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Inquiry and Retrieval

Chapter Text

It is not I who seek the young fool;
The young fool seeks me.

    -I Ching, hexagram 4, mountain over water

What you expect differs from what is:
the dragon awakens, indifferent to you.

    -The Book of Night with Moon, xx/2

 

 

 

~*~

Aman Singh had never made it his business to pry into the affairs of strangers. However, these two would insist on making it especially difficult for him. He shook his head and resumed sorting the empty glass bottles to be recycled.

His restaurant was a tiny open-air place, with long vinyl-covered tables and benches under a tarp ceiling. Piles of paper napkins were strewn across the tables along with bottle openers for his bottles of soda. The tables were coated with a fine layer of dust and grit from the streets outside, and a radio blared some nondescript film music of the sort the kids were always listening to.

At least Aman couldn’t understand most of what these two said; English was rarely spoken here, in this tiny village beside the Himalayas, far removed from the main tourist paths. Despite himself, he had to wonder what they were doing here. They were pale weedy English types, he could tell, but he couldn’t figure out what the black cloaks were for, or why they hadn’t seemed to need any luggage when they had checked into his inn adjoining the restaurant. He carried his load of bottles to the little room beside the kitchen, frowning as the voices of his only customers rose in agitation, carrying easily to his ears.

“You idiot.”

Will Pygott glared at his partner. “What? What’s the problem? This is at least as good, innit?”

Ulysses Fletcher reached over and cuffed him on the ear, hard. Will cringed. “You idiot, we were supposed to be looking for Demiguises! Not for any random . . . is that what I think it is?”

Will grinned roguishly. “Depends what you think it is.” He soon regretted his flippancy when the comment earned him another cuff on the ear.

“Don’t you ever think? Couldn’t you just try it, just as an experiment? What in the name of hippogriffs is wrong with you?” Ulysses gestured loosely to the cloth bundle in Will’s hands, as if in irrefutable proof of his idiocy.

Will rubbed his ear and scowled. “You know, you didn’t have to hit me so hard, ‘Lyss. You’re not my mum.”

Ulysses lunged forward and actually growled. “How many times have I told you not to call me that! And apparently someone had to. Don’t you know what that thing is?”

Will straightened proudly. “Yes, I do.” He caressed the bundle. “A fortune on Knockturn Alley. I know alchemists who would pay dearly for one of these beauties.”

Ulysses crossed his arms, unimpressed. “I’m glad to hear it. Now, know why none of those alchemists are here right now to go fetch one?”

“Er—no?”

“Let me tell you, then.” Ulysses got up from the table at which the two sat and stalked over, menace etched in every inch of his black cloak, his lean, ragged, dirty face. Will stood nervously, fidgeting, as Ulysses stepped up to him, their noses nearly touching. “Those things are some of the meanest creatures if you cross ‘em. When they find out what you took—” Ulysses stopped abruptly. “Don’t tell me you took more than one.”

Will backed up half a step. “All right, I won’t?” He was prepared for the cuff he received for that answer. It still hurt, though. “Ow!”

“Where. Are. They,” said Ulysses, sitting down again, ignoring Will’s wounded look.

Will sat hesitantly, eyes wary for another attack. “All right, calm down—”

“Say it, and you wake up tomorrow with three nostrils.”

Will winced. “—Ulysses, fine.” He glanced around. “All right, that old Muggle is gone.” He reached into an inside pocket of his cloak and pulled out, improbably, three more football-sized wrapped objects identical to the one now sitting on the table.

“THREE? You have THREE more? Are you INSANE?”

Will leaned forward hurriedly. “Shut it, do you want the Muggle to come back? What’s the matter? I have room for them. I’ll carry them home; more Galleons for me anyway.”

“I don’t care about the bloody Galleons, Will!”

Will grinned again. “Think you might be in the wrong business, then.” He was able to duck the next blow.

Ulysses pinched the bridge of his nose and inhaled deeply. “I would think that you would care about more than that too. Considering that once they find out, they’re going to fillet you for what you did.”

Will scoffed.

“They will. Apparently you haven’t heard the stories. Or why the Ministry classifies them high as they do.”

Will’s expression was sulky. “Like I care about what the Ministry thinks. Load of bumblers.”

Ulysses straightened on the bench. “Maybe. Ministry’s pretty clueless about a lot of things, most days. But I think even they’d notice the ruddy creatures rampaging around from chasing you around half the continent, after what you did.” He spread his fingers wide. “But what do I know.”

Will paled. “Really?”

“Really, Will. You’ve really stepped in it this time.”

“But—” Will scooped the three objects he’d pulled out back into his cloak pocket, glancing about warily. “Couldn’t I just . . . I dunno, bring them back?”

Ulysses snorted. “Hardly. You want to go toward them now, now that you probably made them angry?”

Will swallowed. “What do we do?”

We run. We get the hell back home and outrun the things. No time for Demiguises now, or anytime soon, since they’ll probably recognize us if we come back. Hope those Galleons are worth it.”

The clink of Aman’s bottles was the only discernible sound after that.

~*~

It had happened again.

Hermione Granger frowned over her notebook from her spot in the beech tree and considered her problem. One hand tapped a ballpoint pen against her cheek and left a cipher of black marks, a fact to which she, in her agitation, was oblivious.

“So,” she said to herself—an ingrained habit, and one that earned her much ridicule in school— “another event for the list. But what does it mean?” The pen turned and circled something sharply in the notebook, as if to emphasize her puzzlement.

This time it had been at school, as so many of them were. Sarah Thorne had teased her about her braces, and Hermione had felt her vision fog, and—it had happened. Bees flew out of Sarah’s startled mouth and she had run away, crying. The teacher had dismissed it as unlucky coincidence—the bees had only been nearby already, out in the schoolyard, it had been a sort of illusion, but Hermione knew better. She knew that somehow, she had done it.

The time before that, she’d been doing her maths homework and became so frustrated over a problem that she’d tried to check it with a calculator, only to have the device blow up with a small puff of smoke. Another time, she had been chased by the neighbors’ angry bulldog while walking home from school. She’d wound up at the top of the old oak nearby, but try as she might, she could not recall actually climbing it. The list went on: prematurely blown-out lightbulbs, small objects rattling in their places on desks and tables, a pencil doodle in her homework that animated itself (and to her horror, had stayed that way for hours, so that she had feared having to turn it in). And many, many more. They were all there, cataloged in Hermione’s small blue notebook, because she didn’t understand them, and if there was one thing she hated, it was not being able to figure something out.

They’d been happening for as long as she could remember, and at first, when she was very young, she’d taken it for something normal. But Hermione’s mind was sharp, wary, and it quickly grasped that this was something normal children did not do. A part of her knew, though she feared acknowledging it, that those mysteriously vibrating pencils could fly if she only chose to make them, that these sorts of things were in her power, though never considered within the province of human ability. She knew it, and so she had to know what it meant.

Her pen paused, tapping the latest entry in her list. She drew a wavy line between the items and frowned. What connected these things? What ability, that could make small objects move without her touching them, make conjured bees fly out of Sarah Thorne’s mouth, or transport her to the top of a tree without having to climb it? And, if she was the one doing these things, why couldn’t she control them consciously? “It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

“Hermione!”

She lifted her head, peering through the dense leaves to see her father at the back door of the house. “It’s time for dinner,” he said, eying the tree where she was perched, catlike, in that peculiar loose-limbed juvenile way. “Find a new spot for homework?” His eyebrows quirked in amusement. “Oh, Hermione, you’ve got ink all over your face!” he said, as Hermione came clambering down from the beech tree. “Wash that off before your mum sees it, all right?”

“Yeah, okay, Dad.” She capped the ballpoint and made for the door, picking her way carefully in her bare feet.

He shook his head. “Just like your mum does, when she gets started on something,” he said. “Still, I think she’d notice it on you, even if she never does on herself. Her patients certainly do on her.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, entering the house behind her father.

~*~

Dinner was the usual slightly chaotic affair. Her parents talked about patients and their dental issues, sometimes couched in medical terms that flew over even Hermione’s understanding. She had made a pact with herself, once, to always try to find out about everything, but even she had to concede defeat when it came to this—and anyway, it wasn’t something she wanted to think about at the dinner table, though that never seemed to stop her parents. The medical jargon was interspersed with mundane gossip that Hermione quickly tuned out. Bored, she sought the blue notebook, opening it on her lap. If she could just figure out the connection, perhaps—

“Hermione.”

She looked up.

“Not at the table, please.” Once again, her mother’s uncanny observation skills had won the day. Her voice softened. “Why don’t you put that away and talk with us a bit? Did you have a good day at school?”

Hermione slid the small notebook into the pocket of her jeans. “It was fine, Mum. We learned about tectonic plates.” She knew better than to mention the incident with the bees. Her teacher wasn’t going to tell her parents about it, and that was all that mattered to her.

“Did you? Are you starting on geology, then?” Her mother arched one dark eyebrow. Diana Granger was locally famous for her good looks, with her sleek dark hair, delicate features, and large honey-brown eyes. Hermione was tired of the unfavorable comparisons, as she had inherited her father’s untamed mess of bushy hair, and had a mouthful of unsightly braces to add to that. She had her mother’s eyes, but that was it as looks went, though her parents and their friends insisted she’d grow into them eventually.

“Yes,” said Hermione. “It’s to tie in with what we learned in maths about geometric structures.” She paused. “Crystals, you know. Not with tectonic plates, I suppose, but with geology.”

“Ah.” Her mother’s gaze was shrewd. “But I seem to recall you checking books out of the library about that quite a while ago.”

Hermione shifted in her chair. “Yes, well . . . the plates, maybe. I, er . . . I did read about those. But not about the geometry things. Those were new. Really interesting, too.” This was exactly the sort of talk she had wanted to avoid—well, almost. At least it wasn’t about the strange things on The List, as she privately called it.

Her mother turned to her father. “David, I’m afraid she’s just not being challenged enough. Perhaps we ought to see about a different school, or maybe skipping a year—”

“No!” Her parents looked at her. Hermione blushed. “Please, Mum, I really like it where I am. My—my friends are with me, and I don’t want to leave them.”

Her mother looked oddly desperate. “Hermione, I never see you with your friends.”

She twisted one lock of her hair. “We talk at school. We have fun there. Please—” she knew she was playing her best card, here— “you know how hard it is to make new friends. Please don’t make me do that.” This was stretching things a great deal—it was true, she didn’t really have friends, just acquaintances—but any more stress on her already tenuous position, and she knew The List would grow exponentially, the items on it becoming even harder to hide. Her parents already had to deal with an awkward, asocial, bucktoothed oaf of a daughter. She didn’t need them to deal with some sort of . . . freak, along with it.

There was silence, and Hermione’s father pinned her mother with a pointed look. Her mother sighed. “All right, dear. If that’s what you want.”

“It is.” Hermione played with the fork in her hand.

“Okay.” Her mother looked sympathetic, and a little helpless. “We do only want what’s best for you, Hermione. You do know that, don’t you?”

Hermione swallowed. “ ‘Course, Mum.” She gave her parents a smile. “Thanks.”

~*~

Hermione threw the notebook on the floor of her bedroom in disgust. In the doorway, a pudgy white cat froze, giving her an offended look.

“Oh, Winston.” Hermione got up and picked the cat up. “Sorry. I didn’t know you were there.”

Winston mewed querulously, but permitted Hermione to carry him to the bed. She sat beside him, twirling the ballpoint pen and stroking his fur. “It’s just that this is getting me nowhere to finding out what’s going on. I just can’t see what all of these things have in common with each other. You know?”

The cat blinked, lazily.

“Right.” Hermione sighed. “And I can’t go talk to anyone about it either. Mum and Dad wouldn’t understand what this is, and I can’t talk to anyone else; I’d sound completely mad.” She looked at the cat. He looked up from licking his paws, meeting her eyes. “And I don’t suppose you’d care.”

He stared back for a moment, then returned to licking his paws.

“Of course.” She got up, hunting for her schoolbag. “Back to homework, then.”

“Hermione?”

She glanced up. Her father stood in the doorway. “Dad?”

“Just—” He stopped, and picked up the blue notebook from where it lay open facedown at his feet. “This yours, sweetheart?”

“Yes!” Hermione leaped over and snatched it.

He blinked. “Right. It looked important, but you don’t usually just toss your things all over the floor . . .”

“I know. Sorry, Dad.”

He waved his hand in dismissal. “Finished your homework yet?”

She nodded. “Just maths, and a few essays, though I might look those over again.”

He shook his head. “So meticulous.” He lowered his voice, as if in conspiracy. “Did you finish the book? Did you like it?”

She wrinkled her nose. “I finished it, but I’m not sure I understand it. How can a starship run on improbability, Dad? It makes no sense.”

Her dad was laughing. “Hermione, it’s fiction. It’s humor. It doesn’t have to make sense.”

Hermione scowled. “It should. Everything should make sense.” She hugged the notebook tighter to her chest. She would figure that out, she just had to. “Could you give me more by Victor Hugo? I liked that; the historical details were really interesting.”

“Hermione, you’re too young for that. Leave that woolly stuff for the boring grown-ups.”

“I am not! I like it, and it’s not woolly, or boring.” She jutted her chin out at him.

He reached out and tweaked it, and she squirmed, laughing. “It is boring; I don’t know how you can like it, but I’ll see what I can find, all right? I’ll ask John at the office, he knows these things better than I do. You eat those books up like a little dragon, honestly.”

She snorted. “As if there were dragons.”

He widened his eyes at her. “There are. I saw one flying over the seacoast once.”

“You did not.”

“Did so.”

“Not.”

“I did. Not far from Cardiff, as it happens.”

She shoved him. “You’re making that up.”

“Oh? And how would you know there are no dragons, o wise one?”

She crossed her arms. “They’re supposed to be huge, right? How would they stay up in the air? And how would they breathe fire?”

“Magic,” said her father, as if that was obvious.

“Magic,” she said. “Of course. The convenient answer to everything.”

“It works for me,” he said. “I think your problem, my dear, is that you make things too complicated.”

“It’s not my fault. Things have rules. That’s just how they are.” She uncrossed her arms to prod him in the chest with one finger. “You know that. You’re a medical professional. It’s your job.”

He chuckled. “Of course, Hermione. I do know that.” He leaned in close to her. “But I think you need to remember to let things go sometimes. You get like your mother, and get too serious. Think about the hypotheticals.”

“The—?”

“Ask what-if questions,” he clarified. “Don’t take things literally all the time.”

She relaxed. “All right, Dad.” She paused for a moment. “But you won’t make me believe in dragons with logic like that.”

He laughed. “Fair enough,” he said, and ruffled her hair. “That enough debate for now? I wanted to check on Winston, actually. Is he staying with you tonight?”

Hermione’s reply was cut off by Winston’s imperious mew. Her father laughed. “I suppose that answers that question.” He came over to the bed and scooped up the cat. “I think he’s taking advantage of his old age, don’t you? He expects us to cart him around everywhere.”

She giggled. He smiled. “That’s better. I hope your mother didn’t upset you too much at dinner there. I’ve told her the same things you did, and more than once, but sometimes she just needs reminding.” His eyes darted to the blue notebook that she still clutched in her hands, then back to her face. “You know how she gets. But she does care about you, you know. So do I.”

Hermione looked into her father’s eyes, and willed him to believe her. “I know. I really am fine, Dad.”

He smiled, though his face was tired. “Okay.” He came over and kissed her forehead. “Don’t stay up too late, now.”

“ ‘Night, Dad.”

“ ‘Night, sweetheart.”

Hermione stood for a moment, staring at the door. Finally, she took the notebook and flipped through it, the underlined and circled entries swimming before her eyes. Something had to change. It had to.