.

So far... The reborn Hermione launched the Cathesis League to fight Dark corruption, and Crest defensive training at Hogwarts where she'll soon begin her third year. But in the summer, Olive has been adopted by the Weasleys, Harry has been grounded by Sirius because of fatal attacks close to him, and Cathesis has discussed Muggle-Magical cooperative strategy to avoid future economic collapse. Now read on...

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Chapter 69

Slithering


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Exchanges on the Lawn

The summer's morn had long been bright when Mike Worthing's owl swerved down into the Grangers' garden. Hermione grimaced at the message she rescued from the leg of it:

Hermione,

My agents have reported they lost track of Nott Senior well past a week ago; they'd been searching frantically but were reticent to report the failure. I reprimanded them, not for losing their quarry but as a reminder that negative disappearance might signify the positive dark activity of which they ought to have informed me. Well, at least they'd already made amends by discovering young Theo had owled Peasegood at the Ministry's Obliviator Headquarters (I think you know his father works there?) The lad claimed his father was accidentally stung while mounting an ascalapha for his collection, and is now suffering an ague so hot and feverish he's unable to come in to work. Do we believe that excuse? Or has the elder Nott gone to ground? Fled British soil? Plotting something? My men have been unable to silently penetrate the wards protecting his home and – per my order – are fearful of alerting the Arc by using stronger force. The boy remains within – so far as they can tell.

Mike

"Farrimond! With this to Luna, fast as you can! Wait on her advice – no need to peck; she'll understand."

"What's wrong?" called Mrs Granger, hurrying down the garden path towards her agitated daughter.

"Mum! Can any butterfly sting? Bite? Do they?"

"Where! Show me!" Mrs Granger seized her daughter's hand.

"No, not me, someone else. I just heard."

"Aah... right. Let's think now... butterflies sting? Not that I know of. Probably a wasp." Hermione's mother shielded her eyes against the sun as she instinctively squinted up and around for any unwelcome bugs. "Is that another owl?"

"Might be Neville's ... yes, it is." Hermione ran to greet the bird as it settled in the big larch to enviously watch Aculus who was crunching on an unfortunate wood louse.

"Want a treat, girl?" She fished in her pocket and fed the owl before taking its message.

"Not more trouble?" asked Mrs Granger.

"Just admin stuff," muttered her daughter, squirming her mouth and jaw about as she wrestled her mind into deep thoughts of surprise. Neville meeting with Daphne and Astoria on his own! And doesn't sound concerned at all!

"Oh, lahdy-dah! Admin stuff!" The fretting mother headed back up the path, muttering, "When I was your age I was more concerned about ruddy skipping ropes and hop-scotch..."

She ducked as parchment and quill whizzed past her ear, summoned from the house by Hermione. Mrs Granger rolled her eyes and disappeared indoors.

Hermione quickly finished reading the message then settled down cross-legged on the lawn and began to write:

Neville, in answer to your question, don't mention Tracey or Gemma to the Greengrasses – or any of them to each other unless they first mention they already know they're doing the same. That's up to them how secret they want their training to be, and how much they trust each other. And, of course, never mention any of them to Nott!

As the visiting owl departed with her hurried reply, Hermione wondered if Luna was with Neville and the Greengrass girls, and whether that accounted for the air of confidence in his message, or whether he was just so much more self-assured now because of Luna – with her or not – and whether that would delay Farrimond reaching her, and whether... Hermione released a sigh as she glanced at Neville's rather formal parchment with its Longbottom letterhead: he was most likely at home.

Her mind began triangulating a journey to Devon cross-referenced with one to Longbottom Manor, then chastised herself as she considered that Muggle geometry couldn't possibly apply to the magical flightpaths of owls.

"Aculus, you're a raven; you wouldn't mind pecking out a dead dog's eye, would you?"

"Delicious," replied the bird, who had been watching the goings-on for some time.

"Not for eating. You must bring it here to me whole. Let's wait for Luna's reply to see if I need give you the location."

She heard her mother curse distantly as a Muggle newspaper flapped out of the backdoor towards the girl's summoning wand. Aculus fluttered down upon the grass beside Hermione as she tore a photograph out of her dad's Guardian newspaper. "Ignore the Chief Superintendent and the microphones. In the blurry background is a mortuary in the city of Exeter; think you can find it from that vague picture?"

The raven ruffling up indignant feathers was the sole reply.

"If Farrimond tells you that Luna's demeanour was critical then–"

"Methinks it is impatience, not urgency, that drives and distracts you!" The sharp beak clicked reproachfully. "Farrimond will not return here; instead, the wise owl will find you at the Longbottoms if that is where you plan to leap."

A long breath was slowly released by the young girl. "You read me like a good familiar should, Aculus, and you're right, of course. I'll wait. Keep me company?"

"Always."

They did not have long to enjoy the warm sunshine. Not twenty minutes passed before the faint swish of soft feathers caused Hermione to turn her head: Farrimond was waddling across the grass towards her in the comical way that owls have. Hermione resisted snatching Luna's message from his beak, but took it more gently and with a thankyou before reading:

Hermione, ascalapha odorata is the black witch moth: the harbinger of death. Yet, although believed to bring bad luck, it cannot sting. – Luna.

"As I suspected!" Hermione got to her feet. "Where was she, Farri? Tell Aculus."

Disdaining the recommendation, the owl flew to its picture blocks and proudly brought back one showing a nest.

"Mmm... 'N'? Neville's home?"

Fluttering wildly at Hermione's foolish inability to grasp what was obvious to an owl, Farrimond sped back to the toy bricks and fetched another which it carefully placed beside the one picturing the nest.

"A chess piece? A rook? The castle? – the little tower that is Luna's home, of course! She's at her own home?"

Farrimond began to preen, but quickly took the treat that Hermione rewarded him with.

"I'm for Exeter then?" said Aculus.

Hermione nodded. "And you can manage them in your beak? Or do you need a pouch? I can conjure up something..."

"I've managed more than three wriggling worms before this, I'll have you know! Eyeballs are no challenge."

"Whatever you do, don't crush or swallow them! I need them whole. Oh, and don't drop them on the kitchen table – Mum'll freak out."

"Humans are so strange," murmured the raven as he winged up into the blue.

There was a smart crack of Disapparition, and a startled Farrimond flapped off to the tree as his mistress vanished, leaving only a patch of flattened grass and a torn newspaper discarded upon the Grangers' lawn.

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The Secret Shadow

"Neville! ... Hermione's here," announced Madam Longbottom.

"Hermione? Here now?" Neville looked past his grandmother to see the girl framed in the kitchen basement doorway as she was just entering. Madam Longbottom squinted critically at her grandson now being left alone with three young girls, then left, closing the door behind her.

"Thought I'd come and see how you're getting on." Hermione swiftly took in the scene: There were two other, fair-haired, girls present that she recognised as the Greengrass sisters: one of her own year, the other would be eleven.

"Neville!" laughed the older Daphne, "how many girlfriends have you got?"

"Less than a dozen," Neville calmly replied, "but Luna's my best."

"Awww..." pouted Daphne, and Hermione couldn't help but wonder what they'd been talking about before she'd arrived. Daphne took note of Hermione's appraising stare. "You're a Muggle-born, aren't you?"

"Is that a problem?"

"Not to us, but a disadvantage to you."

"You think so?"

"Well, no magic." She giggled as though it was obvious. "How do Muggles even manage."

"They manage extremely well, thank you. Can you fly at twenty-five thousand miles an hour? Examine the furthest stars or peer into an atom? Climb seven miles high and submerge seven miles deep? Raise twenty-thousand tons with the push of one finger or strike down an enemy half a mile away with a precision of inches? Raise fifteen tons of wheat per hectare yet flatten an entire city with one blast?" She paused dramatically before adding in a stage whisper, "See a living baby smile in its mother's womb? Or heal an inherited disorder? Muggles can – they can do all that and much, much more."

Daphne face was pinched. "I didn't mean..."

But her younger sister's expression was of shock, which told the smart Granger what she needed to know.

There was a long wooden bench close by. "Sit down, Astoria," Hermione commanded, "and consider well whose side you are on."

With a glare, Daphne intervened. "We've already told Neville we're on Harry's side!"

"Because your parents insisted, but what about your hearts?"

Hermione sat down beside Astoria and gave her full attention, waiting for the child to speak. When the younger girl did, her voice was quite faint. "How could you possibly know?"

Hermione replied, "I was born of Muggles and see two worlds. I know lots of things that witches are blind to. And I know how some families in the Sacred Twenty-Eight Pure-bloods still condemn their offspring."

Poor Astoria plunged her face into her hands as she burst into tears.

"You leave my sister alone!" cried Daphne, moving forward aggressively yet with an uncertainty that informed Hermione of the girl's ignorance.

"You don't know, do you?" said Hermione.

"Know what? Get away from her! Don't hurt her!"

"Hurt her? We're here to help Astoria. And I do mean in every way that we can."

Astoria's watery eyes looked up. "There is no way. There is no hope."

"What's going on?" demanded Daphne.

"Should I tell her? Or you?" Hermione asked of Astoria.

"I cannot. I am bound by an oath to my father."

"Neville," said Hermione, "I want your word you will keep secret what is about to be revealed."

"You have it." The boy was dazzled by Hermione's current behaviour, but never too surprised by her abilities and her knowledge.

"Daphne, your sister is twice-cursed."

"What!"

"An ancestral curse has fatally weakened her. Without Muggle help, she has, perhaps, twenty-five more years of life remaining."

Daphne shook her head in confusion and disbelief.

Astoria gasped. "You know the time so closely? How?"

"A vision. The curse on your ancestor affected the pattern that shaped you. Muggles describe your condition as 'genetic' and they have a therapy to treat it."

"Muggles cannot heal magical curses!" cried Astoria.

"They can heal its effect. The curse is long gone, but you inherited the weakness inflicted on your ancestor."

The older Daphne cried out, "This cannot be! Father would have told me!" The girl's fearful thinking had clearly turned inward. She walked away a few paces – then paced back.

Before she could turn away again, Hermione hurried to block and reassure her. "The change was not passed onto you, Daphne. Yet, without healing, Astoria's frailty would emerge here and there amongst her descendants."

Hermione looked back at her weeping sister. "Astoria, you must NOT marry Draco Malfoy."

"But, I–"

"–WHAT!" Daphne shrieked at Hermione. "You're mad! Completely mad!"

"No," said Astoria, "it's true. I am persuaded I must. Both mother and father insist the purity of magic must be protected at whatever cost."

Feeling suddenly sick, and hardly able to comprehend what she was hearing, Daphne slowly walked over then sank down beside her sister who now seemed even more shrunken with despair. Not given to displays of public emotion, nevertheless, Daphne's arm encircled the narrow shoulders of her sister. "Oh, Asty, I didn't know..."

With an unexpected lurch, Astoria was soon clinging to Daphne, shaking with the release of longheld sobs.

Hermione and Neville exchanged looks, both biting their lips, then were gazing anywhere but at the girls or even at each other. The old Victorian basement kitchen was very large, and well-lit food preparation counters lined the sunniest side wall, still laden with old-fashioned pots and pans. She guided Neville towards this area –though the windows were too high above to offer the relief of a distracting view.

"Give the girls time..." said Hermione.

"Weren't you a bit hard on them?" said Neville. "I mean, they were already eager to join with us. They know it's not only me training them, but the most powerful–"

"–What!" Hermione stifled her cry and continued in an angry whisper, "How could you!" A puzzled frown creased her brow. "Yes, how could you anyway, Neville? My spell would prevent you telling them about me."

Neville grimaced. "Uuh... well, I erm... well I didn't actually mention your name so..." – his face brightened in recollection – "no, I just said the most powerful duellist of the age... or something... uumm..." The boy's face darkened again in remorse.

Hermione released a very long groaning sigh. "So where are we going to find this genius? Summon up Merlin?"

Wincing with obvious doubt, Neville suggested Harry.

"They'll never buy that. Harry's very good and... and yes, his magic is becoming quite powerful. Perhaps we can pass it off as your exaggeration."

Neville sucked in air. "Erm... well... I did lay it on a bit thick, but..."

They discussed everyone they knew from Flitwick to Dumbledore but both knew they could not risk bringing in the staff at this time.

"You've dropped me right in it, Neville," muttered Hermione. "They'll expect someone really special. They're Slytherins, and their parents are Slytherins. The principles by which they live are not those of a Gryffindor. Parents who would protect their family line by pressuring their daughter to accept betrothal to a Malfoy would also push them to accept instruction from Gryffindors – yet only if it served their purpose. But you've raised their expectations higher. They're not graced by your noble feelings, Sir Neville! Don't you see? They need a knight in shining armour to guide and protect them, but I have to keep a low profile. Come September, that filthy Draco will likely be cornering Astoria in an empty room."

"Never! She'll be only a first-year!"

"You think not? I've seen what he's capable of. The conceited jackal will handle her as his property, preparing her for future servitude. Oh, I'm not saying he'll take it too far, but he'll be insisting on holding and kissing her and... and likely his hands will roam where they shouldn't."

A fierce growl rumbled in Neville's throat, and his eyes flashed angrily. "I will not be holding back in next June's duel with him – I promise you that! What if it had been Luna instead of Astoria!" Whatever images arose in Neville's mind caused him to bare his teeth like a cornered werewolf. "I'll... I'll geld him like a Jackamule! I'll... I'll make him squeak under my feet before I strew his guts! I'll... I'll..."

Hermione flinched at Neville's righteous fury, knowing he'd been incapable of such cruelty in her other life, and surely still was? Perhaps if the provocation had been right in front of him – yes, then he might have briefly inflicted pain in a rage. If he'd not been manacled, then he'd have done it for Hannah as she died still clinging to their dead baby.

Hermione's voice was gruff when she next spoke. "Your duel will be a year too late. There's little we can do short-term except train Astoria and Daphne to defend themselves best they can."

Neville shook his head angrily. "She's a family friend! Mum and dad will expect me to do the right thing by a Greengrass. Give Astoria one of our Galleons, like our ones that can send a message, so she can call for help."

There were only a few moments while Hermione gave that some thought. "I'm not ready yet for any of the Slytherins to be privy to meetings called by our Galleons, nor to trick other Crestors, nor even to know about the Galleons. She'd probably not have time to use it discretely anyway."

"Harry's mirror then. She could call out."

"That might work once, then Draco would smash or steal it. Same with Harry's mother's portrait or one of the two-way diaries."

"Hermione, you have to find a way!"

"I'm thinking! I'm thinking..."

Neville turned to look back at the two sisters who were now in quiet conversation together. "How about–"

"–Give me a hand up onto this counter, Neville."

"What? Right..." He didn't question her. "Watch your foot in that fish kettle..."

"I'm summoning my familiar from across the country. It's slightly easier when I can see out. Give me a minute to focus."

"You've got a familiar?" Neville watched in wonder. What magic could call anything from afar?

Hermione released a breath then opened the window slightly. Neville helped her climb down.

"He'll take a while to get here."

Neville nodded. "Do the others know you've got your own familiar? Our friends, I mean?"

"Harry knows, and both our families – oh, and Ron knows too – it was just as events happened, you understand, and not meant to exclude you in particular. I need to keep him secret."

"That's alright ... but why tell me now?"

"You and Harry will be the main ones managing the Slytherin recruits so you need to know what's happening. Luna too. My familiar might need to report to one or all of you, only coming to me in an emergency you can't reach."

"Like in Astoria's dorm!"

The mental picture caused Neville to grit his teeth and he marched swiftly over to the Greengrass girls. "It's alright! We're going to help you, Astoria!"

As Astoria shook her head in astonishment, a last teardrop broke free and glistened slowly down her cheek. "You're so good, Neville, after all we did to–"

"–Did?" Daphne cocked her head to one side, trying to remember something.

"Well, mostly you, Daph, but–"

–Hermione swiftly cut her off. "Uuh... not really important." "Let's concentrate on–"

"–not important? I'll never forget it as long as–"

"–Astoria!"

"–What the Merlin's Enigma you talking about, both of you?" cried Daphne.

Puzzlement flickered across Astoria's pretty features. "You don't remember? With Neville?"

Neville laughed lightly. "Oh, that! P'uh!" He brushed away an imaginary feather of nothingness. "You mean when Daphne dropped my pants and made a grab but missed because I ran away crying and fell over." He snorted at the memory of an event which seemed so trivial now.

"I did what!" Daphne struggled to think back.

Hermione tried to explain away the missing memory she'd erased at their Sorting ceremony, "Erm... it's not the important experiences that make an impression on us, but those we feel are important. You were too mature to give the occasion another thought, Daphne, while Astoria..."

The younger girl was daintily dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief, but it did not hide the shy smile on her lips. "Daphne, how can you forget seeing a boy's–"

–A faint flurry at the high window caused them all to turn. Being an antiquated utility room, no curtains were present to flutter in the breeze.

"What was that?" murmured Daphne, annoyed at being distracted from an elusive train of thought.

"Oh, it's just uuh... the wind in the trees," Hermione said hastily to give herself time to think. "Uumm... it reminds me of erm – YES!"

Startled, Daphne and Astoria focused on Hermione, who was rummaging in her beaded bag. "Know what this is?" She held up Lily's bewitched cape given her by Harry, but did not yet blow upon the downy surface.

Neville watched quietly while Astoria shook her head, and Daphne raised one eyebrow, drip-feeding her contempt with biting sarcasm, "Could it be uumm... an old ... grey ... shawl? Might be dirty brown – hard to tell without a much-needed wash."

To hide a glare of irritation, Hermione averted her eyes to look only upon the fabric she held. "You might sneer, but this is a mantle of wondrous beauty – and more than just beautiful." Her mind worked furiously. "I found it in uuhhm... an abandoned sorcerer's cave in... Tibet ... yes, Tibet. It's enchanted with a wish... a single wish," she added hastily.

"How do you know?" said Daphne.

"What?"

"How do you know it's enchanted with a wish?"

"Uuh... well, the sorcerer told me, of course."

"But you said the cave was abandoned."

"Did I? Erm... no, it was the sorcerer who was abandoned. So he uuh..."

"Went to live in a cave?" Daphne frowned sceptically.

Neville buried his snort in a swiftly-drawn handkerchief.

"Yes," said Hermione, quite straight-faced.

"Who abandoned him?"

"Aah... that would be uumm... his one true love of course, erm... Morgana."

"Morgana? The Morgana? The greatest witch of all time? ... And he gave you her shawl?"

Hermione sighed. "Oh well, if you don't believe me..." She began to tuck the shawl back into her bag. "I've held off using its one protective blessing for years in case of dire emergency but–"

"–No wait!" cried Astoria. "I believe you!"

"You do?" Hermione blinked in surprise. "Good. That's good then. For with it one may summon Morgana's uuh... shadow! Yes, the shadow of Morgana will be cast upon the one who would ill use you."

Hermione knelt down and fluffed out the shawl once more, gesturing for Astoria to join her.

"Blow thrice on the... no, blow seven times upon this fabric that you might witness its glory," said Hermione.

Daphne smirked. "Are you sure it's not ninety-nine? It's usually ninety-nine with magic erm... 'shawls'."

But Astoria did as she was bid, then gasped as the rainbow colours shimmered and flowed across the magical material.

Daphne rolled her eyes, but quickly flicked her attention back to the glorious radiance, impressed despite her doubts.

"Repeat after me," continued Hermione, "Morgana! Morgana! Give me a sign!"

"Oh, Morgana! Morgana!"

"Give me a sign," prompted Hermione.

"Give me your sign!"

"Oh, PER–LEASE!" scoffed her older sister. "Do you really think– AAAGH!" screamed Daphne for floating through the air was a tiny horrible vision.

Neville's jaw dropped open in astonishment.

For several moments, even Hermione was shocked by the unexpected, and struggled to speak. "Uuh... the all-seeing eye! Behold, the all-seeing eye of... Morgana!"

"It's gone! She looked right at me, but now she's gone!" cried Astoria, as the eyeball faded from sight.

"Yet her invisible shadow remains," explained Hermione, getting back into her stride. "The shadow that casts no shadow – Morgana's uumm... shadow!"

Without warning, a long, whispery moan caused them all to fall silent. "Many centuries have I waited for thee, Astoria!" wailed a spectral woman's voice which Hermione recognised as that of Mr Crouch's dead wife's portrait. "Call 'pon me in thy distress, Mistress, and thou wilt find mine ardent succour ever at thy behest."

"Oh, thank you! Thank you, Morgana!"

Hermione glanced over to judge Daphne's reaction, but the girl had fallen strangely silent, mouth sagging open in surprise, lips quivering, and still gazing at the space where the eye had briefly appeared. Finally, words were uttered: "How could you know?"

"Know?" said Hermione.

Excitedly, Astoria clambered to her feet once more. "Show her your card, Daphne!"

"You collect chocolate frog cards?" Hermione said in some surprise.

"Only... Morgana's," murmured Daphne, reaching into a pocket of her robe and pulling out a well-worn stub. She stared down at the image thereon, but she did not need to read the text she'd memorised in rapt devotion as a little child: "Morgan Le Fey, Queen of Avalon, could transfigure herself into a bird – I thought earlier I heard the flutter of wings – I did! It was her! It was really her!"

"Her shadow," cautioned Hermione, trying to play down their expectations a little. "A shadow might only distract and divert, yet summon assistance too. Use the blessing wisely, Astoria, until such time as you are free of Malfoy."

Hermione inclined her head in a meaningful way towards Neville, and Astoria understood why her glance was so aimed. "Your duel of honour, Neville!" The young girl's face shone with admiration.

"BUT HE'S...!" Daphne's cry tailed off and she turned away.

"He's what?" frowned Hermione. She gave Neville another look – a quizzical stare – but he shook his head, as puzzled as she was.

"What do you know, Daphne?" said Neville.

"Nothing."

"Something about Malfoy?" Neville strode over and reached out to her, but drew back his hand short of grasping her shoulder from behind. "Are you with us or not? Make up your mind."

"You can't beat Draco. Surely you didn't think you could beat a Malfoy?" Daphne turned around, eyes shining. "My father was given the impression by Madam Zabini that we'd be taught by a master, and he's convinced that to truly defend against the Dark Arts you need to be taught by someone very experienced in them, ideally–"

"–YOU WILL!" stormed Hermione.

"–a Slytherin!"

"Neville's already told– ... Wha–?"

"–So it is? Merlin! Hear that Astoria? We'll be taught by a Slytherin master of the Dark Arts! Now it makes sense! Right, Neville, we're definitely in! Tracey will be so thrilled!"

Neville's eyes bulged at Hermione but he held his tongue.

"Who is it then?" said Daphne, eyes wide with excitement.

"You'll see," nodded Hermione very slowly and firmly, wondering how on Earth these two Slytherin girls could possibly accept Harry Potter as a master of the Dark Arts. Harry's intuitively brilliant, and his magic is powerful, she thought to herself. After all, he independently brought down Caractacus Blund! Hermione anxiously chewed her lip while striving to appear very self-assured. But a master? That, Harry most certainly was not – not even close! A diversion was needed.

"You mentioned Tracey Davis?" Hermione asked swiftly before Daphne could continue her questioning. "So, you already know which Slytherins will be trained to defend themselves?"

"Yes, and Blaise himself of course – if he can tear himself away."

"What do you mean?"

"Didn't you know?" smirked Daphne. "Got himself another girl, but this time I think he's really smitten because he won't say much about her except she's a real beauty. Spends a lot of his time mooning and pining on his own, especially up in the Astronomy Tower. I think he's in touch with her somehow. Pansy thinks she lives in Hogsmeade and he watches her through one of the big telescopes, dreaming of sloppy wet kisses."

Astoria giggled and pressed her lips to the back of her hand, forcing out a lengthy smooching sound.

"Must be serious then," said Neville. "Perhaps he's betrothed too. The Zabinis come from Italy so they're not restricted to the Twenty-eight families."

"Neither are the Lovegoods of the Twenty-eight!" cried Daphne, "but the Longbottoms are!"

"Makes no difference to my mum and dad," Neville said proudly. "They adore Luna."

Astoria puckered up her lips once more and made damp popping sounds.

Neville grinned unashamedly, and Hermione gained then the conviction that the young boy was definitely maturing earlier. Perhaps it was because his parents had raised him this time, she mused, but it was heartwarming to think she, herself, had helped a little.

Hermione listened, joining in here and there, as the discussions began to wind up. Yes, Daphne, she decided, could be rather caustic at times, but generally she seemed fair, and had none of the blind aversion to non-magicals that such as Malfoy displayed. And when the time came for the two sisters to leave Longbottom House, they did so amicably enough.

Then, as often happens at a departure after tension, despondency took over. "Neville, we really do need to recruit into Crest every youngster we can – especially Slytherins. It's not just the training for their defence, but once they've proven their allegiance, to get them to mingle more with children who see Muggles as equals – different but equal. Yes, we want to help change society but we have to start small."

Hermione's face winced up again as she gave the situation more thought. "Look, there's nothing for it: we'll have to come clean about this misunderstanding. You know them better than I do, Neville. I was hoping we'd make a big impression and maybe encourage other Slytherins to join, but what d'you think they'd do when they find out it's just us Gryffindor kids teaching them?"

He shook his head. "It's not worth worrying about, Hermione. P'uh! – Only Salazar Slytherin himself would be good enough for some! No, let them see what Harry and you can do in a fight – they're bound to be impressed. They were overwhelmed with" – he laughed – "your Morgana's Shadow! Merlin's ghost! I nearly had a magical seizure myself. What kind of familiar can do that, anyway, Hermione? A Jarvey with good manners? – impossible. And wings? – never." A slight nervousness suddenly clouded his expression, and he looked round anxiously. "The eye and the voice, they were your familiar's, weren't they?"

Hermione's eyes widened. "What? You didn't believe in Morgana?"

For a few seconds, deep concern clouded Neville's features, then, on seeing the corners of Hermione's mouth twitch, he relaxed. "You're winding me up, right?"

"–Like a slow clock." Hermione smiled and playfully slapped Neville's arm. "Yes, it was my familiar. His name's Aculus. Let me introduce you to–" She twisted about and grabbed Neville's sleeve. "W–what did you just say?"

"About Morgana?"

"Before that?"

"Merlin? Ho ho! Are you going to bring Merlin back from the grave?" Neville's laughter echoed across the neatly hung rows of polished copper pans. "Or Salazar Slytherin, maybe? That'd be a neat trick."

For a moment, Neville almost believed he'd struck a chord, for Hermione's brow was concentrated in deep thought. Finally, she said, "As good as, Neville! As good as! Come on, meet Aculus."

She swung around to where she sensed her familiar's presence. "Aculus! Aculus, you still here? I'd expected you to have put the uuh... the fruits of your quest in the garden shed back home! Where'd you hide them anyway?"

"At your summons, Mistress, I came here almost direct from Exeter. The 'fruits', as you call them, I dropped in one of the little beanpots on the shelf here. If you do not require them anymore, I am feeling rather peckish after my journey, and would gladly dispose of them for you."

"NO! They are very much needed. Show me. That pot there?" She pushed in front of Neville. "Stay back, Neville; you don't want to see inside." She found a lid then clumped it firmly in place.

"See what?" Neville muttered suspiciously, looking around for the source of the voice.

"You don't mind if I borrow this, do you?" said Hermione as she stowed the pot in her bag.

Neville frowned. "What have you got in there? No, don't tell me; I'd probably not believe you anyway. Just make sure you wash it out before you return it, right? Gran's still very proud of the old Longbottom cookery implements she inherited with the house. She says this place ran to five elves in bygone days."

"I'll return it spick and span, of course." Hermione turned about. "Aculus, reveal yourself!"

"A raven!" cried Neville, as the bird rendered itself visible. "Gran says they're really clever and excellent speakers." He moved closer to admire the bird. "Whew! – you're a handsome fellow, aren't you? Luna will absolutely adore you. I'm Neville Longbottom, by the way."

"I know you of old," said the raven. "Your snores are legendary."

"Wha...?"

Hermione smiled through an explanation. "Aculus watched over Harry in first year when Daggard was in your dorm."

"You've been around all that time... well, of course, I suppose you must have."

Hermione breathed out a wry sigh. "Just one more secret to keep, Neville, ... one more secret."

.

—oOo—

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Author's Notes

Apparently the Greengrass girls fair hair is fanon, but Astoria's frailty curse is canon (at Pottermore.)

How can Hermione recruit a great Slytherin master to teach in Crest, and who will it be? Snape? Voldemort's demon summoned again from hell? Morgana with a Time-Turner? Merlin himself? Whoever it is, they'll be from the dark side, feared, and... a known killer! Wooohhh!

Many thanks for all comments and reviews. These are most welcome and very encouraging. Let me know of any weaknesses or faults – I'm always trying to improve my writing so feedback is really useful. :)

– Hippothestrowl

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