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Toil and Trouble

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"Take away the love and the anger,
And a little piece of hope holding us together.
Looking for a moment that'll never happen.
Living in the gap between past and future."

Kate Bush Love and Anger, 1989

 

Hermione slept like a baby.

Well, that wasn't quite the right analogy, since infants were most certainly not capable of the sensual peaks of eroticism that haunted Hermione's dreams.  But she slept very well.

The following morning, she wrote herself a list.  (Everything may have changed since the revelatory moment in the coastal habitat yesterday, but she was still Hermione Granger.)  It went like this:

    1)  Phone Mum and Dad at the practice and make sure they're okay.

    2)  St Mungo's.

    a) Return Joseph's wand
    b) Speak to Gloria about what to include in my report to Mdm Churlish. (NB. Need notes file back again.)
    c) Return The Magic of the Tundra to Matilda Swann, via Gloria.
    d) Find out whether Gustiver Walsh turned up for work today.

    3)  Thank-you note to Headmistress McGonagall.

    4)  Check through essay for History.  Redo reading.

    5)  SS.

    a) Oh my god where do I even start?
    b) Seriously. Where?
    c) Fine. Tell him I'm sorry for believing he's capable of dastardly deeds.
    d) Actually, I said 'dastardly' to him yesterday, didn't I? Who even talks like that?
    e) Can I get away with 'sorry for everything'?
    f) Knickers. I'll wing it.
    g) But I definitely want to know about:

        (i) What he was doing in the coastal habitat,
        (ii) Why he's been so angry with me, and
        (iii) The haliwinkles.

With that much sorted out, she ate some breakfast, checked in with her parents, packed her bead-bag and then headed off to St Mungo's.

~~~

After her History of Magic lesson, Hermione had a tight thirty minutes to get herself some lunch and prepare for the rigours of the afternoon's Defence against the Dark Arts session.  Time being at a premium, she eschewed the delights of her favoured lunch spots in Muggle London and instead went to the Ministry's canteen-style restaurant situated at one end of the level eight atrium.

As she searched out a seat while loaded up with a tray containing a bowl of leek and potato soup and a warm crusty roll, someone called her name across the noisy restaurant.  She paused and looked around.  Three tables over, Dane Booth was waving at her.  Hermione hadn't really wanted company, but there was no way to avoid the invitation now he knew she'd seen him: not without being rude.  So she skirted around the tables and made her way over there.

To Dane's credit, he offered only a couple of banal pleasantries before letting her eat her lunch while it was hot.  He was finishing off a baked potato with what looked like Coronation Chicken: a combination of flavours that Hermione had never found enticing.

"I'm really glad I saw you," Dane said, when they were both finished eating.  He had a cup of the Ministry's less-than-drinkable canteen coffee in front of him.  Hermione was content with water.  "I wanted to run something past you."

"Is this to do with...?"  She stopped and looked around, wondering what the rules for Churlish's investigation were at this point.  Last night the requirement for confidentiality had been revoked, but had that applied only to the meeting in Harry's drawing room?  Hermione sighed and made do with lowering her voice.  "Is this about the case?" she asked.

"'Fraid so," Dane said, lowering his voice to match hers.  "Madam Churlish asked me to keep my work on the Regent's Park Road address quiet."

"Why?" Hermione asked.

"Something about it being very bad if the press gets hold of the story.  You know.  There's a hostage involved, so any publicity might make the suspects feel exposed – enough that they ditch their plans and run.  Possibly in a way that wouldn't be good for the younger Mr Zabini."

"Oh, I see."  She nodded as she thought about this.  "Yes, in those circumstances Blaise becomes a millstone rather than an asset.  A millstone who knows far too much about his kidnappers to risk simply cutting him loose."  She cringed at the implications.  "Good point.  Let's try very hard not to let that happen."

"Hey, I'm on board.  No problem.  But the downside is that the only person I'm allowed to consult with right now is my boss.  Only my boss is Belinda Fawley, and she's in charge of the Muggle Liaison Office mainly because Cornelius Fudge liked a bit of a fumble with her, back in the day."

Hermione pulled a face.  "Lovely image, that.  Thanks."

"Yeah, sorry.  Anyway, Fawley's got no Muggle heritage and no real understanding of what the department even does."

"Why is she still in place there, then?" Hermione asked.  "Shacklebolt's been keen to root out corruption and incompetence."

"Politics," Dane said darkly.  "The department was...I think the word used was 'rationalised'.  Basically it got kicked into touch under Thicknesse when they established the Muggle-born Registration Commission.  I mean, bear in mind I was back home on the other side of the planet by then, so I only know what colleagues tell me.  But it was a brutal time, and the only reason Fawley survived the culling was because of her name.  Some pure-blood history thing, I don't know."

"I see.  So when the department was reinstated after the war, everyone got their old jobs back?"

"Pretty much.  The Acting Minister couldn't really make changes, not without it looking, you know, political.  And Madam Fawley gave a couple of interviews about how harrowing the whole thing was, to have been one of the main 'victims' of the War Ministry's atrocities.  Never mind that she never lifted a finger to help those of her staff who'd stayed, half of whom were Muggle-born."  Dane frowned down at his coffee.  "Three of them didn't survive Umbridge's commission."

"I'm sorry."

"Hey, you're the one who stopped it – you and your mates.  Pretty sure you're one of the few people who doesn't have to be sorry about that."

"And yet I am."

Dane shook his head.  "Look, we're getting sidetracked.  The problem is that the Minister hasn't yet got a politically savvy reason to move Madam Fawley away from Muggle Liaison.  And trust me, she is going nowhere off her own bat – no one's going to offer her a job any time soon, especially not one with some prestige.  You don't have to spend long in a room with her to work out she couldn't find her arse with both hands."

Hermione smirked.  The antipodean tendency towards coarse directness was worthy of embracing.  "So you're saying you basically have no informed support as you work on this investigation," she concluded.  "Not allowed to talk to colleagues, and your boss is useless."

"That's about it."  Dane finished his coffee, made a face at the flavour, sat back and looked at her.  "Which wouldn't be so bad, except I've started to uncover some stuff that's interesting."

"Have you spoken to Madam Churlish about this?"

"I've given her the bullet points.  Her eyes glaze once I start on about National Insurance numbers and the General Register Office."

"So you want to discuss your findings with me?"

"I need to bounce my ideas off someone who understands Muggle bureaucracy.  Someone who can confirm or rubbish what I think I'm turning up, here."

"And what do you think you're turning up?"

"Basically – the opposite of what Madam Churlish is saying."  He sighed.  "She reckons that even if this Zabini bloke managed to fake his own death back in 1982, the only way he could have pulled off the whole new-identity thing is if he'd gone to live somewhere that had minimal contact with either the British or Italian Ministries for Magic."

Hermione looked around, but none of the other nearby diners seemed interested in her conversation with Dane.  Still, she shuffled her chair around and leaned closer.  "Churlish is probably talking some sense there.  Unless he went about permanently Polyjuiced...but even Barty Crouch only pulled that off for months, definitely not years."  Her thoughts raced.  "The thing with wizarding communities is that they're small.  It's hard to just disappear.  I mean, soon as we had that sketch of the suspect, all Churlish's team wanted to do was put posters up and stick it in the paper.  Because that's all they've ever needed to do to track down suspects."

"And I agree.  To an extent, anyway.  I get why Madam Churlish is sceptical.  She's willing to entertain the idea that Zabini's been tucked away somewhere obscure for sixteen years and has only just come back."  Dane arched his eyebrows.  "But that's not what I'm finding."

"Where do you think he's been?"

"Right here.  In London.  Disguised as a series of Muggles.  Including the bloke who bought the Regent's Park Road flat."

Hermione nodded.  "Nicholas Beatty," she recalled, and saying the words out loud made her add, "Of course.  Sounds pretty similar to Niccolo Zabini."

"Right.  But Churlish won't have it.  She says there isn't a witch or wizard on the planet who'd voluntarily live outside wizarding society.  To do so, they'd have to give up magic.  Who'd do that?"

"Again, she makes a fair point," Hermione said, playing devil's advocate.  "Though she's probably eager to make it, because it's up to Improper Use to police the unsanctioned use of magic in Muggle society.  If you're right, and Zabini's been hiding in Muggle London for over a decade, presumably using magic at his own convenience, playing fast and loose with the Statute of Secrecy?  That makes Improper Use look like amateurs."

He nodded.  "Yeah.  You're right.  Unfortunately, I didn't think of that angle until it was too late."  Dane grimaced at himself.  "I was an idiot."

"How come?"

"I put my theory about Zabini hiding as a Muggle to Madam Churlish before I asked her for the historical case records I need – the ones MLE have on Zabini's death.  Only now she's decided that what I'm suggesting must mean I'm totally useless at my job and, by the way, those records will not leave MLE's jurisdiction.  Sent me on my way with a flea in my ear."

Hermione frowned.  She'd developed a modicum of respect for Churlish over recent weeks, in spite of the woman's sharp tongue.  It seemed that even the better leaders of the Ministry were not immune to the political urge to cover one's backside and hoard one's power.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but I don't think she'd give those records to me if I asked for them.  Especially after I lost my temper with her last night."

"Actually I thought she was pretty gracious about that."

"So did I."

"So – will you help me?"  Dane had something of a hangdog expression.  "Just another set of eyes.  An informed second opinion."

"I don't see why not," Hermione said.  "I suppose Churlish would rather you talked to me than someone who isn't already in on things."

"That's what I figured.  And?  You're smart.  I like smart."

Hermione smiled at the compliment, though the memory of Dane's proposition – polite though it had been – made her slightly wary.

"So when do you want to do this?" she asked.

"This evening?  I'd ask you to come by the office if you have some free time, but Fawley will get defensive.  She likes to feel important.  A member of the Golden Trio dropping by to conflab with one of her plebs?  That will not go down well."

"I'm busy this evening, I'm afraid," she said.

"All evening?"  Dane sighed.  "Okay, tomorrow evening, then?"

Wednesdays were curry-nights, and Hermione still had some fence-mending to do with Harry and Ron.  Still, Blaise Zabini was in trouble and time might well be of the essence.  Should he be placed in extra danger because of Hermione's personal life?

"You know what?" she said.  "I might have some time later on.  And since you're one of the few wizards I know with a mobile phone, I can call you.  Check your messages after nine, something like that.  I'll let you know if I can come by, okay?"

Dane sighed relief.  "That'd be great.  Until I can convince Churlish to put some resource on the evidence I've discovered, I might as well be pissing into the wind."

Hermione smiled.  Then she screwed up her nose.  Coarse directness was all well and good, but sometimes the imagery was a little too vivid.

~~~

After her DADA lesson, Hermione detoured to Flourish and Blotts to collect her order for My Northern Lights: the travel-based autobiography that she didn't really need anymore, at least in the context of her snagberry investigation.  Still, she'd placed the order, and it was hard to view any book as entirely needless.  It'd probably be an interesting read.

She was tempted to stroll around Diagon Alley for a while, since Tuesdays also seemed to be the day that Snape ran errands.  In the end, she decided against.  She didn't want to think of herself as a stalker.  Better to prepare for this evening's meeting.

She went home and began to write her report.  Actually, she ended up writing two: one of them shamelessly, embarrassingly complete, for her own eyes only, and then one with significant redactions.  She'd already agreed with Gloria and Joseph how much to include about them both.  There were other things she couldn't possibly submit to Churlish: her presence in Knockturn Alley when Snape was attacked, for instance.  At least the seedy-looking wizard who'd been set up as a distraction had not been found.  She'd got lucky, there, she supposed.

With each line of her report, as she condensed two weeks of research into something coherent, she was able to review all the events and discoveries that had convinced her of Snape's guilt.  Set out like this, Hermione felt reassured.  She hadn't been seeing things.  She hadn't been trying to make stuff up.  All her suspicions had been rational.  All her reasoning had been sound.

It had just been wrong.

Now she knew that the real culprit was someone else, it wasn't much of a leap to return to an earlier theory: Snape had also figured out someone was stealing from the hospital, and he had been investigating the problem in much the same way she had been.  This explained a lot of the evidence, including the myriad ways in which their research had converged.

Of course, she'd discarded this theory a week ago for good reasons.  There were noteworthy plot-holes, like that timing discrepancy: how had Snape been tipped off about this sinister plot weeks in advance of the thefts even starting?  And why had he been so angry with her?  Most of all, she wanted to know why he had threatened Joseph Montague behind the Leaky Cauldron.

On the plus side, at least she could go ahead and ask those questions, now.

Harry was due home around six.  She decided that an early dinner would be in order, since she didn't anticipate Snape sitting down happily to break bread with them.  Harry was the cook, but he didn't tend to go to any creative lengths on weekdays.  The Auror apprenticeship programme was working Harry and Ron quite hard.

In the corner of the pantry was a former Hogwarts trunk donated by George that had been enchanted with a permanent frost spell.  It was their magical equivalent of a chest freezer.  Hermione opened it up and rummaged.  She pulled out the remains of some Bolognese sauce Harry had whipped up a week or so back, and unfroze it with a swift charm that beat the hell out of a microwave.  Then, because Harry liked cooking done the non-magical way, she dumped the sauce in a pan to reheat and went hunting through the pantry shelves for pasta of some kind.

Harry and Ron came down into the kitchen just in time to watch her swearing with colourful zest at the pan of spaghetti that could not seem to decide whether it wanted to boil so fiercely that it erupted like a volcano or just sit there, barely at a simmer, ignoring the flame beneath like it wasn't even there.

Harry gently took the wooden spoon she'd been hitting against the stovetop in order to make clear her dissatisfaction.  He turned her shoulder and pushed her towards the table.  She got the message and went to sit down.

"I was trying to be helpful," she said crossly.

"'Mione, we're your friends," Ron said.  "Please trust to our good intentions when we tell you never to be helpful in a kitchen."

"I don't understand," she grumbled.  "I can brew potions.  Why can't I boil pasta?"

Ron slung an arm around her shoulders and gave her a half-hug.  "Don't worry," he said.  "Some skills are so rare, they only manifest in chosen ones."

Harry, who now had the pasta pan boiling under perfect control and who had even wiped up the dried-in mess of three volcano-eruptions of spaghetti water on the stove, flicked them both the V's without even turning around.  Ron snorted a laugh and went to sort out some water for the table.

For a while, as the two boys – men, now, she knew she should call them – finished getting their dinner ready, throwing jokes and comments around, Hermione just sat there, basking in her sense of rightness and belonging.  She knew what had been happening, now.  She saw it so clearly, it was hard to work out how she'd missed the truth.

Things had been changing.  She'd been frightened of losing her two closest friends as their paths inevitably diverged.  So she'd tried to take what control she could, and she'd chosen to let it happen.  She'd distanced herself from Harry and Ron, quite deliberately, because it seemed like a preferable option to standing there, helpless, watching them move away from her without so much as a backwards glance.

Recognising this, she couldn't even claim that they hadn't noticed.  They'd tried to stop her.  Harry had even said the words: 'Stop pushing us away!'  He and Ron had shown far more emotional awareness than she had.

"I am such a monumental idiot," she said, in a moment of quiet.

Harry turned from the stove and fixed her with a knowing look.  Then he turned back to the cooking.  "Yep," he said lightly.

"No arguments," Ron agreed.  "Still, on the plus side?  Monuments can be impressive."  A pause.  "I'd look great in statue form."

"You would," Hermione agreed.

He turned to her, surprised.  "Yeah?  All masterful and with rippling biceps and a robe that had tantalisingly slipped off my shoulder?"

"Silent and still, is what I was thinking," Hermione deadpanned.

Harry barked a laugh.  "Also you'd be a lot easier to keep fed."

"Good point.  Sod statues.  When do we eat?"

"Five minutes.  Grate some cheese."

Hermione stood up.

"Not you," Harry said to the stove.  "Ron.  And wash your hands first."

~~~

After they'd eaten and cleared up, Harry and Ron read through the initial draft of her redacted report.

"I take it the bloke you followed up to Chalk Farm didn't do us the favour of showing up for work today," Harry said.

"No sign of Walsh at St Mungo's this morning, according to Joseph Montague.  But they've tracked his activity in the long-term storage area through his wand, and come up with a pattern that matches all of the known thefts."

Ron said, "How come it took so long?  To see the pattern, I mean."

"Mainly because the wand-monitoring system was throwing up the same consistent group of names for every habitat that was involved.  There was no reason for one name to pop out."

Not entirely true, of course.  The name 'Severus Snape' had popped.  Quite a lot, in fact.  But that was a discussion for later, with the man himself.  Hopefully in private.

"I s'pose our thief was competent enough to make sure he timed his access to merge with a crowd," Ron agreed.  "I mean, he'd be a bit crap otherwise."

"And Joseph was the only person checking the records, anyway," Hermione said.  She didn't add that Joseph had stopped doing so after a frightening encounter in an alley behind the Leaky Cauldron.  There were elements to her investigation that Harry and Ron didn't need to know about.

"No one else noticed what was going on?" Harry put in.  "I mean, the other people who work there, they didn't notice someone was stealing stuff?"

"Apparently not."

"Why would they?" Ron said.  He looked up from the page he was reading.  "I mean, there's, what, four dedicated herbologists, yeah?"  He waited for Hermione's nod.  "One of them sees evidence of some unexpected harvesting, what do they think?"

Harry rolled his eyes.  "That one of their colleagues has done it.  Right."

"Seems a more likely explanation than 'sinister potions conspiracy'.  Especially since it's happening when the hospital is playing host to a Lost Seventh Potions course.  Good excuse, that, for extra ingredients getting harvested."

Harry nodded.  "So how did this Montague bloke work it out, then?"

Hermione smiled.  "He's got a thing for the snagberry bush."

Ron passed his current piece of paper to Harry and picked up the next in the pile.  "I take it the storage level's wand system will no longer allow Gustiver Walsh access."

"His wand is no longer registered for the area.  If he wants to sneak back in next month and grab some more haliwinkles, he'll need to use someone else's wand, else he'll trip an alarm system."  She sighed.  "Of course, if I hadn't given myself away last night, Walsh and Zabini would be in custody by now."

"Don't care," Harry said shortly.  "I'll swap that scenario for one where you always know if your mum and dad are in trouble, any day of the week."

"Me too," Ron said.

Hermione considered.  "Yes.  Actually – me three."

"Explain to me again why your friend the Healer didn't report the thefts to the hospital high-ups when she first found out," Ron said, after he'd read a bit further.

"Politics.  Joseph had been in trouble before, no fault of his own, and there's a member of the board at the hospital who has it in for him.  Gloria wanted more information before the hospital launched an investigation that might have settled happily on a scapegoat."

Ron glanced over the accompanying notes and grunted his understanding.

Harry said, "Have you noticed how politics is the new Voldemort?"

"Actually, I think it might be one of the oldest Voldemorts," Ron suggested.

They all nodded at that.

"Speaking of politics," Hermione said, "I saw Dane Booth at lunch at the Ministry."

"The guy from Muggle Liaison?" Ron said.  "The Aussie?"

"New Zealander, so don't let him hear you say that.  But yes.  He's been struggling with his side of the investigation.  His boss is useless, he isn't allowed to consult with his colleagues, and Madam Churlish isn't being very supportive."

Harry nodded.  "Doesn't surprise me.  She was miffed with Officer Vernon last night, just for calling Muggle Liaison in.  I think she's a bit of a despot.  Likes it to be her good idea, otherwise she likes it swept under the rug."

"What are we supposed to do about it?" Ron said.  "Churlish made it clear we're not part of the investigation anymore."

"Of course she did," Harry said.  "We're still the Golden Trio.  The shiny hasn't worn off yet.  Last thing MLE wants is for their criminal investigation to get solved because of us."

Hermione hadn't even thought of it like that.  Perhaps she wasn't very good at politics.  "I suppose," she said, thinking aloud as she followed Harry's idea along to its conclusion, "Shacklebolt doesn't need us taking credit for this one.  It isn't good for the Ministry to look like it's dependent on a bunch of teenagers."

"No," Ron agreed.  "And it would be a fair point."

Harry said, "So if we help, we'll just have to tell them that we don't need any credit."

Ron frowned.  "Except, you know, any of the bits that make me look really good.  Those we should mention."

Hermione said, "Ron," in her reproving voice.

Ron smirked.  "Joke!  Look, it's a nice idea, Harry, but it doesn't work like that.  We can say we don't need credit, but anyone in political power won't believe us.  Credit is currency."

"Plus, Shacklebolt's concerns aren't about perception, they're about substance," Hermione said.  "He needs a Ministry capable of doing its job in all departments without the three of us stepping up when things get tricky."

They all nodded.

"God, what is it about us?" she wondered.

"We're just that good," Ron said.

"We're just that high-profile," Harry corrected.  "Look – Hermione got the Muggle-Worthy Excuse stuff thrown her way because of her job, but she got the job because – high-profile."

"Thanks a lot," she muttered.

"Not saying you didn't deserve it, not saying you're no good at it, I'm just saying – it wouldn't have been offered to you if you weren't high-profile."

Hermione nodded.  She didn't have to like the point for it to be true.

Ron said, "It's not just that we're well known, though.  We're different – those public personas.  I mean, do you two feel it as well?  The weird sort of double-self thing?"

Harry frowned.  "I have absolutely no idea what you're on about."

"Yeah, well, that's 'cause I didn't put it very well."  Ron frowned.  "Okay, so...there's sort of your actual self, and then there's a mirror image.  But it's a weird mirror, it's all warped, blowing up some bits of you and shrinking other bits away into nothing.  And, er, the image is the thing other people see."  He nodded to himself.  "That's what I mean.  I think."  He leaned over the table, as if he was trying to express something that had suddenly struck him as important.  "Like at Auror training.  You know how it's been, mate – those early weeks, anyway.  We were famous.  Couldn't help it.  We just were.  And all the apprentices who didn't already know us...and actually some of the ones who did know us, too – they sort of fell into two camps.  Some were star-struck and gushy, the others were all standoffish and 'who the fuck do you think you are?'"

"Oh yes?  Which camp did Mariana fall into?" Hermione asked, intrigued.

"Oh, neither.  She came up to us on the first day, shook our hands and told us we'd done a top-notch job, thanks very much, then she put me on my arse with this insane tipping hex during our first defensive magic assessment."  A dewy-eyed look came over him as he sighed with the memory.  "She's as fast on the cast as I've ever seen.  She's brilliant."

Hermione smirked.  "What a difference seven years makes, eh?"  She caught Harry's eye and they grinned together.

Ron frowned.  "Um...?"

"Last time a girl showed you up in class, you said mean things and nearly got her eaten by a troll," Harry pointed out.

"Oh.  Right."  Ron rolled his eyes.  "So I'm less of a twat, these days.  Isn't that a good thing?"

"An excellent thing," Hermione agreed.  "And by the way, I get what you're saying.  About the dissonance between our self-perception and the perceptions of others."

Ron squinted, then shrugged.  "Right.  That's exactly what I meant.  Probably."

Harry tutted at Ron's unconvincing attempt to play stupid.  "I thought it was just me," he admitted.  "I'm glad it isn't.  Makes me feel better."

Hermione was thinking about that odd exchange she'd had with Joseph Montague yesterday evening, when he'd told her he could never be any use to a bona fide hero.  Now she came to think about it, lots of other people did the same thing: peppered the conversation with references to her actions during the war.  Having people define her by the more dramatic and public events in her life was hardly a surprise, she supposed, but it was still disconcerting.

"Most of the time, I'm oblivious to it, I think," Hermione admitted.  "Which is probably a good thing, because otherwise it would drive me up the wall.  But every now and then I realise that the Hermione Granger other people see is a person I barely recognise."

"It's still you," Ron said.  "It's just the bits you never really focus on."  He sniffed.  "You can't blame people for being more likely to remember you bursting out of Gringotts on the back of a dragon than for your skill at colour-coded filing."

"Filing skills are important," Hermione said primly.

"But they're not that great a photo-opportunity," Ron said.  "Dragons, on the other hand..."

"Which brings us back to high-profile," Harry said.  "I mean, why on earth did you think Healer Montague asked you for help?"

Hermione felt a bit peeved.  "Well, I don't know!  We've been friends since she stuck my finger back on, last June.  She knew I was a bit of a bookworm; she needed some research doing.  Why wouldn't she have asked?"

Harry said, "A bookworm.  Fair enough.  But you're all that and more.  The three of us, collectively, we're the Golden Trio.  But you?  You're the brains of the operation.  You were at the heart of every headline we ever generated.  Ron and me, we wouldn't have lasted a single Hogwarts term without you.  And everyone knows it."

"I am no longer comfortable with this discussion," Hermione declared.  "This house is my safe place.  When I am here, I am ordinary, non-heroic, useless-in-the-kitchen Hermione.  I refuse to be anything else, and I demand that you stop making me feel weird."

Harry lifted his hands in surrender.  "Sorry.  Fine.  Just a high-profile bookworm.  End of."

"Hey, that could be your statue," Ron said.  "Hermione Granger, reclining upon a plinth of books."

Hermione ignored him.  To Harry, she said, "But what you're really saying is – the way we've got mixed up in all this stuff?  It's my own fault, basically."

Harry shrugged.  "Well, not exactly.  You didn't ask to be high-profile.  You just are."

Ron said, "With one shoulder of your robe tantalisingly draped low across your oof."

Hermione, having elbowed Ron very hard, got up from the kitchen table.  "I am going to wash my face and brush my hair.  And if either of you make any comments about how we are expecting Severus Snape very soon and I'm being obvious, I will punch you on the nose."

She was out the door and on the first step up to the ground floor when she heard Ron say, "Next time I'm bringing Mariana.  She'll protect me."

~~~

Hermione smoothed her hands over her T-shirt, checked her fly, took a deep breath and then opened the front door.  She smiled the smile that she had just practised in the bathroom mirror after brushing her teeth.

"Hello Severus," she said.

The smile didn't seem to work.  He waited for her to step to one side in invitation and then marched past her into the hall.  "Let's get this done, shall we?" he muttered.

Okay, she thought.  So yesterday evening had been less a reconciliation and more a temporary stay, had it?  She looked after him.  He'd stopped at the top of the stairs and was looking back impatiently.

She sighed.  "We're in the kitchen."

He grunted and made his way downstairs.

~~~

"This is largely satisfactory," Snape said, having read over her annotated draft and then snorted at the efforts Harry and Ron had been putting together post-dinner.  "Play up the intellectual puzzle more.  Churlish will accept your contribution if she can view you as an egghead who got carried away with her own cleverness."

Hermione felt irked.  Surely what mattered was the actual contribution, not the way someone could spin it in Ministry meetings to make themselves look better?  "Yes, of course," she grumbled.  "That's certainly my overriding sense of the last few weeks.  How clever I've been."

"Monumental idiot," Ron reminded her.

"Punch on nose," she retorted.

Snape ignored them, as he had ignored all attempts at humour, banter, friendly gratitude (since Harry and Ron remained impressed with the way Snape had stood up to Churlish the night before) and reminders of shared moments (those from Hermione, with what she hoped was enough subtlety to slip them under the radar).

"Healer Montague is happy to include the information about her son?" Snape asked.

"Yes.  More importantly, Joseph is himself.  He feels rotten about my involvement.  Says that if it hadn't been for him then they could have reported the thefts weeks ago."

"Indeed."  Snape deigned to lift his nose out of the papers he held and look across the table at her.  "The board member who dislikes him?"

She checked her notebook.  "Amanda Crossley.  I, er, didn't think including the name in the report would be sensible."

"No.  People don't like it when they are singled out and accused," he mused, with an edge to his tone.

"I'd imagine not," Hermione agreed, increasingly frustrated and worried.  While she could hardly blame Snape for his resentment, she had no idea why it was materialising now rather than last night.

He sniffed.  "Mr Montague will be asked why he didn't formally report his concerns.  If this business with his past at Verdant Acres is investigated, will it come to Veritaserum?"

"I don't know.  I wouldn't have thought so, since the threat of that was what kept both Crossleys from pursuing their revenge."

Snape grunted.  "Let us hope you are right."

"Um – why's this an issue?" Ron asked.  Because as well as being an undiplomatic idiot he was also sharper than most people gave him credit for.

Sharper than Hermione, in any case.  Because it was only when Ron asked the question that she realised Snape was concerned about MLE looking too closely at Joseph Montague's part in events.  Snape had, after all, assailed and threatened Joseph behind the Leaky Cauldron.  It was one of those pieces to the puzzle she had not yet been able to make fit.

Snape's eyes were on her.  He wanted to find out how much she had told Harry and Ron.

"It's an issue," she said to Ron, "because Joseph's difficulties are the reason I got involved in the first place.  Churlish will want to prove that decision was flawed, since she's really not keen on enthusiastic amateurs.  And if she gets sidetracked, trying to poke holes in the evidence, we spend less time finding Blaise Zabini."

Ron accepted the argument.  Snape blinked at her then looked away.

While she was on the front foot, she added, "Madam Churlish never found her witness to your adventure in Knockturn Alley, I take it?"

Snape's expression grew considering.  "Witness?"  He glanced at Harry and Ron, then back at her.

"She told me some clerk in the Coffin House claimed to have seen the whole thing.  Noticed another wizard present.  Some seedy-looking chap, apparently."

Snape's eyebrow lifted.  "Did she indeed?"

Harry said, "Shacklebolt never mentioned this.  Who was the other bloke?"

"Not a clue," Snape drawled.  "Nor have I any idea why Madam Churlish might be in touch with a clerk in the Coffin House.  The business ceased trading in May.  The owner fled the country, given his rather conspicuous sympathies with the Death Eaters.  I believe he is currently in Hungary."

Ron huffed a laugh.  "Sounds like one of the Knockturn-ers has been leading Madam Churlish up the garden path.  Not for the first time, either, I reckon."

"I suppose that must be it," Hermione said.  But she was looking at Snape, and he was looking at her, and there was obviously something she was missing.  She shook her head and went on, "Do you have any objections to my summary of how Mrs Trelore came to my parents' house last night?"

"Difficult to see how that is a problem," Snape said, "given that Mrs Trelore will presumably explain to Madam Churlish what she explained to us."

"Yes, I know, but I suppose I'm asking whether you're bothered about how Narcissa Malfoy's involvement might reflect back on her."

He lifted an eyebrow.  "Mrs Malfoy made a decision.  She chose to use a friend who was in trouble to pursue an agenda of her own.  If there are consequences to that choice, that really is her look-out."

Harry said darkly, "Fucking Malfoys."

"Oh, indeed, Potter.  Pure evil, all of them."  His dryness made Harry glance up, but it was Snape's knowing look at Hermione that shocked her.  She read the subtext in his eyes: Snape was aware that she and Draco had achieved a kind of armistice.  He'd also worked out that Harry and Ron were unaware of this.

Hermione felt a chill.  Snape was telling her that he knew something that could damage her.  He was threatening her again, in his own understated way, and she had no idea what she'd done to deserve it.

Ron cleared his throat.  Everyone looked at him.  "We've still got to explain the coincidence of Snape being at Banstead when Zabini's mum showed up."

Snape waved a careless hand.  "Sometimes coincidences happen."

Harry said, "No, Ron's right.  We said last night that you went with Hermione because you happened to be here.  We didn't say why you were here."

There was a moment of quiet as everyone thought about this.

"I've no intention of revealing your presence in the coastal habitat last night," she eventually said to Snape.

"But you should," Snape decided.  "I'll be including that in my own report.  The wand-monitoring system will reveal I was there, should anyone choose to check it."

"I thought of that," she said.  "Just because you were there doesn't mean I saw you."

Snape scoffed.  "And how do you explain that your pursuit of Gustiver Walsh was more successful than mine?"

"Basic good fortune.  I was under an invisibility cloak.  You were Disillusioned.  You needed to wait for Walsh to clear the habitat before you could make your way out, or you'd be discovered."

Ron tut-tutted.  "I can't believe you were both working on the same project without knowing it!"

Snape ignored Ron.  He nodded at Hermione.  "I suppose that works.  I was too far behind once Walsh departed the level."

"Right," agreed Hermione.  "But you must have realised I was there too.  Somehow.  Maybe because when I followed Walsh out you noticed the footprints."

"And I'm supposed to recognise you from your footprints, outside of any other context?  Don't be ridiculous."

"I'm not being ridiculous," she insisted.  "You saw the footprints and you knew that they were being made by someone wearing an invisibility cloak.  Leading to an obvious inference."

"Be easier to say the wind whipped the cloak about and Snape saw Hermione before she put it back in place," Ron said.

"Whatever!  It doesn't matter what gave me away, all that matters is that it explains why Severus went to Grimmauld Place to ask Harry what the hell was going on."  She looked at Snape.  "Which is why you were here when I arrived, and hence, you came with me to Banstead."

Harry said, "Sounds plausible.  And I'd go with the wind pulling the hood free.  I mean, sorry, Hermione, but you're a bit crap with the whole stealth thing."

"I was good enough to find a supervillain's lair," she tossed back.

"It doesn't explain the snails," Ron said.

"What doesn't?" Hermione asked, confused.

"MLE will have catalogued all the stuff at the basement flat now.  And since it was a box of stolen sea snails that led Hermione there, they'd expect to find them at the address.  'Specially since, you know, you can't Apparate out while you're holding them."

Hermione shrugged.  "Yes, that's true, but there was a tube station less than five minutes' walk away.  One person Apparates out with Blaise as a Side-Along, the other heads for the underground.  It isn't exactly a locked-room mystery."

Ron took a moment to process this, then nodded.  "Right.  Hadn't thought of that."

"Not that they needed to do that, of course, since they didn't actually have the snails.  So.  Do I finally get to learn the fate of the haliwinkles?" Hermione asked.

Snape looked at her, put the papers he'd been hiding behind down, sighed.

"I followed Gustiver Walsh into the changing rooms.  You did not.  Walsh checked to see if he was alone, which he thought he was, then he opened his satchel and admired his box of snails.  He tried to cast a Patronus.  I would imagine he was attempting to report his success to his employer.  Of course, the proximity of the haliwinkles prevented him from casting successfully.  He realised this after a mere six attempts."

Harry hissed a laugh.  Ron rolled his eyes.

"At this point," Snape went on, "he moved away from where he had placed his satchel.  He looked at the main door and decided to define some cover, so he walked through into the shower area.  Since this was likely to give me perhaps a minute alone with the satchel, I decided that it was worth removing the snails from his possession.  At the very least, it would mean another four weeks before De Morte Magicae could be brewed."

"You switched them out," Hermione said.

"I Transfigured a comb someone had left on a bench into a box that matched the one containing the haliwinkles.  I swapped them over."

"At that point you wouldn't have been able to re-Disillusion," she pointed out.

"Really?  If only you'd been there to state the blatantly obvious.  Of course I could not Disillusion.  So I went to hide in a lavatory stall."

Hermione ignored his sneer and considered the logistics.  "So you couldn't follow Walsh out.  Not immediately."

"No.  I deemed the retrieval of the haliwinkles more important."

"Well, of course it was.  If you hadn't taken the chance, we might still have lost Walsh while we followed him, and then he'd've had all the ingredients."

"Again, you state the blatantly obvious.  I could not locate you once I risked the corridor again.  I had hoped that in my obvious absence you might have waited."

Ron snorted a laugh.  "Yeah, that sounds just like Hermione."

Hermione didn't take her eyes off Snape.  "So when you realised I'd headed out after Walsh you tried to catch up?"

"I could not have done so covertly.  And I preferred not to be noticed in reception, four hours after I had been seen leaving St Mungo's after my class."

"Then you'll have stashed the haliwinkles somewhere first."  She thought.  "They're in the potions lab.  You could make it there from the male changing rooms unseen.  You know the room."  She spotted the sneer before it grew to fruition and said, "Yeah, yeah, I know, blatantly obvious."

Snape looked away.  "I considered disposing of the creatures down the hatch, but it seemed a waste.  So I placed the box in a cupboard at the front of the lab, behind some supplies.  I checked this afternoon.  They were still there, so I returned them to the habitat."

"A friend to all crustaceans," Ron said with an airy sigh.

"Gastropods," Hermione corrected.  She was still looking at Snape.  "So once you'd hidden the snails, then you tried to follow?"

He sighed.  He did not appreciate her insistence on the detail, but she was trying to remind him how worried he'd been about her.  She'd seen the look on his face when she'd Apparated back here last night.  He had cared about her then.  If he was having a snitty evening, he'd damn well have to put up with a Hermione Granger who fought back.

"I left the hospital under Disillusionment.  By this time Walsh had been gone for a good five minutes or more, so I did the only thing I could."  He paused, arched an eyebrow.  "No suggestions this time?"

"At the risk of stating the obvious?  If it was me, I'd have assumed Walsh was heading for Diagon or Knockturn on foot.  So I'd have walked to the junction with Charing Cross Road and then headed for the Leaky.  Hoping I might catch up."

Snape gave her a grudging nod.  "I did not see Walsh, though I walked all the way through to the far end of Knockturn Alley.  At that point I had to concede that I had lost his trail."

"So you came here, figuring this is where I would come once I ran out of ideas.  Or ran into trouble."

Snape's eyes narrowed.  "And, to my astonishment, I discovered that Potter and Weasley were also here, worried for your safety and yet unaware of what you were up to."  He turned his head, as if inviting explanation, but before she could say anything he added, "Are there some trust issues that need resolving, perhaps?  Keeping secrets can be dangerous work."

Hermione took the time to breathe, and checked her own anger levels.  They were simmering nicely.  Still, she should have known that when Severus Snape was challenged on his snittiness, the last thing he was likely to do was concede.

"Ah," she said, surprised by the steadiness of her tone.  "Escalation.  I'm getting good at that."

She noticed that Harry and Ron had gone very still.  Snape glared at her for long moments, before – all of a rush – he broke eye contact and turned away.

"I've no idea what that means," he lied, and stood up.  "If there are no other queries about these reports, I shall be on my way."

"I've got queries," Hermione said, surprised to note that she was on her feet too, though she couldn't remember her brain sending the signal to her legs.  "A few answers too.  And a  really grovelly apology.  Want me to do it in front of Harry and Ron?"

Snape looked at her as if he couldn't quite believe she was pushing this.  She stood her ground, even when Ron raised a half-hearted hand and said, "Um, I'd rather be excused, if that's okay?"

Hermione tried to soften her expression.  "Severus, you can't just–"

"I can do what I like," he said sharply.  "Do not presume on my regard for you."

"I'm not presuming anything.  I just want to straighten things out!"

Snape stalked around the kitchen table but she moved to intercept him at the doorway.  He hesitated in front of her.

"What's happened?" she pleaded.  "Last night we laughed together!"

His eyes blazed at that.  She hadn't even realised how furious he was.  When he replied, he spoke so quietly and dangerously it was like a knife sliding between ribs:

"I'm well aware that I can't stop you laughing," he told her.

While she was still trying to make sense of that, he pushed past her and walked quickly up the steps.

~~~