Actions

Work Header

Toil and Trouble

Chapter Text

"You have torn away the part of my mind where hope was."

Sophocles, Electra circa 400BC

 

Sleep had been impossible, the moment Hermione had remembered.

Tormentil.

Tormentil had also been stolen from the long-term storage level, but it didn't fit within the scope of her hate-potion hypothesis.  That knowledge jarred her into wakefulness, like the pea beneath the mattress of a hypersensitive princess.

There was only one thing for it.  Never mind that it was gone midnight, she had to check the rest of Baneful Brews, page by page, skimming each obscene recipe's list of ingredients, looking for a reference to tormentil.

She found one.

Then she wished she had not.

~~~

"Too sloppy," she muttered to herself, as she retrieved all her notes, charts and references.  "Too disorganised.  Too reactive."  She had straightened her duvet and made a wide working area to accommodate piles, because her little desk in the corner wasn't nearly big enough.  "I've been so busy jumping from shock to shock, I've never managed to step back."  She paused, rolled her eyes and looked up at the ceiling.  "And now I'm talking to myself in the middle of the night.  Excellent going, there, Granger."

Hermione sat cross-legged in the middle of her bed and distributed her notes into sections that dealt with the various strands of evidence she'd collected.  She paused and took a few deep breaths.  With her discovery of the tormentil recipe in Baneful Brews, the stakes had been raised.  She needed to be sure about the things she knew.

Time to review the evidence.  It seemed prudent to start at the beginning.

The hospital's snagberry bush had been vandalised.  Other ingredients had also been stolen, including, most recently, tormentil.  The thefts had begun no later than Thursday 17th September, with Joseph Montague noting the very obvious damage to the snagberry bush on the following Friday morning.  He'd checked further, and then informed his mother about the problem at some point over that weekend.

Hermione had been given a list of individuals whose wands were active in the relevant areas of the long-term storage level over the time period when the thefts had taken place.  That list included the names of Joseph Montague and Severus Snape.

So were these solid, reliable facts?

On the surface: yes.  But this information had come to her second-hand.  Hermione had not, after all, stood there and watched someone take an axe to a snagberry bush.  So the issue became: did she trust the information's source?

Instinctively, she knew that she did.  This process, however, was about being objective.  It was time to question everything, and filter out supposition from fact.  So Hermione made herself do just that.

If Joseph Montague's report of the thefts was not information she could rely upon, that meant that he had been leading her – and possibly his mother as well – a merry old dance.  But why on earth would he lie?  If there had been no thefts at all and he'd made the whole thing up, then the only real diagnosis was some kind of mental illness.  In any case, there was too much additional evidence proving something was going on.

The thefts were, Hermione decided, a matter of fact.  Somebody was stealing stuff from the hospital.

So was it possible Joseph Montague was masterminding the whole thing himself?

Her initial reaction was that this made no sense whatsoever.  As an herbologist working on the long-term storage level, Joseph Montague was one of the few people in Wizarding Britain who might have carried out these thefts without tipping off anyone else.  He knew the location; he knew the plants; he had an excuse to be there.  His training would have allowed him to harvest with greater care and subtlety than had apparently been employed.  Some of the ingredients that had been stolen were so easy to come by without resorting to the hospital's enchanted habitats that it was difficult to work out why an informed plant expert would risk stealing them at all.  And of course, Joseph was the one who had reported the problem.  Why would he have drawn attention to the thefts if he was the one trying to get away with them?

Hypothesis: because he knew he was not getting away with them.  And he wished to appear innocent while diverting attention onto someone else.

Hermione sighed.  This process was supposed to be about getting rid of all the what-ifs, not adding to the egregious amount she'd accumulated already!  Still, now she'd thought up this theory she felt the need to work it through.

So.  Joseph Montague could be behind the thefts.  Assume, for now, that he'd been recruited by some sinister figure who wanted to make at least two loathsome potions courtesy of the recipes in Baneful Brews.  Joseph had obtained ingredients that were otherwise unavailable: the fresh ashgrass, the snagberry bark and the doloris.  He had, for some inexplicable reason, also decided to steal wormwood and tormentil from the hospital in spite of their ready availability elsewhere.

Then: assume his crimes had been discovered, probably thanks to his inability to stop stealing when he had far better procurement options.  So he'd reported the thefts to his mother, Senior Healer Gloria Montague, a respected staff member, perhaps believing that her involvement in any subsequent investigation could help steer the blame away from him.  Having done this, he had set himself up as the storage level's protector, working long hours while he pretended to keep an eye out for evidence of the crimes he himself was perpetrating.  Meanwhile he'd kept stealing and then reporting the thefts to his mother.

For this scenario to work, therefore, it required Joseph Montague to be grasping, immoral, short-sighted in his planning and lazy, yet also dedicated and diligent, with a tendency towards the Machiavellian.  Some of those things were quite obviously contradictory.

Isaac Asimov had once said, '...let us have as few assumptions as possible.'  This theory demanded too many of them; Hermione couldn't make herself believe in it.  And Joseph's Patronus was a honey bee, for goodness sake!  Honey bees were hard-working, intelligent, social animals who viewed the success of the hive as infinitely more important than their individual well-being.

(She paused in her review and spent a few moments trying to massage away the headache that was growing at her temples.)

Okay, so as far as she could tell, the only redeeming feature to this theory was the way it provided a motivation of sorts for Snape's encounter with Joseph in that alley by the Leaky.  If Snape had discovered Joseph's criminal activities and had taken it upon himself to sort it all out, that would explain the threat delivered at wand-point...although thinking about it, it didn't fit with what Snape had actually said.  In such a scenario, "Stop stealing stuff!" would seem a more likely warning than, "Stop being so vigilant!"

Mind you, Hermione only had Joseph's word on what had been said to him.  And if Joseph was the consummate liar that this theory demanded he be, he could have lied about the nature of Snape's warning.

She shook her head at herself.  It still didn't make sense, not really.  If Snape had realised Joseph was the thief, Snape would not have reacted by threatening Joseph in an alley.  Severus Snape would have gathered proof and then presented it to Shacklebolt, probably moments after catching Joseph in the act, incapacitating him with an expert body-bind and stashing him away somewhere ready for the attentions of an MLE patrol.

Hermione rubbed at her eyes.  This particular theory was going nowhere fast.  Everything else besides, it had now grown to resemble her earlier 'Snape is investigating the same thing I am investigating' idea: the one that had been scuppered by the way Snape had somehow managed to begin his investigation several weeks before the crimes even took place.  Indeed, the only way she could make that part of the evidence fit was if she cast Severus Snape as Joseph's accomplice.  In such a context, the assault could have been staged in order to throw off any suspicion Joseph might otherwise have drawn...except that it simply transferred the suspicion onto Snape himself.  Which seemed redundant, especially considering that Snape could have disguised himself during that assault, and he had chosen not to.

And anyway, why would Snape have bothered to recruit Joseph's help?  Snape already had access to the storage level.  He had the potions expertise.  He didn't need Joseph.  And Severus Snape was not a man who gravitated towards accomplices and partnerships.  He was, frankly, the proverbial lone wolf.

(Not that he'd take kindly to that description.)

Hermione decided that she had to discard the theory.  Too much of it fell apart on scrutiny, and in any case, she was only focusing on Joseph Montague because it was so much easier than focusing on Severus Snape.  So she returned to her original question: could she rely on Joseph Montague's evidence?

On balance, having reviewed his information alongside the rest of what she'd learned, yes she could.

Hermione moved on to the next element worthy of re-examination.  A wizard had tried to purchase snagberry products illegally from Shyverwretch's Venoms and Poisons while holding a copy of Baneful Brews.

Could she take that at face value?

This was information that had also come to her second-hand, but why would the witch in the shop have lied?  If she had been primed to surreptitiously steer Hermione towards Baneful Brews and its recipes then that would have required advanced knowledge of Hermione's visit.  And Hermione herself hadn't known she was going to Shyverwretch's until a few minutes before she did so.

Although...

Actually, now she thought about it, one other person had known she was considering a visit to the poison shop.  That person knew because she'd more or less announced it to him, prior to marching off to Shadwell's bookshop.

Severus Snape.

Did the timing fit?  Could he have nipped into Shyverwretch's while she'd browsed in the bookshop, and cajoled or threatened the witch into dropping certain bits of information?  Then ducked out again, awaiting his moment before sweeping back in to heroically escort her past those well-hexed muggers?

He could have, Hermione admitted.  But why would he have done so?  If he was the thief, he would not have wanted to advertise the fact.  If he was not, then there were easier ways to guide her investigation...and how would he have known about it anyway?

What if it had been a test?  A carrot, dangled before her, to see whether she reacted?

She growled to herself and thumped the duvet.  This was all supposition, just like the notion that Snape had been the wizard holding Baneful Brews.  She forced herself to set these ideas aside and got back to the main point.  There was no reason to discount the evidence from the witch in Shyverwretch's.  Either it could be taken at face value, or it had happened because someone wanted Hermione to investigate Baneful Brews.  Whichever it was, it remained a piece of the puzzle.

What else?

With a sigh, Hermione forced herself to consider her suspect-number-one.

All the evidence that indicated Snape's connection to these thefts was circumstantial.  Each element could be explained away when examined separately.  But together?  It just didn't work.  There was no single innocent explanation that fit with all the information.  God only knew, she'd tried and tried to find one.

What was the tipping point for circumstantial evidence?  How much of it had to accumulate before the word 'circumstantial' stopped being more important than the word 'evidence'?

Hermione had to acknowledge that she'd passed that point a while ago.

"First principles," she muttered to herself.  "Go slow.  What do I know as a fact?  Let's try to identify something we can take as incontrovertible."

As far back as August, Snape had been researching ingredients that matched the ones eventually stolen from the long-term storage level.  That had to be considered a fact.  How else could notes in his handwriting have been made in the Restricted Section?

"Back up," Hermione murmured.  "Don't assume.  Prove it."

She racked her brains for an alternative explanation.  Could someone have tried to set Snape up by faking those notes?  Such a person would have to be familiar with Snape's handwriting.  They would also need access to the library's Restricted Section; that had to narrow things down.  A registered member of the staff or student body could manage it, of course.  Perhaps an official guest of the school could, if they were trusted enough to go wandering about.  The only other possibility was an intruder who had managed to breach the most famously secure wards this side of Gringotts.  Even Voldemort's Death Eaters had needed a man on the inside and access to a pair of Vanishing Cabinets to do that.

She toyed with the notion for a few minutes.

Damn it, this idea made no sense!  If the plan was to implicate Snape, this hypothetical 'someone' would not have planned their misdirection through the absurdly subtle medium of indentations on a blotter.  They'd have left a scrap of paper with those revealing handwritten notes bookmarking Moste Potente Potions, or lying oh-so-conveniently under the desk.  The very nature of the evidence, and the Holmesian efforts Hermione had made in order to obtain it, meant there was zero chance that it had been left, with malice aforethought, for her to find.

It was not a set-up.  She was convinced.  There was no reason to doubt that Severus Snape had been in that room and made those notes himself.  Thanks to the mutually corroborative evidence of both Pomona Sprout and Minerva McGonagall, she also had to accept that he'd done so in late August.

Might there be a non-damning explanation for this behaviour, then?

What if the thefts had begun much earlier than Joseph Montague had realised?  Early enough that Snape had been the first to notice, prompting his flurry of research on what the snagberry could potentially be used for.

Hermione turned to the timeline she'd made and worked out the logistics.  The vandalism to the snagberry bush would have needed to occur prior to Sunday 30th August.  Joseph Montague had seen the damage on Friday 18th September.  That meant almost three weeks had gone by between Snape noticing and anyone else working out what had happened.  None of that seemed likely.

This scenario also required Snape to have been wandering around the long-term storage level, unaccompanied, two whole weeks before the Lost Seventh course had begun.  A few days would seem plausible, allowing him the time to familiarise himself with the level and collect the ingredients needed for his first lesson.  But two weeks?  That was pushing it.

Still, assuming she could somehow justify all of that, why would Snape have reacted to the damaged snagberry bush by promptly diagnosing a sinister conspiracy involving scary potions?  Surely the sensible response would have been to report the issue to the nearest herbologist or the Storekeep on the way out.

She sighed and discarded the idea.  It required wild contrivances to explain both the timing and Snape's behaviour.  Surely she could do better than that.

She tried again.

Could Snape, by some other means, have caught wind of a conspiracy in its earliest stages?

It was hard to understand why he'd failed to act sooner if that was the case.  Severus Snape was clever, subtle and resourceful.  If he'd learned of the plot that was to unfold, and he'd identified the items that were to be stolen and he'd been hanging around the corresponding locations when the thefts took place – as the wand-monitoring system proved he had – then Hermione would have bet her life on Snape torpedoing the conspiracy before it got any further.

She needed another explanation.

Perhaps he'd undertaken a perfectly innocent research project of his own, and someone had discovered his notes and decided it was a great idea and they wanted to turn the theory into reality.  Now that was possible, Hermione thought.  It would explain both the timing of his early notes and the more recent events on the long-term storage level; Snape had realised someone was using his research to do bad things and he was trying to stop them.  It also explained why he hadn't reported the issue: he felt guilty and complicit, and probably a bit shame-faced about the fact that he'd been researching a hate potion in the first place.

Actually, that was a fair point.  If Snape had wanted to research a potion, perhaps with a view to making it more powerful by exploring the techniques discussed in Bramble's book, why on earth had he focused on a hate potion?  It was a horrible choice.  Not to mention, it had already been done!  Why bother with such a project at all when the anonymous writer of Baneful Brews had got there several decades ago?

Come to that, who could have seen and then nicked his research?  Severus Snape was not the kind of man who left potentially valuable research dossiers lying around.  The only real candidate, as far as Hermione could work out, was Roksana Bramble.  How did that make any sense?  You might as well charge Harry, or Arthur Weasley, or Kingsley Shacklebolt with maniacal schemes.  Mistress Bramble was the antithesis of 'villain'.  She had famously risked her own life to save her colleagues.  She was synonymous with potions reform, like Gloria had mentioned; Hermione recalled that it was Bramble who'd spearheaded the campaign to end the way the biggest potions producers habitually colluded to lock up the market and maintain their obscene prices.  The woman had willingly renounced numerous lucrative patents she herself held, and then published in full the corresponding recipes, all in a bid to encourage fair competition and make certain important products more affordable.

And Roksana Bramble was considered one of the foremost potioneers of her generation.  Snape was brilliant at potions, no doubt about it, but he'd spent his working life teaching children rather than exploring and researching and expanding his craft as Bramble had been able to do.  Where he was good, she was always going to be better.  So why would she have needed his research?

Hermione admitted to herself that she couldn't make any of that fly.  If there was an innocent explanation for Snape's pre-emptive notes on hate potions, something that could fit with the rest of the evidence, it eluded her.  All of which brought her back to Occam's Razor.  There was a not-so-innocent explanation which served all the evidence:

Snape had researched powerful hate potions back in August because he wanted to brew one.  And he was present in the habitats where the relevant ingredients had been stolen because he was the one who'd done the stealing.  Necessary assumptions: Snape's potions expertise, his ability to plot, to be ruthless, to be sneaky.  None of those assumptions contradicted each other.  And none of them contradicted Hermione's perception of Severus Snape.

Damn it all to hell.

She moved on to the next unanswerable in her mental list.  Snape had been angry with her since the week after her birthday.  Nasty-angry.  Vicious-angry.  If he hadn't been reacting to her investigation, what else could have caused it?

One of her earliest thoughts had been that Snape was dosing himself with a hate potion.  Was this possible?  If he'd taken to using Hartson's Heart Hardener, perhaps as a means of maintaining his scrupulous professionalism while he remained her teacher – and she had to wince at the implicit arrogance of an idea like that – then it could explain his behaviour.  Some of it.  Not all, though.

Could he have gone one step further and attempted a Philtre of Ill Will?  If he'd brewed such a potion and used a strand of her hair, perhaps plucked from the floor of the potions lab, in order to make her the target for his hate, would that explain things?

Actually, it would definitely not do so.  If Snape had dosed himself with that much liquid hatred, he'd have contrived a reason to throw her off his course and wreck her academic career by now.  And Snape was not stupid enough to use such a powerful concoction on himself, anyway.  He was a man who valued control above all else.  Why would he voluntarily take a potion that diminished his ability to make his own choices?  The theory made no sense.

Fine, then.  While the evidence proved that Snape was researching hate potions, it was much less conclusive when it came to the idea that he was taking them.  She needed another explanation for his anger.

Might he have been trying to push her away because of the place Roksana Bramble now enjoyed in his life?  This was a depressing thought, but not implausible.  Severus Snape did not strike her as someone particularly skilled in the area of personal relationships.  She knew of his aversion to honest conversations thanks to first-hand experience.  Why would he say to her, "I'm sorry, but this has happened and I need you to understand," when he could achieve the same result by means of a campaign of unpleasantness?

Except...

Except he hadn't merely been insulting and dismissive.  He'd been accusatory.  He'd called her a spy.  That did not fit with the idea of a man trying to distance himself from an unwanted suitor.  What it did fit with was the idea of a man reacting badly to his secrets being exposed.

Hermione moved on again, aware that she was failing miserably in this last-ditch attempt to explain away the evidence.

So.  The biggie.

What possible explanation was there for Snape's self-confessed assault on poor Joseph Montague?

There was, of course, only the explanation that Snape himself had offered to his victim.  He had learned that Joseph was aware of the thefts and was being extra-vigilant, and Snape had needed Joseph to back off.

It was evidence in Hermione's 'unequivocal' pile that Snape had carried out this assault.  Snape had felt no need to deny it.  He'd made no attempt to disguise his identity.  Indeed, from what Snape had said to Hermione in Knockturn Alley, he had fully intended for Hermione to hear about the incident, and to be as worried by it as Joseph had been.  When challenged, he'd even confessed to an urge to threaten her directly.

All of which demonstrated that she was currently doing something which caused him problems, and he wanted to force her to stop.  How that was supposed to help prove Snape was not up to his ears in skulduggery was quite beyond her.

"Bugger," Hermione growled.  "Bugger everything.  Bugger everything sideways."  This process was not working.  Nothing was becoming clearer except the likelihood of Snape's guilt.  In the dark of the small hours, she found herself overwhelmed by confusion, anxiety and a painful sense of loss.

Drowning in these feelings was doing nobody any good, so she forced herself to desist.  She decided to give up on trying to understand 'who' and, indeed, 'why'.  All she could do was focus on 'what'.

Thanks to Baneful Brews, she had discovered the potion that tormentil could be used to make.  The nature of that potion meant it was definitely time to act.  If she did not, something terrible could happen.  And if she failed to intervene while she still had the chance?  Well, then she knew she'd never forgive herself.

She couldn't do it all on her own, though.

Heading to Puddlemere and Gloria's cottage in the middle of the night was a non-starter, so she went to the library in Grimmauld Place and tried to busy herself with more research.  When this activity – usually so calming and conducive to the passing of time – failed to occupy her shaken thoughts, she went out for a walk.  London was a city that never really slept, but most of the residential parts of Islington were quiet.  The chill night air was soothing.

As she walked, she thought about how much she wished that Severus Snape was the person to whom she could run, right now.  She wanted to show him her research, tell him her fears, find some support.  His knowledge, his intelligence, his indefatigable courage: these were the things she needed.

But his complicity had denied them to her.  She realised with a start that she hated him for that.

When she'd walked herself into exhaustion she went home.  She climbed the stairs back to the library, because an hour spent walking through empty darkened streets had helped sift into focus some of the things she needed to know.  She made some lists.  Then she went to her bedroom and lay down and closed her eyes.

For a while she managed a fitful sleep.  She jolted awake in the middle of a nightmare, thinking she was screaming although the sound that came out of her throat was no more than a strangled choke.  Her bedside clock told her it was almost six o'clock in the morning.

She showered, got dressed, got her notes together.  At half past six she Apparated to Puddlemere.

Gloria was just going to have to forgive her for this brutally early morning call.

~~~

Hands wrapped around a warming mug of tea, Hermione once again sat at the kitchen table in the Montague cottage.  Gloria was wrapped up in her dressing gown, bleary-eyed and unsettled by this visit, and yet patient and steadfast in her attempt to offer support: Hufflepuff to the bone.

"I'm so sorry.  I found something out," Hermione said.  "Just a few hours ago.  It's...terrifying."

"Tell me," Gloria encouraged.

"Okay.  Yesterday I managed to get a hold of this book."  She took the volume from her bag and set it down on the table, though it felt like she was defacing Gloria's welcoming and comfortable home with its presence.  "Baneful Brews."

"Ah.  May I ask how?" Gloria asked, eyeing the volume.

There was no reason to lie to her.  "I persuaded Draco Malfoy to help me."

Gloria's eyebrows raised.  "That was a risk."

"It was a risk worth taking.  Because I think something awful might be about to happen.  And I think I might have found out about it just in time."

"Go on."

Hermione sighed and pointed at the book.  "That book – it's sickening.  And the recipe in there for a super-powered hate potion is actually in one of the less disturbing chapters."

"So the hate-potion theory is still in play?"

"It is.  The recipe matches almost every ingredient that was stolen, including the ashgrass.  There's a couple of other things needed to brew it – I don't know if it's possible to ask Joseph to check to see if they've been stolen too?"

"The moment he surfaces, we'll ask him."

Hermione blinked.  "He's here?"

"He's been staying here all week.  He hasn't been keen on going home to his flat at night on his own.  Not after what happened last Sunday."

"I can't say I blame him," Hermione said.  "By the way – it was definitely Snape who threatened Joseph.  He admitted it to me."  She frowned.  "Although 'admitted' makes it sound like he was reluctant.  He wasn't, not in the least.  He was just stating a fact.  He wasn't sorry."

Gloria's expression had clouded.  "I asked you not to confront him–"

"I didn't intend to.  It happened by accident."

Gloria looked at Hermione, eyes flickering over her face.  Hermione wondered whether she looked as awful as she felt.  After a moment, Gloria nodded.  "I'm just glad you're all right.  This whole mess is..."  She sighed.  "Very well.  Do you have a list of the ingredients you need Joseph to check?"

"Yes.  Here."  Hermione passed over a prepared sheet of paper.  "There's some others on there as well.  I need to know about them for..."  She hard-swallowed against rising bile.  "For the second recipe I found."

Gloria cast her eye over the list before handing it back.  "Right you are.  Though I'm not sure if he'll be able to help with the items that aren't plant-based–"

"Help with what?" came a new voice from the kitchen door.  Hermione looked up to see a young man with broad shoulders and hair that was, if anything, more tousled and spiky than Harry at his least-groomed.  He was wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown, and appeared uncertain as he looked between Hermione and Gloria.  He had his wand to hand, as if he'd come downstairs expecting trouble.  "Mum, what's going on?"

Gloria beckoned her son into the kitchen and introduced him to Hermione, then got up to pour Joseph some tea.  Hermione started to bring Joseph up to date on her research, unloading notes and books from her bag in the process.  When she was part of the way through, Joseph put his head in his hands and dry-washed his face.  Then he looked up at her with weary, reddened eyes and a deep-set frown.

"What?" Hermione asked, concerned.

"Sorry.  Hell of a week."  He shook his head.  "It's nothing.  Or maybe it's everything.  I don't know."  He reached across her for the copy of The Magic of the Tundra, opened as it was to a page depicting the snagberry bush.  "I mean, this plant, the snagberry – it's beautiful.  Not in the showy way an orchid is beautiful, though.  The snagberry's beauty is quiet.  Understated.  I mean, it's perfect.  What it is.  What it does.  Its shape, its efficiency, its fortitude.  Its magic.  It is the most amazing thing."

"I wish I could see it for myself," she said quietly.

"All this," Joseph said, indicating her notes in front of her.  "It's just plain wrong.  Vandalising the snagberry was bad enough, but to do so because you want to use it to hurt people?"  He indicated Baneful Brews.  "You take a plant that is designed to preserve life, and you find a way to make it do harm?"  He sighed, long and hard.  "Well.  I suppose the Ministry doesn't ban books that are full of healthy, happy lifestyle hints."

"It's a scary and unpleasant book," Hermione agreed.

"Scary and unpleasant."  He looked like he was reliving a very specific memory.  "Yep.  Sounds about right."  Joseph shook himself.  "Sorry.  What were you saying?"

"Right.  Yes.  Well, the upshot is that I need to know if any of these ingredients have been stolen as well.  If they have, it'd prove my theory."  She handed over the list she'd made.

"You think you've figured out what Snape's up to?" he asked.

"Yes.  I honestly wish I hadn't."

"Then I don't want to know the details."  He shot her a hard look.  "Do you intend to put my mother in harm's way?"

"God, no!  Absolutely not."

He nodded slowly.  "All right."  He scanned Hermione's list.  "The scales from a common brown snake – those are only available as an import in the stockrooms, so I'd need to check the jars.  Same for shrake spines.  Sweet violet doesn't flower through the summer and autumn, so Snape would need to get the petals from stock too."  He looked up at her.  "I can check the woodland habitat to see if anyone's been poking around, just in case.  That's where the valerian and bloodroot is, so I'll have to go there anyway."

"You don't mind doing this?  I know, after your experience last weekend, you must be having second-thoughts about this investigation."

"I did.  Lots of second-thoughts.  But now I'm just really hacked off.  I think we need to sort this out one way or another."  He stood up.  "It's Sunday, and it's early.  I should be able to avoid most people.  There and back in an hour, max."

Gloria said to Joseph, "If you aren't back here by eight o'clock, I'm calling the Aurors."

Joseph gave Hermione a wry smile.  "She always knows how to reassure, does my old mum."  He stood up, taking his tea with him.  "Better put some trousers on.  Private eyes are supposed to be inconspicuous, right?"

He left the kitchen to go and get dressed.  Gloria stood up.  "Would you excuse me for a moment too, Hermione?  With all that we're discussing, I think I'd feel better if I put some clothes on and brushed my teeth, at least.  Do help yourself to some bread from the loaf, there, if you want some toast with your tea.  I'll only be ten minutes."

~~~

A short while later, after Joseph had Floo'ed out to St Mungo's, they resumed their discussion.

Gloria said, "Of course, I understand the basic premise of a hate potion.  Is there anything different about the one in this nasty book?"

Hermione grimaced.  "Hate potions make you hate.  To a lesser or greater degree.  But the recipe in Baneful Brews doesn't waste time on stoking up the anger.  It bypasses all that and gets straight to the actions – the things you'd usually do only when you're out of your mind with rage.  It destroys your moral compass, your ability to feel empathy.  Basically it makes you a murderer.  A happy, guilt-free, no-second-thoughts, utterly dispassionate murderer."

Gloria winced.  Then she said, "And yet Severus Snape has already demonstrated that he is able to commit acts that most would balk at.  And he's done so without the need for a potion to get him in the mood, so to speak, has he not?"

Hermione considered the argument.  "He killed Dumbledore on Dumbledore's own instructions.  I don't think that was easy for him.  And yes, there's probably been other incidents in the last twenty years, but let's not forget that he can cast a Patronus.  Dumbledore always used that as a kind of yardstick – the measure of a man, you know?  I think being a cold-blooded murderer makes casting a Patronus tricky."

"So is he trying to become more of a killer?" Gloria asked, bewildered.  "Why would anyone do that?"

Hermione said, "Whoever the anonymous psycho who wrote this book was, he had plenty of suggestions.  But I'd guess it's a potion better suited to dosing someone else."

"Oh.  Right."  Gloria sat back, frowning.  "So Snape wants to turn someone else into a killer?"

"Oh, god, I don't know, I don't know!" Hermione growled, and buried her face in her hands.

"I'm sorry, dear.  I'm just trying to understand," Gloria said gently.

Hermione lifted her head and brushed the uninvited tears away.  "So am I," she said.

"Are there perhaps wicked people who might deserve to be manipulated with this potion?" Gloria suggested.

Hermione thought about that.  She thought about the most wicked people she had encountered in her life.  Bellatrix Lestrange.  Lucius Malfoy.  Dolores Umbridge.  Rita Skeeter, to an extent?  While all of them had done things deserving of forfeiture, Hermione could not find it in herself to justify such a punishment.  Bad people should be sanctioned for their crimes, not manipulated into committing new ones.

"No," she said.  "Not even for the brief moment of satisfaction it might prompt.  No one deserves that."

"Indeed, I rather agree.  But might a man like Severus Snape have a more...ruthless point of view?"

"If he does, he's more of a maniac than I thought he was."  She closed her eyes briefly, because the words seemed to be prophetic after all she had discovered in the last few hours.  "Anyway, I think he lost any claim to the moral high ground when he threatened your son at wand-point."

"Oh, certainly he did as far as I'm concerned, but I'm doing my level best to be objective here."  Gloria tilted her head.  "People do awful things for reasons they think are valid," she said.  "Snape is a prime example."

"This is different.  This isn't like...like casting the Killing Curse at a man who trusts you, because he's dying anyway and he's begged you to do it so someone else cannot.  Nor is it like hitting someone with an offensive spell while they're trying to kill you.  This isn't even like throwing someone into Azkaban, back when that was basically a death sentence.  This is not an area of any moral ambiguity; this is weaponising people.  Taking a person and making them kill for you.  Controlling their free will so much that they don't even care about what they're doing."

"Yes, I do understand."

"Do you?  With this potion, Snape could make me kill my parents.  He could make you kill Joseph, and you'd smile and relax and feel nothing more than the satisfaction of a job well done."

Giving voice to some tangible examples seemed to shake Gloria in a way that the bullet-points had not.  "You'd want to take your own life," she whispered.  "Afterwards.  Surely.  If you realised you'd been forced to do something so terrible..."

"But you wouldn't.  Because the effects of this potion are irreversible.  You'd live the rest of your life – however long you had before the Aurors caught up with you, anyway – without any kind of remorse."  Hermione shook her head.  "This is worse than Imperius, and our society already accepts that the Imperius curse is unforgivable."

"We have to stop him, then," Gloria said.  "When do we think he's going to use this potion?"

"That I don't know," Hermione replied.  "I'm reasonably sure I've discovered what he's doing, but not why or how or even when he's going to do it."

"So, what, we admit we're out of our depth and report him?"

"Maybe.  Not sure."  Hermione pinched between her eyes.  "I don't think we're quite there.  Not yet.  I've sort of got a plan  It's taking shape, anyway."  She pulled Baneful Brews towards her and opened it at the page she had marked with an incongruously jolly Beefeater bookmark.  "You see, I think the hate potion is only one of the horrible things he wants to brew."

She pushed the book towards Gloria.

"What's this?" Gloria asked, peering down at the text.

"Something I wish I didn't have to ask you to look at."

"'De Morte Magicae,'" she read.  "Death of magic?"

Feeling as though the weight of the world pressed on her shoulders, Hermione said, "It's a potion that severs a witch or wizard from their magic.  Permanently."  She swallowed hard and said, "One dose, and you would be forever a squib."

Gloria sat back, exhaling all of a rush as though she'd been punched in the gut.  "Oh, Merlin save us all," she whispered.

"Yeah," Hermione agreed.  "I don't know about you, but I'm finding it hard to imagine something worse.  I mean, a poison will just kill you.  Awful, but at least you're nice and dead afterwards.  Crucio is agonising for a while, maybe it'll even melt your brain.  But it eventually ends, and either you get better or you're in no position to care.  But this?  To take magic away from a witch or wizard – it's like, god, it's like amputating their soul.  You'd have to live with that violation for the rest of your life.  You'd never stop thinking about what you've lost.  The very essence of who you are, ripped away from you."

"And this potion can do this terrible thing?"

"Apparently," Hermione said.  "Pretty sure this is the main reason the book was banned.  And by the way?  The recipe includes tormentil, bloodroot and valerian."

"So you're basing this theory on the tormentil Joseph already noticed is missing."

"Yes.  The De Morte Magicae potion is the only one in Baneful Brews that uses tormentil."

"And if Joseph comes back to us with news that bloodroot and valerian have also been stolen...?"

"I'd take that as strongly suggestive that this potion is Snape's endgame.  It might even be why he needs the hate potion – maybe he anticipates the need to steel himself before he can make himself use it.  Or prime someone else to do so."

"But who would he want to do such a thing to?"

"That's another question I can't answer."  Hermione shook her head.  "I just don't know, Gloria.  And after the last two weeks my brain is so fried that I think I'd be an idiot to speculate."

Gloria nodded her understanding.  "Let me see the recipe.  What else does it need?"  She read.  "Haliwinkles?  They're protected."

"I know.  You can't get near the ones that thrive up on the north Scottish coast.  Unplottable, secret-kept locations, thoroughly warded.  They are strictly non-tradeable items.  But I'm guessing there must be a habitat where they're cultivated in the long-term storage level.  Otherwise the hospital wouldn't be able to brew the cure for Vanishing Sickness."

"There is indeed," Gloria confirmed.

"Which is where my plan comes in.  But let's wait to see what Joseph says first.  This will all be academic if the valerian and bloodroot have been left alone.  And frankly, at this point I'd be over the moon to be proved wrong."

~~~

Joseph returned at just after half past seven.  His face was ashen, and not from the Floo powder.

"What news?" his mother asked.  But Hermione already had that sinking feeling.

Joseph slumped down at the kitchen table.  He retrieved a notebook from his coat pocket and opened it up.  Hermione's list was being used as a bookmark.

He took a deep breath.  "At least six valerian plants have been uprooted and removed, intact, some time in the last few days, I'd say.  There's a trough of earth where a good dozen bloodroot have been lifted, too.  I wouldn't have spotted it without going to look – the bloodroot patch is in a dip between beech trees, near one of the stream feeds that keep the soil moist.  You have to go right up to these places to see what's going on."

Gloria looked at Hermione.  Hermione looked helplessly back.  "The death of magic," she whispered.  A sigh.  "He's been busy, this week."  She glanced at Joseph.  "No wonder he wanted to stop you keeping a look out."

"That's not all," Joseph said.  He checked his notebook.  "Snape's wand was active in the woodland habitat on Thursday.  Early evening, after his lesson."  He looked at Hermione.  "Oh, sorry, I should explain – the long-term storage level has this system where the wands of the staff are tracked."

"Your mum told me," Hermione said.

"Right.  Good.  Anyway, I checked the records.  Everyone else who's been in the woodland area this week had every right to be there."

"Is your name on that list?" Hermione asked.

"It wasn't.  Not till about seven o'clock this morning."  Joseph shrugged.  "I called it quits on all the extra checks, this last week.  And Benj, a colleague of mine, he was on the rota for woodland.  Why do you ask?"

"Because if this finally kick-starts some kind of formal enquiry, it would be nice to have a solid piece of evidence proving your innocence."

"Oh.  See what you mean."  Joseph nodded, then gave a rueful laugh.  "S'pose if it comes to that, I've got Snape to thank for my alibi."

"The stockroom ingredients you were going to check?" Gloria prompted.

"Right."  Joseph checked his notes.  "The snake scales jar was all but empty.  Which was weird – Storekeeps will place orders for refills when the stock reaches a certain level, but there's no order in place for common brown snake scales.  The shrake spines jar was half full – couldn't tell anything from that.  I'm pretty sure the stock of sweet violet flowers has been dipped into, because I harvested the last of the spring flowers myself back in May, and I remember stacking half a dozen stasis-jars on the shelf.  There's only two there now, and it isn't a well-used ingredient."

"Right then," Hermione said.  "I think we can conclude that we've gone from circumstantial to pretty suggestive evidence."

"There's something else," Joseph said.  "The patch of sweet violet in the woodland habitat had been yanked about a bit, as if someone was trying to find a hidden flower in the clump.  I can't think of a single herbologist who'd bother to do that – not in October.  Anyway, whoever did it left boot marks in the soil."  Joseph turned the page of his notebook, to where he had sketched the footprints he'd found, including measurements.  "Eleven and a half inches.  I measured my own boots and they're eleven inches long.  I'm a size ten.  So I reckon these are size elevens, maybe?"

"They are," Hermione said dully.  "Just the right size for a man of six foot."  She stood up and went to look out on the brightening garden through the window.  Her throat was tight.  "Those are Snape's boot-prints," she said.

"You're certain?" Gloria asked.

"I recognise the tread pattern," she said, closing her eyes but still seeing Joseph's sketch: long soles tapering to a flattened toe, with a distinctive pattern of circular anti-slip ridges.  "The first time he tried those boots on was three days before he appeared before the Wizengamot.  His wandless magic was too weak for a knotting charm, and his motor function was still healing.  He couldn't tie the laces."  She laughed humourlessly.  "He was furious with me when I did it for him."

Gloria sighed.  "I'm so sorry, Hermione, truly, but we've got to report this."

"We will," Hermione declared.  She turned around, trying to shake the memories off.  "If we have to.  But give me until Tuesday."

"Why not today?" Joseph asked.  "Or for that matter, why not tomorrow, first thing Monday?  Monday morning's a good time to do official-type things."

"Because tomorrow evening, at quarter past nine, we get a full moon," Hermione explained.

"Um..."

She walked back to the table and reached to close Baneful Brews firmly, shutting away the horror of its recipes.  "The haliwinkles," she said to Gloria.

"Haliwinkles?" Joseph put in.  "They're shellfish, aren't they?"

"Yes.  Gastropods, specifically.  Little sea snails that colonise the rocks on the Scottish coast.  They are fiercely protected by law because they're essential for the communities of shellycoat which still survive up there.  The few that haven't been wiped out, that is."

"Okay.  And...?"

"And that means the only place where you can obtain fresh haliwinkles for potions is the coastal habitat in St Mungo's long-term storage level."

"I see.  Am I to take it that some other horrible potion needs them?" Joseph asked.

"Yes.  The one that also needs tormentil, bloodroot and valerian.  But this potion not only needs haliwinkles.  It needs haliwinkles that were collected under the light of a full moon, then brewed into the potion on the same night.  Which gives us a window of opportunity."

"So you think Snape will have to harvest his snails tomorrow night," Joseph said.  "Sounds to me like that's a good time to steer well clear of the hospital.  I'm no slouch, but I'm not going one-on-one with the bloke.  Not if I can help it."

"Steering clear of the hospital is exactly what you will do," Hermione agreed.  "You and your mother.  Preferably by going somewhere you can be seen by multiple witnesses.  Take your parents out for dinner or something.  Make a night of it."  Hermione hesitated, bit her lip.  "But I am going to need one of your wands, I'm afraid."

"You're going to lie in wait," Gloria deduced.

"Yes."

"And see who comes to get the haliwinkles."

"Yes."

"Because there's a tiny part of you that wants to believe it isn't Snape."

"No."  Hermione tut-tutted at herself.  "I mean, yes, I admit it.  There is.  But I'm not expecting that tiny part to be cheering a victory come tomorrow night.  I fully anticipate that Snape will be the one who's collecting sea snails by moonlight."

Gloria nodded her understanding.  "So you want to follow him.  See if he meets someone to hand off the ingredients.  You still think he might be in trouble – coerced by someone else, or some such?"

"It's one possibility, though if someone has managed to coerce him into stealing these ingredients then they'd be an absolute moron not to coerce him into brewing the potions as well.  And if he is the brewer then there's only one sensible place he can do the work."

Joseph said, "Why?  He can go anywhere he likes if he Apparates or Floo's out.  How would you even follow him?"

"Because he can't Apparate," Hermione insisted.  "Haliwinkles are weird, wonderful things.  They emit a kind of dead-zone for magic.  Even one tiny snail.  If it's anywhere within about three feet of where you're standing then your casting will fizzle – at least, according to the Index Ingredientus.  I'm guessing it's why they're effective in this potion.  They kill magic."

"All right, so he'll Floo.  You still might not be able to follow."

"Snape rarely Floo's anywhere, because he hates that the network records the journey."  Hermione sat down again, aware that she was coming across like a bit of a lecturer.  "But even if he tried, it wouldn't work.  Because of the magic-deadening snails."

Gloria gave a harrumph of understanding.  "He'll take them to the potions laboratory on sub-level one, then.  It's his only choice."

"Yup," Hermione agreed.

"In that case, why do you need one of our wands?" Joseph asked.  "You can just wait for him in the lab."

"If I do that, and Snape goes straight out the front doors of the hospital to hand off his stolen ingredients to someone else, that won't do much good, will it?"

"So wait for him in the antechamber," Joseph said.

"I could do that.  But if it turns out that the thief is someone else – and yes, I know it's unlikely, but if it is – then they could walk straight past me and I'd be none the wiser.  No, I have to get into the storage level and follow the thief from there."

"And how are you going to do that without the thief seeing you?" Gloria asked.  "Because I can't imagine that any person who thinks it is perfectly fine to brew these awful potions would take kindly to an audience."

"Why are we pretending it isn't going to be Snape?" Joseph asked, confused.

Hermione sighed.  "Because I'm a gullible fool.  But your mum's right.  If Snape realises he's being watched, it'll end badly."  She drew her shoulders back and tried to relocate her sense of determination.  "Which is why I have every intention of avoiding a confrontation, since it is a confrontation I could not possibly win.  But you see, I have a friend who has a cloak of invisibility."

Joseph thought this through.  "You know, that could work," he murmured.

"I concur," Gloria agreed, a little gloomily.  "And we do need to know whether there is another individual involved in this scheme.  If we report Snape to the authorities right now, I doubt he'd give up any co-conspirators."  She shot a look at Hermione.  "Or blackmailers."

"Right," Hermione agreed.  "And any co-conspirator could keep the plot going.  Only we'd have lost our chance of identifying them."

"So if there is someone else involved," Joseph said, in the kind of voice that said he didn't really see why there had to be, "Snape will either take the ingredients straight to them, or he'll brew the potion that same night and then presumably take that to them instead."

"Yes.  And I follow and find out who."

"Can he Apparate once the potion is brewed?" Gloria asked.

"Baneful Brews suggests you don't try.  The brewed potion will still affect nearby magic.  There's a chance the casting might go astray, if it works at all.  Apparition is one of those spells where a random problem can have disastrous consequences."

"So you'll probably be able to follow on foot if he leaves with the potion.  However, surely what we should be focusing on is the fact that we're to let him brew this terrible thing in the first place," Gloria pointed out.

"I know.  Look, I haven't finalised the plan.  I think a lot will depend on what happens.  I've got two options, as I see it," Hermione said.  "One – I let him do his brewing and follow him to see who he gives the finished product to.  Then I follow that person and report them once I've got a name and location.  That kind of thing.  Hopefully MLE can sort it all out before the potion gets used."

"Hopefully?" Gloria said, less than convinced.

"Yeah, I know, there's risks involved.  Which brings me to option two – I spoil the potion as it's brewed.  Maybe add something else to it – a dollop of goosegrass would do the trick.  It'd be obvious with the colour-change.  Snape would thus be forced to explain to his cohort that the brewing was unsuccessful.  At which point I follow and get the name and location thing, and we don't have to worry about it all going pear-shaped and some poor soul being turned into a squib."

"A squib!"  Joseph looked alarmed for a moment, then waved his hands.  "No, no, still don't want to know.  But have you considered what might happen if Snape discovers you tampering with his brew?"

"He'd hex me sideways, I know.  But it's worth the risk."  Hermione glanced at Baneful Brews.  "I'm not sure I want a single drop of that potion to exist.  As in, ever."

The three of them were quiet for a moment as they all thought the plan through.

"And if it's just him?" Gloria asked quietly.  "If there is no cohort at all?"

"Then we know we can report him," Hermione said.  "Without the risk of leaving a back-door open for someone else to finish things off."

She blushed.  Because she'd already decided that if it turned out Snape was working alone then the only choice she had left was to confront him directly and let the cards fall as they may.

~~~

Letter left in Hermione's bedroom, magically sealed until midday on 6/10/98:

Dear Harry and Ron,

I'm about to do something risky.  Maybe even stupid.  And if you're reading this then it means that I've gone awol, or worse, and you've come looking for clues and you've found this letter.  God, you must both be furious with me right now.

So I'd better say I'm sorry, straight away.

You should go and talk to Healer Gloria Montague at St Mungo's.  She'll fill you in with the details.  I'm leaving all my notes at her cottage, so it should be straightforward enough to work out.

You'll be wanting to know why I didn't tell you.  Initially it was because Gloria asked me not to.  Then, later, it was because things were getting strained between us and I didn't know how to deal with that.  Then, finally, when things got really bad, it was because I didn't want to admit how much of a fool I've been.

Mainly it's because I'm not good at asking for help.  If I survive this, I promise I'll try to do better.  And if, as it turns out, I haven't survived it, please don't judge me too harshly.

I'm sorry it's been such a tricky couple of weeks for us.  If I'd known our most recent conversation together would turn out to be the last one ever then I'd have tried much harder not to let my temper get the better of me.  And by the way – losing my temper last curry-night was as much about all this stuff I've been dealing with as it was about being annoyed with you two.  So if I've died, please don't remember me with anger.

You've been the best of friends to me.  I couldn't have asked for better.

Take care of yourselves and each other.  Be happy.

love,
Hermione

~~~