"Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions."
Joseph Conrad, Nostromo 1904
A narrow stairway that smelled strongly of Persil and bleach provided access to the first and second floor flats above the launderette in Walthamstow. Hermione saw Dane safely into the Ministry-owned property and then headed further up the stairs. She checked for privacy before she magically unlocked the door.
The top floor flat was a hippy haven. The lingering scent of sandalwood incense was a sneeze-inducing presence in all the soft furnishings, even though the owners had been away for over two weeks, according to the postal marks on the accumulating pile of junk mail behind the front door. The kitchen cupboards contained nothing with meat and little with dairy, though there was quite the array of beans and other pulses in dried and tinned form. The small kitchen was separated from the equally compact living room by a dangling screen of beads and bamboo.
Hermione did not bother seeking out the CD collection in the basket-style drawers under the music centre. She knew what she'd find there, anyway. (Enya, mainly.) She also refused to investigate the bedroom. There were lines to this otherwise justifiable intrusion of privacy that she would not cross.
Though she was wary about casting in a Muggle flat unsuited to magic, she kept her wand to hand in case she needed to cast an emergency Apparate. Holidays did not, after all, last forever. She sat down by a window which overlooked the street, watchful for any visitors to the building. She had her phial of Eve's Drops ready. And of course, being a Muggle-born witch currently undertaking a mission with a fellow Muggle-born, she had her mobile phone.
It was just after twenty past eight in the morning. Outside, a light drizzle made the East Seventeen commuters hurry along with their collars turned up, some wielding umbrellas that were offering more harm to other passers-by than protection to their owners.
Grey, wet, autumnal London.
Hermione sighed. The weather and muted lighting seemed all too reflective of her mood. Since the argument with Snape she'd been in lugubrious form. It was perhaps fortunate that her various tasks and projects were keeping her as busy as they were; it gave her less opportunity to dwell.
Still, she was Hermione Granger, which meant that she never really stopped thinking about things. A quiet moment in a borrowed flat, looking out at the grey London drizzle, meant that she was soon reviewing each and every interaction she and Severus Snape had shared. She still thought of him as the unlikely friend she'd made in a cell-like hospital room, the man who'd put his arm around her and offered comfort when her injured body went into shock after Augustus Rookwood's attack.
Such amicable memories were now consigned to history, or so it seemed. Yet it wasn't as if things between them had been falling apart over time. As recently as last weekend he'd bought her a (heavily disguised) birthday present. He'd stepped in to protect her during her sortie into Knockturn Alley a mere three days ago.
And now this. He'd told her their connection didn't matter. He'd looked at her with such anger in his eyes. Hermione was desperate to learn what had caused this change in Snape's attitude. There had to be something: something real, something definable. It couldn't all be down to the way she'd been forced to consider him a suspect in the storage-level thefts. Not even if you combined it with how she'd never learned to keep from broadcasting her emotions.
If that was all it had taken to turn Snape into this insult-slinging, tremulous-with-rage adversary, did that not strongly suggest his involvement in the whole sordid affair? Otherwise he'd be sitting somewhere quiet, watching the rain just as Hermione was watching it right now, wondering what the hell he'd done to earn her distrust.
God, she hoped it was something else. Some stupid misunderstanding that had nothing to do with theft and suspicion and bloody buggering snagberries. Everything else besides, she really didn't like the way the evidence seemed to be mounting up.
It was a conundrum. A hurtful one, at that. And unless Snape decided to explain his behaviour, she had to acknowledge that she would be stuck in this limbo of confusion for the foreseeable.
Instead of allowing herself to dwell any further, she switched on her phone and keyed in Dane's number.
"You're up there, right?" came his greeting. He sounded anxious.
"I'm up here. Why on earth wouldn't I be?"
"I just thought – you know. Maybe the owners had come home unexpectedly. Or you couldn't get in. Or something had called you away. Or–"
"Dane – calm down."
"Right. Sorry." She heard him take a deep breath. "I'll be okay when they get here. It's just the waiting."
"I know. Use the time to learn the flat."
"Learn the...what do you mean?"
"It's got to feel like your home. You don't want to trip over an unexpected side table or spend ten minutes looking for the tea-bags when you've got CID paying a visit. Kind of looks suspicious."
"Good point. Very good point. God, you're good at this, aren't you? Right. I'm going to make a cup of tea, pretend like I live here." She heard him stand up; the sofa downstairs had a distinctive creak. "Um – you want to stay on the phone for a bit?"
If the police telephoned ahead of their visit it would be to the flat's landline, not to Dane's mobile. So Hermione said, "We can still talk. I'm not going anywhere. But I'm a bit jealous."
"Jealous of what?"
"You. In a flat with actual, proper, normal tea." She made her voice jokingly wistful. "Bet you've got some lovely Tetley, or PG Tips. All there is up here is Peppermint and Echinacea and something called Tea-Tox."
"I mean, honestly. I'd have been fine with a pack of Twinings English Breakfast, even a poncy sack of loose-leaf Ceylon from some overpriced specialist. Just something I can brew and put milk in. A nice, brown cup of tea. Is that too much to ask?"
"You want me to bring you one up?"
"Would you?" Hermione grinned. "Actually, I'll come down to you."
The police officers arrived unannounced at a quarter to ten. Hermione noticed the unmarked car from her window seat: a big Mondeo with two thick-necked men in the front. They pulled in to the loading area outside the launderette without apparent concern for the parking restrictions. She was already phoning Dane when the officers got out. They were in plain-clothes, though this wasn't much of a disguise. Both of them might as well have been carrying placards reading: WE ARE COPPERS. Hermione hid a smile at the way a young man with over-gelled hair who'd been hanging around outside the newsagents opposite took one look and sauntered not-very-casually away.
"Here we go," she said when the call connected.
"They're here? Thank god for that. Let's get this done."
"Polyjuice. Right now. Give yourself chance to settle in to the new face. And don't forget your Eve's Drops."
"On it. Say hi in my ear when it's working, yeah?"
"Will do. Good luck."
Hermione cut the call, switched off her phone and took up her own phial of potion. She looked ruefully at it. "Bottoms up," she muttered, and knocked it back. It tasted like overcooked broad beans, which seemed fitting for the legume-friendly flat she currently occupied. Alas, Hermione wasn't keen on broad beans. She swallowed the mouthful determinedly, controlled the gag reflex, then spent a brief moment or two wondering whether Roksana Bramble's new potions volume might include ways to change classic recipes such that they didn't taste so consistently like old socks.
She waited. She tried closing her eyes in order to focus on the sounds she might hear when Dane took his own phial of potion. Realising that the traffic and pedestrian noise from the street was a distraction, she stood up and moved away from the window. She left the living room, closed the door behind her and sat down on the carpet in the narrow hall, as insulated from ambient noise as she could be.
She heard the police officers knock on the first floor flat, and for a moment thought that they were being very heavy-handed – like they'd been mainlining old episodes of The Sweeney or something – until she realised that she was hearing both the echo of their arrival up through the stairwell and what Dane was hearing in the flat downstairs.
"I'm right here with you," she said quietly.
"Oh. Hi. Wow. This is weird." A pause. "Not as weird as my new voice, though."
Dane's Polyjuiced voice now had more than a hint of the Black Country about it. Vocally, he'd morphed from Peter Jackson to Ozzy Osbourne.
"Go and answer the door," she said. "I'll be here if you need help."
She heard him breathe deeply – an odd sound to hear somebody else make, since it came through as Dane himself perceived it rather than from an external point of view – then she heard footsteps across an uncarpeted floor. The sound of a latch being turned. A door opening.
"Can I help you?" Dane's voice asked, just the right mixture of confusion and wariness.
"Mr Perkins?" a confident south-of-the-river accent said.
"Er, yes – that's me."
"Metropolitan Police. CID. Might we have a word, sir?"
A pause. Dane would hopefully be remembering to look at the proffered IDs.
"You'd better come in," he said.
There was a brief interlude of footsteps and shuffling and that distinctive creak of sofa amid other furniture-type-noises, before the police officer who was clearly the designated speaker got to the point.
"Mr Perkins, were you at the Burleigh Theatre on the Strand, last Saturday evening?"
"Yes. I had an audition. God – don't tell me I was so bad they thought they had to call the police!"
The police officers didn't laugh at the quip, as Hermione and Dane had decided they probably would not, last night when they'd worked it in to their role-plays. But it fitted well with Dane's persona and seemed like the kind of thing a nervous celebrity-wannabe might say.
"Can you tell me what you were doing in the hour leading up to your attendance at the theatre, sir?" the police officer asked.
"Of course I can." Dane paused then said, "What's this about, officer? Was there a crime committed at the theatre?"
"If you could just answer the question, sir."
"All right. I took the tube in to Charing Cross and got there about half seven. My audition wasn't till ten past eight so I found myself a quiet spot for a bit of practice – get in the zone, so to speak. I practised for a while, then I went to the theatre. Where–"
"Stop you there, sir, if you don't mind. Where was this quiet spot you found?"
"It was round by the big hotel between the Embankment and the Strand. What's it called? Um...Savoy. The Savoy."
A pause. Hermione imagined the two police officers sharing a significant look. So far Dane was doing very well.
"So you were near the front entrance, down by the river, is that it?" the police officer asked.
"God, no. They move people on round there, what with all the bigwigs coming and going. No, round the back of the little arcade off the Strand, it opens out on a narrow lane. There's an underpass type thing where all the hotel deliveries go. I found a quiet nook, tucked to the side. By some big gate-type doors, but they were all shut up, set back from the road. It was quiet and private, so I got my gear on and practised." Dane paused, then said, "You, er, kind of need a private spot when you're wearing a big hooded cloak and waving a wand around."
A few seconds of quiet followed. Hermione used the lull to murmur, "You're doing great."
"I don't suppose you have your stage accoutrements available, do you?" the police officer asked.
"You want to see them?" Dane huffed with well-feigned surprise. "Look, fellas – I don't want to be in any way awkward, but it's starting to feel like I'm being deliberately kept in the dark. Have I been accused of doing something wrong?"
"If we could see the cloak, sir?"
Another huff. "Fine." The sound of Dane moving around the flat came through Hermione's link, and a door opened. He must have prepared the costume within easy reach in the flat's bedroom. He brought it back to the police officers. "Here you go. How it helps, I've no idea, but this is my magician's cloak. You like it, you can have it, 'cause I am never, ever going to wear it again."
"Never again, sir? Why is that?"
"Oh, come on. Sounds to me like you already talked to the crew at the theatre. I bombed. With arse-clenching, nightmare-inducing horror, I absolutely bombed." A beat. "Um – that's metaphorical, by the way. I'm not making a confession."
Again, neither police officer bothered to laugh and joke and be congenial. Hermione was relatively sure that police officers with a sense of humour existed. Unfortunately it seemed that any such officers were busy doing something else this morning.
A new voice said, "Definitely the right cloak, from what I can remember, Guv."
"Yes, thanks Colin," the other officer said, apparently annoyed that his colleague had ventured an opinion. Perhaps using phrases like 'from what I can remember' carried with it a hint of grey-area that the police officer in charge would have preferred to avoid. "Mr Perkins – do you remember if anyone else was in the vicinity while you were 'practising'?"
"Of course I do. It was only last Saturday. There was a woman, came along. Oh, hang on, back up. First of all there was a bloke. Tuxedo, slicked-back hair tied in a ponytail. He was hurrying along in front of me when I came out the back of the arcade – I don't think he saw me."
"A bloke, you say. About how tall?"
"Not very. Maybe five seven? On the portly side. Bit sleazy-looking. He ducked around a corner and disappeared." Hermione smiled at this description of Quentin Bittercup. "Didn't think much of it – I mean, why would I? So I got set up and got on with the show, getting my opening sorted, trying to calm my nerves. Then I hear a noise, like a yelp, and I turn around to face the street and there's this woman, leaning against the wall, looking at me like I'm stark bollock naked or something." A pause. "Um, 'scuse my language, officers."
"Can you remember what this woman looked like?" the officer asked.
"White. Pretty average height, slim build. Mid-thirties, maybe? Evening dress. Dark colour, maybe black or navy blue, with a shoulder wrap thingy. Dark hair, pinned back. I thought she must be with the other bloke, the sleazy one in the tux, except she didn't seem to be looking for him. She was a bit unsteady on her feet, bless her. Think she, er, might have had a glass or two, you know?"
"And what happened then, sir?" the police officer pressed.
"Nothing much. I was glad of the audience, actually – it's always better to perform to someone. So I gave her a bit of a flourish with the old wand – oh, god, shit, that was not metaphorical, that was quite literal, all right? A wand. An actual wand. A pointy stick." A pause. "Not my p–"
"I think we follow, sir," the officer said blandly.
Dane coughed. Hermione did her best not to laugh, though she couldn't remember his performance being this funny last night.
"Yes. Right then. Anyway, I carried on with my act, and the woman watched for a moment and then–"
He stopped speaking, forcing the officer to say, "Then?"
"Well, I don't want to speak ill of a lady or anything, but she...sort of fell over."
"She fell over."
"On to some bin bags, just at the side of the double doors. A nice soft landing, fortunately. Looked like she tripped over her own feet. This is only a step or two away from where I was standing. She sagged a bit and grinned up at me then closed her eyes. I was still trying to work out what to do, whether I needed to get her any help, when she let out the biggest snore you ever heard. So I figured she seemed comfortable enough where she was, and I got on with my practice."
"I see." The police officer cleared his throat. "You didn't touch her at all?"
"Of course not! I don't go about touching up intoxicated women!" A pause. Dane's tone of voice hardened notably when he said, "What exactly am I being accused of, here? Because I give you my word, I did nothing untoward. The woman arrived, watched me, fell over and fell asleep. I left her there, snoring her head off, by the time I had to grab my kit and get my arse over to the Burleigh."
A pause. Hermione murmured, "So far so good. Don't push them too much, though. The main one won't like his authority being questioned. My diagnosis is a sense-of-humour-bypass. Poor chap."
"Something funny, sir?" the police officer demanded.
"Um – yes. A bit." Shit. Hermione reminded herself not to say anything to Dane that might make him smile. "Only when I was doing this trick I do with my wand, the woman – she was like all 'Ooh! Aah!' like she's watching fireworks. I really thought she was enjoying the show, right up till the moment the champagne caught up with her."
"Can you demonstrate what you were doing?" the other police officer said.
"Why would you need me to do that?"
"Just answer the questions as we ask them, sir," the first policeman put in. "Can you demonstrate?"
Dane huffed. "Fine." Hermione heard him stand up and take up his wand. "Lumos Argenti Tarda!" he cast.
"How the hell did you do that?" the second officer demanded. "Loo-moss...what is that?"
"Latin. Well, pidgin Latin anyway. Sounds better for a magic spell than English. 'Slow silvery light!' Doesn't sound nearly as mystical. You know?"
"Can you explain the mechanics of this illusion, sir?" the first officer said.
"It's magic, of course."
"Please treat the interview with some respect, sir. This is a serious matter."
"Yeah, well, you say that, but I still don't know why you're even talking to me. What am I being accused of, here?"
"You've not been accused of anything, sir, you're just assisting us with our enquiries. Now how did you do the...silvery light thing."
"Basic A level science. A combination of liquid nitrogen and a laser pointer. Makes a trail like a sparkler. Neat, eh?"
"Very effective sir."
"Looks better when the footage is badly lit," the other officer grumbled. "You can see it's just a trick, now he's explained it."
"Thank you, Colin," the first one snapped. "And the other trick you pulled off, sir?"
"What other trick?"
"You changed your appearance."
"Oh. That." A pause. "How did you know about that?"
'Oh, good catch, Dane,' Hermione thought to herself.
"The woman reported you," the police officer was forced to admit.
"Oh." Dane hesitated, then he said, "Um...um..."
Hermione realised with a start that he'd lost momentum. "So you came here to arrest me for being a bad stage magician?" she said clearly.
"So you're here to arrest me for being a bad stage magician?" Dane repeated.
Colin said, "I thought you looked quite good on camera, actually."
"It's on camera? Oh, thank god for that!" Hermione said, waiting while Dane repeated the words. "If it's all on camera then you must know I didn't do anything wrong."
"Can I ask you where you were on Tuesday this week, sir?" the first police officer said. Probably because he did not want to admit that the camera footage had mysteriously disappeared. Also, perhaps, because he was getting annoyed with Colin and wanted to play the scary law-man again.
"Tuesday?" Dane prompted. "Um..."
"He wants to link you to the Muggle woman's death, basically because he's got nothing else on you," Hermione said quietly. "Tell him you were at home all day."
"I was here. Working. I work from home."
"And in the evening?"
"Still here. I don't go out much, mid-week."
"Can anybody corroborate that, sir?"
"Tell him no," she said. "You were alone."
"Unfortunately not. I live alone here."
"We can check the traffic camera outside, Guv," said Colin. "And the surveillance at the tube station. Should be easy enough to confirm it."
It seemed, however, that Colin was getting tired of his boss's posturing. "He's just a bloke, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wearing a big cloak." Colin's voice was cajoling. "Come on, Guv. We've found the guy, at least. Only took us two goes!"
Hermione sat up straighter. "Two goes?"
"Two goes?" Dane repeated, though she hadn't meant for him to do so.
Colin barked a laugh. "We've been trying to identify you for almost a week, now, Mr Perkins. Had a false start when we thought you was a waiter, works the Savoy. Staff there, they ID'd the bloke on the footage as one Sam Eades. Only turns out he wasn't nowhere near the hotel on the night in question."
The creak of furniture was abrupt. "Thank you for your time today, sir," said the Guv. "We'll be in touch if we need anything else."
It seemed even the aggressive one was giving up.
"Seriously, though," said Colin. "How did you make your face change like that?"
"Light and shadow and optical illusion," Dane said, back on scripted territory again. There was a swish, and Hermione knew he was wrapping the cloak around himself. A pause.
"Holy shit," said Colin. "That's...I don't...how were the Make Me a Star lot not impressed with that?"
Another swish. "You'd have to ask them. Tell you what, though, officer – fair play to you. You got me to put this thing on again, and I didn't think I ever would."
"If you're quite finished, Colin?" the Guv said.
There came the noise of two police officers leaving the flat, followed by a door closing and a sigh of relief from Dane.
"I really thought the one in charge wanted to arrest me," he said.
"Maybe he did. He obviously gets off on the authority thing. You can pretty much guarantee his home life is hen-pecked and unfulfilled," she said.
He snorted. "Well. Turns out your lifeline was a great idea."
She tried to smile at the compliment. "Oh, I'm full of them." Someone thought she was more than 'clueless', at least.
"Want to come down? Bring your mug, I'll make you another cup of tea."
Hermione told him she'd be down in two ticks. She checked the rooms for any evidence of her temporary occupation, then she left the flat and locked the door behind her. While she had things she wanted to organise ready for the weekend ahead, there wasn't much point doing them until the Eve's Drops had worn off. She didn't need Dane listening in on her whole life. Fortunately it would only take another twenty minutes or so.
Just as well. Hermione was beginning to feel the urge to pee.
"Sam Eades," Madam Churlish repeated, as they both made their report, still in the Ministry-owned flat. "Excellent. We hadn't identified him, yet."
"No address, though."
"Yes," she said. "That's a shame."
"Ah, don't worry. Looks to me like you need the Muggle Liaison people," Dane said. "Or, in other words – me! If we head back to the office I can pin him down for you."
"We can do that later on," Churlish agreed. "Let's wait for your face and voice to return to normal first."
"Right. Yes, good call."
"Do you need me for anything else?" Hermione asked.
"No, I don't think so," Churlish said. "You can get back to the office. Thank you for your assistance in this matter, Miss Granger."
"You're welcome. And I'm not going back to the Ministry – I don't work on Fridays."
Churlish arched a brow. "Then I'd better see to it that Mr Arnold arranges proper overtime payment."
"Won't say no. I like buying books." Hermione smiled at her colleagues. "Do let me know if I can help with anything else."
She excused herself from the Walthamstow flat and Apparated back to Diagon Alley. She had an owl to send.
To: Headmistress McGonagall
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
25th September 1998
Could you please advise whether, as a Lost Seventh student, I'm allowed to borrow books from the Hogwarts library? If not, can any interim permissions be extended to me while I'm still studying for NEWTs?
Thanks in advance,
To: Hermione Granger
c/o Granger Residence, Tudor Close, Banstead
You still have full access to the library. Mdm Pince has a new pro forma for Lost Seventh students who wish to remove books from Hogwarts, requiring Mdm Pince's signature or my own, and a wand-seal. The book will be charmed to return to Hogwarts within a prearranged window of time if it is not returned in person.
Let me know when you're planning a visit and I'll do the paperwork for you. It will be lovely to see you outside of Transfiguration lessons, Hermione. I might even stop being a bit cross that you refused to come back!
Voicemail left on Hermione Granger's mobile phone, 17:23 25/9/98:
"Darling, it's your mother. There's one of those owls here. Frightened the living daylights out of me, pecking at the kitchen window. Never did get used to them. Anyway, I remembered the procedure and took its little message – it offered me a leg and everything, very polite and helpful, I must say. I offered it some of last night's chicken. I wasn't sure how it would be with raw meat. I mean, it would make sense that it would be fine, wouldn't it? Owls don't exactly cook the voles and mice they catch on little owl-sized barbecues, do they? But these creatures seem less like owls and more like owl-shaped postmen, which made me hesitate. So I hope that's all right. Um – the letter is here for you at your convenience. How you can read such small letters without straining your eyes is quite beyond me, but I suppose you know what you're doing. If you want to drop round to collect it then let me know and perhaps you could stay for supper? Dad's going to be a little late with an emergency extraction but I've got–"
Voicemail left on Hermione Granger's mobile phone, 17:25 25/9/98:
"Sorry darling, me again, I think your phone ran out of tape or whatever it is these things are recorded on nowadays. Anyway, come for supper if you like. That is, if you aren't fed up with our company yet! I'm going to give this owl another piece of chicken and tell it thank you very much – it seems to be waiting. Maybe for a reply? Is that usual? Anyway, talk to you soon, darling. Go safely now!"
To: Headmistress McGonagall
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
25th September 1998
Thanks for the reply. I'll come up tomorrow, if that suits. Late morning? I know it's a Hogsmeade weekend and I'd rather do this while the school is quiet. (If this prevents you from enjoying a planned raid on Honeydukes then let me know and I'll reschedule.)
It will be lovely to see you too. We don't get much of a chance to catch-up during lessons. I hope term is going well, and your current Head Girl and Head Boy are proving worthy of their titles.
Hopefully you don't feel too badly let down by my absence at Hogwarts this academic year. There are few people in this world whose good opinion means more to me.
In future, could you send owls for me to the Weasley household? Grimmauld Place remains secret-kept, and my parents aren't always in during working hours. Molly says she's happy to alert me if something comes for me in the post.
Can I just confirm that the Restricted Section will be accessible to me tomorrow?
To: Hermione Granger
c/o The Burrow, Ottery St Catchpole
Access to the Restricted Section remains, as it will always remain, at the discretion of the teaching staff of Hogwarts. I will, of course, happily supply the necessary permission slip.
On an entirely unrelated note – the papers for the NEWT re-sits arrived this week. Usually we host re-sits on the first weekend in October, but if you're up here this weekend anyway and felt as though you could spare the time? Two hours for your written and forty-five minutes for your practical? Yes, I know what you've been telling me about sitting your NEWT early, but it's just a thought.
I should state, for clarity, that the permission slip I offer in the first paragraph does not depend* on you undertaking the exam, as mentioned in the second.
But wouldn't it be nice to get another NEWT under your belt? You've had three Lost Seventh lessons with me now, and I've managed to teach you absolutely nothing you don't already know backwards. If you don't do as well as you hope to, you can still complete the rest of the course and sit the NEWT again next summer.
*Not completely, anyway.
"Manage some supper, Hermione?" called Molly Weasley, as Hermione came through the front door of the Burrow.
"No thanks. Ate with my parents earlier," she called back. She took a moment to greet the various Weasleys present; Arthur pressed a fatherly kiss atop her head, Percy shot her a buttoned-up smile as he perused some paperwork in the corner of the den, George offered a hug, eyes still shadowed by his loss. Hermione then went through to the kitchen.
Molly gave her a half-hug with the arm that wasn't directing a wooden spoon, a feather duster and a scrubbing brush. "The letter's on the window ledge next to the Strangleleaf. Mind it doesn't nip you!"
"Thanks, Molly." Hermione kissed Molly's floury cheek. She hadn't forgotten all that stalwart support last Saturday at her birthday party.
"Everything all right, love?" Molly asked in a quieter voice.
"Almost everything is fine," Hermione said.
"Well, you can't have everything, can you?" She wandered over to the windowsill and eyed the small Strangleleaf plant in its pot. The whip-like tendrils that sprouted above each leaf node shivered threateningly at her proximity. "Oh yeah?" Hermione said to it. "You and whose army?" She saw her owl-sized post, snatched it with a well-timed grab, smirked as the tendrils missed her fingers by almost a second, then blew a raspberry at it.
"I'd sling the blasted thing out on its ear. Or whatever the plant equivalent is," Molly said as she bustled about. "But the beggaring stuff is so delicious in soups!"
Hermione grinned and came back to Molly. "Can I help with anything?"
"No, no, all in hand. You missed Ronald, I'm afraid. He and Mariana are off on one of their totally innocent 'walks' that none of us are supposed to raise eyebrows about."
Hermione felt a bit rueful and nostalgic. "Were he and I that obvious?"
"Oh, sweetheart, there isn't an eighteen year old on this planet that fails to be painfully obvious when it comes to their hormones. Bless the lot of you." She sighed, sounding wistful. "Common sense, respect, kindness. That's all a good parent can try to teach." She paused, looking at Hermione for a moment, then asked, almost carefully, "We did teach him the right things, didn't we?"
"He's one of the best men I know," Hermione assured her. "Gentle and giving and thoroughly enthusiastic."
Molly coloured and coughed. "Yes, well, there's some things a mother doesn't need to know." She looked pleased, though. "Now, you'll have some tea with us at least, won't you? We never see you here these days, what with this wildly busy life you lead! Go and sit down with the boys, I'll bring a tray through. You can tell us all about how you're getting on with Batty Arnold."
Hermione choked on a laugh. "Batty?"
"Oh, I shouldn't call him that. Not anymore. You know how nasty kids can be."
"And the reason for this unfortunate nickname?" Hermione prompted.
"Poor lad had such a crush on one of the Hufflepuff beaters – this is back in, ooh, '63, '64? Jonathan Platt. Everyone knew it. Balthazar Arnold was Batty about Platty. Didn't hide it. Enchanted the boy's face on a banner to wave at games. Most of the school thought he was making an awful embarrassment of himself, right up until the Yule Ball of his final year. Showed up with Platty on his arm, snogged the living daylights out of each other right there on the dance floor. Never seen Horace Slughorn blush like that. Pomona Sprout couldn't keep from cheering, though. Two of her Hufflepuffs, upstaging all the rest! And with tongues!" Molly snorted, eyes distant with memory. "Always on the earthy side, our Pomona, bless her heart." She shook the memories away. "And for the record – you may not tell your boss that I told you that story. Now off you go. I'll bring some tea."
Hermione went to sit down, telling herself sternly that she must not slip up and start calling her boss Mr Batty. Once seated, and half-listening to Arthur's enthused recount of his investigations into Muggle snack-food following her birthday party last week, she opened up her reply from Headmistress McGonagall.
She read it through. She noted the undisguised attempt at manipulation.
"And I'm being called unsubtle," she muttered after a moment.
"...called Hula-Hoops. I honestly didn't–" Arthur stopped. "Sorry, dear, did you say something?"
"Nothing important." She frowned at the letter, even as she felt a knot of nerves that had been present inside her gut for weeks on end loosen and tug apart, accompanied by a background thought of 'Fuck it, why not?' She looked up at Arthur. "Um – can I borrow Henrietta?"
"She's incubating a clutch, I'm afraid."
"Use Hermes," Percy put in. "She's in the cage next door – she knows you."
"Thanks, Percy." Hermione rummaged in her bag for paper and pen, then began to write.
To: Headmistress McGonagall
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
25th September 1998
Fine. I'll sit the NEWT. Ten am, when I arrive tomorrow. I'd prefer to have it over and done with before I start my research, given that I've now got to spend the whole evening revising!
Since I would hope that I'm in your good books now – would it be possible to have a quiet word with Professor Sprout while I'm at Hogwarts?
See you tomorrow,