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Toil and Trouble

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"Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger."

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 1954

 

Hermione went straight in to see Mr Arnold when she arrived at the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee offices the next morning.  She'd spent most of the previous evening at her parent's house, where she could use their PC and examine the camera footage from the hotel without risk to disk or device from nearby magic.  Knowing that she might well be analysing the behaviour of a killer had made the exercise an onerous one.  It had taken her until well after ten o'clock to examine the footage second by second, and a further hour to transcribe her notes into a sensible report.

Even so, she'd managed to get to bed only a little after midnight and had enjoyed a pretty solid six hours of sleep, so she felt more alert than she had in the last two days.

"Morning, Miss Granger," Arnold greeted her.

"Mr Arnold," she replied as she closed the door.  She stepped up to the desk.  "I've made three copies of my report.  I've already dropped off the first on level two for the attention of Madam Churlish, but I've copied in you and Acting Minister Shacklebolt.  I hope you don't mind – it's printed on A4.  It was more efficient to prepare that way than using quill and parchment and a duplication spell."

"A...4?"

"Standard Muggle paper size."  Hermione set Arnold's copy of the report before him, sheathed in a tidy plastic wallet.  "I realise this matter is now in the hands of Magical Law Enforcement, but they may still want to use Dane – he remains the best excuse we've got for the footage that has been witnessed."

"Indeed he is," Arnold agreed, while looking curiously at the wallet and report.  "Madam Churlish contacted me only ten minutes ago to say that the dead woman's body has been discovered by the Muggle authorities – someone raised the alarm after she was incommunicado yesterday.  Their initial assessment, as we suspected, is of self-inflicted alcohol poisoning.  Madam Churlish has organised a couple of discreet memory charms on the woman's closest colleagues.  They'll testify that she had an enthusiastic relationship with alcohol.  This will, of course, play into our narrative of what happened at the Savoy – a stage magician's act being wildly misinterpreted by a less-than-coherent drunk."

Hermione nodded, though she felt uncomfortable.  It didn't seem right that in order to protect the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy a murder victim's memory was being tainted.

Arnold looked up at her, blinked, then smiled a sad smile.  "I know, Miss Granger, I know.  Ruthless, the work we do, sometimes."

Hermione frowned and cleared her throat, mainly as an excuse to look away.  "I, er, I didn't mean....sorry."  She shrugged helplessly.  "I've never been very good at keeping my thoughts to myself."

"If it makes you feel better, the vodka used in the murder was already in the flat in Lewisham when the killer arrived.  There were recent shopping receipts.  It's all apparently in the Muggle police report.  Likelihood is that this poor woman did rely on alcohol more than was sensible."

"Even so," Hermione said.

"As you say."

"Did Madam Churlish tell you how the interview with Quentin Bittercup went?  The one with Veritaserum?"

"Only to let me know that Bittercup has been released with a warning.  Turns out he was telling the truth when he said he was not the cloaked figure the Muggle woman saw.  But he had omitted to mention that when he left the hotel and realised she was following, he threw a clumsy Obliviate.  Claimed he was trying to do just enough to make her stop and wonder what she'd come outside for, but he isn't the most proficient of casters.  Memory spells should always be left to the experts."

"Of course."  Hermione gave an understanding nod, though she privately wished people would stop mentioning this.  "Explains why the woman was already disoriented when the other wizard showed up, though."

"It does."  Arnold slid the report from the wallet and perched a pair of enchanted pince-nez on his nose to look down at it.  "Thank you for this.  Your efficiency does you credit, Miss Granger.  I shall let you know the moment we're given the – how do the Muggles put it? – the 'green light', or otherwise, on Dane's involvement."

"Yes, sir."  She turned to leave, then turned back.  "Oh!  I had a couple of extra thoughts this morning.  Too late to put them in the report.  It occurred to me – you see, the wizard in the footage had prepared Polyjuice and an outfit to make him look like one of the waiters working at the charity event."

"Oh?  How so?"

"The wizard wore a white bow tie with his tuxedo.  But the photograph in the Prophet on Monday showed Mr Richmond wearing a black tie.  Formal events like that are usually stipulated as black-tie.  White-tie events are quite rare.  So in context, a white-tie tux would indicate serving staff.  It's the way they, you know, differentiate.  So you don't ask the wrong person for a refill."

"Is that so?"  Mr Arnold shook his head incredulously.  "What a complicated and absurd world the Muggles occupy."

"When it comes to high society etiquette, I can't argue with that.  But you see – this might be an avenue worthy of investigation.  The wizard deliberately made himself look like a waiter.  We've been so focused on explaining away the reporter's testimony – that took priority, of course it did.  But the wizard clearly had some kind of intention to infiltrate the ball itself."

Arnold frowned.  "That would seem logical.  However, this is rather beyond our office's remit."

"It's just a thought, sir."  She leaned over the desk as she tried to convey her certainty.  "But the thing is – if we knew what he was trying to do, it might help us identify him."

Arnold sat back in his chair.  "I'm sure, if they deem it necessary, Madam Churlish's team will come up with a way to look into this."

"Of course.  I mean, yes, I'm sure they will.  I've thought of some myself."  Hermione stood straight and counted the options off on her fingers.  "One – hotel security.  The wizard did not anticipate the cameras outside in the back lanes, so maybe he won't have anticipated the ones inside, either.  The footage from those will be clearer thanks to the better lighting.  Two – the Polyjuice.  We could try to identify this blond man whose face was borrowed.  I printed out the clearest image of him that the footage offers us; it's in the report.  Now he must be a regular working at the Savoy – hotels like that don't bring in people they haven't already vetted, not for high-profile events.  The man was probably paid off or incapacitated in some way last weekend to make way for our interloper, but he must have had some contact with the wizard in order for his hair to be procured for the Polyjuice potion.  If we could find him and examine his memories, that might give us a clue.  Three – witnesses at the ball itself.  I know virtually all of them are Muggle, but there happened to be at least one witch present.  I also think it logical to assume that whatever the disguised wizard wanted to do, it probably has something to do with the witch who was there.  So I think Jossinia Trelore should be interviewed, perhaps her memories examined in case she saw the interloper do something without even realising what she'd seen.  Four–"

"I think that's enough, Miss Granger," Arnold said sharply.  His expression softened as Hermione drew back in surprise.  "These all seem reasonable ideas, but they are less than relevant to Muggle-Worthy Excuses.  Are you sure you should be working in my office?  It would seem your talents lie closer to those of your friends Mr Potter and Mr Weasley."

"I'm not Auror material," she said with an embarrassed laugh.  "I'm quite good at thinking about things, but in the heat of the moment I get flustered.  That's rather bad, for law enforcement."

"I suppose it would be, yes."  Her boss studied her a moment, then gave a big sigh.  "Look, if the opportunity arises I shall pass on those thoughts to Madam Churlish.  Like you say, however – this matter is now in law enforcement's hands."  Arnold sat back and shuffled the papers of Hermione's report.  "Thank you for this.  That's all for now."

Hermione nodded at the dismissal and turned to leave.  She tried not to prickle with the sense of leaving a job half-finished; she had, after all, done everything she'd been asked to do.  Unfortunately, the prickling wouldn't go away.

It occurred to her that in the last year she had become far too used to being the person at the helm.  She'd decided what to do about her parents' vulnerability to Death Eater aggression; she'd made the arrangements for keeping herself and Harry and Ron safe while on the run; she'd translated Beedle's tales from their Ancient Runes; she'd directed most of their efforts as they tried to find a way to bring down Voldemort.

Now she was back to living under the authority and instruction of superiors: teachers, managers, even – to an extent – parents.  It rankled.  To be a single cog in someone else's machine seemed restrictive.  Hermione felt hamstrung.

Six months ago she'd ached for the day when the burden of responsibility would no longer fall on her shoulders.  It seemed she'd deluded herself.  She liked being the one in control.

She sat down at her desk and nodded at Lysander, who'd just arrived.

"How's things?" he asked as he shrugged off his outer robe to reveal a waistcoat of swirling crimson and saffron.

Hermione smiled across at him and gave a self-deprecating sigh.  "It turns out," she said, "that I really am an overbearing, bossy little know-it-all."

"Oh, dearheart, I could have told you that," he said.  "Wouldn't have you any other way.  Coffee?"

~~~

After lunch, Hermione Floo'ed to St Mungo's and her Thursday Potions class, determined that today's brew would earn her better than Monday's Subpar.  To her surprise, she came across Draco waiting in the stairwell.  Waiting, apparently, for her.

"Granger," he said, eyes darting about, sensitive to the potential for eavesdroppers.  "I need a favour."

He wanted her to play nice, after mocking her during yesterday's tutorial?  "Is that so?" she said, unimpressed.  "What was it?  'Dear Hermione, blah blah blah, love Hermione'?"

"Oh, come on.  That was a joke.  Quite a good one, actually.  And would it really be better if I stuck up for you in class?"

He was right.  This mutual-support thing they'd established was only useful so long as the rest of the Slytherins didn't anticipate it.

Hermione nodded her agreement.  "All right, then.  How can I help?"

Draco's eyebrows lifted at that; maybe he'd been expecting more resistance, or at least a negotiation.  "The counter-spell to Accio – the one you mentioned to Snape last week during Flameaway.  I need it."

Hermione narrowed her eyes as she thought back to Monday's Aqua Sedatis lesson.  She'd been so caught up in her mistaken reaction to the Prophet's front page, not to mention the sloppy way her brewing had gone, that she hadn't paid much attention to the rest of the class.  Now she thought about it, however, she recalled that Draco had needed to ask for additional ingredient supplies and an item of equipment.

"Ah.  I take it Blaise wasn't impressed with your reaction to the story about his mother," she said.

"He wasn't impressed with the way that story made our housemates distance themselves from him and look to another natural leader," Draco corrected, drawing himself up, narrow shoulders pulled back, looking at the whole world down the end of his nose.

She rolled her eyes at Draco.  "Yeah, yeah, congratulations, you have minions again.  You must be proud."

He glared at her for a moment, then his shoulders relaxed and he managed a wry smile.  "It is all a bit ridiculous, isn't it?"

"Ridiculous is the word."  Hermione nodded.  "Okay, the counter-charm you need is in Dingle's Charm Mechanics.  Chapter three, if I remember correctly."

"And that would be useful information if we were sitting in a library and I had half an hour in hand," Draco grumbled.

Hermione hid a smile.  She'd garnered more of an appreciation for well-formed sarcasm these days, but Draco didn't need to know that.  "I tend to cast it wandlessly," she said.

"Works for me," he replied, curt of tone.

Of course, she wasn't supposed to be aware of the surreptitious way Draco surrendered his wand to Snape for every lesson that didn't require the casting of a charm.  Hermione nodded and moved to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Draco.  She raised her right hand and took up a pre-casting form.

Draco copied her, watching carefully.  She placed her left hand over her casting hand and said, clearly, "Mea Solum."  The spell did not fire because of her left hand's position.

Draco repeated the charm, copying her emphasis on the first syllables.  Then, conversationally, he translated, "'Mine alone'?  Wonder if it works on intangibles.  You know?  Thoughts?  Personal space?  Free time?"

"It's a lovely notion, but alas, just material things.  Ready?"

She taught him the wandless hand shape, then explained as succinctly as she could how to apply the charm to more than one item at once.  Draco, not being dull of wit, caught on quickly.  It took less than thirty seconds, all told.

"Annoying, isn't it?" she said as she picked up her bag again.  "Getting your stuff Accio'ed when you're in the middle of a complex brew."

Draco grimaced and said, "S'pose it is.  Drove me mad for a while, back in Hogwarts, when the charm stopped working – trying to figure out how you'd beaten it."  He shot her a look.  "It was only a bit of fun.  Back then, I mean."

"Oh, fun, yes.  Those hilarious projectiles of lobalug venom?  Always a laugh."

"Yes, all right, fine.  I was a little shit.  What do you want, chocolates and flowers?"

There was a pause, as they both noticed the inadvertent connotations of courtship.  When Hermione let a snigger escape, Draco laughed too: not without a certain tinge of relief.

She shook her head.  "I think that would be very weird.  Don't you?"

His mouth twitched.  "Wouldn't it freak people out, though?  Especially your two best mates."

"That it would.  And it would thoroughly appall your parents."

Draco's humour disappeared.  "Yeah.  Don't worry, anyway.  Think I'm being lined up with a Yaxley.  Like that's a name that will kill the Malfoy-taint."

Hermione gave an involuntary flinch and looked down at her feet.  "Yes, well, there's a reason I prefer to call you 'Draco' these days."

"Oh?  Thought that was just a power play."

"It was that, too.  But the word 'Malfoy' isn't an entirely comfortable one for me, so...you know."

"Yeah."

An awkward pause.

"This Yaxley.  You can always make your own choice, you know," she pointed out.

"Not if I want my inheritance," Draco muttered.

"Oh, knickers to that.  You're intelligent, you're articulate and there's still a fair few people out there who'd like to gain your allegiance.  You could make your own money without breaking a sweat."

"There's a difference between enough money to live on and twenty-four generations of accumulated pure-blood wealth."

Hermione shrugged a shoulder.  "So there's your choice.  Freedom or obscene riches."  She walked down a few steps, remembering the words Snape had said to Draco on their very first morning at St Mungo's:

"... Harry Potter did you an enormous service, Mr Malfoy – because of him, you have the freedom to work out where your loyalties lie.  Perhaps for the first time in your life."

They seemed to be revisiting those themes right now, so she added, "Think of it, though.  Maybe this could be the start of your choices being 'Mine Alone' too."  It seemed like a good note to end this unexpected conversation on, so she continued walking downstairs.

"Granger," Draco called after her.  "Um – thanks.  For the favour.  I owe you."

Hermione looked back.  "Not for this, you don't."  She didn't add that the whole quid pro quo thing had already become tiresome; Draco wouldn't get his head around that idea, poor sod.

She left him on the stairwell and went to wait by the laboratory door.

~~~

"Ashgrass," Professor Snape informed his Lost Seventh class, "is a useful plant."  He held up a seed-head and plucked, with dextrous fingers, a single seed.  He squeezed it, thumb to finger, then held it to his nose.  "A distinctive odour of copper and brine, ever so slightly sulphurous."

Ashgrass.  The same plant that had been stolen earlier in the week, according to Gloria Montague's son.  And it was not a plant Hermione had anticipated using in her brewing today.

What the hell was going on?

"You'll get the scent only in the freshest seeds, however," Snape lectured, oblivious to Hermione's racing thoughts.  "Dried ashgrass seeds lack the potency of their freshly harvested counterparts."

Hermione tried to pay attention, though her confusion was distracting.  Was the presence of ashgrass here, today, indication that Snape had indeed 'stolen' the seed-heads Gloria's son had noticed were missing?  Only it wasn't a 'theft' at all, merely a misunderstanding?

Theo said, "How fresh is 'fresh', Professor?"

"The fresher the better.  My understanding is that these were harvested earlier this week."

Hermione narrowed her eyes at Snape's response.  It seemed, to her, a careful, perhaps even a deliberately vague, choice of words.

Two possibilities, then.  Either the seeds they would be using today were from the plants Joseph Montague had discovered stripped of their seed-heads, or they were from plants Joseph had harvested himself.  Snape could, of course, be prevaricating with his language to disguise the way he'd harvested the seeds.  But why would Snape have stolen ashgrass seed-heads for a NEWT lesson when such things were already being freely provided by the hospital?  That didn't make sense at all.

She tried to reduce the problem to its facts.  Someone had stolen seed-heads from ashgrass plants on the long-term storage level.  They had done so – as it turned out – during the same week Snape had unexpectedly introduced the ingredient into a lesson.  A coincidence of timing seemed unlikely; Snape must have something to do with this.

Had he timed it like this so he had a potential excuse, if challenged?  Perhaps he'd procured the stolen seeds for himself and then come up with a reasonable explanation why he might have harvested some?  Except, if he'd stolen some and asked for some legitimately, all in the same week, the theft would more likely be noticed–

Hermione stopped her thoughts in their tracks, startled and dismayed to realise that she had begun to cast Snape as a possible culprit.

'Yes, but the idea's been taking hold since you realised that snagberries could be used to magically regenerate damaged flesh,' her mind treacherously pointed out.  'You've been wondering about Roksana Bramble's burns from the Netch-Rocksalt accident, haven't you?'

"So a few days won't make the quality deteriorate?" Theo was asking.

"Ideally you want to use seeds that were collected no more than a week ago.  Seal them in an air-tight jar and they will keep at least that long."  Snape glanced up.  "Is no one interested in the application of ashgrass seeds?  Or why I'm introducing a new ingredient to today's recipe for Pain-Quell?"  He waited, looking around at the class.  "Miss Granger?  Surely you are brimming with thoughts, at least."

Hermione was, indeed, brimming with thoughts, though not ones Snape would thank her for.  With a degree of effort she mentally shifted her attitude from detective back to student.

"Nothing?" Snape pressed.  "Oddly, I find myself nostalgic for the days you would attempt to teach my lessons for me."

The Slytherins sniggered at the barb.  Hermione considered Snape's face and saw only his familiar flat, disdain-tinged expression.  She gave a sigh, because even if she was not offended by the comment it would not do to let her fellow students at the rear of the laboratory know that.

Then she said, "Ashgrass seeds, ground fine and added along with the Potio Augere charm, will augment the properties of many potions."

Snape arched a brow at her, waiting for more.  The Hermione Granger of two years ago would, by now, be well into a reeled-off list of examples.  Today's Hermione sat attentively at her work station, waiting with patience for Snape's next pearl of wisdom.  (And, hopefully, not betraying the way her mind was still trying to work out all the ways that Snape could have harvested ashgrass himself without committing any kind of infringement on the storage level.)

"That's it?" Snape prompted.  "A concise and correct answer to my question?  How times have changed!"

More sniggers.  Hermione risked an eyebrow raised in Snape's direction.  Snape spun away from her.

"Of course," Snape went on, "those of you who, like Miss Granger, have bothered to read more of Borage than the assigned chapters will know that combining ashgrass seeds with common potions is not straightforward.  There is more to this process than the sprinkling of some powder and the casual wave of a wand."  He twisted the seed-head in his hand, as if examining it closely.  "If it were so, every standard potion on the market would be produced with ashgrass in its recipe.  Why, after all, would you purchase a Cough Potion that lasts the usual four hours when you can purchase one that lasts forty?"

He set down the seed-head and leaned back against the demonstration table, arms spread to grasp the edge, the neat black-and-white symmetry of his form and posture disrupted only by the hint of angry red inflammation at his neckline: Nagini's cursed legacy.

"Ashgrass," Snape continued, "does not grow naturally in this country.  Certain magical habitats have been established in order to cultivate the plant, such as the greenhouses at Verdant Acres in Chudley or, of course, the habitat in this hospital's long-term storage level.  Ashgrass requires volcanic soil.  Most of the ashgrass you can buy at apothecaries here is, for this reason, imported in its dried form – Britain not being overly blessed with recently active volcanoes.  You should consider yourselves privileged to be working with the fresh form of this ingredient."

He paused and looked at his students.  Hermione didn't risk a glance over her shoulder, but she was pretty sure that none of Snape's former Slytherins were looking all that impressed.

"There are other complications when using this technique," he went on.  "The charm Miss Granger referenced, Potio Augere, is not easy to master.  The seeds need to be prepared with great care, and any coarseness to the grind will not only render the augmentation effect useless but will, in fact, decrease your potion's effectiveness.  The powder must be added within a very narrow window during the brewing of a potion, and the stirring pattern must be timed meticulously.  And finally?"

Snape stood up straight and crossed his arms.  He looked at his class, student-by-student, stern and unflinching.  Annoyingly, Snape in this kind of mood still had the capability to make Hermione shuffle in discomfort.

"Ashgrass," said Snape, "when ground as finely as required, becomes highly inflammable, even explosive.  More so than wheat flour, given its magical composition.  When using ashgrass powder in proximity to a naked flame, as the very nature of brewing requires, accidents have been known to ensue."  He paused.  "Catastrophic accidents."

There was a pause.  Hermione swallowed hard.  She'd just worked out the cause of the disaster at the Netch-Rocksalt brewing facility that had permanently scarred Roksana Bramble.

"To that end," Snape said, "I expect to see an inordinate amount of care being taken today.  You will prepare your ashgrass seeds in advance of lighting your flames.  Once prepared, the powder will be measured and transferred into the sealed containers provided.  Any excess will be brought to the front of the class and placed in the containment area I will set up on the demonstration table.  You will cast a Tergeo over your tidied work station to remove all traces of dust.  At that point, and only at that point, will you light the flame beneath your cauldron."

The procedure was simple and sensible enough, but Hermione took the trouble to list it in bullet points on her topmost sheet of paper.  It never hurt to have a checklist.  Lists were good.

"Additionally," Snape said, "I am aware that in recent lessons there have been attempts made to disrupt the work of others.  Do you take me for a fool?  Did you believe I would not notice?"  Hermione held herself still, but she could see that Snape was staring at Blaise Zabini.  "Let me be clear.  I do not care to which Hogwarts House you formerly belonged – any attempts at sabotage today could be potentially lethal.  Indulge, and you will be finished with this course.  No excuses.  No mitigating circumstances.  No second chances.  I trust I make myself understood."

He held Zabini's gaze a moment longer, then swished around to the blackboard and waved his wand at it.  "Pain-Quell.  A mid-range pain neutraliser which, today, will be brewed as Grand Pain-Quell.  Any adequate brews will be donated to the hospital's store, as the potion is rare and expensive."

At the side of the recipe reproduced on the blackboard was a list of the same bullet points Hermione had just noted down on her pad.  She was not the only person in the room who appreciated the value of a checklist.

Snape gestured at the gathered ingredients at the front of the class.  "Begin."

~~~

Snape toured every single active work station during the hour or so his students worked on their ingredient preparation.  He examined the progress and spent at least a few minutes ensuring the wandwork for the Potio Augere charm had been memorised correctly.

He began with Michael Corner, at the front of the laboratory opposite Hermione, then moved behind to Terry, then to Millicent Bulstrode – who seemed to need quite a bit of time to get the wandwork of the charm down pat – and then to Zabini.  Hermione followed Snape's progress with half an ear, unwilling to turn around and watch.

At the back of the class, Snape crossed over to Theo Nott.  They spoke in low voices, but no one else seemed to be paying attention.  Hermione continued, methodically, to prepare her ingredients.

Ashgrass seeds did, indeed, have a unique fragrance.  Not all that pleasant, but certainly interesting.  She counted out the seeds she needed into her mortar after checking her equipment carefully for any contaminants.  Then she began to grind with a rhythmic, practised motion.

Snape reached Draco.  More murmurs.  Hermione demanded of herself that she ignore the frisson of Snape's closeness.  He might be a thief.  (If he was, it would be for a noble reason; she needed to believe that.)  But perhaps he was not a thief at all.  Perhaps he was a patsy.  Perhaps someone else had noticed Snape's request for ashgrass this week, and used that to time their own theft, knowing that if it was discovered then this would turn Severus Snape into Suspect Number One.  One of the few things she could be sure of, after all, was that the thief was well-informed when it came to the ins-and-outs of the long-term storage level–

'Concentrate, idiot,' that voice in her mind put in.  'You can think this through later.  For now, try not to blow up the Potions class.'

She stopped grinding and looked at the powder her seeds were becoming.  A few stray pieces of kernel remained.  She stretched her shoulders then began to grind again.

A low voice beside her said, "You appear to have done this before."

Her mouth wanted to twitch in a smile of welcome.  The adrenaline in her system, meanwhile, tried to make her jump.  Severus Snape remained a source of huge ambivalence.

"Only about a thousand times," she replied in the same low tone.  "Just as well.  The first time I tried to use a pestle and mortar, it was to grind Elfpeppercorns.  I managed to trap my finger against the rim.  Tore the cuticle.  Bled into the pot.  An open wound and Elfpepper doesn't go."

"So you really were a clumsy oaf."

"Still am, given half a chance.  This one time at St Mungo's I was trying to save a friend from a Death Eater and I dropped my wand."

"Really," he murmured, flat, neutral, refusing to follow Hermione down memory lane.

She shrugged.  "I try, though."

She wasn't looking at him.  He was standing close, and it would be too easy to fall back into the hard-earned intimacy of their summer connection.  He'd been clear about his rules for the duration of this course, however, and she wasn't going to push further at his boundaries.  She'd done so once before, with almost disastrous consequences, and she'd told him months ago that she did not tend to make the same mistake twice.

"I did not mean the use of a mortar and pestle, though," Snape said, keeping his voice to a murmur.  "I meant ashgrass.  Your consistency is perfect now."

Hermione blinked, looked into her mortar and shook the powder gently to see whether any larger pieces were still apparent.  "Ah.  Good."  She risked a brief glance.  "Nope, never ground fresh ashgrass seeds before."

She took her readied container, wandlessly checked it for cleanliness then carefully spooned the required amount of powder into it.  She sealed the container and looked at the residue in her mortar.

"Right then.  Looks like I'm about ready for my safety checklist," she said.  (Mainly because she couldn't say, 'I'm supposed to take this excess to the front of the class, and I'd love to squeeze past you to do so, but I'm rather afraid that groin-to-groin contact might compromise our student-teacher formality.')

"Show me your wandwork," Snape said.  "Slow motion, obviously – we don't want to fire the charm."

Hermione took up her wand and formed the pattern for Potio Augere.

"Hmm," Snape murmured.  "You have definitely done that before."

"Once or twice.  I used dried ashgrass to augment the Polyjuice when we snuck into Gringotts."

"Indeed.  I must keep in mind that you are a felon."

Irked, Hermione made eye contact.  "Takes one to know one," she retorted, before she could think better of it.

Snape's eyes narrowed in suspicion.  "And that means...?"

'That I'm scared I'm going to have to expose you as a well-intentioned thief and sully your rejuvenated reputation,' she wanted to say.

"That I'm not the only person in this conversation who has broken the law for the greater good," she said, as mildly as she could.

Snape gave a grunt, perhaps of acknowledgement, and leaned closer.  "Your subtlety still needs work, Miss Granger.  Don't fool yourself.  Not for a moment."

Hermione frowned.  "And that means...?"

"You remain able to parse a clear sentence spoken in English, I believe," Snape said.  "I shall take care of your excess ashgrass powder.  Please do not forget the, er, 'safety checklist'."

Then he was moving away, taking her mortar with him, leaving Hermione a touch bewildered.  Had she just been chastised?  Warned?

Threatened?

She didn't have time to think about it for very long, because a smash and crash sounded behind her and Blaise Zabini said, in a very loud voice, "Seriously, Malfoy?  This is a good time to exact some revenge, is it?"

She spun around and saw Zabini's work station covered in ground ashgrass seeds and broken glass.  Powder hung in the air like mist, and Zabini had white dustings over his robe.  His cauldron had fallen to the countertop and was rolling across the mess.  And Zabini's cauldron stand – the metallic tripod which would sit over the flame once brewing began – had landed neatly in the middle of Draco's work station.

Two desks away, Terry said, "Shit!" and immediately dowsed the flame he had just lit.  Fortunately he was the only one who had proceeded that far.

The class was shocked into silence for a moment after that.

Snape set down Hermione's mortar at the demonstration table.  "All other flames are out?" he demanded, checking each work station.  "Nobody lights their burner until I say."  He walked over to Zabini, who was starting to mutter outraged accusations.  "Quiet," he snapped.  "Be still."

Snape used a complex combination of cleaning and siphoning spells to dust the dangerous powder from all surfaces and then sweep up the broken bits and ingredient residue into a tight, compact ball of detritus.  It floated just in front of the tip of Snape's wand as he directed it to the back of the laboratory and the disposal hatch behind Theo's work station.

Zabini said, "You said it yourself, Professor.  'No excuses.'  I demand that y–"

"I said quiet!" Snape thundered.

The echoes of his fury bounced off the many flat and polished surfaces of the room before they faded to silence.  Nobody spoke.  Nobody seemed to want to move, even enough to breathe.  All was still and racked with tension as they waited to see what would happen.

Finished with the disposal, Snape turned back to the class.  "Everybody, seal your exposed ingredients and cast an additional Tergeo.  Now."

Hermione followed this instruction, as did everyone else.  Snape stalked the centre of the laboratory between work stations, cleaning the tiled floor.

Draco, all this while, had shown the basic common sense to keep his mouth shut.  The more Hermione thought about it, however, the more she realised that the incident with Zabini's cauldron stand had had nothing to do with Draco Malfoy; Draco was neither stupid nor angry enough to risk Snape's wrath.

There was only one other explanation: this was classic Slytherin misdirection.  Instead of sabotaging another student's work, Zabini had changed up his modus operandi and made it look like someone had done the same thing to him.

When Snape had finished with the floor, he walked past her to the rear of the laboratory.

"He bloody Accio'ed my cauldron stand!" Zabini managed to spit out.

"Mr Zabini, the next time I hear your voice, the words will either come at my invitation or they will be the last ones you speak as my student."  Snape's voice was calm again following that brief moment of rage.  While the volume and aggression had been startling, this particular brand of Snape-calmness was somehow more ominous.

"B–"  Zabini, sensibly, noticed the cold fury in Snape's eyes and decided against another syllable.

"Mr Malfoy," Snape said.  "Did you Accio Mr Zabini's cauldron stand?"

"No, sir," Draco said with admirable poise.

Zabini shuddered with the effort it took to keep a barked, 'Well he would say that, wouldn't he!' inside.

"Then how do you account for its presence on your worktop?" Snape pressed.

"I cannot," Draco said.  "I can only theorise."

"Then theorise."

Draco said, "Last week Zabini levitated a pestle at Granger's work station when he realised he couldn't Accio her kit.  On Monday he Accio'ed a number of items from my work station to try to disrupt my brewing.  I'd theorise that today he levitated his cauldron stand at me, probably using Mobiliferrus, to make it look like I'd tried to sabotage his prep in retaliation."

Snape grunted.  He spun back around to Zabini, whose eyes were actually bulging with the need to keep the counter-accusations inside.  Blaise Zabini was not used to being gainsaid.

"Mr Zabini," Snape asked, "did you levitate your cauldron stand at Mr Malfoy?"

"Of course not!" Zabini said.  "Why would I?"

"Since we are theorising?  Because I have advised you all that any further attempt to disrupt a classmate's work would see the troublemaker expelled.  Your demeanour towards Mr Malfoy has been less than collegial this week."

"You said this stuff was dangerous.  I'm not an idiot!" Zabini said.

"That remains to be seen."  Snape scrutinised both of his students, even as the rest of the class looked on nervously.  "Fortunately," he said, "this can be resolved."

"It's my word against his!" Zabini said.  "Just because his father was a fellow D–"

"Mr Zabini, I did not invite you to speak further.  I should have made that plain.  Until this matter is resolved you will speak only when I address you.  Do not feel singled out – that goes for everyone in this classroom."

A pause.  Snape brandished his wand and moved over to Draco's work station.  "Your wand, Mr Malfoy."  Draco handed over his wand with no fuss.  Snape set it down on a clear bit of countertop and then used his own wand to cast the simple charm which would reveal the wand's last spell.  "Apparition," Snape deduced.  "This wand has not been used since Mr Malfoy arrived at the hospital."

Zabini made a strained noise that didn't quite turn into a word.

Snape ignored him.  "Of course, a simple charm like Accio could be cast wandlessly."  He turned abruptly and went to Zabini's work station.  "Your wand, Mr Zabini."

Zabini looked, for a moment, smug and relieved: enough to inform Hermione that Zabini's Mobiliferrus had been cast wandlessly as well.  Snape repeated the charm on Zabini's wand.  "Ah.  Potio Augere.  And yet you have not begun your brewing, Mr Zabini."

Silence.

"Mr Zabini, I invite you to reply."

"I practised it a couple of times after you'd come round," Zabini said smoothly.  "Must have got too confident and forgotten to go slow."

Snape grunted then turned away.  "Then we are reduced to a Specialis Revelio," he said.

"That only detects active magic," Zabini dismissed.

"My invitation to speak, once again, is rescinded," Snape said to Zabini.  He walked back to Draco's work station and said, "The Aurory developed a version of Specialis Revelio with a timeframe modifier.  It will detect magic that has been recently active within a specific location or on a specific object.  The stronger the magic, the longer the imprint will hold.  It is used to find out whether magic has been used at a crime scene.  Fortunately, within a few minutes of casting even a small charm like Accio will still register."

Snape straightened his shoulders, pointed his wand at the rogue cauldron stand on Draco's countertop, and cast the spell.  Three runes formed above the cauldron stand, light blue and smoky in the air.

"Mr Zabini, your Ancient Runes is of a reasonable standard, I believe.  I invite you to translate these characters."

"Mobiliferrus," Zabini said with a desultory tone.  Then: "That only means Malfoy was clever enough to use a Mobili charm rather than an Accio, though!  And isn't it a bit suspicious that he knew exactly which charm was used to move the stand even before you proved it?"

Snape paused a moment, then he sighed.  "We are left with two options, then.  Memory extraction for Pensieve review, or Veritaserum."

"What!" Zabini said, outraged.  "This is just–"

"This is what happens when misdeeds are perpetrated," Snape said quietly.  He looked around.  His eyes seemed to linger on Hermione, and she was taken aback by the anger he was projecting.  "Actions.  Have. Consequences."  He seemed to say the words to her, and her alone.

While Hermione tried to decipher that particular comment, Snape dispelled the Revelio from the cauldron.  He picked it up and took it back to Zabini's work station, where he set it down with exaggerated care.

"Fifteen years ago," he said, "in a potions facility on the isle of Fara, a sealed drum of powdered ashgrass seed was dropped from some height.  The foreman's levitation spell had failed at a critical moment, thanks to the unfortunate timing of the poor man's heart attack.  The drum cracked open.  A cloud of powder filled the factory floor.  Dangerous, of course, but the accident could have been contained were it not for the fact that the potioneer who owned the facility had left the door to a side-lab open while demonstrating a new recipe to one of his apprentices.  The naked flame caught the airborne powder and it combusted.  The resultant explosion tore into stocks of other combustibles, and a raging fire took hold within less than thirty seconds.  Three people died.  Two more were permanently injured."

Snape walked to the very back of the classroom and stood by the door.  Everyone was turned to face him, necks craned.  Zabini was beginning to look panicked.

There was a lengthy pause.  Snape seemed deep in thought.  No one was about to interrupt.

Finally, he said:

"When Albus Dumbledore installed me as the new Potions Master at Hogwarts, seventeen years ago, I asked for some advice on how best to approach my new role as a teacher.  I remember, word for word, what he said to me.  'It's Potions.  Start by making sure they do not kill themselves.'"

A nervous murmur of humour.  Snape, however, did not look like this memory had prompted any amusement.  He drifted for a moment, perhaps thinking about Dumbledore.  Abruptly he snapped out of it, chin up, a sharp intake of breath.

"I advised proper caution during this lesson because I know what ashgrass can do in careless hands.  My advice was not universally followed.  Thus, we find ourselves with the need to resolve this situation.  Now.  The use of Veritaserum has been closely moderated since the end of the war.  I have access to a small, personally prepared stock, however.  The law states that unless criminal charges have been brought, consent must be given before Veritaserum is administered.  Mr Malfoy, would you be willing to submit to a test?"

Draco swallowed and said, "I would, sir, though I would ask beforehand that it be conducted in private, and the only questions asked of me while I am under the potion's influence be about today's lesson."

"Your terms are acceptable.  Mr Zabini – I offer the same terms.  Will you submit?"

Zabini's mouth opened, then closed, then he stepped away from his work station so swiftly that his stool was knocked over.  "Why don't I make it easier for you?" he shouted.  "No need to expel me.  I resign!  I'd rather drink goblin piss than spend another minute on this poxy course!"  He took a step towards Snape and jabbed a finger at him.  "And by the way?  The whole world is going to learn what a traitor you are.  To your House, and your own people.  You're pathetic,  Snape.  You're just a-a-a domesticated, spineless half-man!  Enjoy your fucking leash.  You used to be worthy of some respect, bu–"

Snape waved his wand nonchalantly and a strong Bubble-Head charm sprang up around Zabini's head: the kind edged with a narrow vacuum.  Zabini's petulant rant fell mute.  Unfortunately for Zabini, he did not recognise what had happened since he could still hear himself.  He ended his tirade with an attempt to spit in Snape's face.  The disgusting projectile hit the shell of the Bubble-Head charm and rebounded all over Zabini.

"Ew!" said Terry.  Then, hurriedly, "Um, excuse me Professor."

A bit of nervous laughter defused some of the tension.  Zabini, having finally noticed the charm and dispelled it, caught the end of the chuckling as he wiped at his own face.  He wheeled around, incensed by laughter he thought was directed at him, holding up his wand and waving it about as though trying to pick a target.  His robe flapped as he did so; he almost caught some of the containers on Theo Nott's worktop.  For a moment all was still, then he spun around and marched past Snape to leave.

Snape arched only a mild eyebrow as the door was slammed shut behind Zabini, then he turned and made his way back to the front of the classroom.  Almost everyone breathed a sigh of relief and then settled back to face the front.

Theo Nott said, "Um – I think he took my–"

Hermione realised what was going to happen next with the alacrity of an intelligent woman who was, at least, very good at thinking about things.  She threw herself into the space between the rows of work stations and pointed her wand at the doorway.

"Repello Inimicum!" she cast hurriedly.

Silence.  Stillness.

"Explain yourself, Miss Granger," Snape said, sounding a little taken aback.

Hermione felt her cheeks begin to burn with the aftermath of what had turned out to be a presumption too far.  She kept her wand pointed at the barrier she'd raised, beginning to feel the drain on her energy, wondering if she should let it go.  She said, "Sorry.  I thought th–"

The door was thrown open again.  A sealed glass container was hurled through into the room.  It bounced off the barrier, intact.  Theo Nott immediately cast a cushioning charm below.  Relieved, Hermione cancelled the barrier and sagged, panting.

In the doorway, Zabini yelled in fury, pointed his wand at the container of powder and began to cast: "Confr–"

"Expelliarmus," came Snape's voice.  Zabini's wand flew out of his hand and into Snape's.  It was enough to prevent Zabini's blasting curse from forming.

Zabini looked on, eyes wide.  He hesitated a moment longer, looking at his own wand in Snape's hand, then he turned tail and fled, footsteps echoing in the corridor outside.

Theo went to recover the container of powdered ashgrass seeds.  He closed the door quietly then returned to his work station.

After a moment, Terry Boot said, "Merlin's arse-crack."

Hermione couldn't help but agree with the sentiment.

~~~

As it turned out, there was a significant upside to Blaise Zabini's meltdown.  All of Hermione's theft-related thoughts, so distracting in the early part of the lesson, retreated to the back-burners of her mind.  When Professor Snape offered his students the opportunity to head home early on the grounds that a fellow student trying to blow them up might qualify as a bit disruptive, only Millicent Bulstrode happily packed her as-yet unused cauldron kit away and scarpered.

"Um – she does know she's still going to have to brew this potion at some point, right?" Terry said to the class in general, as the door banged shut behind her.

Theo snorted.  Draco said, "Good old Milly.  Loyal as they come, but hardly the brightest Knut in the coffer."

The brewing continued, closely monitored by Snape.  Whatever consequences Zabini was likely to face, it seemed that for the time being the professor was more interested in maintaining the safety of his remaining students.  Hermione got on with her work.

Terry was the first to cast his Potio Augere.  Hermione was prepared for the flash of light that the charm would produce on an actively brewing potion, since she had used it before.  Terry was less prepared and gave a squeak of surprise.  Snape was there at his shoulder, however, already counting him quietly into his stirring pattern.

When Theo cast his charm, the flash was brighter.  Hermione noted this peripherally, focused on her timing, and theorised that the superiority of Theo Nott's wandwork had rendered the charm more powerful.  Some charms were like that, especially the more complex ones.

She was soon ready for her own application of Potio Augere.  Hermione checked the status of her work station as she counted down her simmer.  She took up the sealed container of powdered ashgrass seeds, aware that this was the dangerous moment.  She checked her sleeves and her hair; a few strands had worked loose from her ponytail, probably when she'd leapt to cast her barrier earlier, but the sheen of perspiration over her brow thanks to the efforts of stirring a simmering cauldron had the stray hair plastered in place at her left temple.  She ignored the slight discomfort and concentrated on her count.

Ready.

She unsealed the container and carefully tipped the pre-measured ashgrass powder into her bronze-coloured brew.  The floury substance settled on the surface.  Hermione resealed the container before setting it aside and taking up her glass stirrer, already counting.

The simple circular stirring pattern was not diffusing the powder through the brew well enough for her liking.  She remembered a conversation during yesterday's tutorial about the figure-of-eight pattern, and risked a couple of those before reverting to the circular technique.  It was enough.  She switched her stirrer to her left hand and took up her wand.

"Potio Augere," she cast, calm and precise, seeing the wand-form in her head and reproducing it without difficulty.

The flash was dazzling and might have given Hermione pause, had she not been so immersed in her counting and stirring.

"Beautiful," a voice whispered beside her.

...three...four...five...and the bronze of her Pain-Quell sharpened into a burnished tan colour, bright with the potency of its magic...eight...nine...

Ten.  She changed her stirring pattern to the spiral-shaped technique, set down her wand and swapped stirring hands fluidly.  A few more seconds...

There.

She used her left hand to dispel her burner's flame and lifted her stirring rod out of the potion.  She stepped back, looking at what she had created.

"You're right," she whispered to the voice.  "It's beautiful."

No reply.  She glanced to the side but Snape had his back to her and was tending to Michael on the other side of the laboratory as he prepared his charm.  She frowned, briefly annoyed, then fished out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from her face.

She was chuffed, truth be told.  A couple of weeks ago her Fortis Maxima had been textbook perfect, but this?  This felt better-than-textbook.  In any case, it had to be at least an Adequate.

Not bad, for a lesson where someone had tried to blow her up.

~~~