Malfoy. Malfoys, plural. But he didn’t recognize Harry (who could possibly fail to recognize Harry Potter, unless they’re a muggle!?). —Or her? Because otherwise why ask? If he already knows? Why identify himself as something dangerous, something leaked over from the wizarding side?
The questions hammer through her mind, or maybe that’s her heart pounding so loudly in her ears. Fear, is that what this is? She knows what to do with fear, she reminds herself. Ball it up and stick it in a deep dark corner, where it can keep company with the thing from the surgical tray, and the cigarette-dirt-and-something-sour smell of that faded madder carpet. She meets Val’s eyes in the rear-view, stares unblinking.
He’s having none of it. “Talk. Talk or this gets nasty.”
But she has had time to think, now. And what has trickled into the cold empty stillness of her mind is the feel of Severus’ wrists beneath her hands, as she pins his arms over his head and assures him she’s no Bond girl. She’d be wasted at it.
Nasty is the kind of slur implied by ladening a muggleborn with a canvas tote of soap. Mudblood. That’s nasty, and on the whole, she thinks it’s a little too puerile considering the amount of effort expended. Not just Astoria’s turning up a little too conveniently, a couple times too often. Astoria, who knew she was at St. Mungo’s, came to St. Mungo’s to loan her robes, may have bugged her hair, and is now implicated by admission in Val’s removing her from beneath Harry’s scrutiny.
If it’s not an insult, then of course it’s something else. She smirks at Val, long and slow, the kind of expression that might accompany certain knowledge that some hapless dunderhead has just dropped lacewing flies into a shrinking potion entirely out of sequence. “I expect I have something of yours.” She reaches forward to drop the tote into the front passenger seat, and is gratified to see Val twitch. It’s not a lacewing-explosion, but it’s something.
His grim expression flattens out even further, and both hands are on the wheel now. He pulls the car up along a kerb, and carefully engages the parking brake before swivelling in his seat to address her directly.
“I need to know why we’ve switched out the drop from the Buick at Heathrow.” His voice is tense, and free of his usual affectations, practically mechanical… with fear? Unease, anyway.
She’s onto something. She’s onto something useful. “‘You need to know’,” she mimics, “You need to know. Really?” She raises her eyebrows for good measure. As belittling expressions went, well, it had always worked for her Hogwarts professors.
Apparently he has a spine, beneath that gaudy mesh shirt. “Look, I have a serious problem with whatever the absolute fuck is going on here. I answer a routine pickup and who the hell is waiting for me but some white-bread bint who’s been very innocuously shagging my landlord, or so I innocently imagined, and now I find out Astoria’s, what, using you to keep tabs on me? Did I blow the fucking drop, or what? Am I made? Why are we switching this up, what’s happened? Is this safe? Or am I about to be picked up by goddamned INTERPOL or something?”
A proper villain (or a sarcastic, embittered professor — and once upon a time there hadn’t seemed a difference) would be vaguely amused at this level of consternation. Here is the lacewing explosion she was waiting for. “INTERPOL?” she says, with a slightly mocking smile, “I shouldn’t think so.”
He relaxes, visibly, a loosening of the corded muscles of his shoulders and neck.
“As to the rest, when you need to know, I imagine someone will tell you. When I need to know if you need to know, I imagine someone will tell me, for that matter.”
He inhales, deeply, and nods. Sharp and firmly, as if they have accomplished a transaction. “Erm, where am I supposed to drop you? She didn’t say.”
“Transit station.” Better safe than sorry. It’s paranoia, sure, but on the other hand, she doesn’t even have hypotheses yet, just sundry suspicions and a lot of heart palpitations. If Val were trying to play her, the way she’s been trying to play him, how would she even know?
She needs to think.
This used to be something she was good at, she reflects, as Val clicks his signal for a right turn into the transit lot. Brightest witch of her age, eh. Well, she’d been twelve at the time. ‘Brightest 12-year-old’ wasn’t any phenomenal accomplishment, from a thirty-something retrospective viewpoint. Especially considering the competition. Val idles the car, and disengages the locks. Then snaps them back in place, as she reaches for the handle.
“Problem?” she asks, as mildly as she can.
She watches him in the rear-view, as he scrapes his teeth over his lower lip. “A million of them. You’re one too many.”
“I know the feeling.”
“Look.” He says it as though he is beginning a proposition, but then falls silent, except for the scratch of his fingernails along the leather of the steering wheel.
“About the Malfoys,” she finally says, hoping to trigger something.
“Them too.” He clicks the locks open once more. “Get out of here. And whatever you’re up to with them… If anyone gets hurt, on either side the wall, well, just remember I know things too.”
Against obliviation, Imperius, or being drowned in a fountain, this threat seems a bit… impotent. He can’t possibly know what he’s actually tangled up in. She checks that her borrowed robes are still glamoured well enough to pass for a long coat, and decides to take pity on him. “I don’t hurt people. Or at least, I try not to.” She closes the door on whatever response he might have made, and strides off to the platform. Shoulders square. Long assertive steps. Doesn’t look back.
Perfect picture of an indomitable Gryffindor heroine, or an assured, self-righteous villain. Maybe there’s always been a trick of perspective at play?
She seats herself on the train. Composed, perhaps a little bored: Crosses her legs. Clasps her hands over her knee.
Surely no one else will notice that they’re shaking.
Her confidence in this masquerade has ebbed significantly, by the time she stumbles into the Leaky. She doesn’t think the Malfoys or Lestranges, the Umbridges, and the Pettigrews of the world ever get the shakes. Perhaps she’s only cut out to play the part of a villain, on rare occasion, and for indiscriminating audiences.
Either that, or she needs a lot more practise.
The thought that she might now be in store for some is horrifying enough that she actually raps a knuckle against the tabletop—touch wood—as she seats herself. This is as good a place as any to kill some time before literally disappearing in the course of her transit home.
“Sure, yes, that’d be great,” she tells Neville, and hopes she’s agreed to alcohol. He disappears, anyway, and that’s a start.
Malfoy doesn’t know Severus is alive. She’s sure of that, she’s sure his awkward, resentful vulnerability wasn’t theatrical. Val doesn’t know who Harry Potter is, but he does know Astoria Malfoy, and probably Draco – although, Malfoys-plural could be Lucius or Narcissa; she will keep a question mark on Draco at this point. Val seems to run muggle errands for Astoria, and if this extends to keeping an eye on Severus, then Draco isn’t party to that information. She circles back to her first and biggest worry: Is Val a threat?
It’s an awfully big coincidence, if the Malfoys just happen to be employing a muggle who just happens to be a tenant in a semi-converted warehouse owned by one Severus Snape, happily deceased.
Even if that is the case (not that she’s prone to believing in coincidences), there’s no reason his car couldn’t have half a dozen listening spells active in it. Damn it, how hard would it have been to cast Finite incantatem? If only she’d been carrying that bloody necklace — this sort of situation was exactly the reason she’d been enspelling the damn thing!
She needs to warn Severus.
She sends a silent prayer up to anyone or anything that might be listening, that there will be mobile service in the Leaky.
It rings through, and he picks up on the third. “Taking your time.”
“Long story. But Astoria Malfoy arranged a pickup for me just outside Mungo’s. From a paying tenant.”
“Mmm. Don’t forget the Chianti.” He disconnects.
She feels like screaming.
But she can’t, and she can’t even ring him back to say ‘hint, hint, nudge, nudge’, because Neville has set a foamy pint in front of her, and is pulling out the chair opposite.
“What have you been brawling with today, then?” He gestures at her bandages.
“The Post. Someone sent me an envelope full of bubotuber pus,” she recounts, for the five-hundredth time.
“What the bloody hell? You’re serious.” He looks gobsmacked and appalled in equal measure.
“And threatening letters and who knows what else. I didn’t make it through the entire stack.”
“Are you alright?”
It hits her then like a physical blow. “No,” she sniffles after a moment. “You know, you’re the only one who asks if I’m alright. Since all this began.” Harry hasn’t. Ginny hasn’t. “That’s not what you meant, though, is it. Yes, I’m fine, Astoria Malfoy helped me wash it off in time, and they’ve patched me up pretty well at St. Mungo’s. I’ll be healed up by tomorrow, they say.”
Neville straightens his pint glass on its coaster and gives her a weak awkward smile. “I’m glad you’ve no lasting damages. Y’know, you’re welcome to stay over here. Hannah and I are fairly good company, I think. And we’re worried after you. Not good to be on your own so much. I gather things have been a bit uncomfortable, this whole situation with Ron and all…”
“Putting it mildly, eh. D’you want to talk about it?”
Does she? Where would she even start, with a confession? Or just more lies, to someone new? Surely her life is tangled enough, without adding to the dramatis personae. “What do you know about the Malfoys?”
“Astoria and Draco?”
She has maybe given him a bit of conversational whiplash, transitioning too abruptly. “Yes, them. Why d’you say it that way, why lead with her name?”
He frowns into his pint. “Dunno. Never thought of it before. Just seems natural, I suppose. Draco and Astoria, Astoria and Draco. Dunno. She’s older than him. Eight years, I think? Because she wasn’t in school with us, was she? I don’t remember all the seventh-years, but I don’t think she was one of them.”
“No…” A thought catches her, and she feels a frown tugging at her brows. Has she seen Astoria’s left forearm at any point?
She shakes her head.
“No, seriously, what?”
“Nothing. It’s not fair, speculating.”
“Speculating about what? C’mon, it’s me, Neville. I love a good speculation, why do you think I work here for fun?”
She gives him a grimace. “Just thinking maybe they were close, growing up. We’d never have known who Malfoy associated with, outside of school.” Maybe they have matching tattoos, she doesn’t add. Maybe Dear Old Dad wasn’t the inciting influence they’d always surmised.
Neville is smirking, and trying not to. It’s such a peculiar expression on his face that it startles a little huff of laughter out of her. It’s her turn: “What?”
“’Associated.’ That’s a good word for it.”
Neville drinks, wipes the foam from his upper lip. “For things you walk in on in the Malfoy library when your Gran drags you out to one of their Season events.”
“I didn’t know you socialized with them.”
He misses that her tone has flattened out at this information, and carries on blithely. “Oh, everyone went to those parties. I was always terrified that Snape would show up some year; if I’d known he was just a halfblood I would’ve enjoyed the punch a lot more. But definitely the highlight was that last year when we caught Draco hiding up Astoria’s skirts. ‘Associating’!” He chortles.
“It can’t have been all the pureblood families. The Weasleys—”
“Well, no, but that was the Weasleys. I mean…” He waves a hand. “Some others didn’t come. And I don’t think the Parkinsons were ever invited either. That’s why Pugsy was always panting after Draco, she wasn’t really sweet on him that I ever knew; she was too scared of Astoria to try anything serious, I’ll bet Galleons on that, but it was no secret she was angling for an invite to the Season. She wanted to fish upstream, if you take my meaning.”
Neville Longbottom, Pureblood Snob, is going to take her brain some time to adjust to. After all, he’d married Hannah Abbott, half-blood, but… hmmn. ‘Raised right’. Even now, Hannah goes to pains to highlight her unfamiliarity with the muggle world, quite like how she was in their second year, oh-so-casually telling everyone she’d never even met her father. Well, there’d been a basilisk loose at that time, and who’s to say hidden tendrils of pureblood extremism are any less dangerous? She shakes her head again in response to Neville’s raised eyebrows. “Just thinking. About how we imagine we know people, when all we usually see is one side of them, a single context.”
He nods. “I don’t know them well at all, really. The Malfoys. I mean, you know how Draco was at school. But we all grew up, y’know, and they keep their noses clean. So, y’know, I’ve gone for drinks at the Manor, now and again. Because I’m on staff at Hogwarts, mostly. Most of the staff get invited. And Delgado and I are mates, more or less, and those Greengrass girls are each other’s’ best friends. So I know them a bit.”
A bit and hardly at all. Well, fair enough: it’s how she knows most people, including the constituents of Severus’ ant farm. Deeply weird and mostly harmless, she’d thought. Come to think of it, that’s her perception of Severus, too, filtered through lenses of searing lust, heart-wrenching compassion, and shared history.
“You don’t really want to talk about the Malfoys, do you?”
Yes. No. What she wants is for someone to pass her the textbook, or even scrawl a citation for her to track down and become illuminated. Or, barring that, give her a chalkboard so she can roll up her sleeves and map out all the stupidly obscure connections, reduce all this complexity to nice clean equations. If x, then y. She presses her forehead down into her palms, rubs hard at her temples. Her healing injuries twinge.
“And then there’s Rita,” she says aloud. “As if things aren’t convoluted enough already.”
Neville emits a disgusted snort. “It’s tosh, and you’d better believe we all know it. Hannah thinks you ought to sue her for harassment, and by Merlin I’d lend you the money my own self.”
She sighs. “Do you know, I haven’t even read whatever absurd thing she’s written now.”
“Well don’t. It’s not worth raising your blood pressure over.”
“It is if it’s enough to incite people to violent assault via owl post.” She still has today’s Prophet; she’d tucked it in a voluminous pocket, but now she unfurls it. Nothing on the front page, at least. She flips, scans.
Neville sighs. “It’s Page Five, but hang on, I’ll get you the first one. Sunday’s.” He flicks his wand in the direction of the bar, where an assortment of newspapers flutter and re-arrange themselves whilst the edition in question flaps toward them above patrons' heads, like nothing so much as a lopsided goose.
She grimly plucks it from the air before it can knock over her empty pint glass.
“Page Three.” Neville sighs again, and heaves himself up from his seat. “Might as well get us another round.”
It opens innocuously enough, a brief recap of her role in the war, her friendship with Harry Potter, her vital statistics. Then:
“Of course Hermione Granger was a very promising student; we were very much dismayed that she didn’t return for a seventh year. Retrospectively, though, her efforts in the War were invaluable. Wizarding Britain owes Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley, and yes, Hermione Weasley, a very great debt,” opined Hogwarts Headmistress Minerva McGonagall. Widely-lauded as the brains behind the Trio’s successful ventures against the erstwhile Tom Riddle, Hermione Granger has shown little observable public evidence of intellectual prowess over the past decade.
“Well, I’m sure we all expected she’d go on to something, but people burn out, and the War was hard on everyone,” noted former classmate Ernest Macmillan, lately of Hamps. Terrence Boot, Llandrindod Wells, dismisses this explanation, “Burnt up? Did you never hear she ‘specially petitioned to sit each and every one of the damn NEWTs? She was right bloody smart, and I for one don’t believe she’s done nothing at all the past decade.” This report cannot attest to the veracity of these assertions, but we at The Prophet have discovered no records of petitions, letters, or requests by Granger on file at the Ministry.
When informed that Granger’s name is widely recognized in European alchemical circles, Boot expressed nothing so much as incredulity. “I dunno what she wouldn’t bother getting an apothecary job or sommat, then. If she’s brewing potions, why not make a sickle or two?”
When reached for comment, former Hogwarts Potions instructor Horace Slughorn had little light to shed on the matter. “Personally, I found Miss Granger’s brewing uninspired. I have very little confidence that any of the work she submits for publication is legitimate. Plagiarism? Well, I shouldn’t like to think so, and her recent publications have been a veritable hodge-podge of muggleisms, so I’ve no doubt she actually writes them. But if anything she proposes is the least bit efficacious or plausible, well, colour me amazed. I expect it’s a certain level of… shall we say infamy? that accounts for her work being published by the Alchemical Guild.”
The bloody hell is Rita’s angle on this? She scans further, but no one else is quoted at length, and there’s certainly nothing that warrants bubotuber pus. On the contrary, this might very well be a contender for the most unbiased Skeeter reporting she’s ever read. Which isn’t saying terribly much, but… The article goes on to recount a basic outline of her theoretical work; Rita gets the details wrong, but it’s accurate enough in the generalities. On the whole, Sunday’s Prophet contains nothing more than a tired portrait of an equally tired public figure. Rita might have easily titled it something as banal as Hogwarts Heroes, Where Are They Now? “I don’t get it,” she tells Neville, who slides a fresh pint across to her. “Aside from Slughorn being an arse, what’s the point of this? ‘Hermione Granger grew up to be a waste of space’? Or, what?”
“Notice who’s quoted in it?”
She scans it again. There are a few more DA members, aside from Boot and Macmillan, but no one she counts as a friend. That’s an unanticipated benefit of never having had a surplus, she supposes. “No one exceptional, why?”
“It’s all pureblood blokes we went to school with.”
“And McGonagall and Slughorn, what of it?”
“Monday.” He folds the paper open, and points unnecessarily at Whoremione? Muggleborn Witch Scratching an Itch.
“…Ah. I see.”
And here’s Viktor and the Triwizard Tournament, here’s some nasty speculation about a teenage love-triangle with Harry and Ronald, here’s Cormac Fucking McLaggen running his mouth,
“I suppose my bloodlines just weren’t good enough for her, my mum being a halfblood. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Granger was certainly eager enough to get familiar with my bedsheets, but I was clearly a stepping stone to better prospects.”
And here’s her own face, pulled into what she knows is a brittle smile, the ruthless plaits in her hair too tight, the veil, garland, and countless hairpins weighing heavy, her forearms aching from holding up the garish exuberance of roses and gold-gilt ferns. Ronald, brightly beaming, ducks to kiss her cheek. Her head turns as if she might be planning to meet his gesture, but she lifts her chin a fraction too far, so his lips only graze along her jawline. Caption: Within a year of the War’s end, Granger had appended herself to the Prewett lineage, wedding childhood friend Ron Weasley.
“Nimue knows what hold that creature had on our Ron,” said Muriel Prewett when reached for comment. “I suppose, being no better than a muggle, she can’t have known that brewing love potions will lead to infertility. We’ve been lucky in that regard, at least. Really, I’m much relieved that she’s finally cleared off, and I’m sure my niece Molly is, too.”
“Oh for fucks’ sake.” She tosses the paper aside.
Neville nods sympathetically. “Did you get to the bit where Rita suggests you’re on to new conquests? And how did she put it,” he snags the paper back to read aloud, “‘Gentlemen of good breeding should be wary of becoming entangled in Ms. Granger’s curls.’”
She snorts. “Have to hand it to Rita, she’s evolved the least-likely narrative to fit the evidence. That takes a certain talent, I’m sure.”
“It gets better.” He smiles grimly, and gestures to today’s edition.
“Page Five, was it?” She rolls her eyes skyward, sighs, and refocuses on the text. And immediately wishes she had stopped while she was ahead. Sometime yesterday morning, perhaps.
Secret Sapphic? Whoremione Granger’s Muggle Menagerie Revealed!
A Muggle taxicab rolls up to her building in the grainy photograph accompanying this headline. It emits Maddie O’Shea, in garters, body paint, feathers, and little else. Cathy Martin emerges from the other door, and between them they extract one Hermione Granger, exceedingly drunk.
The photograph blinks ahead, and the taxicab seems to speed away. Other cars whip through the pools of lamplight. It is evident that significant time passes, before the girls re-emerge into the street. Maddie is rubbing her shoulders, cold again. Cathy shrugs off her sensible peacoat, and wraps it around Maddie like an embrace. Oh. Actually an embrace. Maddie tips up on her high heels, and slants her mouth over Cathy’s.
It looks like a really good kiss.
It looks pretty damning.
“It’s standard protocol, when we deliver petitions for divorce. Typically, we trace any apparitions from the site within six hours. In cases like this, where a trace fails, the agent remains on-site in case the party returns. This is a safety protocol, you understand. Too often, those seeking divorces are victims of domestic violence,” explains Mathilda Bletchly, of the Aurory’s Domestic Incidents Bureau.
“Who are they?”
She shrugs. “Muggles.”
“I mean, I sort of guessed that. Are they prostitutes, the way Rita writes?”
“Neville, I think you know me well enough to know I’m hardly about to hire prostitutes for a lesbian orgy. And no, they’re not. They’re just… girls. People.”
“And you know them how?”
She shrugs again. “What is this, an interrogation? I apparated for a walk to clear my head, and wandered into a protest. About violence against women, ironically.” At which there had been a massive papier mâché vulva, if she remembers Maddie and Cathy’s conversations correctly, but she doesn’t salt this detail in for Neville, just yet. “It was interesting, and I ended up drinking with some of the organizers, and had far too much, and I guess these are the girls who took me home.”
How many other photos does Skeeter have? Had her flat been under surveillance the whole night? When did Severus arrive?
She can feel everything spinning, coalescing, collapsing in. One of Cathy’s probability-space black holes, no doubt. “I think I’ve probably had too much already this evening, too. Best head out while I can still manage it under my own power.”
She brushes off his offer to see her home. “I’ll be fine, I’ll take the train. Wouldn’t want tomorrow’s Prophet to suggest I’m breaking up your marriage.”
“Ah, no, Hermione, Hannah and I would tell ‘em straight, that we’d decided to be a… what would you call a couple of three? A throuple?”
She forces a laugh, “Best figure it out before your interview with Rita.”
“Hey, a little notoriety might give me a leg-up in the ongoing competition for most student crushes. That’d teach Delgado for being a vanilla pretty-boy,” he grins and waves her on her way.
Nearly a dozen disillusioned train transfers later, she finally fetches up on the unwelcome mat. Her shoulders fall, and she lets her forehead knock on Severus’ door.
She has forgotten the Chianti.