"He seems better," Lucy said in my ear over the noise from the over-enthusiastic pianist. We'd got a minder for the kids one night, and treated ourselves to a "grownup" play and dinner.
"He is," I admitted proudly between bites of pasta. "I think living in the dormitory with the other boys has helped, too. Although he doesn't care to cuddle anymore," I added darkly, and Lucy laughed.
"Welcome to motherhood, if you hadn't got that figured out, yet," she teased. "Every mum with boys that I know goes through this. There's an advantage to girls," she said sagely.
"I don't know about that. Gran always said that with boys, you only have to worry about one penis; with girls, it's --"
"-- every penis in the county," she laughingly finished the phrase with me. (And thank God it was true; Ian was starting to take an interest in girls, and they in him -- he was a good-looking boy, and would probably turn out as handsome as his father.) Sprout had caught him kissing a Second-Year Hufflepuff in the corridor just before Yule, had docked them both points, and then gleefully described the encounter to me over a glass of sherry (she'd taken almost as proprietary an interest in him as I). Thankfully he still seemed to think of Paula as a mate, so Lucy and I hadn't had to deal with snogging over the hols. (Paula wasn't interested, in any case, and would have decked him if he'd tried.)
"And on the other hand, since I got him late, I missed nappies and projectile vomiting," I noted.
"Oh, it's not that rough, especially if they're yours. Don't discount the power of hormones -- you learn to ignore those bits straight off. You ought to try it from the beginning, next time," she added, with a nudge of her elbow, and I snorted.
"Not bloody likely. The only male over eighteen and under sixty-five that I've been around is the most unpleasant git in the universe."
"Snape, wasn't it? What does he teach?"
"Chemistry," I fibbed. "Very scientific, no-nonsense, thou-shalt-not-deviate-from-the-One-Proper-Way-to-do-things -- which is, of course, his way," I said sourly, remembering the incident at the staff meeting.
"You make him sound like a first-rate wanker," she laughed.
"'Wanker' isn't quite right. It's not that he's foul -- he's intelligent, and interesting in that... dark, tortured, bad-boy kind of way -- very charismatic," I admitted. "He simply has no social skills at all, at all."
"Who cares about social skills when all you need is his DNA?"
I choked on my Shiraz, and she giggled. "I don't need his DNA! You are such a gobshite, sometimes," I muttered after I cleared my lungs, and she grinned: she was used to the affectionate epithet, especially when she was in Let's Shock Miranda Mode, as she was now.
That was precisely what Lucy'd done: found herself a nice, intelligent man without a shred of paternal feeling, and got him to donate sperm. I don't think he had any involvement at all, after that: she'd never mentioned sending him so much as a picture or progress report.
"And even if I wanted to have a baby -- which I don't," I added severely, "I do not want to consider what kind of machinations would be involved in getting Snape interested, and I'm not capable of following through on them in any case, I don't care how bloody brilliant an actor I am."
"You mark my words, my girl," she said, suddenly very serious. "One of these days you are going to fall, and hard, and I hope I'm there to see it. There's a hopeless Romantic buried under all that practicality."
"That may be," I airily informed her, "but Professor Snape is the least likely bloke in the world to bring it out in me. So you'll have to wait until I find myself back in town, and then you can play matchmaker to your hearts' content."
"Not going back next year?" she asked, surprised.
"No idea. Contracts won't be offered until well into term, I expect. Speaking of which..." I said, determined to change the subject, "why didn't you get that promotion? I thought you had seniority."
She pulled a face. "Calvin said I don't sign off on enough cases," she said, and I snorted in disgust.
"You've got the highest success rate and the least recidivism. When are the fecking eejes going to figure out what's more important?" I said in disgust.
"I think it involves flying pigs and a frozen hell," she said dryly, but still in good humour. "Doesn't matter much; I'm going on my fifteen years. All I have to do is stick it out another ten, and I'll get more or less the same pension."
She made light of it, but I knew it bothered her. She was an excellent social worker and she deserved better.
We managed to move on to less upsetting topics, saw the show, and made it home in time to tuck the kids in bed, to the minder's great relief.
I was so shocked by the paragraph I'd read that the exclamation came out loudly. So loudly, in fact, that McGonagall gave me a sharp, "Professor Hunter!" in reprimand.
"Have you seen what that -- Skeeter woman wrote about Hagrid?" I retorted by way of defence. It was the first time I'd picked up the Daily Prophet since returning to Hogwarts, and the first article I'd managed to lay eyes on.
"Oh -- that. Sadly, yes, and I quite agree with the sentiment, Miranda," McGonagall replied, her face softening, "but do try to keep it down in the staff room."
"Sorry," I muttered, and returned to the paper.
The column was titled
and I'd thought at first -- egotistically and with not a little paranoia -- that I might be the subject. But Skeeter was out for bigger game (so to speak) than something as insignificant as a Muggle in the midst of Wizards.
A body moved between me and the window at my back, blocking the weak sunlight that fell on the page.
"May I?" Snape murmured in my ear. "I've not yet seen it." Without waiting for my assent, he stretched his arm over my shoulder for the paper, blunt fingers grasping its edge as he moved out of the light so we could both read (not that I wanted to, after the first two paragraphs). It was the same old scurrilous claptrap -- just filtered through Wizarding prejudice.
I sucked in an outraged breath when I reached the end of the fourth paragraph.
"That little weasel," I hissed, and Snape let out a snort.
"Ferret is more appropriate, I'll grant you and Moody that."
"Well, what do you intend to do about him?" I challenged Snape, twisting in my seat to stare at him accusingly.
"Do about him?" he retorted, annoyed.
"You're his Head of House: shouldn't you give him a dressing-down on school loyalty or discretion, or something?"
I had to crane my neck to see his face, and got a good look up his nostrils for my pains. (He really did have an unfortunately large nose.)
He was currently staring down it at me, amused.
"School loyalty won't work with Malfoy. Though," he admitted, "discretion is another matter. I shall take it under advisement."
"Bloody libel, that's what it is," I said darkly as I turned back to continue reading. "She'd be under prosecution Outside, the minute this had come off the press."
"Technically she hasn't libelled him -- the facts are accurate. He is half-giant. You didn't know?"
"No, but why should that matter? I know the man; I could care less if he were Martian."
"You're letting your emotions sway you."
"Of course I am. That's what she intended with this ridiculous propaganda, just not --"
Dumbledore entered the staff room, glancing at Snape and me as he passed.
"Ah, you've all seen it, then."
"How is he, Albus?" McGonagall asked crisply.
"Not at all well. He's holed up in the hut with Fang, and he's submitted his resignation."
"Surely you haven't accepted it?" Hooch demanded.
"No, no, of course not, but he's still refusing to teach, so I've called in a substitute for the time being. I'll talk some sense into him later today."
And with that Headmaster began the staff meeting, and I had to swallow my outrage for a while.
Ben Ackerley, a Ravenclaw, was so interested in his topic -- Politics, as it happened -- that he requested to continue into the Spring term; he'd already completed a stint as a Muggle campaign-worker in the autumn Commons elections, and Headmaster had arranged an internship with him at the Ministry, so I saw him on the week-end to discuss his progress. He was developing some interesting comparative theories about the two systems. How he managed all this with his NEWTs coming up I don't know, but he wasn't a Ravenclaw for nothing.
Surprisingly, Madame Maxime had given some of the Beauxbatons permission to sit in on my classes, as auditors: Muggle Studies wasn't offered at the French school. It slowed us down a little -- neither their English, nor my French, were always good enough to cope with their questions (and they had no problem asking them -- they were eager to learn, practically every one of them as determined as Hermione Granger), but we managed. I found myself pulling out my old French texts at free moments to brush up: you never stop learning. Or you shouldn't, at any rate.
Everything else continued as normal -- including Malfoy's barely-veiled hostility. He was bright, that was true; but I knew he'd figured out my standards and could write what he thought I wanted to hear. It was depressing. Crabbe and Goyle were too thick to pull that off -- they didn't have nearly the guile that Malfoy possessed: but even then, the small improvement I saw in them I chalked up to Malfoy's occasional, direct interference in their assignments. I recognised certain turns of phrase.
I also knew that the big man must still be hurting, especially as some of the students had aided and abetted with Skeeter's outing of him. I wasn't going to go so far as to tell him that I knew what he was feeling -- though I had a bloody good idea -- but I could at least make sure he knew I couldn't care less.
I rapped on the door of his hut one Saturday afternoon, and he opened the door cautiously and peered out.
"Doing rounds today?" I asked brightly.
"Naw. Don't hafta until dark, Perfess--"
"Might as well make it Miranda, Hagrid -- we're both junior faculty. Now," said bossily, "I need to go to Hogsmeade, and I haven't been yet -- want to come with?"
He stared at me, and then a big grin slowly crept across his face. "Lemme get my coat."
We walked into Hogsmeade together; I made my purchases, and we stopped at the Three Broomsticks before heading back.
Point One: butterbeer is awful. Point Two: Hagrid could consume vast quantities of it. I quickly moved on to cider.
"So how's young Ian doin'?" he asked.
"Fine; he's settled in well. McGonagall's lifted the Limiting Charm this term, but she told me you'd done that in your class for a while, now. So he's doing well with the Creatures?"
"He's a natch'ral. The unicorns have taken a shine to him, too, an' they don't like boys usu'lly; but they know a good heart when they see it."
"He's having a bit of trouble with one of the Slytherins," I admitted, "but other than that..."
"Is he, now?" An uncharacteristic, crafty gleam entered Hagrid's eyes. "Well, now that he's not Limited, that'll sort itself out soon enough, I bet."
I bought him another yard (Hagrid didn't muck about with pints) and we chatted about the Tournament and Hogwarts for another hour (and three more yards), and then made our pleasantly tipsy way back to Hogwarts, just in time for the evening meal.
Hagrid appeared in the Great Hall for the first time since the whole wretched incident started, and was his usual cheerful self. Dumbledore -- though how he knew, I couldn't tell -- sent me a distinctly approving look.
It was worth the hangover next morning.
Sorry, but there's just no other way to describe it: it couldn't begin to compare with the excitement of the First Task. The entire school trooped around the lake to the opposite bank -- no short walk -- and packed the stands, waiting for something to match the excitement of the dragons, and instead we ended up staring at air bubbles on the surface of the lake for over an hour.
We knew that the champions were retrieving something, of course, but Bagman didn't deign to tell us what, and it was impossible to see into the depths of the dark, peaty lake.
I suppose it was some measure of my increasing comfort level with the new world I found myself in that I was hardly fazed when Krum transformed himself into a shark (well, half a shark, and he did it badly, to boot). Diggory and Delacour conjured some kind of bubbles around their heads, and Potter, who nearly missed the whole thing, stuffed something in his mouth and waded into the frigid water; I didn't see any change in him at all, but I did note, from my vantage point, that Snape was livid with whatever the boy had done.
I'd been doing my best to ignore Snape, but Lucy's sly little comments had made me very conscious of him as... well, as a man, as opposed to just another member of the faculty. And I was now intensely curious: I still thought he was an unpleasant git, but there was something else going on there....
A half-hour into the Task, Delacour got herself into a bind. We saw a disturbance near the far edge of the lake -- something thrashing about. Soon Delacour popped above the surface, waving frantically for aid.
When the monitors finally got her to the proper side of the lake, she was hysterical and gabbling so fast I couldn't make out what she was saying. She'd been cut and roughed up, and the combined efforts of Madame Maxime and Madam Pomfrey couldn't calm her.
"Grindylows, probably," Sprout told me. "Too bad; she wouldn't have got anywhere near her target."
Grindylows? I knew about the squid, but grindylows were new to me. (I've since learned that they are much like the beansidhes or formorians Gran would tell me stories of -- and which consequently gave me nightmares.)
The excitement started when the first champion to return -- Diggory -- hauled his "prize' out of the water: Cho Chang.
I was horrified.
Now, don't start in on me. I knew Albus Dumbledore would never put his students in danger; I knew they had to be warded and protected, somehow. But she certainly looked drowned to me, and Bagman made a great deal out of the fact that Diggory had returned late. And if he had... well, there were two more champions, and their "prizes," left somewhere in the depths of the lake.
Krum returned next, awkwardly dragging behind him a decidedly water-logged... Hermione Granger?! Why her, and not one of the Durmstrang girls? (Well, a fair number of the Durmstrang girls looked like female versions of Crabbe and Goyle, but still... and on the other hand, the male of the species does occasionally have the good sense and taste to value brains over beauty -- not that Granger wasn't attractive, but she wasn't a stunner).
Everyone else was getting anxious too, by this point. Where was Potter, and who had he been sent after?
He pulled off another coûp: I don't know, now, why I was so worried at the time. (Hindsight, of course. I'd thought his success at the First Task was a fluke.) He managed to retrieve both Ron Weasley and Fleur Delacour's sister.
I didn't wait for the scoring. Thoroughly disgusted with the potential physical harm -- and actual emotional strain -- that had come to the students, I took myself back to my rooms and brooded over Wizarding recklessness.
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