Hermione couldn't bite back the smile that lit up her face when they made their way into the threshold and heard the immediate chaos and whoops of greetings (which they returned with equal vigour). Walgara Black, thankfully, didn't wake up (the curtains and charms, while generally ineffective, had apparently at least blocked some sound).
Harry, Ron and Ginny had come along with her. Surprisingly, or perhaps not-so-surprisingly, Professor McGonagall had allowed it.
A good thing, too, Hermione thought wryly as she leant against the cool wall and tugged off her wet boots. Harry needed as much cheering up as he could get.
His scar was starting to hurt again, and Hermione felt it a bad sign.
Unsurprisingly, Harry refused to talk about it.
"The calm before the storm," Ginny had whispered quietly to her the previous night, as Harry sat brooding once more in front of the fireplace, rubbing his scar, unresponsive to his friends' gentle coaxing.
Hermione sighed inwardly as she dusted the remnants of snow off her coat.
She couldn't help but feel Ginny was right. Voldemort hadn't simply fallen off the face of the earth; there was proof of his continued existence and malevolence everywhere they looked. Muggle killings were still on the incline, and Muggleborns were being tracked and killed outside of the castle walls with what seemed to be renewed vigour; yet nothing seemed to be progressing— except perhaps Voldemort's impatience. Nothing on the surface, anyway. They were not so naïve as to believe that Voldemort had rested in planning Harry's demise, but for all the world they couldn't help but wonder at the silence they currently faced.
The question swum around their heads like wayward wrackspurts, whether or not they spoke it aloud to one another:
What was he plotting?
Hermione frowned thoughtfully, but was snapped out of her reverie as a pair of familiar voices, and sets of arms, met her attention. "Hermione!"
"Fred! George!" Hermione laughed, hugging them both in return after she had recovered from her temporary state of breathlessness; the twins always seemed to forget their strength. Professor McGonagall, who had up to this point been behind the four Gryffindors, slid past Hermione to the drawing room with a nod of the head in greeting to the two boys. (Although Professor McGonagall would never admit it, Hermione had a sneaking suspicion she had a soft spot for them. It was no coincidence that said soft spot emerged after McGonagall apparently caught them leaving a rather nasty jinx outside Umbridge's office.)
"Good to see you again!" Hermione finally exclaimed, slipping the chocolate frog card she had collected into Fred's waiting hand. "I feel terrible for not turning up to my birthday celebrations after you went to so much trouble. I really am sorry about that; it was irresponsible of me not to at least stop in to tell you I wouldn't be attending. I'll make it up somehow, though, I promise!" There was a pause, and Hermione leaned back so she could properly see their expressions. "How's business?"
"Business is booming as usual," Fred answered with a toothy grin, pocketing the card and patting her on the back. It seemed the additional apology was unneeded. Perhaps Ginny had at least alerted the twins to her emotional turmoil that night, if not the context behind it.
The tenderness of their hug seemed in support of the theory.
They both finally withdrew from the bone-crushing hug, and George sent Hermione a sly wink. "Right. You never gave us the opportunity to thank you for your rather creative idea—"
"Oi! What gives?! You're not even going to say 'hi' to your brother and sister?" Ron interrupted, crossing his arms. "Or Harry?"
Fred and George turned to Harry and stuck their hands out. "Good to see you again, mate."
"Likewise," Harry grinned, shaking the twins' proffered hands.
At Ginny's equally amused and expectant expression, the twins greeted her with a big hug also, and for good measure, a kiss on the cheek. "Good choice," Ginny murmured, shooting the twins an exasperated smile. "You're going to need all the back-up you can get if you give Mum half as much grief as you normally do."
Ron huffed. "Speaking of Mum, where is she?"
"In the drawing room 'monitoring us'," George answered obligingly, smirking slightly.
"We've managed to coax the adults into watching our new indoor firework range," Fred explained, wearing an expression far too proud for Hermione's liking. "Technically the other ones were indoor too, but parents didn't take too kindly to their glass and china being broken. A shame, really. Almost broke our Howler incinerator in return, they did."
Ron whistled. "How'd you get Mum to go along with that? I could've sworn your fireworks had swears."
"Technicalities," Fred and George dismissed casually.
The four friend's shared a knowing look.
"What about Professor Snape, then?" Hermione inquired, her brow furrowing in askance. "You can't seriously tell me that he's sat there in the drawing room waiting for your shenanigans?"
"No," Fred answered, rolling his eyes good-naturedly. "The Old Git can't stand a bit of fun. Went down to wait for the meeting in the Kitchen with Tonks. With the fireworks being a new product, we thought it best for her to sit out. We don't want any complications to come of it, with Tonks being pregnant and all."
Hermione snorted, glossing over the latter explanation for now. "Of course he wouldn't willingly stick around for anything coming from you two. He was your teacher for seven years."
"Exactly!" George crowed. "Where's the faith?"
"The trust?" Fred echoed.
"Unbelievable," Harry agreed, smirking slightly. "How could he ignore such a good reputation?"
They all laughed easily at the picture of the elder boys' less-than-stellar reputation— most, if not all, recalling the twins' infamous reputation that followed their "graduation".
"How is Tonks by the way?" Hermione asked carefully after the laughter had died down, remembering the latter part of Fred's explanation.
"Remus is still being an arse," Ginny answered for him, then blushed at the shocked looks on her friends' faces. "What?" Ginny asked defensively after having gotten over her short bout of embarrassment. "It's true; I overheard Mum and Tonks talking over the Floo network right before school started up, and I'm quite sure the situation is still the same. No point tip-toeing around the issue. Hence why he's in there," she discreetly indicated Remus, who was sitting forlornly at the other corner of the room, looking pensive, with a tilt of the head, "instead of with his wife down in the Kitchen. He's married to her for Merlin's sake! Tonks needs the support, living with her parents or no. She's heartbroken; she can't even gather the concentration to morph anymore. Remus needs to grow some balls— and quickly, too."
Morph… morphing… transformation?
Hermione wanted to hit herself on the head for her stupidity.
How hadn't she thought of asking Tonks earlier? She could have easily sent her an owl with an enquiry— easily!
This time it was Harry who whistled, which evidently resulted in a slightly pinker Ginny, and a disturbed-looking Ronald Weasley. "Wiser words have never been uttered. I'm reminded more and more everyday why I love you so."
Gagging noises ensued at the cloying display of affection. Hermione, who prided herself on her restraint, managed to keep it to a slight wrinkling of the nose.
"I think we'll move into the drawing room and leave you two lovebirds out here," George said, obviously taking note of the smitten looks written across both Ginny and Harry's face.
It was clear an imminent snogging session was approaching, and nobody was keen on sticking around for it.
Ron, for the first time in the entirety of their encounter, nodded vigorously, agreeing wholeheartedly with the twins.
Tonks would surely have some insight into the transformative process, right? Sure, she might not be an Animagus, but there were clear parallels between the two variants.
Professor McGonagall had been extremely helpful in answering Hermione's qualms, but she hadn't been able to answer Hermione's questions about the physical aspects of Animagus transformation. What had passed as a minor hiccup and inconsequential lack of information had turned into a fundamental flaw in Hermione's budding plan: What was it like, what mental processes did it take, to transform? McGonagall had tried her best to explain it, but she had forgotten what it felt like to consciously transform for the first time, given her age and experience. Hermione had gleaned little from the exchange, save a few vague details from Professor McGonagall and the books she had lended her.
Hermione chewed thoughtfully on her bottom lip.
A fresh perspective would be more than nice where her research was concerned.
"…coming, Hermione?" Ron asked, waving a hand in front of her face.
Hermione blinked owlishly, just barely taking in the words through her haze. Colouring slightly at his attention (and the realisation that she likely resembled disgruntled Pygmy Puff), Hermione muttered, "I'm sorry, but I've got to talk to Tonks about something."
He searched her face for a long moment, as if looking for a reason of sorts for her preoccupation and dismission. Seemingly satisfied that nothing was out of the ordinary, Ron simply gave in with a shrug. "If you say so."
The fact that Hermione's eyes shone undeniably brighter after they had split should hurt his pride. Yet it didn't; despite how poorly he treated her, and despite betraying her trust with his careless ways, he couldn't help but want the best for her.
Books and knowledge and all.
He know he sounded like a hypocrite, given his relationship with Lav, but it was what she deserved. Though he couldn't understand it himself, she deserved it.
That much he knew.
"…well, in the first trimester my nose was very sensitive! I could smell things before I even saw them! Oh, but I really don't like the smell of raw meat; the smell would have me retching on my already difficult morning sickness. I really did crave those muggle burger things though. And I was tired constantly! It was like I just couldn't get enough sleep. But now… I won't even begin on the hormones—poor Remus—but then again, there are some hormone related things he doesn't seem to mind…"
Hermione choked on her laugh as the Potions Master, who had been previously studiously ignoring the witch's enthusiastic prattling, stood up. "That's enough— I've heard enough!"
And with that, Professor Snape turned on his heel and headed for the door.
Hermione, not at all keen on awakening his ire, hastily stepped out of the way and nodded a perfunctory greeting; she didn't think he would appreciate her staple, chipper greeting.
He scowled at her, but otherwise didn't respond.
Hermione couldn't tell whether she was relieved or disappointed; she had thought they had broken a barrier of sorts the last time they had officially spoken. Perhaps she had been imagining things.
Tonks' pig-like snorts could still be heard over the sound of the library door slamming, and Hermione turned her attention back to the situation at hand.
"Don't you think that was a bit mean?" Hermione asked, making her way over to the table, fighting but failing to conceal the amusement in her eyes.
Tonks shrugged, her dark eyes drifting back over to the door where the Potions Master had left in a swirl of black robes and indignation. "He's said worse to me. It'll serve him right to realise that I give as good as I get."
There was silence for a moment.
"I don't mean to bring it up… but I thought Remus and you were still… unsteady," Hermione said carefully, observing the slump of the older witch's shoulders at the mention of her marital predicament.
Seeming to recover herself, Tonks straightened and replied, "Yes, but Snape doesn't need to know that, does he?"
Hermione nodded. The younger witch sat down slowly and watched Tonks with a weary expression. "You're taking this remarkably well."
"If I don't laugh I'll cry, Hermione," Tonks stated evenly. Hermione noticed belatedly that the older witch had mousy brown hair, and she frowned slightly at the realisation. "And Merlin knows I've spent enough time crying. Now, what brings you down to the kitchen when you could be up there with your friends?"
Hermione smiled sadly, but allowed the subject to drop. "I came down here to see whether I could ask you a question— or a few, actually, if that's okay with you."
"Should it help you in any way, I'd be happy to," Tonks agreed easily, pouring herself a fresh cup of tea. "We've got quite a long while until the Order meeting begins. Ask away."
And so, Hermione repeated the spiel she had given to Professor McGonagall, anxiously watching Tonks' expression as she spoke. Finally, when Hermione was finished, she asked tentatively, "Would you be willing to help?"
Tonks flashed her a winning smile behind the cup of tea she was cradling to her chest, and Hermione relaxed marginally at the sight. "Of course I would! I said so, didn't I?"
Hermione sighed. "Thank you. It means a lot."
"Though I will admit to having no clue as to how I can possibly help." She sighed and shifted in her seat a little. Hermione raised an eyebrow. "I will admit to, erm, fudging a lot of my transfiguration homework." Tonks glanced up at Hermione and smiled sheepishly. "I could change my appearance at will, yes, but I was bloody hopeless at every other form of transfiguration." She paused. "Don't tell Minerva."
The younger witch snorted. "No, no. I was simply going to ask you a few questions about shifting. I thought— maybe— there might be some parallels between morphing in Animagus transformation and Metamorphmagus transformation." Hermione chanced a look at the other witch. "I know that Metamorphmagi are born and not made," Tonks nodded her assent, "but surely there are mental processes you share?"
"That's the thing, Hermione," Tonks replied solemnly, pushing the remnants of what looked to be shortbread crumbs into a stringent line across her plate. "I wouldn't know. These things come naturally to me, and others like me. I imagine, though less instinctive for Animagi, that this is the case for them also after a while. Any advice I can give you surrounding morphing I'll happily give up. But you'll be hard pressed to find much use for whatever second-hand information you manage to conjure."
"So there's no way around it," Hermione conceded quietly. It was originally posed as a question, but it came out as more of a dejected statement; she hadn't expected anything revolutionary from Tonks, but she had at least anticipated something. Something that would push her in the right direction.
"I never said that."
There was a lapse in conversation as Hermione replayed the tête-à-tête in her head, trying but failing to find the hidden meaning behind the discouraging words.
"This is a theoretical analysis and depth study into Animagi, is it not?"
"Right," Hermione answered cautiously, more than a tad bit confused as to what Tonks was getting at.
Tonks hummed noncommittally as she stood up. "You can't successfully give an experiment true depth and validity without practical experimentation, no matter who you confer with for experience."
She paused for a moment as she collected the tea cups on the table. Hermione suspected that Tonks, like herself, was used to doing things the muggle way— especially recently given her living circumstances.
Carefully walking them over to the sink, with a grace Hermione had forgotten the clumsy witch occasionally possessed, Tonks continued, "There will always be outliers and individuals who prove to be an exception to the rule; who work their minds differently to transform. It would be your job in your experiment to account for that. To be a mediator between variables. To use personal experience to make your experiment eventually transferable to others."
Tonks had turned around and was now leaning against the sink, her pregnancy belly sticking out, and her eyes sparkling with mirth. "I think you understand me correctly, Hermione."
Hermione drummed her fingers on the table, now sorely missing the tea cup handle she had been abusing with her nervous ministrations.
"I promised Professor McGonagall I wouldn't."
There was a pause for a moment, but then Tonks nodded. "In that case: forget what I said. I must be a bad influence."
There was a clatter from above, and a Lynx Patronus flew in through the open kitchen door, bouncing off the opposing wall and up to Tonks. "I need to talk to you, Tonks. Auror business. The Order Meeting will start soon. Make haste. I need another opinion."
"Lazy bastard," Tonks muttered once the Patronus disappeared. "I'm the pregnant one and he can't even come down to get me."
As she made to leave, Tonks turned back.
"Remember what I said. Just… be careful, if you do decide to… take what I said to heart." She grimaced. "I would hate to awake Minerva's wrath."