’d been learning the Mental Arts for her Field Investigation Licence under the tutelage of Maxwell Barnette. A strong foundation in Legilimency or Occlumency was a prerequisite skill required of all official field investigators of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures – as they should. Occulmency was a welcome protection against creatures with a natural ability to penetrate minds while Legilimency was particularly useful against rampaging, incoherent beasts; both were quite useful when one wanted to stay alive and unmauled.

 

Though people tended to be more proficient in one or the other, it was not impossible to learn both. Hermione had, naturally, set out to master both skills, though she’d been surprised to learn that she was absolutely rubbish at Occulmency. With Legilimency, however, she took like fish to water.

 

Ah , there it was, she thought as she spotted the passage she was looking for.

 

There was a subset skill of Legilimency that allowed the caster to delve deeper into one’s own mind in the same way Legilimency allowed one to navigate through the layers of other people’s heads. It was a rarely used skill, even among the most seasoned Legilimens. Very few saw the use of scouring into one’s own mind, after all. Why peek in and face your own shadows when there were so many secrets to unearth in others?

 

Hermione bit her lip, weighing her options. It wouldn’t be a difficult spell to cast for a skilled Legilimens, but it was an exhausting one. More so than looking into the minds of others. To top it off, it was also an unfamiliar spell, one she’d never really tried before; it would require her total concentration. And she’d have to be careful or she could trap herself inside her own consciousness for the rest of her life.

 

She winced at the unpleasant thought. The human mind might be something to behold, but she doubted it was a pleasant place to be in all the time, even for her, ironically. 

 

But...she was always careful, wasn’t she? She’d just be in, review her memory, and out in no time. Not a problem.

 

Nodding to herself, Hermione came to a decision. It was imperative that she figure this out and she had to do whatever means necessary. If HYDRA had something to do with what brought her here, then maybe – maybe – they knew of a way to get her back. 

 

Back to where she belonged.  

 

Hermione snapped the book shut with a resolute thump . She brandished her wand and placed the tip delicately on her right temple.

 

Here we go.  

 

She closed her eyes and whispered, “ Legilisui .”

 


 

The spell took hold and then there was a bright flash of white light right behind her eyelids, a moment of weightlessness where the world she couldn’t see whirled and titled, before finally, Hermione found herself in darkness. She blinked and then she was in an enormous room full of books with towering shelves upon towering shelves on all sides, more expansive than even the Hogwarts library. 

 

She gazed around her, noting the numerous books flitting around like birds between cases, arranging and rearranging themselves into different shelves. In front of each bookcase was a long table where an array of at least four open books lay, each with its own ink and quill hovering above it, furiously scribbling through the parchments’ surfaces.

 

Hermione knew from when she’d first learned Occlumency that they were representations of her thoughts and memories, constantly zipping about, accumulating information and organising themselves, never ceasing. It was the reason why she’d had such a hard time with the art; her thoughts were too difficult for her to suppress, her mind never quiet long enough for her to build the more advanced protections needed to proceed further in the field.

 

In any case, Hermione had been unsurprised to learn that her mind chose to sort itself in this way. She was a methodical and organised person, after all, and it stood to reason that a library was such a place, where order and information prospered. With one last sweeping look around, taking in the domed ceiling above, allowing light to filter through in that dim, hallowed way, Hermione set out to find what she needed.

 

When Hermione had first begun her Occlumency training, she’d been asked to clear her mind of thoughts and emotions; a near-impossible task for her. She hadn’t been allowed to tap into any of her thoughts. But with Legilimency, it was exactly what she needed to do. Wandering around, she trailed by numerous sections labelled with different aspects of her life – Family, Friends, Research, Experiments – and she noted that for each section, they were then divided into subsections, each with its own unique category of a person, a place or an event. 

 

Curious, Hermione lingered by one massive, floor to ceiling bookcase in the Friends section when she passed it by, her eyes catching on the ever-familiar name of Harry Potter . She drew close, like a moth to a flame. There were at least fifteen shelves under her best friend’s name, all filled to the brim with colourful books. She espied the first book that drew her eye, a hardbound tome in orange and black, found in the Hogwarts category. The book’s title read in golden script letters: Mountain Troll on the Loose .

 

Hermione’s lips quirked up in a fond smile, letting her fingers skim across the book’s spine. She didn’t need to open the memory to know exactly what transpired that day, a feeling of nostalgia and longing suddenly overcoming her. Oh, how she missed them so.

 

Focus, Hermione.

 

Shaking herself off the rush of emotions, Hermione drew herself back to reality – well, sort of – and set off once again to find her original objective. It only took her a few minutes to find the section she thought she might find her memory. 

 

The section on DRCMC Missions wasn't as extensive as some of the more personal aspects of her life, but it seemed that she'd collected quite a bit of experience and memories if the seven giant bookcases that housed her book-memories were anything to go by. Undaunted, Hermione scanned the shelves for what she thought would be the appropriate category, her eyes soon alighting on the shelf labelled Forbidden Forest . She darted forward and skimmed the spines of its titles until, finally, she came to the very end of the shelf. There the last book stood, moss green with its bold golden letters standing out glaringly at her: Search for the Missing Centaurs.

 

This was it, the book – the memory – of the day she'd fallen, quite literally, into the world of superheroes. 

 

Hermione held her breath and flipped it open…

 


 

“I lied, you know.” Bucky's voice rang out into the silence that had settled uneasily between them. “I do remember you.” 

 

Steve glanced at the man at his side to find him staring intently into the flames, his elbows resting on his knees, hands laced together. Sensing more was to be said, he remained silent, allowing Bucky to gather his thoughts, and instead, mirrored his stance, elbows braced, hands lax between his knees. 

 

“Your mother's name was Sarah,” Bucky continued, eyes still fixed on the orange flames. Then his lips quirked up in amusement, and he chuckled through his words. “You used to wear newspapers in your shoes.”

 

Hope bloomed and Steve was quick to latch on it. 

 

“You can't read that in a museum,” Steve commented off-handedly, trying to add some levity into the conversation.

 

Bucky, however, seemed determined to stay in his maudlin state. “ Steve ,” he said seriously, eyes pinning him with a gravity Steve never thought he’d see in the man he once knew in his childhood. “I don’t remember everything. Not yet. I’m not the guy you knew.” He turned away and stared into the fire again. “I don’t think I ever will be.”

 

“Yeah, well, I was frozen in ice for 70 years,” Steve countered with an ironic shake of his head, sympathy is his voice. “I’m not the same man you remember either, Buck.”

 

From the corner of his eye, he saw Bucky appraise him, his eyebrows raised in disbelief. “Somehow, I doubt that. I can see you’re still a troublemaking punk.”

 

Well , he’d give him that, Steve thought and allowed a small smile to play along his lips. No matter what Bucky thought, the man he knew was also still there, damaged and more withdrawn, yes, but still headstrong and resilient. 

 

What a pair they were. Just a pair of ninety-something-year-old men lost in time. 

 

Steve opened his mouth to tell him just that when he caught a flash of movement from the corner of his eye. He shifted his gaze from Bucky’s face down to the man’s knee, only to find a strange-looking plant standing there, its long, spindly branches slowly winding its way around Bucky’s lap. 

 

Standing. The plant was standing. 

 

Steve froze for a split second in bewilderment, shoulders tensing reflexively in defense.

 

Bucky seemed to have caught his reaction and followed his gaze, looking down in confusion, which promptly cleared the moment his eyes landed on the thing trying to climb on his leg. 

 

“Sprig,” Bucky said, his troubled frown morphing into curiosity. He lifted his left hand slowly, almost hesitantly, palm up, towards the...sprig of whatever it was. It jumped eagerly into his awaiting hand.

 

Steve stared, nonplussed. “What is that thing?”

 

“It’s a…” Bucky paused, his brows furrowed in thought as he lifted the small, green plant up, searching his memory for its name. Giving up after a few beats, he shook his head and shrugged. “It’s one of Hermione’s creatures.”

 

Creatures? You mean she has more?”

 

Bucky looked like he was about to respond when the little guy started to chip incessantly, waving its arms frantically around in the air, cutting off whatever he had meant to say. It jumped up and down his palm and even started tugging on his metal thumb. 

 

“What’s wrong with him?” Steve asked with a frown.

 

“How should I know?” Bucky gave him a bemused look, at a loss himself.

 

Just then, a distraught screech rent the air and both Steve and Bucky sprang up from their seats instantly, both already alert and ready.

 

“Missy Granger!” The voice came from inside the tent, high-pitched and frantic. 

 

Steve shared a quick look with Bucky before the latter was bounding towards the tent with long, quick strides. Steve was only a step behind, the soldier in him automatically shifting in battle mode. The voice sounded like it belonged to that elf; something must have happened to Granger inside the tent. 

 

Bucky, for his part, ducked smoothly inside without a backwards glance, but Steve took a second to hesitate, not wanting to crowd in a small ridge tent that was obviously made for a single person to sleep in. He was, in fact, distantly surprised that Bucky’s bulk hadn’t toppled the tent from the inside. Settling instead to stay just outside of the fixture, he pushed aside the tent's entrance flap and stuck his head in, an inquiry already on his tongue. Those words, however, promptly died on his tongue as he got a good look inside and he gawked .

 

Steve jerked back from the tent, an action born out of reflex more than anything else, and his eyes took in the tiny canvas structure from the outside once again. How on earth…?  

 

Sticking his head back inside the tent again, Steve found himself marveling at the contrasting interior, so much bigger than what the outside structure suggested. He was astonished at the impossibility of what he was witnessing. It was as big as a house in here! 

 

Steve had never been one to question how things worked, especially not since waking up in this new century, but he didn't think he'd ever stop being surprised by the strange things there were in the world. He'd honestly never seen anything like this. He doubted even Stark would be able to replicate something like this.



“Hermione!” 

 

Steve’s wonderment, however, was cut short at hearing Bucky’s exclamation. He whipped his head over to where his friend had crouched over an unconscious Granger, a thick rivulet of blood streaming down one of her nostrils. The house-elf stood close beside them, wringing her hands in clear agitation, unshed tears trembling in her huge circular eyes. 

 

Hurrying over to where the woman had clearly crumpled to the floor, he watched as Bucky cup the back of her head and adjusted her tiny frame so he was cradling her against his chest. “What happened?” Steve asked the distraught house-elf.

 

“Winky is not knowing!” it wailed, its enormous tennis-ball eyes now shedding tears. “Winky was doing the cooking in the kitchen,” she pointed a gnarled grey hand towards one end of the tent where, indeed, a small kitchen, complete with a sink and stove, stood. “Winky is not seeing what happened.”

 

“She’s out cold,” Bucky informed them softly and gently shook Hermione awake, one hand carefully tapping her cheek. “Hermione. Hermione , wake up.”

 


 

It was a strange feeling, being inside a memory, Hermione mused as she looked around her new surroundings, finding herself surrounded this time by tall, gnarled trees. There was a certain mystifying feeling that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, almost dream-like. It made the world around her seem vague and hazy, though peculiarly enough, she saw everything with clarity. She saw through the haze that the shadows were thick and lurking, the mist low and languid. The terrain looked ominous, the atmosphere forbidding.

 

And yet, she knew exactly where she was.

 

The Forbidden Forest.

 

Looking down on instinct, she was curiously surprised to see herself outfitted in the field gear she'd worn that fateful day: a heavy Ministry issued deep green cloak, navy blue jumper, dark trousers and a sturdy pair of dragonhide boots. Her satchel was slung securely across her chest, as she often had on missions, and her wand, lit up in a Lumos , was held tightly in her hand.

 

“Are you sure the centaurs will even talk to us?” someone from behind her said, their voice a strange mix of excitement and apprehension.

 

Starting at the intrusion of her thoughts, Hermione turned towards the speaker and saw an eager face she hadn’t seen in two years. Her breath caught in her throat, a wave of emotion swelling up inside her at the sight of Reuben Smith’s limp mousy-brown hair, oval spectacles that sat askew on the tip of his nose and bright grey eyes. Even when she knew that it was only a memory of him, her heart lifted. It had been too long since she’d seen anyone from her world. Far too long.

 

Hermione opened her mouth to respond and breathed, “Reuben.” 

 

Except, the expression of her emotion never left her mouth and the words she knew she’d already said once before filtered out instead. 

 

“They should do willingly enough. Firenze will be there to mediate,” Hermione heard herself say with a shrug, her response matter-of-fact and confident. 

 

Inwardly, Hermione frowned, bemused by the bizarre sensation of saying words she hadn’t meant to say. It didn’t take long before it dawned on her what was happening, however. She wasn’t just reviewing the memory, she was reliving it. 

 

Uncanny , she thought with no small amount of interest. When Harry had recounted his experience with the pensieve at Hogwarts, he'd said that he’d viewed the memories like an outsider, a spectator merely watching the memory’s events play out. It seemed that with Legilisui , she was not only an active participant, she had a front-row seat. 

 

Dimly, Hermione wondered if it had something to do with that fact that she was accessing her own memories deep inside her consciousness and not just scanning them like she would with Legilimency. Whatever the case was, however, it was a puzzle for another time. Reuben was speaking again as he drew close, his body language tense, though his eyes were bright with zeal. 

 

“Do you think we’d get to see centaurides? No account of them ever being has been made in centuries!” he exalted with youthful exuberance. 

 

Hermione felt herself shrug. “Centaur are very protective of their females. I doubt they would risk bringing one along in the presence of wizards and witches.”

 

Always an answer to everything , she thought ruefully, amused that the exact same thought occurred to her that very same moment.

 

Reuben seemed to deflate beside her, his head seeming to lose whatever life it had, his disappointment obvious. Memory-Hermione smiled sympathetically at the young intern’s enthusiasm, and Hermione remembered just how passionate the young man had been towards magical creatures. His ambition, he’d once told her, had been to catalogue as many of the known creatures around the world in a more comprehensive way than even Newt Scamander had ever done. She had been of the opinion that the department needed more people like Reuben in their ranks; people that actually cared about other magical beings, ones who had a cause, eager to learn.

 

“It’s an honour to be allowed deep into centaur territory,” Memory-Hermione soothed gently. “Now, come along, we’ve got to hurry. We’ve got quite a mystery to solve.” 

 

At the alluring word, Reuben seemed to perk up. It was apparent that he found their little jaunt in the Forbidden Forest exciting, and Hermione supposed that this was infinitely more rousing than going on mandatory inspections at Blast-ended Skrewt farms. The new intern hurried after her as she led the way deeper into the dark woods, his steps long and almost clumsy. “Oh, yes, the missing centaurs! I read the report. What do you suppose they mean by unnatural, dark forces?”

 

Memory-Hermione shook her head with a frown. “I haven’t the faintest, but it’s quite strange for them to ask help from the Ministry, isn’t it?”

 

It was, in fact, Hermione added to herself, an unprecedented occurrence. Prior to the mission, she had been quite sure that the centaurs would have rather eaten their own tails off before they asked for wizarding intervention. But, as she had later learned, losing the Centurion Chief to the ‘forces’ was less like losing a tail and more akin to losing a head. The centaurian herd, as the report had said, had been in turmoil.

 

It took them several more minutes of wandering around, unsure exactly where to go and what to look for, when Memory-Hermione ground to a halt, noticing something at a distance and moving through the mist. Squinting her eyes, she tried to peer through the forest’s gloom, raising her wand higher so her illumination could reach further into the shadows. In the dimness, she thought she caught sight of a long serpentine body and plume feathers.

 

“Is that a…an Occamy ?” Reuben goggled, standing just a step behind her. “What on earth is it doing here in the Forbidden Forest?”

 

“What on earth is it doing in Britain ?” Memory-Hermione added softly, taking one, then two cautious steps in the creature’s direction. Occamies, after all, were only native to India and the Far East. They weren’t made for the cold climes of Scotland.

 

Just then, a scuffling sound erupted from the brush to their right and Memory-Hermione paused, whipping her head towards the noise only to find two plump diricawls rush past her in a flurry of pink and blue feathers.

 

“Were those diricawls ?” Reuben hissed, his voice high with astonishment now. 

 

“What on earth is going on?” Memory-Hermione wondered out loud, her concern growing just as another scuffling was heard in the distance. She turned back just in time to find what looked like a magical warthog more commonly found in Africa, snuffling by a grove of crooked trees. 

 

“Is that a —” Reuben began, now incredulous...excited, even.

 

“Reuben, something isn’t right. These creatures shouldn’t be here.” Memory-Hermione made to move forward cautiously again, intending to tread deeper into the forest. 

 

It’s a tebo! ” the young man beside her all but exclaimed, his shout nearly bouncing off the trees around them. Then he started to rummage into the pockets of his cloak and procured a sheaf of parchments and a self-inking quill. Elation vibrated off the youth and suddenly he was dashing forward towards the tebo without caution, scribbling frantically.

 

Startled, the tebo jumped back and ran into the darkness, it’s hooves and the crunch on leaves and grass echoing in its wake. Foolishly, in his enthusiasm, the young wizard followed, heedless of the dangers beyond.

 

From within the recesses of her own memory’s body, Hermione could only witness in dismay as her memory-self’s concern rapidly morphing into alarm. “Reuben, wait!” Memory-Hermione cried after him and left with no choice, rushed to follow her intern’s quickly diminishing form, the shadows of the woods seeming to devour him with every step he took.

 

Memory-Hermione ran through the brush as fast as the muted lighting allowed, mindful of the tree, roots and undergrowth that sprang up from every which way. Thankfully, Reuben hadn’t gotten far and it didn’t take her too long to catch up to her errant charge, spotting him standing in front of an enormous oak tree. Memory-Hermione breathed a sigh of relief and moved closer, a reprimand on her tongue. The scalding rebuke she’d meant to dole out, however, remained on her tongue when she caught a good look at what exactly was in front of the boy. 

 

“What in Merlin’s name…” Memory-Hermione walked closer, mouth agape as she took in what seemed to be a yawning black hole suspended on thin air. She gawked in amazement as she moved slowly forward, mystified. “What is this?”

 

“It seems to be a portal,” Reuben answered beside her, his own eyes wide in wonder. “The tebo jumped in and it just...disappeared.” Then he turned to her with a wild glint in his eyes, enthusiasm shining through his thick oval spectacles. “This must be the reason why there are different creatures not native to Britain here. This must be where the centaurs have gone!”

 

“A portal to where, exactly?” Memory-Hermione tore her gaze away from the...suspended circular abyss and gave her intern a speculative glance.

 

The young man could only give her a shrug. “Everywhere, I guess.”

 

Brows furrowing in thought, Memory-Hermione raised her wand and stepped gingerly around the so-called portal, looking cautiously around its edges, inspecting, analysing. Coming up with nothing but more questions, she clicked her tongue and conjured a long, blank parchment, an ink and quill, suspended in the air. With another flourish, she murmured some diagnostic charms around the...hole in the air, careful to note its reactions to her magic. She stepped back with a troubled frown. 

 

A hole right in the middle of the Forbidden Forest. 

 

Hermione may have not possessed the same instinct Harry had for trouble, but she had felt in her gut, even then, that this meant trouble. 

 

As her memory-self inspected her findings, Hermione forced herself to note the other details around her, determined to find something that would point towards any involvement from HYDRA. She used her other senses to broaden perspective, to note her peripherals, anything to note down any anomalies beyond the most obvious. 

 

From a few metres away, Reuben jerked back in surprise and cried a cry of pure delight that echoed through the trees. “ Sweet Merlin! Hermione, look!

 

Torn from her inspection, Memory-Hermione turned towards the new investigator just as he came running back to where she stood close to the portal, something small and bright red cupped between his palms. “Reuben, be quiet! What —”

 

Hermione, do you know what this is? ” the boy crowed loudly, all but thrusting the thing right under her nose. Hermione nearly went cross-eyed as she gazed down. 

 

There, cupped delicately between his hands was something small, smooth and solid, brilliant red with golden markings that swirled around each other like dancing fire. It took Memory-Hermione a second to surmise that it was an egg, but before she could even comment on it, Reuben was baying out in excitement once again, nearly bouncing off his feet. 

 

“It’s an egg! It’s a firebird egg! ” He gestured towards the portal, gesticulating wildly. “It must have fallen out of the portal, too. A firebird egg, Hermione!”

 

Memory-Hermione leaned down and inspected the egg closely. He was right, it was a firebird egg. Flummoxed at this turn of events, she leaned back and cast a calculating glance at the ‘portal’. There was no other explanation as to why such a rare egg, only ever recorded to be seen in the savage lands of Russia could be there, at the Forbidden Forest. 

 

Even so, a portal . Whatever this thing was, they were not equipped to handle this.  

 

“Right,” Memory-Hermione nodded, taking charge. “We need to call the Ministry, we need the Unspeakables.” Then she held out her hand expectantly. “Give me the egg, Reuben.”

 

The young wizard gawked at her, as if her question was the most absurd thing he’d ever heard. “You’re not going to hand it over, are you? It’s a firebird egg!

 

Sighing tiredly, Hermione pinned the younger man with a steady look. “Reuben, we can’t keep a firebird egg. It’s against regulation. You know the rules.”

 

“But Hermione!” he protested.

 

Reuben. ” 

 

There was a short moment of silence before Reuben reluctantly handed the egg gently into Hermione’s waiting palm, his entire frame literally dropping and his pout rivaling an injured puppy. Hermione smiled comfortingly, tapping a friendly hand on his arm. “If we’re asked to transport it back to Russia, I’ll ensure it lands in your care for the journey.”

 

The boy looked up at her through his limp fringe, and there was no mistaking the hope sparking behind his thick spectacles. “Really?”

 

Nodding her assurance, Hermione set the egg gently into her pocket, murmuring a cushioning charm into the cloak’s soft material. Then she returned to the parchments cataloguing the results of her diagnostics by the suspended portal, her brows furrowed at the strange readings she saw. The magical signatures didn’t make sense to her at all, something that rarely happened to Hermione, and her mind itched to pick and piece together what it could all mean.

 

For her part, deep within her memory’s conscious, Hermione read the findings with fresh, more knowledgeable eyes. In the stress that had followed these events, Hermione had forgotten the results of her initial findings on one of the Convergence’s portals. She’d been learning it from the astrophysics’ perspective then translating them into its magical counterpart. But seeing these figures now, gave her more insight, perhaps even provide her with the right calculation to replicate a portal home.

 

Memory-Hermione took another glance at the still, suspended anomaly, stepping just a bit closer to see if she could catch a glimpse of what might be on the other side. She was, however, only met with grey space, and the longer she stared into the abyss, the more gooseflesh rose, a feeling of foreboding at the face of the unknown welling up inside her. 

 

It was just sitting there in the air, a veritable hole hanging on thin air. 

 

“All right, Hermione?” Reuben’s voice penetrated her thoughts.

 

Snapping out of her daze, Hermione took action and called out, “Winky!”

 

In an instant, Winky was beside her in a loud echoing pop and a puff of smoke. “Missy Granger is calling Winky?”

 

“Hullo, dear,” Hermione greeted, “You think you can get us out of here and back to the Ministry?” She nodded to Reuben and urged him to stand closer. “We’ve wasted enough time here and we can’t leave this thing in the open for long. If that is, indeed, a portal to somewhere, then who knows what could come in and out of it.”

 

Reuben lifted his glasses higher onto the bridge of his nose. “Should we set up a protective perimeter first?”

 

Memory-Hermione smiled, appreciatively. Perhaps the boy wasn’t hopeless, after all. She shook her head. “You said the tebo jumped into the portal. That means creatures come and go freely. I don’t want to impede or trap them in when it could harm them. We’ll bring a team back here as soon as possible to minimise any more...displacements. Hopefully they’ll help us figure out where that leads to and lead us to our missing centaurs.”

 

“Yes, ma’am!” 

 

Eager to please, Winky nodded her head vigorously. “Yes, Missy Granger, Winky can Apparate you straight away!” 

 

The house-elf held out its hand towards her, and Memory-Hermione grasped it without hesitation. She reached for Reuben.

 

Just then, something jumped out of the portal, screeching in a high pitch ungodly sound that startled both witch and wizard. A wicked-looking erkling landed right on Reuben’s back, it’s angry cackles earsplitting. Reuben cried in surprise as it clutched at him with its sharp fingers, its pointy features ferocious. 

 

“Ger’off me, ger’off!”

 

“Reuben!” Memory-Hermione gasped in surprise, “wait! Calm down!”

 

But the boy was in a state and Reuben flailed, struggling with the erkling pulling at his hair and scratching his face. Memory-Hermione tried to reach for him just as the erkling took a bit at his forehead. The young wizard yelped in pain, and in his struggle, one of his flailing limbs knocked her by her shoulder. 

 

Memory-Hermione stumbled back from the blow, caught off-balance. She tried to gain her feet, her own arms flailing in the air to regain her centre of gravity. 

 

But it was too late. She was already falling, falling, falling

 

Right into the portal.

 

A cool sensation swept over her, almost like falling into water, though she remained dry. Memory-Hermione gasped, in surprise, in fear, in horror, she didn’t know, but she could see nothing from the corner of her eye but darkness inside the portal. She brought a hand forward as she fell, instinctively reaching for her companions. 

 

“Missy Granger!” Winky, standing closest to her, cried in horror before she too jumped right in after her. 

 

Hermione was already surrounded by darkness by the time she heard Reuben’s frantic calls through the mysterious portal.

 

“Hermione!”

 

Hermione!