The Sugar Quill
Author: Silver Phoenix (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Interlude  Chapter: Chapter 3: Stranger than Granger
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INTERLUDE

INTERLUDE

by Silver Phoenix

 

Chapter 3: Stranger Than Granger

 

 

Without a doubt, the best spot for reading in the Granger house was the window seat in the conservatory. It had not always been a window seat though; when Hermione was very small her mother had used the ledge beneath the bay window as a spot for her potted plants. It had been Hermione and her father who had moved the plants, much to her mother’s chagrin. They had converted the ledge into a comfortable reading space, with cushions and blankets and Hermione’s favourite pillow. Years later, though she was much bigger, Hermione could still just fit into that comfortable space. She sat there now with her knees pulled up to her chest and pillows carefully arranged around her for maximum comfort. A large book with a dark leather cover was open in front of her, resting against her shins. Hermione paused to take a sip of lemonade from the glass she had brought in with her and continued reading.

 

            At this time house-elves lived in tribes called Moordats. Each Moordat had a patriarchal family whose members were the highest-ranking elves in the tribe. The patriarchs provided protection from predators and other tribes, and were also responsible for keeping order within the Moordat. All other families of the Moordat belonged to the servant class - that is, they lived to serve the patriarchal family. An elf’s ranking in the tribe depended entirely upon the tasks that they were given by the patriarchs. Thus, those elves with more important duties had greater status in the tribe hierarchy. The greatest honour for an elf was to be chosen as the personal servant for a member of the patriarchal family.

The patriarchal family could be distinguished by their elaborate dress. Often, this consisted of layers upon layers of clothing. The amount of clothing an elf wore corresponded directly with their ranking…

 

“Her-mione.”

 

A startled Hermione looked up from her book; she had been completely unaware of her mother’s presence in the room. The way her mother had said her name made Hermione suspect that it was not the first time she had called her. Hermione marked her place and closed A Comprehensive History of Magical Beings. Her mother’s hair was pulled back into a bun, with curly wisps escaping near the back of her neck. She held the cordless phone in one hand; the other hand was resting on her hip.

 

“Hermione, I need you to tell me one more time what exactly you put in that letter to Natalya,” Mum said in a tired voice.

 

Natalya had been the receptionist at her parents’ dental practice and was one of the many people Hermione had written or telephoned last year pretending to be her mother. The preparation to hide her parents had been carefully considered, planned and executed in typical Hermione fashion.

 

             “I wrote that you and Dad were taking an extended holiday and were going travelling for an indefinite amount of time,” Hermione recited patiently. “And I told her to notify all your patients that you would be unavailable for several months and to recommend them to Dr. Singh until you returned. I also said that you and Dad would gladly hire her back upon your return, but that you would understand if she took another job. I also wrote a very nice letter of recommendation from you.”

 

            Mum pursed her lips together as she digested this. She sighed. “All right. Well, I certainly hope she hasn’t gone to work for someone else. We’ll have to give her a raise if we want her back…”

 

            From somewhere in the house came the sound of a door slamming. “Dad and your grandmother must be back,” Mum said, sounding less than thrilled. “Well come along then, Hermione, I’ll put on some tea…”

 

            Hermione got down from the window seat, pulled her wand out of her pocket and pointed it at her book. “Mestatrans bedroom,” she murmured. The book disappeared with a loud pop, which startled her mother. She gave Hermione a look of disapproval. Mum had always been against the use of magic for menial tasks, believing it would make Hermione lazy. Her recent experience with memory modification had made her even more wary of anything magical.

 

            “Well I’ve got to do magic sometime or I’ll forget how!” Hermione said in response to her mother’s disapproving frown.

 

            “Not while your grandmother’s in the house.”

 

            “It’s not like she was in the room,” Hermione muttered as she followed her mother into the front hall. Dad was trying to help Grandma Jean take off her black wool coat, which she wore out even on the hottest days.

 

“For heaven’s sake, Gregory, I can do it myself, I’m not an invalid,” Grandma Jean snapped, slapping his hand away. It was somewhat comical to see Grandma, who was about half Dad’s size, bossing him around. Dad just shrugged, bent down and started untying his shoes instead.

 

            Hermione rarely saw her paternal grandmother. She and Granddad Gabe had moved to France once he had retired. When her grandfather passed away, Grandma Jean had refused to move back to England. Now she lived alone in a spacious old house in the French countryside. The last time Hermione had seen her grandmother was the summer before her third year at Hogwarts, when the Grangers had gone on holiday to France. However, Hermione had spent very little time with her grandmother during the holiday. She had been far more interested in learning about the local wizarding history than in going around with Grandma to have tea with her various friends.

 

To the Grangers’ surprise, Grandma Jean had telephoned a week ago out of the blue, not long after Hermione and her parents had returned from Australia, and had announced that she was coming to visit. She had arrived on Saturday and was already driving Mum and Dad mad.

 

            “Well, Marianne wasn’t in,” Grandma Jean said briskly, marching into the kitchen. The Grangers all followed passively, as if this was Grandma’s house. “I expect she’s out at that Grisham Market you told me about, Helen. But we couldn’t go to the market, because Gregory ‘needed to get back’.” She threw a reproving look at Dad as she sat down at the kitchen table.

 

            “Did you get a hold of Natalya, Helen?” Dad asked Mum, pretending that he had not seen Grandma’s look.

 

            Mum poured some water into the kettle. “I was just about to call. We might have to give her a raise…”

 

            “Who is Natalya?” Grandma Jean interjected.

 

            “Mum and Dad’s old receptionist,” Hermione explained.

 

            “Well,” said Grandma Jean disapprovingly, “perhaps you wouldn’t have to call your former receptionist and beg her to come back if you hadn’t gone off gallivanting in Australia for a year.”

 

            Mum and Dad exchanged looks but said nothing. Hermione became very interested in staring at the wood grain on the table. Grandma Jean had harassed Mum and Dad about their ‘trip’ to Australia for the past two days. Her parents were having a tough enough time trying to get their lives back in order without Grandma constantly badgering them about their year-long absence, which had of course been entirely Hermione’s doing.

 

Although Hermione had taken such drastic measures to keep her family safe, she knew that her parents were having difficulty accepting what she had done to them. Hermione suspected that to her parents, the entire wizarding world was a bit like a fairy tale, with dragons and centaurs and evil wizards as well as good ones. It had never occurred to them, when she had tried to explain Voldemort’s return a few years ago, that the wizarding world could merge with the Muggle one and that evil wizards could hurt non-magical people, too. In Hermione’s mind her actions were more than justified, but her parents felt deceived, confused and hurt. Thus, things had been strained at the Granger household for the past week or so and Grandma Jean’s comments had not been helping matters at all.

 

            When it became apparent that she was not going to get a response from anyone, Grandma re-adjusted the black shawl draped over her shoulders (she always wore this as well, even indoors) and said, “Perhaps Herm-yonne could take me to the market.”

 

Grandma Jean always pronounced Hermione’s name as if it was French. Hermione had given up trying to correct her, but Dad always took it as a personal affront.

 

            “Mother, its Her-my-oh-knee,” Dad said, clearly exasperated.

 

             “Honestly Gregory, why couldn’t you name her something sensible, like Sally or Jane?” Grandma said huffily.

 

            “She’s named after the daughter of Helen of Troy, for your information,” retorted Dad, who was an avid Classics buff. His study was filled with books like The Iliad and Classic Greek Tragedies Volume I through Volume V.

 

            “Well it’s not my fault you decided to name your daughter after some heathen - ”

 

            Dad made a spluttering noise; his face turned red and his eyes went wide behind his glasses. He was clearly offended by the accusation that the ancient Greeks were heathens.

 

“I can take you to Grisham Market, Grandma Jean,” Hermione interrupted quickly.

 

Dad took a deep, calming breath. “It’s a twenty minute walk, Mother. I’ll drive the two of you.” As if to prove his willingness to be of service, Dad strode purposefully out into the front hall. Seconds later, he returned to the kitchen.

 

“Has anyone seen my shoes?” he asked, puzzled.

 

            “They’re on your feet, Dad,” Hermione said patiently. After untying them earlier, he had forgotten to take his shoes off. Memory lapses such as this had been frequent for both her parents over the past few weeks.

 

            Dad looked down at his untied shoes in surprise. “Oh.”

 

            “I think I’ll walk, Gregory,” said Grandma Jean dryly.

                                                 

            Moments later, Hermione and her grandmother were outside. It was a cloudy sort of afternoon, which was a welcome relief after a week of the hot sun beating down upon them. Several other people seemed to be taking advantage of the relative coolness. A familiar-looking neighbour was out walking her dog, a group of children were drawing on the sidewalk with coloured chalk and a man in a hooded jacket was jogging on the opposite side of the street.

 

Hermione and Grandma Jean walked in uncomfortable silence for the first few moments. Hermione realised that she could not remember the last time she had been alone with her grandmother.

 

            “So how is school?” Grandma Jean asked rather abruptly. “Are you finished yet?”

 

            The question made Hermione immediately think of her unfinished seventh year and her burning desire to complete it. She felt a kind of urgent need to learn everything she possibly could from Hogwarts, and leaving that year incomplete forever was a sacrifice she was not sure she could bear to make, regardless of whatever Ron and Harry decided to do. She had not spoken to the boys about it just yet; somehow, the subject of school seemed delicate and no one was willing to broach it.

 

            Hermione realised her grandmother was waiting for an answer. “Um…not quite finished yet, no. I’m going back in the fall,” she replied vaguely. She knew that she would return to Hogwarts when it re-opened in November, even though it would break her heart to go back alone. It would be especially difficult without Ron, for in her most private daydreams, Hermione had allowed herself to picture the two of them curled up together in front of the fire in Gryffindor common room, or walking down by the lake hand-in-hand…

 

            There was another awkward silence. Hermione often felt as if she lived two separate lives - one as a witch, and the other as a Muggle. In the wizarding world she could be perfectly honest about both aspects of her life. In the Muggle world, however, she was forced to constantly lie about the things that were most important to her. Whenever family friends, old schoolteachers, or other adult acquaintances asked about her life, Hermione always found herself giving short or vague answers. Consequently, most people in her Muggle world probably thought she was dull, unenthusiastic and inarticulate. Sometimes she was forced to awkwardly make Muggle-worthy answers up on the spot, so it was also quite possible that several people thought she was an outright liar. This was, perhaps, one of the reasons that Hermione chose to spend so little time in the Muggle world.

 

            “Have you decided which…” Grandma paused; it seemed she was searching for a word. “Which…field you would like to pursue?”

 

            Now she would have to lie to her grandmother, too. There was no way Hermione could possibly explain S.P.E.W. to Grandma or how she wanted to take it further. She wanted to study and learn about the customs of all magical creatures and beings, to understand and document their diverse cultures, and to fight for their rights in the wizarding world. Hermione cast around for a rough Muggle equivalent to this answer and, rather pathetically, could only come up with, “Zoology.”

 

            “Zoology?” Grandma Jean made a face. “What a tremendous waste of time. Come now, you need to go into something practical, Hermione.”

 

Hermione noticed that Grandma suddenly could pronounce her name just fine. She began to suspect that Grandma deliberately mispronounced it just to annoy Dad, perhaps as punishment for naming his daughter something so obscure.

 

            “Something practical? Like what?” asked Hermione, becoming frustrated with this sham of a conversation.

 

            “Like law, for example,” Grandma Jean said confidently.

 

 Hermione frowned. “I’m much more interested in creat - that is, animals.”

 

Grandma Jean gave her a curious look and then dropped the subject. They walked for several blocks in silence again, although Hermione had the oddest feeling that Grandma Jean wanted to say something but refrained from doing so.

           

            Market Square was not far from Hermione’s house, as they lived in the suburbs just outside the town centre. In the summer months, numerous stalls were jammed into the square every Monday, when the local farmers came in from the surrounding countryside to sell their produce. Little had changed in the years since Hermione had last visited Grisham Market. The stalls were packed together so tightly that the vendors hardly had any space in which to move. Noisy crowds of people were wandering through narrow, meandering aisles. The fruit stalls were a splash of colour, with fat, bright red strawberries, succulent looking peaches the size of one’s fist, cherries, plums, raspberries, gooseberries, and all sorts of other good-looking fruits. Across from the fruit stalls were farmers selling fresh cheese, vegetables and even slabs of raw meat. There were also several tents set up selling a variety of knick-knacks. Closer to the centre of the square was a large, white tent with clothing and fabric hung up haphazardly, fluttering whenever a breeze came along. Hermione’s parents had often taken her to the market when she was younger, and although she had not visited it in several years, she felt comfortable in the familiar chaos of Market Day.

 

            “It’s very noisy, isn’t it?” said Grandma Jean, wrinkling her nose and frowning.

 

            Hermione tried not to laugh at the expression on her grandmother’s face. “I’ll show you around, Grandma.”

 

            They walked up and down the rows of tents and stalls, stopping occasionally so Grandma could quiz a frightened-looking farmer about his cheeses or comment on the ugliness of a particular piece of fabric. After several minutes of this, Hermione was relieved when Grandma spotted the English friend for whom she had been looking. Grandma bustled off to say hello, while Hermione took the opportunity to sneak away for a few moments.

 

She wandered over to a rowdy group of children. They were crowded around a stall selling the brightly-coloured, cheaply made plastic toys that Hermione had always wanted when she was small.  Her parents, of course, had always refused to buy them for her. Hermione picked up a little plastic figurine of a wizard and smiled. The figure was wearing a periwinkle robe with matching pointy hat, and possessed a funny Muggle rendition of a wand complete with a large yellow star stuck to the end of it.

 

            “I haven’t got any money Hannah, go ask Mum for a few quid if you want it.”

 

            The annoyed male voice sounded strangely familiar to Hermione. She turned around to find its source. Behind her stood a tall teenaged boy in obvious need of a proper haircut; his sandy blonde hair was so long in the front that it had almost grown past his eyes. There was something frustratingly familiar about him. A little girl with a gap in her two front teeth and the same sandy hair was tugging on the boy’s arm, a pleading look in her eyes.

 

“But I don’t know where Mummy is!” the little girl whined. “Please, Curtis, I want the dolly!”

 

His name brought an immediate flash of recognition, but before Hermione could make a quick getaway, he caught her looking at him. Behind the curtain of hair, his eyebrows knit together.

 

“Hey, don’t I know you?” said Curtis slowly.

 

            Hermione considered lying and making a break for it, but common courtesy won out. “Yes,” she said shortly. “We went to school together.”

 

            “That’s it,” Curtis said, nodding. “Blimey, you look different. Didn’t even recognise you at first! You’re uh…” He snapped his fingers a few times, as if trying to summon her name.

 

            “Hermione Granger.”

 

            “Right!” Curtis suddenly flushed pink with an embarrassed grin. “Right…‘stranger than Granger’…”

 

            Hermione felt her body stiffen. She pushed aside the memories that rose to the surface of her mind, and tried to will her cheeks to stop burning.

 

            “Hey, sorry about all that,” said Curtis sincerely. He rubbed the back of his neck, smiling apologetically. “We were like, kids, you know? Anyway, didn’t you go off to some swotty public school? How’s all that?”

 

            “Fine,” said Hermione coolly.

 

            Curtis looked slightly taken aback by her shortness with him; he probably figured that he had apologised and that was that. “Oh, well…that’s good,” he said uncomfortably.

 

            The sensible part of Hermione began to feel slightly guilty that she was giving Curtis the cold shoulder. After all, she had gone to school with him seven years ago, and it was a bit unfair to hold him accountable for the actions of his ten-year-old self. But before Hermione could make an effort at genuine conversation, Curtis’ impatient-looking little sister piped up again.

 

            “Curtis - I - want - to - find - Mummy!” Hannah said loudly.

 

            “Sorry,” Curtis said to Hermione. “I got stuck with my little sister. I only came to this thing to see if that guy is here selling pirated CD’s.”

 

            “Well, good-bye,” said Hermione.

 

            “Right, it was uh…good to see you,” Curtis said over his shoulder as his sister dragged him away.

           

            Hermione let out a breath she had not been aware of holding, and wandered back over to Grandma Jean, who was chatting with a pudgy woman with a very large hat. Hermione politely said hello when Grandma introduced her, and waited patiently for them to finish their conversation.

 

            “Hm, Marianne’s got quite fat,” said Grandma once her friend had waved goodbye and was out of earshot. She turned to Hermione. “I saw you talking to a boy, do you know him?”

 

            “Just from primary school,” said Hermione shortly. Grandma seemed to sense that she would get nothing more out of Hermione regarding the boy, so she let her be.

 

            They spent another half-hour at the market, then Grandma developed a headache, so they headed home. They walked in silence again, in the quiet stillness of early evening. Despite her best efforts not to, Hermione could not help reflecting on certain childhood memories. She had not thought about them in a long time - after all, she’d had more important things on her mind lately - but her run-in with Curtis had forced the memories to surface again.

 

            She was eight years old and carrying an elaborate diorama out of the classroom to take home. Everyone else had left his or hers in the classroom, but Hermione was too proud of hers to leave it at school overnight. As she walked out into the hall, Jamie Irons and Curtis McNiven came barrelling out of the boys’ toilet, bumping into her as they ran past. Hermione cried out as her diorama was knocked out of her arms. It fell to the floor with a horrible crash. She knelt down beside it and tried very hard not to cry when she saw that it was ruined. Jamie and Curtis kept running down the hall, laughing and calling her names. Hermione felt hurt and angry as she knelt on the cold floor of the hallway. Hatred for Jamie and Curtis boiled up inside of her.

 

The next day, the mystified teacher found Jamie’s and Curtis’ dioramas in bits and pieces, as if they had each been blown up by a very small bomb. Jamie and Curtis blamed Hermione, but she knew that she had not touched their work, she had only thought about it…

 

She was ten years old and sitting alone in the schoolyard with her back to a tree, contentedly reading a book. A shadow fell over the page she was reading and she looked up to see the meanest girl in school, Emma Lucas, standing there with a group of her friends. Emma started teasing Hermione about her hair. Hermione tried to ignore her, but she couldn’t stop the hot tears welling up in her eyes. She found herself wishing desperately that her hair was like Emma’s, all sleek and shiny and yellow. Hermione self-consciously ran a hand through her bushy brown hair. But then she pulled her hand away and was horrified to find that a handful of hair had come with it. Emma and her friends suddenly fell silent.

 

            “Did you just pull out your own hair?” Emma finally said, shocked and disgusted. “You are so strange, Hermione Granger!”

 

            All the commotion had caused several of the boys to wander over too. “Yeah, no one’s stranger than Granger,” Curtis McNiven quipped. Several of the other children laughed.

 

            “Stranger than Granger, stranger than Granger!” chanted her classmates. It was at this point that Hermione noticed something funny was happening to the brown hair in her fist. It was slowly turning yellow, and shiny, and straight.

 

            She leaped up and ran for the girls’ toilet, locks of hair falling out as she ran. Once she got to the bathroom, she stared in horror at her reflection in the mirror; the hair still remaining on her head had begun to turn yellow, too. Confused and frightened, Hermione pulled her winter hat out of her knapsack and shoved it onto her head, then went to the school nurse and begged her to call her mother. Her hair did not turn back to normal until much later that night…

 

            It was the summer before she turned twelve. One day a stern-looking woman arrived at the Granger’s door. She handed them a sealed letter and told them she was from a school that was interested in having Hermione as a student. The Grangers were surprised but very pleased and invited the woman in for tea. She introduced herself as Professor McGonagall and explained that she was the Deputy Headmistress of a unique school in Scotland, which only accepted very special students, who showed certain talents. Then without changing tone or expression, she explained that it was a school to learn how to do magic and Hermione had been selected as a student because she showed magical abilities. Hermione’s parents were confused because this kind of talk was quite clearly insane, and since Professor McGonagall did not seem mad, they thought that she was joking. Her parents laughed, but Hermione did not because she knew that Professor McGonagall was neither joking nor mad. The incidents with the dioramas and the hair and a hundred other strange happenings suddenly made sense. Hermione felt as if there had been a particularly difficult riddle that she had been trying to solve for years and had just figured out the answer. It was a wonderful feeling of relief and joy; Hermione would have hugged Professor McGonagall if it had not been clear that Professor McGonagall was not the hugging type. Hermione’s parents began to get uncomfortable when Professor McGonagall continued going on about magic, and it was only after she had turned herself into a cat that they were shocked into listening…

 

            Hermione smiled at the last memory, remembering that fantastic feeling of finally understanding who and what she was. Professor McGonagall’s visit had been the memory she had used to conjure her first Patronus.

 

             “Well, here we are,” said Grandma Jean as they approached Hermione’s red brick house. “I do hope your mother had the sense to put a pot of tea on for us. I wouldn’t mind some croissants, either, although they’re absolutely horrid here in England. Oh, and Hermione, there seems to be a very large owl outside your bedroom window.”

 

            Hermione looked up sharply as they walked up the drive; there was indeed an official-looking post owl with glossy brown feathers hovering outside her closed bedroom window. Astonishingly, Grandma Jean said nothing more about the owl. She took off her wool coat as they entered the front hall, and wordlessly swept into the kitchen. Hermione, meanwhile, dashed up the stairs and into her bedroom. The post owl was almost certainly from Harry, who did not have the heart to replace Hedwig. It had to be urgent. After all, Hermione had spoken to Harry by Floo only that morning - she had taken measures to connect her parents’ house to the Floo Network two years ago, in case of emergencies - and had specifically asked him not to send her any mail while her grandmother was visiting. The logical part of Hermione assured her that there was nothing to worry about. However, the emotional part of her, the part that had spent the last year fearing for the lives of her friends and family every day, could not help but feel a little bit worried.

 

            Hermione quickly opened her window to allow the glossy brown owl in. It perched atop her packed white bookshelf and extended a leg towards her. Hermione hurriedly untied the letter, gave the owl a few Knuts that were hidden at the bottom of her dresser drawer, and sat down on the edge of her bed to read the letter.

 

Dear Hermione,

Sorry that I had to send you an owl. I wasn’t sure how else to get a hold of you save telephoning your house, and I didn’t want you to go berserk over the phone or anything. I hope your grandmother didn’t see the owl, I told him to be discreet.

 

“Very discreet, hovering outside my window,” Hermione muttered. The owl, which had been preening itself atop Hermione’s bookshelf, gave an indifferent hoot and flew out the open window. Hermione quickly returned to the letter; her heartbeat had quickened somewhat upon reading the part about going berserk.

 

DO NOT PANIC BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS FINE. I just thought you should know that Ron ran into a little bit of trouble in Diagon Alley. He’s fine now, apart from being a bit sore, but I wanted to write and tell you before you found out from anyone else. We’ll probably have to report it to the Magical Law Enforcement Squad, so I’m sure it will get out somehow. Anyway, he’s here with me at Grimmauld Place right now - I don’t think he wants to go home and alarm Mrs Weasley just yet.

 

Write back if you can,

Harry

 

            Hermione panicked, despite Harry’s orders. She did not pause to think about her grandmother or parents downstairs. She turned on the spot and vanished.

 

            Hermione Apparated onto the front steps of Grimmauld Place. The door was locked, so she banged impatiently until Harry pulled it open. He did not look surprised to see her.

 

            “Will you keep it down, Hermione? You woke Mrs Black,” Harry said wearily, as shouts of, “Mudblood-lover! Unworthy filth! Thieving intruder!” echoed behind him.

 

            “Is he all right?” Hermione demanded, pushing past Harry and into the front hall. She winced in anticipation, expecting her tongue to roll back and the dust figure of Dumbledore to appear, but nothing happened. The curses must have disappeared upon Snape’s death. Hermione began walking purposefully down the hall.

 

            “He’s fine, he’s sleeping on the sofa in the drawing room,” said Harry, following her. “Although you probably woke him up with all the banging…”

 

            Ron was indeed awake; he was lying on the drawing room sofa, propped up on his elbows. Hermione noticed that he was holding himself rather stiffly, and that one side of his face was red and scratched up, as if it had been rubbed against something rough. He looked rather tired, but Hermione thought his face brightened when she walked into the room.

 

            “Aw, Hermione you didn’t have to come,” said Ron, although he sounded quite pleased.

 

            “What on earth happened?” Hermione exclaimed, hurrying over to sit down on the sofa next to Ron’s feet.

           

            Ron sighed and explained how he had followed a suspicious-looking man out of the twins’ shop and chased him down Diagon Alley. He gave a brief synopsis of the attack, which ended with him being put in a Full Body Bind and left in Knockturn Alley.

 

            “It was three bloody hours before some old witch found me, and even then she couldn’t remember the spell to unfreeze me straight away,” said a disgruntled Ron. He moved his head side to side a few times, wincing as his neck cracked. “You’ve no idea how uncomfortable it is to be paralysed like that. Your muscles feel all sore and stiff afterwards - ”

 

            “Actually, I do have an idea. I was Petrified for several weeks, if you remember,” said Hermione curtly. She immediately regretted her unsympathetic tone. Hermione supposed she had expected worse and hearing Ron complain about aches and pains made her feel as if she had panicked over nothing.

 

            “Oh…right,” said Ron, abashed.

 

            “The thing is,” said Harry, who was sitting on a chair in front of the writing desk, “why did he attack you?”

 

            Surprisingly, Hermione had not yet thought of this. It did seem rather odd for someone to randomly attack a joke shop proprietor.

 

            Ron suddenly got quite fidgety. “Don’t know,” he said vaguely. “Some nutter, probably…”

 

            “Did he say anything to you?” Harry demanded.

 

            “Just, you know, the usual rubbish…”

 

            “What’s ‘the usual rubbish’?” Hermione asked suspiciously.

 

            Ron looked from Harry to Hermione, and then sighed. “He just said something stupid about coming after the three of us.”

 

            Hermione felt as if someone had just poured a bucket of icy water down her back. She shivered and glanced at Harry, who looked livid.

 

            “But…but who would be threatening us now?” Hermione said in a small voice.

 

            “Haven’t you seen today’s paper?” Harry asked darkly.

 

            “How could I? I haven’t been getting owl post, remember?” said Hermione.

 

            “Didn’t have a chance to read it this morning…hey, where are you going?” Ron asked as Harry abruptly got up and disappeared out the door. Hermione looked over at Ron, who shrugged. They were quiet for a moment.

 

            “Sorry I wasn’t very sympathetic before,” she said softly. “I wasn’t really awake while I was Petrified. I bet it was awful.”

 

            “Well…it was a bit tough,” said Ron in a heroic sort of voice. He suddenly made a face. “Actually, the worst part of it was that this ruddy pigeon landed on my face about an hour in, and I couldn’t do anything to get it off…”

 

            Hermione laughed, and Ron grinned. They both ended up smiling rather stupidly at each other for awhile. Then Ron, whose ears had turned quite red, cleared his throat and said in a low voice, “Y’know what might make me feel better?”

 

            Hermione suddenly realised that was one of the rare moments in which they had been left alone in the tumultuous last few weeks. Ron fumbled for her hand and she felt her heart get a little jumpstart; it started pounding twice as fast as usual.

 

            “What’s that?” Hermione whispered nervously as Ron’s thumb brushed back and forth across her hand. It was a rhetorical question, of course. There was no mistaking the look in Ron’s eyes, and she found herself leaning closer to him. The last time they had kissed seemed so long ago. It had been after Fred’s funeral, the two of them out in the garden at The Burrow while everyone else was inside. The kiss had been passionate but clumsy; a desperate attempt at comfort, with Hermione’s tears sliding down Ron’s dry cheeks.

 

They moved closer, until their noses were almost touching - would it feel like this every time they would kiss, with her heart beating so fast it might burst? - but then came Harry’s footsteps, and both of them pulled away before it could happen. Hermione tried to erase the look of disappointment on her face as Harry walked in, a newspaper in hand. He thrust it in front of them, and Hermione read the headline: Another accident at Azkaban!

 

“‘Yet another so-called accident has occurred at Azkaban prison,’” read Harry as he paced back and forth across the drawing room. “‘Sources at St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies report that two of the recently-appointed Azkaban guards were brought in last night. The two wizards were badly hexed and Stunned. A representative from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement refused to confirm rumours that two prisoners are missing, but did remind citizens that certain other Dark wizards are still at large, and urged citizens to make sure that their homes are still well-protected. This incident comes after last week’s supposed construction accident, in which another one of the Azkaban wizard guards was killed.’”

 

Harry stopped reading. There was a heavy silence for a moment, broken by Ron using a particularly foul swear word.

 

“I skimmed through it when I got home, but didn’t have a chance to read the whole article until now. Nothing’s changed, has it?” Harry said angrily. “The Ministry is still keeping things hush-hush, denying things that people have the right to know - ”

 

“But Harry, Kingsley is trying to turn things around,” Hermione tried. “At least they’re not using Dementors anymore, they know now that they can’t be trusted…”

 

“Then there’s Dolohov, did you hear about his trial?” Harry continued ranting. “He claimed to be Imperiused, that stupid old argument, and they’re actually deliberating on it - ”

 

“Is anyone else worried about the possible Death Eater escapees we may have on our hands?” Ron interrupted loudly. “One of whom may or may not have attacked me this afternoon?”

 

They all fell silent, remembering the reason that Harry had brought up the news article in the first place. Hermione’s stomach twisted.

 

“But even if a few Death Eaters did escape,” Hermione said slowly. “Are they really going to come after us? I mean, Voldemort is dead, that much is obvious. There’s no one to rally behind. The Death Eaters are finished.”

 

“Are they, though?” asked Harry grimly. “A few escape from Azkaban, start to get their self-confidence back…maybe they meet up with their old Death Eater buddies, the ones who were never captured. Then they start thinking that whoever can do what Voldemort never could - get rid of me - would make a good leader, a better leader, one who could succeed where Voldemort failed…”

 

“Harry!” Hermione exclaimed, appalled by his way of thinking.

 

“And they come after us, too, because we’re a packaged deal and all,” said Ron with a bitter smile. “So why didn’t the bloke just off me then, in Knockturn Alley?”

 

“Ron!” cried Hermione, feeling sick.

 

“I suppose that might have been too bold,” said Harry thoughtfully. “He obviously wanted you to stop following him, but murdering someone only yards away from Diagon Alley would have probably drawn more attention than one would like after recently escaping from Azkaban. I mean, a dead body is obviously going to warrant some pretty serious investigation. Knockturn Alley is rough, but not that rough.”

 

The calm, pensive tone Harry was using to refer to his friend’s theoretical dead body made Hermione feel even sicker. Furthermore, the ease with which Harry seemed to get into the Death Eaters’ mindsets was frightening.

 

“The real question, though,” continued Harry, “is if he didn’t want to kill you, why was he in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes in the first place?”

 

But no one seemed to have an answer to that question.

 

***

 

Author’s Notes: This time I have to give an extra special thank you to my beta, nundu, who patiently re-betaed this chapter after losing it to the unforgiving wrath of Microsoft Word. Thanks as always to everyone who has read and reviewed this story so far. Your comments are very helpful and you give me the enthusiasm to keep writing!

//
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