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Toil and Trouble

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"If you need help, bark like a dog."
"That's stupid.  If I need help, I'll shout help."

George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings 1998

 

Excerpt from The Magic of the Tundra by S. Eriksson, 1853

The benefits to health delivered by the fruit of the snagberry bush are less widely known.  Those small communities established near to, or even within, the Arctic Circle rely on these berries in much the same way that modern medicine in more temperate climes has come to rely on dittany.  Hogarth's excellent autobiography detailing his travels and experiences among these northerly magical enclaves can provide the interested reader with more detail.

The snagberry is no mere provisioner of fruit, however.  This unassuming shrub enjoys the most exceptional resilience to frost and desiccation.  Small wonder, therefore, that the plant's most protective element, its bark, embodies potent magical force.  The denizens of Siberia's magical community at Lake Bustakh prepare a tea brewed from a combination of snagberry bark and berry which confers upon them substantial protection from the cold.  Extending these qualities to the more symbolic interpretations of alchemy, the bark can be used to protect and manipulate the colder emotions: guilt, ruthlessness, self-loathing, melancholy.

The roots of the snagberry shrub are not harvested by any arctic communities, their priority being to keep these rare plants alive.  Since it is the root system that prevents the death of the plant during long, dark, freezing winters, however, it is fair to assume that the material would be as magically vigorous as the berries and bark.

Finally, the snagberry's needle-like leaves are something of a disappointment compared to the rest of the shrub.  While attractive in shape, colour and scent, their potential for alchemical use is no more impressive than the similarly shaped leaves of a douglas fir or Siberian larch.

~~~

Few Hogwarts students took NEWT level History of Magic.  This was because trudging your way to a successful OWL under Cuthbert Binns's laborious tutelage was hard enough work.  The notion of two further years of study generally sent even the most diligent of students running fast and far.

Professor Binns was a ghost, however, and one very much tied to Hogwarts Castle.  Following the creation of the Lost Seventh project, Headmistress McGonagall had therefore done what Albus Dumbledore probably should have done a good thirty years earlier; she had recruited a new History of Magic teacher.

Hilliard Hobday's claim to fame was that his mother had written Sites of Historical Sorcery.  She had also instilled in him a passion for her subject.  He was a pleasant man whose tendency towards jumpiness was an unfortunate side-effect of his impending fatherhood.  (His wife was due in November, her pregnancy had been a difficult one, and a good night's sleep was something he remembered only distantly.)  He explained all this with a good-humoured smile nonetheless, and since he set a tiny magical photograph of his gravid wife on the front table of the Ministry's conference room before beginning his lesson, Hermione could only assume that the stresses and strains of his expanding family were considered well worth the effort.

It was the first time she had attended one of Professor Hobday's lessons.  She'd been surprised by how readily she was welcomed, given that she had not attended a single History of Magic lesson since fifth year.

There were four other students taking the class: an impressive number for NEWT History of Magic compared to years gone by.  Draco was there, probably because this was one of the few NEWTs he could yet pursue while adhering to the Ministry's rule that he relinquish his wand before attending classes. Millicent Bulstrode was another Slytherin presence.  (Given her dislike for anything approaching hard work or intellectual engagement, it seemed an odd choice for her, but there she was.)  Hermione's two other classmates were Terry Boot and Justin Finch-Fletchley.

Since Bulstrode didn't bother joining in during the lesson, and Draco's hostility towards Hermione had waned in recent weeks, the class felt like quite the relaxing and convivial place to be.  The two hours actually flew by: something that had never happened during a History of Magic lesson at Hogwarts.  Discussion was encouraged by Professor Hobday; political perspectives and historical agendas were considered.  Professor Binns's insistence that his subject was defined by 'facts' was replaced by an acknowledgement that history is shaped by context and recorded by people, neither of which lend themselves to true objectivity.

By Tuesday lunchtime, as the class drew to a close, Hermione was glad she'd taken on the additional subject.  She eyed the scrolls her classmates were submitting.  Between now and next May, when she sat the NEWT, she'd have two years' worth of essays to catch up on.  So there was even that to look forward to.

She watched as the professor discreetly exchanged Draco's essay for his wand.  Bulstrode handed off a scrolled parchment that looked rather battered and stained; some people took no pride in their work.  Professor Hobday arched a brow at it, unrolled the top, narrowed his eyes at what he saw, then simply let it snap back into its curled scroll-shape and nodded his thanks to Bulstrode.

Hermione took her time packing up her bead-bag.  She called amiable farewells to Terry and Justin as they departed, ignored Bulstrode as she did the same, and wondered whether her discreet-but-significant look in Draco's direction earlier had tipped him off that she wanted a word.

"Delighted to have you with us, Miss Granger," Professor Hobday called as he left to return to Hogwarts.  "Excellent contributions today!"

Behind her, Draco muttered, "Swot."

"Don't forget 'unbearable little know-it-all'," she said back.

Draco snorted.  "News for you, Granger.  You're not so little anymore."  A pause.  "You're all the other things, though."

"Thanks muchly."  She finished with her bag and turned to face him.

Draco considered her. "So what's up?  Calling in the favour?"

Hermione tried unsuccessfully to prevent an eye-roll.  "Everything's transactional with you, isn't it?"

"Not just with me.  With everyone and everything under the sun.  You haven't figured that out yet?  Thought you were supposed to be sharp."  He waited a moment, then said, "Come on, spit it out.  I've got a channel to jump."

Hermione sighed.  "Look – you don't owe me this.  Not you.  And if you can't help, it won't change the way I've tried to...to view you differently.  Since these courses started."

Now it was Draco rolling his eyes.  "Merlin, I wasn't asking for a bloody therapy session!  What do you want?"

"Fine, you want direct?  What I want is access to your father's library in Malfoy Manor."

Draco cocked an interested eyebrow, but he turned away to hide the rest of his reaction.  He fiddled with the strap of his bag, drew a deep breath, then turned back.

"Seriously?" he asked more quietly.  "You want to go back to the place where my deranged aunt almost killed you?"  His voice was level: too much so.  Hermione could read the signs.  "Pretty sure that's a daft idea.  Unless this is about confronting your nightmares?  Showing you're strong enough to face them down – is that it?"

"Nope.  Actually I'm dreading the need to go there.  I just want to look at a book."

"Which book?"

"If I told you that, I'd have to kill you."

Draco blinked.

"Bother," Hermione muttered.  "I'm guessing that didn't translate."  She sighed.  "Muggle joke.  Look, it doesn't matter.  Can you get me into your father's library or not?  I know the Manor is locked down."

Draco pulled a face and leaned back against the table.  "There's a way," he said cagily.  "And the Aurors guarding the place won't know about it."

"You're sure?"

"I've been back a couple of times to retrieve a few...keepsakes.  For Mother."

"I see."  Hermione spread her arms.  "So how about it?  Can you help me?"

"If you tell me what book you want, maybe I can fetch it out for you.  Simpler.  Safer."

"I can't tell you that."

Draco smirked. "That tasty, eh?   Well, you're right not to trust me.  I'm a slimy little creep, after all."

"News for you, Draco," she said.  "Not so little."

He snorted.  "Stop flirting with me, Granger."  His eyes grew calculating.  "This is a big favour you're asking."

"I know.  Do you think I'd ask if it wasn't important?"

"I know you wouldn't.  Which makes me wonder what on earth you're up to."  He considered.  "I can't simply tell you how to bypass the defences.  I'd have to take you there myself.  It's, er, it's a blood thing."

"Okay."

"Which means I'll be able to see what you're looking up anyway."

"Oh, I'm not worried about that.  I'll distract you at the critical moment with something fiendishly clever."

He laughed at that.  "Fiendish.  Yeah.  That'll happen."  He shot her an assessing look.  "Let me think about it."

"You're not saying 'no', then?"

"Not yet, anyway."  He widened his eyes at her.  "Might want something in return."

She refused to be unsettled and said, calmly, "If I can help, I will.  But I'll do that anyway."

The confident Slytherin ambition shuddered into momentary confusion.  Draco sighed.  "I'm starting to think you actually mean that."

"You've always been slow to catch on."

He shook the confusion off.  Hoisting his bag, he said, "Not sure if you're an enigma or an imbecile, Granger.  Or maybe a bit of both."

"Let me know what you decide – I'm never quite sure, myself." she said.  "See you tomorrow."

She watched him leave the room, wondering what Harry would have made of that conversation.  Then she stopped wondering, because she knew only too well.

Which was why Harry would hear nothing about it, of course.

~~~

After her Defence against the Dark Arts class that afternoon – thankfully a lesson that did not play host to Snape's visiting presence – Hermione had some unexpected free time.  There was, after all, little point in attending a Transfiguration lesson when you've already sat the exam.

So she left the Ministry and went to Flourish and Blotts, in search of a nineteenth century autobiography that had been referenced in The Magic of the Tundra.  She didn't hold much hope of finding it, the title being old and rather obscure, but it was worth a look.

It wasn't on the shelves in the travel section, nor in biography.  Hermione walked over to the counter and asked the shop assistant whether it was possible to place an order for the title.

"What's it called again?" asked the young man, who was new and seemed to be struggling with the paperwork.

"My Northern Lights," she replied.  "And there's a subtitle.  Do you want that as well?"

"Oh.  Um, better had.  In case of confusion."  The assistant frowned at his parchment.  "I hope it isn't very long.  I've already run out of room."

"Let's leave the subtitle," Hermione suggested.  "The author and publication year ought to suffice."

"Author.  Oh."  The assistant peered at his parchment.  "Oh dear.  I put the title in the wrong place.  Just a moment."  He turned to the open door behind the counter and called, "Mr Gadfly!  Are there any more order forms?  I think I've messed this one up as well."

Hermione held her patience as the bookshop's manager appeared through the doorway, quilted robe over an open-necked shirt very much in the style of a smoking jacket or dressing gown.

"Really, Thomas, that's the third one today.  You must try to be more caref–"  Mr Gadfly stopped as he saw Hermione.  "It's young Miss Granger!  How are you, my dear?"

"I'm well, thank you, Mr Gadfly, and how are you?"

"Fighting fit!  Now, what's this order for?"  He leaned past Thomas and picked up a fresh order parchment from the clearly visible stack on the counter.  Thomas blushed and moved off, pretending that he'd been going to shelve some new stock all along.

"My Northern Lights," Hermione told him.  "It's a nineteenth century travel book."

"Yes, yes, I remember it.  My Northern Lights," Mr Gadfly repeated happily, as he began to fill out the form.  "The Tribes and Customs of the Arcane Arctic.  By, um, Hogarth, isn't it?  Don't tell me.  1841?"

"'42," Hermione corrected with a smile.  "At least, according to the reference I have."

"1842...there!  All done."  He shot a look at Thomas, who was over on the other side of the shop now, and murmured, "Turns out it isn't all that tricky."  He winked in an avuncular manner and added, "Now you will let me know, won't you, if you're after a part-time job once all your exams are done?  I'd so very much like to employ another person who speaks in sentences."

"I'll let you know," she agreed.

Mr Gadfly stood straight again and, with a flick of his wand, checked the bibliographical ledger mounted on a book rest to one side of the counter.  He leaned closer, frowned at the small print on the page, then turned back to her.  "Looks like it'll take about a week.  Check next Tuesday, if it suits.  That'll be one and ten on collection, all right?"

"You don't want the deposit?" Hermione asked.

"Why, are you intending to skip the country?"  Mr Gadfly's eyes twinkled.  "My dear, you are one of my most reliable customers.  One and ten, on collection.  Unless you want to cancel the order and borrow your Potions professor's copy, that is!  Ha!"

Hermione frowned.  "Professor Snape has a copy?"

"On order.  This is for some advanced Potions project, I take it?"

"More or less."  She smiled, though it felt a bit weak.  "Thank you, Mr Gadfly."

"Always a pleasure, Miss Granger.  See you next week!"

She left the shop and stepped back down into bustling Diagon Alley.  Damn it, it wasn't fair!  How was she supposed to work things out in a timely manner when Snape had such a head start?  He'd beaten her to Hogwarts's library, now he'd have this autobiography before she would.  And god only knew how much time he'd had to pore over Baneful Brews.

Hermione shot a look along the lane, to the distant junction with Knockturn.  She thought about how that witch in Shyverwretch's must have laughed at her: almost fleeced by the threat of some pre-paid muggers, and then the man who came to save her was the same one who'd already been in there asking about snagberries.  Snape had called her 'clueless'.  She was starting to think he might be right.

She stepped closer to the bookshop as the crowd briefly swelled.  A poster caught her eye, stuck to the inside of the window.  The face she'd seen in yesterday's paper stared back at her.  That slash of a scar and the blank staring eye ought to make the man easy to find.  It wasn't as if he lacked any distinctive features.

Hermione tutted at the picture.  There was no way that the hooded wizard she'd watched on the hotel's security camera footage had been an unexceptional five foot nine.  Madam Churlish was right; Polyjuice was the obvious explanation.  But what kind of wizard donned a Polyjuice disguise simply in order to go off and obtain hair for another Polyjuice disguise?

(Snape would have done the same, she mused.  It was the kind of precaution that had kept him alive for seventeen years as a double-agent.  He was also tall and lean: enough that the hooded wizard in the footage could, at a push, have been him.  But Hermione refused to get her two investigations muddled up like that.)

She shook her head and turned away from the wanted poster.  That, at least, was not her problem any longer.  She decided to drop by and see George at the shop, maybe pick up a couple of I'm-sorry gifts for Harry and Ron.  She merged with the crowd and made her way further along the alley.

Hermione hadn't gone more than ten paces when she caught sight of a familiar figure coming out of Slug and Jiggers, eyes fixed on his open cupped hand as he checked his change.  Damn it, Tuesdays seemed to be Severus Snape's shopping day.  Instinct made her step back to the cover of the curved front windows of Ollivanders.  She did not want a repeat of last week's confrontation.  Not after everything that had happened since.

She waited.  Then she peeked.  Snape was moving off further down the alley, heading for the junction with Knockturn.  She was going that way anyway, so she followed.  If he turned around and spotted her, or preternaturally sensed her, or used whatever spidey-senses he liked to use to menace people, well, she had as much right to walk along this cobbled street as anyone else.

Snape paused at the window of Potage's Cauldron Shop.  Hermione crossed to the other side of the street, making no attempt to be inconspicuous.  She noticed Sugarplum's ahead and made for the shop, rigid in her determination not to look back over her shoulder and check if he'd seen her.

Sugarplum's wasn't busy.  She bought a large honey and boomberry cauldron cake, since it was Ron's favourite.  If she produced it on Wednesday evening after Ron had filled up on Indian food at the curry house on Upper Street then there was even a chance that she and Harry might get more than a single slice.

Cake boxed up and balanced on her left hand, she left Sugarplum's.  'La la la,' she thought to herself as she tried to look relaxed.  'Here I am, doing perfectly ordinary shopping.  Not suspicious at all.  La la la.'  It was natural enough to get her bearings and look left and right.  Snape had moved on during the time it had taken her to be served.  She considered for a moment that maybe she'd been trying to give herself an excuse to give up and go home.

But then she saw that dark head and shoulders through the crowd, moving purposefully beyond the main drag of stores, past the carnival-like frontage of George's shop, still making for Knockturn.  She looked in exasperation at the delicate box with which she was now encumbered, hoisted her bag on her shoulder, ensured her wand was readily to hand, and then followed.

Hermione slowed as she drew level with George's shop.  Just ahead, Snape had paused at the junction and was checking something written on a piece of paper, then he looked up to note the time on the clock mounted high on the wall of Gringotts Bank, just visible in the distance.  It seemed he had an appointment.

"Hermione?"

She startled so fiercely that she almost dropped her cake.  "Oh.  Hi, Verity.  How's things?"

"Fine, thanks."  George's stalwart shop assistant was taking down a large and colourful poster with the day's special offers printed upon it.  "We're out of Screaming Yo-yos," she explained.  "Had a bit of a run on them.  Not sure why."  Verity smiled at her.  "Mr Weasley is up in the office if you want him."

Hermione nodded.  In sudden inspiration she said, "Here," and handed off her cake box.  "Hold this for me?  I'll be back."

She left Verity staring after her as she speed-walked along to Knockturn Alley.  Having learned well from the last time she'd been here, she stepped up to the sheltered doorway of the second-hand robe shop, swiftly Disillusioned herself, then stepped back again.  She waited for a gap in the crowd and dashed the rest of the way to the junction.

She looked down the alley.  It was empty, just like it had been last Tuesday during her foray to Shadwell's and Shyverwretch's.  Snape was nowhere to be seen.  She crept along, careful of the sounds she made, keeping close to the walls and windows of the businesses and properties that lined the left hand side.

She drew level with one of the narrow pathways off the main street: the one which ran up the side of the Coffin House, where the muggers liked to wait for their marks.  Further down the path, she could see Snape.  He stood with his back to her, wand to hand but relaxed by his side.  He seemed to be shaking his head in disgust.  Hermione checked her Disillusionment charm and then made herself stand very, very still, watching.

He turned around and walked towards her, his shoulders taking up much of the width of the side-passage.  Behind him, almost at the end of the path, she could just about see at least one prone body.  Were these the same muggers that had been lying in wait for her last week?  Was this a hobby of his, coming down here and hexing the bejesus out of wannabe miscreants?

Snape returned to the main drag of Knockturn Alley.  He shot his jacket sleeves, wand still readied, and looked around at the apparently empty street with lazy indifference.

"Your timing is off," he said to the thin air.  "Or were you expecting the lowlives to present more of a challenge?"

Hermione wondered for a moment whether he was speaking to her.  He wasn't.  The air to the left of Snape shimmered as another person present cast off their own Disillusionment charm.  Hermione almost cried out a warning, but it wasn't necessary; by the time she'd drawn breath Snape had whirled around and his wand was already pointed at the newcomer's forehead.

"Now, now," the wizard said, raising his arms in surrender.  He was short and dumpy, with slicked back receding hair and a cloak that had seen better days: a seedy-looking sort.  His wand was gripped in his right hand, but he didn't look as if he was about to cast.  "No need for that.  Just being careful."

"So careful that you arranged a meeting where muggers like to congregate?"

The wizard opened his mouth, closed it again, peered around the corner of the Coffin House to check the side-passage that Snape had already cleared, then he coughed.  "Looks like they've got other things to do just now," he ventured weakly.

Snape's cold glare was probably scarier than the threat of a swift hex.  "Sheathe your wand."

The wizard nodded vigorously and did so.

Snape eased back, though Hermione did not get the impression that he was relaxing his stance.  "You have information for me?"

The wizard frowned.  "Um.  No, I was told you'd have something for me.  About the–"

A third air-shimmer, right behind Snape.  Another man appeared, wand readied.  Hermione had just enough time to think, 'It's a set up!' followed by, 'Fucking hell that's poster-boy!'

Then her wand was in motion.  She cast her curse out loud because she wanted to warn Snape of the ambush:

"Petrificus Totalus!"

The body-bind curse caught only the newcomer's sleeve; he was fast in the dodge.  By then, Snape had spun around and was matching Hermione's curse with a body-bind of his own.  The curse caught the man's boot as he turned and dived for cover into the narrow side-passage.  His build and colouring, not to mention the obvious scar over his eye, meant that there could be no doubt as to his identity.

Hermione moved to keep the man in her line of sight.  Snape did the same, but by the time they were both directing their wands down the side-passage the man had scrambled to grab a hold of a discarded Ogden's bottle that lay to one side.  As soon as he touched it he disappeared with the crackle of displaced air.

"Portkey," Hermione said between gasped breaths.  "Bugger."

Snape turned to face her, furious confusion on his face.  "Damn it, what the hell is it you're trying to do?"

"Oh, you're welcome!" she threw back.  "I just saved your backside!"  She pointed down the side-passage.  "Didn't you see?  That man's face is on wanted posters."

"And you just happened to be passing, did you?"

"Of course not, you numpty, I was following you."

"Why?"

"I don't even bloody know anymore!"

The two of them stared wildly at each other for a few seconds, before a voice said, "Um..."

Snape lurched around and levelled his wand at the seedy-looking wizard.  During the recent flurry of curses the man had backed right up to press himself into the cover of the doorway of the Coffin House.  His eyes darted around and a sheen of sweat had broken out over his high, pale forehead.  He had not seen fit to ready his wand again, in spite of the events of the last thirty seconds.  Hermione assumed this was the reason why Snape hadn't cast another hex.

The seedy-looking wizard raised his arms, his eyes nervously tracking Snape's wand, and he said, "Am I to take it that neither of you are here to sell me the stinger from a Manticore?"

Hermione blinked at what could only be a non sequitur. 

"A Manticore stinger," Snape repeated.

Oddly, the seedy wizard's eyes lit up.  "You have one?"

Snape shook his head slowly.  The wizard's expression crumpled with disappointment.

"That's why you're here?" Snape asked.

"I was told someone would...look, Manticore parts are not easy to get hold of!  The stingers especially!"

"Why would you even want one?" Hermione asked, bewildered.  "The venom loses toxicity on exposure to air.  And the rest of it's just chitin."

The wizard shifted.  "You know.  The, er, virility aspect."

Snape sighed.  "It doesn't work."

"What doesn't work?" Hermione pressed.

"Oh, for...what kind of damn fool farce is this?" Snape demanded.  "The man wants a more rigorous libido, Hermione.  Do you wish to advise him on this, or shall we send him on his way?"

She glared at Snape for a moment and then walked over to the wizard.  He started to back away, banged into the Coffin House's door, turned in surprise to look at it and noted only the big 'CLOSED' sign in front of him.  At this point he seemed to acknowledge that he could neither outrun her nor Disapparate, so he straightened up.

"The other man.  The one who tried to attack my friend," she said quietly.  "Had you seen him before?"

"No!"

"Think.  He has a prominent scar over his eye.  You're sure you haven't seen him?"

"Never."

"Then who told you to come here at this time?"

"It was just a bloke.  We got talking yesterday, in the Wyvern.  You know.  The pub, down there."  He indicated further along the alley.  "We were in our cups a bit, you know how it is, and the conversation turned to...well.  Anyway.  I mentioned the stinger.  He said he knew a bloke, could sort me out, and...here I am.  Um, Miss."

"This man in the pub – what did he look like?"

"Just a bloke!  Er, youngish?  Tall.  Blond, I think.  I don't take much notice of blokes."

It seemed the waiter from the Savoy had provided enough hair for more than one dose of Polyjuice.  Of course, if this was the case then that meant there was an entirely new question to answer:

Why the hell was the wizard who'd infiltrated the Savoy ball and killed a Muggle reporter now setting an ambush for Severus Snape?

"I think you'd better run along home," Hermione told the seedy-looking wizard.

The man glanced warily over her shoulder at Snape, then he turned tail and hurried off.  She watched him go, further into the depths of Knockturn, then she went back to the side-passage and glanced along it.  The mugger – or muggers, perhaps – that Snape had dealt with remained slumped in the distance, mostly out of sight around the rear corner of the Coffin House.  Just a couple of sticky-out legs.

It came to Hermione, rather suddenly, that she'd broken her promise to Gloria.  Here she was, alone with Severus Snape.  She turned back to face him.  He was watching her, waiting for a move.  Tense with distrust.

"So why did that man from the wanted posters try to set you up?" she asked him.

"I do not know."

"Well, who guided you here?  Was it the same blond man?"

"I received an anonymous message," Snape said stiffly.  "And I do not believe that you have any right to ask me these questions.  And by the way – I am not your 'friend'.  Do not refer to me as such again."

She stepped closer to him, chin up, refusing to be cowed, and in a quiet voice that shook with anger, she said, "If I am truly no longer your friend then you'd better work harder to keep from calling me 'Hermione'."

A pause.  They were standing too close, her and this man who threatened and stole and consulted dark texts.  This villain.  This liar, this hypocrite, this abuser of trust, this seducer.

"Did you threaten Joseph Montague?" she demanded.

Snape's eyebrow arched.  "Yes," he said evenly.

Hermione turned away and sagged against the wall.  She rubbed at her face.  "Why?"

"You know why," he replied.  He took a step towards her, leaned in.  "You know only too well.  And I didn't think I'd be able to threaten you."  His voice was like silk.  "Still.  I'm getting there."  In a whisper: "Give me time."

He turned and walked away, and by the time Hermione's knees had stopped feeling as though they were made of water he had vanished into the Diagon crowd.

~~~

Hermione did not report the incident to Madam Churlish, though she agonised over the decision all through Tuesday evening.  There was, after all, no way for her to explain her Disillusioned presence in the alley without revealing her suspicions about Snape.  As solid as those suspicions had become, Hermione could not quite bring herself to formally announce them to MLE.  Not yet.

In the end, she convinced herself that there was nothing to be gained in reporting the confrontation.  A wizard so careful that he disguised himself habitually and set up Portkey escapes was unlikely to have left anything in the way of a trail of evidence.

It was therefore with mixed feelings that she greeted the next day's development.

At the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee offices, Mr Arnold asked to have a word.  Behind closed doors, he told her Madam Churlish had informed him that the wanted man had been sighted.  In Knockturn Alley.  Attacking one Severus Snape.

Hermione took a moment to try to settle her racing thoughts.  "Who saw this?" she asked, hoping she wasn't walking into a trap.

Arnold looked confused for a moment and then said, "Professor Snape did.  Sorry, didn't I make that clear?"

"Professor Snape reported this man attacking him in Knockturn Alley?" Hermione said.

Arnold shook his head at her.  "Are you all right, Miss Granger?"  He gave a laugh.  "Usually I think you're three steps ahead of the rest of us, not lagging behind like this!"

She gave an embarrassed smile.  "Sorry.  I've had quite a lot on, of late."

"Oh, that's all right.  It's nice to find out you're human, after all!"  Mr Arnold gave her a kind look.  "Anyway, that's the news.  For some reason this fellow drew Professor Snape to a quiet location.  I didn't get all the details, but fortunately Snape was well on his guard when he went along.  Apparently the scarred chap in the picture, he popped out of nowhere and was about to fire off a nasty curse.  Obviously hadn't done his research, eh?  Not many wizards quicker on the cast than Severus Snape, are there?  Had the blaggard racing for cover before he could cast a single hex!"

"He got away, I take it," Hermione said.

"Alas, yes.  Organised a Portkey for himself nearby.  Unauthorised, of course, so untraceable.  Anyway, it's all good information, Madam Churlish tells me.  This interest in Professor Snape might prove key to locating our suspect."

"Did Madam Churlish explain why the wanted man attacked Professor Snape?"

"No one has a clue at the moment.  Including Snape himself.  Very rum do."

"And nobody else witnessed this incident?"  She felt the flush rising to her cheeks and tried to breathe calmly.

"Not that I've been told about.  Even if they had, though, it's Knockturn.  That sort are not your basic upstanding citizens; they pride themselves on telling the authorities nothing."

"Yes, of course."

"Anyway, there we go.  Hopefully we're one step closer to sorting it all out.  Now, why don't you get off for an early lunch.  Looks like you could do with it. "

Hermione thanked her boss and did as he suggested.  She Floo'ed to the Leaky Cauldron and then headed out into the throngs of Muggle London, making for the wonderful anonymity of her favourite Soho coffee place.  She ordered a sandwich, settled in and tried to think.

So Snape had done as she had not and actually reported the Knockturn incident.  Surprising.

But in leaving her name out of his report, was he protecting her...or himself?

~~~

The afternoon's Potions tutorial was noteworthy only because it was the first lesson she had ever attended where she didn't speak even once.  Instead, she wrapped herself in her current essay and barely followed the discussions taking place among her fellow students.  She caught Michael shooting her the odd look, presumably because he'd noted her lack of participation and found it weird, but even offering a reassuring smile felt like hard work.

That evening she made the effort to attend curry-night, though she still felt uneasy around her closest friends.  She didn't like to have to guard every single thing that she said, but it was the only way to prevent those thoughts and fears and suspicions from escaping into the conversation.

Hermione did acknowledge, in a fit of personal honesty, that she was no longer keeping the St Mungo's thefts a secret for the sake of Gloria and her son.  Now that Snape's involvement was obvious, she was doing so for herself.  She told herself that Harry and Ron couldn't help her anyway; her two friends tended to go charging head-first at problems, which would not be a sensible approach.

Deep down, however, Hermione knew it wasn't about that.  If she told Harry and Ron what was going on, her sense of disappointment and loss would become unequivocal.  It would be like opening the box on Schrödinger's cat: the either-or would become a definite.

Mariana was absent for curry-night, claiming a prior engagement.  Hermione suspected the boys had been keen to avoid anything that risked Hermione's own attendance.  They had a nice enough meal, though Hermione's appetite was lacking.  Back at the house afterwards, they settled in round the kitchen table, eating honey and boomberry cauldron cake and drinking mugs of tea.  The sense of togetherness felt brittle, at least to Hermione, but it was still there.

And then, just when everything seemed to be settled and relaxed, Harry said, "So.  A fake stage conjurer, eh?"

Hermione almost choked out her mouthful.  Fortunately she'd been brought up better than that, and managed to get her breathing-and-eating functionality back under control.  "What do you mean?" she asked warily, when she was no longer at risk of launching cake-projectiles.

Harry raised his eyebrows such that his forehead-scar disappeared under his scruffy fringe.  "You know what I mean.  Shacklebolt was surprised you hadn't told us."

"He told me not to!"  She tried to gather her thoughts.  "Okay, so why the hell did he tell you?"

Harry shrugged.  "I asked him."

"You asked him."  Her voice was too steady, the way it got before her temper blew.

Ron went very still and muttered, "Uh-oh."

Hermione ignored him.  "So let me get this straight.  I told you that I was busy with something at work.  And I told you that I was under orders to keep it quiet.  I'm right so far, yes?"

"Hermione..."  Harry had caught up with Ron and was looking alarmed.

"Do not 'Hermione' me."  She took a deep breath.  "So.  Having told you those things, what did you do?   You went to the Acting fucking Minister and demanded to know what was going on?"  She glared at Harry.

"Er...yes?" he ventured.

"Right then.  All right.  So let's set aside, for the moment, the monumental arrogance of an Auror apprentice who thinks he can just wander over to the head of the Ministry and demand information about confidential operations.  Let's just...let's set that aside."

"I wasn't trying to abuse my celebrity or anything–"

"You can't help it!  You're Harry Potter!  You defeated the Dark Lord himself!  When you ask people things, they feel obliged to tell you!"

"Setting it aside?" Ron put in hurriedly.

"Yes.  Fine.  Setting that aside – what the hell do you think it says about me?  The Minister tells me to keep my mouth shut.  I let slip that there's something going on.  You go straight back to the Minister and demand answers."

"I asked nicely!  I didn't demand anything!"

"Do you think maybe it might make me look untrustworthy?  Unreliable?  Big-mouthed, maybe?"

"Calm down!" Harry said.  "He wasn't angry or anything."

In a blatant attempt to change the subject, Ron said, "Hey, how d'you come up with the idea?  Fake magician?"

Hermione looked down at the table, breathed for a moment, then shook her head.  "It was a Muggle-worthy excuse," she said wearily.  "That's sort of my job."

"I thought it was brilliant," Ron said.  Then he frowned.  "Didn't get it.  But it was brilliant."

"It was a bloody good idea.  And I got it, by the way."  Harry glanced at her, checking her anger-levels.

She tried to accept the peace offering.  "Thanks.  Seems to have worked, anyway."

"Only now we're after this wizard on the posters.  The one who murdered some journalist in Lewisham," Harry added.

Hermione took the time to hide her face behind her tea mug.  Her left knee was bouncing with nervous energy under the kitchen table.  "I see.  The Minister told you about that, too."

"Yes."  He tried a smile.  "I couldn't really stick my fingers in my ears halfway through, could I?"

"Well, there is no 'we' about it.  The murder investigation is the province of Improper Use.  I've done my bit."

Ron said, "Kingsley seems to think you did more than 'your bit'.  The way he described it, we only have a description of the suspect because of you."

"That sort of happened accidentally.  I was just part of a team."

"Whatever.  But this is good, right?" Harry said.  "You don't have to hide it from us anymore."

"Is that really what this is about?" Hermione asked.  "Or is it about me telling you something and you running off to try and prove I'm a liar?"

An awkward pause.  Perhaps she wasn't keeping a hold of her temper as well as she'd thought.

Ron coughed.  "So anyway, Kingsley told us about Snape, too.  You heard about that, right?  That this bloke from the wanted posters attacked him?"

Hermione looked down at her plate.  "Yes.  I heard."

"Merlin, you've really been in the thick of things," Ron said, and it sounded like a complaint.  "I thought we'd be the ones hunting bad guys!  All we do is practise bloody defensive charms and wade through rule books."

"Look, it's just the way it happened," Hermione said.  "I didn't go looking for a big scary drama.  I only got this job because I'm Muggle-born.  If someone else had come up with a good idea to explain what the hotel cameras recorded then I'd never have got a look in."

"Face it, Hermione," Ron said.  "You're always going to end up right in the middle of everything.  I mean, you didn't have to become Harry's friend in first year, did you?  Seven years later, there you are, saving the world.  It's what you do."

"Look who's talking," she fired back.  "In any case, my involvement is over.  Madam Churlish is only keeping me in the loop because Kingsley's a friend and he asked her to."

"Oh, so it isn't just me, then, gets special treatment?" Harry said.

"Not a good time to make that point, mate," Ron quickly put in.

There was an awkward pause.  The noises of cake being eaten and mugs of tea being put down on the table were enough to make Hermione cringe.

Harry eventually said, "Funny that Snape's got sucked in to it too, though."

Hermione looked down at the rest of her cake.  "Yes.  That's...worrying," she admitted.

"Why worry?" Harry asked.  "Snape is too good to get taken down by some rough-arsed criminal."

She grunted agreement, but that wasn't what she'd meant.  She remembered how she'd had that weird moment, yesterday, when it had seemed possible that the cloaked figure at the hotel actually was Severus Snape.  Of course, the idea was a silly one as soon as it was scrutinised.  Snape might have matched the height, but the behaviour was all wrong.  For instance, if Snape had tried to Obliviate an inconvenient witness then he'd have managed it perfectly.  And he wouldn't have been incompetent enough to get caught in the first place.

With those thoughts, something clicked into place.

"There's two of them," she said.

"Two what?" asked Ron with his mouth full of cake.

"Nothing," she said quickly.  "Just remembered something I've forgotten."

This time it was Harry who lost his temper.  He stood up at the table and his chair scraped backwards along the floor tiles.  "Really?" he demanded of her.  "Did you even hear what I said?  We know about it, now!  You can discuss it with us!  Stop pushing us away!"

Hermione stood up too, though she made the action more measured and took the time to breathe before responding.  "I appreciate your concern," she said tightly.  "But we aren't at school anymore, Harry, and nor are we fighting for our lives on the run from Death Eaters.  There are going to be parts of my life that do not involve all three of us."

"I know!" he said.  "But this counts, doesn't it?  Seems to me you've been dragged into a murder investigation, and another friend of ours seems to be involved, and Shacklebolt's worried that the attentions of the bad guy might even turn to you."

Hermione blinked away her surprise.  "Kingsley is worried that I might be targeted?  Why the hell would he think that?"

Ron, still sitting down, held up a hand as though he was in class.  "Um – for the record, I don't consider Snape a friend."

"I don't know, not the specifics, but it's probably why he told us about the thing," Harry said to Hermione, ignoring Ron's comment.  "Not because I'm some pathetic prima donna!  Think about it, though – the last time Snape was a target, it was about his role in the war.  And you were there too.  I'm sure you remember.  You were the reason Rookwood didn't succeed in killing Snape."

"Only just," Hermione muttered.

"Whatever.  Point is, if Snape's a target again then chances are it's still about the war.  What else would it be about?"

"I don't know.  I don't have enough information to speculate."

Harry just shook his head.  "Okay.  But if it is about the war then you're involved.  You're the enemy, just like Snape.  And you and him – you get thought about together now."

Hermione opened her mouth, closed it, shook her head and frowned down at her hands.  "I don't even know what that means, but it sounds tawdry."

"It just means that what happened with Rookwood got in the paper!  'Attempt on Snape's life averted by plucky Hermione Granger!'"

"'Plucky'?" Hermione said, not sure whether to laugh or shudder.

"Fine, yeah, get picky about my language, that's the important thing!"  Harry glared at her.  "The point is, if this man, Scarface, if he sees Snape as an enemy then he might see you as an enemy too.  And whatever's happening, isn't it better to have someone watching your back?  Call it 'just in case'."

"I think Kingsley is overreacting," Hermione said.

"Yeah?  Have you considered the political implications for him if one of the Golden Trio ends up attacked, or worse, on his watch?"

Which was probably a fairer point than most Harry had made that evening.  "Fine," she said.  "Watch my back.  You're well placed to do so.  Because you seem to be very good at going behind it."

With that, she clomped up the stairs to her bedroom in order to cool off.

~~~

Before she went to the Muggle-Worthy Excuse offices on the Thursday morning, she detoured to Improper Use of Magic on level two.  At the reception desk she asked if Madam Churlish was in, and would it be possible to have a word.  The receptionist looked outraged by the very idea, but sent the message.  When Churlish came walking through to collect Hermione, the receptionist looked even more unimpressed.

"Sorry to bother you," Hermione said.  "I know I'm probably overstepping my bounds again, but something struck me last night about the wanted man.  I wanted to run it past you."

Churlish paused as she thought about this, then she nodded and led Hermione through to her private office.  Instead of inviting her to speak, however, Churlish asked a question.  "You know Severus Snape quite well, don't you?"

"Oh.  Um, yes, I suppose."  Hermione begged her face not to flush up.  "We were both a part of Dumbledore's plan.  We had that in common."

"And you were at the hospital, the day he was attacked, back in June."

"Yes."  She frowned.  "Are you saying there's evidence that the suspect is something to do with the Death Eaters?"

"Actually, no, there is not."  Churlish turned her back and looked at a copy of the wanted-poster that she'd tacked up on her office wall.  "Nobody recognises the face.  Whether or not it's his real face, no one knows it.  Which is odd in itself – usually somebody recognises the descriptions we put out there."

"So why are you asking me about Professor Snape?"

Churlish turned back around.  "Because two days ago Snape was lured to Knockturn Alley by our suspect with the promise of information.  And all Snape will tell us is that it was information about one of his students."  Churlish shot her a significant look as she sat down at her desk.  "He won't tell us any more.  Actually, he claims that little more was said to him."

"And you think this information was about me?" Hermione asked.  She made her tone dubious, but it wasn't hard to work out that this was probably the reason behind Kingsley's sudden concern for her well-being.

"It's one possibility."  Churlish looked at her expectantly, before she gave a sigh and shook her head.  "Another possibility, of course, is that our suspect made something up that he knew would attract Snape's attention.  For all Snape's reputation as a harsh taskmaster, I believe he takes his role as a teacher seriously."  Churlish looked thoughtful.  "The recent matter with Blaise Zabini was unfortunate, for instance, but it was Snape himself who insisted that the young man's expulsion from the course was punishment enough."

So Snape had reported Blaise's meltdown after all.  Hermione nodded, though she remained puzzled as to why Snape's anger during that incident had so quickly turned to leniency.  "Blaise is dealing with a lot, right now," she acknowledged.  "I suppose we're all of us prone to the odd moment-of-madness."

Churlish seemed to agree, since she gave a rueful smile.  "Just so.  Being caught in a lie can make things spiral out of control very quickly."

Hermione felt a chill.  Was there subtext to this comment?  Had her presence in Knockturn Alley been discovered?  Was Churlish engineering an opportunity for her to come clean, or was Hermione's guilt about withholding information colouring her view?

"I'm sure that's right," Hermione said, aiming for 'neutral'.  She told herself Churlish could simply be speaking theoretically.

Churlish grunted her agreement.  "So you can't think of anything our suspect might have offered to tell Snape about you?  I'm not prying, Miss Granger, truly, but if we can work out the nature of this man's interest in Snape and the information to which he has access, it might help."

This was a fair investigative lead.  Unfortunately, the only possibilities that Hermione could imagine were not things she was prepared to say to Jasmine Churlish.  'Snape's currently my number-one suspect in a series of thefts from the hospital.  He appears to have been planning this operation all through last summer, and seems intent on brewing a pretty nasty potion.  Also, he's been going about threatening nice botanists.  In spite of all that, I dream about making wild, abandoned love with him at least two or three times a week.  Does any of that count?'

No.  Just, no.

"Sorry," she said.  "Certainly nothing that would lure the professor to Knockturn Alley."

Churlish nodded.  "Fair enough.  Which brings us back to the theory that the information used as bait was simply fabricated.  Oh, and we're still looking for the other witness, of course."

Hermione dry-swallowed and then tried not to cough.  "Uh...other witness?"

Churlish didn't notice this stumble, distracted as she was with organising a pile of papers on her desk.  "It's rather odd, actually.  Professor Snape made no mention of it, but the clerk in the Coffin House claims to have seen at least one other person present during the assault.  A short, threadbare wizard in his fifties, was the report."  She glanced up at Hermione.  "So we're making enquiries.  There's a pub, further down Knockturn Alley.  The White Wyvern.  I've got someone there, keeping an eye out."

"Ah.  Good."  Hermione felt a watery sensation in her lower gut: the one that meant trouble was looming.  If Improper Use found the seedy wizard who'd been used as a distraction, then her presence in Knockturn Alley would be revealed.  And then she'd need to explain why she hadn't volunteered the information.  So would Snape, for that matter.

Odd, to learn that a clerk had come forward, though.  Like Mr Arnold had said, none of the businesses in Knockturn Alley were usually in any hurry to help MLE.  And didn't Hermione remember a big 'CLOSED' sign on the door of the Coffin House?

Churlish looked up at Hermione.  "Now, what was it you wanted to discuss?"

"Right.  Yes.  The wanted man.  The height discrepancy has been bothering me."

"Us, too.  But if the description we have is merely a Polyjuice disguise..."  She shrugged.  "It doesn't help our investigation, but it's a theory that fits."

"Yes, that's true.  But I realised last night that there are other discrepancies.  The kind that aren't explained by the use of Polyjuice."

Churlish frowned.  "Explain.  And sit down, Miss Granger, you're making me feel like a headmistress."

Hermione took the visitor's chair.  "Okay.  The wizard we saw at the beginning of the footage.  The tall one, in the cloak and hood, who couldn't possibly be Polyjuiced.  That guy – he's an amateur."

"Go on," Churlish said.

"Seriously.  He's wearing a get-up like that near the delivery access for one of the busiest hotels in London?  Waving a wand around?  Trying unsuccessfully to Obliviate a Muggle reporter?  He's an idiot."

"His Obliviate may have failed, but we still suspect him of being able to cast a Patronus.  That takes magical skill."

"True.  But people can be skilled in one area and idiots in another.  And I'm saying – when it comes to risk assessment, he's an idiot."

Churlish said, "Or perhaps badly informed about how to conduct himself in Muggle society?"

"Maybe."  Hermione thought about this.  "Actually, that would make sense."

"The discrepancy you noted?"

"Oh, right.  See, the wizard from the wanted poster, on the other hand – he's at the other end of the spectrum.  Careful.  Organised.  Utterly risk-averse.  Polyjuice disguises as a matter of course?  The pre-arranged Portkey to escape?  The double-layer of distraction when he lured Professor Snape to Knockturn Alley?"

"Double-layer?"

A brief moment of panic, as she realised she was revealing too much.  "You know.  The muggers that were in the side-passage, and then this other wizard your witness mentioned.  I'm thinking he might have been there to keep the professor's attention while the attacker waited for his moment."

Churlish raised a brow.  "You seem remarkably well informed.  I didn't mention the muggers to Mr Arnold."

Hermione said, "Actually the Minister spoke to Harry about the incident.  We were discussing it last night."

All of which was true.  Thankfully.  Though she hadn't expected to feel so grateful for yesterday's argument.

"Ah.  I see," Churlish said with a nod.  "You're right, Miss Granger.  There does seem to be two distinct behaviours here."

"Which is why I think we should be looking for two wizards.  Not one," Hermione concluded.

"A partnership," Churlish mused.  "One tall, reckless wizard who makes mistakes.  One shorter wizard with a scar through his eye who covers every angle and seems to have it in for Professor Snape."

Hermione sighed.  "It's only a theory.  I just thought I should raise it, in case no one else had."

"No one has."  Churlish sighed.  "Not sure how it helps us in the search for this suspect, but I'll bear it in mind.  Thank you for dropping by, Miss Granger."

Hermione stood up.  "I'd better get to work."

She said her goodbyes and left the office.  It felt, weirdly, like she'd just dodged a bullet.

~~~

By the time her Potions lesson came around that afternoon, Hermione realised that she and Snape had got into the habit of failing to acknowledge each other's presence during classes.  She also realised that she had become better at shutting down the more tumultuous sections of her thoughts in order to focus on her work.  She brewed her Farsight potion well enough.

The slight hesitation Snape gave before awarding her an Adequate left her uncertain whether her results had skirted more closely to a Subpar or a Competent.  Sometimes there was no reading the man.

Friday morning demanded an early start.  She arrived at St Mungo's in good time for her extra Potions lesson.  The hospital was quiet at this hour, and she made her way down to the first sub-level without any interruption.  Nobody was waiting in the corridor, so she knocked at the laboratory door and then opened it to look inside.  The room was empty, though covered trays on the demonstration table revealed that whatever else was going on with Snape, he still took his teaching duties seriously.

Hermione closed the door, settled down cross-legged on the corridor floor outside, and fished out her copy of Spellwork in Potions.  No point twiddling her thumbs when she could be reading.

"Granger," said Draco some time afterwards, making her jump.

"Oh.  Hello."  She recalled immediately that she and Draco were not supposed to be openly friendly, and winced at herself as she checked the corridor for onlookers.  She was relieved to find they were alone.  "Yes.  Good.  Hello."

He smirked at her.  "Subterfuge really is not your forte, is it?"

"Not really."  She closed her book and set it aside.  "Too much like hard work."

"Hmm.  Maybe.  Wouldn't worry, though.  Now Zabini's made himself scarce it doesn't matter as much.  Milly lacks the imagination to change her world-view.  And I get the feeling Nott kind of respects you.  Not that he ever really gives anything away."

"What's going on with Blaise, anyway?" she asked.  "I knew he wouldn't be here for Potions anymore, but he's been absent from all the other Lost Seventh classes too."

"Not a clue," Draco said.  "Remember, I spend most of my time in Normandy."

She nodded.  "Do they allow you to visit your father?"

His voice sharpened.  "Why would you care about that?"

"I don't, I suppose.  Not as far as he's concerned.  But he's still your dad, and, well, it can't be easy."

Draco just looked away.  "Don't do that, Granger.  Don't add me to your list of hopeless causes."

"There's no list," she said, feeling irritable.  "It's all I can do to keep my own head on straight at the moment."

When she looked up, Draco had sunk down to sit on the floor against the opposite wall.

"So," he said.

"So?"

"Doing anything tomorrow?"  He held her gaze steadily.

"Nothing planned," she said.

Draco nodded slowly.  "Mould-on-the-Wold.  The pub there – it's called the Cracked Vial."

She nodded.  "I'll find it."

He glanced at the laboratory door, then said, "Three o'clock suit you?"  Then he held up a hand with two fingers raised, and nodded significantly at them.

Of course, Draco Malfoy was aware that Severus Snape employed an amplification charm outside his Lost Seventh classroom; Snape had told him as much on their very first day here.  Hermione didn't bother to tell Draco she'd already checked they were on their own.  She just nodded her understanding.  "Three it is," she said, and held up two fingers.  Playing along seemed like the least amount of trouble.

At that point the door to the potions laboratory opened and Snape stood there, towering over them both.  "Aqua Sedatis remedials?" he said disdainfully.

Hermione and Draco stood up.  Hermione glared at Snape.  Either he'd bypassed the hospital's wards and Apparated directly into the classroom – which seemed unlikely – or he'd arrived early and then Disillusioned himself to disguise this fact, which could only mean he intended to eavesdrop on his students.

So was he paying her back for her Disillusioned pursuit of him last Tuesday?  Or was this unapologetic spying the means to some more specific end?

Either way, she had to wonder whether all this sneakiness was somehow catching.

~~~