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Toil and Trouble

Chapter Text

"When push comes to pull comes to shove
Comes to step around
This self-destructive dance that never would've ended
Till I rose, I roared aloud."

A Perfect Circle (Maynard James Keenan, Billy Howerdel), Rose 2000

 

Monday was a day of second-guessing.

Should she go in to work or owl in sick?  Hermione knew she was unlikely to be much use to anyone, but then again, would sitting at home reviewing her plan be a better use of her time?  And she knew she should avoid doing anything to draw attention to herself.

So she went in to work, and made it through the morning.  It was difficult not to try to say a veiled goodbye to people like Lysander Crocus.  Part of her wanted to.  Just in case.

She couldn't manage any lunch, not with her guts churning away with ever-increasing nerves.  Then came Monday's Potions class.  For the first time in her life, Hermione experienced the sensation of wanting to play truant.  If anything, the 'don't draw attention' argument held even fiercer sway here, though.  So along she went.

Her hands trembled the whole way through.  She dropped a beaker.  Snape snapped at her for being clumsy and she felt like a first year, all over again.  In the end, her Perfect Grace potion – brewed as it was with imperfect gracelessness – scraped a Subpar.

But how was she supposed to relax and focus on her work in the very room where, that evening, a potion like De Morte Magicae would be prepared?  And what would happen to that potion once it was brewed?  Who was the intended target?  How would that person cope with the loss of their magic?  How would she cope, if it was done to her?  She'd be half a person: less than half.  She wouldn't be herself anymore.

It didn't bear thinking about.  Alas, she couldn't seem to stop.

When she took her signed phial up to the front table, Snape looked at her with contempt and said, "Whatever plague of incompetence has overcome you today, Miss Granger, may I suggest that you snap out of it before disgracing my classroom with your presence again?"

Behind her, Bulstrode cackled.  It didn't make Hermione feel any better that Bulstrode was the only one.  Since replying to Snape was, at this point, impossible, and she could hardly stand to witness the sympathetic looks from the rest of the class, she grabbed her things and made her escape as quickly as possible.

She allowed herself five minutes of private weeping when she got home.  Then she pulled herself together and got ready to face the evening.

She'd been home over an hour before she noticed the stinging at her collarbone.  It was only then that she realised she'd missed her Artefact Accidents appointment.

~~~

"Harry, I need to borrow the cloak," she said, when he arrived home.

He frowned.  He was still unhappy with the way last Wednesday had gone.  They'd hardly spoken since.

"What for?" he asked.

She tried to look apologetic.  "Can't tell you."

"Oh, god, Hermione – this again?"

"I know!  I know how it looks, and I'm sorry.  But I still need to borrow the cloak."

"Fine.  I'll get it for you.  But whatever it is you're doing, I'm coming too."

She huffed a sigh, but she had anticipated this.  "Okay," she said.  "But you have to do what I say.  This is important."

Harry nodded, placated, and he disappeared up the stairs.  When he came down again the silver-grey sheen of the magical cloak was draped over one arm.

"Right then.  Where are we going?" he asked, as he handed her the cloak.

"I'll have to Side-Along you," she said.  "Trust me?"

Harry gave an awkward shrug.  "I know things haven't been great, recently, but of course I do."

She led him out of Grimmauld Place, then around the corner to the side of the terrace where they could Apparate in privacy.

"Should we go and get Ron?" Harry asked.

Hermione pretended to spot something over his shoulder.  "No need!  Look!"  She indicated the end of the side passage, and in the moment when Harry turned to look, expecting to wave Ron over, she silently apologised to him, stepped clear and Apparated alone to Puddlemere.

~~~

At Gloria's cottage, the Montague family were dressed up to the nines and about to head off to The Peppermill, one of Hogsmeade's more popular restaurants.

"All set?" asked Hermione as she was ushered into the cottage.

"Yes," Gloria said.  She busied herself, straightening the collar on her husband's topcoat.  "Although I'm having second thoughts about letting you do this."

"Join the club," Hermione said grimly.  The only reason she wasn't tremulous with nerves was because she'd taken a calming draught half an hour ago.  "If I thought reporting this to MLE, right now, would fix things, I'd probably do it."

"Look," Joseph said, "I–"

"Joseph," Gloria said sharply.

"Sorry, Mum, but it has to be said."  Joseph and his mother looked at each other.  Something unspoken passed between them before Gloria sighed and nodded.  He turned to Hermione.  "We've been talking.  And Mum hates the idea, but it isn't fair, you doing this alone.  I mean, I'm not a dueller.  I'm not much of an anything, really, except a bloke who likes plants.  And after the things Snape said to me in that alleyway, I don't mind telling you, the man scares me half to death.  But..."  He hesitated, put his shoulders back and cleared his throat.  "I can come too."

It had, very obviously, taken a lot for him to say that.

Hermione smiled sadly and looked down at the cloak folded over her arm.  "Back at Hogwarts, me and Harry and Ron, we'd all crowd in together under this thing.  Sneaking about, avoiding teachers and prefects, trying not to trip over each other."  She shook the brief burst of nostalgia away.  "But we were a bit smaller then.  I'm afraid, logistically, this is a one-person job."

"I could wait outside the storage level, though," Joseph suggested.  "A bit of back-up, once Snape's got his snails and he's heading for the lab?"

Hermione considered.  It was tempting.  Very tempting, actually.

It also meant that in the event of a confrontation, she'd be putting someone other than herself in harm's way.  Not to mention, Joseph's presence could be counterproductive.  She was hoping the evening might yet provide an opportunity for her to appeal to Snape's better nature: something she desperately wanted to believe still existed, somewhere beneath the threats and the anger.  If that opportunity arose, Joseph standing awkwardly nearby wouldn't help.

Whatever happened tonight, good, bad or cataclysmic, Hermione knew it had to happen between her and Severus Snape.  It was one of the few things she was sure of.  This whole situation was complicated enough without throwing third parties into the mix.

"I appreciate the offer," she said to Joseph, "but I'll do better if I don't need to watch out for anyone other than myself."  Behind her, she heard Gloria let out a small sigh of relief.  "Also – I really like the idea of you and your mum giving yourselves a nice, cast-iron alibi for your whereabouts tonight.  This whole thing could still get messy."

For a brief moment Joseph looked contentious, in the way of all young men who've just been told that they are not required to look big and strong for the damsel.  Then he sighed and nodded.  "Fair enough," he agreed.  "Not like there's much I can offer the woman who brought down a Death Eater assassin, pulled off a Gringotts heist and orchestrated the defeat of Voldemort, now is there?"  Joseph added a huffy laugh, as if he was stating the embarrassingly obvious.

Hermione needed a moment to process this rather startling summary.  She did not tend to think of herself in such terms.  From her own point of view she was a woman who preferred books to people, whose sine qua non was a up-to-date to-do list, and who still got panic attacks six whole months after the events that had triggered them.

She coughed.  "Um.  Yes.  Well, setting aside the fact that I'm actually about as brave, skilled and heroic as a skittish Jack Russell on Bonfire Night...I thank you for the vote of confidence."

Joseph nodded.  "If you change your mind?  Send me a Patronus."

"Right, then," Gloria said decisively, steering the conversation away from Joseph's offer with no attempt at subtlety.  "Now, you've got the map of the route to the coastal habitat, haven't you?"

"Yes," Hermione agreed.

"And the goosegrass, for spoiling the potion?"

She patted her trouser pocket.  "Got it."

"And an extra jumper," Joseph piped up.  When Hermione and his mother looked at him in surprise he added, "It's what she always says to me."  Hermione rolled her eyes at him.  "Hey – it isn't such a daft idea.  That coastal habitat can be bracing."

"Joseph?  Wand," Gloria said.

He handed Hermione his wand: twelve inches, English oak with a unicorn hair core.  It was too long for her and didn't feel quite right in her hand, but it would do all that she needed to do.  She strapped it safely into her arm-sheath.

"What are you going to do with your own wand while you're in long-term storage?" Joseph asked.

"I'm going to leave it in the potions laboratory.  There's a place I can hide it."  She gave Joseph a smile.  "I do appreciate this, you know.  I mean – it's your wand."

"Just don't scratch it.  And put some petrol in the tank before bringing it back."  He offered a hand to shake.  "Good luck.  Please don't get yourself hurt in any way.  I already feel terrible."

"Why do you feel terrible?"

"I'm the one who brought the thefts to Mum's attention in the first place, remember?"

Hermione shrugged off the comment.  "I'll be fine.  And–"

She was interrupted by an incoming silvery missile that turned into a galloping stag.  It drew up in front of her, massive, noble, nostrils flaring in effort, somehow managing to seethe.

"Hermione Jean Granger!" the stag yelled.  "You come home right this minute or I'm going to report you missing to Kingsley Shacklebolt.  Don't push me!  I'll bloody do it!"  The stag stomped for a moment, then more quietly it said, "Come on, Hermione, don't do this to me.  You know how worried I am, don't you?"

The stag faded.  Hermione growled and said, "Oh, he had to do the quiet bit in the gentle voice at the end, didn't he?  He couldn't leave it at a bit of shouty bullying!"

She turned around.  The Montague family were all watching, none of them apparently aware of what they should say.  Hermione gave a huge sigh.

"Would you all excuse me a moment, please?" she asked.  She concentrated.  She thought about the things she could usually rely on to form a Patronus.  She cast.

Nothing happened.

"Damn it," she said.

Behind her, Gloria said, "Your friend seems to care about you very much."

(Thank you, Gloria.)

Hermione shrugged off her recent annoyance with Harry and instead conjured her best friend's grin, his ruffle-able hair, the way he'd looked in the kitchen at Grimmauld Place when they'd made Rice Krispie cakes together, chocolatey mix smudging everywhere.  Like a couple of kids.

"Expecto Patronum," she cast.  It was the first time she'd needed to conjure a Patronus in weeks and weeks.  Her rook materialised and spent a moment looking at her, as if to say, 'What did you expect?  It isn't like you've changed the way you feel about him, is it?'

Hermione cast the charm to convey a message and said:

"Harry, I'm sorry.  I am.  I didn't want to trick you but I don't have time.  I'll explain everything tomorrow morning.  Okay?  Can you give me until then, at least?  In the meantime, the whole point of borrowing the cloak is that I'll be safe.  So thanks.  And, you know.  Sorry."

She sent her rook off and then turned back to the Montagues.  Gloria shot her a look that seemed to ask how this whole thing had become so fraught before they'd even left the cottage.

"I'll see you all later to let you know how it goes," she said.  They wished her luck and trooped off to Floo to Hogsmeade.  Hermione let herself out into the front garden and walked down the path to the street.

Harry's stag rematerialised.  "Fine," it said.  "Tomorrow morning.  And you do not take any risks.  Right?  And if you get in trouble and you need help, then for god's sake, Hermione, would you please try to remember that there is nothing in the world me and Ron wouldn't do for you?  Idiot.  So be careful.  You big idiot."  A pause.  "Love you."

She laughed, a bit choked up.  Then she checked her watch.  It was half past seven.  Time to get herself to the hospital and scout out the lie of the land.

~~~

The Welcome Witch on duty at the reception desk turned expectantly to the alcove where incoming visitors Apparated, then looked confused.  A pop, but no person.  After a couple of seconds she shook her head and got back to work.

Reception was quiet: Monday evening, nothing much happening.  This was good.  Hermione had never quite got the hang of avoiding crowds while wearing Harry's invisibility cloak.

She moved over to the stairwell and waited.  Her footwear of choice this evening was her aging pair of Converse All Stars: yes, the soles might sometimes squeak on polished floors, but her logic was that the softer the shoe, the softer her tread.  Similarly she wore form-fitting dark clothing, mainly cotton, that would hopefully not produce too much in the way of a swish or a rustle.  Her hair was tied ruthlessly back.  She wore no jewellery that might snag or clatter.  If it hadn't been for the way she knew she could give Mr Bean a run for his money in the slapstick stakes, she might even have felt a bit ninja-like.

The stairwell doors opened and a man in business robes came out: early forties, sweaty, oblivious to his surroundings.  She caught the door before it swung closed, and made her way down the stairs to the first sub-level.  Her heart was beating faster than usual, but the calming draught she had taken meant that it wasn't pounding like a kettledrum.  She walked along the corridor, placing her feet carefully, making her footsteps flow, listening for any sounds she made.

So far, so good.

Now came the first tricky bit.  She needed to get into the potions lab to stash her wand: taking it with her into the long-term storage level was not an option.  Leaving it here made sense; this was the room she'd most likely be coming back to once Snape had collected his sea snails.  She knew the room.  The one positive thing she'd managed to achieve during the disastrous lesson earlier was to identify a good hiding place.

What she did not know, right now, was whether Snape was still in there.  He could be, since he was waiting for the rise of the full moon as much as she was.  And he had an excuse to be here.  This was his teaching room.  He could set out a stack of essays and pretend to be marking.  Even if someone found him hanging around, they wouldn't be concerned.

Then again, would he want to launch an assault on a colony of rare sea snails while wearing an Edwardian frock coat and tailored trousers?  The coastal habitat was less exposed than the actual coast, but it simulated temperature, wind and tides.  So what would he do?   Go home and prepare in privacy, or hang around for the four hours he'd need to wait between the end of his lesson and the rising of the moon?

Hermione shook her head, gathered her courage, checked both ways down the corridor and then opened the lab door.

The room was empty.  Or at least, it seemed empty; she'd been caught out this way before, though.  She closed the door behind herself and then murmured: "Homenum Revelio."  She looked around, suspicious of dark arrows pointing at Disillusioned professors.

Nothing.  Except the big fat arrow over her own invisible head.  Hermione cancelled the charm with an irritated wave of her wand.

She walked to the demonstration area at the front of the class.  This was where Snape would brew his loathsome potions.  Once he had his ingredients he could take his time.  Even if he was interrupted by some passing Mediwizard wondering what was going on in here so late at night, he could probably wing it.  He'd claim he was used to keeping odd hours; he had some lesson preparation to do; there was nothing to worry about.

It occurred to Hermione that if Joseph hadn't noticed the thefts, and Gloria hadn't asked for her assistance, Severus Snape might have got away with all of this, clean as a whistle.

No wonder he despised her.

Within the gossamer cover of the cloak, she looked at her wand and then reached out to place it on the narrow shelf below the blackboard, slotting it in the groove shaped into the shelf to stop the sticks of chalk rolling free.  She stepped back and looked.  Unless you went rooting around for chalk, you weren't going to see it.  It was a good hiding place: out of sight but reachable.  She hadn't wanted to leave her wand somewhere she'd need to open a drawer or a cupboard to retrieve it, or on a high shelf where she might topple something as she reached for it.  She knew that her ability to remain undetected would largely define whether she finished this night a success or a failure.  (Or alive.  Or dead.)

Armed only with Joseph's wand now, she left the potions lab.  The corridor beyond was still quiet; outside of normal working hours it only tended to get busy at shift-change.  She crept back to the stairwell, still concentrating, still practising her silent footfall, still feeling vaguely ridiculous about it all.  Then she risked cracking the stairwell door, slid through when no sound intruded, and she crept down to the next level.

Hermione peered through the glass in the door, into the antechamber.  The Storekeep on duty was the same one who had brought her the ingredients for the Eve's Drops potion.  She watched him for a while at his desk.  She didn't really want to push open the door and arouse his suspicions: not while she still had plenty of time in hand.

After a few minutes she heard a noise from the stairwell above her.  She unsheathed Joseph's wand, just in case, and found an unobtrusive corner where she made herself as small as possible.  Moments later a Mediwizard who was humming a Celestina Warbeck song appeared on the landing.  He pushed open the door to the antechamber.  Hermione followed as swiftly as she could.

"Evening, Tobes!" the Mediwizard greeted the Storekeep.

"Evening, Graham.  What's it to be?"

"Crate of Wiggenweld and a dozen Blood Replenishers, please."

"Coming right up."  The Storekeep wrote something on a clipboard and then pushed it towards the Mediwizard, who tapped it with his wand.  Then the Storekeep was away through the enchanted arch and Graham the Mediwizard turned to the notice board that was mounted adjacent to the stairwell door, idly perusing the posters and adverts, still humming his irritating song.

This seemed as good a time as any to find out whether the long-term storage level was going to throw a wobbler when she tried to gain access using someone else's wand.  Hermione crept over to the archway, checked that the Mediwizard's back was turned, held Joseph's wand out to the enchanted tablet at the apex of the arch and then stepped through.

Nothing happened.  No alarm, no flashing lights, no nothing.  Hermione didn't even feel the shiver of magic upon her.  She almost felt like touching the archway and whispering a thank-you.

Joseph had drawn her a map of the long-term storage level, or at least the part of it that she needed to navigate.  She'd memorised it, since it was much easier to do that than to mess around with a piece of paper under the cloak.  Hermione pictured the map in her mind and set off.

First junction: side passages left and right for storage rooms alpha and beta, where the most common potions and ingredients were housed.  She glanced to the side to see the Storekeep busy through an open door at the end of the passage.  She went straight on.

Ignore the next left as that led to most of the fungal habitats.  Straight on at the next crossroads.  Take the next right, and right again.  Now the doors and junctions were coming thick and fast.  She was in the part of the level where most of the fauna was cultivated.  Hermione counted doorways, hoping to high heaven that Joseph's memory had served him well when he'd produced his diagram.

She stopped outside an ordinary looking door: wood-panelled, with a brass handle and push plate.  It looked like it might lead into a formal office or dusty records room.  Hermione glanced around the narrow corridor she was in, then – taking a deep breath – she pushed open the door.

The wind hit her like a slap in the face, as did, moments later, the smell of salt and rotting seaweed.  It was dark within; the pretend-sun had gone down more than an hour ago and the moon was not yet up.  She glanced back at the reassuring lights of the storage level's corridor before she braced against the weather and forced herself into the habitat.  She closed the door and then blinked at the way that an ordinary looking door with classic brass furniture was now set into the side of a cliff.

She wrapped Harry's cloak more firmly around herself.  This would not be a good time to lose it to a grabby gust of wind.

After a few moments she got used to the cooler temperature and the briskness, though the noise of the wind and the distant waves remained a distraction.  Her eyes grew accustomed to the dimness; the evening dark was not absolute.  She took a step away from the door and then stopped and looked down.  The tiled floor of the sub-level corridors had given way to a patch of smooth, damp sand: the sort of surface very much prone to leaving footprints.

"Bugger," she whispered.

If she walked straight over to the rock pools nearby, her passage would be obvious.  And what would Snape do, when he came through the cliff door to collect his haliwinkles and saw an embarrassingly obvious set of size six footprints?  If she was very lucky then he'd decide that this was not such a good night to go winkle-picking.  If she was not, he'd locate her and make excellent use of the simulated bit of sea nearby: the one easily big enough to hide a body in.

Or would he?  Would he hurt her?  Not so long ago she'd been sure he would not.  Even when Severus Snape had been at his most cruel and malicious at Hogwarts, he'd still thrown his own body between her and a werewolf...

She couldn't believe in that Snape anymore, though.  Too much had changed.

There was no longer any point dwelling on the past.  Nor on the disintegrating present, come to that.  All that was important, right now, was finding a route to a hiding place: somewhere that would not betray her presence; somewhere she could wait for the moon to rise.  She lifted Joseph's wand and risked a Lumos, then checked the nearby terrain.  To her left, about three metres away, there was a tumble of boulders that formed a rugged but direct path down to the rock pools.  Once she was there, the sand gave way to shingle; she could walk on that more safely.  So she just needed to get across the sand to those rocks.

Severus Snape could fly without a broom.  Hermione had always hated flying, but this was one of those occasions where she could see the usefulness of it.  She could probably manage a cushioning charm that would take her weight, but renewing it every step would be slow-going and would drain her energy.  Given that she was wielding someone else's wand and it was her only source of light, any kind of complex spellwork was out of the question anyway.

The only solution was the simple one.  She jumped.  She jumped again.  She made it to the lowest boulder and turned back to the patch of sand she had just navigated.

Hello there, Hermione-sized footprints.

She cancelled the Lumos and cast the sweeping charm Molly had taught her.  The footprints were scuffed out, and though the sand now looked far from untouched it was close enough to the door and the cliff edge not to betray her.

She lit Joseph's wand again and began to scramble along the boulder pile.  The lack of grip on her shoes along with the coating of sand on the soles and the big billowy cloak she was wearing made the going precarious.  She slipped once, stifled a cry of alarm, caught herself at the expense of a sharp pain and then kept going.  Once she'd made it to the first rock pool she checked the damage: she had grazed the heel of her left hand.  There wasn't much she could do about that; she didn't have her usual bag of supplies with her.

The rock pool was not home to any haliwinkles.  A couple of small crabs ponderously traversed the seaweed-clogged interior, and a starfish wiggled an arm.  Hermione sighed at them and then looked further down the beach.  She could get down to the shingle just to her left.  The crunch she was going to make was unfortunate, though; it wouldn't let her follow Snape in any kind of covert way once he arrived to do his thieving.  She looked around at the dimly lit rocks and sand, her cloak whipped this way and that by the wind, the smell of the sea in her nostrils, the graze on her hand stinging almost as much as the place on her collarbone where her untreated wound was beginning to pry apart beneath the dressing she had applied.

Where were the fucking snails?  That would surely be the place to start.

Hermione checked her watch.  It was coming up on twenty past eight.  She had less than an hour before the moon rose.

~~~

It took another twenty-five minutes before she saw her first haliwinkle.  She'd spent ten of those minutes trying to find routes across the terrain: routes that would not leave evidence of her passage and would not be noisy as hell if she needed to move fast.  (There weren't any.)  With time beginning to march on – though admittedly, Snape could come and take the haliwinkles at any point while the moon was overhead, up to and including about four o'clock in the morning – Hermione had given up and begun to clump across the shingle, examining rock pools and then moving over towards the sloping rocks nearer the breaking waves.

And then, finally, it could be said that it was the haliwinkles that found Hermione.  Scrambling over a rock, her Lumos blinked out.  She froze, startled by the sudden darkness, before she remembered the way haliwinkles emitted a magic-deadening zone.  She let her vision adjust to the dimness and then she crouched down and began to search.

The rock sloped down to jut into the sea.  The clusters of spiral shells she found were densely packed and interspersed with patches of greenery.  Hermione found a precarious perch at the top of the slope, the spray from the waves below her turning her super-sneaky cotton clothing into something that felt heavy and cumbersome with damp.  An idea struck; she peeked out from the hood of the cloak and checked the rest of her body, but it remained hidden.  It would seem that permanently enchanted items like Harry's cloak were immune to the snails' dead-zone.

She covered up again, then edged down and lifted one of the haliwinkles up, detaching it from its grip on the rock with a gentle tug.

"Hello," she murmured to the tiny snail in its shell.  "I'm going to a lot of trouble for you.  Hope you appreciate it."

She set the snail back down and looked at the horizon.  The light-haze preceding the moon's rise was visible now: this habitat must be charmed to face east.  She wondered how long she could stay crouching here before her legs began to ache.  Not long enough; there were still twenty minutes to wait.  And to get at these snails, Snape would come right here to this very rock.  Invisibility cloak or no, there was little room to hide.

She needed to find a place.  She needed somewhere she could watch this rock and still be able to follow Snape out when he was done.  Far enough away that Joseph's wand would work, too.  Just in case.

Hermione looked around, hoping for an idea–

Behind her, like a crack of gunfire, someone clapped their hands.

Hermione squealed in shock, slipped on the wet surface, and for the second time in barely more than a week she tumbled from a rock into shockingly cold water.  This time, however, the depth was shallow.  Drowning wasn't an immediate issue, though the impact as she landed on her back in the uneven shingle beneath the rushing waves knocked the breath out of her.  She lay there for a moment, prone, unsure what damage she'd done to herself.  Shocked, wet, cold and frightened, looking wildly up at the rock she'd just been crouching upon.

She saw the air blur, which made her reflexes kick in.  Under attack!  Protect yourself!  She lifted her hand to cast, but her hand was empty.  She'd dropped Joseph's wand as she'd fallen; it was either on the rock or lost to the waves.  Either way, it could offer no help against the dark-eyed wizard who appeared out of nowhere, Disillusionment falling away as he stepped closer to the magic-deadening haliwinkles.

'He can't cast,' the sensible part of her mind tried to point out over the panic.  'Not while he's standing there.  Don't give him a reason to move.'

"I must say, Miss Granger," Severus Snape called over the noise of the waves.  "Invisibility cloaks are all well and good, but they lose their usefulness when you insist on going around talking to yourself."  His coat and hair flared dramatically in the wind.  He was tall, composed, commanding, dry: everything Hermione was not.

Hermione drew breath and immediately inhaled brine.  She coughed hard for a few seconds.  The graze on her hand and the splitting wound at her collarbone had reacted with the seawater and burned painfully.  A wave lifted her and then dragged her back, making her tip this way and that.  She had never felt more out of control.

"I was talking to the snail!" she managed to yell at him.

Snape favoured that comment with the kind of look it probably deserved, then he reached down and picked something up: Joseph's wand.  "Montague's, I take it," he said mildly as he examined it.

"If you must know, yes."  She blew out the water that washed over her face, then felt a surge of dread.  "And-and if you hurt his mother then I'll..."  She wasn't sure how to finish that sentence, because she was getting buffeted by rushing waves and the cold was making her shiver.  The invisibility cloak had twisted and wrapped her left arm and shoulder but the rest of her was visible as she flailed in the surf.

And damn it, she was still frightened but she was angry too, and disappointed, so very, very disappointed.  Because Gloria had been right; she'd been absolutely spot on.  There'd been a tiny part of Hermione that had wanted to believe that it was all a misunderstanding, that Severus Snape was not the thief at all.  Now she'd lost that glimmer of hope.

She struggled to her feet and tried to sort out the cloak, ignoring the lazy way Snape levelled his wand at her.  She was soaking wet, so she stomped through the waves to the nearest flat bit of shingle and then realised she couldn't even manage a Tergeo, since it was not a spell she could cast wandlessly and Snape had a hold of the only wand she could currently claim.  Her clothing felt weighty and uncomfortable; her body shivered.

Snape watched her with a cold, callous gaze.  He glanced down at the haliwinkles, then moved back along the rock to a place where he could jump down to the shingle.  He walked over to her.  The urge to turn and run was intense, but he was several metres away from the sea snails and could cast again now; she knew she would barely manage three steps before he cursed her into oblivion.

Snape only stopped walking when he was close enough to reach out and touch her.  It took all her effort not to go stumbling backwards.  His gaze piercing, he leaned in and said, as quietly as the conditions allowed:

"Then you'll what, Miss Granger?"

"What?"

"If I hurt Montague's mother, then...?  Do, please, finish your threat.  I could use a laugh."

Hermione just looked back at him.  She tried to remember Boggle-filled afternoons at the hospital.  She thought about the look on his face, the first time she'd brought him a decent espresso.  She recalled dreams of velvet touches and that silken voice.

All a lie.  She'd fooled only herself.

"Who are you?" she said helplessly.

His disdain was scathing.  "Are you now pleading insanity?"

"Why?"  Anger rose within her.  "For wanting to stop a terrible thing from happening?  Just because I'm bad at this doesn't mean I shouldn't have tried!"

"Oh, so you've decided you're on the side of the angels, have you?  That must be quite some justification."

"Why do I have to justify giving a shit about you?" she demanded.  With this rising anger her inhibitions were flying free in the wind, right along with the tails of Harry's cloak and the strands of her soaking wet hair.  "Why?  I don't even care about the snails, you stupid man!  I mean, I do, because that recipe is...but it isn't the worst thing!  You couldn't make yourself trust me, could you?  Whatever the problem is, there's got to be a better way of dealing with it than those horrible potions!  Don't you get it?  I'd have helped!  And it didn't even occur to you to ask, did it?"  She swiped at the water on her face, not sure if it was tears or seawater.  "So go ahead.  Hex me into next week, then grab your snails and do your dastardly deeds!  After two weeks of absolute hell I've finally gone beyond caring!"  She spread her arms and offered herself as a target.  "Do it!  Just fucking finish this!"

Snape stared at her for what felt like a long time.  He frowned.  Then he shook his head.  Then he frowned harder.

"What?" she yelled at him, running on empty, keeping herself upright only thanks to equal measures of fear and anger and grief.

"You're lying," he said.  He didn't sound sure, which was strange, even in the middle of this windswept confrontation, because Severus Snape never sounded unsure.

"About what?  Wanting to help?  It's a bit late now.  Just get on with it!"

Snape blinked.  Spray from the waves had made his eyelashes dark.  For a moment he looked torn, angry and confused, then he whipped his wand into view and cast.  Hermione flinched, but it was unnecessary.  Her clothing and hair dried instantly.  He'd only cast Tergeo.

"Nice of you," she tried to sneer, because all she had left was bravado.  "Bit redundant, though.  Drying me off before sending me to a watery grave?"

"Damn it, would you please stop demanding that I kill you!" Snape fumed.  "It is not remotely helpful."

"Oh, now you want me to be helpful, do you?  Great!  Here's an idea.  Don't brew potions that turn people into psychos and squibs!"

His expression darkened.  "So help me, Hermione, if this is some double-play–"

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

She was fed up with waiting for the hostile spell that would finish her, so she decided to at least face the rest of this showdown without an invisibility cloak twisted around her neck and threatening strangulation.  She found the bunched up material and sorted it out with a few tugs.  The waves began to rush over her feet as she did so, and she staggered further up the beach.

And in the distance, a rectangle of soft light appeared in the cliff face and the silhouette of a man emerged from its centre.  She was so surprised that she just stood there, blinking, wondering if she was going mad.

"Bollocks," Snape growled behind her.  She felt an arm pull her roughly against him and his other wrapped around her shoulders.  His hand found her mouth and covered it before she could yelp her protest.  In a rush of panic, Hermione realised that her feet had left the shingle.  She was being carried through the night air, just over the surface of the breaking waves, hidden from the distant doorway by the cover of the rocks.  It was only a few seconds later that Snape deposited them both on a wide ledge high up in the cliff, overlooking the haliwinkle colony.

As soon as his flying spell was released, he let go of her mouth.  Below her, the rocky beach looked a long way down.  She caught her breath in gulps.  The calming draught she'd taken did not seem to be working anymore.  She considered yelling for help, trying to attract the attention of the newcomer, but knew that the sound of the wind and the sea would drown out her voice.  They were wreathed in shadow up here against the dark rocks.  Hermione wondered whether Snape had been here all the time, right from the moment she'd set foot in the habitat.  She decided he probably had, watching, waiting.  Sneering.

Snape Disillusioned them both, just like in the DADA lesson.  He kept one arm around her, holding her against him like he was worried she'd go throwing herself off the ledge.  After so many fantasies of Severus Snape's body close to hers, Hermione could only acknowledge that context was everything.  This half-embrace was not sexy in the remotest way.

"I don't–...I'm–...what are you doing?" she gasped.  Her heart hammered out an allegro beat.

"Shut up," he murmured back.  "Watch."

Since she didn't have much choice, she watched.  The newcomer wandered further into the habitat.  He held up his wand, lit with a powerful Lumos, and didn't care about leaving footprints in the sand.  He made straight for the sloping rock where the haliwinkles clustered.  Hermione knew when he reached the place because his Lumos blinked out.  He stood there and looked at the night sky.  Peeping just beyond the horizon was a sliver of the rising full moon.

The man proceeded to set out a box, a sort of trowel-shaped object and a large towel or blanket.  He sat down on the towel and checked his wristwatch.

Oh.

Hermione finally emerged from fight-or-flight mode, enough to process these rather obvious clues.  For the briefest of instants she felt a powerful rush of abject mortification, before her brain decided to divert that feeling into some kind of emotional holding-area for later attention.  Right here, right now, on this cliff ledge, guilt and blame and confusion and explanations were not a priority.

She felt her body let go of its tension.  Her breathing and her heart rate began to settle.  Snape loosened his grip as he sensed her relaxing.  In the blink of an eye, that arm around her stopped being restrictive and became reassuring.

She found herself breathing a slightly hysterical laugh.  Then she remembered the edge of the cliff ledge she currently occupied, and how worryingly close it was.  She pressed backwards, leaning against Snape, almost dizzy with sensation as relief and a much-missed sense of trust swept over her.

She watched the man down on haliwinkle-rock.  When the round moon had emerged in full from the horizon he eased himself up from his towel and began to pick snails from the surface of the rock, depositing each one in his box.  Hermione counted them in.  The recipe for De Morte Magicae called for eleven.  He collected fifteen.

The man packed up and stowed his kit in a satchel-style bag.  He looked around for a moment, then he hopped down from the rock and strode back up towards the door in the distant cliff-face.  As soon as she saw the door open and the man step through, she turned around on that narrow ledge.  Snape's Disillusionment charm fell away.

"It wasn't you," Hermione said.

"No," he replied.

"You're not the thief."

"Obviously not."

"Oh thank god," she gushed, as it all caught up with her.  "Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou."  She couldn't help herself.  She grabbed his lapels, hauled him close and pressed a firm kiss on his mouth.

He didn't respond.  She pulled away and opened her eyes.  Snape was frowning.

"Is this really the time and the place?" he asked, and glanced over towards the distant door in the cliff face.

"Sorry."  But in the wake of that surge of grateful relief, ideas were beginning to tumble into place. "Hang on," she said.  "If you aren't here to steal haliwinkles then wh–"

"Later."  He arched a brow.  "Or shall we let him get away?"

"Right!  We have to follow him."

"I will follow him," he replied sternly.  "You will go home."

"Bugger off."

"Hermione–"  Snape met her defiant eyes, but it seemed that whatever rage had been in him these last weeks was already gone.  He shook his head.  "Very well.  Hold on."

"For the record, I don't like flying."

"Stay here, then."

"I didn't m–"

Snape gave an eye-roll as he interrupted, "Just close your eyes and shut up."

His voice was impatient, but Hermione noticed that he didn't object to the way she dropped her forehead against his shoulder when their feet left the ledge.

~~~

Snape handed her Joseph's wand as soon as they were out of the habitat and into the corridor.  A pair of swift Tergeos removed sand and seawater from their footwear.  Snape declined sharing the cloak, probably because it would turn their mutual passage into something of a three-legged race.  He Disillusioned, she wrapped up, and they hurried along after snail-man.

They were holding hands through the enchanted fabric of the cloak.  Obviously they were doing this to keep a track of each other.

They caught up with snail-man when they reached the antechamber.  He had paused to exchange a word with 'Tobes' the Storekeep, thereby proving that he was also a staff member.  He seemed relaxed and confident.  Hermione and Snape paused just inside the antechamber, then edged around the perimeter of the room while the two wizards chatted.

Hermione realised she knew snail-man's voice.  It was the same one she'd heard through Snape's amplification charm, in conversation with Joseph Montague.  In fact, she recalled Gloria telling her that one of Joseph's friends had been a no-show at the Leaky on the evening they'd planned to meet up.  And hadn't the tormentil been stolen that weekend?  That had to have happened late on Sunday, since Joseph had only noticed on the Monday morning.

It seemed so obvious, now she thought about it.  Three other people had known where Joseph Montague, self-appointed protector of the long-term storage level, was going to be at seven o'clock on that Sunday evening.  Only one of them had been keen to use Joseph's absence to snatch some potions ingredients.  She'd been so distracted by Snape's encounter with Joseph that she'd failed to pay attention to the events occurring simultaneously at the hospital.

A better investigator would have put those clues together days ago.  In any case, it would seem that the thief was none other than Joseph Montague's drinking buddy.

"Oh, by the way," snail-man said to the Storekeep.  "Seen Joseph?"

"Not today.  Think he'd gone home by the time my shift started."

"Huh."

"Why?"

"Thought I saw his wand was active."

"What, right now?"

"About half an hour ago, when I checked."

The Storekeep shook his head.  "No sign of him out here.  No one's been down since Graham came on a potions-run from Creatures."

Snail-man shook his head.  "Must have misread the records."  He sniffed.  "See you, then.  Hope it isn't a long night."

"How could it be when I have all this fun stock-taking to do?" the Storekeep said.  "Night, Gus."

Snail-man, now better known as 'Gus' went to the door into the stairwell.  Hermione and Snape followed him to the stairs, then up to sub-level one.  Hermione wondered whether Gus was much of a potion brewer, or whether he'd be taking his illicit stash of haliwinkles to someone else.  Annoyingly, her wand was still in the potions lab and she very much wanted to pick it up.

Gus went all the way along the passage to the male changing rooms.  He opened the door.  Hermione pulled her hand from Snape's; he seemed to be under the impression that she balked at intruding on a private male space because she heard the tiniest of exasperated huffs before Snape slipped inside the closing doorway.

Hermione speed-walked back to the potions lab, paying rather less attention to her footstep fluidity than when last she'd been here.  She entered the room, dashed over to the blackboard, grabbed her wand and immediately felt better.  Walking away from it earlier had been an unfathomably difficult thing to do.

She tucked Joseph's wand safely into her arm-sheath and kept a hold of her own wand.  The graze on her hand drew her attention, but it was no longer bleeding so she decided to ignore it.  She hesitated and then lifted up her sweatshirt to peer down at the dressing she had pressed over her cursed wound.  The sides were peeling thanks to that dunking in the sea.  She scowled at it, tried to press it back into place, scowled harder when it failed to stick at the top and flopped down to dangle from the one tiny spot where it remained sticky enough to cling.  She tutted and ripped it off, took it round to the disposal hatch and chucked the damn thing.  If the wound was going to bleed all over her top, so be it.  At least she was wearing black.

She checked the cloak was in place and then left the lab to return to the door to the male changing rooms.  After only a minute or so the doorway was pulled open and Gus emerged, still carrying his satchel, this time with a charcoal-grey topcoat of rather fine wool over his clothing, surprisingly Muggle-like.  Hermione watched the closing door for a shimmer of heat-haze, swept a tentative invisible arm at the gap, wondered about whispering 'Severus?' and decided against.  This was too important.  She couldn't lose Gus now; she needed to know where he was taking those snails.  Priority number one had to be finding out who the hell it was they had to stop.

Gus walked back to the stairwell, ignoring the potions lab, and went through the door.  Behind him, Hermione tried to keep the stairwell door open for a few more seconds in case Snape was trying to catch up before giving up and following Gus upstairs to the reception.  The Welcome Witch who'd been startled by Hermione's invisible arrival earlier offered the man a cheerful good-night wave.  Gus went to the main door that would deposit him outside on New Oxford Street.

What could she do, but follow?  It seemed it was all up to her, now.

~~~

It was late in the evening.  The shoppers – tourists, mainly – who had cluttered Oxford and Regent Streets during the afternoon had long since gone home, but truckloads of office workers had made their way here to enjoy the pubs and the nightlife.

At least they were in the middle of that slight lull before kicking-out-time came along at eleven.  Hermione was able to keep Gus's woollen coat and close-cropped dark hair in view as he made his way along the pavement, apparently heading for Tottenham Court Road.

Damn it, what the hell had happened to Snape?  It was hard to imagine Gus the snail-man somehow managing to get the better of him.  Perhaps if the presence of the haliwinkles had disrupted Snape's casting, though...

She shook her head.  As much as she wanted to rush back to the hospital and check the changing rooms, her priority had to be the snails.  With that box of haliwinkles, Gus – or his buyer – could do immeasurable harm.

Gus looked around before disappearing down the steps into the tube station.  Hermione almost forgot herself, shrouded as she was in Harry's invisibility cloak, as she stared after him.  She could count on one hand the number of wizards and witches she knew who were comfortable using Muggle public transport.  She could only guess that Gus was either Muggle-born or very well briefed.  (And, looking at that coat he was wearing, well paid.)  In any case, if he had some distance to go then public transport was his only option.  He couldn't Apparate or Floo while he carried those magic-deadening haliwinkles in his satchel.

She gave an invisible shrug and went down the steps after him.

Gus had what looked like a one-day travel card ready.  He fed the ticket into the barrier and strolled through like he'd done so a hundred times.  Hermione had no such ticket, nor did she have the time to stop and purchase one.  She looked to the side of the barriers, where a guard stood next to the larger door which accommodated people with luggage.  The glass door stood open as the guard chatted with a cleaner.  She thanked her good fortune and nipped through.

Busy underground stations were not a good place to try to remain undetected beneath a cloak of invisibility.  But what could she do?  If she found a place to rip her cloak off then she was just a passenger on the tube without a ticket.  And if she lost Gus, then he'd deliver this final ingredient for one of the most despicable potions she had ever encountered to whoever was psychotic enough to brew it.  She couldn't let that happen.

Descending to the tunnels, the stairs were not as busy as the escalators on either side, so she skipped down them, keeping Gus's head and shoulders in view.  He made for the Northern Line and chose the northbound platform.  The next train was due in only a minute, and Hermione could already feel the warm, dusty rush of air that preceded its arrival.  Gus walked down the platform, finding a place clear of other travellers.  Hermione did her best to follow, ducking a shoulder here and swerving there.

He paused just before the train appeared, and looked over his shoulder.  He tried to do so casually but she knew he was searching for anyone following.  She was glad of her cloak then, as his eyes skipped over the place where she stood.  He gave a small, satisfied smile before he stepped up towards the nearest train doors as they trundled to a halt.

Hermione got on the train too.  She found a corner to stand in, away from other passengers.  Gus sat quietly, hugging his satchel to his chest, apparently in quite the reverie.  Hermione watched and wondered where they were going.

When the train drew in to Chalk Farm Gus disembarked.  This station wasn't nearly so busy as Tottenham Court Road had been; Hermione found the act of tailing easier.  As was common in the smaller tube stations of an evening, the larger barrier stood open, no guard present, though Gus fastidiously used the ticket-feed anyway.  He left the station and crossed the road, then took a left hand turn up a street called Bridge Approach.  The pedestrian bridge this street led to crossed several railway tracks.  Gus walked across.

There were few people around here, though a group had gathered outside a pub on the other side of the bridge.  Hermione was glad of her soft shoes.  She followed at a safe distance, keeping one eye on what was behind her as well as on Gus.

Just past the pub, Gus crossed the road and took a right turn.  Hermione noted the street name: Regent's Park Road.  She realised they had come back on themselves and were some way north of Regent's Park.  Primrose Hill, probably, though her north London geography wasn't as good as her south.

Gus walked along the road for a short way then stopped at a narrow gate: wrought iron, painted black, hung between square brick pillars.  He opened the gate in such a way that made it obvious he had been here before, then – annoyingly – he closed it behind himself and trotted up the path to a whitewashed Georgian terraced house beyond.

The gate had made quite the rusty-metal grind of protest when he'd used it.  Hermione knew she couldn't do the same.  A quick glance revealed a low brick wall that supported the gate's matching railings, however, and so she sheathed her wand alongside Joseph's and hefted herself up to stand on the top of the wall.  She peered down the pathway.  This close to central London, the evenings never got all that dark, so she could see the way Gus ignored the heavy front door of the terrace and turned instead to his left.  His head and shoulders remained visible for a moment behind a bit of shrubbery then dropped out of sight.

Basement flat, then.  And in a pricey area, too, this close to Regent's Park.  Was the place his, or his employer's?

Hermione looked at the spiky-topped railings, then at the nice, flat-topped pillar beside the gate.  She hoisted herself up so she was sitting on the pillar, swung her legs over the railings and then dropped down as quietly as she could.  Now she'd found where Gus was going, she wasn't really sure what to do.  Should she get back and report the location to MLE along with her suspicions about the hate potion and the De Morte Magicae?  Or should she hang on, see if she could peer inside, see if she recognised anyone else here?

She was wearing a magic cloak, wasn't she?  Another bit of undercover work was in order, she decided.  As a precaution, she unsheathed her wand again, just in case she needed to make a hasty exit.

She crept forward.  The small garden to the front of the property had been planted with various low-lying shrubs surrounding a large monkey-puzzle tree.  She picked her way over to the path, begging her own body to refrain from indulging in another bout of clumsiness.

Hermione jumped when a light came on just below where she was standing.  It took her a moment to remember that she was not relying on darkness and shadow to conceal herself.  She inched forward to the railings that surrounded some concrete steps leading down to the basement flat entrance.  The front door had no glass panels in it, but a window looked out on to the less-than-appealing steps and dustbin-area.  The electric light was on in the room beyond.  Hermione hunkered down to try to see inside.  She couldn't quite get the angle, so she risked a few steps down and tried again.

Gus was in there, on his own.  Did that mean he was waiting for someone to meet him?  Was this his place, and his buyer was coming here?  She looked over her shoulder nervously, then she moved further down the steps and tried to get a handle on what Gus was doing.

He was...he was on the phone.  On the bloody telephone.  Telling his buyer that yes, he'd got the magic snails?  Why would a wizard who wanted to brew a powerful potion talk to his supplier on the phone?  Hermione could name a dozen witches and wizards off the top of her head who wouldn't even know what a telephone was.

What the hell was going on?

Gus was nodding away, animated.  In his free hand he lifted something to look more closely at it: something leaflet-shaped.  A take-away menu?  Because it looked like a take-away menu.  Was being a psychotic maniac truly such hungry work?

So what should she do now?  Try to break in?  Wait to see who else arrived, or if there was someone else already in the flat?  Give it up and take her report to the Montagues, and let them sort it out from here?  Go straight to Shacklebolt or maybe Jasmine Churlish, lay it all out for them, see what they thought?

Find Severus Snape?

God, she wanted to find Snape.  What the hell had happened at the hospital to separate them?  It wasn't right that she was here on her own, not so soon after they'd found each other again.  Mind you, she still wanted to know what he'd been doing in the coastal habitat, being all tall and scary and threatening for those few frantic minutes before–

Behind her, the gate groaned.  Hermione gasped and turned to skip up the steps.  Her earlier begging seemed to have paid off, because Harry's cloak decided on this one occasion not to twist itself around her legs or get caught under a heel.  She made it clear of the steps before the newcomer arrived, and she found a place to stand, holding her breath, as a man approached.

He was of barely average height, with dark hair and brooding good looks marred by a prominent scar over his left eye.

Poster-boy.  Or as Harry had called him, 'Scarface'.

Hermione watched with an open mouth as he went down the steps.  It would seem that her two big projects of the last few weeks were connected after all.  She heard rather than saw the man bang on the flat's front door.  The door was answered.  Low voices.  She wanted to edge closer, but she was worried about giving her presence away.  Gus had struck her as a hired hand, nothing much to be scared of, but the man with the scar had proved his care and meticulous planning.  He was the one in charge here.

A voice, slightly accented, grew louder, apparently in anger.  "No, Boris stays at the Ministry – she might go back there.  But it has to be tonight.  If we need to force him then it's your wand."

Hermione blinked as she tried to make sense of this information.  Moments later, the door slammed on the two men.

Damn it, what should she do?  What could she do?

Her indecision was rendered moot a moment later.  Her wand lit up beneath Harry's cloak with a strong yellow flare, and it began to vibrate with a buzz of alarm.  It took her a moment of wide-eyed staring before she remembered what this meant.

Her parents were in trouble.

~~~