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Toil and Trouble

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"It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence."

Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet 1888

 

When she arrived for her Potions class at St Mungo's on Monday afternoon, Hermione was sure of three things.

Firstly, she'd been an idiot.  While it was true that the summer just gone had seen a real connection take shape between herself and Snape, she had been arrogant to assume that Snape would respond to her in the same way she'd responded to him.  To date, he'd been quite fair.  He'd advised her that her feelings should be set aside, at least until he relinquished his role as teacher.  He had not promised – nor had he so much as implied – that he would live like a monk in the meantime.  He'd made no promises regarding the future.

All he had done, in fact, was to accept – grudgingly – her company at a time when no one else was offering a distraction from the monotony of his hospital room.  He'd played Boggle with her, allowed her to furnish him with coffee and grapes, and on one scary day back in June he'd rescued her from her own maudlin stupidity and then faced down a murderous Death Eater with her.  Had those events brought them closer?  Yes they had.  Were they indicative of romantic intent on Snape's part?  Of course not.

Hermione had presumed.  And that had been idiotic.

Secondly, she knew she'd been right to refuse to name the object of her unrequited passion when pressed on the issue.  Her mother and Molly had been very sweet and supportive, providing her with privacy and protection from the party-goers as she'd worked through her distress, but neither of them had needed to know Snape's name.  As far as she was aware, only Harry and Ron knew whom her 'rook' represented.  (Aside from Snape himself, of course, but Hermione didn't think he wasn't going to start blabbing it around.)  It was definitely best to keep things that way.

Thirdly, and finally: Hermione was not going to risk a glance through the pages of today's Daily Prophet to see this compromising photograph of Snape and his floozy.

Not.  A.  Chance.

She walked down the stairs and along the corridor to the potions laboratory.  Most of her fellow students had already gathered outside.  Hermione knew she had to be her usual self today; she must not appear withdrawn or sulky.  After all, this witch that had her claws into Snape might not stick around that long.  For the sake of future possibilities, it was important to Hermione that he did not form any negative opinion of her.

So she took a deep breath, put her shoulders back and forced a smile on to her face as she drew level with her fellow students.

"Afternoon, Hermione!" called Terry.  "Have you seen this?"  He grinned at her and brandished a copy of the Prophet.

(It was fortunate that the voice that loudly exclaimed, 'Oh for fuck's sake!' existed only in Hermione's head.)

"I don't read that rubbish," she said, trying to sound nonchalant.

She cast a cautious look at the door to the lab, then turned away and found some leaning space.  On her first day here Snape had placed an amplification charm on this section of the corridor.  Like Draco had said, Snape liked to be prepared.  On a day like this, with his picture in the paper, chances were that Snape would be listening in to every word.

"Seriously, it might be rubbish but you should read it today."  Terry moved over towards her.  Leaning against the opposite wall, Draco perused the same issue of the paper.  He caught her eye over the top of it and twitched an eyebrow at her.  Next to him, Theo Nott read over Draco's arm.  Zabini was standing some way off and he looked unimpressed.  Weird, that he wasn't making himself the centre of things.

Terry tried to offer her the paper.  Hermione averted her eyes and wondered whether shouting, 'La la la la!' at the top of her voice and running back down the corridor might be considered immature.

"Honestly, Terry," she said, "this rag makes a habit of crapping all over people who don't deserve it.  Remember what it did to Harry?  It doesn't give a toss about truth."

Terry said, "But–"

"And to be honest," Hermione went on, unable to keep from sharpening her tone, "it bothers me that people still buy it.  Far as I can tell, doing that only encourages more of the same."

Terry blinked at her.  Draco lifted his eyebrows speculatively.  Zabini, much to Hermione's surprise, was nodding as if he agreed.

She tried a smile for Terry to soften the words.  Terry shrugged and moved off.  There were footsteps coming from the direction of the stairwell.  She turned to see Michael arriving.

He grinned a jovial grin at her.  "Hey, you," he said.  "How was Sunday carvery with the folks?"

"How did you know about that?"

"Nice long chat with your dad, Saturday night.  Great guy.  So did you smarm your way into extra crackling?"

"I had lamb.  So no.  But it was lovely, thanks."

Michael drew up beside her, looked at Terry and then at Draco, and grinned an even bigger grin.  "I see the news is out!  Do we have a sweepstakes for the wedding day, yet?"

(Hermione had to clamp her lips tight shut on yet another, 'Oh for fuck's sake!'  Keeping them between herself and her internal monologue was getting to be hard work.)

Zabini said, rather angrily, "Look, the lot of you can piss off!"

Hermione blinked.  That was not a comment she'd been expecting.  She looked around.  Draco was smirking into his paper.  Theo was studying Zabini with interest.  Terry was stifling chuckles and Michael was shaking his head with what seemed to be mirth.

She found that she was in the unusual position of both wanting and not wanting to know what was going on.  Because surely Severus Snape, even seen in the company of a witch, would not warrant this kind of reaction?  Snape-on-a-date was odd, perhaps even unprecedented, but only because it was him.  People went out with each other all the time.  It was rarely newsworthy.  And why was Zabini so bothered about–

"She's my mother!  All right?" Zabini added.

Oh.

Oh.

Severus Snape...and Blaise Zabini's mother.

Hermione frowned and tried not to look as if her mind was working at a furious rate.  (Which, at this point, it was.)  Zabini's mother was notorious: a stunningly beautiful witch who'd been married and then widowed seven times, each bereavement leaving her more wealthy than the last.  The pattern was so established that any further engagement would carry the strong subtext of 'here we go again' along with a little metaphorical countdown-of-doom to mark the remaining lifespan of the unfortunate fiancé.

Which led to an obvious question: just what the hell was Snape playing at?

Inevitably, Hermione began to theorise.  Snape had not been all that happy to find himself alive when he'd emerged from the post-Nagini coma.  Was this new affair evidence of a lingering death-wish?  That said, death-by-murderous-siren seemed ostentatious, even by his occasionally theatrical standards.  If he truly wanted to die, Hermione would have put money on him doing so quietly and mysteriously.  (And, by the way, he would finish teaching this NEWT level Potions course first, because when Severus Snape committed to doing something he damn well did it.)

So if he wasn't looking for someone to finish the job Nagini had started, what else could be going on?  Surely he wasn't egotistical enough to believe that he could woo and marry Zabini's mother and not meet the same end as her previous seven husbands?  It didn't seem likely.  Snape was a confident man when it came to his intellect, his magical prowess and, probably, his ability to make a small child cry.  But Hermione was less assured of his confidence when it came to courtship.

Was this just a game, perhaps?  A seduction, of sorts, while Snape's profile was elevated enough to make it possible; something he would certainly not allow to progress to talk of marriage, but in the meantime a dalliance that empowered his sense of worth?  For all her obvious and terrifying shortcomings, Mrs Zabini – or whatever her preferred surname was at the moment – was still an object of desire.

Which prompted another question: why the hell was Zabini's homicidal mother interested in Severus Snape?

Not that Hermione was blind to those aspects of Snape that could be alluring; her head would hardly be spinning like this if she was.  But she'd thought of Snape as something of an acquired taste.  She'd even quietly congratulated herself on the sophistication of her palate: being able to see beyond the absence of a square jaw and toned muscles, bronzed skin and movie-star eyes and all the things young women were supposed to get weak-kneed over.  She'd fallen for Snape because he was Severus Snape, and for that very reason the last thing she'd expected was much in the way of competition.

And okay, given all of Snape's recent publicity Hermione should have anticipated that he might appeal to the average celebrity-hunting slapper.  Maybe also to the odd widow of a Death Eater who wanted to invigorate her sullied reputation by associating with a war hero; that would have made a kind of sense.

But someone like Zabini's mother?  This witch enjoyed a fame all of her own; she didn't need to borrow any from Snape.  And her standard motivation seemed to be money.  As far as Hermione was aware, Snape was not a wealthy man.

She sighed.  Above all else, she was disappointed.  Not because Snape was seeing someone – she'd already processed that disappointment – but because of the woman he was seeing.  It all seemed so shallow and superficial and ordinary, when Hermione had wanted Snape to be the kind of man who found beauty in things other than the relative symmetry of someone's facial features or the proportions of bosom, waist and hips.

Terry's voice broke into her thoughts.  "Fair play to your mum, Zabini," he said cheerfully.  He was still examining the article and its accompanying photograph.  "She's an absolute knockout in that frock."

Zabini's eyes went wide with outrage.  The rest of the gathered students either smirked, or – depending on their ability to think ahead – prepared to cast a shield charm.

At this point, the door to the potions classroom flew open and the tension was effectively neutralised.  Snape stood in the doorway, glaring.  The remaining smirks faded.  Then he stepped aside to allow everyone to make their way into the lab.

Hermione waited.  (She had learned, in recent weeks, to keep a bit of distance between herself and some of her fellow students.)  Behind her there was the sound of hurried steps.  She glanced to see Millicent Bulstrode huffing and puffing her way along in an awkward half-jog.  Hermione rolled her eyes and moved to enter the classroom.  She did not look at Snape, and thus had no idea whether he looked at her.

"You were very nearly late, Miss Bulstrode," he said behind Hermione.

"Nearly isn't really," Bulstrode threw back, as if it was a thing that adults actually said to each other.

"Nearly is bad enough.  See that it does not happen again."

Bulstrode entered the classroom, muttering something about how she'd seen the paper and reckoned Snape ought to be in a much better mood.  Snape did not favour the muttering with a response.

Hermione went to her work station and set out her pad and pen and textbook.  Today they would be brewing one of the more potent calming draughts: the kind generally administered to people whose anxiety levels approached hysteria.

Perhaps, she considered, she might be able to sneak a taste.  It felt as if this Monday was rapidly turning into a day worthy of the magical equivalent of a Valium.

~~~

She got a Subpar.  It was the lowest she'd scored on a potion since fourth year.

Zabini got a Subpar as well.  This was as unusual for him as it was for Hermione.  It seemed that both of them had been distracted by unhappy thoughts.  Oddly, Draco also did badly.  She didn't know what was up with him.

Hermione trudged back up to the ground floor of the hospital after scrubbing her cauldron so hard she'd probably worn the copper down by half a millimetre.  She was angry with Snape for being so reckless in his dalliances, and now she was angry with herself for allowing it to affect her work.

She slumped into a chair in the waiting area for Artefact Accidents.  It was no coincidence that her injury was playing up more than usual today.  The curse that still crawled around her collarbone always seemed to relish those moments when she was distressed.

"Subpar," she muttered to herself, thinking back to the cold, unimpressed look in Snape's eyes when he'd made his assessment.  It hurt, it really hurt, that he hadn't cared enough to look disappointed.  "Second-rate.  Below average.  Deficient."  She winced at her own words.  "Fuck it.  Acceptable is not, in any way, acceptable."

She crossed her legs, crossed her arms, identified the defensive nature of her posture and then tut-tutted.  So what if she looked wound up?  She was wound up.  She was an idiot and she had feelings for an even bigger idiot.  And this bloody course still had nearly three months to run.  If she got another Acceptable then the overall Outstanding she was hoping to achieve was starting to look beyond her.  And no, she did not want an Outstanding because Severus bloody Snape had demanded one in exchange for the vaguest consideration of friendship after the teaching was done.  She wanted one because she was Hermione Granger, and when she failed to get an Outstanding people stared at her, all shock and gaping mouths and  "Oh dear, whatever happened, Hermione?"  And then she would have to explain herself, and it would sound like an excuse, and some people would turn away with that glint in their eye that meant they were glad to see the know-it-all finally brought down a peg or two.  And maybe that was fair enough except it wasn't as if she did this stuff on purpose, was it?  She couldn't help that she was good at studying.  She couldn't help that she remembered things.  She liked learning.  It wasn't as if she'd asked for these qualities before being born.  It was just how she was.  Might as well ask Ron to be less red-haired and more crap at chess, or ask Harry to be less of a chosen one.

"Subpar," she growled.  "Bollocks."

"Hermione?"

She looked up, startled.  Healer Montague was standing over her, looking concerned.  Looking as though she'd been calling 'Hermione' for a lot longer than Hermione had realised, come to that.

"Sorry," she said.  "Miles away."

"So I saw.  In you come, then."

Healer Montague led her over to one of the consultation cubicles.  Hermione followed, wondering what had prompted this change to the routine.  After months of re-zips, she was familiar with the personnel who would be here on Monday afternoons.  Healer Montague was usually up on the Spell Damage floor at this time of day.

"How are you?" Hermione asked, remembering her manners as she sat down and watched Healer Montague whisk the curtain into place and then charm the cubicle with the standard privacy spell.

"Oh, well enough, well enough.  You seem a bit glum today, though," said the Healer.  "I was expecting you in fine spirits, what with the news."

Hermione sagged in the chair and sighed.  "Did I miss something?  Was I born without a certain gene?  When did everyone get so interested in other people's personal lives?"

"It isn't just anyone, though, is it?  Not for you."  Healer Montague raised an eyebrow at Hermione's sharp look.  "I'm not blind, you know.  Wasn't just the Good Samaritan you were playing, this summer."

"Healer–"

"Oh, I think you can call me Gloria these days, can't you?  Take your top off.  Let's get this nasty thing charmed closed again."

"Gloria, then."  Hermione pulled her top over her head.  "And Professor Snape would be appalled by the suggestion that his relationship with any student went beyond the pedagogical."

"I'm only suggesting you and he are friends."

Relieved, and trying not to let on how relieved she was, Hermione said, "Even so."

"And as such, I was anticipating rather more friendly support on your part."

Hermione blinked.  "You think I should encourage this?"

"Why on earth not?"  Gloria unpeeled the dressing Hermione had applied to the wound that morning.  There were dots of blood on the underside.  "The man's been mired in the guilt of an old, tragic mistake for half his life.  If he's finally ready to move past it, more power to him, I say."

"But did he have to do so with a woman like that?"

"What's wrong with her?"  Gloria tutted.  "Come now, Hermione, I know she might not be everyone's idea of a catch, but I'd have hoped for a more open-minded view from you!"

Hermione opened her mouth and then closed it again.  She wasn't sure how to respond to the accusation that she was being prejudiced about someone who probably had seven murders under her belt.

"Not everything is about appearance," Gloria added, more gently.  She unsheathed her wand and muttered the healing charms that sealed the slice over Hermione's collarbone.

"I know," Hermione said slowly.  "The thing is, I'd hoped Sever–...I'd hoped Professor Snape knows it too."

"Of course he does.  Isn't it obvious?"  With another swift charm, Gloria cleansed the area around Hermione's scar.  "That's you.  Pop your top back on."

As she got dressed again, Hermione acknowledged that she seemed to be missing something: something to do with the appearance of Snape's new paramour.  Perhaps Zabini's mum had, in recent years, experienced a disfiguring injury?  Perhaps this was why she had withdrawn from the kill-your-husband-for-his-money market.  Perhaps this was why Snape had decided to go for it: he had no money worth killing for, she had lost the perfect beauty she'd used as a snare.  Maybe the two of them had come to a kind of arrangement.

Mind you, Terry had been impressed enough with the photograph.  And no one had mentioned anything about Mrs Zabini's compromised looks before the lesson.

Gloria Montague stood straight.  "Look.  I know, as his friend – and yes, that's between us, don't fret – I know you worry about him.  Goodness only knows, he's been through enough in recent years.  I only spent an hour with him when he was touring the facility, but it became very clear, very quickly, that his life has been defined by a need to anticipate the worst possible outcome.  It's second nature to him.  It must be so very wearing to live like that, don't you think?"

"I'm sure that's right," Hermione agreed.  And she was sure.  She knew it from experience.

"So the fact that he's taking this first tentative step into something that should be about hope, and trust, and the future?  That has to be a good thing.  Doesn't it?"

Hermione pinched her lips together.  "If that's what it is about, then the Professor would have nothing but my complete support."  He would.  She demanded it of herself.  Even if it made her die a little inside.

"Time will tell," said Gloria.  "But I know Roksana Bramble.  We were at Hogwarts together, though she was a few years below me.  Everyone in Hufflepuff was very proud of her.  We knew, even back then, that she'd go on to great things.  It isn't fair that she's become known primarily for the accident.  Not after all her achievements in potions reform."

Hermione sat still for a long moment.  Then she couldn't contain the chortle that escaped her.

"What's so funny?" Gloria asked.

Hermione shook her head.  "Roksana Bramble."

"Yes."

"The Roksana Bramble.  With the column in The Practical Potioneer."

"Yes, that's her."

"Professor Snape is seeing a former Hufflepuff potions expert."

"Well, yes.  I thought you'd read the paper!"  Gloria tutted.  "Not that the Prophet is claiming anything like a romantic connection, of course.  As if a man like Snape and a woman like Roksana don't deserve to be acknowledged as living, breathing, human adults."

Hermione sighed.  "Okay.  I am definitely going to need a copy of today's Daily Prophet – and those are words I never thought I'd hear myself speak."  She smiled at Gloria.  For some reason her sense of relief was making her feel punch-drunk.  "Sorry.  Cross-purposes.  Lots and lots of cross-purposes.  Like a wildly tangled-up phone exchange.  You know.  When they still had wires and plugs and ladies with plums in their mouths."

"Are you all right, dear?"

"Not sure.  Probably will be, though."  She inhaled and pulled her shoulders back and felt a bit better.  "So did you come down here to talk about Professor Snape's hopes and dreams, or was there another reason why you swapped shifts today?"

"Ah.  Yes.  We did get sidetracked there, didn't we?  There's something else."

"Right.  Well – here I am.  Listening and everything."

Gloria smiled a half-smile.  "Not here.  I was hoping you might agree to a meeting later on."

"Crikey.  Are we doing cloak and dagger?"

"We're doing hospital politics, and that's much trickier."

"Okay.  So how about the Leaky Cauldron?"

"Not there either."  Gloria sighed, looking around at the cubicle, perhaps considering how much longer she could get away with keeping the privacy charm up.  "Look, I feel awful asking.  You've got quite enough on your plate.  But I need...well, I suppose I need a second set of eyes on a bit of a problem.  My instinct tells me you're a good choice.  So would you mind ever so much coming out to my house in Puddlemere this evening?"

~~~

Excerpt from the Daily Prophet, Monday 21st September 1998
Front page spread with large photograph:

EIGHTH TIME THE CHARM?

While she has been out of the public eye for a good five years, Jossinia Leigh Trelore, formerly Jossinia Harcourt, formerly Jossinia Dalrymple, formerly – shall we keep going? – Jossinia Goodwych, Zabini, Halfbucket, Appleyard, née Jossinia Brown, has never been far from our thoughts.  This stunning witch's breathtaking beauty and implausibly proportioned figure makes her hard to forget, as does her consistent run of bad luck when it comes to husbands.

Widowed seven times due to a sequence of unpredictable accidents and devastating illnesses, Mrs Trelore, 51, seemed to have given up on finding husband number eight and, instead, disappeared into seclusion.  While she remains a handsome witch, there have been those who theorised that potential suitors were put off by the consistency with which her husbands could not expect to live to see their third wedding anniversary* – the exception, of course, being Niccolo Zabini, the father of Mrs Trelore's only son, who survived for six impressive years after marrying the woman many have called 'the most beautiful witch of her eon'.

* The Daily Prophet wishes to make clear that no evidence of wrongdoing was ever proven in the aftermath of Mrs Trelore's various bereavements.

But Mrs Trelore need languish in loneliness no more!  Just this last weekend, one of your own Prophet's intrepid reporters ventured into the world of Muggle high society following a tip-off from a respected source.  The event: a charity ball in aid of the Richmond Foundation.  The host: Philip Richmond, the wealthy Muggle philanthropist who lends his name and his largesse to the Foundation's numerous good causes.  And in the company of the prosperous patron himself: a preternatural beauty, a woman so perfectly formed that she has had the Muggle press scrambling around all weekend, desperate to identify her.

The Muggle tabloids have thus far come up short, but the Prophet can reveal that this well-heeled Muggle businessman is dating none other than Wizarding Britain's Jossinia Trelore!

Given the prejudices so apparent during our recent troubled times, perhaps there are some who might frown upon the choice of paramour Mrs Trelore, a pure-blood of impeccable breeding, is pursuing.  In accordance with the anti-discrimination legislation being fast-tracked by the Ministry, the Daily Prophet, of course, refuses to indulge any such bigotry.  As long as Mrs Trelore holds to the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, we see no reason why a pure-blood should not dally with a Muggle.  (Especially a Muggle with twelve fabulously appointed houses, and who wears Italian couture with such panache, as can be seen thanks to this candid shot of the clearly enamoured couple on the ballroom floor.)

So good luck to you, Jossinia!  May number eight be the one that finally works out.

~~~

Further excerpt from the Daily Prophet, Monday 21st September 1998
Article in lower left quarter with small photograph; Page 17:

POTIONS MAESTROS IN TALKS

Spotted last week at Madam Bonigut's Tea Rooms in Upper Flagley was none other than acclaimed war hero Severus Snape, taking the time to sample those famous Bonigut pastries in the company of reclusive potioneer Roksana Bramble.

Many will remember the terrible accident that took place fifteen years ago at the Netch-Rocksalt brewing facility on the Orcadian isle of Fara.  Angus Rocksalt himself died in the blast; two others succumbed to their injuries in the days that followed.  It was only the quick-thinking of Mistress Bramble that averted a wider-scale disaster.  She held the raging fires at bay with containment charms for an incredible forty-three minutes until help arrived, remaining in place to do so when she could have Apparated away.  As a consequence, four young apprentice potioneers who'd been trapped and injured by the initial explosion were able to be rescued.

Perhaps these two potions maestros spent some time comparing the permanent marks of their heroism.  The Fara tragedy left Mistress Bramble with horrific facial burns which she conceals behind a heavy veil while out in public.  Professor Snape's ravaged throat was obvious and startling to all who witnessed his recent acquittal before the Wizengamot.

More likely, however, these two intellectual giants were far more concerned with some shop-talk.  Here's hoping there are some potions innovations on the horizon for all of us here in Wizarding Britain!

~~~

Gloria Montague lived with her husband in a whitewashed cottage with climbing roses around the door.  The sun had gone down about an hour ago, and the evening was calm and pleasant.  Gloria invited Hermione out into the garden, and the two of them wandered the paths by the twin lights of their wands, examining the plants.  Lavender and rosemary scented the air.

After an awkward pause, during which Hermione was expected to admire Gloria's herb beds, she gave up on waiting.

"Is someone else joining us?" she asked.

Gloria sighed.  "Yes.  Sorry.  I asked Joseph to come by earlier so we could discuss how to explain things to you.  Only he hasn't shown up."

Hermione cast her mind back over several months of friendly acquaintance with the Healer.  "Joseph, as in your oldest son?"

"That's the one."

Hermione frowned.  "All right then.  So did you want to tell me anyway, or did you want to leave it until you've had chance to speak to him?"

Gloria opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a small silvery light.  Both of them turned to watch as, right there between the sage and the parsley, the light coalesced into an oversized honey bee.

"Hi Mum," the bee said.  "Sorry I'm a no-show.  I decided to stay on a bit.  Keep an eye out.  Look, don't worry, okay?  This isn't your problem.  I'm twenty-five years old – it's not fair, you feeling you have to step in and sort things out for me.  So just forget I said anything, okay?  I'll talk to you soon.  T'ra!"

Message delivered, the Patronus buzzed over a couple of the plants with what looked like a sort of species-memory interest, then it dissipated into nothing.

Gloria sighed again and said, "That boy!"

Hermione said, "Joseph's Patronus, I assume?"

Gloria nodded.  There was a pause.  The Healer seemed deep in thought.  Hermione waited.

"Dash it," Gloria said.  "I don't care what he says; I'm telling you.  The last time Joseph tried to sort out a problem on his own he got himself fired from Verdant Acres."

Hermione suggested, "I can be a sounding board for you, at least.  For, um, whatever this is."

"And that would be a good start.  The thing is, I'm rather stuck for options.  I can't ask my husband – William's right in the middle of commissioning tests for the new Nimbus Millennium.  Very focused, my William.  All my closest friends are associated with the hospital.  And you're the one person I know who might have some experience with...well, criminal activity."

Hermione's eyes grew wide.  "Blimey.  Well."  She shrugged a shoulder.  "I did once rob a bank."

"For the very best of reasons," Gloria acknowledged.  "Fortunately this time the stakes aren't quite so high."

Hermione offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile, and gestured towards the back door.  "We'll sort this out.  Never underestimate the combined power of two intelligent females.  Shall we go inside, though?  It's getting chilly out here."

~~~

The two of them sat down at the kitchen table.  Gloria clasped her hands and took a deep breath, then she proceeded to lay out the issue.  Hermione listened.  Twenty-three seconds in to Gloria's explanation, Hermione held up a finger to interrupt.  Then she rummaged in her coat pocket for her A5 notebook: the one she usually used for lists.  She turned to a fresh page and wrote:

G.M.'s Problem.

She underlined the title.  Wrote two bullet points beneath.  She looked up, smiled sheepishly at Gloria, and gestured her to continue.

~~~

At the first natural pause, Hermione scanned her notes and said, "St Mungo's long-term storage level.  Right below where my Potions class is held.  You know, it sounds rather wonderful – all those different terrains and climates and miniature ecosystems.  The spellwork to maintain the enchantments must be astonishing."  She sighed wistfully.  "I wish I could see it for myself."

"I'm afraid that's not possible.  Not unless you end up working at the hospital."

"Is it all locked up?  I suppose it must be, given the value of what's kept there."

"Actually it isn't.  Well, not in the classic sense.  Access to the level is monitored.  Upon leaving the stairwell at sub-level two you will find yourself in the antechamber.  The Storekeep will take your request for whatever it is you need.  Usually you'd be a Mediwitch sent down to arrange a restocking of Blood-Replenishing Potion or Burn-Healing Paste or some such."

"Right.  I see.  So the Storekeep won't give just anyone supplies?"

"No, you need to offer your wand to prove you're a valid staff member."

"There's no way to bypass this?  Apparition?"

"The storage level is subject to the same wards as the rest of the hospital.  All incoming Apparitions are directed to the arrivals alcove on the ground floor."

"All right, what about Portkeys?  You can Portkey to a place with anti-Apparition wards."

"True enough.  The Ministry won't supply you with a Portkey to St Mungo's that goes anywhere other than the arrivals alcove, however.  In any case, St Mungo's is warded for Portkeys as well as Apparition."

"So even a non-Ministry Portkey is no good?"

"Far as I know.  It isn't something you see very often.  Unauthorised Portkeys are highly illegal.  They are not easy to obtain, and the punishment for using them is severe."

"Dumbledore used them," Hermione said wryly.

"Dumbledore...was Dumbledore," Gloria said, smiling.

Which was true enough; Dumbledore had always seemed to function outside certain rules and boundaries.  Hermione herself had skirted the rules in recent times.  She'd had to, to keep herself and her friends alive.

The Portkeys she'd acquired for her parents were entirely legal, of course; it hadn't been difficult to sort them out now Percy Weasley was the man in charge of the Department of Magical Transportation and thus the Portkey Office.  But if she hadn't been able to organise authorised Portkeys, Hermione would have enchanted her own.  It was difficult magic, but she'd mastered it because it seemed like a useful skill to possess.  When push came to shove, the consequences of being caught with an unauthorised Portkey were infinitely less frightening than the consequences of failing to protect her parents.

Hermione set the ideas aside.  "All right, we'll leave that for now.  Let's explore how someone might gain access the traditional way, before we get too creative.  All the storerooms and habitats and so forth are beyond this antechamber?"

"That's right.  It's rather higgledy-piggledy down there.  Lots of add-ons and expansion charms and so forth.  Quite easy to get lost, if you don't know where you're going.  Access to the rest of the level is through an archway at the back of the antechamber.  It's enchanted.  It won't let you pass through unless you carry a registered wand."

"Ah.  Interesting.  So who has access?"

"All the storage level's staff, of course.  Several of the Healers, myself included.  Some senior admin staff.  The hospital's board members.  I can get you a list, if you like?"

"Please, if you would."  Hermione nodded.  "Right then.  May I summarise what we've got so far?  Just to be sure I've got things straight?"

"By all means," Gloria said.  "I'll put the kettle on."

While her hostess went through the ever-calming process of tea-brewing, Hermione frowned at her notes and said:

"Your son Joseph is a herbologist who works on the long-term storage level.  Last Friday morning he discovered that several plants in the areas he tends had been vandalised.  Some had been taken altogether."

"So far so good.  Sugar?" Gloria called.

"No thanks.  Now, the list of affected plants reads as follows: from the semi-arid habitat we have doloris and wormwood; from the arctic tundra habitat we have the snagberry.  Doloris and snagberry are both on the Ministry's Restricted Register for controlled ingredients, and as such are not available over the counter.  Wormwood, of course, is cheap and widely available, so I've no idea why someone would feel the need to steal some."

"It's the snagberry that broke Joseph's heart," Gloria said.  "It's the only plant on the planet able to root through permafrost.  The bushes survive arctic winters thanks to their remarkable, fast-growing, deep root systems which have the ability to produce a kind of antifreeze.  The plants are incredibly rare, and there's only a single specimen at the hospital.  It was grown from a cutting gifted to St Mungo's by the Canadian Ministry, and it's over thirty years old now."

"Is it the berries that are used for potions?"

"No idea, I'm afraid.  In all my time at St Mungo's I can't recall using anything from that plant."

"So it's just there because it's rare and it was a gift?"

"Something so precious wouldn't be discarded.  And new potions discoveries are made all the time.  It might be that the next major medical breakthrough makes use of the snagberry – who knows?"  Gloria frowned.  "And if it does, well, we'd better hope the plant survives this assault."

"How badly was the snagberry damaged?"

"The miscreant took an axe to one of its main boughs.  An axe!  Can you imagine?"

Hermione found herself wishing Neville was there to have his brain picked.  "Will it recover?"

Gloria nodded.  "Joseph thinks so.  The shrub was well established and in good health before this assault.  The wound on the trunk has been magically sealed.  If anyone can nurse it through the trauma then my Joseph will manage it.  But none of that excuses such a-a desecration."

"Quite right too.  So we have these thefts, which seem sort of specific.  If someone wanted to make a Galleon or two by robbing the hospital then there's more obvious things to target.  Glasswing beetle larvae, for instance.  So we can probably assume that this was not a money-making exercise."

"Fair assumption," Gloria agreed.

"Okay.  Before we go any further – this wasn't just a ham-fisted bit of harvesting by an inexperienced apprentice or something?"

"No.  The harvesting is always done by Joseph or one of the three other herbologists who work on that level.  All of them know how to collect ingredients without harming the plant."

"Do we know if anything else was taken?  The habitats aren't restricted to plant-life.  There's invertebrate colonies, fungi, then there's the separate stores of ingredients already harvested or imported, of course."

"I asked Joseph the same thing.  He doesn't know."

"Right then.  So the main question for me is: what could these ingredients combine to make?  If we knew that, we might be able to narrow down our suspects."

"Suspects!"  Gloria laughed self-consciously.  "Oh, goodness me, it's like Inspector Morse."

"I wouldn't mind the Jag, but I'm not developing a drink problem, not even for you."

Gloria managed another half-laugh.  She brought the tea tray over to the table and sat down again.  "How do you take your tea, dear?"

"Just a splash of milk," Hermione said.  "All right, so we have a lower basement floor at the hospital which contains plenty of stuff that might be worth stealing, but no means of getting in there without your wand being registered.  I take it there's always someone on duty down there?"

"Oh, yes.  The current Stores Master is Nicholas Lambage.  Mid-forties, bit of a swagger, rather convinced of his own self-importance.  He works nine to five and not a moment longer, far as I can tell.  Under him are the Storekeeps, who cover the same shift pattern as the medical staff.  Then you have the team of specialists – herbologists, zoologists, enchantment experts who manage the habitats themselves."

"So there's usually someone about, even outside of normal working hours?"

"There's always at least one Storekeep on duty.  Sometimes items are needed quickly – if there's a medical emergency, for example.  The rest of the staff keep the hours that their duties demand.  Who else might be down there...?"  Gloria frowned as she thought.  "Oh, there's Tilda, of course.  Matilda Swann, the hospital's librarian."

"The library is on the same level as the ingredients store?  Why is that?"

"Accident of history, I think.  Is it really so odd?  Libraries are store-houses for knowledge, after all."  Gloria gave a small smile.  "Tilda doesn't keep the most regular hours, though.  I've no idea whether she was around when the vandalism took place.  She's an old friend of mine.  I can ask her, if you like?"

"We're information-gathering, right now."  Hermione nodded to herself.  "Yes, I think it's worth asking the question.  Thank you."

"Just bear in mind that she's a hundred and three, and very focused on her books.  I'm not sure she's ever visited any of the habitats."

"She might have seen something out of place, though," Hermione suggested.

"Tilda?"  Gloria gave a wry smile.  "She's the kind of person who doesn't notice that she forgot to change out of her nightshirt to come to work.  Noticing other people is something she only tends to do when books are involved."  A pause.  "I think she'd notice you.  Which, as far as I'm concerned, is a huge compliment."

"I'll take it as such."  Hermione nodded as she reviewed her own notes.  "Now, you say your son is convinced the thefts happened some time after six o'clock in the evening last Thursday."

"Yes."

"So that takes in at least one shift change.  Might the antechamber have been empty?  Just for a short while?"

"Entirely possible."

"But Joseph hasn't reported this to the Stores Master.  Nor have you been in any hurry to report this to the hospital higher-ups.  Instead you're talking to a nineteen year old NEWT student."  Hermione sat back, cradling her tea.  "Shall we cover that bit now?"

Gloria sighed heavily.  "I'm fairly sure that the person who took the plants is a hospital staff member."

"I thought as much, given that the perpetrator requires a registered wand.  All the more reason to report it, surely?"

"Not when there's a chance the person I'm reporting to is complicit."

"So go to the top.  You're senior enough – take it to the board."

"Again, potential complicity is a problem."

Hermione frowned.  "This is sounding – forgive me – a touch paranoid."

"I know.  I promise you I'm not actually barmy.  Look, the storage level has permanent enchantments within its fabric.  All activity on the level is recorded, wherever you go, whichever chambers you enter."

Hermione nodded.  "Like CCTV in a Muggle business.  But it's easy enough to carry someone else's wand."

"I suppose that's true, although if the duty Storekeep didn't recognise the wand holder then any miscreant would struggle to get past them."

"Polyjuice?"

Gloria pinched wearily between her eyes.  "Maybe.  Possibly.  Oh, I don't know, Hermione.  The more I try to think it through, the more my brain trips itself up.  But if we try to stick to the facts?  As soon as Joseph noted the damage to the snagberry bush, he checked the records to see who'd been in the tundra habitat."

"Ah.  So he has access to the monitoring system?"

"Everyone with a registered wand does.  A simple charm will display recent activity on the level.  It's often used to locate a colleague.  Sometimes it's a life-saver.  Four years ago one of the zoologists got into trouble in the glasswing beetle colony.  Heat probably got to him; he fainted before he could renew his cooling charm.  Fortunately the monitoring system showed his colleagues where he was."

"I see.  So Joseph checked the records.  What did he find?"

"During the window of time when the damage had to have been done, the only people who entered the habitat had a perfect right to be there."

"All right, but I'm still not sure why Joseph can't simply report this."

Gloria sagged.  "Yes.  Well.  The thing of it is, Joseph...he has something of a chequered past.  Straight out of Hogwarts, he apprenticed to Solomon Pyke at Verdant Acres Botanicals over in Chudley.  While he was there he found out that Pyke's son-in-law had a nice little sideline selling Venomous Tentacula leaves to people down the pub who didn't want to pay top Galleon for the tradeable extract.  Only he ended up picking too many leaves, and the plants started to fail.  When Joseph noticed this, he set himself up in the greenhouse with a Disillusionment charm.  He saw Pyke's son-in-law helping himself, and like the good, honest boy we raised him to be, he reported it."

"Oh.  Dear.  And how did that go?"

"Pyke's son-in-law blamed Joseph, of course.  Said my son must have been stealing the leaves and selling them on, and now the plants were failing he was trying to blame someone else.  None of the customers down the pub were prepared to testify.  It was Joseph's word against Pyke's own family.  So Pyke fired Joseph."

Hermione felt a familiar bristling.  She had never lost the ability to be appalled by a miscarriage of justice.  "Spineless git," she muttered.

"It's possible I said the same thing myself," Gloria agreed.  "And it would have ended there, only Joseph – well, he kicked up quite a fuss .  Said he wanted Magical Law Enforcement to investigate.  He told Pyke he was willing to submit to a Veritaserum test and he could offer his memories for Pensieve evidence."

"Good for him!" Hermione said.

"Pyke panicked, of course.  Couldn't risk the scandal.  The man's no fool; he knew what was really going on.  So he offered to let Joseph leave with his apprenticeship paperwork fully signed off, just so long as he did so quietly.  Joseph agreed."

Hermione winced.  "Only now your son is worried that if the hospital investigates any thefts on the storage level, they'll notice that Joseph himself was present in the pertinent areas.  And they'll get wind that he was once accused of stealing from Pyke, and maybe even that – technically, anyway – he never completed his apprenticeship?"

"Oh, he's not merely worried.  He knows that's what would happen.  You see, Pyke's thieving son-in-law is Jasper Crossley.  Whose mother, Amanda Crossley, is on the board of St Mungo's.  And she holds a grudge.  When she found out Joseph was in for a job at the hospital, she did her best to make sure he was rejected – right up until the moment I told her that if she continued to interfere then I'd contact MLE myself, since my son's memories of the events at Verdant Acres were still available."

Hermione rolled her eyes.  "Hospital politics.  I see."  Mind you, it was a motive of sorts.  If Amanda Crossley hadn't been able to deny Joseph a job then might she be trying to set him up as a thief, all over again?  Hermione scribbled another note in her book.  "All right, then.  No formal hospital investigation – we'll try to keep Joseph out of trouble."

"I appreciate that.  And I also appreciate that there may come a time when we have to grasp the nettle."

"But for now you're asking me to keep this confidential," Hermione said.  "Which I understand, I really do, but the thing is – I have two best friends who are learning the business of criminal investigation.  Both are utterly trustworthy."

"I'm sure they are.  And if you wanted to involve them, I wouldn't dream of interfering.  But my concern would be that if young Mr Potter is as close to Kingsley Shacklebolt as the recent Wizengamot coverage has indicated, then, well..."

"Harry might mention something to Kingsley, and the next thing you know MLE are telling the hospital to investigate an incident that Joseph has, rather suspiciously, failed to report."

"Yes."

Hermione nodded.  "All right, we'll put that idea on hold as well."  She reviewed her notes.  "We really need to know what these ingredients make.  Or even if they make something."  She hoped she wasn't looking too eager when she suggested, "You know the best person to ask, of course?"

Gloria smiled tightly.  "I know.  And we can't ask him."

"Why not?"

Gloria looked down at her hands and frowned.  "Severus Snape's wand is one of those that was active late on Thursday evening.  In the very habitats in question."

"His wand is registered for the level?"

"Indeed it is.  Professor Snape is responsible for the collection and return of any ingredients needed for his lessons."

"Well – that explains it, then.  He teaches on Thursday afternoons.  He was probably returning ingredients."

"He went into two ingredient stores and three habitats.  As I told you earlier, only Joseph and his colleagues handle the harvesting.  Professor Snape should only need to visit the storerooms."

Something churned a bit in Hermione's gut.  "Maybe he was checking something ready for today's lesson.  We made a calming draught and needed ginger root.  Or something else.  He's very prepared, you know.  I can get you the list of upcoming potions; we can see if any of them have ingredients from those habitats."  Hermione was getting cross and anxious.  "It must have been that."

Gloria reached across the table and took Hermione's hand.  "I'm not saying that Professor Snape is under suspicion.  But think of how it looks.  There is no doubt that he was on the level when the deed could have been done."

Hermione thought about this, then she nodded bleakly.  "And if St Mungo's board decide they need a scapegoat then they have two prime candidates: Severus Snape and Joseph Montague."

"I think that rather adequately sums up my dilemma," Gloria said.

There was quiet for a while.  The two women finished the tea in the pot.

"It isn't Severus," Hermione said.  "He wouldn't do this."

"You don't think he'd steal ingredients?"

"Of course he wouldn't!  Look, I know he's..."  She hesitated, choosing her words carefully.  "Difficult.  Difficult to like, at any rate, but underneath all that sneering and sarcasm he's a decent man.  Trustworthy."

The Healer looked down at her empty teacup.  "The thing is – not all thefts are motivated by greed."

"I know."  Hermione huffed a laugh at herself.  "Wouldn't be the first time I stole potions ingredients in a good cause, actually."

"Do you think there are any circumstances where Professor Snape might feel compelled to do the same?"

"Of course n–"  Hermione forced herself to stop.  She had become better at thinking before speaking.  "I don't know," she corrected.  "Maybe."

Gloria was quiet for a while, just letting the idea seep into the conversation.

"So what can I do to help?" Hermione finally asked.  "I mean, even if I look into this for you, my wand isn't registered for the storage level.  I can't check out the crime scene."

"No – I don't want you anywhere near that floor.  If this matter gets out, there'll be plenty of high-ups wanting to steer suspicion away from the hospital.  I can well imagine they'll be swift to point out that the thefts took place after one of Professor Snape's classes.  His students might even be accused."

"Seems a bit of a stretch.  We'd have to know about the monitoring system.  And find a way to bypass it."

"All that would take is a bribe in the pocket of one of the level's regular staff."

Hermione blew her cheeks out.  She hadn't even thought of the theft-by-proxy angle.  "Right."

"Which is why I want you to steer clear of the level for now.  The best thing you can do is to find out about these ingredients.  Because you're right – the thefts were so specific, there has to be some larger plot at work."

Hermione nodded, mentally cataloguing her resources.  Her own stock of potions texts was not extensive but there were a few others in the library at Grimmauld Place.  She could risk a brief trip to Hogwarts, at a push.  Where else?  Flourish and Blotts, of course.  Annoyingly, the best libraries for potions texts were two that she had no access to: Lucius Malfoy's collection at the abandoned Malfoy Manor, and the material in the hospital's own library.  A library that was itself situated on the long-term storage level.

Still, she could make a start, see where things took her.  And it was nice to have an intellectual problem to get her teeth into.  Even after a pain-in-the-arse day like this one had been, Hermione found herself feeling energised.

"Will you be in Artefact Accidents on Thursday for my next appointment?" Hermione asked.

"No.  If you need to contact me, owl me here.  Or drop by."  Gloria looked sheepish.  "Let's not get carried away with the cloak and dagger."

"Fair enough," said Hermione.  "We'll talk again soon."

She said goodbye and Apparated home, clutching her new project to herself like a cherished stuffed toy.  'The long-term storage level' was such a functional name for an awe-inspiring place.  An entire network of diverse and productive habitats: what a place that would be to explore!  You could see plants and insects and animals in their native environments that might otherwise require a journey halfway around the world.  The snagberry intrigued her, as did the wand monitoring system.  She was thinking about charts, and lists of personnel, and timelines.

She'd been in need of a distraction, and this one worked very well.  There were few things that thrilled Hermione Granger more than the prospect of a research project.

~~~