If the choice were mine to make

A race against time

When Hermione disapparated her heart was beating hard. She had no idea how close to Livia the spell would take her, so when she apparated she looked around quickly, her wand held high, ready to attack immediately.

She needn't have worried. Hermione found herself in the middle of a triangular shaped small park surrounded by what looked like three long Victorian blocks of terraced houses. Old-fashioned streetlights cast a dim light on the naked trees and shrubs around her. A few people were hurrying past outside the park, their shoulders hunched against the cold wind, and a dog barked not far away from her, but was soon silenced by its owner.

Slowly Hermione relaxed. As soon as the tension lessoned, she felt rather faint. I should have brought another bar of chocolate, she thought, annoyed with her weakness, willing her head to clear. After a few seconds she felt better and was able to survey her surroundings. Her heart sank. It seemed that Livia was in one of these block of houses, but there was no way of knowing where she should start searching.

Cursing silently Hermione wrapped the Invisibility Cloak around her tightly. There was a cold feeling in her chest, the fear that time was running out fast, that if she didn't find Livia soon she might be too late.

Perhaps she should call for help? She didn't want to endanger anyone, but if she couldn't find Livia on time Snape would die. Hermione reached a decision. She would send her Patronus to Ginny, telling her to contact Dumbledore who would then take care that the Order would come to her help. Hermione raised her wand and cast the spell – but nothing happened.

She stared at her wand. True, she hadn't done any magic for a long time. Moreover, the Patronus charm was rather complex, and it had taken her some time to master it. But ever since it had worked without any problems. Suddenly Hermione had a very sick feeling in her stomach. Concentrating harder, she cast the spell again. A thin wisp of silver erupted from her wand, but it disappeared immediately, leaving her so faint she nearly staggered.

What was happening here? She had apparated without problems. Was this an aftereffect of the Cruciatus? Or did her exhaustion prevent her from doing more complex magic? She had heard of such things, but had thought that the person affected must be much more exhausted than she was. Hermione looked around, making sure that no one was nearby, then performed a series of lesser spells to check if they worked. They did, but she also felt even more exhausted.

Hermione tried the Patronus one last time, but still no more than faint mist came out of her wand. She was panting hard after that attempt, her head swimming and her mouth dry. Reluctantly she had to face the fact that she wouldn't be able to get help. Even worse, it seemed that for unknown reasons her ability to do magic was effected. She would have to be even more careful when she found Livia.

If she ever found her…

Hermione pushed that thought away quickly. This was not the time to get panicky. Or desperate. Not yet.

For a second she wondered if she should wait until Snape sent Dumbledore for help, but that wouldn't do, it might be too late by then. And so Hermione cast a last scrutinizing look on the houses around her, then swiftly left the small park and went to the block on her right. When she arrived at the long building, its front sporting the typical Victorian iron railings and the cellar entrances to the former kitchen and servants' quarters, she cursed silently. What had originally been a row of upper middle-class terraced houses had been subdivided into flats. She had no idea how many people were living in these three blocks, but it must be a whole lot of them.

Lacking a better idea, Hermione started punching a number of doorbells. After a few moments three doors opened and two women and a man looked out, their faces taking on an annoyed expression when they realized that no one was around. None of them was Livia or her brother. As soon as Hermione noticed this, she went on to push the next few doorbells. And when that didn't bring out the people she was looking for the next and the next. Some doors didn't open and Hermione marked them with an invisible sign. She'd get back to them when she had checked all the other flats.

As the minutes ticked by, Hermione got increasingly nervous. She couldn't press too many doorbells at once, since she had to stay close to the doors to get in quickly if one of them should be the right one. But fifteen minutes had passed already and she had only arrived at the middle of the first block. How long had Snape said he had? Less than two hours? Had that been realistic?

The thought that she was wasting precious time, time she didn't have, drove Hermione nearly mad. And the constant tension was strenuous, even more so since she had had quite enough stress, pain and exhaustion over the last 24 hours.

When over twenty minutes had passed Hermione was suddenly hit by a stabbing pain near her heart. Stifling a surprised cry, she doubled over and clutched convulsively at her chest. Breathing hard, her hand shaking badly, Hermione performed a spell which made the pain go away. Nearly. But where had it come from? Was it an after-effect of the Cruciatus? She remembered that she had suffered similar pains after they had escaped from Malfoy Manor. Only then she had been lying comfortably in Shell Cottage.

Hermione clenched her teeth. She couldn't have that now, not when she was about to face one of the most dangerous witches of the century. Quickly she performed a series of spells, hoping that they'd keep the pain at bay at least for the next hour. Luckily the spells worked, but afterwards she was even more exhausted. Hermione's vision blurred and she had to close her eyes for a few moments, breathing deeply until she felt capable of going on and pressing the next few doorbells.

Nearly fifty minutes had passed since she had left Snape when the door to one of the subterranean flats opened and Hermione stared down on the annoyed face of Livia's brother Constantine.

"Hello?" he asked, squinting up to street level and then turning to where the tenant of the flat above him was standing in his doorway, scanning the surrounding for whoever had disturbed his Friday night.

Hermione's heart skipped a beat, then she quickly and as quietly as possible shuffled down the steps to the flat's door. There she had to stop. Constantine was blocking the way in and there was no way in which she could get past him.

"There's nobody here," the man above them said. "Probably some kids' prank. Little buggers."

Constantine snorted and made to get back inside. Praying that her magic wouldn't fail her, Hermione quickly raised her wand and performed a silent spell. Immediately a number of bright yellow sparks erupted from some place in the small park across the road, as if someone had ignited fireworks.

Constantine stopped in his track, let go of the door handle and hurried towards the stairs, getting up two of them so he could have a better look. He nearly collided with Hermione but she quickly drew back, her heart hammering wildly.

"What was that?" Constantine asked suspiciously.

His neighbour, who had stopped as well, just shrugged his shoulders. "Looks like fireworks. Have a nice evening." And he turned and went back into the house.

Constantine stared out into the night for a while, giving Hermione more than enough time to get into the flat. Then he too turned around and went back inside.

Hermione found herself in a narrow corridor with two locked doors on the right and left side. Straight ahead the door to what looked like the living room was open, and she quickly went towards it to get out of the way of Constantine. The small room, which had a shut door in its right wall, was deserted. Hermione went to the far left hand corner where she would be out of the way and yet able to survey the room and the two doors leading off from it.

"Who was it?" Livia's muffled voice came from the room behind the shut door and Hermione gripped her wand harder.

"No one," Constantine replied. "Some kids' prank." He went to an armchair in the corner opposite to Hermione, sat down and took up a copy of the Daily Prophet. Silence descended. Hermione's eyes darted from the man to the door, her heart racing, waiting if Livia would join her brother. But she didn't.

Hermione made a quick decision. This was her opportunity to eliminate Constantine and even the chances. Suddenly Livia started to speak again, lower now so Hermione couldn't understand her. Her words were obviously not directed to her brother who didn't take any heed but went on reading. Was there someone with her in that room? Please not, Hermione thought fervently. It would be hard enough to overpower Livia and her brother. Or was Livia talking on the phone, or via floo network? Hermione couldn't discern any other voice apart from Livia's, so that might be the case.

Whatever was going on, Hermione had to take care of Constantine first. And so she raised her hand, praying once again that her magic wouldn't fail her, and silently voiced Stupefy!

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