"We lose 'em?" Ron gasped.
"No, but I don't think they know what block we went into," Hermione panted. "I never thought I'd be grateful for living in a row of identical townhouses."
"Think Neville made it out okay?"
Harry answered, "He should have. He was across the street when Mr. Malfoy yelled and besides, they were pretty much just looking at me." He stood by the window, clearly fighting the urge to move the curtain to watch the street. "I'm the one with a big target on my forehead."
"Well, we are safe for the moment, but I don't see how we can get back to the train. Harry's not got his cloak, and most of the invisibility or disguise spells can be detected. We could call my folks at work but…"
"But that would put them in danger as well," Harry said.
"And they really don't know what's going on," Hermione continued. "They wouldn't be of a lot of help. Maybe they could get word to Mr. Weasley."
"We don't have the time," Harry said. "No, we are on our own."
"I've got an idea... ." Hermione looked up slowly. "But I don't think you're going to like it much."
"Does it involve the Killing Curse?" Harry asked.
"Then it's better than the alternative."
"Mr. Malfoy is the only one who's ever actually seen any of us and quite honestly, I doubt he'd recognize us out of robes anyway. The others are just looking for two boys and a girl, all wizards in training. If you and I keep Ron quiet, we can pass as Muggle girls."
"Not boys, Harry."
"Not wizards, Ron."
"Why do I have to stay quiet?"
"Say refrigerator, Ron."
"Right, that's why we have to keep you quiet. C'mon, Harry, you've been wearing other people's clothes all your life."
"Dudley doesn't wear skirts."
"Would it help you to think of it as a kilt?"
"Not really." Harry shook his head.
"Might help me."
"Ron, the only pleated plaid skirt I have is yellow and orange."
"No, trust me, no girl with your coloring would wear it."
"Good thing I'm not a girl."
"Do we have to go over this again?"
"No," Harry stated with clear finality. Ron raised a hand but was quelled with a look. "It's the best plan we've got. How quickly can we do this?"
Hermione turned down a short hallway and threw open a door into a small bedroom.
"You are both taller than I am, so let's try the longer dresses." She pulled a light grey dress out of the closet and handed it to Harry, then threw a pale blue blouse with a Peter Pan collar to Ron.
Harry pulled his shirt off and threw the grey dress over his head. "I look like Gandalf."
"Who?" Ron still held the blouse in his hands.
"A wizard. No, I mean, a wizard in a movie." Harry pulled the skirt of the dress out, then let it fall. Ron threw the blouse at him.
"You don't look anything at all like Ian McKellan," Hermione said, "but you do look like a boy in drag. Wow, I hope it's not that unflattering on me."
"Well no, because you've got…" Ron trailed off, mutely squeezing the air in front of him.
"Dog toys? Bicycle horns? What precisely are you trying to say, Ron?" She kept eye contact until the blush reached his neck. "Right Harry, take it off. You've got great coloring, but you're just too skinny to be a proper girl. More like one of the…" She paused, then snapped her fingers "That's it. Anyone that skinny is going to flaunt it, tart it up. Which will also help with the whole non-witch thing. We need trashy, which my closet isn't. But… I think Mum still has. ..Ron, stop that. I'm not even going to try makeup until you are both dressed."
"I'm just trying to figure out what it is."
"Unless you are planning to do this again on your own, later, you don't need to know. And if you are, I don't want to know." He dropped the jar. "And don't break it. C'mon." She led them to the master bedroom.
"Now we are going to be wearing your mother's clothes? Waitamnute, your mother is a trashy dresser?"
"Don't be silly," she muttered as she tossed shoes out of the closet impatiently. "My cousin stayed with us for a month a few years ago to get her act together. Well, that was the idea, though she wound up going home just as messed up, but she left a bunch of clothes here and Aha!" She tugged on a cardboard box. "Mom was too embarrassed to give them to the church closet but she never got rid of them either." Across the top, in neat block letters, was written 'Miranda's belongings'. Hermione tugged at a corner, but Ron brushed her aside and carried it back to her room.
She pulled items out of the box at random, handing them off to Ron or Harry. Ron juggled a cedar box, a bit of lace, and a white blouse until Hermione looked up and said, "I figured no one would actually see your underwear, unless you really wanted to wear those."
She pulled the black lace out of his hands and with a twitch of her fingers they resolved themselves into very delicate lace panties. Ron hastily tossed the shirt and box onto the bed and stood by the hallway door, one hand on his chin, the other firmly on his belt. Harry didn't try to hide his snicker.
"Here," Hermione pulled Harry forward and held a skirt up to his waist. "That should fit and it's heavy enough to hide, um…"
"Dog toys?" Ron asked from the doorway.
Hermione turned and stared pointedly into the wall as Harry dropped his trousers, stepping into the skirt gingerly. "Okay," he said, "the fly's weird."
"That's 'cause you've got it on backward." Ron said, "C'mon Harry, haven't you ever looked at a girl's…"
Hermione cleared her throat.
"It's too tight." Harry grunted and she spun and eyed him briskly.
"No, you're doing it wrong." She zipped and tugged the skirt. "Actually, you are doing it right. Clothes are *supposed* to touch your body all the way around and not have big gathers under the belt. Or be rolled at the cuff."
"Do I complain about the way you look?"
"There's nothing wrong with the way I look." They stood for a moment in silence. Harry's lip trembled. Ron bit his own. "Oh shut up. Do you want to be girls or not?"
"No," they said in unison.
"Let me rephrase that. Do you want to walk out of here or be dead?"
The boys stared at one another for a moment, suddenly serious. Harry looked at his own chest. "I'm going to need a bra and tissues."
Ron suggested, "Got any dog toys?"
Thankfully, with three sets of women's clothing in the house to choose from, all three of them were dressed hastily, though Ron wound up wearing Miranda's boots and her mother's shortest skirt and Harry fit in Miranda's skirt, but had to wear her mother's black patent mary janes with white socks. She threw him a white sheer blouse and a black bra. "Here, we'll pretend we did this look on purpose." With eyeliner exaggerating the green of his eyes and his black hair, he looked like a pedophile's idea of a schoolgirl. Ron came across more as Pippi Longstocking at a punk club, but she thought the contrast could only help disguise them. She pulled a Sanrio tee that she'd outgrown and a denim mini. She was going to be the wholesome one. The idea wasn't as funny as it probably should have been.
Even the low heels were throwing Harry. "I'm, um, going to go powder my nose," he called back to them as he wobbled into the hall.
Hermione set the foundation down and picked up the eyeliner again with a sigh. "I'm giving up on covering the freckles; Harry's prettier than either of us, so you're just going to have to be the funny one."
"Aren't I always?"
"Are you ever?"
"Hey!" he twitched out of her hand and the liner smeared.
"Dammit. Would it kill you to hold still? Here, wipe it off again, we'll start over."
"Why can't we do this magically?"
"One brush by a dispelling sphere and you are a boy again. Or did you want permanent eyeliner? I can do that, you know. Padma's worked out the spell."
He narrowed his eyes in a glare, then closed them as she leaned forward with the liner again.
"That's as good as you are going to get. Go practice walking while I do mine."
Ron wavered to the bathroom door and found Harry staring in the mirror.
"You're prettier than I am."
"You don't look at all like Ginny… or your mother."
Ron accepted the non sequitor with a nod. "If Mum ever spotted Ginny looking like this…"
Harry snorted and his mood lifted.
"We ready to do this?" Harry asked his reflection.
Hermione appeared behind them. "Not until I do something about your hair."
Ron spun, open mouthed, "You look…"
"Cheap is an acceptable adjective. Attractive is not." She straightened one spaghetti strap and tugged her skirt down. "I haven't worn this in years and shouldn't be in it now." She met their eyes in the mirror with a rueful smile. "But we certainly don't look like us."
"I kind of like you better the usual way." Ron glanced down to avoid staring at the pull of her shirt.
Her smile glittered against the too bright lipstick and she picked up her wand. "I'm going to accelerate your hair growth. We'll just have to explain when we are safe."
"I don't want girl hair! Can't we do a wig or something?" Ron jumped.
"Why would I have a wig in my closet?"
"You had a leather skirt!"
"Miranda had a leather skirt and my mother's just too scotch to toss anything."
"How about a hat?" Harry mused.
"A tam won't hide the fact that you've got boy hair. Honestly, are you just arguing to argue?"
Ron paused for a moment, considering, then admitted, "Yeah, pretty much."
"Go stand by Harry. I just want to do this once." Her wand flickered. "Accelerato"
Ron gusted forth a long suffering sigh then threw both hands to his head, crying, "It itches."
"Well, yeah, here, you'll tangle…"
They stared at Harry in twin horror.
"That's um, wow, oh…wow," Ron sputtered.
"There's not enough conditioner in the world," Hermione whispered in awe.
"I think it's magic." Harry ducked his head, embarrassed. "Pictures of my dad, um…"
"The polite term is bed head; the impolite term would make my mother wash my mouth out with soap."
"We could cut it?" Ron offered.
"Thus defeating the purpose of growing it out in the first place. French braiding will have to do." Hermione pulled an elastic from the drawer.
"The owl from the Ministry should be here in about fifteen minutes with the reprimand for using magic."
"I should be worried that you've timed them," Hermione said around the elastic in her teeth as she yanked a brush through his hair then worked nimble fingers in a rush, tugging errant locks into place. She tied it off, then thrust her purse at them. "Okay, wands in and we are off. I don't want the owl to lead the Death Eaters to my parents' house. Oh no! Harry, your glasses!"
He handed them to her saying, "Too late for the eyesight charm. I don't want to be dodging two owls. I can walk without them, but don't ask me to read streetsigns." He sighed. "Just tell me this'll work."
"They'll be looking for disguise spells and invisibility cloaks, Harry. Not three teenage girls coming out of a townhouse. Do try to walk like a girl. Swish. Okay, not that much. Ron can do it, why can't you?"
Ron leaned over and whispered into Harry's ear. Harry looked skeptical, but danced down the hall and onto the steps, then turned with a flourish, waiting for them in a studied pose.
"It worked. What'd you say?" Hermione asked.
"I will never, never tell you." Ron shook his head and followed Harry somewhat more carefully.
She turned to lock the door behind her then glanced to the left to see a hulking man wearing a windbreaker over a mac come out of the grassy area between her row of townhomes and the next one over. She threw an arm over each boy and laughed, too shrill even to her own ears. "Eyes down girls, and be happy." Ron giggled. "Not that happy." She risked a glance over as they drew past the stranger and shocked herself when she realized they were being watched, but with a leer. Knowing Ron's probable reaction, she waited until they were at the next break in buildings before she whispered. "He was checking us out." Ron stumbled, bumping into Harry and Hermione slid a leg behind his to keep him from turning around. "Move," she hissed. "The owl is on its way and I want to be at least a block over before it finds us."
They made it three blocks before Ron cocked his head and pulled his hair out of his face for the fourth time. "I want a braid next time. Harry doesn't have hair in his eyes." He looked over at Harry. The tight braid had already unravelled itself into something softer and almost Victorian. A lock had come free entirely and dangled over Harry's shoulder. Distracted, Ron missed the approaching owl, but Hermione shoved all three of them into an alcove and Harry's hand shot out, grabbing the envelope and dropping to a knee to hide it up his skirt as footsteps pounded down the way toward them.
An emaciated woman in a running suit with Harrod's tags still attached screeched at them "Did you see the owl?"
"Owl?" Hermione asked as a hirsute bear of a man panted to a stop behind the harpy.
"You stupid child, an owl, a bird, with a letter."
"Why would a bird carry a letter?" Hermione asked. Harry tugged at Ron's bootlaces and looked up at the Death Eaters, eyes wide. Hermione thought for a moment that he was overplaying it, but she could watch the man's eyes track from Harry's eyes horizontally to Ron's navel then up to Ron's stuffed bra, dropping finally to her own naturally stuffed one. Enough irritation showed on her face to register with the shrill woman, who pushed her companion into the street with a whisper about following the owl.
"With luck," Harry said as he rose, "They'll chase it most of the way back to the Ministry. Here, have a souvenir."
Hermione dropped the letter into her purse without opening it as Harry rose and dusted off his knees. She leaned her head against Ron's shoulder, inadvertently scrunching his tissue. "That was too close."
Ron led the way into the street proper, waiting until the Death Eaters had turned a corner before saying excitedly, "Close hell! Did you see how Harry grabbed that envelope? Without his glasses, even."
"I was wondering if any of that was non-physical," Harry mused. "If it's an innate ability instead of being…if it's innate, could it be..?"
"How can the two of you relate every experience to Quidditch?" Hermione demanded.
"How can you relate everything to Hogwart's: A History?" Ron replied.
"Could you please talk about something non-magical. Please? Just pretend your lives depend on it. Oh wait, they do." She stalked past them.
"Wow, she really does hate Quidditch, doesn't she?" Ron snickered.
"Oh c'mon, she's right." Harry hastened to catch up.
"She always is," Ron growled, but he, too, quickened his step. They joined Hermione on the corner where she was carefully examining her fingernails. "Besides, what do you talk about?"
"What do I talk about?" Harry asked.
"Not you, them." At twin looks of confusion, he went on, "Girls. Muggle Girls."
They both looked to Hermione and with a start she realized they were waiting for an answer from her. "I've honestly no idea."
"We could talk about movies." Harry offered. They linked arms and strolled in the general direction of the Tube station.
"Or crushes. All girls talk about crushes." Ron blanched at Hermione's glare. "Well, Ginny does."
"Or crushes on people in movies."
"Oh, thanks, Harry, now I'm out of the conversation again. The only actor I can pledge my undying teenage hormonal affection to is that Gandalf fellow."
"You can't have a crush on Gandalf, Ron," Hermione said.
"He's … get inside." They ducked into the nearest doorway, which thankfully was a retail outlet selling the normal everyday items that Muggles seemed to spend money on: purses with crudely drawn animals, fourteen different newspapers all with the same headlines, and twenty magazines showing identical women with frozen smiles. Hermione led them to the back of the store to confer amidst a barrage of competing ads for bottled water.
"Who'd you see?" Harry asked.
"Somebody holding an umbrella," Hermione answered.
"It's not raining."
"That's why we're in here." She pulled a bottle from the rack and they made their way slowly back to the front of the door.
"You never answered my question," Ron insisted.
"What question?" she handed him the bottle and opened her purse.
"Why I can't have a crush on Gandalf."
"He's a character. You have to crush on an actor, and the actor who plays him is gay."
"Then he's the safest possible person for a teenage girl to have a crush on." Ron batted his eyes at her in the most unfeminine way possible.
"well… yeah, you say that as an older brother." She squinted at him. "And please stop doing that."
"Besides, I have no idea who else to crush on."
"The bloke who played Sharpe on the telly," Harry offered.
"Oo good choice, Harry, you can have Sean Bean. Or the one who plays Aragorn, or one of the hobbits, or really, anyone but Gandalf."
"Or Gollum," Harry added.
"Right, I forbid you to have a crush on Gollum." She looked out the window again. "I can't see them, are they gone?"
"If they aren't, we'll have to have an excuse for being in here so long."
"We could buy candy."
"That's the best idea you've had all day."
"Humph, I thought coming up with a completely non-detectable disguise on absolutely no notice for you two was the best idea I'd had all day."
Ron grabbed her in for a quick hug. "Second best idea. It's just that you're so smart, even your second best ideas are bloody brilliant."
"Okay, okay, you're forgiven. Gerrof." But she smiled as she pushed him away. A quick search determined that Ron had left everything in his pockets, which were in his pants, which were at her house. Harry had three sickles and five knuts, which wouldn't really do a lot of good to the shopkeeper. She rolled her eyes and bought the water and three of the cheapest candies at the register. Ron unwrapped his immediately and stood for a moment watching it.
"Oh for heaven's…just put it in your mouth, okay? It doesn't do anything." She shoved him out the door, Harry laughing behind them.
"Well, that's boring," Ron muttered around the candy.
"It's sweet. Cope."
The man with the umbrella turned out to be nothing more threatening than a homeless person but they skirted him anyway, crossing the street directly across the stairs leading underground. Harry stumbled on the steps and flailed for the railing.
"What's wrong? Is it…?"
Harry focused a derisive look at his friend. "No, the telegraph of evil isn't working. We went from sunlight to shadow and I'm not wearing my glasses, remember?"
"It's okay, we've only got two stations and we are at King's Cross. Do you need an arm?"
He shook Hermione off irritably, "Don't be stupid, I'm near sighted, not blind." He finally unwrapped his lollipop and shoved it in his mouth to avoid having to talk.
"Not a problem anyway, there's no one down here with us."
"I can see that, Ron" Harry said, but, as he spoke, footsteps rang down the stairs. Two sets of feet appeared, though only the taller man's boots rang. His companion, though impeccably garbed in a conservative business suit, was wearing bunny slippers.
Hermione slipped her arm around Ron's waist. "Think girly" she whispered to them both. Apparently Harry's idea of girly was pornographic because while she maneuvered Ron into a position where she could pretend to whisper at him and also see the strangers in the poor reflection provided by the poster covers, he slouched against the dirty mosaic and sucked his lollipop with far more cheek-hollowing than any 16 year old girl would dare. Hermione could see both men watch him. She wasn't sure that they even noticed her or Ron.
The tube rattled its doors open and all three swayed in, hip slung as only mini skirts can show, jumping only slightly when the voice boomed to 'mind the gap.' Hermione dared a real look as they pulled away, spinning to set her fist against her mouth as she sunk to the plastic bench. "Omigod, that was Snape!" She shook with silent laughter.
"The one I was…" Harry squeaked, "Oh no!"
Hermione drummed her heels against the floor. "What's he going to do, dock Gryffindor points for blatant lollipopping?" The only other people in the car were at the far corner and showed no interest in them.
"D'you really think he would? Wouldn't that blow his cover?"
"Oh honestly, Ron. And you too, Harry! What possessed you?"
"It was the most non-boy thing I could think of to do."
She looked at him with new appreciation. "You're better at this than Ron."
Wide eyed at both of them, Ron replied, "I'm good with that."
At each of the next two stops, they watched the doors with apprehension, but no non-native could fake the perceptible weariness of the housekeepers and third shift workers riding public transport at ten in the morning. The trio exited the car at King's Cross with exaggerated nonchalance, sashaying up the stairs. Ron was practicing flipping his hair and Hermione had decided that she was cutting hers as short as her mother would allow as soon as she could. They stood across the street from the main entrance, sharing the water and watching someone who was decidedly not a homeless person, despite the rat in his pocket, pace back and forth.
"There's got to be side entrances," Hermione murmured, but the boys responded with shrugs. "True, plus, any entrance is going to have a guard. They know we have to come to Platform Nine and Three Quarters."
Harry spoke decisively. "There's a bathroom just inside, to the left. We go in one at a time, meet up there. Yes, Ron, you are going into the girl's bathroom. Again."
"I wasn't going to say anything." Ron protested, but shrank with they both turned to him with identical expressions of disbelief. "Can we just, please, never tell anyone about this?"
"At least Myrtle won't be in this one," Harry said as he swished across the street.
"He does the hip thing better than I do. Really Ron, what did you tell him?"
"Never never never," he replied and set off behind a taxi that was slowing in front of them.
She waited for the next change of light and slid into the main gate, keeping a family group, piled high with luggage and dressed in matching retina-searing Hawaiian print shirts, between her and the man with the rat.
The bathroom was just to the left and she found Ron waiting impatiently while Harry leaned over the sink, nose nearly touching the mirror, trying to desmudge the liner on his lower eyelid.
"I don't suppose you brought anything to touch up," he asked and she stared at him in blank confusion. "Right, can we pretend I never said that?"
"Oh yeah," Ron said and he waved them toward the door. "I'm trying right now to forget it."
The urge to run at full speed was nearly overwhelming, the need to jump baggage carts and put ticket counters between them and the pursuers they couldn't see. Instead, they sauntered, giggled, swayed, eyeballed posing boys and slunk away from security guards making their way past the first gates. Ron, ever vigilant, noticed the man in the gray trench with a silver scarf leaning against the brick pillar at gate nine first and poked them both, but it was Hermione who recognized him. Mad Eye Moody, wreathed in pipe smoke, was a welcome sight, one eye glinting from under a battered gray felt hat. She didn't dare openly acknowledge him, but as they passed by Moody's second eye snapped forward so fast it made an audible slick sound. He laughed, low and edged with gravel. Hermione let Harry and Ron go before her into the gateway, but paused, ostensibly loitering, to share a secret smile with the Auror. "Clever clever girl. In you go." Pipe smoke, fragrant and blessedly homey, wreathed the column.
"How long have you been here?" Hermione asked.
"Long enough to welcome a little action. Join your friends, child."
She smiled and stepped through. They'd made it. No Deatheater would pass Moody and the train was almost as well protected as the halls of Hogwarts itself. She waved at Ron and Harry through a window and hastened to the steps when Professor Snape came stalking out of the steam, his black silk shirt and black jeans no less intimidating than his full robes.
"Trying a new look, Miss Granger? A no doubt futile attempt to win a wider circle of friends," he snarled.
"Undetectable disguises on short notice, sir. Thank you, Professor, for the near-daily practice in quick thinking," She replied demurely and fought the urge to tug on her shirt again.
When he did not offer a scathing comment in return, she bounced up the stairs, then spoke again. "That was Harry. With the lollipop, I mean." The corners of his mouth tightened. On anyone else she'd have thought it was hiding a smile, but she figured that wasn't really possible with Snape.
"I would rather not have known that."
"That's part of why I told you."
"He didn't have his glasses. He didn't know it was you." He didn't respond beyond narrowing his eyes and she continued, "How angry would you be if you found out later and thought he'd done it on purpose?"
"Do you plan to make a lifetime commitment to protecting those two from their own folly?" He called after her as she flounced off down the corridor to join Ron and Harry in the cabin.
Ron was still scrubbing at his face with a paper towel from the lavatory, and his eyes were red from friction. "Here, you two." She handed them their wands.
"What would we do without our Hermione?" Ron asked and Harry laughed, but Hermione sat back and thought about Snape's words all the way to safety.