Hermione got ready for bed that evening after her detention with Professor Snape with a whirling mind. Who better to confide all her troubles to than her cat? So Crookshanks heard about it from her perspective in great detail. “…and then he smiled, Crooks! He smiled, and then …” she broke off.
Crookshanks’ purr faltered momentarily. What on earth had Severus done?
“…he said I have to be the one to tell Professor McGonagall!”
The cat butted her hand and purred louder, radiating sympathy.
“Can’t you just see it?” She rose and cleared her throat. “Um, Professor McGonagall, would you mind being our guinea-pig for this Animagus potion?” Hermione sighed and sat down on her bed. “That just doesn’t sound right, Crookshanks.” She scratched his ears, and he obligingly began purring at her in a rumble that shook the bed. “I can’t ask her like that! It would be rude!”
Crookshanks turned his head so she was scratching his chin now.
“Oh you’re lots of help.” She stood up and cleared her throat again. “Professor McGonagall, Professor Snape and I are researching a potion to allow Animagi to talk, and we need … that is, I was hoping …” She threw her hands into the air. “Oh damnitall, Crookshanks! Why did Snape have to do this to me? Why can’t he ask her?”
“Miaow!” He rolled onto his back and waved his feet in the air. His pet sat down again and began rubbing his belly softly.
“Perhaps I should ask her as sort of an afterthought to my questions about Transfiguration… No, she hates people dancing around a subject – hates it almost as much as Professor Snape does.” She shifted to lie on the bed with her feet in the air and propped her chin on her hands. “I wish I was an Animagus. Then I could test the potions on myself.” She went still for a moment, then bounced to her feet. “That’s it! I have to research the transformation process anyway to understand how to make the potion! If I’m an Animagus, then I’ll test my own potions. If not, I can still ask Professor McGonagall!”
Crookshanks sneezed as she picked him up and hugged him exuberantly. “Oh, Crooky! That’s the perfect solution!”
“Perfect solution?” Duster repeated in something between amazement and disgust the following morning. “Severus will kill her!” He saw the look on Crookshanks’ face and amended his words. “He’ll be rather upset with her. He doesn’t believe in experimenting on oneself, and I do think he was hoping to twist Minerva’s tail a little.”
“And here everything was going so well,” Crookshanks mourned. “Even with that Potter human showing up and nearly ruining it.” He didn’t care for any of the young males who spent so much of their time with his pet, especially not when they might interfere with the Familiars’ plan.
“Nothing wrong with that human which couldn’t be solved with a tumble down a few flights of stairs.” Duster groused in agreement. “What’s the plan for today?”
“Since it’s Saturday, Hermione’s going to be in the library all day doing research for this project of theirs. We don’t want to mess that up.”
“At least not until they’ve passed this ‘Miss Granger / Professor Snape’ stage.” Duster agreed.
“We do need to discuss that project of theirs with Fawkes.”
“Eventually, yes. Once they get past the initial research stages, I think. It’s easier to manipulate experiments than research. Fawkes may have some ideas there.”
“Agreed.” He rolled to his feet. “Topper mentioned that the Quidditch pitch is being overrun with mice. Shall we see what we can do about that?”
They streaked away, down the stairs, through the halls, and out into the field surrounding the pitch. Sometimes it was nice just to be a cat, and not worry about manipulating humans. Above them, a single human on broomback dipped and swerved, weaving complex patterns in the air.
Lucius Malfoy, professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, was actually enjoying himself for the first time since he’d accepted his current position. It was exhilarating to fly around the pitch, away from the sneers and glares that he dealt with on a regular basis. He had no idea how Severus had stood it for so long. It gave him a new level of respect for his old friend.
He hadn’t planned to go flying, but Thunder had accidentally knocked his old Nimbus Zephyr out of his wardrobe that morning. When he’d picked it up, he remembered how it felt the first time he really flew. After breakfast, he’d returned to his rooms to get the broom and then headed off to the pitch. The Zephyr was a good broom – fast and agile. He’d kept his in top shape, even though it had been a year or so since he’d flown. Once learned, never forgotten.
Thunder came with him, of course, riding his shoulder. The big brindled Manx loved flying almost as much as he did. Soon after he’d discovered that, Lucius had a heavy rough leather pad built into the left shoulder of his cloak. It afforded Thunder a secure grip through anything but the most acrobatic of maneuvers. He dipped and swerved, weaving figure-eights around the Quidditch goals, almost lost in the feeling of freedom.
He slowed down as he caught sight of another early morning flier, and groaned to himself as he recognized Madame Xiamora Hooch. She had said exactly four words to him at the initial staff meeting where they’d been introduced officially. He’d bowed over her hand quite properly. She’d snatched her hand back as if she’d been burned and hissed “Go to Hell, Malfoy!”
Now, however, she was looking at him with something akin to interest. He brought his broom to a hover within speaking distance and nodded politely.
For her part, Xiamora Hooch was rather surprised to see Lucius Malfoy on a broom. She’d had no idea he could fly, much less that he was so good at it. She watched as he expertly wove his way through the goal posts. Yes, very good at flying. She flew closer, judging his form. A natural Seeker or Keeper, she decided. Too light to be a Beater. He slowed and hovered, just within speaking distance and nodded. Well she could be polite when it suited her, so she nodded back just as politely.
“A nice morning for flying,” he offered.
“Very nice, indeed. The Quidditch tryouts are today.”
“That should prove entertaining. Gryffindor needs new Chasers, Ravenclaw needs a Beater and a Chaser, Slytherin needs a new Seeker, and Hufflepuff – they need an entirely new team.”
“Harsh but probably accurate,” she acknowledged. “I’ve scheduled Slytherin first, as Seekers are relatively easy to spot.”
“As are Beaters. Chasers are harder to find, because they need speed, agility, and strength.”
“And willingness to practice.”
“True. If Hufflepuff had the raw talent of any of the other three Houses, they’d win the Cup every year.”
She gave him a long appraising look. “You know more about Quidditch than I’d thought.”
“I was a Chaser for Slytherin while I was in school. I enjoyed it. I’ve often thought that Chasers make the best coaches. Theirs is the most strategic position.”
“The rules of the game force everyone to concentrate on the Seeker,” Xia replied. “However, Chasers see more of the overall strategy.” After a moment she added, “I was a Chaser for Hufflepuff.”
“Indeed? Tell me…” and they were off in a shared reminiscence of games played in their younger days that only ended when the Slytherins arrived at the Quidditch Pitch. Thunder was very pleased.
Hermione looked up from the stack of books to see Harry standing all scrunched up and shuffling his feet. He looked for all the world like a five year old caught with a hand in the cookie jar. “I’m a little busy here, Harry. What do you want?”
“I’m really sorry about sneaking into the Potions classroom last night. I was just trying to keep an eye on you.”
“Really?” she scoffed. “Like anything’s going to happen to me during detention.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Well what did you mean?” She set down the book she’d been studying and looked at him expectantly.
He shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know exactly what I meant. Part of me is scared that Voldemort isn’t really dead… that he’s going to come back and kill everyone I care about… everyone who’s left.” Harry dragged the back of his hand across his eyes. “I dream about it sometimes. Ron was my best mate, you know – and he died saving me.”
“Yes he did.” She’d lost count of the number of times she’d had this conversation with him. Hermione privately thought that Harry needed to see a good shrink, but wizards didn’t have such things. She couldn’t imagine trying to explain Voldemort and Death Eaters and Unforgivable Curses to a Muggle therapist. “Harry, Ron did what he thought was the right thing.”
“I’ve lost so many people I care about… I don’t want to lose you!” The intensity in his voice startled her.
“I’m fine, Harry. I’m not going anywhere.”
He threw up his hands. “I don’t know how to say it right. I don’t want to be alone any more…” He studied the floor as if it held the secrets of the universe. “I want to be with you. Always.”
Her eyes widened. “Harry… what are you saying?”
“You want it in plain speech? All right. I want to you to marry me. We’ve been good friends for years… and I can protect you… you’re everything to me… you’re all I have left.”
Hermione stared down at her fingertips, her brain racing as she tried to find the right words. “Harry, sit down. Let’s talk about this for a minute.” Her voice was soft, as if she were trying to calm a frightened horse.
He pulled out a chair and dropped into it. “What’s there to talk about? We’re leaving at the end of the year; we can get married right after. Have the ceremony here at Hogwarts in fact, and then go … home.”
“Home? Grimmauld Place? What about jobs? What if you go one place and I go another?”
“You won’t need to work. My parents left me plenty of money and I can take care of you properly. I’m going to play professional Quidditch; there are scouts from all over coming to the school games this year. There are at least two new teams forming in the spring, and they’ll be looking for good players.” He shifted in the chair, leaning on the table as his enthusiasm grew. “Anyway, all you’ll have to worry about is taking care of the house and kids.”
“Kids?” Her voice rose in shock.
“Well, not right off. Maybe in a year or so. I want to have five or six kids… give them a happy loving home – the kind I never had growing up.” He tilted his head toward an unhappy-looking Madam Pince. “Come on… let’s go up to the Astronomy Tower. It’s too nice a day to stay inside.”
“Harry, I’m working on a research project.”
“It can wait. You don’t need that project to finish school anyway. Seventh year projects are optional.”
“I know, but if I complete it successfully, I’ll be able to get the kind of job I want. I’ll get recommendations in three different fields!”
“Job? You won’t need a job! Haven’t you been listening?”
She shot to her feet scattering books and parchments, earning herself a black glare from Madame Pince. “Harry, I’m not going to be a housewitch like Molly Weasley. I don’t want to have children for a long time yet. I’m going to get a good job and make a career for myself. That’s what I want to do.”
“I never thought you’d be so selfish, Hermione.” He sighed. “I thought we were friends.”
“I’m being selfish? You’re the one who wants me to give up everything I want.”
“Not everything. Life’s about compromises. You know that.” He reached for her hand. “I just want to be happy, and I know I can be happy with you.”
“What would you be giving up? Would you do something besides play Quidditch if I asked you to?”
“You wouldn’t ask me to do anything that silly.”
“It’s not silly. You’re asking me to give up a career for you. It should work both ways.”
“Now you’re being unreasonable. I’ve always planned to play Quidditch; you know that.”
“So what makes you think your career is more important than mine?”
“You don’t need a career. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I’ll take care of you!”
“Harry…” she sat back down again tiredly, “I want more to my life than taking care of a house and children.”
Anger flashed across his face and he rose. “Fine! Stay here with your books and your research projects! See if I care! You can take one of those bloody parchments to the Halloween Ball, and marry one of those bloody books! No one else would want you!” He slammed out of the library.
Neither of them noticed the two toads on the windowsill exchange glances and then hop off – one heading for Gryffindor tower, the other for the dungeons.
Argus Filch regarded the mess outside the Infirmary door with no little dismay. “Skunk oil? Who in their right mind would be bringing skunk oil up here?” The distinctive odor of “eau de skunque” clashed with the disinfectants and other medicinal potions. Had he been looking at Mrs. Norris, he might have noticed a peculiarly satisfied smile on her face.
He sighed and brought out his cleaning supplies and pulled on a set of heavy gloves. Skunk oil was pernicious stuff; unless cleaned up quickly, the smell would linger for months happily ignoring any attempts at camouflage. Careful not to get any on his skin and clothes, he began soaking up the oil with a heavy sponge, wringing it out into a bucket. At least a gallon had been spilled, he reckoned.
“Argus! Haven’t you got that mess cleaned up yet?” Poppy Pomfrey stood in the doorway of the Infirmary glaring at him.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, but this ain’t the easiest stuff to clean.”
“Well hurry up then. That smell is making my patients nauseous!” She shut the door behind her with a bit more force than was necessary.
“Pssh. What about it making me sick, eh?” he said to the door. “I’m the one crawling around trying to clean it up, but no, you don’t see that do you? Too busy waving your wand around and doing things the easy way. Psssh.” He trailed off into muttering at the sound of footsteps down the hall.
“Hello Argus!” Ivy Sprout said, wrinkling her nose. “Oh dear – skunk oil?”
“Yes’m. Dreadful stuff. Must’ve been about a gallon.”
“Let me help you with that,” she picked up a sponge and knelt down next to him. “The sooner we get it cleaned up, the happier she will be.” She jerked her head toward the Infirmary.
“Useless stuff. Don’t see why anyone would want any of it, much less a gallon,” he grumbled.
“Now there you’re wrong. It’s an excellent fertilizer for many rare plants. I’d like to try to save what we can of it.”
“Really? Din’t know that Professor. Only thing I ever knew it were good for is makin’ those dung-bombs.”
She made one final pass across the floor with her sponge. “I think that’s got as much of it up as we can get. What’s our next step?”
“Lye. It’s supposed to lift it out of the wood or whatever it’s soaked into.” He clamped a lid onto the bucket to prevent accidental spills and picked up a large earthen jug marked with a large red skull and crossbones. “This is poisonous stuff too, but it’s the best thing I’ve found for cleaning up oil or grease.” He poured a thin stream of fluid out onto the shining, slippery floor. The moment it hit the oil film, it began bubbling. “Once it stops bubbling, we can soak it up with sponges.”
A few minutes later, nothing was left of the skunk oil spill except a large shiny clean spot on the floor. Even the smell had dissipated somewhat.
“That is amazing,” Ivy said. “Argus, you’re a genius! I had no idea that lye was such a great antidote for skunk oil.”
“It weren’t nothin’. Cleanin’ up after them Weasley twins taught me a few things.” He wrung the sponges dry and handed her the sealed bucket. “Got a bit more than half a gallon of this skunk oil here.”
“Thanks, Argus.” She paused for a moment. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I really admire the job you do here. It’s a thankless task keeping this place cleaned up, and you do it the hard way.”
“Feh, you mean I do it without magic. Like you grow those plants of yours without magic, and they don’t think of it as worth anything till they need it.”
Norris sat back on her haunches well out of the way and listened in growing amazement. It was obvious that she and Topper needed to have a discussion with Swift and Hephaestus.
Some time later, Hermione closed the book she’d been reading and thoughtfully contemplated the ceiling. Using Transfiguration to become an Animagus required an extensive knowledge of biology if you wanted to have any sort of control over what you became. You had to direct the change, make sure that organs and nerves and senses changed appropriately. If you didn’t, the result was a crapshoot. Even then, if your concentration wavered, the spell would fail – usually with messy results. Based on conversations with Harry and other members of the Order, she guessed that James Potter and Sirius Black had been able to control their changes, whereas Peter Pettigrew had left his to chance. Otherwise – why anyone would want to become a rat was beyond her!
The potion, on the other hand, “enhanced” the ability and forced the initial transformation into the guise of the animal you concentrated on when you drank it. At least, that was the theory. It was a very personal potion; only the brewer could use the result, as much of the stirring was done literally by hand. It also required three drops of the brewer’s blood and six hairs from his or her head. There were one or two ingredients that would be a little difficult to come by, but she hoped to be able to “borrow” them in the course of working on her project. The rest of the ingredients were quite common, and could be found in Diagon Alley. She chewed the end of her quill. If nothing else, she decided, she could get the more common ingredients over Christmas break, and brew the potion during the first weeks of spring term.
As for her research project, she’d concluded that there were essentially two distinct pieces of it. To allow a transformed Animagi to speak to humans was a matter of reshaping tongue and larynx into something that could make the sounds of human speech – a very, very specialized application of the Animagus Transfiguration process. To allow them to understand animal forms of communication would require diddling brain functions, and she was more than a little squeamish about that. A charm would be best suited for such an effect. So the Omnicommunica potion (her private name for it) would have to combine the effects of both a transfiguration and a charm.
Satisfied temporarily with the work she’d done, she packed up all her books and left the library. She hadn’t let herself think about the spat with Harry; that would wait until later. Right now, it was time for lunch.
Severus spent Saturday morning marking the essays he’d assigned throughout the previous week. He was interrupted once when Jack Nott came by to report that the Quidditch trials were over, and the House team was once more complete with third year Randall Marston as the Seeker. By the time he’d finished with the essays, it was time for lunch and he made his way toward the Great Hall with something of an appetite.
There were no fixed seating arrangements at the staff table at Hogwarts. Albus traditionally sat in the center of the long side that allowed him to face the four students’ tables. Usually Minerva sat next to him on one side or the other. The remainder of the staff sat wherever they wished. Oftentimes it was a contest to see who could avoid sitting next to Lucius Malfoy. Today however, Xiamora Hooch was sitting next to the DADA professor at one end of the table chatting animatedly. From their gestures, the discussion was evidently about Quidditch. Severus raised an eyebrow and seated himself at the other end of the table where he could keep an eye on the students.
He noted that Mr. Potter was not at lunch. The brat was probably still sulking somewhere. Miss Granger came in with a stack of books much to the derision of her classmates. He could see the disdain on their faces plainly – why would anyone want to study on the weekend? She wound up turning her back on them and eating quickly in relative solitude.
Severus left the Great Hall as soon as was decently possible. He knew he was postponing the inevitable; Albus would eventually make him return Potter’s cloak. But in the meantime, he would have some fun with it.