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Toil and Trouble

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"The man once wrote: Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.
Tolkien had that one mostly right.
I stepped forward, let the door bang closed, and snarled, 'Fuck subtle.'"

Jim Butcher, Changes 2011

 

That evening, as Hermione waited in Artefact Accidents for her usual appointment, she idly picked up a copy of the Prophet that someone else had discarded on a side table.  It did not occur to her that reading the Prophet was something she usually avoided.  Perhaps she was distracted by the warm glow of her 'Competent', or by the even warmer glow of the additional comment Snape had made:

"Miss Granger, more of this and I may be forced to revisit my contempt for the expression 'Exceeds Expectations'.  Please refrain from undermining my world-view in this way."

It had almost been enough to make her forget that weird conversation before Zabini had kicked off: the one that had carried more than a whiff of warning.

Almost.

Alas, the Prophet was only too happy to take her glowing sense of pride and accomplishment and beat it about the ears with a metaphorical cricket bat.

~~~

Excerpt from the Daily Prophet, Thursday 24th September 1998
Article in upper left quadrant with photograph, Page 11:

POTIONS COLLABORATION CONTINUES

Following the meeting between renowned potions maestros Severus Snape and Roksana Bramble reported earlier this week, further evidence of this intriguing collaboration is emerging.

Mistress Bramble's potions research business in Upper Flagley, founded with the compensation she received after her heroic efforts in containing the catastrophic Netch-Rocksalt fires, has announced the upcoming publication of a brand new potions text.  The foreword has been written by none other than acclaimed war hero, Severus Snape himself.

The press release describes the volume as having been long years in the making.  Its purpose is to teach advanced potions students how to 'play around with recipes' – as Mistress Bramble puts it.  It will offer variations on classic recipes that have yielded good results, provide numerous techniques to try when altering established formulae, and is designed to 'encourage safe experimentation'.

Mistress Bramble notes in her press release that:

'In recent years I have come to believe that potioneering is mired in a rut of its own making.  Too often, skilled potions students have felt an obligation to follow, to the letter, the recipes in standard textbooks, some of which were written centuries ago.  Yet there are always variables to be tweaked.  Progress happens only when new discoveries are made.  Brewing well to classic formulae requires skill, but developing new and improved formulae requires flare and instinct.  I hope that this book will encourage the newest generation of  potioneers to develop their flare alongside their skill.'

When approached at her business for further comment, Mistress Bramble acknowledged that her terrible experience on Fara, and the hideous lasting scars of that incident, were the reason this book has taken so long to see the light of day.  Potions, of course, remains a magical discipline with a significant potential for danger and damage.

Mistress Bramble, accompanied by her collaborator and muse, Professor Snape, informed the Prophet that concerned parents or guardians need not concern themselves with the manner in which this text encourages deviation from established standards; all the information within has been meticulously researched, and all safety precautions included.  Mistress Bramble lays much credit at the feet of Professor Snape, who renewed her faith in the project when he confirmed to her that the current Hogwarts Potions curriculum produces a limited number of competent brewers but rarely any creative artists.  "Regurgitating textbooks may allow you to pass your exams," Snape offered in his trademark rich tones, 'but it will hardly change the world for the better.  After the events of recent years, I believe that changing the world for the better should be at the forefront of everyone's mind."

When Mistress Bramble was pressed for more information on this exciting new volume, it should be noted that Professor Snape appeared to lose patience.  "There is a reason Mistress Bramble's press release was a written one!" he pointed out, even as his shy companion turned her damaged face away from the gaze of her admirers.  "Just read the book when it comes out!"  He hurried Mistress Bramble away in the direction of her home: two scarred veterans together.

It is some time, dear reader, since I learned about potions in the dungeons of Hogwarts, but Professor Snape is still capable of making me do as I am told!

'The Art of Experimentation' by Roksana Bramble is scheduled for release via Flourish & Blotts Publishing in October this year.

~~~

The article's accompanying magical photograph showed Snape mouthing some words in the direction of the camera lens and then, with an impatient frown, turning his back and wrapping a solicitous arm around the shoulders of a veiled woman and moving them away.  The arm stayed in place for the two steps included in the moving image before it cycled back to the beginning.  It would seem that Snape was happy to indulge his rarely exhibited touchy-feely side for Roksana Bramble.

After setting the newspaper down with much the same care she'd have employed in handling a sweaty bar of gelignite, Hermione turned her back on the damn thing.  She then spent a short time wondering:

a) Whether the 'regurgitating textbooks' comment was a dig she should take personally.

b) Whether her brief deviation from the standard stirring pattern in her brewing today was the element that had given her Grand Pain-Quell that je ne sais quoi that had so impressed Snape.

c) Whether, using her newfound detective nous, she could identify the reporter writing these articles about Roksana Bramble, punch him very hard on the nose and then ask him whether he'd like it if every time someone mentioned him in future it was alongside the phrase 'wonky-nosed reporter'. Just because some scars were heroic, that didn't mean you had to constantly harp on about them.

d) Whether it was worth trying to persuade herself that literary collaborators are probably always welcome in each other's houses, and that there was nothing odd about Snape putting a friendly arm around a colleague. None of it necessarily meant that, behind closed doors, bodily fluids were being exchanged.

At this point in all of her wonderings, Hermione was glad to be interrupted by the duty Healer.

Once her cursed-blade injury was healed and sealed and twinge-free again, Hermione went back through the waiting area into St Mungo's reception.

"Oh – Miss Granger!" called the Welcome Witch on the desk.  "This came for you, about half an hour ago.  Too late for your Potions class.  I thought it was going to have to wait until Monday."

Hermione crossed to the desk and took the owl-sized scroll, labelled tidily with her name.  She opened it up and read the message.

Her presence was requested in Madam Churlish's office that very evening.

~~~

Improper Use had decided to go ahead with the stage conjurer idea.  The death of the Muggle reporter had made the Metropolitan Police even less willing to drop their investigation into the evidence recorded by the hotel's cameras.  Churlish had summoned Dane Booth as well as Hermione in order to discuss how to proceed.

"Mr Arnold informed me at lunch that you had some ideas on how I should organise the investigation," Churlish said to Hermione when they had a moment alone, Dane having been whisked off for his costume-fitting.

"Yes," Hermione admitted.  "Though when you put it like that, well...I'm aware I was going beyond my remit.  Um.  Sorry?"

"I understand.  Criminal investigations seem exciting and exotic.  It's easy to get carried away."

"Oh, it wasn't that I–"

"In real terms, of course, they're rather mundane and involve quite a bit of tedious work," Churlish went on over Hermione's half-hearted protest.

"I...see."

"As it happens," Churlish said, "we'd already begun certain lines of enquiry similar to those Mr Arnold said you'd suggested – oddly, we got there all on our own."

Hermione felt her cheeks growing warm.  "The, er, internal hotel cameras?" she asked tentatively.

"The internal footage is not available, given that the magical surge used to wipe the archive was not overly picky about what it destroyed.  I thought you might have anticipated that."  Churlish frowned at Hermione, as if she'd been hoping for better.  Then: "The Polyjuice was a better notion.  Most apothecaries in the country have been asked for their customer records regarding the recent purchase of Boomslang skin."

"Most apothecaries?" Hermione put in.

"There are a handful of businesses that make much of their refusal to cooperate with the Ministry.  They're the ones that get raided from time to time."

"I see.  Well, hopefully you'll get something from those enquiries, but the potion could have been brewed some time ago."

"Of course it could.  However, an additional lead has developed thanks to the image you produced of the man from the footage – the Polyjuiced disguise our suspect adopted."

"I'm glad it was helpful," Hermione said, and her reddening cheeks cooled a little.

"The original blond man is likely to be a known employee at the hotel.  I've an agent there right now who's keeping an eye out."

"And what about Mrs Trelore?" Hermione prompted.

"What about her?" Churlish asked.

"She's the one person from the ball who's likely to have recognised something suspicious, in magical terms, given that the interloper was a wizard," Hermione said.  "Has she been asked about the evening?"

"She has not," Churlish said, a touch sharply.  "Nor will she be."  A pause, then a sigh.  "Acting Minister Shacklebolt is adamant that unless Mrs Trelore's behaviour threatens the Statute of Secrecy she will not be questioned about her relationship with this Muggle."

"The questioning wouldn't be about Philip Richmond.  It'd be about a potential killer who was hanging around at her boyfriend's party."

Churlish sniffed and shook her head.  "The distinction is immaterial.  There are too many people who still view Muggles as inferior, and who view witches and wizards who take up with Muggles as blood-traitors."

"But that's just silly," Hermione said.  "Every pure-blood family line has a dalliance or two with a Muggle, no matter how much they try to disguise it."

"Indeed they do.  It's common knowledge.  Common knowledge that, in certain circles, is never ever talked about."  Churlish looked like she was losing patience.  "Miss Granger, I appreciate your input.  Truly.  I'm not patronising you.  It was clear from the meeting I attended yesterday that you're an excellent fit with Excuses, even if your current role came about thanks to your connections.  But please try to understand – Minister Shacklebolt is walking a very fine political line.  The new legislation that criminalises discrimination against Muggles and the Muggle-born is being ratified mainly due to a post-war wave of relief and guilt.  That honeymoon will not last forever.  It won't take certain people long to remember that their prejudice is comfortable for them, and they'd very much like to hang on to it."

"I understand that.  I just don't see how asking Mrs Trelore if she saw something odd at the ball is relevant to it."

"The moment MLE questions Mrs Trelore, the assumption will be that there is high-level disapproval about her choice of paramour.  No matter how discreet we try to be, the simple fact that we have interviewed her will get out.  Law enforcement officers, like everyone else, like to talk."

Hermione thought back to the way Snape's most personal memories had been exposed in a feature in the Prophet, even when access to them had supposedly been restricted to the highest levels of MLE and the Wizengamot.  Jasmine Churlish had a point.

"And you see," Churlish continued, "any hint of disapproval could ignite a larger debate.  It is hard to see such a thing leading to a social revolution of tolerance and goodwill.  Especially given Mrs Trelore's bloodline and her..."  She frowned, searching for the right expression.

"Unfortunate history?" Hermione suggested.

"As you say."  The office door opened and Dane stepped back through.  He nodded at Madam Churlish's questioning look.  "Now, if you have no further questions or...investigative suggestions?"  An arched brow was directed at Hermione which seemed to combine chastisement with a reassuring absence of genuine anger.  Hermione blushed and nodded.  "You both have some work to do," Churlish said.  "I can be Floo'ed here at the office until about nine thirty, I should think, if you need anything else."

"Right then.  Oh!  Just one idea I had..."  Hermione checked her watch.  "Damn it.  Shops are shut."

"What do you need?"

"An ounce of Boom Berries, some powdered dragon claw, six Sopophorous Beans and a bat spleen."  At Churlish's arched brow, she said, "It's a potion called Eve's Drops.  Named after the inventor, Evadne Grimshaw.  I read about it in Spellwork in Potions.  I think it'll work really well for Dane and I tomorrow morning when he, er, 'turns himself in'."  She dug in her bead-bag for the book that was her just-for-fun reading, turned to the correct page and handed it over.

Jasmine Churlish read.

"Right then," Churlish said after a few moments.  "The shops may be shut but St Mungo's never closes.  Let's go and see if the Minister has gone home yet."

~~~

Hermione was back at St Mungo's just after seven o'clock that evening.  She was hungry, desperate for a shower and a change of clothes, and aware that she had small chance of either over the next few hours.  She was also in the company of Madam Churlish and Dane Booth.

In reception, Madam Churlish met with the evening shift's Senior Healer, as prearranged via Floo'ed message.  Words were exchanged; expressions were grim.  Magical Law Enforcement could command a fair amount of respect and obedience from Wizarding Britain's other institutions.

Instructions agreed, Madam Churlish nodded at Hermione and Dane, checked they had the accreditation needed, and then stepped over to the Apparition alcove and blinked out.

The Senior Healer walked them over to the reception desk, scrawled a note on some parchment, handed it off to Hermione and then directed them – needlessly, at least in Hermione's case – to sub-level two where the long-term storage facility could be located.

As they made their way down the stairs, Dane said, "Okay, I know you're one of those good-ideas kind of people, but is this really, honestly necessary?"

"Actually, I'm hoping not," Hermione said.  "But I'd rather have a lifeline in place and not need it than the other way round."

At sub-level two, the door off the stairwell opened out into the antechamber for the long-term storage area, just as Healer Montague had described.  The duty Storekeep looked up from where he worked at his desk, frowned as he failed to recognise his customers, stood and came towards them.

"Hello.  Are you lost?" he asked.

"No.  Just in need of some after-hours ingredients," Hermione said.  "This is from the Senior Healer."  She handed off the parchment she'd been given upstairs.  "And this is from Acting Minister Shacklebolt."  She dug in her inside jacket pocket and produced a magically sealed document.  "On the orders of Magical Law Enforcement, I've been told to procure this list of ingredients."

The Storekeep, having perused both bits of paperwork, said, "Okay – um, what list?"

"Oh.  Bother.  Too many papers."  Hermione rummaged in her inside pocket again before remembering that she'd placed her hurriedly written list in her back pocket to keep it separate.  She fished it out and handed it over.

The Storekeep glanced over the ingredient list and nodded.  "All this is in storage room alpha – that's the easy-access one for the stuff we need most often.  I'll get it myself.  Won't be a jiffy."

He went to the archway at the back of the antechamber, brandished his wand at an enchanted tablet set into the arch, then disappeared through it.

Dane put his hands in his pockets and shrugged his shoulders.  "So this potion is going to let us hear everything that the other person hears?"

"Like a wiretap and an earpiece," Hermione agreed, knowing that Dane would understand the analogy.  "It'll work both ways.  I'm going to sit somewhere very quiet, so you aren't distracted by ambient noise from my end.  I'm going to listen to everything the police officer says, and everything you say to him or her.  And if you need a pointer or anything, all you have to do is pause and say 'um' and I'll know you're struggling and I'll make a suggestion."

"That's good."  Dane frowned.  "The thing is, see, when Mr Arnold asked for my help yesterday it seemed like a bit of a laugh.  Only now – well, this poor woman's dead, and to be honest with you, Hermione, I'm not very good at Apparition.  You know.  If I need to make a speedy getaway."

"I think Mr Arnold, being the Chair of the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee, would frown on you Disapparating in front of a police officer," she said dryly.  "It won't come to that, though.  We'll do a bunch of role-plays this evening, get your answers down nicely.  We've already got your costume sorted out."

"Right."

"And don't forget you'll be doing the whole thing under Polyjuice," she added.  "Madam Churlish did well to find a wizard with a passing resemblance to the man on the footage.  So even if the police aren't satisfied with your explanation, if they come after you again they're going to be looking for a six footer with fair hair.  Seriously, Rutger Hauer's got more to be worried about than you do."

"And if they put me in a jail cell?" Dane pressed.

"Unlikely."  She saw the nervousness in Dane's expression and touched his arm in reassurance.  "Look, if you're really worried, we could set you up with a Portkey.  Just as long as you give me your word you'd only use it if nobody was there to see."

"A Portkey.  That's...that's genius."  Dane nodded.  "Yes.  Let's do that."

Hermione checked her watch.  She wondered whether she could convince Dane to get some takeaway before they embarked on their evening of rehearsal.  Role-playing a police interview was going to be tricky when her stomach was threatening to growl more loudly than her voice.

"So when we're done here – my place or yours?" Dane asked.

Kingsley Shacklebolt had made the need for confidentiality in this matter clear.  She smiled at Dane.  "I have a housemate, and I think we'll do better without an audience.  So yours."

"Miss Granger?"

She startled and spun around to face the archway.  Emerging from the long-term storage level was – who else? – Severus Snape.  And he was looking at her and Dane as if he'd just caught them pilfering his own private ingredient stocks.

This, Hermione recognised immediately, was not going to go well.

She inhaled, drew back her shoulders and said, "Professor.  Good evening."

Snape walked towards her.  He had in his hand a white paper sack with the top crumpled down.  Her eyes darted to it, perhaps as suspicious as he was, then back to his face.

His eyebrow arched as he stopped, still looking at her.  Clearly he was awaiting an explanation.

What was she supposed to say?  'Oh, I'm just here to pick up some emergency ingredients for a secret mission that MLE have asked me to undertake.'  Hardly.  'Giving my new pal Dane here a tour of St Mungo's.'  Not really.  'Don't mind me.  I'm just keeping an eye on you, since I'm horribly worried you're somehow involved in a series of thefts that I shouldn't even know about.'

There was no good reason for her to be here: not something she could legitimately say to Snape, anyway.  So she did the only thing she could and changed the subject.

"I hope the aftermath of today's unpleasantness isn't causing you more problems than it should, Professor," she said.

"The incident today has been dealt with," Snape said curtly.  "The matter is closed."

"Of course.  I mean, good.  It's just, with Mistress Bramble and her...I know the ashgrass thing could be a bit...I'd understand you taking it personally."

A pause.  A poisonous pause.  Hermione castigated herself for this inability to put together a smooth and diplomatic sentence when such a thing was most needed.

"Miss Granger, you have no idea."  There was a tremble in his voice, but it was gone when he declared: "Clueless.  And on so very many levels, all at once.  It's almost impressive."  He sneered for a moment, then looked at Dane.  "And you are...?"

Dane, to his credit, smiled an amiable smile and said, "Dane Booth, mate.  Muggle Liaison Office."

Snape looked him up and down, unimpressed.  "Really."

"Really," Dane agreed.  "And you are...?"

Snape looked like he was lost for words: just for an instant.  Understandably.  His was one of the more famous faces in Wizarding Britain.

"Come on, mate," Dane pressed.  "It's polite to ask, isn't it?"

"Professor Severus Snape," Snape announced, clipped of tone.

"Course you are.  And no, I didn't go to Hogwarts so I never learned to be terrified of you while I was small and vulnerable.  So how 'bout you stop looking at me like I'm something you stepped in?  Isn't working."  Dane's amiable smile grew, if anything, more relaxed.

Snape's lips pressed hard for a moment.  "You assume, Mr Booth, that I consider you worthy of the effort it would take to be scornful.  Incorrectly."

"My mistake.  Have yourself a nice evening, Professor."  He gestured over to the archway.  "Think our order's here, Hermione."

They all looked to see the duty Storekeep returning to the antechamber, this time burdened by a white paper bag much the same as the one Snape carried.  The Storekeep pulled up short as he noticed Snape's presence.  There was an awkward moment as he met Hermione's eyes, waiting to take a cue from her.  The paperwork he'd been shown had, after all, impressed upon him a need for discretion.

"Did you need anything else, Professor?" Hermione asked politely.  She had to grit her teeth on the caveat, 'Not that someone as "clueless" as me could ever be useful...'

Severus Snape was not usually an easy man to read, but his desire to work out what was actually going on with Hermione and Dane was, on this occasion, palpable.  The moment stretched as he sought a way to uncover the truth of their presence on sub-level two, then, frustrated, he turned abruptly and marched out of the antechamber.

The Storekeep came over to them and passed her the requested ingredients.  "Is everything all right?"

"Yes.  Sorry."  Seeing a glimmer of an opportunity, Hermione added, "I, er, didn't mean to put you in an awkward position.  I thought the professor would be long gone."

"Oh, he usually picks up the stuff for his Friday sessions round about now."

Hermione nodded.  "Friday...sessions?"

"That's what he told me," the Storekeep said with a shrug.  "Anyway, there you go.  I'm on till midnight if you need to come back.  Keep the notes in case the shift changes."

"Will do," Hermione said.  "Thanks for your help."

"Welcome.  Hey, isn't every day I get to read a Minister-sealed decree!  Good luck."

They bade the Storekeep farewell and returned upstairs.

"Well, that was brisk," Dane said dryly.  "Something wrong?"

She was wondering the same thing herself.  Her relationship with Severus Snape appeared to be deteriorating by the hour and she had no idea why.  Then there was the fact that Snape had told the storage level staff that he needed materials for a Friday class that didn't exist: did that count as 'wrong'?  Because Hermione was pretty damn sure it did.

"No, I think we're all set," she lied, and did her best to put the awkwardness with Snape behind her.  She had work to do.

They exited the stairwell into the ground floor reception area.

Hermione said, "Not being funny, but I haven't eaten since lunchtime, and I got a bit hot and sticky during my lesson this afternoon.  Mind if I nip back to mine to grab a shower and a snack before we get stuck in?"

"No worries," said Dane.  They both moved aside as a pair of Mediwizards levitated a patient past them.  A gaggle of worried relatives stood by the main door, calling after the clearly comatose patient, too concerned to realise how redundant their encouragement might be.  Dane used a gentlemanly arm to manoeuvre them into space.  "But – look, you're welcome to shower at mine, if you like.  And I'm starving too.  Fancy splitting a Chinese?"

They walked over to the Floo terminus as soon as the patient's entourage had bustled past them.  Hermione considered what she knew of Dane Booth; was agreeing to take her clothes off in his flat, even behind a locked door, a risk too far?  She decided it probably wasn't, given her personal repertoire of robust privacy charms (accumulated after several months spent sharing a tent with two hormonal teenage boys).  And Dane seemed like a decent enough sort.

"You're right.  Better use of our time," Hermione decided.  She could magically refresh her clothing at Dane's place, and she already had her potion-brewing kit with her in her bead-bag.  "Chinese it is."

She waited for Dane to announce his destination and Floo home, making note of the address.  Then she stepped up to the aperture.  Something made her turn back to look at the busy hospital reception.  The Welcome Witch at the desk noticed her looking and nodded.  Hermione smiled and let her eyes drift along the wall...

Snape was standing beside the main doorway, barely twelve feet away, making no attempt to disguise his loitering.  He was staring at her.  Hard.  Accusing.

Hermione sighed.  She didn't have time for any of this, but she couldn't leave it be.  The day had begun with barbed comments, progressed through warnings and threats and had most recently sunk to insults, interspersed though these things had been with a disorienting array of compliments.  Hermione was sick of it.  She took up some Floo powder, said Dane's address into the Floo and then called through:

"Dane, I'll follow in a few minutes.  Order me anything you like as long as it does not contain prawns.  There in a bit!"

"Right ho!" came the congenial reply.

Hermione shut the Floo down, spun on the spot and marched up to Snape.  "Fine.  If you want answers, you'll do better talking to me than glaring.  Potions lab.  Now."

~~~

He kept her waiting.

Well, obviously he did.  He knew about power dynamics.

Hermione had been learning about such things herself in recent months, however.  After three minutes on her own in the potions laboratory, leaning against the side of her work station, she left her bags on the countertop and went to sit down at the stool behind the demonstration table.

Front and centre.  Professor Granger, awaiting the recalcitrant Severus Snape who really needed to learn some manners.  She thought that a particularly unpleasant detention was in order.

Another minute passed.

Hermione gave up on trying to maintain a forbidding pose and leaned her chin tiredly on her linked fingers.  She began to wonder if he'd decided to humiliate her by leaving her here while he buggered off home.  At this point she wouldn't have put it past him.

Five long minutes after she'd arrived, the door opened.  Hermione sat up, suddenly feeling much less Professor-Granger-like.  Snape came inside and closed the door.

"Right, then," she said, hoping to at least begin this conversation on the front foot.  "What exac–"

She stopped.  You tended to stop when Severus Snape jerked a hand bearing a wand high in the air and shot you an unambiguously warning look.

He cast: something complex, a charm combination no doubt of his own design.  He did it in the direction of the door.  Hermione wondered what she would have done had his wand been pointed at her.  Had this recent suspicion on her part extended to a genuine fear for her safety?

Of course it had not.  This had to be some kind of misunderstanding.  Snape could conjure slights and insults out of the clear blue sky, and then hold a grudge about them for decades.  He was a veritable master of misunderstandings.

All she had to do was set this straight.

"Done?" she demanded.

He turned to face her.  She was unsettled by the anger in his eyes.  "When I am meeting an overly emotional student, alone, in a room with no lock, I find I'd like some warning if someone is about to intrude."

Hermione narrowed her eyes.  "Your amplification spell."

"Along with a couple of other things."

She made her voice as steady as she could.  "I am not being overly emotional."

He huffed a short laugh.  "You're doing your best to pretend you are not."

She felt her own anger levels begin to surge and had to work hard to maintain her measured tone.  "Right.  Because I'm so unsubtle.  And clueless.  And I shouldn't 'fool myself'.  Apparently."

"I'm glad to see that your memory, at least, is functioning reasonably well."

"So you can see right through me, can you?"

"You are not difficult to read."

"Maybe not.  And obviously I've done something to offend you.  Except, you know what?"  Hermione paused, surprised to find herself on her feet, stool shoved back behind her, leaning over the demonstration table as she tried to make her point.  "I have no bloody idea what great sin I have committed!  So if you can see it in the way I look and my oh-so-obvious body language and the expression on my face and the glimmer in my eyes or-or-or whatever the hell it is you've decided you see?  Could you do me a favour and please explain it to me!"

A pause.  A carefully arched eyebrow.  "And this is you not being overly emotional?  Heaven forfend if I ever experience your more impassioned moments."

"This is not funny!"

"And I am not laughing," he spat back at her.  He reached to pinch between his eyes, then sighed.  He'd stayed by the door, as if he needed to keep as much space as he could between them.  "I came here because you offered answers.  Instead I seem to be in receipt of nothing but questions."

"I'll answer what I can," she said, after a deep breath.  "But I should very much like to learn exactly when it was that I went from being your friend to being a woman who deserves insults and threats."

Snape held up a warning hand.  She wasn't sure what he meant for a moment, until she heard the voices.  Beyond the door, out in the corridor of sub-level one, hospital staff were walking and chatting, and the sounds echoed eerily into the laboratory as if from a hidden speaker.

She froze, not sure why she felt so nervous.  It wasn't as if she and Snape were doing anything more than talking.  Or maybe it was more like shouting...okay, so it wasn't the kind of conversation that a teacher and a student should really be having.  But even so.

"...go on without me, pal.  I've still got some stuff to finish up, tonight."

Hermione blinked.  She knew that voice.

"You've been stopping late all week.  What, Lambikins got you doing some overtime, has he?"

But she didn't know that one.

Okay, so there were two men talking.  And the first voice she had heard before, when she'd been standing in a herb garden in Puddlemere.  It had emanated from a honey-bee Patronus.

Joseph Montague.

"You really think Lambage has the first idea of the actual work that goes on in his department?" Joseph remarked.

"Fair comment," laughed his friend.  "Seriously – something up?  Need some help?"

"Nah.  Just want to check the Shade-Moth house.  Bernie reckons they're struggling, and it might have a knock-on with the Spleenwart plants."

Joseph's friend adopted an outraged falsetto and said, "Sometimes I think you care about those flowers more than you care about me!"

"Sweetums, I will always care more for flowers than you.  Unless it's your round."

"Speaking of – what time at the Leaky on Sunday?"

"Make it seven, I..."

The voices moved out of the zone of Snape's amplification spell, probably heading for the male changing rooms at the end of this bit of corridor.  Hermione drew a breath and then looked at Snape.

He was staring at the door.  He seemed, if anything, even more angry.

"Oh, for goodness sake, what now?" she demanded.

A moment, then he looked down at his feet and shook his head.  All of a sudden he looked tired and fed up.  "Nothing you need to concern yourself with."

"Don't I get to decide what concerns me?"

"In this instance, no."

Hermione swallowed hard.  "Seriously?  You've decided at some point in what feels like the last twenty-four hours that I no longer deserve your trust?  Everything we went through, every connection we were making, and it's all meaningless?"

"Do you know, I think that about sums things up."  He moved further into the room.  "I have things to do, and none of them involve a desire to navigate your cliché-addled drivel.  If you insist on remaining here then remove yourself to your work station and retrieve a textbook.  Let us at least give the impression of an educative discussion."

He had a point, buried somewhere amid his rather brutal words.  Feeling her capacity for defiance slipping away, she bit her lip on the distress and walked around the demonstration table.

Before she had reached her work station, however, Snape had beaten her there.  He snatched up the white paper sack she'd been given by the Storekeep and looked inside.

"Hey!  Do you mind?" she exploded, her temper at least keeping the heartbreak at bay for a while.

"Not at all," he said with blithe indifference.  He tossed the bag down again and walked past her to the front of the laboratory.  "In all honesty, Miss Granger, you'd have better success with this attempt to play the innocent if you didn't insist on walking around with nefariously obtained ingredients for a spying potion."

She opened her mouth.  She closed it again.  It was hard to work out which things to be angry about first.

"Okay – one?  Not nefariously obtained," she bit.

"I'm to take your word, am I?  Because your word is coming to mean less than I thought."

"Why?"

Snape ignored the question and began to unpack his own ingredients bag: the one he'd been carrying when he'd emerged from the long-term storage level.  He arranged the items on trays he took from a side shelf and set out on the front table.

Nux Myristica.  Dandelion root.  Silverweed.  Valerian.  These were among the ingredients for Fortis Maxima.

"What are you doing?" she asked, curiosity overcoming her anger.

"What does it look like?  I am preparing for tomorrow morning's lesson."

Hermione shook her head.  It was beginning to feel like she was the victim of a gaslighting.  "There isn't a Potions lesson on a Friday."

He glanced at her and arched a brow.  "I think you will find that there is."

"So you're giving lessons that you're keeping secret from me, now?" she said.  "What, is this about the 'regurgitating textbooks' thing?  Too much of an irritating know-it-all, am I?  You need at least one lesson a week where I'm excluded?"

Snape had straightened during this tirade, and he turned and looked at her blankly.  "I have no idea what you are talking about."

"Secret lessons!"

"There is nothing secret about them.  I run an early morning session on Fridays for those students who wish to make a second attempt at a brew that did not go well for them."

"Why was I not informed about this?" Hermione demanded.

"The information was included in the introductory course notes that were sent out in August."

Hermione hesitated, then she said, "Um – what introductory notes?"

"The ones I put together for all who'd signed up for my Lost Seventh class," Snape replied, losing patience.  "You were not omitted from this list.  And since you managed to arrive in the right place at the right time on the course's first day, I can only assume you did indeed receive the notes."

"Actually I didn't.  I went to the Department of Magical Education last month when I hadn't heard anything.  The timetables were up on the board in the reception area – I copied it all down."  She shrugged a shoulder.  "I thought the admin might be lagging a bit, with it being so last-minute."

Snape nodded slowly.  "The information was sent out to the contact details Hogwarts has on record.  I assume Grimmauld Place remains protected by Fidelius charm?"

"It does, though given that Harry is hosting parties there it isn't the most closely-guarded secret anymore.  But yes – we can't get owls.  Hogwarts wouldn't have that as my address, though, it'd have..."  She tailed off.  "Oh."

"Miss Granger?"

"My parents' house was empty until the second week in September."  And owls tended not to leave neat little postcards that said 'Sorry you weren't in – we tried to deliver your Lost Seventh paperwork.  Please collect your package at your local owl depot, leaving at least 24 hours after receiving this card...'

"I see."  Snape breathed deep, then turned back to his ingredients.  "It appears I finally have an answer, albeit to a question I was not overly concerned by."

"What question?"

"Why you have not requested to make a second attempt at Aqua Sedatis."  He glanced back at her  and sighed heavily.  "Miss Granger, I remain your professor in spite of your outbursts.  You are welcome to attend the class tomorrow morning and attempt a better brew – I will ensure ingredients are available.  Seven o'clock sharp."

Hermione closed her eyes and sank down on to her work station's stool.  "I can't do it.  Not tomorrow."

Snape turned back to the table.  "There is no time restriction on your second attempt.  Any Friday morning session will do.  I will not allow more than two attempts at any given potion, however."

She nodded.  In truth, even in the middle of this upsetting and infuriating conversation, this development provided a glimmer of relief.  She'd been dwelling on that Subpar.  Here was a chance to put it right.

"I'll do that," she said.  "Maybe next week?"

"Inform me by next Thursday if you wish to attend so that I can ensure everything is prepared."  Keeping his back to her, he added, "If there is nothing else you wish to discuss this evening, I think we'll both benefit from going our separate ways."  Snape waved a wand over the prepared trays of ingredients, activating their safe containment until the morning.

"Severus–"

"Professor Snape," he snapped.

Hermione swallowed.  "You wanted some answers?  I'll tell you what I'm allowed.  I'm not spying.  Or...not the way you implied.  The Eve's Drops potion is for a thing for work.  I can't tell you the details because I have been asked to keep them confidential."  He turned to look at her, and she met his gaze as steadily as she could.  "That's why I'm busy tomorrow morning, by the way.  Work stuff."  A sigh.  "Well go on then, Mr I'm-so-good-at-body-language.  Am I lying?"

His lip curled in a sneer.  "Not this time.  Though your deliberate vagueness renders concepts such as truth and deceit somewhat meaningless."  He drew himself up.  "Why were you in Shyverwretch's?  Was that for your work, too?"

Hermione shook her head.  "No, that was for a different project.  A friend asked me to help out, and I agreed to keep the matter between us.  You know, maybe I do lack subtlety.  Maybe I do fool myself when it comes to the people I care about.  But if someone asks for my help and wants me to protect their privacy then I'll do my damnedest to comply."  She slid off the stool and took up her bags.  "I wouldn't have thought I'd need to explain that particular point to you.  Keeping secrets for the right reasons – that's always been your M.O."

Hermione sensed him watching her as she walked towards the back of the laboratory.  She didn't know what else to say, so she left the room and returned to the ground floor, where she Floo'ed to Dane Booth's top floor flat, took grateful receipt of a fresh towel, and used the noise of the shower to disguise the five minute cry that she found she needed to get out of her system.

Then she dried, dressed, and got back to work.

~~~

Madam Churlish's Patronus materialised in the middle of Dane's living room.  It was an eel.  Hermione didn't even try to understand the talismanic connection there.

"I know it's late," the eel said, "but there is some further information you'll need.  I'll attempt to Floo at half past ten tonight."

They were in Cardiff, in the house Dane's Great Aunt owned; the whole top floor had been turned into a self-contained flat for him.  You could see the castle from his kitchen window.  The rehearsals had actually gone quite well, so they awarded themselves time for a breather after receiving Churlish's message.  Dane decided that he needed to clear away the congealing takeaway boxes before the Deputy Head of Improper Use came calling.  While he did this, Hermione packed away her potions kit.  She was now in possession of two matching phials of Eve's Drops.  The potion recipe had been moderately complex, but the charm which activated the brew had caused no difficulty.

While they waited for Madam Churlish, Hermione tried to chat.  A bit of decompression was in order, she thought, after an evening of simulated police interrogation.

"You kept your New Zealand accent pretty well," she said to Dane.  "You were, what, fourteen when you came over here?"

"I was.  I kept it on purpose for a while.  I liked that it made me different.  And it felt a bit less like I was abandoning my home and my folks.  You know?"

"Makes sense."

"Course, I didn't sound this Kiwi eighteen months ago, before Aunt Lavinia packed me back off down under."  He lifted a meaningful brow.  "She was one of the sensible ones.  Saw what was coming pretty early on.  Figured a Muggle-born like me with a funny accent to boot might want to make himself scarce."

"Three cheers for Aunt Lavinia," Hermione offered.

"No kidding.  Anyway, I only made it back here in July, after the war.  So it'll be a while before I stop saying 'fush and chups' correctly, I reckon."

She grinned at that.  Dane grinned too.

"Hey – here's a thought," he said.  "Are you seeing anyone, right now?"

Her grin faded.  Hermione blinked.  "Um."

"Ah."  Dane winced at himself.  "Foot in mouth.  Big-huge error.  Forget I spoke."

"No, I mean, I..."  Hermione tried to pull her startled thoughts together.  "Don't worry about it.  No, I'm not seeing anyone.  Nor am I really ready to do that.  I'm still a bit...the last months have been kind of frantic."  She sighed.  "I think, basically, I need to sort myself out before I inflict it on anyone else."

Dane smiled ruefully.  "And here was me, thinking you were about the most together woman I've ever had the good fortune to meet."

"You should see what the inside of my brain looks like."

The brief tension dissipated with that; the smiles were amiable again.  "No worries," he said, "but you ever feel like you're ready, and you fancy grabbing a bite with a Kiwi ex-pat?  You know where to find me."

"I appreciate the offer," Hermione said, semi-formally, aware as she said it that she meant it.  With Ron's new love-interest, Harry's constant Ginny-related mooning and Severus Snape's interest – literary or otherwise – in Roksana Bramble, it was good to know that she could still attract a bit of interest herself.

~~~

Madam Churlish dusted the Floo powder away and turned to face them.  "How've you been getting on this evening?" she asked.

Dane turned to Hermione, offering her the lead.

"We've got the potion brewed," she reported.  "And I've ordered a Portkey which will deliver Dane back to the Ministry Atrium.  Just as a back-up plan."

"Good thought," Churlish agreed.  "Your practice-runs?"

"I've asked everything I could think of, from the point of view of a Muggle police officer.  We've covered as much as we can.  Dane's good at this – he can deflect awkward questions with a neat line in self-deprecating humour."

"I can?" Dane put in, surprised.

"Yup."  She frowned as she recalled the work they'd done.  "The silvery trail has been easy to create with a modified Lumos..."

Hermione tailed off.  She'd just joined some dots in her head that she hadn't realised needed joining.

"Yes, I saw in your report that you thought it unlikely to be a Patronus, given the shape," Madam Churlish encouraged.

"Just looked like those ribbon things that gymnasts dance with," Hermione said, adrift in her connecting thoughts.

"Those ribbon things – I'm sorry?" Churlish prompted.

"Or...a bit like your eel."

More sharply, Churlish said, "What are you suggesting, Miss Granger?"

Hermione blinked and came back to herself.  "A snake.  Why didn't I see it?  It was a snake, a whacking great big one!  Coiled around the man, like a constrictor.  It was a Patronus!"

A pause.

Dane said, "I can still use the Lumos thing, though, right?"

"Of course.  Yes, it's fine, I just – Madam Churlish, is there any central register for Patronus forms?"

"No.  It would be difficult to maintain, since Patronuses can change.  And a large proportion of the population either cannot or do not cast them.  And...well, they are rather personal."

"Yes.  Yes, they are."  Hermione grimaced.  "I don't suppose you know of anyone whose Patronus is a snake?"

"Not personally," Churlish said.  "Though I'd imagine it is not uncommon among former members of Slytherin House."

Hermione nodded.  "Not really that useful as a clue to identify the wizard, then.  But maybe a way to help confirm we have the right man, when he's found?"

"Maybe," Churlish said.

"Mind you," Hermione added, "if he has committed cold-blooded murder since that footage was recorded, chances are he's lost the ability to cast a Patronus."

"Perhaps, but let's not get sidetracked.  Anything else to report?"

"Sorry.  Yes.  Um – I worked out a glamour for when Dane has his hood up.  It'll make it seem like removing the hood  changes his appearance.  Like on the footage.  Fortunately we never get a good look at the dark-haired wizard."  She did a backtrack on her own words.  "Well, fortunately because it's easier to fake, I mean.  I don't mean it's helpful that we don't have a description of our suspect."  She shrugged  "If you see what I mean."

"I do.  Show me this glamour, then."

Dane grinned.  "On with the show."  He scooped up his new hooded cloak and put it on, head lowered so the fabric covered his face.  Then he took up his wand and cast the glamour Hermione had designed.  He raised his head with a certain theatricality.  Peering inside the folds of the hood, Hermione saw what looked like a finely-boned dark-haired man wreathed in shadow.  Dane tossed back his hood and he was himself again.

"And the Lumos charm?" Churlish said.

Dane raised his wand.  "Lumos Argenti Tarda!"  He swept the tip of his wand around himself, just as the wizard in the security footage had done, and a coil of silver slowly cascaded in a spiral, fading before it reached the floor.

Churlish nodded.  "Good.  Now, there's a slight change of plan.  You are no longer going to hand yourself in."

"I'm not?" Dane said, surprised.

"No.  My team discussed this.  We've decided that too long has passed since the incident on Saturday.  So we'll play it this way – the Muggle police will come to you instead."

"They will?"

"Indeed.  Nobody could come up with a good reason why you waited almost a week before coming forward.  Better that you play ignorant of any problem and let the investigating officers 'find' you."

"Okay."  Dane wasn't looking sure about this.  Of course, they'd just spent nearly two hours working on one scenario.  Changing it didn't seem all that good an idea.

"Here is the back story," Churlish said.  "You had a very bad audition at the theatre last Saturday and went straight home afterwards.  You didn't think again about the, er, 'drunk woman' as you were caught up in your own disappointment.  Meanwhile, we subjected one of the Muggle police officers investigating this matter to a memory charm.  This afternoon he 'remembered' the auditions at the Burleigh Theatre and decided it was worth asking them about stage conjurers.  The theatre staff had been primed with memory charms and told the officer that a conjurer had a disastrous audition at the theatre last Saturday.  They've provided a name and address."

"Hang on, hang on – they're coming here?" Dane asked incredulously, shooting a nervous glance through the door to his hallway.

"Certainly not; this is Wizarding Britain.  Everything else besides, your Aunt's house is unplottable.  But the Ministry maintains numerous Muggle dwellings that can be used on occasions such as this.  Mr Booth, your name is David Perkins.  You work from home as a freelance accounts auditor but, of course, you harbour dreams of becoming a celebrity magician.  You are unmarried, your one-bedroom flat is in Walthamstow – here is the address – and you have no criminal record.  You are, and I cannot impress this upon you enough, a thoroughly boring individual, unworthy of further investigation."

"Boring.  Right ho."  Dane looked at the parchment Churlish had given him.  "Hope it's handy for the tube.  This is a long way from the Floo network."

Hermione looked over his shoulder.  "I know where that is.  I'll lend you my A-to-Z."

"The other thing you will need is this," Churlish said, and handed over a small phial.  "Polyjuice containing the hair of the closest match we could find.  Actually he's an apprentice with the Ministry's curse-breakers.  It is well-brewed.  The disguise will last at least six hours."

"Okay."

Churlish said, "The police officer will contact you at the address in Walthamstow some time tomorrow morning, thinking himself very clever to have tracked down the cloaked fellow on the footage.  You should bear in mind that although the footage has been destroyed, the officer has seen it.  Now he will probably call without announcing himself.  But the, er, 'telephone' is connected in the flat, if he decides to contact you that way.  You...know how to use such a thing?"

"Think I can manage," Dane said flatly.

"Good.  There is a small business which appears to be used for the mass-washing of clothing underneath this address.  Two of my people will be sitting in there from eight o'clock onwards, so if anything goes badly and the police officer decides to take you to the station, we will be aware of it and we will extract you.  Please remember – this exercise is intended to close an investigation that has become awkward for us, but if the plan does not work then only a small number of people will need to be Obliviated.  This is quite containable, and all in a day's work for my team."

"Right.  And I'll have my Portkey if it all goes pear-shaped."

"Indeed."  Churlish turned to Hermione.  "The second floor flat in the same building is currently unoccupied.  We don't own it, but an Alohomora should get you inside, and it will be a quiet place for you to monitor the interview and provide any assistance."

"Got it," Hermione said.

"We'll be setting up at eight, like I say," Churlish concluded.  "Be there in good time."  She turned to Dane.  "You'll need to wear Muggle clothing which will allow for the extra inch or so in height the Polyjuice will give you.  And don't forget to bring your hooded cloak.  I'd suggest you don't take the Polyjuice until you know the visit is about to happen – just in case."

"Understood," Dane said.

Churlish smiled tightly at them both.  "I'll let you get back to your evening.  See you tomorrow."

She Floo'ed out.

"Right then," Hermione said.  "One more run-through, only this time you need to come at it from a place of absolute ignorance.  All that last Saturday currently means to you is that you bombed in front of some up-himself faux celebrity."

"Absolute ignorance," Dane repeated.  "Shouldn't be too tricky.  Let's go."

~~~

Harry was in the kitchen when she finally got home, just before midnight.  She had the sense he'd been waiting up for her.

"Another late one," he observed, as she went to the cooler and grabbed some milk to heat.

"Yes.  Got quite a bit on at the moment," she agreed.

"New flame, is it?" he asked lightly.

She snorted.  "God, no.  That's one of the things I definitely do not have time for."

He laughed too, but it sounded forced.

"Something up?" he finally enquired.  "Only you seem to have gone a bit AWOL, this week."

"I know.  Sorry.  Just busy, though.  Everything's fine."

He was quiet for so long that she had to finish fussing with the milk and look his way.

"You'd tell me, wouldn't you?" he said.  "If there was a problem?"

The answer to that was obviously 'no' given all that had happened.  But she couldn't say that and she didn't want to lie, so she said, "Who on earth else would I tell?"

Harry brightened, came around the table and leaned in to brush a kiss over her cheek.

"What was that for?" she demanded, startled.

"Night, Hermione," he said, and left the kitchen.

She spent so long thinking how much easier Harry was to deal with when he was being stroppy and petulant that she nearly let the milk boil over.

~~~