A/N: Well, here we are again! More Blaise-and-twins, more Esmé--- and I am ROFL about the Pratchett links! WHHEEEE! That is way too weird, especially given that I don't fancy myself a humorist...

And I would like to announce the winner of the PtQ contest: Lacy aka CloakedStoat.

The edits were, in her words:



1a and 1b) At the beginning of their conversation in the carriage (Chapter 3: The White King), Snape does not immediately call her "child" but begins with "sweet," -- Herimione's reaction is visibly negative, and he amends to "child" before continuing his initial address.

Later, when he is reflecting on the use of an endearment on her (Chapter 5: A Bishop Alone), he thinks to himself about how she had reacted to "Sweet" just before musing on why he is calling her Child.

2) In Chapter 1: Opening Moves, the notation of the Malfoy home as being located in France -- and corresponding commentary about the French Ministry being less vigilent in the watch for the Dark then is the English.

3) And in Chapter 8: Setting The Trap, the comment that when Prof. Figg had met Crookshanks, not only had she been "most impressed" with Crookshanks, but she had also pronounced him "half Kneazle." (A real wizarding pet to be sure!)

The runner up is Proserpina Lethe, who got all of them but misplaced the "double ref"--- and didn't beat Lacy.

The other contestants: Rosmerta (with one point, for catching the "sweet" change) and Emma (with two, for the new location of Chateau Malfoy--- thanks to vanguard my beta, who wondered why the Malfoys had a Chateau instead of a manor!).

Annotations:

Now that the contest is over, I can properly annotate one of my references. Snape's calling Hermione "sweet" in Ch. 3 is a direct link to C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen--- it's Ari Emory Sr.'s favorite endearment. (Those of you who have read Cyteen will recognize that this is, um, thematic. GRIN)

In this chapter:

Things equaling the same thing but not equaling each other is from Robert Heinlein's The Number of the Beast.



Chapter 11: Pawns at Play

Hermione wasn't exactly surprised when Harry and Ron decided to tag along to the library with her. And, frankly, after seeing Malfoy and being reminded forcibly that she'd have to face him day in and day out for the next two terms, she was just as glad to have the support.

"So, what are you looking for, anyway?" Ron asked as they headed down the stairs. "You said you hadn't got that much homework--- more house-elf stuff?"

"Oh---" Until that moment, Hermione hadn't actually thought of a pretext. Stupid, Granger--- not going to help you get to the eighth square! "Just random rummaging--- Blaise Zabini and I were talking about ways to combine science and magic, and I wanted to see if the library had anything on it."

"What, you mean you don't know every book in there by heart?" Ron jibed, but Harry was looking thoughtful.

"A Slytherin--- knowing about Muggle stuff?" He frowning, sending his glasses sliding down his nose.

"Yeah--- there's a couple Slytherin families like that," Ron said, offhand. "Like the Teasdales--- Bill was seeing one of them for a while, dunno what happened with that---" he shrugged.

"But isn't that odd, seeing as how they're all into purity of blood and everything?" Harry clearly felt like he was onto something. "And there's Snape pairing you with one," he continued. "Five years, and he only dumped you with a Slytherin that one time, after that Skeeter cow's article in Witch Weekly--- and then it was Parkinson."

Hermione wrinkled her nose at the memory--- then smothered a laugh at her memory of Blaise's description of the other girl. "Not fun---"

"But today, he up and puts you with a Slytherin--- and one who knows about Muggle stuff."

Ron frowned. "That is odd. Sounds like he was trying to be---" he looked dubious--- "nice."

"Oh, for pity's sake---" Hermione stopped dead in her tracks. "Do I really have to spell it out for you?"

Apparently she did, as both boys gave her baffled looks. She sighed, resumed walking. "Well, if you can't think of a reason why Snape mightn't want to do me a good turn after this holiday, I'm certainly not going to help you."

The scurrying sound of both boys hurrying to catch up was rather gratifying. Though her pleasure was somewhat dimmed by Ron's next words. "Can't see how you can just up and trust him---"

She opened her mouth to reply, but what would have become a heated--- to say nothing of potentially risky--- argument was forestalled by their arrival at the library doors.

Hermione wasn't in the least surprised--- to say nothing of pleased--- to find Blaise Zabini ensconced at a table in the back. It was a surprise, however, to see that she had two of her housemates with her. Hermione wasn't sure what Ron and Harry were going to make of this--- though she was suddenly very glad of the company. Three Slytherins, two of them unknown quantities, was two too many.

Blaise looked up as they came over--- and the beginnings of a friendly smile faded as she took in Hermione's companions. "'Lo, Granger," she said cheerily enough, but her eyes still lingered cautiously on the boys. Hermione, with a sudden flash of insight, wondered if some Slytherins might not be as wary of Gryffindors as the reverse--- and if some of her housemates might not have given them reason. You didn't want to get on the wrong side of Fred and George Weasley, just to name two....

"Hullo, Zabini," she answered, feeling decidedly awkward. Where friends were concerned, things equal to the same thing were not necessarily equal to each other--- even if she were friends with both Blaise and the boys, it mightn't mean that they could be friends with each other.

She took a look at Blaise's companions: twins, though she couldn't tell if they were boys or girls, and a year or two younger than she. They took in her companions with interested eyes that were rather less wary than Blaise's. Well, they were younger, and not having Malfoy in your year might make you a little friendlier toward other houses.

There was an awkward pause, which Hermione decided to break by keeping up the pretense she'd started with Harry and Ron. "Don't suppose you'd know if there were any books on mixing magic with science around here---"

She got no further than that before the twins' faces lit up. "Oh, you're into that too?" said one.

"Well, there's nothing in the library on it---" the second twin's voice was a little deeper.

"We looked all first year, but honestly---"

"This library is so orthodox---"

"We had to get all our books sent from home---"

"And of course Blaise---" the twin sitting nearest her leaned a little toward the older girl, then away---

"Has a great collection on that sort of thing---"

Hermione looked from one to the other of them, trying not to gape--- or laugh. Definitely the Wimbledon of verbal tennis.

Blaise broke in, the silver eyes twinkling. "These two---" she nodded at the twins--- "are Catlin---" she gestured at the twin farthest from her--- "and Florian Teasdale."

"Er---" Harry was looking from one to the other again, clearly trying to make sense of the names--- at least as much as Hermione was.

"Boy---" said Florian, holding up his hand.

"And girl," Catlin finished, holding hers out to a very surprised Harry, who took it, blinking. The twins grinned up at him in a way that said they planned for that reaction.

"Teasdale?" To everyone's surprise, it was Ron who spoke up--- but then, hadn't he been talking about the Teasdales in the hallway? "You're Claudia Teasdale's sibs, are you?"

The twins exchanged glances. "Yes---" said Florian. "Which makes you---

"Ron Weasley, Bill's brother." Catlin was looking up at him with interest. "And Charlie's, too--- Claws says it's a dead shame---

"That he didn't go on and play Quidditch, but then---"

"She can't really talk---"

"But she played for the Cannons!" Ron was looking very interested indeed now; quite as if he'd forgotten he was talking to Slytherins. There was an empty seat by Catlin and he stepped over to it--- though, to Hermione's surprise, he waited politely for Catlin's nod before plunking himself into the chair. "Best Seeker they ever had---"

"Until that scum of a Beater for the Falmouth Falcons knocked her off her broom, she was!" This was clearly a subject near and dear to Catlin Teasdale's heart.

Florian apparently wasn't as moved by his sister's plight; he grinned as he said, "After which she decided to pursue a career as an Auror--- says it's a sight safer---"

Catlin glared at her brother. "When I'm old enough---"

"If you ever get to play for the house team, with that git Malfoy buying his way---"

"Well, he's two years ahead of us, isn't he?" Catlin turned to her brother. "They'll need a Seeker when he graduates---"

"You're a Seeker?" Now Harry joined the Quidditch-chat.

Catlin looked up at him, blushing slightly. "Er---"

"Don't be shy about it, Cat," her brother egged her on--- then a mischievous grin spread across his face. "Claws knocked Charlie Weasley arse-over-teakettle in a pickup game once, and Bill still took her to the Graduation Ball---"

Hermione turned to Ron in alarm, wondering how he'd take that, but he only chuckled. "Charlie told me about that," he said. "Reckons he should've known better than to play Aussie-rules Quidditch with a Slytherin."

"What's 'Aussie-rules'?" Harry asked, and as one the three Cannons fans turned to him and were off on a description of the finer points of the sport--- the basic philosophy of which was apparently, "If it's not lethal, it's legal"--- before you could say, "Golden Snitch".

Hermione, feeling a little lost, looked up to find Blaise regarding her with rueful amusement. The dark-haired girl gestured with a jerk of her head for Hermione to sit on her other side, turning away from the Quidditch discussion as Hermione came round the table.

"They'll be at it for hours," Blaise said wryly. "They're both on the reserves--- could've been on the first team as Chasers, but Catlin wants to try for Seeker, so her brother's lagging along for fellowship's sake---" Her lips quirked as Hermione felt her own eyes start to glaze over. "All of which I only know because they tell me, in great detail, about the trials and tribulations of being on the Slytherin Quidditch team with a Malfoy in residence." A flicker of something darker crossed Blaise's face. "About like being in the House with him...."

Hermione felt the need to say something. "Never thought I'd see the day when a Slytherin admitted to not liking Malfoy."

Blaise grinned sheepishly, a lock of her long hair falling into her face. She pushed it back behind her ear. "There's more of us than you think--- Teasdales and Malfoys positively loathe one another!" She gestured at the twins. "As Cat and Flor implied, their family's quite heavily into Muggle science--- they've got themselves a factory or six as well as their wizarding businesses." Her grin turned conspiratorial. "My dad's always trying to get them to start developing hybrid technology, but they're too cautious of British law--- damn Fudge anyway."

This was a bit much for Hermione to take in all at once. "So your family's got Muggle interests as well?"

"You could say that." The Slytherin's face took on a dodgy look. "Nothing compared to the Teasdales, though," she added hastily. "We're all wizards, but half of Cat and Flor's sibs went to Muggle schools--- think they've got a brother at Eton."

"Gerald," said Florian, half-turning so that he included himself in both conversations. "And we've got sibs in three of the four Hogwarts houses--- not a Hufflepuff in the bunch," he added with perhaps pardonable pride--- "but other than that, we could have our own little race for the House Cup if we wanted."

"Could anyway," Blaise said snidely. "When's Hufflepuff ever won it?"

Hermione shifted uncomfortably in her seat. For a bit, she'd forgotten that this lot were Slytherins, with all the nastiness that implied, but now the knowledge came back to her full force. "Er---"

Blaise looked back at her, and the unpleasant hardness crumbled from her face. "Meaning no offense," she added hastily, "and Circe knows Diggory was a credit to the House---"

She broke off as Harry looked up suddenly, his face ashen. "What is it?" Catlin asked, surprised.

"Er--- nothing--- you were saying---?" He turned back to her with every evidence of attention; Florian, with a shrug at the older girls, returned to the Quidditch discussion.

Hermione, however, exchanged a quick glance with Ron. She wasn't the only one who'd been having a hard year. Ever since they'd come back a number of people had been making a point of blaming Harry for Cedric Diggory's death. Despite the fact that it was Lord Voldemort's doing, many of their schoolmates felt that Harry had somehow put him in the line of fire. As if they all weren't in harm's way, just being here at Hogwarts, with Voldemort on the rise! Hermione sniffed, didn't realize she'd done so until Blaise looked at her oddly.

"What is it?" The other girl sounded genuinely concerned.

"Oh, nothing much---" Blaise was a fellow prefect, wasn't she? On impulse, Hermione decided to tell her. "Well, some people--- since the Triwizard Tournament and all--- they've been... blaming Harry---"

"For---" Blaise lowered her voice. "For Diggory, you mean?" Hermione nodded. Blaise gave a most unladylike snort, out of place from someone who looked like a porcelain statuette given life. "Rubbish! Now, if Potter'd been a Slytherin---" She grinned slyly. "I mean, there's plenty in the house that would stab somebody in the back for a lot less than a thousand Galleons--- you should see what that lot get up to in the common room at night, and me a prefect, trying to break it up!" She broke off at Hermione's appalled expression. "Er--- sorry." For a second, Blaise looked uncomfortable, then she grinned. "Though I can't imagine having the Weasley twins is what you'd call peaceful, now, is it?"

Hermione opened her mouth to say that she wouldn't class Weasley's Wizard Wheezes with backstabbing, then remembered the Ton-Tongue Toffees and thought better of it. "You could say that."

Blaise grinned, then looked thoughtful of him. "Got to be rough on Potter, though," she said, making the same sort of conversational right-angle bend that usually left Hermione's friends in the dust when she did it. "And him a prefect and all--- undermines his authority somewhat, wouldn't you say?"

Hermione blinked, startled--- then realized that Blaise was right. Absorbed as she'd been in her friend's emotional response, she hadn't noticed the other. But now that she thought of it, she'd seen the looks he got, the way some of the students didn't move as quickly when he gave a command--- nothing earthshattering, just the simple move-along or break-it-up that all the prefects did. She'd chalked it up to Harry's naturally easygoing manner... but now that Blaise said it, she realized that might just be it. "I never thought of it that way," she said, in response to the questioning look the other girl was giving her (she had been silent a bit, there). "But you're spot-on."

Blaise grinned ruefully. "Trust a Slytherin to see a power- game."

"Too right!" Hermione hadn't thought of that, either. Feeling suddenly shy, she added, "Nice having one for a friend, though."

Blaise, to her vast surprise, actually blushed. "Nice having a Gryffindor mate, too---" Then the grin was back. "Someone to talk Muggle-magic with---" she looked over at the other four, still deep in discussion of the finer points of their favorite game--- "who doesn't talk Quidditch."

Hermione felt herself grinning back. "Speaking of Muggle-magic--- the twins said you had some books---"

"Yes--- there's not too much out there, but you can find things if you know where to look--- Borgin and Burkes usually has something---"

"But that's a Dark Arts shop!" Hermione exclaimed before she could stop herself.

Blaise gave her a Look. "Hermione, according to the existing laws as set down by our dear Minister of Magic---" who evidently was not dear to Blaise, any more than to Hermione and the boys--- "dabbling in mixing magic and science borders on the Dark Arts too."

Hermione rearranged her face into something less horrified--- then a thought struck her. "That's odd."

"What is?"

"Well... I'd got used to thinking of the Dark Arts as something that got used on Muggles by the prejudiced sort of pureblood," she said thoughtfully. "But it sounds like it works the other way too--- the prejudiced sort can call anything involving cooperation between wizards and Muggles 'Dark Arts', too, if they want."

Blaise was grinning at her admiringly. "Too right!" she said. "Why, some of the things I have in my library are perfectly innocent, except they deal with magic as one of the sciences, or several---"

Which set them off on a discussion of reading material that lasted until Madam Pince closed the library.

*****



Back in the Gryffindor common room, Hermione announced that she was going to study for the OWLs. Meeting with the expected resistance from the boys--- "What? They're not for another four months!" exclaimed Ron, as if it were four years--- she gracefully made her exit to her own room... where she congratulated herself on her cleverness.

Not that studying for the OWLs wasn't a very good idea--- but she had a shrewd suspicion that Blaise would be more than happy to be her study partner, most likely a better one than either of the boys. And this was the perfect opportunity to slip down and see Snape.

She pulled on the Concealment Cloak and slipped through the common room to hover by the door, wondering idly if there was any way to get in and out that didn't involve waiting for someone else to open the portrait for her. Maybe if she found a way to bribe the Fat Lady---

She grinned at her own thoughts. Already thinking like a Slytherin, aren't you, Granger? Maybe Blaise'll have some ideas--- At which point the portrait swung open to admit a gaggle of first years, and Hermione gratefully slipped out in their wake.

The door to his classroom was just the slightest bit open, though his office door was closed. She used the Exaudio Charm to whisper in his ear, and a moment later, the door swung open.

Snape was at his desk, apparently grading papers. "Good evening, Miss Granger," he said, getting to his feet as she slid the cloak off her face and began undoing the fastenings. "I trust you and Miss Zabini had a productive evening the library?" The slightest of smiles played around his lips.

She felt herself blushing a little. "Well, not exactly," she said, and at his raised eyebrow added, "But it was interesting." The eyebrow went higher. "She brought the Teasdale twins along with her---"

"Ah." The eyebrow resumed its normal angle, and a slight smile played about the corners of his mouth. "I assume they regaled you with tales of their famous sibling?"

"That they did--- well, actually, they talked Quidditch with Ron and Harry---" the eyebrow went back up. "Er... they took it into their heads to keep me company, ever since Christmas."

"How very chivalric of them." It wasn't quite a sneer. "I suppose it's too much to hope that they've actually joined you in making use of the library for its intended purpose, rather than hovering about you as Crabbe and Goyle do Malfoy?"

Hermione smothered her flinch at that name. "Well, they did help me a bit in researching house-elves---" she smothered a giggle. "I think you quite brought Ron around, what with getting me off house-elf rights."

Again, Snape's lip twitched. "Not that Weasley's good opinion matters in the least to me, but perhaps it will keep him from disrupting class in the future--- or is that too much to hope for?"

"I'm afraid so." She undid the last fastenings on the cloak and he took it from her gently, called up the hat-rack--- which was now moving with some alacrity, having gotten a bit of a workout in the last week--- and hung it up for her. "I don't suppose Miss Weasley accompanied you and your 'honor guard'?"

Hermione looked up at him, surprised. First Ginny takes it as a given that Snape's a double agent, now he's asking after her. What is this? "No--- why do you ask?"

Something flickered in his eyes for a moment, then he shrugged slightly. "In the first place, the young lady had a rather unpleasant experience her first year---" Understating a little, aren't you, sir?--- "and I'd rather hoped that her brother, at least, would have the decency to watch out for her." He half-sneered.

"Usually, I do, but--- well, frankly I wasn't sure how well Ron would take to my meeting up with a Slytherin, and didn't want Ginny in the crossfire." and who are you trying to convince, Granger--- him or yourself? Think about your friends the next time, for goodness' sakes!

Again he smiled slightly. "Funny, that, given that his older brother and Claudia Teasdale were the most prominent couple in their year."

"That's what Ron said---" she did a double-take. "How did you know?"

He chuckled. "Because, child, the eldest Miss Teasdale's last year as a student here was my first year as the Head of Slytherin." The smile widened. "And frankly, I couldn't have managed without her--- she was Head Girl, and had rather something of a gift for winning the confidence of the younger students. And, as you can imagine, the year after Voldemort's downfall was a particularly difficult time to be a Slytherin."

"Yes, I can," Hermione said, the pain in his voice distracting her from the unexpected pang of jealousy she felt at hearing Snape so casually admitting to relying on someone else--- on another woman. "How well did you know her?" she asked, before she could stop herself. "I mean, she is famous," she added lamely.

From the look on Snape's face, he'd seen right through her attempt at dissembling. "Well enough, I suppose," he shrugged. "Her first year as a student was my last--- I spent rather a bit of time keeping her out of harm's way, which was to say Sirius Black's way---" At her surprised look, his lips twisted, his eyes glittering unpleasantly. "Oh yes, child, it hasn't always been poor, honest Gryffindors made sport of by conniving Slytherins--- though I'll confess that with a Malfoy in the house, you have some justice in thinking so." The bitter look in his eyes reminded her forcibly of the night in the Shrieking Shack. "But sometimes, child, it's bullying Gryffindors setting on innocent Slytherins--- Slytherins younger than they, in fact."

"Younger?" The question slipped out before she could stop; she cursed herself. He means Teasdale, silly---

"Yes, younger," he said, ignoring what she'd thought was a faux pas. "Black and his cohorts were in the same year as I was, true enough--- but we weren't the same age."

It took her a moment to sort this out. "You started early then?" She couldn't imagine Sirius and Harry's father having been held back.

Snape smiled slightly. "Yes. My father's idea---to get me away from my mother, I think---" He looked away, a spasm crossing his face; before she could ask, he shook his head. "I'm most likely boring you again--- and certainly keeping you standing here. Come, let's sit down."

He drew her over to the chairs by the fire, his hand resting gently on her shoulder with the same affectionate kindness as he'd shown that first night, the friendliness of teacher to student and nothing more. "So, what did you think of Miss Zabini?"

"She's--- something else." Now that Snape asked, the complexity of her response to her Slytherin year-mate surprised her. "I mean, one moment, it's like we've known each other all our lives, and then the next she says something so--- so--- cold---" Hermione shook her head. "What is she, Severus?" His given name slipped out before she realized it.

He smiled slightly. "She's a Slytherin, Hermione--- a Slytherin from a very dangerous family." He paused. "The rest of it is Blaise's story to tell you, and I'll let her do it in her own time--- but Hermione, believe me, I'd not have gone out of my way to throw the two of you together if I didn't believe that you can trust her." He smiled slightly. "One thing I will tell you, however, because it's as much my business as hers, is that her mother's my first cousin." At Hermione's startled look, the smile got wider. "We don't bandy it about, of course--- if I showed any sign of favoring another student over Malfoy, he'd go straight to his father--- and, of course, as a Death Eater in good standing---" he sneered--- "I could hardly be expected to favor a family that dabbles in Muggle technology and society."

"Hardly---" She grinned. "Not even one of your own bloodline?

He shrugged. "Everyone in Slytherin House is related, child--- it's just a matter of degree." He smiled slightly. "There are those who say it's not a proper Slytherin gathering if everyone in the room isn't somehow related to everyone else. Makes marriages difficult, I can tell you."

Hermione looked up at him. "Then why bother looking after your cousin?"

Snape reached out, took Hermione's chin in his hand. "Do you remember what I told you, the first evening you served as my assistant, after you divined that I was a double agent?"

Oh, she remembered. You have an eye for intrigue--- though apparently not the discretion for it... a few months in the hallowed halls of the Serpents' Den would have honed the former and eliminated the latter.

Her thoughts must have shown on her face, for Snape smiled softly. "Blaise Zabini," he said quietly, "has had five years in the Serpents' Den. Learn from her."

Learn from her. The enormity of his machinations struck her then--- she wondered if he'd ever done anything in his adult life that served only one purpose! For a moment she blinked, awed--- then realized, This is what he wants me to learn.

The eighth square.

For a moment, they sat in silence, then Snape spoke, in a completely different, lighter, tone. "And on that note," he said, getting to his feet, "there's someone else I'd like you to meet--- who's dying to meet you." He held out a hand to her.

Hermione took it, mystified. "Where are we going?"

"To my private quarters---" Hastily, he added, "I mean nothing by it; it's simply more convenient to bring you to Esmé than Esmé to you."

Esmé? she wondered, but did not ask.

Snape drew her over to the far wall, pulled out his wand and tapped a complicated sequence on the bricks; a portion of the wall slid back to reveal a long dark passageway. "One of the many side benefits to being Head of Slytherin," he said with a slight smile. "Lumos." The tip of his wand flared with light, and he led her into the tunnel.

The wall slid closed after them, leaving Hermione very glad of the light from his wand and fingering her own with an eye to casting a light spell herself. She controlled herself with an effort, though she did perhaps hold onto his hand with a bit more force than was strictly necessary.

After a rather long and winding walk, they came to another dead end; once again, Snape tapped a sequence on the bricks, and the wall slid open.

Snape extinguished his wand's light with a word; before Hermione could protest, he murmured another spell, and a series of soft lights, like the ones near his chess set downstairs, burst into life.

He led her out into his room. "Welcome to my humble abode."

She felt her lips twitch at the sarcasm in his voice--- then her curiosity got the better of her nerves and she stepped forward to have a look around.

It was a perfectly serviceable bedroom--- but, like his office, about as personal as a hotel, except for the wall-to-wall bookshelves covering most of all four walls. Other than that, while the room held all the necessary furniture--- bed, wardrobe, nightstand--- the only things in the room that suggested a permanent occupant were the old, battered armchair and matching ottoman, with an attendant small and overflowing bookcase serving as an end table by the cold fireplace and the large round wicker basket sitting atop what looked like a hotplate on the hearth.

Snape went over to the wicker basket, tapped on it. "Esmé," he said. "I've brought a visitor."

The basket made a rustling noise, and then a large blunt-nosed green head poked itself over the lip. "Eh? Who isssss it?"

Hermione smothered a squeak. The creature looked like a snake--- but she'd never heard of a snake having feathers. And the last time she'd checked, she wasn't a Parselmouth, but she'd understood every word the creature had said.

"This is Hermione Granger," Snape said, beckoning Hermione over to the basket. "Hermione, this is Esmé, my familiar."

Hermione knelt down beside the basket. "Er... pleased to meet you."

It was rather hard to tell with a creature whose face was covered in feathers, but she thought Esmé looked equally pleased. "Ssssso.... thisssss issss the sssstudent I've heard ssssso much about." Hermione looked up at Snape, apprehensively.

He rested a hand on her shoulder, dropped to one knee beside them. "Esmé's trustworthy--- though if I've broken a confidence---"

"No," Hermione said hastily. "After all, I told Crookshanks the whole thing myself." And perhaps-- -the thought surprised her, but it felt right--- Severus had been as much in need of a confidante as she had been.

Snape smiled. "Thank you." He turned back to the creature in the basket. "Esmé is a quetxal."

"A quetxal?" She'd never heard of those. "They're not in Fantastic Beasts---"

"That's because no one can figure out if they should be considered beasts or beings," Snape said, then added dryly, "even after almost a decade and a half with this one, I'm not sure myself."

Esmé hissed. "Jusssssst becausssssse we were created and not evolved---"

"The quetxals are another of Great-Aunt Esmeralda's brainwaves," Snape explained sotto voce.

"Well, I think you're quite impressive," said Hermione, wishing to smooth the quetxal's rumpled feathers--- literally; the creature has fluffed up with ire.

"You can fluff up to make a statement, I see ,but not to keep warm," Snape commented dryly, reaching out to stroke the quetxal's head. "She's warm-blooded," he explained to Hermione, "but likes to pretend otherwise."

"It isssss cold down here," the quetxal whined, turning her head to Hermione in supplication. "Sssssseverusssss never turns on the fire---"

"Because I don't like having uninvited guests," Snape retorted, and Hermione, thinking of some of the people Snape knew, decided it was a wise precaution. It also made sense of his otherwise bizarre habit of keeping the fire off in his cold dungeon office. "And besides, you have the salamander for company.

"Sssssalamanderssss are sssstupid," Esmé whined.

"But warm."

Hermione watched the byplay in fascination, couldn't help interjecting. "Why don't you bring her up to the teacher's lounge during the day or something? It's warmer up there."

To her vast surprise, Esmé squeaked and ducked down into her basket, then peered up so that only two large green eyes were visible over the lip. "She's shy of people," Snape explained, then added wryly, "despite all evidence to the contrary."

"They make fun of featherssssss," Esmé said, poking her nose up over the lip of the basket. "And I can't ssssssslither properly." She gave Hermione a pathetic looks. "Featherssssss are no good for tractsssssssion."

"Oh!" Hermione reached out to the quetxal. "Poor thing."

Esmé looked up at Severus. "Thissss issss a nisssssse human," she said, as if daring him to contradict her, then turned back to Hermione, flicked her tongue at the outstretched fingers--- then ducked her head under Hermione's hand, for all the world like a cat wanting to be petted.

Hermione stroked the feathery head, surprised at the softness. "Well, I don't think your feathers are silly at all--- they're quite lovely." She was conscious of Snape watching her, a small half-smile playing about his face.

"She's really quite bright," he said quietly. "Human intelligence--- in fact, more of it than some humans I can name." She grinned, remembering his remark about Crabbe and Goyle.

Hermione smiled back. "I can see that."

Esmé, meanwhile, bumped her head up along Hermione's arm--- then, to the latter's surprise, began wrapping herself around the appendage in question, sliding up Hermione's arm to her shoulder, and looping herself down around her body.

"A feather boa!" Hermione laughed--- then, abruptly, caught her breath as the quetxal's great weight began to make itself apparent.

"Esmé!" Snape's voice was stern. "You should ask first."

"Hermione doesssssn't mind--- do you---" Esmé eeled her head around so that she and Hermione were nose-to-nose.

There was nothing for it--- certainly not with Esmé wrapped around her in a friendly death grip--- but to say no. Satisfied, the quetxal craned her neck at Severus. "Read to me?"

Snape actually blushed as it was Hermione's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Her eyesight's not adapted to reading," he explained, "but she's quite curious. So I... read to her."

The image of Severus Snape, with two meters of quetxal curled up in his lap like a feathery throw pillow, reading aloud to her as if she were a child, was rather amusing, but Hermione got control of her twitching lips. "I read aloud to Crookshanks sometimes," she said. "Though I rather doubt he understands as much as Esmé."

Both the quetxal and her person looked pleased. "And now," Snape said, "I think that's quite enough for one night---" he held out his arms for the quetxal--- "before, that is, you crush Miss Granger's spine in an excess of affection." He looked back at Hermione. "She's done it to me a few times, or near enough," he added dryly.

Esmé, with much hissy protesting, eventually slithered her way onto Snape's arm and allowed herself to be dumped into the basket. "You seem to slither well enough on people," Hermione commented, watching the quetxal move. "Is it just the stone floors that are the problem?"

"Mosssstly," Esmé answered. "I can ssssslither on anything that I can grip--- but flat ssssurfassssessss are no good."

"She's got a serpent's musculature," Snape elaborated, tucking a stray coil into the basket as Esmé settled herself, "but those feathers aren't exactly much for gripping."

"No, I can see not," Hermione said absently, a thought starting to form in her mind. She'd have to write home to her parents, and it would take a little explaining--- even if they still had all her old toys... but if she could make it work---

"And now," Snape said, getting to his feet and holding out his hand to her, "as I recall, we have work to do--- there's a little matter of the lycanthropy cure to finish?"

"Oh!" Hermione took his hand, let him draw her to her feet. She'd almost forgotten about that.

"And, since we have several hours before curfew--- assuming that you can't get around that little matter--- I suggest we adjourn to the lab and set to work." His tone was crisp, almost brusque--- quintessential Snape, really, from before the night at Malfoy's.

Then the quetxal peeked over the edge of the basket and gave her a wink, and Hermione couldn't suppress a grin. "Yes, sir," she said calmly, returning Esmé's wink before following Snape to the tunnel.