"Now look, you two," I said severely after holding them back one day, "I need you to stop the experiments in this class. I have enough trouble getting the others to take the subject seriously -- it doesn't help when you use the class for a laboratory."
George had the grace to at least look abashed, but Fred was cheeky, so I had to pull out the big guns. "You know your mum did me a good turn this summer," I said quietly, and they blanched: they'd been there, and they knew what was coming. "I'd hate to have to owl her, but I'll do it."
They promised to behave -- with alacrity. I can play dirty when I must, as I'd proved to Snape. Sometimes I even enjoy it.
The only truly notable change was Snape's behavior. Not that he bacame obviously warmer in public -- that would have seemed (and been) too far out of character; but he certainly started to publicly exhibit what I can best describe as a distant courtesy. The Monday after the Quidditch match, at breakfast, he rose half-out of his chair when I entered and pointedly sent me a greeting down the table -- something no one could miss -- and it became a daily ritual at every meal. If I was seated before Snape entered, he would take the long way 'round, passing me and murmuring a "good morning," or "good afternoon," on his way to his chair.
You could practically feel the breeze from the wagging of student tongues, and the staff were nearly as bad.
Hooch was, as usual, blunt. After her initial tipsy comments at the Yule Ball, she'd left off -- there'd obviously been nothing happening, after all -- but now she spoke up. "What is he playing at?" she hissed one day as we left the Hall together.
I shrugged. "He's not snapping at me anymore. Actually, the few conversations we've had have been pleasant; he's very well-read." I left it at that, and anyway, it was true.
"I'd watch my back if I were you. He's up to something: there are things you --." She stopped herself abruptly, and pressed her lips tightly shut.
The Wizard code of silence toward Muggles was obviously still in effect.
"Well, just watch yourself," she finally advised. "Slytherins are deceitful." And with that prejudiced though entirely accurate statement she hurried off for First-Year Flying.
Even Minerva McGonagall became concerned, and I knew she had a soft spot for Snape. She invited me to tea one evening, and after a long discussion of various students' progress she vaguely referred to the "truce" between Snape and me.
"He seems extremely attentive -- for Severus," she said doubtfully.
"Headmaster chivvied him into taking me for a walk of the grounds --"
I am not going to volunteer that it was actually the lake --
"--and we discovered we had similar taste in Muggle literature, that's all." I knew she'd accept it if I invoked Headmaster. "I imagine he finds it interesting to discuss something other than potions or student misbehavior, on occasion."
She let it drop, though she was still looked worried. After all, I might be Muggle and of questionable emotional stability at the moment, but I was an adult.
It had been a very bad night; I hadn't taken the Sleeping Draught, and the nightmare had come back with a vengeance. So as soon as it was light I opted for a walk to clear my head, and ran into Neville pacing furiously across the grounds. He slowed and asked after me -- the little "incident" in the library had truly worried him, it seemed -- and I assured him I was much better. We fell into step together and talked about classes and Quidditch, and I thought that was the end of that...
...until he showed up at my door next morning to collect me for another walk. And the next morning, and the next.
I considered that he might be developing a fancy for me, and discarded the thought. I knew he'd grown up with his grandmother and uncles and aunts; he was used to being around older people, and probably missed that interaction.
And he was good company for me, too.
We found the hare on Halloween morning, just inside the forest. Her faint, wounded mewlings drew me in and Neville followed, though it was forbidden.
She'd been eviscerated, quite carefully, and left to die in agony; her eyes were still painfully bright, and she twitched when I touched her. They -- whoever they were, or was -- had been careful not to sever any major arteries or veins, else the blood loss would have killed her immediately. There was quite enough as it was: I was amazed she was still alive.
"Can you -- can you save her?" Neville said faintly behind me. I turned to look at him: he was rooted to the spot in horror, face paper-white. I hoped he didn't keel over -- I didn't think I could manage to drag him out of the wood.
He'd quite forgotten that I had no magic.
"No, I can't," I told him gently. "I can only put her out of her misery." And I did, covering her eyes so I shouldn't see them glaze over when I snapped her neck.
Hagrid had better see this. I pulled off my muffler to wrap her.
"Wait." Neville stopped me, removed his cloak, and shucked off his student robe. "I've got another," he said, and gently helped me bundle up the body. I hoped he hadn't noticed what had so alarmed me.
We returned to the grounds, and I told him to go back to the castle. "And, Neville?"
He turned back to me, his normally ruddy face ashen.
"Don't say anything to anyone. We'll let Hagrid deal with it. Probably just an animal." I was lying and I think he knew it: but he nodded and took off for the castle at a trot. I skirted the grounds, at the edge of the forest, until I reached the hut.
Blessedly Hagrid was home, and his big face creased into a smile when he opened the door to me. "Mornin', 'Randa --"
"I've something nasty to show you," I muttered as I pushed my way past him and Fang, set the little bundle down on the table, and unfolded the fabric. "Do you see?"
His face settled into grim lines as he gently prodded the little corpse. "She was alive when I found her -- just inside the forest," I told him.
"Yeah, it were deliberate," he said heavily. "Weren't no magic used, neither -- cut by hand."
Something in what he said rang a bell, set something to niggling at my mind, and then a sudden wave of nausea hit me.
"Oh, Jaysus, Hagrid -- please tell me she's really --" I swallowed back bile and sank down into a chair. "She's not an Animagus, is she?"
I could easily have killed a teacher or student: that it was a mercy killing made no difference whatever.
Stupid -- utterly thoughtless and criminally stupid --
"No, 'Randa. Just a pore animal. She'd a' reverted back to 'er form, prob'ly a long time ago," he assured me. "The pain, yeh see..."
The 'prob'ly' didn't make me feel much better, but it helped, as did Fang's nudge for attention at my knee.
"Is there anything in the forest that could have done this?" I asked Hagrid, and scratched behind Fang's ears as I knew he liked.
"Centaurs could've, but they wouldn't. An' they haven't seen no strangers lurkin' about. They'd a' tole me."
"So it's probably a student," I said, and he agreed with me.
"I'd better go tell Headmaster." I rose to leave and noticed the smears of blood on my hands. "Could I --?" I asked Hagrid, showing him.
"Fresh water in the ewer -- help yerself," Hagrid said as he re-wrapped the body. "I'll keep 'er a bit in case Dumbledore wants a look-see. Fang an' me'll go have a look outside, now."
I told him where Neville and I had found the hare, and he and Fang left.
Headmaster was distinctly bleary-eyed when I entered -- he must be a night-owl, like me -- but he woke up immediately he saw my face.
"What is it, Miranda?" he asked sharply as I sat.
"I found a hare in the forest, mutilated; Hagrid and I think it was deliberate --" I began, but he held up a hand to stop me. He rose and crossed to the empty wall, waved the fireplace into being, tossed a bit of floo powder onto the fire, and politely requested, "Professor Snape, please." He produced a cup of hot, sweet tea for me as he waited for a response: I could barely feel the warmth in my frozen fingers, though the tea itself was scalding.
Snape's head shimmered among the flames. "Headmaster?" he queried warily.
"There's been another incident -- you'd better step through," Dumbledore said shortly, and Snape did, glancing curiously at me as he hastily buttoned up his topcoat.
"Begin again, Miranda," Dumbledore said as he returned to his chair.
"Neville Longbottom and I've been walking together mornings, and today we found a hare just inside the forest. The contents of the abdomen were removed but still attached. She was still alive." I drained my cup before admitting my stupidity. "I put her down --"
Snape inhaled sharply.
"-- yes, I know, I just wasn't thinking," I cut him off, but couldn't look at him. "Hagrid said she would have reverted, so I suppose dumb luck was with me. I sent Neville back here and took the body to Hagrid. He agrees it was intentional and says no magic was involved. He's scouting out the area where I found her, now."
"You're certain it was deliberate?" Snape asked. It was rhetorical, really: he simply wanted to hear my reasoning.
"What animal chases down a hare, makes a nearly surgical incision, and leaves the body without feeding?" I answered impatiently. "She had to have been snared or Stupefied and then tortured."
The cup in my hand was suddenly quite heavy: I glanced down to find it once again full.
Good God, a bottomless cup of tea. What a handy thing.
"How long would you guess it had been there?" Dumbledore asked me softly.
I shrugged. "No idea. The paws and hindquarters were cold, but she hadn't lost a great deal of blood. It's been another... twenty minutes, now."
"No more than one and a half hours, then, I should think," Snape murmured when Dumbledore glanced at him for an estimate. "Could Longbottom have done it?" Snape asked me abruptly. "Gone out early, and then led you there?"
"Could have, but I doubt it. When I'm with him I set the route and it varies -- today was no different. As to capability," I added bluntly, "I don't think it's possible. He's neither vicious nor an attention-seeker, and he nearly puked before I got him out of there."
We sat, only the crackling of the fire breaking the silence for a moment, and then I took the bull by the horns. "This -- or something like it -- has happened before, hasn't it? You said 'another incident.' And you have no idea who's responsible," I said to Headmaster.
He nodded. "There was a similiar event late last term with one of the owls -- a courier, thankfully, no one's personal owl, though it makes little difference."
"So it's probably not a First-Year, then," I noted. "And possibly one of the transfer students who were here last spring."
"Correct." Headmaster sighed, leaned forward, and briefly buried his head in his hands. "What did you tell Mr Longbottom?" he asked presently.
"Probably an animal -- but I'm sure he didn't believe me; he got a good look. I asked him not to tell anyone."
"You shouldn't have let him anywhere near it," Snape muttered. "The forest is out of bounds and he knows it, even if you choose to ignore the rules --"
"I could hear her," I spat out at him. "I'm not accustomed to ignoring cries of pain --"
"Children," Headmaster interrupted us wearily, and, chastened, we shut up. "There was little damage done, Severus, and at any rate we should be thankful Miranda had the presence of mind to act as she did. Drink your tea, Miranda," he added absently. "Not a pleasant way to start the day, was it?"
That was an understatement.
"I think you will have to dissuade Mr. Longbottom from further walks on the grounds," he continued. "Will you deal with that for me?"
"Yes, of course," I replied.
"We can't Obliviate him; there's been too much damage --" Headmaster stopped himself abruptly and glanced at Snape, who nodded grimly.
They didn't know Neville had told me about his parents; told me that his forgetfulness was the result of an Obliviate Charm gone drastically wrong. Things like that shouldn't be performed on toddlers, but someone had tried, probably in a misguided attempt to ease the trauma of the attack on his family. It was also, possibly, the reason his magic was so flawed.
"Best make sure he speaks to no one," Snape informed me. "All we need is Potter and his crew skulking about the grounds after dark -- more than usual, at any rate."
I nodded assent.
"Good," Headmaster said. "Severus, you'd better go have a look and talk to Hagrid: then report back, and we'll decide how to proceed."
Smape nodded and swept from the room.
Headmaster leaned back in his chair, twiddling his thumbs and staring at the ceiling. He hadn't dismissed me, so I sipped at the bottomless tea-cup until he was ready to talk.
"I really didn't need this today," he muttered, apparently speaking to the aether. "I have a Feast to deal with tonight, you know." Then he sighed and brought his attention back to me.
"I think, my dear, that I have done you a great disservice in bringing you here."
I couldn't respond, but he read my expression.
"Not because of anything you've done," he hastened to add. "But you, among the staff and students, are uniquely vulnerable."
"Surely you don't think it's as bad as all that," I replied, taken aback.
"It could be confined to animals," he said thoughtfully, "but I suspect there's a larger principle involved. I think those responsible prey on weakness, and eventually they may turn their attention to you."
Because I'm Muggle. Because I have no magic.
"Don't send me away, Headmaster," I said, desperation making my voice sharp. "I couldn't bear giving up. Not to something like that."
His eyes widened fractionally and he shivered, as if a goose had walked across his grave; Fawkes suddenly flew from his perch to Headmaster's lap, and the old man stroked him absently. He smiled wanly at me.
"Sorry, my dear. It's just that someone said something very like that to me, once," he said softly, "a very long time ago." He lost himself in thought for a moment, and then asked me, quite casually, "Have you ever noticed the portrait behind you?"
I didn't turn to look, but nodded. The subject was a pleasantly attractive woman, only really distinguished by the look of affection in her eyes. It was the only portrait in the room in which I'd never seen the subject move.
"That was Elizabeth," Headmaster informed me softly.
She was your wife, wasn't she? I thought, and he caught my eye, knew I understood, and nodded.
"I lost her after only a few years," he continued. "And every day since, I have regretted my weakness and selfishness." He lifted his eyes from mine to the woman in the portrait, and looked at it with such undisguised longing and self-reproach that I nearly cried.
"She was a Muggle?" I guessed, and he nodded, eyes still fixed on the painting. We sat in silence a few more moments, and then I gently ventured, "You know, a very wise man once told me that it's not a weakness to need others."
He smiled tenderly and returned to me from his memories. "And it's true," he admitted. "But it's also foolish to leave them in harm's way."
I leaned forward and placed the cup on the desk's edge. "If you truly want me to go, I will," I tried to reason, "if I'm more a liability than an asset. But I don't think it's come to that yet. Perhaps after the business with Snape is... concluded. Besides," I added firmly, "I think it's as much my decision as yours, as long as I fulfill my duties to satisfaction."
He watched me keenly for a moment and then shook his head resignedly. "I knew the stubbornness would be a problem eventually," he muttered affectionately. "Very well: you stay, for now. However, I'm going to speak to Alastor about working with you on self-defence. If anyone is foolish enough to attack you physically rather than magically, I want you to be able to defend yourself. But," he added warningly, "you'll have to make the first move count. No compassion, no matter how young a student it is, do you understand?"
"I'll take my best shot," I said steadily, and, satisfied, he nodded.
"And -- though I know you shan't like it -- I want him to explore whether you might indeed have buried talent."
I tried to object, I really did: but his eyes pinned me to the chair, absolutely resolute and unwavering.
"I am aware," he said softly, but with that steely tone to his voice that could send terror through most adults but Snape, let alone students, "that you feel... ambiguously about the use of magic. Given some of the things you've seen and heard, I can't blame you. You've dealt with most of it with more equanimity than I've a right to expect.
"And I would guess," he added shrewdly, "that you're far more upset by what you might have done today with the hare than you will admit. I can assure you that Hagrid is correct -- he's more than competent to determine such things, public opinion notwithstanding. There was no harm done, and I know you'll be far more aware of the potential dangers in future. But this is absolutely non-negotiable. You will agree to try or I'll send you back this instant, never mind Severus and the students."
Eventually -- when I could move without shaking too badly -- I nodded ungracefully, not trusting my voice. I left him still absently stroking Fawkes, his eyes fixed on Elizabeth Dumbledore's portrait.
Back to BNW Index