"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina 1875
Hermione's first thought was to Apparate to Banstead.
Her second thought was that the men in the basement flat, one of whom had opened the door and was now shouting up the steps demanding to know who was there, might be about to brew that horrific potion.
Her third thought was that someone needed to stop them: someone who wouldn't ask her to sit down and take the time to explain. Someone who'd do what she asked, no questions, no delays.
Someone who'd do anything in the world to help her.
So she Apparated to Islington and raced around to the front door of Grimmauld Place. Trying so hard to be fast hampered her every move; she struggled to fit her key in the lock. She was becoming increasingly panicked. How long had her wand been flaring yellow? Maybe twenty seconds?
Her key finally turned and she flung herself through the front door. "Harry!" she yelled.
Pounding footsteps, coming up from the kitchen. Harry appeared, looked around, looked confused. Hermione remembered the cloak. She yanked the hood back. He yelped. Ron appeared behind him.
She didn't let either of them speak. "Two hundred and three, Regent's Park Road," she said. "The basement flat. Say it!"
Harry didn't hesitate. "Two hundred and three, Regent's Park Road. Basement."
"Get there as soon as. There's a man called Gus who works at St Mungo's, and there's the man from the posters. Keep an eye on them. Don't be seen. I think they're dangerous. They're about to–"
She stopped. Arriving behind Harry and Ron was Severus Snape, wearing the kind of annoyed expression that Hermione had come to recognise he wore only when he was worried. His appearance here, in her home – a place where she was not used to seeing him – threw her.
"Damn it, I haven't got time for this!" she cried. She pushed her right arm out of the cloak and brandished her flaring wand at Harry.
Harry's eyes widened. His mouth fell open.
"Shit!" Ron said. "Someone's at your mum and dad's!"
"I've got to go!" Hermione looked at the three of them in turn, begging someone to make the decision she could not.
Snape pushed past Harry and Ron. He took one look at Hermione's frantic face and then spun back. "Potter, contact the MLE Patrol desk and report a sighting of their wanted man at the address Hermione just gave you."
"They'll scarper!" Hermione protested. "If they see Aurors then they'll disappear and we'll lose them!"
"Doesn't matter," Snape said. "I've got the haliwinkles."
Ron snorted a laugh, immediately followed by, "Sorry. Sounded funny."
Harry said, "Ron, with me." He turned to Hermione. "We'll get it done. Patronus me if you need us in Banstead. Snape..."
"Thank you, Potter, but I don't need direction from you." Snape grabbed Hermione's disembodied hand, wand and all, and pulled her out of the house. He Disillusioned them both as he did so. "Where do you Apparate?"
"Um – round here." She tugged him around to the side alley. "I'll have to Side-Along you."
"I know. Which is why you're going to take three deep breaths first."
He dropped the Disillusionment, pulled her in close. Hermione breathed deep, in through her nose, out through her mouth. For a handful of suspended seconds, all she could see was Severus Snape's dark eyes studying her own.
On her third exhale, she nodded. "Hold tight," she whispered, and moved them across Greater London to Banstead.
The rear outside lights came on as they arrived. At the same moment, Hermione's wand coughed up a red flare. She was on the verge of racing for the house when she recalled that Severus Snape was with her and he owned a wand she had not yet defined as 'safe'.
"I need your wand," she said.
"So my security system knows you're a friend." But even as she said it, she realised she was being an idiot. Severus Snape was not the kind of man who simply relinquished his–
"Very well," he said, and presented his wand across the open palm of his hand.
"Um – it's okay, you can hang on to it." Hermione shook off the surprise and turned away to cast with her own wand. She cancelled the alarm, then she cast the charm she'd so far used only for Harry and Ron, then she touched the tip of her wand to Snape's. A tiny surge of magic acknowledged that the charm had worked. She nodded, then cast again, this time resetting the alarm system. As soon as she had, her wand flared back into life.
The alarm was still red. She looked frantically at the house, preparing to run.
"You're currently holding two wands," Snape reminded her.
Damn it, she'd forgotten about Joseph's wand, strapped in her arm-sheath. She hastily drew it out and handed it off to Snape in order to repeat the process. When she was done, she tucked Joseph's wand away, then she reset the alarm system once again.
Her wand flared yellow. There was still time. She looked at her own disembodied arm and unwrapped the invisibility cloak from her body. There was no need to terrify her parents more than necessary.
A noise drew her attention to the house. "Hermione?" Her father stood at the open patio doors, looking out into the back garden. He was in his dressing gown. "Is that you?"
Hermione had lost track of time since she'd found herself trailing Gus through the tube system. She glanced at her watch. It was nearly half past ten: earlier than she'd have guessed. "It's me," she called back. She cancelled the vibration on her wand but left the flare in place. "I've got someone with me."
"Right you are," her dad said. "Um – problem?"
She led Snape across the lawn and up the steps to the patio. As she went, she murmured, "I try not to cast in the house unless it's absolutely necessary. Electronics. But if someone's here to hurt my parents, feel free to blow the telly up if you need to."
Snape grunted his understanding. As they walked, he turned around, scanning the surroundings, watching the rooflines, searching the sky.
She tried to smile reassuringly at her father. "There's an unrecognised wand nearby," she explained. "Remember my spell?"
"Of course. Should we be worried?"
"Not yet. Might be a coincidence. Where's Mum?"
"Upstairs in the bath."
"Go and get her, get yourselves dressed and stay in the bedroom near your Portkeys." Her father nodded, then looked at Snape. "Oh – um, this is Severus. He's here to help."
"Right, then. Um, thank you. I'll – I'll go and get your mother." Her father retreated across the sitting room and disappeared out into the hall.
Hermione went inside and turned the lights off, then opened the blinds so she could see out to the front of the house. She peered into the dimly lit cul-de-sac. Nothing was moving. She went back to the patio doors, closed them up tight. The lights were still on in the back garden; she didn't know how long it would be before they timed themselves off again. Snape, meanwhile, had moved out into the hall. She assumed he was getting the lay of the land.
Half a minute or so passed as she watched from the window, one eye on the flare from her wand, Harry's cloak still bundled up awkwardly over her left arm. Upstairs she heard her mother leave the bathroom for the bedroom, exchanging low, worried words with her dad. The door closed behind them.
"What's wrong with your shoulder?" Snape asked.
She startled. She hadn't heard him come back in to the sitting room. Then she looked down at where she'd been pressing against the throb of her cursed wound. "Oh. Nothing new. Just missed my appointment earlier."
He huffed understanding. There was a pause. He went to the patio doors and checked the back garden, then returned. "Will the alarm stop if the wand moves away?" he asked.
"Yes. Otherwise it's yellow for three hundred metres. Red for one hundred."
"Metres?" he asked with a raised brow. The magical world hadn't yet moved on from imperial measurements, of course. Hermione tended to mix and match the systems she used, depending on where she was and whom she was speaking to.
"Easiest scale to use on a modern OS map," she explained.
"Does the spell inform how many wands approach?"
"No. It won't distinguish between wands unless I charm them as friendly."
"So there could be one, or many."
He nodded understanding. "How did you design the spell?"
She grimaced. "Necessity. Mother of invention."
Her wand flared red.
"Oh god," she whispered. A deep breath. "Right then. 'Scuse me." She walked past him and called up the stairs. "Mum, Dad, we've got incoming." The upstairs bedroom door opened and her father appeared, still doing up his shirt buttons. "Might be hostile, might not. Stay up there. Try to keep the bed between yourself and the window, and stay low down, just in case. The second you hear anything scary, use the Portkeys. We'll come to find you at the Burrow when it's all clear."
"What about you?" her father demanded. His face was tense with conflict: a father's need to protect versus an intelligent man's awareness that he could not. "Sweetheart–"
"I'm far from helpless, Dad," she told him, shoulders back, chin up. "And I'm not alone."
Snape moved past her and went three steps up the staircase. "Your daughter will come to no harm this night, Mr Granger," he said calmly. He turned his back so he could face the front door, wand readied.
"Please, Dad. Do as I say. Later on you can mock me for being a bossy-boots."
Her father tried to smile for her, nodded, then closed the bedroom door again. Hermione heard her mother's muffled voice raised in distress. She did her best to shut out the sound and looked at Snape, at the way he had positioned himself as the last line of defence between whoever was coming and her parents. Something tightened in her throat that was partly gratitude and partly shame. Not so very long ago she'd been quite convinced that this man was capable of genuine evil.
Snape glanced her way, saw her looking, frowned at the attention.
"I've got some serious apologising to do, haven't I?" she said.
"Perhaps not right now," he suggested.
"Yes. Good point." She nodded. "Will you take the cloak? Whoever's coming might expect me here but they definitely won't expect you."
Snape reached down and took the bundle that she passed up. He shook the cloak out and wrapped it around himself. His reassuring presence disappeared from view.
Hermione turned to face the front door. She began to check herself for any of the warning symptoms that preceded a panic attack, then immediately forced herself to stop, knowing that the more she worried about such things, the more likely they were to appear. Her wand-hand was steady, at least. She wondered how this would start. A blasting curse? A broken window? A sneaky Alohomora? She bit her lip as the tension mounted. Outside, she could hear footsteps approaching. She cancelled the alarm flare, checked the door to the sitting room was shut and then cast her most powerful shield spell. Behind her she heard Snape do the same.
They were ready. Hermione visualised the body-bind curse's wandwork. It had worked for her in the past. She strained to listen, hoping for a clue regarding this attacker's hostile spell of choice.
A moment of heavy silence...
...and then the doorbell rang.
It took her a moment to process what it meant. She'd been expecting drama and violence, not absolute mudanity. She moved cautiously to the front door and leaned in to look through the spy-hole. In the darkness beyond she could see only a single figure: a woman, she thought. She raised her wand, switched on the hallway light and then positioned her body behind the door as she pulled it open.
The woman who stood on the doorstep was possessed of the kind of beauty that diminished everything around her. Her skin was flawless, her proportions perfect, her symmetry exact. She was of Afro-Caribbean descent, and looked to be in her late forties. She wore a long, sweeping cloak; her wand was held ready in her hand.
As she registered Hermione's presence, her eyebrows lifted. "Miss Granger," the woman said in urgent tones. "Good. That will save time." She turned away and looked over her shoulder, scanning the cul-de-sac as though expecting a pursuer, then she turned back. "We need to get inside."
"Do we now?" Hermione said. The woman's anxiety was catching; Hermione found herself watching the road beyond the driveway for movement.
"Yes! I will explain, but not out here!" The woman looked like she was all but ready to surge past Hermione, good manners be damned. Instead she shot another nervous look over her shoulder.
Hermione considered. The woman had yet to introduce herself, but Hermione recognised her from a picture she'd seen two weeks ago in the Daily Prophet: Jossinia Trelore, Blaise Zabini's mother. The woman had no known association with Death Eaters, but she moved in pure-blood circles. She also had seven dead husbands and the kind of reputation professional widowhood earned you. When you considered the character traits you'd like in your house guests, such things did not come top of the list.
A car drove past the distant junction of the cul-de-sac, briefly illuminating the street with its headlights. Trelore gasped and turned around, wand levelled, then got her reactions back under control.
"Miss Granger, please! Time is very short!"
"Sheathe your wand," Hermione said. "Then you can come in."
Mrs Trelore's eyes widened in momentary anger, before her desire for shelter overwhelmed her desire to dismiss the Muggle-born teenager's request. She sleeved her wand and opened her arms in a gesture of peace. "I mean no one here any harm," she said.
Hermione stood aside and allowed Trelore through the front door. The woman tossed one more look over her shoulder, came inside and sighed relief when the door was closed.
"How did you get this address?" Hermione demanded, wand still to hand, shield spell still active. She had to work hard not to look at the place on the stairs where Snape watched and listened.
Trelore blinked at her as if confused by the question. "I...take it you know who I am?"
"You're Blaise's mother."
"I am." Trelore frowned. "You did hear me when I said time is short?"
"Then you'd better hurry up and tell me where you got this address."
Trelore sighed impatiently. "From Narcissa Malfoy. She is one of my oldest friends."
Hermione swallowed. This was not remotely reassuring. "A Malfoy sent you here. How the hell did she get this address?"
Trelore looked exasperated. "I did not come here to be interrogated, Miss Granger!" She reached into a pocket of her cloak, stopped when Hermione's wand was lifted warningly, then slowly drew out a piece of parchment. "Your parents' address is written on here. Narcissa gave it to me as an aide-mémoire." She passed it over.
Hermione scanned the parchment. Her parents' name and address was indeed written at the top. Beneath it, however, were a list of other addresses, many scratched out.
Suddenly she felt very, very cold.
"This is a copy of Dolohov's kill-list," she said dully.
"It's what?" Trelore sounded genuinely confused.
"This list. The original was found on the dead body of Antonin Dolohov, a senior Death Eater." She'd seen the list before. This one had to be the result of a duplication charm. She'd shown another copy to her parents in Australia, to convince them of the very real danger they'd been in before she'd altered their memories and sent them to safety. She'd returned that copy to MLE evidence once it had served its purpose. She'd never wanted to look at the damn thing again.
It was a sickening notion that duplications still existed, scattered around, in the hands of people with close associations to the Death Eaters.
"Narcissa Malfoy gave you this," Hermione pressed.
"Yes. She said that when I met with you, I should show it to you. It would explain how I'd tracked you down. What of it?"
"Congratulations. You've just been used to deliver a threat." Hermione glared at the woman, anger making her tremble more than fear could have done. "I mean, seriously? Did you even think? You come here late at night, after learning this address from the wife of a prominent Death Eater." She held up the list and pointed. "This is a list of Muggle families. The ones who had the audacity to produce a Muggle-born witch or wizard. See all these other addresses? The ones with the lines through them?" Hermione pushed the list closer, and Trelore flinched. "Those are dead people, Mrs Trelore." She dropped her hand to her side, still clutching that parchment, looking with fury at the startled woman. "And you brought this filthy piece of paper into my parents' home?"
"I...didn't realise," Trelore said.
"What did you think it was?"
"I did not ask! Nor did I care! Miss Granger, I appreciate that your family has known some difficulties in recent times, but I came here tonight seeking your assistance."
A pause. Hermione tried to get her anger under control.
"When you arrived, you were looking over your shoulder," she said. "Do you believe you were followed here?"
"I do not know. Maybe. I came from Normandy, via Wimborne and then the Knight Bus – I could have been seen. But if I was followed, the danger is to me."
"Right. Because there's no such thing as collateral damage." She sighed. "Why are you here, Mrs Trelore?"
"I am in some trouble. I need assistance. Narcissa suggested you were a good person to ask."
Hermione looked at the parchment in her hand, then thrust it back to Mrs Trelore. "Thank you, but I'm entirely aware of why Mrs Malfoy sent you here."
"Damn it, girl, I am not here to hurt you!" Trelore pocketed the list without looking at it. "Even if I wanted to, I don't have the time. Somebody tried to abduct me from my own home, earlier this evening. My son has been missing for six days, and I fear for his safety. I've been subjected to any number of attempted poisonings over the last two months, and my fiancé has received death threats. Is that enough to convince you? Why would I add to my problems by harassing the family of Hermione Granger, celebrated member of the Golden Trio and close personal friend of the Acting Minister himself?"
It was at this moment that Snape decided he was fed up with being an invisible spectator to the conversation. With an impatient huff he flicked the cloak back as far as his shoulders.
Trelore turned at the noise and gasped with shock at the sight of his disembodied head. She clasped a slender, manicured hand to her chest and caught her breath. "Severus Snape," she said.
"Madam," he acknowledged. He turned to Hermione. "I do not believe Mrs Trelore intends you or your parents harm."
"Dolohov's list!" Hermione pointed out.
"Is a very unpleasant piece of parchment, but it is still just parchment. I am more concerned about other nearby threats."
Hermione nodded. "Me too."
Snape moved down the stairs. He paused beside Trelore. "Madam, your wand."
"What?" Trelore said.
"Your wand. Miss Granger is entirely justified in feeling threatened and angry by the manner of your arrival. You will go some way towards reassuring her if you surrender your wand. Merely for the duration of your visit, of course."
Trelore's shoulders went back. "I am unaccustomed, sir, to being spo–"
"No doubt, Madam. Would you like me to spend a few minutes offering softer and more eloquent arguments? Or would you like me to go and check whether you were followed here?"
Trelore swallowed. Once again, her nerves outweighed her outrage. She unsleeved her wand and handed it off to Snape.
"Thank you," he said politely, secreting it up his own sleeve. He glanced at Hermione, then strode up to the front door, flicking the invisibility cloak back into place.
Mrs Trelore said, "Don't be long!" As his floating head disappeared she turned to Hermione. "That's the very man I wanted to see!"
There was a brief pause, presumably because Snape had been as surprised by this remark as Hermione was herself. Then the front door opened and closed quietly.
Hermione gave a sigh. "Right. I have no idea what's going on, but for now – Mrs Trelore, my parents are upstairs, and they await my assurance that they do not have to flee their home. Would you please give me a moment?"
While Snape was out doing a sweep of the nearby area, Hermione's parents decided they were unhappy with the notion of her remaining alone with their unexpected visitor. They came downstairs, exchanged stilted greetings with Mrs Trelore, then went into the kitchen to make some tea. Hermione insisted they kept their Portkeys close by.
She took Trelore into the dining room, mainly to keep an eye on her parents through the arch into the kitchen. The two women sat down together at the table. Hermione looked at Jossinia Trelore's straight back in the fitted robes she wore beneath her cloak. She looked at the way Trelore's dark hair was pulled into a silvered clasp, accentuating her shapely cheekbones. She looked at the perfect application of eye make-up and the bow-shape of Trelore's upper lip.
Hermione considered her own appearance. She wore old, dark clothing that had been dumped in seawater and then Tergeo'd dry, leaving streaks of salt on the faded material. Her hair had suffered the same dowsing and likely needed some attention to tame it into its ponytail again. Next to Jossinia Trelore, Hermione had never felt scruffier. Or lumpier. Or more unkempt.
"I apologise," Trelore said stiffly, after an awkward pause in which she'd clasped her hands on the dining table and then proceeded to fidget. "I did not intend to cause you distress this evening. I knew a late visit would be unsettling for your parents, but I intended only to ask them how I might contact you."
Hermione nodded. "If your goal was to speak to Professor Snape, I'm puzzled as to why you came looking for me." She frowned at her comment. "I mean to say – I know why Mrs Malfoy sent you here. I'm just not sure how she managed to convince you that it was a good idea."
Mrs Trelore shrugged. "Severus Snape is not an easy person to get hold of. Neither are you, for that matter. You both occupy homes protected by Fidelius Charm, or so Narcissa told me." A pause. "Was that not true?"
"I can't speak for the professor, but yes, my home is secret-kept. Though I can be owled quite readily at the Ministry or St Mungo's," Hermione said, adding pointedly, "as, indeed, can Professor Snape."
Trelore shook her head. "The earliest you might have seen such a message was tomorrow morning. After today's events, I could not afford to wait."
"Owls will find a recipient without an address, if the situation requires them to," Hermione pointed out. She was reminded of several cold and lonely hours she'd spent in Australia's Northern Territory, back in June, which had been interrupted by the arrival of an owl.
"Indeed they will," Trelore acknowledged, "and I'd have made use of this service were it not for the fact that Professor Snape habitually uses a masking charm to render himself untraceable. According to Narcissa, anyway."
Hermione had to admit that this rang true for Snape. She'd used such charms herself, back when she and Harry and Ron had been on the run. Still, it did not explain how Mrs Malfoy had convinced Mrs Trelore that the easiest way to contact Snape was through Hermione Granger. "So, just to be clear – you came here to my parents in order to get a message to me, in order for me to get a message to Professor Snape? Do I have this correct?"
"When you put it like that, it sounds rather convoluted," Trelore conceded. "Narcissa's advice was sound, however. I expected only your parents and now...I have the entire set."
Trelore cleared her throat, rather delicately. "Miss Granger, might I ask why Severus Snape is here with you, so late at night?"
Hermione blew her cheeks out, thinking about the way Snape had appeared like a miracle behind the boys at Grimmauld Place. "Serendipity," she said with a half-smile.
She pulled herself together. "This house is protected by a magical alarm system. Any potential threat sends a signal to my wand. You triggered that system by coming here. On receiving the alarm, I dropped what I was doing and Apparated home so I could notify my friend Harry of where I was going. The professor happened to be with him. He decided to accompany me."
"And why was he hiding himself away when the doorbell rang?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Dolohov's kill-list? Remember? I have learned not to give wand-bearing callers the benefit of the doubt."
Trelore blinked. "Ah. Yes."
Hermione sighed hard. "Mrs Trelore, I have no idea what insinuations Mrs Malfoy might have made regarding Professor Snape–"
"She made none," Trelore hurriedly put in. "She reminded me only of what is a matter of public record – that you were present at the hospital during the attempt on Snape's life earlier this year. That you are his student, and your shared experiences during the war have probably facilitated a closer understanding."
Hermione nodded. "Mrs Malfoy knows well how to conceal a lie within truths."
"As I have said, I was not aware of her...agenda, in this."
"Oh, I'm sure the opportunity to terrorise my family was irresistible to her. Mrs Malfoy despises me. I am Muggle-born, and therefore lowest of the low. I have consistently outdone her son academically, in spite of my poor, tainted blood. She holds me partly responsible for her husband's downfall and her sister's death, perhaps arguing that I somehow provoked Bellatrix into torturing me and Lucius into watching." She felt her voice rising, looked cautiously to the muted bustle of her parents out in the kitchen, and stopped.
"And yet Narcissa lied to the Dark Lord himself in order to help Potter," Trelore said.
"Only after Harry told her Draco was still alive." Hermione smiled grimly. "Slytherins are all about the quid pro quo."
"I wouldn't know," Mrs Trelore said. "I was in Hufflepuff."
Hermione was taken aback. "You were?"
Trelore gave a small smile. "You expected otherwise?"
"I'm...aware that Slytherin students usually have parents who were Slytherins too."
"I'm sure that's true." Trelore looked up at the archway into the kitchen; Hermione's father was bringing in a tea tray. "The Sorting Hat found that my loyalty and patience outweighed my ambition, however. At least when I was eleven."
Hermione smiled at her father. "Thanks, Dad. Are you and Mum okay?"
"We're fine, love." Alan Granger glanced at Mrs Trelore, then back at his daughter. "I suppose if we're going to get an unexpected visitor late at night, having to make a pot of tea is one of the better outcomes to hope for." He touched her shoulder and squeezed. "Do you need us to stay where you can see us, or can we be trusted to wait in the sitting room? If we promise to be quiet?"
Hermione smirked. "You're mocking me now, aren't you?"
"Well, you did insist. Bossy-boots."
Hermione reached up and patted her father's hand. "Make yourselves comfortable. Everything is fine."
Her dad leaned over her and kissed the top of her head. "Shout if you need anything," he murmured. He might have been powerless in a magical stand-off but he was still her father. He left the dining room, and he and Hermione's mother went through the kitchen to the hall, disappearing from view.
Hermione poured some tea. As she did so, she noticed Mrs Trelore frowning in thought, occasionally glancing over to the kitchen.
Given the woman's marital history, perhaps she was unfamiliar with the behaviour of a good father.
Snape came back to the house after a ten minute absence. He shed the invisibility cloak and draped it over a spare dining chair. At her questioning look he shook his head: he had discovered no lurking threats. Once he'd seated himself at the dining table he poured himself a cup of tea from the pot.
Trelore seemed less sure of herself now. Severus Snape was good at doing that to people.
"Mrs Trelore," he began, "you said earlier that you've experienced a series of problems, culminating in an attempted abduction earlier today – presumably this was the event that sent you to Mrs Malfoy?"
"It was. I knew I needed your help," Trelore said. "And I knew you had a strong connection with the Malfoys. I thought Narcissa could put me in touch with you."
"She could have," Snape said lightly.
Trelore blinked. "Directly?"
"Within seconds, if the matter was urgent."
Trelore frowned at the tabletop. "Then Miss Granger's theory holds water? Narcissa sent me to this house for a reason of her own?"
"I do not doubt it. However, that is not your most pressing problem. Perhaps you should explain what is."
Trelore glanced at Hermione. The look was very much one of wanting the teenager out of the room before the grown-ups spoke of important matters.
Snape gave a small sniff. "Do not worry yourself, Madam – Miss Granger can be the very soul of discretion when necessary." He shot Hermione a glance. "Almost to a fault."
"One of my many. But I strive for improvement," Hermione fired back.
His mouth twitched with his almost-smile. "Naturally." He looked to Mrs Trelore. "Please. Be as candid as you feel you can."
Trelore drew a deep breath and then said:
"I believe someone is trying to kill me. Or to use me in some way to threaten my son."
Snape nodded slowly. Then he said, "Start at the beginning. I suspect context will assist us, here."
"Very well. How far back should I go? I am involved with a Muggle. Philip Richmond. You might have seen a story about us in the Prophet."
"I'm aware of the story. I did not read it. Am I to take it that your courtship underlies the events you describe?"
"Yes. At least, I think so." Trelore considered for a moment, perhaps ordering her thoughts. Hermione noticed a tremor still apparent in the woman's hands. "It began with Blaise. My son was not happy with my choice of suitor."
"Having known Mr Zabini for over seven years," Snape said, "this does not surprise me."
"No doubt. He made his opposition clear early on. I was sorry he did not approve, of course, but I could not allow that to affect my choices. So he became...sullen. Distant." Trelore sighed heavily. "Even so, when the problems began I didn't want to believe my own suspicions."
"Problems?" Snape prompted.
"I was slipped a libido-diminishing potion," Trelore said. "I suppose eighteen year old boys have a rather single-minded idea of what passes for important within a relationship."
"I see. You discovered this, how?"
"The empty bottle was tossed in the kitchen waste. I have..." Trelore drifted off, frowned, and looked genuinely grief-stricken for the first time that night. "Had. I had a house-elf. Polly. She saw the empty bottle and brought it to my attention." Trelore shot a defiant look at Snape. "Given that my relationship with Philip had not at that point progressed to one of physical intimacy, it hardly mattered."
"How do you know the potion had been given to you, then?" Hermione asked.
Trelore shot her a flat look. "Miss Granger, it is possible to experience feelings of sexual desire without doing anything about them."
Hermione glanced at Snape. He glanced at her. She looked hurriedly away.
"In any case," Trelore went on, "after the libido-diminishing potion, I was then dosed with a forgetfulness potion."
"And it was Blaise, doing this to you? His own mother?" Hermione said, disgusted. "What a prince."
Mrs Trelore seemed to have accepted that Hermione was now a part of the discussion. "I did not want to believe it at the time. It took me over a week before I realised I was being dosed. I began to forget about various rendezvous Philip and I had organised." She shook her head. "But Polly kept saving me. She had an excellent memory for dates and times."
"How long was Blaise slipping you these potions?" Hermione asked.
"I should be clear – I do not have any proof that it was Blaise. Only strong suspicions." She sighed. "But to answer your question, it went on long enough for me to worry I was experiencing symptoms of early onset dementia." Trelore arched a brow Hermione's way. "Very early onset."
"Of course," she said, keeping a straight face.
"At which point I began to use a Wit-Sharpening potion to try to counter the effects."
"Such a potion would not counter a forgetfulness potion," Snape said.
"It would not. But I got lucky. The next thing my poisoner tried was a Befuddlement Draught. And the Wit-Sharpener definitely took the edge off that."
Hermione nodded. Then she frowned. "I can help, there. I saw Blaise. In Jiggers. He was buying Sneezewort and Scurvy Grass. I wondered why he was brewing Befuddlement Draughts."
Snape said, "The evidence against your son appears suggestive, Mrs Trelore."
"I suppose," Trelore said. "Especially when my use of Wit-Sharpening potions allowed me to detect the scent of Sneezewort in the after-dinner coffee Blaise had taken to bringing me."
Snape sniffed. "Rather prosaic, for one of my former Slytherins," he mused. "Disappointing. I take it you decided to cut down on caffeine, after that?"
Trelore nodded. "I did."
"And the next assault on your person?"
Trelore looked briefly self-conscious. "It was, er, something brewed with Celandine."
"Ah. Chelidonium Miniscula," Snape said. "Oft used as a diuretic or purgative."
"Yikes," said Hermione.
Trelore shrugged. "I was rather poorly for a couple of days. Philip sent flowers and a fruit basket, and a card upon which he expressed his concern in iambic pentameter."
Hermione couldn't contain a small chuckle.
"Is something amusing, Miss Granger?" Trelore enquired.
Hermione had been imagining Blaise's face when he learned that his attempt to disgust his mother's boyfriend into abandoning the relationship had resulted in poetry and flowers. "What could possibly be amusing about that?" she deadpanned.
"Hmm. Anyway. After I recovered from my bout of...bed-rest...I thought that I should speak to Blaise about what was going on. He denied all responsibility, of course, though he reiterated his opposition to my courtship. He revealed that he has vivid memories of the loss of my sixth and seventh husbands." Trelore looked straight at Snape. "I'm sure you're aware of my history. I have become something of an infamous figure. 'The Black Widow,' they call me."
"Intriguing and highly evolved creatures," Snape said. "I've been called worse."
"Perhaps. For the record, I had nothing to do with the death of any of my husbands." She winced. "Except for poor old Antal. But I only found out about that long after he'd died." She shook her head. "It doesn't matter. The point is that I am not, actually, the serial murderess that some sections of the wizarding press believe me to be. Blaise told me he remembers the soul-searching I did after I lost Norris. Norris Trelore, that is, whose name I still bear. I had become quite convinced that there was something cursed about me. I vowed never to marry again."
Hermione watched. It was a hell of a performance, as it had to be a performance. An actual curse would have been discovered by MLE years ago. There was no genuine explanation for Mrs Trelore's run of bad luck when it came to husbands, other than her own complicity. Like Wilde said: to lose a husband once was a misfortune; twice looked like carelessness. But seven dead husbands? That definitely equalled homicidal maniac.
"You appear to have discarded this vow," Snape said. "Since Mr Richmond is now your fiancé."
Trelore looked away. "I shouldn't have mentioned that. We agreed to keep the engagement secret until Blaise had come around."
Hermione said, "It seems a touch optimistic to believe that he would."
"Perhaps. In any case, he denied dosing me with the potions, and I could hardly call him a liar. A short time passed. And then one evening three weekends ago I found myself, suddenly and inexplicably, in a state of wild confusion."
Snape tilted his head in interest. "Another Befuddlement Draught?"
"Perhaps, except my Wit-Sharpener was clearly deficient and failed to counter it."
"Maybe one brewed with ashgrass, then?" Hermione suggested.
Snape looked at her. He considered a moment, then nodded. "Possibly."
Trelore sighed. "I asked Blaise, once the confusion wore off. Blaise denied all knowledge, rather angrily. When I was able to pin down where I must have imbibed the potion, however, I had proof he was innocent indeed." She sipped at her tea and then set her cup down; it clinked a little in the saucer as her hands still shook. "On the evening in question, I was in town, at a ball at the Savoy Hotel – the one the Prophet gatecrashed. It promised to be a lovely evening and was, for a while, early on. After an hour or so, I started to feel odd. Then confused. Frightened, even. The feelings were potent – so much so that I was probably well on the way to making rather a public spectacle of myself. Philip, fortunately, recognised my distress and arranged for us to slip away so he could deliver me home safely to Polly's care." Trelore looked up at Snape. "Which means, of course, that Blaise had nothing to do with that particular incident. I can only have been given the potion at the hotel."
Thoughts suddenly racing, Hermione closed her eyes, trying once again to see the hotel footage she'd analysed on her parents' computer. Six foot plus, slender, dark haired before the Polyjuice...could it have been Blaise?
Yes, she decided. It could. Everything fit.
She opened her eyes again. Snape was studying her; he'd noticed her reaction. "You didn't report this incident to MLE," Hermione said, silently berating Kingsley Shacklebolt for failing to recognise that Mrs Trelore should have been questioned about the ball.
"I did not," Mrs Trelore said. "If I had, I would have had to reveal the earlier incidents, which would have landed Blaise in a lot of trouble."
Snape finished the tea in his cup and poured himself another. "Any incidents since then?"
"Yes." Mrs Trelore seemed to hunch into her seat. "Last week I spent an extremely unpleasant afternoon convinced that Philip was somehow unworthy of my affection."
Hermione sat up. Snape offered her only a small nod of acknowledgement.
"It was very odd," Trelore went on. "Philip is a kind man. Generous, compassionate, cheerful, interested. So interested, in everyone and everything. And yet for a short while last Tuesday all I could think of was how narcissistic he could be, how vain, how judgemental." She shook her head in remembrance. "It didn't last long. But it was horrible while it did."
There it was, then. Finally, the appearance of a hate potion. It would appear that they had discovered both the target of the St Mungo's plot and the identity of the tall, dark-haired, less-than-accomplished wizard at the hotel. Jossinia Trelore was the connection between the two investigations, and Hermione had found this out thanks to an inadvertent bit of assistance rendered by Narcissa Malfoy.
"You mentioned your son has gone missing?" Snape asked.
"I didn't know for definite until earlier today," Mrs Trelore said. "He's eighteen years old, and he's headstrong, and there are any number of young ladies only too happy to offer him accommodations for the night. It would not be the first time he disappeared for a few days." She sighed. "But today, something else happened."
"It was around half past eight this evening. I returned home after an early dinner with Philip. I was a little upset because it had not gone well – I was worried about Blaise, and Philip has become increasingly frustrated by my refusal to report all that has been happening to the authorities."
"Mr Richmond is aware of your magical heritage?" Snape asked.
"Oh yes. He knows," Mrs Trelore said. "When it became clear that what he and I were enjoying was more than a dalliance, I went to the Ministry and acquired proper dispensation for revealing my heritage to Philip. Which I received. But Philip is still in a phase of applying Muggle standards to the wizarding world."
"So you arrived home at half past eight," Snape said, bringing her back on track.
"Yes. My home is in Dorset. Unplottable, of course, though not secret-kept, but I have sensible security measures. Being something of a celebrity, I have been subjected to attempted incursions in the past."
"And yet?" Snape prompted.
"And yet...when I got home I called for Polly. I wanted her to help me change, because I was feeling fatigued and wanted some company. I'd been out all day, you see, shopping. Knightsbridge, mainly."
"Very nice too," Hermione murmured.
"But Polly did not answer the summons. I don't think it had ever happened before." Trelore needed a good long pause, then, to conquer her hitching breath and steady her voice. The tremor in her hands grew pronounced. "I found her in the kitchen. Such a tiny, crumpled body. Slightly blue, by that point. Cold. Dead for hours, I expect. She'd been poisoned. Baneberry, I think, from the smell and the colour. It was in her Boomberry and Gillywater – Polly's beverage of choice while she baked." Trelore closed her eyes. "There was an apple and blackberry pie half made on the kitchen counter. Blaise's favourite. Polly told me only this morning that if anything could bring him home then one of those pies could."
Trelore's head dropped down and she pressed a horizontal finger beneath her nose: it was the least messy and most ladylike cry Hermione had ever witnessed.
Snape waited for her to compose herself before quietly saying, "And your actions after discovering your house-elf?"
Trelore lifted her head and swallowed. "I decided Philip was right. Whatever was happening, I had to shake off this desire to protect Blaise. So I left the kitchen exactly as it was, and I went to the fireplace in the drawing room to Floo to the Ministry and report the crime. I was reaching for the Floo powder when someone shimmered into view behind me: I saw the reflection in the polished copper of the fireplace surround. It gave me time to turn and draw my wand."
"You were attacked?" Snape asked.
"I think you could call it that," Trelore said dryly. "A Stupefy narrowly missed where I'd been standing. The man who'd thrown it swore and made a grab for me. He was stronger than I am. We wrestled for enough room to cast. He seemed absolutely furious, I remember. Demanded to know where I'd been all day, and in quite colourful language."
"Do you remember what he looked like?" Snape put in.
"Not in great detail – I was rather too busy grappling with him, and it was all such a shock. He had dark hair, I can recall, and was about as tall as I am. I'm five foot eleven."
"He didn't attempt to cast another hex?"
"No, he struggled to keep my wand arm trapped, spat some expletives at me, and then – then he told me to calm down and come along quietly because if I did not then I'd never see my son again."
"Oh, hell," Hermione breathed.
"I demanded to know where Blaise was. The man laughed and said I could find out when I'd had my 'baneful brew'. I assumed he intended to poison me with Baneberry extract, just as he had poor Polly. When I sensed him preparing to Apparate with me along for the ride, I decided that going along quietly was quite the awful idea. I managed to slam my knee into his tender regions, and as soon as he'd spun away, all creased over, I Apparated out."
Snape nodded calmly. "Do you recall anything else about his appearance? Tattoos, clothing, scars?"
"I was rather too busy fighting for my life to ask him to stand still so I could memorise his features." She frowned in concentration. "Average weight. Dark hair, closely cut. Clean shaven. He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties. Nice looking, in a rather bland way."
Hermione looked at Snape: was he thinking what she was thinking? That the description was not a million miles away from Gus, thief of sea-snails?
Snape was frowning at Trelore. "What about your sense of smell?" he asked. "Do you remember anything particular in that regard?"
Trelore closed her eyes. She was obviously trying to be helpful, though the memories were difficult for her to revisit. Her hands clasped tightly, as if she was trying to keep the shakes to herself.
"Something smelled a little bit like burning," she said after a moment. "Unpleasant."
"Burnt paper? Coal? Hair?"
"Yes! That's it. Burnt hair, just like if you singe your hair with a candle-flame."
Snape looked at her and then nodded at Hermione. That was proof enough: whoever attacked Mrs Trelore in her home had been Polyjuiced at the time.
"Where did you Apparate to?" Snape asked Trelore.
"In my panic, I went to the place I feel most safe. Philip's house. It's in Kingston-upon-Thames. I arrived in his back garden, just on the river, and somehow I managed not to splinch myself."
"Your fiancé was at home?"
"No, he was still in town; he'd only just finished having dinner with me. His staff were on hand, though, and they know not to ask questions when I turn up unexpectedly. I was made a cup of tea, and I asked for some time alone to compose myself, which I was given." She inhaled shakily. "That's when it happened."
"What happened?" Hermione asked.
"After I'd been there for perhaps a quarter of an hour, a Patronus appeared before me. It was the first time I'd been messaged this way, though I believe it has become quite popular since the war."
"The form of the Patronus?" Snape asked.
"A large snake. An anaconda of some description."
Hermione caught her breath: this matched the Patronus cast in the hotel footage.
Snape flicked a look at her then returned his attention to Trelore. "And the message?"
Trelore's smooth and lovely face finally crumpled. She began to cry, properly this time. "It was Blaise's voice," she said. "He told me to go back home, and go with the man who was waiting there. He said that I had to do it, otherwise he would be killed. Merlin, the panic in his voice!" She swiped under her eyes with the back of her hand. "And I would have done so, except all of a sudden he changed what he was saying. Where he found the courage, I do not know, but he yelled for me to stay away. 'Don't do it, Ma – get yourself somewhere safe!' That's what he said. And that he was sorry, so sorry. And he said – don't drink the potion. He said that twice. 'Don't drink the potion.'" Trelore pinched at her own lips. "And then he screamed, as though someone had hit him with a Crucio, and the Patronus faded and I was on my own."
Hermione exhaled in shock. For a moment, she had found herself hypothesising that the attacker from Mrs Trelore's home was, in fact, Blaise himself in disguise. He might have sent his own Patronus to lure her back to his clutches. Still, that would not explain the shift in his message.
She and Snape remained quiet as Trelore tried to calm herself using the judicious application of a pristine handkerchief. They glanced at each other, but Hermione saw no inkling of understanding in Snape's eyes. He was as confused as she was.
"So you see," Blaise's mother finally said, "I had to make a choice. It was clear that Blaise was being used to get to me. If I reported the crime, there was a good chance the criminals would cut their losses. I could only imagine that would be very bad for my son. But if I went home and gave myself up, I suspected that I would not live to see the morning. My death would render Blaise an unnecessary hostage. So I needed a third option. I needed someone who might make sense of the things that have been happening to me." She looked at Snape. "I needed a potions expert, preferably one who knew my son and who could take care of himself in a tight spot." She smiled a watery smile. "I needed Severus Snape."
The twinge of jealousy Hermione felt in that moment was acute. She stood up and excused herself, mumbling something about needing to check on her parents. When she glanced back from the other end of the kitchen, she was unhappy to note that Trelore had placed her hand on Snape's, and even unhappier to note that Snape had not shaken her off.
"What do you wish to do?" Snape asked her, after he had excused himself from Trelore's side and they spoke quietly in the kitchen.
"You're asking me?" she said, surprised.
"For an opinion," he said. "Or do you wish me to take charge of this and presume upon your obedience?"
Hermione gave a small smile. "You should probably never presume upon that."
"Quite." His look was only semi-accusing. "So – what is your opinion?"
Hermione sighed. "I understand Mrs Trelore's reluctance to go to MLE. The last thing she wants is to panic the bad guys into anything drastic. Unfortunately, that's now been rendered academic."
"You believe that the basement flat you discovered is key to the plot against Mrs Trelore."
"How could it not be?"
He nodded and hunched his shoulders. "It would be quite the coincidence if the two things were not connected."
"Right. And Gus from St Mungo's has close-cropped dark hair."
"He was stealing snails in the long-term storage area around the time Mrs Trelore was attacked."
"Yep. But he seems to be working with someone who likes using Polyjuice."
Snape grunted. "Speculation. But sound. I should imagine MLE Patrol officers have been all over that basement flat in the last hour, anyway."
"Which means that the bad guys are either already in custody, or they've fled."
"And for both of those scenarios, Mrs Trelore's reasons for keeping this covert are no longer applicable," Snape finished smoothly. "Yes. That is my assessment too."
"Yeah." She sagged against the kitchen worktop and spent a distracted moment pressing at the stinging wound at her collarbone. "So, much as there's a part of me drawn to the notion of – 'Granger and Snape! Crime-fighters extraordinaire!'..." She waited for the flick of his eyebrow and smirked. "I think it's time to take this one back to the Ministry."
Snape nodded. "There are elements to this situation about which I have not been advised."
"I think that's probably true for most of us."
"Hmm. Well, it's late, but there'll be someone at the MLE Patrol Desk. We'll start there."
Hermione nodded. Then she froze. "No. Wait."
"Scarface. At the flat. He said 'Boris' was at the Ministry 'in case she went back there'. I heard him. Just before my alarm went off."
Snape breathed deeply. "So there may be someone looking out for Mrs Trelore at the Ministry. I see. Did you hear anything else?"
She cast her mind back. "Something about – it has to be tonight?"
"The brewing window for the haliwinkles is narrow."
"Yes. I suppose it would explain why her attacker was so angry when she went home this evening. He might have been waiting there for her all day, getting more and more impatient. She said her house-elf had been dead hours, didn't she?"
"She did. Anything else?"
"Um...yes! Yes, he said...'if we need to force him to do it then we'll use your wand'. Something like that. He said it to Gus."
"'Force him,'" Snape mused. "Blaise?"
"Maybe." She shook her head. "Unless I've got it all muddled up." She shot Snape a glance. "It's been known."
"Hasn't it, though?" he said flatly.
"Okay, look. The first thing we need to know is what MLE found at that flat. I'd suggest we go back to Islington and see if Harry can answer the question."
"And from there to the Ministry, if necessary."
"But without Mrs Trelore, just in case Boris is still there. Good. It's a plan."
Snape nodded. "Very well. I shall Side-Along Mrs Trelore."
"Okay. If you could Disapparate from the bottom of the garden?"
"I'll follow along in a few minutes. I want to speak to my parents."
"That's fine. It will take some time for Mr Potter to accommodate any extra visitors into the Fidelius, in any case. Then we should share our information. When we get to the Ministry, we'll need to present a united front to Madam Churlish. Especially given the...complexities of how we have arrived here."
"Sounds good. She already thinks I'm a busybody."
"Hermione, you are a busybody."
He turned and walked away before Hermione could say anything more, but the glimmer of a smirk on Snape's face was enough to soften the remark.
"It's definitely safe now?" her mother asked, after Hermione had answered as many of their questions as she was able.
Hermione held up her wand and indicated the absence of alarm. "All clear. Not a sausage. You can go and finish your bath."
Her mother shook her head. "I am going to have a small glass of that single malt from Pitlochry, then I am going to try to sleep."
The sitting room clock said that it was just gone half past eleven. An awful lot had happened since Hermione had been preparing for her stealth-mission at St Mungo's four hours ago.
"I'm so sorry about tonight," she said. "It must have been frightful for you both."
Her father gave her a hug. "Actually, I think it proved the system works quite well."
Her mother looked at her father for a moment, then nodded. "That's a fair point, darling."
Hermione hugged her mother. Each embrace was making her injury pull and throb, but sometimes hugs were more important. "Keep the Portkeys close for now, just in case. I'll check in with you tomorrow. And don't forget to–"
"Always err on the side of caution," her parents chorused.
"We know," her dad added. "At some point you're going to have to trust to our common sense."
"I do," Hermione said. "I just worry."
Her mother smiled reassuringly. "We know that, too." She favoured Hermione with a discerning look. "So, then. That was your Potions professor?"
"Um – yep."
"The scary, bullying one?"
"Who dislikes you and everything you do?"
Hermione shrugged a shoulder. "We've established a sort of moratorium on hostilities."
"Hmm." Her mother's eyebrow arched. "Dark. Sleek. Something of a prodigious beak...?"
"Stop being insightful." Hermione felt herself blushing. "He's still my professor. At least until Christmas."
"Hang on – that's the rook?" her father put in. "Oh, no. No no no. He's too old for you."
"That's what he said. But I'm working on him."
Hermione leaned in and kissed her mother's cheek, gave her father a wink, then turned to walk out the patio doors. At the end of the garden she raised her wand and Apparated home.