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Toil and Trouble

Chapter Text

"Pure intention, juxtaposed,
Will set two lovers' souls in motion,
Disintegrating as it goes,
Testing our communication."

Tool (Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor, Adam Jones, Maynard James Keenan), Schism 2001

 

"You're earlier than I was expecting," Dane said, as Hermione stepped out of the fireplace.

"Turned out I had more spare time this evening than I realised."  She tried not to look too unhappy.  It wasn't Dane's fault that Severus Snape was a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a what-the-fucking-hell-is-going-on-with-you?

"Tea?" he offered.

"No thanks."

"Coffee?"

She narrowed her eyes.  "What kind of coffee?"

"It isn't instant, if that's what you're worried about."  He smirked at her dubious look.  "I'll go charm the pot on.  Make yourself at home."

As it happened, Dane's preferred coffee blend was very drinkable.  Hermione sat at his small dining table and read through his notes, checking every footnote and reference, sipping coffee and appreciating the distraction from other more personal matters.

"Is it odd that there's no photo-ID?" she asked, as she reviewed everything Dane had managed to assemble about Nicholas Beatty, the owner of the Regent's Park Road flat.

"These days, yeah.  Anyone who's applied for a passport in the last five years has their photo on record.  You probably know Muggle driving licences are moving from paper to photocard.  There's other examples."

"So – not outright suspicious, but unusual that you haven't found an image of this man?"

"I'd say so."

She read some more.

"The owner of the ground floor flat above the basement – he's been there almost four years," she said.  "Did you speak to him this morning?  I know you said you were going round."

"I did.  The guy wasn't there, so I went back after work.  Caught him around five thirty."

Hermione looked across at Dane.  "How did you play it?"

"I said I was trying to track down my Uncle Luigi.  Dark hair, Italian, scar across his eye.  I'd heard he might have been renting the flat below, only there was no one answering the door."

"The neighbour was helpful?"

"Oh yeah.  I spun a sob-story about how my uncle had been cut off by the family, but my mum had passed on and I was desperate to reach out."  Dane shrugged.  "People forget you're being nosy when you start talking about death."

"Tricksy.  So what did he say?"

"He said it's London, so he doesn't know his neighbours all that well.  But the guy downstairs – who I guess we can now call Niccolo Zabini – has been living in the basement flat for around eighteen months.  Quiet, unobtrusive for the most part.  There was one incident a few months ago when there was a loud bang in the middle of the night.  The guy from the ground floor flat, he went outside then checked the basement flat, worried someone was trying to break in.  Knocked on the door, kept knocking, shouted out in case someone was in trouble, announced he was going to call the police.  That made Zabini answer the door, quick sharp.  And the upstairs neighbour?  He said the flat stank like rotten eggs, and that Zabini was all sooty, hair spiked up, and his shirt even looked torn."

"Huh," said Hermione, thinking about how Neville Longbottom used to look in those Potions lessons where he managed to blow up his cauldron.

"Zabini told him it was nothing to worry about, he'd just had an argument with his pressure cooker.  Sent the neighbour back to bed.  Only the neighbour got to worrying the guy downstairs had been futzing with his gas pipework or something.  Like when people try to disconnect the meter from the supply, you know?"  Hermione nodded.  "So he contacted the owner of the flat – got their address via the Land Registry.  Wrote a letter expressing concern.  Got a letter back a couple of weeks later from a Mr Nicholas Beatty, thanking him for his diligence and assuring him he'd been by to check out the flat and it was all fine – just a misunderstanding."

Hermione considered the story.  "Could be taken at face value."

"Yeah."

"Or could be evidence that our suspect isn't a very good potioneer and is his own landlord."

"Could be that too."

She read some more.

"Beatty installs a new tenant every two years or so," she noted.

"Yeah."

"And the one before 'Uncle Luigi', as you called him, was a woman."

"Yeah."

Hermione turned the page.  "Oh.  You've got a picture of her."

"Yup.  Harriet Worell.  Works for some media service on Great Portland Street.  Thirty-six years old, married just three months ago, lives in Greenwich."

"Not a disguise, then."

"It's a fucking good one if it is.  Ah, um – 'scuse me."

"Please don't bother asking, my language is nothing to write hymns about.  Okay, so the tenant before Uncle Luigi was an actual tenant."

"Looks like."

"And before that?"

"Lucas Klager.  German guy, doing his PhD at UCL.  He's back in Freiburg now."

Hermione turned to Dane and raised an eyebrow in question.

He nodded.  "Another genuine one.  But for the two years before the German guy arrived, Philippe Cortez.  Another handsome Mediterranean."

"No scar?"

"No one mentioned it, when I checked.  Could have been hidden with a glamour.  Could have been pre-scar.  Could have been an entirely innocent and coincidental handsome Mediterranean."

Hermione frowned.  "Do you think it was Zabini?"

"See, now, Cortez is like Uncle Luigi.  Not much information on either of them.  Much harder to research than the other tenants."

"Same person, then.  Niccolo Zabini."

"That's my theory," Dane agreed.

She shook her head.  "Why?  Why change things around like this?"

"I don't know.  I've never tried to live under the radar.  Maybe to avoid getting complacent?  Change things up from time to time in case someone gets suspicious?"

"Okay, but that gives us a question that needs answering."

Dane nodded.  "Where does Zabini live when he isn't using the flat?  Yeah.  I asked myself that.  And that's when things kind of got interesting."

~~~

"So 'Nicholas Beatty' owns three properties," Hermione said, looking over the notes Dane had made.

"That's what the Land Registry has turned up so far.  He doesn't live at any of them, though.  His postal address is a PO Box.  Phone number just rings without an answer."

"'Beatty' is a figurehead, then.  For doing Muggle business."

"He's got a valid National Insurance number, a Muggle bank account, a credit history, so yeah, I'd guess so.  This is the persona Zabini's put some work into creating.  It's the kind of identity that'll stand up to scrutiny from mortgage lenders, conveyancing solicitors, that kind of thing."

"Okay, so talk me through these properties."

"First one bought in '82, over in Bloomsbury.  It's a first floor flat, three bedrooms.  Then there's the basement flat on Regent's Park Road he bought in '84 – that's a two bed.  Then, most recently, a house.  Big place in about two acres, five bedrooms, listed building.  Ex-farmhouse, with a converted stables.  Lots of space, lots of privacy.  He bought it in '94."

Hermione looked at the address.  "In Dorset."

"Kingston Lacy, not far from Wimborne."

"So not very far from the home of Jossinia Trelore."

"Yeah, I noticed that."

Hermione looked at Dane.  "This is very suggestive.  Did you take this to Madam Churlish yet?"

"I did, late this afternoon.  I only got the Land Registry search data back at about four o'clock – when I'm at work I have to nip out to Charing Cross Library for any computer stuff.  Soon as I saw the Dorset connection I went straight to Improper Use.  Hey, by the way – is something going on?  Something else, I mean.  Every time I've been on level two today, people have been racing round like blue-arsed flies."

"Have they?  No idea.  I was on level five for my classes, apart from lunchtime."

"Well, anyway.  I suppose I was lucky Churlish even gave me five minutes.  You know.  After our earlier meeting."

"What did she say?"

"She conceded that this place in Dorset was worth a look and said she'd take a patrol to check it out this evening.  But I got the feeling she's still resisting the idea.  She said that even if Zabini has been hiding away as a Muggle all these years, how the hell did he get the kind of money to buy properties?"

Hermione tutted.  "The kind of man who thinks De Morte Magicae is a good idea?  He's hardly going to balk at a spot of burglary.  Alohomora yourself into a cash-rich business, like an off-licence or pub or a bookie.  Disillusion to avoid the alarm systems, Stupefy if someone comes sniffing, Apparate once you've grabbed what you need.  Rinse and repeat."

"I'm concerned by how much thought you've given this," Dane said.  "Is this how you kept you and your mates going when you were on the run?"

"God, no.  Partly because we avoided all built-up areas and partly because, you know, stealing is wrong.  I mean, I know I robbed Gringotts but that was different."

"Churlish mentioned Gringotts, actually.  Said that Zabini would have needed access to funds to set this all up, but Gringotts would have required wand recognition.  Kind of awkward since he was supposed to be dead.  Fake Muggle identities are fine as they go, but they won't get you past the goblins."

Hermione sighed.  "Okay, I get that Churlish doesn't like this evidence, but at least she's going to take a look at this place in Kingston Lacy.  What about the Bloomsbury flat?"

Dane shook his head.  "After how things went with Churlish?  I went straight to Officer Vernon with that one.  Told him this might be another flat owned by our suspect.  He agreed to check it out and took a colleague, but he Floo'ed me an hour or so back to say the place is currently occupied by three generations of the same Indian family, all of whom seemed very nice but less than wizardly."  Dane shrugged.  "He got offered samosas, though, so it wasn't all bad."

"Ah.  Genuine tenants again."

"Exactly.  Unfortunately Officer Vernon will be filing a report, so Madam Churlish is going to find out I went behind her back.  If she doesn't know already."  He sighed.  "I'm guessing that was a bad call on my part.  But what could I do?  If the son, Blaise, if he's still being held somewhere then the clock is ticking."

Hermione nodded.  "I don't know what's going on with Churlish, but I suspect it's got something to do with politics.  I take it you still can't get a hold of the MLE records on Niccolo Zabini's so-called death?"

"No.  Not my area of the case, apparently."

"Why do you want them?"

"Dates.  Any family records from Italy.  Zabini's history – I don't even know what the bloke did for a job when he was living here and married to the Trelore woman.  Who, by the way – wow."

"She's very beautiful," Hermione acknowledged.  "I suppose if you knew what Niccolo Zabini did before he faked his death, you could make better guesses at what he's done since."  She closed Dane's notes file.  "I just wish I knew what his motives were.  Even assuming he's spent sixteen years setting up fake personas and buying property and so on, why change things now?  He seems to be a careful sort, planning ahead, not taking risks.  But all the stuff he's been involved with of late – it's all risk.  You hire a thief at the hospital and you immediately lose complete control of that part of the scheme.  You recruit Blaise – same issue.  Something must have changed for him.  Something that triggered the switch in strategy, from passive hiding-out to aggressive attacks."

"Seems like it's mainly about this Muggle businessman, to me."

"But that's exactly my point.  If he honestly wanted Philip Richmond dead or-or otherwise out of the picture then the man would be gone.  Dealt with.  Same for Mrs Trelore."

"Can't be easy, though.  Watching the woman you married get swept off her feet by one of the most eligible bachelors in Britain?"

"Why?  Zabini has already watched her marry four times since he 'died'.  He didn't see fit to step in and involve himself back then, so wh–"

She stopped abruptly.

"What?" Dane asked.

"Why is this one different?" she said slowly, frowning at the whirling thoughts in her brain.

"Right.  So – is he just super-pissed-off that the latest flame is a Muggle?  Is that his issue?"

"How do we know this one is so different, though?" Hermione mused.

"Um..."

"I mean – what if he did step in?  What if he involved himself in all the other marriages, except we never found out about it?"

"I don't...what are you saying?"

"It's a hell of an alibi, isn't it?  Being dead at the time?"

"At what time?"

Hermione nodded to herself.  "What if Jossinia Trelore was telling the god's-honest truth when she said she had nothing to do with all those dead husbands?  What if it was him?"

Dane frowned at her.  "Um – if he's so psychotically jealous about her being with other guys that he kills everyone who marries her, maybe he shouldn't have faked his own death and left her a widow."

She shook her head.  Too many thoughts, all swirling, all smushing together without coherency.  "It isn't about jealousy, it's about hatred," she said.  Another stray thought: there were hate potions that could crystallise the emotion into a clinical, detached capacity for murder.  "Or maybe it's about, what was it?  'Dispassionate rancour.'"

"Losing me now," Dane said.

"It's about deeds.  It's about tangible actions."  She sighed.  "But I don't get it.  It doesn't make sense.  He never profited from all those dead husbands; she did."

"Right.  So why do it?"

"We need to deconstruct this.  Let's go back to the start.  Why would Niccolo Zabini fake his own death?"

"Er, money trouble?"

Hermione barked a laugh.  "So not an issue."

"Wants a fresh start with a new lover?"

"Possibly, but if so then why pay any further attention to his ex?"

"Made a bad enemy and needs to disappear?"

"Again, possibly.  But why go to such lengths?  He had wealth aplenty thanks to his wife's previous two husbands.  So why not use those resources to pay the enemy off, or get rid of him some other way?"

"Okay, well, I've got nothing, then.  Why did he fake his own death?"

Hermione shook her head.   "He was either running towards something – in which case, why the obsession with what went before?  Or he was running from something – something he couldn't get rid of any other way."  She frowned as she thought.  "Could be he's enough of a selfish prick that he simply got tired of being a husband and father."

"Divorces are easier than faked deaths."

"Divorces are relatively rare in wizarding society.  But you're right.  Why did he have to die rather than divorce?  And why would he stick around in Muggle London all that time afterwards?  To keep an eye on his wife?  To watch Blaise grow up?  No, if that was what he wanted he'd have based himself in Dorset right from the get-go.  What else is there?"

"Sometimes men hate their partners but can't stand the thought of them being with anyone else," Dane pointed out.  "Those are the bastards that beat up women and kill their own kids because they think of them as property."

"Maybe," Hermione murmured.  "No.  No, it's not so emotional.  It's dispassionate.  It's planned and meticulous."  She blinked.  "Follow the money," she said.

"Um – what?"

"William Goldman.  Screenwriter – All the President's Men.  'Follow the money.'  Basically it means when there's crime and corruption and all that stuff, if you track the money then you'll get to your bad guys."

"Oh.  Right.  Sort of like cui bono?"  Dane nodded thoughtfully.  "Doesn't seem like Zabini is struggling for money."

"No, it doesn't, does it?  How much did he pay for this house in Dorset?"

"Best part of four hundred grand."

She gave a low whistle.  "Mortgage?"

"No, that one was a cash purchase.  Beatty still has mortgages on the two flats, though – I'm guessing the rental income services those."

"Sounds feasible, but I wouldn't have thought it would do much more, especially since he has to live somewhere too.  Where did this four hundred grand come from?"

"Not a clue.  Are we going off the idea that he's been robbing off-licences?"

"That might have set him up with a deposit for a flat in '82, but the outright purchase of a listed house in two acres?  I'm thinking he needed to do more than rob a few offies."  She looked over at Dane.  "I take it you can't requisition his bank details?"

"Not without some serious memory-charm work.  In Muggle terms, you need a warrant for that stuff, and I don't have the computer skills to hack bank systems.  I can tell you how long he's had the account and which bank it's with, but I've no idea what's in the account at the moment."

"Hum."  She thought this through.  "There's two things that Jossinia Trelore is famous for: her beauty, and her wealth."

"Right.  Thanks to seven rich dead husbands."

She shrugged a shoulder.  "Or, you know, six of the seven.  But Zabini was the one who lasted the longest, from what I remember, and he was the one who fathered her son.  Maybe he was the one she married for love, rather than money."  She shook her head at all these 'maybes' and 'what ifs' and other assumptions.  "It's speculation.  But it isn't unthinkable that he got to like the wealth quite a lot more than he liked being a family man.  Came up with a way to lose the tedious stuff but keep the perks – use his wife's famous beauty to keep milking the cash cow."

Dane put his coffee mug down.  "But if Zabini's supposed to be dead, how does he get his hands on her fortune?  Like Churlish said, he'd need wand-access for the vault at Gringotts."

"I don't know," Hermione said.  "Which makes it one massive, clanking spanner in the works."

"Only way I can see it happening is if she's in on it.  The widow.  They fake his death so, like you said, he's got a rock-solid alibi.  Then she gets back into the marrying-rich-guys game, he starts killing them off and they reap the proceeds, knowing that she'll always pass a Veritaserum test."

"That makes sense, logistically.  But when Trelore looked at the poster last night, I didn't think she was faking her shock.  It was genuine.  She did not know about her ex.  She thought he was long dead."

"Yeah, I saw it that way too."  Dane gave a sigh.  "Okay, I'm not even sure I know what you're suggesting here, but I'm guessing we need information about Niccolo Zabini, from back when he was properly alive rather than, you know, sneaky-covert-alive."

Hermione nodded.  "We need MLE records on all the investigations into Mrs Trelore's husbands.  We need to know about her financial set-up.  And we need to know if Churlish has gone to check out this house in Dorset, because we could short-circuit the whole investigation if it turns out you've already managed to uncover Zabini's hidey-hole."

"So – what do we do now?"

"You?  You've pissed off Madam Churlish enough for one day.  If you're willing, just stay here and keep researching.  Even if 'Nicholas Beatty' doesn't own any other properties, he might have a long-term lease, or he might have dumped Blaise somewhere and then holed up in a hotel.  Or Zabini could be using one of the other pseudonyms he created – you could try those, maybe?  Basically we need to know if there are any other addresses he might have fled to."

"Okay, I can work on that, but what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to beg Kingsley Shacklebolt for a favour."  Hermione rolled her eyes at herself.  "Like the pathetic, entitled prima donna that I am."

~~~

She Apparated home first, and found Harry and Ron still at work on their reports for Madam Churlish.

"You okay?" Ron asked, when she came into the kitchen.

She frowned.  "Don't know.  My ideas are all a bit mixed up but I think I'm on to something."

A pause.

"What?" she asked.

Harry said, "He meant about Snape.  Who was being an arse.  And I think Ron deserves some credit for trying to be nice and supportive even though he's still totally freaked out by you fancying him."

"Oh, I see.  No, I'm not all right, not about Severus.  But I can't sort that out because you can only do so much on your own.  Ron – thank you for your support.  Sorry I've freaked you out."  She took a deep breath.  "I think Niccolo Zabini might have murdered all of Jossinia Trelore's husbands.  Including himself.  Sort of."

Harry and Ron stared at her.

Harry said, "Um."

Then Ron said, "Fucking hell, that makes sense."

"Why?"

"Well, you know, the reports.  In the newspaper.  All down the years, it was a recurring thing.  A massive scary domestic drama.  A bit of time would go by and then there'd be another death.  And there'd be an investigation and people would be all, 'This is the one that finally gets her,' only they never did."

"The Prophet," Hermione said.  "It's a good thought.  Maybe we can get something from their archive."  She looked at Ron.  "She was never found guilty of anything, obviously."

"Course not.  Didn't you read it y–"  He stopped.  "Oh.  Right.  Sometimes I forget you and Harry didn't grow up in my world."  Ron frowned.  "Pretty sure the investigations got tougher and tougher.  No one could believe it wasn't her, not when the pattern was so obvious.  They'd use Veritaserum, then Pensieve evidence when the law changed and it became admissible, but she never gave anything away."

Harry said, "A good Occlumens can fight the effects of Veritaserum."

Hermione added, "And there's an antidote, if you're good enough to brew it."  She frowned.  "No idea how Mrs Trelore is with potions, but I'm pretty sure Niccolo Zabini is a crap potioneer."

"Why?" Ron asked.

"He blows cauldrons up," she said.  "Which is why he needs a brewer."  She blinked rapidly as one train of thought thundered to the fore.  "Which is why he recruited Blaise.  Blaise isn't a potions master, but he's competent enough.  He'd probably manage the recipes in Baneful Brews.  I mean, I could brew them.  Technically."

"But you wouldn't," Harry pointed out.

"I think I'd have to be under an Imperius," she agreed.  "Point is, Blaise has enough skill.  Only he started to balk at the plan when the potions got scarier.  Ended up saying to hell with it.  Turning his back."  The train of thought whooshed past at high speed.  "Which is why Niccolo Zabini tried to get a hold of Severus!  He needed a competent potions brewer.  Preferably someone prepared to consider something a bit morally questionable – right or wrong, Severus has a reputation.  Oh, and it had to be someone Zabini had actually heard of."

"How do you mean?"

"Fairly sure he's been living as a Muggle for sixteen years," Hermione explained.  "I think he dips in and out of the wizarding world, but he hasn't maintained contacts here.  Or at least, not many."

"Okay, so Snape fits the bill," Ron said.  "And Zabini decided to try to grab him."

"Right.  Last Tuesday, in Knockturn Alley.  The last day Blaise was seen by his mother.  And that's because Blaise's father made a mess of trying to nab Severus, so he had to go back to plan A.  Use Blaise.  Only this time be more insistent.  So he kidnaps his own son and gets him stashed away, tied up in that basement flat.  But Blaise still refuses to help, so Zabini decides to force him into it by capturing and threatening his mother.  Only she got away too, like Severus."

Ron was nodding.  "I suppose that fits."

Harry said, "I wish you wouldn't call him 'Blaise'.  Sounds like you're friends, or something."

"Actually I started doing it to piss him off," Hermione said.  "Look, sorry, this is a tangent.  I need to find out about Mrs Trelore's dead husbands.  And I think she passed all the Veritaserum tests and the rest of it for one very simple reason."

"You think she's genuinely innocent of any crime," Ron said.

Hermione remembered a comment Mrs Trelore had made the previous evening at her parent's house.  "She feels complicit in one of the murders, from what she said."  She shook her head.  "I don't have enough information."

"Let me ask this, then," Ron said.  "Why do you need to know?  This isn't our investigation, remember?"

"I remember."  She felt a familiar surge of frustration; the way she always felt when she saw someone doing something the wrong way.  "Blaise Zabini is missing and I think he's in serious trouble.  And everything I'm hearing about Churlish tells me she isn't on the right track."

"That doesn't mean we should just step in," said Harry.

"Yes, I know.  Politics."  Hermione sighed.  It didn't seem right that Blaise Zabini's life should be risked because the Ministry had yet to get its post-war act together.

Of course, it didn't seem right because it wasn't right.

And Hermione had never been one to stand by and do nothing when she could see, plainly, that something was not right.

And fine, so maybe that made her a busybody, or a backseat flyer, or a bossy bloody know-it-all.  Or maybe – just maybe, in a world where capable women were not habitually denigrated for their ability – she was a decent human being who could claim intelligence and compassion to a reasonable standard, and who actually bothered to react when presented with an opportunity to do something that might help.

"We've no authority here," Harry said regretfully, oblivious to Hermione's quiet moment of decisive self-belief.

She drew her shoulders back.  "When did that ever stop us before?"

Ron looked at Harry.  The two of them shrugged at each other.  "She's got a point, there, mate," Ron said.

"She has.  A good one."  Harry nodded.  "When did she ever steer us wrong?"

"Cat hair in the Polyjuice," Hermione felt the need to offer.

Ron said, "Did that to yourself."

"Went after a basilisk on my own."

"Again...yourself."

"I bet there's something," Hermione said.  "I get things wrong too, you know!"

"So what?"  Ron shot her a lopsided grin.  "You're right more often than not."

She looked at Harry.  "We've both seen enough police procedurals and thrillers.  Kidnappings, abductions – the chances of success diminish by the hour."

Harry nodded.  "You know what, I don't care if Zabini has always been a grade-A fuckwit.  You're right.  We have to try."

Hermione said, "So we're agreed?"

"Agreed," said Harry.

"Definitely," said Ron.

"Good.  Harry, I need those MLE records."

Harry said, "Oh, well, I'll just pop to the Ministry and get them for you."  He rolled his eyes.  "Apprentice Auror, remember?"

"Shacklebolt's ear, remember?"

"What was it you called me?  An abuser of celebrity?"

"Yes.  Sorry.  I apologise."  She sighed at him.  "Now will you please go and abuse your celebrity?"

"Only if you come too."

"Fine."

Ron said, "Why aren't we taking this to Madam Churlish?"

"She's busy checking out a house in Dorset that might be Zabini's lair," Hermione said.  "Or she damn well should be."

"What house?" Harry asked.

"Dane does good work.  Can we go?"

Harry hesitated only for a moment, then he stood up.  "If I get in trouble over this I'm blaming you."

"Okay."

"No he's not," Ron said blithely, as he stood up too.

"I know."

They moved over to the staircase.

"All for one?" Harry suggested.

"One for all," Hermione agreed.

"What the fuck are you two on about now?" asked Ron.

~~~

At a quarter to nine at night, it was late for the offices of the Acting Minister for Magic to be quite so busy.  As Hermione led Harry and Ron from the lift on level one, they passed several people darting along the main hall wearing grim expressions.  Odd, for such an administrative part of the building.

"Remind me never to stand for high office," Ron said as they walked towards Shacklebolt's suite.  "I'd like a job where I can go home occasionally."

Inside the reception area, they had to wait while Amadeus Drinkwater – the only wizard who now stood between the Acting Minister and any concerned citizens – finished a Floo call.

"Help you, Mr Potter?" Drinkwater finally said.

"Is he in?"

"He's in.  And extremely busy."  Drinkwater offered them the look that said, 'Hey, I'm on your side guys, but there's a time and a place, right?'

Harry drew breath to speak.  Hermione didn't know whether he was going to state their case or withdraw gracefully.  All she knew was that she'd recognised a few of the words spoken during the Floo call, so she pre-empted Harry with a comment of her own.

"Claridge's.  In Mayfair.  Mrs Trelore was supposed to be there last night," she said.

Drinkwater frowned, hesitated, then beckoned them around to the side of his reception counter.

"I'm right, aren't I?" Hermione pressed.  "What's happening?"

"There's been an incident," he said.  "Actually it happened early this morning, but the Obliviator Squad has been at the hotel all day, setting things straight.  It's been a right old mess.  Containing the thing was touch and go for a while."

"Is Mrs Trelore all right?" Harry asked.

Drinkwater looked uncomfortable.  "This isn't something I've been cleared to talk about."

An incident.  On a day Hermione didn't work.  She cursed the timing of it all.  "Muggle-Worthy Excuse?" she asked.  "Is the committee involved?"

"Of course.  But I can't just t–"

"Sorry to have bothered you," she said, and pulled Harry and Ron away from the desk.

They followed her as she led them back to the lifts and then to the atrium.  Only when she was approaching the departure Floos did Harry say, "What's going on?"

"I think Mrs Trelore has either been murdered or kidnapped," she said.  "And we need to know which one.  Which means I need inside information.  Which means I need Lysander Crocus."

"Oh, your friend with the horrific waistcoats?" Ron said.

Hermione threw Floo powder into the fireplace and spoke her colleague's address.  When she heard his voice offer a hello, she leaned in to the grate and said:

"Lysander?  How are you fixed for visitors?"

"Oh!  Dearheart.  I'm not naked, if that's what you mean."

"Naked might be better than those waistcoats," Harry muttered.

"Naked can be arranged, if you're handsome enough," Lysander called back flirtatiously, making Harry blush.  "Come on through, Hermione."

"I've got Harry and Ron."

"Right you are!"

They all Floo'ed over to Lysander's cottage in Upper Flagley.  He received them in his living room, minus a waistcoat but wearing a loud silk dressing gown of East Asian style over his shirt and trousers.

"The Golden Trio, in my humble abode," he said with a smirk.  "How proud my old mum would be.  May I offer refreshments?"

Ron said, "Oh, um–"

Hermione jumped in first.  "What happened at Claridge's this morning?"

Lysander adopted his usual coy expression, eyebrow arched and eyes full of innocent question.

"'Sander," she said quietly.  "It's really important."

Her friend's expression grew concerned.  He waved them into chairs.  "Discretion has been required of all staff who were at the meeting," he said.

"By?"

"Jasmine Churlish."

Hermione sighed.  "She does like her confidentiality clauses."  A glance at Lysander.  "You'll tell me anyway?"

"Dearest, of course I will."

Lysander explained that Muggle emergency services had been called to Claridge's at around six o'clock in the morning.  A fire had broken out in one of the third floor rooms.  Alarmingly, the flames had taken on the shapes of writhing serpents and diving raptors and all sorts of terrifying mythical beasts.

"Fiendfyre," Harry said.

"You've seen it before?" Lysander asked.

Hermione watched Harry swallow hard.  "Yes."

Lysander didn't push it, and went on with his recount.  The hotel had been evacuated, but the fire service had been unable to dowse the bestial flames.  News coverage, in such a central and well-heeled part of London, had been extensive.  The fire had only been vanquished when news of the incident had reached Improper Use, at which point a team of Aurors and Obliviators was dispatched, post-haste.  The Fiendfyre spell was dealt with using the counter-charm.  The witnesses were going to take much more effort.

Lysander said, "Since the fire spread so quickly it was easy enough to decide on the Muggle-worthy excuse."

"Gas explosion," Hermione said.

"That's the one.  We got lucky, if you can call it that, with the Fiendfyre shapes.  They stay where there's stuff to burn, so they were contained in the building.  Staff saw them, and some fire-fighters, but none of the news cameras.  Still, the word-of-mouth reports got out.  We've put together an excuse – a large stash of recreational narcotics was believed to have been left near where the fire started."

"So everyone was accidentally tripping," Hermione said.  "Bit of a reach, but it could work.  You'll need physical evidence of the leftover material, and to set up the identity of..."  She stopped, because Harry had cleared his throat loudly.  "Shit.  Sorry.  Not my job."

"Not yet, anyway," Lysander remarked wryly.

"What about Mrs Trelore," Harry said.

Lysander looked sombre.  "As far as the memory-charm people can tell, she definitely checked in to the hotel, late the night before.  The staff remember her arrival."

"She was the target?" Hermione asked.

"Oh yes.  The Aurors' report said there's no doubt where the Fiendfyre was originally cast – in the room she'd taken.  But once the fire was dispelled, the room was searched.  There are no remains."

"Would Fiendfyre even leave remains?" Ron asked.

"Might only be bone fragments, but yes," Hermione said.  "However, if the spell was cast when Mrs Trelore was in the room, you'd expect her to either counter it if she knew the charm, or to Apparate to safety."

"Unless she was incapacitated first," Harry suggested.

"It's unlikely," Lysander said.  "Apparently one of the porters working at the hotel recognised her from the Muggle newspaper coverage of the ball at the Savoy.  Philip Richmond's mysterious beauty, in the flesh!  He saw an opportunity to find out who she is, then sell the information to the press.  Long story short, when the details she gave on check-in didn't help he went up to her room.  Pretended to deliver a complimentary nightcap.  Only she didn't answer his knock at the door."

"She might have been asleep.  Or in the bathroom.  Or utterly uninterested in callers, given the shitstorm her life was turning into," Hermione said.

"All possible.  But the porter decided that 'bathroom' was most likely, so he used his universal key thingie to open the door and sneak inside, hoping for a quick look in the woman's handbag.  And he found the room entirely empty.  The bathroom, too."

Hermione frowned.  "She was gone?"

"Apparently so.  No occupant, no luggage.  The porter snuck out again and completed his shift, but the memory-experts got a hold of him halfway through the afternoon as they worked through the witnesses."

"How much time was there between Mrs Trelore checking in to her room and this porter being a sneaky little shit?" Hermione asked.

"Not long.  Twenty minutes at the most."

She thought about this.  "So when Zabini, or whoever he sent to do his dirty work, showed up at the hotel at six in the morning, she'd probably been gone for hours.  Which might even mean that the Fiendfyre wasn't so much attempted murder as a fit of pique."

"Hang on – Blaise Zabini?  The woman's own son?"  Lysander looked appalled.

"Different Zabini," Hermione said.

Ron said, "I think the question we should be asking is – where did she go?"

Hermione cast her mind back to yesterday's meeting in the drawing room.  She remembered Snape leaning in to murmur something in Trelore's ear just after the woman had announced her intention to go to Claridge's.  She thought about a man who had learned to expect the worst, and had stayed alive for seventeen years because of it.

"I know where she is," Hermione said.

"Right!" Harry said.  "Where to next?"

Of course, the fact that the hotel room had been targeted at all meant that someone present at the meeting in Grimmauld Place had passed the information along to Niccolo Zabini.  Hermione knew it wasn't herself, Harry or Ron.  Trelore was the target, so snitching on herself seemed unlikely, and Snape had probably saved Trelore's life with the quiet word he'd had.  Hermione was pretty sure of Dane Booth's innocence, given how hard he'd been working to uncover leads.  Which left only Officer Vernon and Jasmine Churlish.

She knew where her instincts wanted to place the blame.  "Nothing's ever easy, is it?" she muttered.

But the pieces fell into place.  Churlish had insisted that Jossinia Trelore should not be interviewed after the Savoy incident.  She'd become angry and defensive every time she lost control of the boundaries of the investigation.  She had failed to identify the blond waiter, until the moment Hermione had rather inconveniently discovered the man's name.

And what about the supposed testimony of an unlikely witness to the Knockturn Alley incident?  Even that made more sense when you considered that Zabini himself could have informed Churlish who was present when he'd tried to nab Snape, and she had decided to catch Hermione out in her lie.  It also explained why the seedy-looking wizard had never been brought in for questioning.  It was one thing to dangle the poor man over Hermione's head like a slipshod Sword of Damocles, but to formally interview someone who might have actual evidence about Zabini's plans: that was quite another thing, indeed.

And then there was Churlish's hostile attitude towards Officer Vernon last night, when he'd shown some initiative and brought in Dane.  And her attempts to isolate Dane and deprive him of information...

Hermione stood up.  She looked at Harry.  "You need to go and see Shacklebolt.  Right now.  You need to insist on seeing him, do whatever it takes, and you need to make sure Jasmine Churlish is not in the room when you tell him she's working with Niccolo Zabini."

Ron squeaked.  Harry swallowed and then said, "Sure?"

"Pretty sure.  She's been trying to control this investigation long enough to let Zabini do his thing.  She may have been coerced, she might be under the influence of a potion – it may not be her choice.  Don't know.  But for now, you need to make sure Shacklebolt knows not to trust her."

Harry looked flummoxed.  "How am I s'posed to do that?"

"I'd start by asking him why he refused to let Churlish interview Trelore after the Savoy ball.  When he says 'But I didn't!' you can tell him that Churlish claims otherwise."

"Okay," Harry said.

She looked at Ron, and told him Dane Booth's address.  "Talk to Dane.  Tell him I think Churlish has either conveniently forgotten to do anything about the Dorset property, or she tipped off Zabini before sending a patrol out there.  Either way, we need to send a patrol to look at the house, so we need the address.  And if there are any other addresses he's found in the meantime, we need those too.  Get them to Kingsley, let him decide how to organise the patrols."  She considered.  "Dane might have become a problem for Churlish and Zabini.  He may be targeted.  So once you're with him, stay with him.  Please?  He isn't a dueller."

Ron nodded.  "Dorset address.  Other addresses.  Manly bodyguard.  Got it."

She looked at Lysander.

Lysander said, "You can give me a job.  I'm very reliable.  I could be in the Golden Trio.  Ooh! – the Golden Quartet?"

"I need you to do something that won't come easy, 'Sander," she said.

"Dearheart.  Anything."

"I need you to keep this conversation to yourself."

For a moment she thought Lysander was going to quip his way out of a promise, but he didn't.  He stepped up towards her, tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear and said, "You don't even recognise the faith you inspire, do you?"

"She never has," Harry said.  "She thinks people follow me."

"Oh, they do that too, Mr Potter," Lysander said.

Ron looked miffed.  "What am I, chopped dragon liver?"

Lysander winked at him.  "You?  Are gorgeous.  If you want me to follow, say the word."

Ron shuffled his feet.  "Um, thanks.  No thanks.  I mean."

Harry touched Hermione's shoulder.  "Where are you going?  Where is she?"

"She's with Snape," Hermione told him.  "Looks like I finally get to pay a visit to Spinner's End."

Lysander cleared his throat.

"What?" Hermione asked.

"Oh, nothing.  Just that, you know, the good professor is more of a local, these days."

She blinked.  "He's here?"

"A house guest of our own reclusive potioneer.  Roksana Bramble.  Don't you read the paper?  He's been living here in the village for weeks."

Ron groaned in sympathy.  Harry punched his arm.

Hermione ignored the tightness in her throat and turned to them both.  "Go."

The two of them departed for their respective tasks.

Hermione gave Lysander Crocus a weary smile.  "Right, then.  I need to know where Roksana Bramble lives."

~~~

The house was at the end of a short lane on the outskirts of the village.  It occupied a plot of land that included a large barn conversion: Bramble's potions research business.  Hermione recognised the junction with the main through road; it was where the photograph from the Prophet had been taken.  When she'd looked at that picture, she hadn't realised she'd been watching Snape walk Bramble back to the home they now shared.

The moon was full and round, though dustings of cloud skidded across its face.  The evening air was chilly and carried a stiff breeze.  Yorkshire was not a county known for the clemency of its autumnal weather.

A glow-globe mounted above the gate into the house's small front garden grew brighter with Hermione's arrival.  There was a light on in one of the front ground floor windows, and another in a room on the first floor.  It was an attractive house.  Warm-looking.  Welcoming.  Probably the kind of place you'd never want to leave, once you were settled in.

She wondered what the hell she was going to say.

Her heart hurt.

She closed the gate behind herself and walked up to the front door.  Another glow-globe in the porch came on.  She reached for the door knocker which was carved in the likeness of a Hufflepuff badger, and then snatched her hand back as the door was yanked open.

Severus Snape looked at her with wide, outraged eyes for a few tense seconds, before he peered past her into the garden.  "What the hell are you doing, you reckless, imbecilic–?"

"Enough," Hermione snapped at him.  "Insult me if you must, but do it later.  No one followed me here.  Is she safe?"

Snape's mouth moved of its own volition for a moment, though no sound came out.  Then he gave a sharp sigh and gestured her inside the house.

"She's safe," he said, once he'd closed the door.  "Now get yourself Disillusioned, get back to the main street where you can Apparate, and get the hell away from here."

Hermione ignored him.  "It's Madam Churlish," she said.  "She's selling us out.  I'm sure of it."

He blinked.  Then he growled with what sounded like impatience.  "Damn it, Hermione, I can only keep so many people from getting themselves killed at any given time!"

"And you do it marvellously.  But I'll take care of myself.  You knew about Churlish."

"Suspected."

"Why?"

For a moment Hermione thought he wasn't going to answer, before his anger morphed into something wearier.  "The questions she asked when I reported the incident in Knockturn Alley were...suggestive of another agenda."

"Huh.  She asked me a load of things about you, too."

Snape's eyes narrowed.  "And?"

"And I played the 'don't have a clue' card, obviously."

"Ah yes, you do that so well, don't you?"

"I remember.  'Clueless.'"

He tutted.  "I was being sarcastic."

"Now, or then?"

"Now.  Then, I was being furious."

"You mean you stopped?  Doesn't feel like it."

They paused, drew breath, glared at each other.

"You should have told me about Churlish," Hermione said, getting back on track.

"If I had, your behaviour towards her would have changed."

She considered this, then nodded.  "You're right.  That doesn't matter anymore, though.  I've sent Harry to speak to Kingsley."

Snape hesitated long enough to indicate that he was getting another surge of temper under control.  "May I ask why?"

"Because if Zabini is chucking Fiendfyre around in Muggle hotels then I'm guessing we haven't got another four weeks of softly-softly to work out a more cunning plan.  Plus – we've got some addresses for properties Zabini owns.  We might be closing in.  A corrupt MLE official overseeing the searches is the last thing we need."

Snape straightened up and looked curious.  "Addresses?  How?"

"My friend Dane Booth – the one you said you couldn't be bothered to sneer at?  Which would have been a good line if you hadn't been sneering when you said it...what?"

She'd stopped, because Snape's face had gone from being reluctantly engaged with their discussion to flat, cold and emotionless.  She'd somehow managed to shut him down.

"Thank you for the update," he said stiffly.  "I shall move Mrs Trelore on to a safer site when you depart.  I would recommend you Apparate to a few random locations before you–"

"What is it with you?" Hermione demanded.  "What did I do?"

Snape breathed deeply.  Then:

"...a few random locations before you fix upon your final destination.  Do not go anywhere else alone."

"It's about Dane, isn't it?" she finally, and perhaps a little belatedly, figured out.  "Why do you hate him?"

"I'll bid you a good evening, Miss Granger," he said, and reached past her in order to open the front door again.

Hermione grabbed his arm and forced him to look at her.  "You didn't seem to have any history with him when we saw you on the storage level.  So the only thing you could be angry about is that he's spent time with me."

The expression twisting Snape's usually implacable features hinted at fury and panic and a strange, hollow kind of grief.  "Get.  Out.  Of.  This.  House," he spat at her.

Hermione had already advised him against presuming upon her obedience, however.

"Seriously?  What happened to 'let's not make stupid assumptions anymore'?  Because that?  Stupid."

Snape looked down at where her hand touched his arm, and he wrenched himself free.  "Stupid?  Yes.  That would be a part of it.  A fine reason for a good laugh at my expense."  His eyes flashed black fire at her before he looked away.  Almost meditatively he said, "Stupid enough to consider that her regard for me was real.  Stupid enough to think that maybe it was time to set aside the past and look to something new.  Stupid!"  He seemed to have become manic; his eyes were too bright.  "But not stupid enough to fail to see what's right in front of me!"  He leaned in close and adopted a faux-New Zealand accent.  "My place or yours, Hermione?  You're welcome to use my shower, Hermione.  Come sit down on the sofa next to me, Hermione.  Let's have lunch together – hutch up close to me, let me whisper in your ear."  He spun away, pinched between his eyes.  "I am not that stupid!"

Silence reigned for a moment.

Hermione exhaled with a sharp laugh.

"I have warned you about laughing at me," Snape said dangerously, still turned away.

"Oh, stop being such a drama queen, I'm not laughing at you.  I never bloody would.  Jesus!"  She cast about herself, feeling adrift and helpless.  "Are we really having this conversation?  You do know you're thirty-eight, right?  And I'm nineteen, going on ninety-four?"  Hermione shook her head and pressed her hand to her forehead.  "I am laughing because if I don't I'll damn well cry."

A pause.  Snape sniffed.  He didn't turn to face her.

"We haven't even got to the good stuff yet," she added, mainly to herself.  "And we're already halfway to fucking it all up."

"We?" he questioned, apparently incensed by the idea.

"Oh, for...I'm not sleeping with Dane.  He was interested but I turned him down.  He was very nice and polite about it.  Some people do that, you know."

"You expect me to believe that?" Snape asked.

"Believe it or don't.  It's still the truth.  God!  Is this us?  Is this what I can expect?  You'll always assume the worst and then call me a liar when I claim you're wrong?"  She gave up on waiting for him to turn around to look at her, and walked further into the hallway until she could force his attention.  "Do I have to prove it?  Fine.  You're the Legilimens."  She tapped her own forehead with an aggressive finger.  "Stab me in the mind and find out for yourself."

She held his eyes, frightened but defiant.  Snape looked at her, and she could see the exact moment when his cold desire to do as she suggested was defeated by a worn-out, threadbare kind of humanity.

"I told you," he murmured.  "I told you months ago.  Do not toy with me."

"I'm not.  You got it wrong," she said, more gently.  "I suppose I can see why you misread the signals, but you got it wrong."  She breathed deep and drew her shoulders back.  "Still.  That's kind of beside the point, isn't it?"

He lifted his chin and looked down his nose at her.  "Then what is the point?"

"The point is that you do not get to pick fault with the way I interact with Dane Booth, or with Harry, or Ron, or with any other human being under the bloody sun."

"Oh, I do not?  You may not like my opinions, but I will not be denied them."  He shook his head, as if in disappointment.  "I had hoped you'd outgrown the childish belief that the world will ever mould itself to your preferences."

Hermione took a moment to breathe as those words blurred into the air between them.  Six months ago she wouldn't have known what to say to that.  Three months ago she might have told him to sod off.

Today:

She lifted her chin.  "Is that, in all honesty, the best you've got?"

Snape blinked, but didn't speak.  Hermione squared her shoulders and held up a single hand, palm out flat: as clear a gesture of denial as she could make.  'Stop.  Stop now, before you do or say something that means we'll never recover from this conversation.'  As much as she cared for him, she could not allow him to force them both back into ancient roles, no matter how desperately he wanted to reclaim that sense of authority and control.

If they moved forward from this, they had to move forward as adults.  As equals.

"Seriously, Severus?" she said quietly.  "You're so thrown by this situation, you've resorted to that?  Trying to belittle me?  Infantilise me?  Frustrate me into anger, use the same blunt weapons that served you so well as a teacher of young children?  Do you really hold me in such utter contempt?"  Now she was the one to shake her head.  "Hold any opinion you like, including the one that views me as a manipulative trollop.  If you want to believe that's true then have at it.  But what you may not do is assume that you are entitled to question my behaviour."

He finally found a rally.  "I matter so little, then?  You prove my very concerns."

The comment was weak and predictable, and Hermione returned it effortlessly.  "Your concerns, as first stated, were that I was intimately involved with Dane Booth.  Do you wish to change your position?  Are you now concerned about how much you matter to me?"

He made a shoo-ing gesture and huffed.  "Leave.  This grows tedious."

"Ah, I see, so now it's my opinion that you would like to deny."

A brief surge of fury.  "Damn it–"

"I know, I know.  But you do not get to call me a slapper and then throw me out when I have the temerity to stand up for myself."

Snape lifted a hand and dry-washed his face.  He didn't say anything.  She almost reached out in sympathy.  Severus Snape was struggling to manage an emotional confrontation – even one he had initiated – and he'd found that his armoury of cutting comments and well-judged sneers didn't help.

"Just hear me out," she said calmly, "and then tell me why I'm wrong.  That's how arguments are supposed to work."  Hermione stepped closer and did her best to measure her tone.  "I came on to you, remember?  You told me to back off, and for very sensible reasons.  I did so.  You then started up with someone else."  She arched her brows.  "I mean, does that make sense to you?  You think you can do all that and then get huffy about someone else showing an interest in me?"

He frowned.  He looked around at the hallway.  "I, er..."

"Yup," Hermione said.  "Here we are.  In your extremely clever and accomplished girlfriend's house.  Where you've apparently been living the dream, all nice and cosy, for weeks on end.  Is this really a good place for you to throw a strop because a colleague of mine sat a bit closer than you'd like at lunch?"

"Ah!  Miss Granger, I presume."

Hermione startled and spun round to locate the owner of this new voice.  At the top of the staircase leading up from the hall there stood a woman.  She was tall, her bearing proud.  She wore worn, comfortable robes in muted colours.  A silk scarf wrapped her head, angled over one side of her face.

Hermione had wondered when she was going to meet Roksana Bramble.

"Oh.  Um.  Hi," she managed.

Mistress Bramble gave a smile and began to descend.  "You must forgive Severus.  He's an extremely intelligent and perceptive man when it comes to everything except women."

Hermione glanced at Snape.  His face had drained of colour and his eyes were locked on Bramble.  "Roksana, it isn't..."  He shook his head.  Tiredly, he said, "No, actually, it's exactly what it looks like."

Surprisingly, Bramble smiled more widely at that.  She made it down to the hallway, her attention on Hermione.  "But it seems he's learning," she added, almost confidential in her tone.  "With his usual proficiency.  Annoying, isn't it?  Just when you think you've found something at which he is not skilled."  Bramble did an exaggerated eye-roll of irritation.

Hermione let out a nervous giggle and took Bramble's hand when it was proffered.  Bramble's skin was soft and too smooth in a few places.  It seemed that few of her extremities had escaped the fires of the accident.  The scarf covered the worst of her facial scars, but most of her exposed skin was still mottled and shiny.  She seemed to lack much in the way of hair, even eyelashes.  Her eyes were lovely, though: grey-blue, and filled with humour.  The burn scars around her mouth could not undermine the warmth of her smile.

Hermione bit at her lip, then she said, "I have no intention of getting in the way of anything, here."  She winced at her own words.  "Sorry, that sounds wildly arrogant."  She blew her cheeks out, vexed that in the space of two minutes she'd gone from being the master of debate to borderline incoherence.  "What I mean is – I've no intention of trying to get in the way."

"I'm not sure you can help it," Bramble said, a little sadly.

Hermione conceded with a frown, though the implication upset her.  She did not want to view herself as some kind of vamp.  Stealing other people's lovers was the tawdry business of soap operas; it had no place in Hermione's life.  "For the record," she said,  "I didn't come here to pick a fight with Severus."

"Then why did you come?"

"Because I think we might be close to finding Niccolo Zabini, and I was hoping Mrs Trelore might help with some information."

Bramble nodded.  "Jossinia and her companion are occupying the flat I have in my barn annex."

Hermione blinked at the unexpected familiarity in Bramble's words.

Snape finally found his voice again.  "Mrs Trelore and Mistress Bramble were at Hogwarts together, both in Hufflepuff."

"Right.  Of course.  And – companion?"

"Mrs Trelore was in danger," Snape said curtly, "and Zabini likes to coerce people by threatening those they care for.  It was a sensible precaution to offer Mr Richmond temporary haven outside of Zabini's grasp as well."

Bramble said, "Severus will take you over there."

Hermione nodded.  "It was...oh, god, could this be any more awkward?"  A big sigh.  "It was good to meet you.  I was hoping I would.  Even though I've been insanely jealous.  But, you know, I could see why he'd...I mean, I don't want to overstep the bounds of courtesy but I just...bugger."  She tutted at herself and then said, "I read your column in The Practical Potioneer, it's the first thing I look for with every edition, and I can't wait for your book to come out, and-and if we all make it to the other side of this ridiculous situation without killing each other then I'd love it if we could maybe talk some time.  About potions, I mean.  Not Severus."

Bramble smiled at that.  "Miss Granger, it would be a pleasure."

Snape said, a touch plaintively, "I have no idea what is happening here."

Hermione tossed him an exasperated look.  "You'd rather we had a cat-fight?"

Snape hesitated, perhaps considering the visual.

She rolled her eyes.  "What the hell is it with men?"

~~~