The Proper Care and Feeding of Zombies
Chapter 1: Awakening
Hermione was shoved out of sleep, first by a cold, wet nose, and then a tongue lapping at her face.
She moaned, and pulled the covers above her head. "Ronald, what have I said about shedding in my bedroom?"
"I've already taken him for walkies," said Harry, from somewhere near the doorway, "but we're out of dog food. Would you mind popping over to the—"
This was enough to make her push off the blankets and face the prospect of being coated in Ron's halitosis. "He's a person—a minor detail that the two of you seem to be forgetting. All he has to do is change back and go himself. Or, better yet, change back and eat something other than kibbles."
Ronald the Irish setter didn't react to her glare, except to wag his tail with increased vigour. Harry wasn't any help, either; he just leaned against the doorframe and laughed at her irritation.
"You do realise," she said, fixing her eyes on Harry, "that we have two days to eliminate a year's worth of filth from this building, before holiday cheer descends upon us? I doubt we'll be done in time if we have to Hoover dog hair off of the sofa every five minutes."
Harry abandoned the doorframe to stand upright, his face a mirror of what Ron's would be if a single thing went wrong during Christmas dinner. A moment later, the dog was gone, and Ron was climbing to his feet and brushing fur from his trousers.
"My girlfriend doesn't care about my cleaning abilities," he said.
"Yes, and we're all terribly anxious to meet Little Miss Perfect." The only thing, in Hermione's estimation, that would make this holiday season worthwhile would be Ron finally revealing the identity of his not-very-secret secret girlfriend. At least then he would finally stop dangling bits of information above their heads and waiting for them to leap.
"At the moment, I couldn't care less about your girlfriend," Harry said. "All I care about is you working your way through the stack of dishes in the sink, and not leaving bits of food stuck to the edges."
Hermione winced. Once, years ago, she had possessed standards that involved no dishes left in the sink overnight and regularly dusted furniture. That had been before she had learned how easily overnight could be stretched to a fortnight, and that the only furniture to which she bothered to pay attention was that in her bedroom and her study, and both of which had wards designed to repel the mass of crumpled clothing and old breadcrumbs that was forever creeping outwards to fill any remaining floor space. Not even Kreacher, bless his nobby, wall-hung head, had been allowed inside.
"What about breakfast? You can't put me to work without breakfast—that has to be breaking some sort of labour law."
"So start a union," Hermione said, finally working up the nerve to crawl out of bed. Dressing was the work of just under a minute—ratty sweats and a discarded t-shirt of Ron's. Once, she might have been shy about removing clothing in front of the boys, but after seven years of living together any awkwardness about nudity had long been peeled away. "But before you do, I'll run down the street and pick up some muffins so you two can start."
As Harry dragged a complaining Ron towards the kitchen, Hermione added a jumper and some trainers to her ensemble, and made a mental list. They'd need provisions to last them for the day—there was no way either of the boys would be allowed out to run any sort of errand, given their gift for dawdling—which meant pastries, caffeine (lots), and many ready meals that would only require a quick warming charm before being consumed (and preferably no dishes). In spite of their head start, she beat Harry and Ron down the stairs, and could still hear them bickering over who would do which chores when she shut the door behind her.
Outside, she was confronted—with a perfectly ordinary December day. But it was an ordinary that made her skin prickle at the touch of raindrops and her ears strain for a low hum that hovered just out of range.
She wasn't the only one to notice it; a cat twined around a lamppost, hissing, and a chorus of barking from nearby yards told her that the neighbourhood dogs were as set on edge as she was. Making a mental note to ask Ron if he had noticed anything this morning, she sped up to a light jog and blew on her hands to keep them warm.
The shopping came first. It always began with the good intentions accompanied by the action of stuffing the basket full with whole wheat bread, organic orange juice, and fat-free yoghurt, but rapidly descended into the land of crisps and frozen pizza as she forced herself to admit that she was the only member of the household willing to so much as touch anything that might maybe, perhaps, just possibly be construed as healthy.
If her parents were to glance into the refrigerator on a normal day, they would probably be overcome by the vapours.
Next, the coffee shop. She pointed out various pastry trays, squinted at the drink menu indecisively before deciding that today was the kind of day that demanded as much espresso as could be crammed into a single cup, and bought a Muggle paper. Sometimes the Guardian proved useful in pinpointing magical disturbances—always unwitting, of course, but nevertheless helpful.
The last time her skin had prickled like this, a Muggle scholar working at a university in Kent had stumbled across a tome on how to build an army of stone creatures, and was using them to re-enact The Canterbury Tales. Certain types of Ancient Runes, as it turned out, weren't picky about who was allowed to obtain the desired result; they had their own power.
And Kingsley Shacklebolt had the annoying habit of assuming that she was the best person to call in to solve any sort of problem, from which dress robes would be appropriate for meeting the Mongolian foreign minister to handling serial killers. Of course, she was the best—which didn't say much, given she was entrenched in a burocratic organisation of incompetents—but it was, in a word, bewildering.
The Minister of Magic was supposed to play favourites and ignore skill and ability; it was the way of the world.
A balancing charm allowed her to set the cardboard carrier of coffee cups on her head; there it served the dual purpose of freeing up her hands to read the news and acting as a makeshift umbrella, and, well, she had good posture. It was very nearly physically possible, and, if required, she was certain that she could fudge some sort of formula to prove it.
At least, until she read page five.
"Oh, fuck," she said, lurching to a stop that ought to, according to any of Newton's laws, have sent the drinks tumbling to the ground. "Bloody, sodding buggery."
She arrived home to a miraculously clean kitchen and Ron and Harry poring over the day's Daily Prophet, oblivious to her return until they heard the rustle of grocery bags. It didn't take a genius at deduction to work out what they had been reading, but as their heads popped up, all traces of worry vanished from their eyes.
"You didn't buy me a blueberry muffin, again, did you?" Even when not in puppy form, Ron had mastered pleading eyes. Fortunately, six disastrous months of dating him had cured Hermione of any natural tendency she might have to show sympathy.
"No, it's bran," she said, tossing him his breakfast.
His eyebrows moved from their hopeful position down into the deep furrow of annoyance.
"Don't be silly, it's a cinnamon bun. Sticky and sans anything resembling raisins."
"I knew I loved you," he said, racing up to her and taking the cup with the letter R scrawled on the side of it. After a sip, he added, "And you even got the six sugars!"
"See what you've been missing by dating Mystery Girl? Here, Harry, take your bagel before I beat you with it…"
"Thanks." Harry tore into his breakfast, accompanying his chewing with some strangled noises and some wild gestures towards the newspaper. Catching sight of her bewildered expression, he stopped stuffing his face long enough to swallow and say, "Your serial killer has struck again. Stonehenge, this time."
Her mouth twisted into a tight-lipped smile and she took a bracing sip of her latté. "I saw. It's in the Muggle news."
"Shit," Harry said. "I don't envy whoever Shacklebolt chooses to sort that one out."
"I'm placing bets on our Hermione," Ron said, perhaps too cheerfully for his own good. "Dearest Kingsley told me that he couldn't live without her during our meeting last week."
Harry winked and lowered his voice to sotto. "So expect a proposal any day now."
She glared. "Just because you're holding that bagel doesn't mean I can't still steal it and use it to club you to death. And since you've taken it out of its bag, you'll get cream cheese in your hair."
As Hermione took a menacing step towards Harry, who reflexively shoved the last bit of food into his mouth before curling into a ball, a knock sounded.
"I'll get it!" Spurred by the desire to escape from an annoyed Hermione and the desire to show off his new animagus form, Ron sprinted for the door, shifting into a dog as he went.
Hermione stepped back from Harry, trying to keep a stern mask over her amusement; she doubted her success. "As amusing as the alternative is, I should probably help him, before he spends another fifteen minutes trying to turn the handle with his jaw."
Unfortunately, moving past Ron's helpful exuberance to the front door proved more difficult than she realised; she had to fend off five stones of flying dog on the way there, and then clutch the scruff of his neck to keep him from bolting through when she managed to tug it open.
She should be surprised by the face that greeted her, she knew, but, given that it was the face responsible for sending her owls at all hours, popped into her fireplace when she was wandering through the house with nothing on but a towel, and spent more time in her office than his, begging her to untie his political knots, it was one that she had begun to assume would show up everywhere sooner or later. Her doorstep, comparatively speaking, was hardly unusual.
"Kingsley!" she said, dropping sarcasm into every letter of his name. "You weren't supposed to be here until Christmas Eve—I'm afraid dinner won't be ready for another two days and, erm—let me see—eight hours or so. There's an Italian restaurant just down the street, though, which is decent enough."
"You've heard, then."
"Yes, and I'm on vacation. Have one of the Mysteries underlings handle it for you. I can't Obliviate the entire readership of the British news on my own, anyway. Especially not if the BBC has already got its paws on the story."
"At this point, I think we're beyond damage control; he's taunting us—"
Kingsley nodded. "Or she. At any rate, a ritual killing at Stonehenge is the work of someone who wants to be noticed."
"Well, they've at least proven to us that they aren't Muggleborn—obviously they have no idea what the National Trust will do to them."
He narrowed his eyes, looking entirely too catlike for comfort. "You're making jokes."
"But not agreeing. Yet." She widened the crack between door and doorframe to allow him inside, where Ron proceeded to send fur flying onto Kingsley's robes with each whip of his tail.
"I could give you head of MLE—you'll almost be guaranteed Minister of Magic when I'm gone."
"What if I want Mysteries?"
"I'll see what I can do—either way, though, you'll be the youngest department head in at least two centuries."
She raised an eyebrow, careful to keep a note of irony in her tone to keep him from thinking that he had her. "Kingsley Shacklebolt practicing favouritism? You'll damage your reputation as incorruptible."
"Except you know perfectly well that I wouldn't put anyone into a position I didn't think them capable of handling. I had enough trouble trying to give Umbridge the boot—I don't want to have to do it with someone cleverer."
She patted his shoulder and began digging through the closet for her coat and a scarf. "This is politics, love, not the Aurors—we don't run on merit here. Consider this a favour being done out of pity, a desire for lots of overtime pay, and with the expectation of a large, shiny promotion. Also, if Harry and Ron kill me for abandoning them, you have to promise to search long and hard for a resurrection spell."
Her cloak finally materialised, stuffed at the back among old pairs of forgotten shoes. She pulled it on, tossed a fuzzy blue scarf around her head, and added matching mittens to the ensemble.
"Right," she said, smoothing her hair and turning around, "shall we go fetch Nott, or have you…"
Her words died in her throat at the realisation that Ron was no longer a dog, but a moderately furious human.
"You aren't actually making us clean while you play detective, are you?"
Behind Ron, Kingsley's gaze had darkened as he brushed the fur from his robes. He pinched a few strands between his thumb and forefinger and eyed them with annoyance; Hermione could tell that he was analysing the vigour with which Ron had rubbed fur onto him, and not liking the conclusions being presented.
"Ronald," she said, holding up both her hands in mimicry of a scale and tipping the balance in favour of her right side, "I think you'll agree that murder is more important than cleaning house. Besides, the two of you have already tackled the kitchen, which was the really horrifying bit, and I shouldn't be more than an hour. Now, I'll just pop off, and you can break the news to Harry gent—"
"Hermione Granger, if your foot passes through that doorway, I will make sure that you never walk again."
Theodore Nott was reclining against the chain-link fence when she arrived at Stonehenge with a harried Kingsley Shacklebolt in tow. He didn't glance up at their arrival, only stretched and yawned, looking as though he had been asleep on his feet. But Theo had never seemed perturbed by magical disturbances; in contrast, the prickle of her skin now felt electric, and the humming that she couldn't quite hear invaded her head, numbing it and making her blink her eyes rapidly to stay focussed.
"Took you long enough," he said, alert almost instantly. Bleary eyes and morning breath were problems for lesser mortals, whose hair didn't glint with light even when it was cloudy and whose pyjamas were as smooth and perfectly fitted as tailored robes.
Standing next to him in rumpled sweats, her trainers with the peeling soles, and a mass of potentially electrocuted hair, Hermione had never hated him more.
She grimaced. "It's pre-Christmas cleaning day, and Harry and Ron didn't want me to leave them to face the wild beast alone."
"Pass on the message that I promise to protect them, but only if they're as fit as they were in school."
"I'm sure they'll feel deeply comforted by the knowledge." Well aware that neither of them wanted to work and would spend the entire day catching up if she didn't do something, Hermione slowly began moving towards the cluster of reporters at the gates.
"How is our dear hero, anyway? Still being strung along by the Weasley tart?"
"Ginny's not a tart," she said automatically. And it was true. Ginny had made it clear to Harry that the sort of relationship he was looking for wasn't going to work as long as she was flying around the world on her broom, sending fans into fits of awe with her seeker skills, and posing suggestively with her team-mates in foreign magazines.
Theo didn't have a chance to voice his standard reply of disbelief, thanks to the swarm of the press demanding to know their professional opinion, so he had to settle for merely looking amused.
"Our professional opinion," Hermione said, and a hush seemed to fall over Salisbury Plain, "is that we may be able to answer your questions after we've seen the scene of the crime. We'll need you to clear the way in order to do so."
The hush held, except for the whirring of cameras and the blinding light of flashbulbs, as the clump filtered into two groups on either side of the path. She could only hope that most of them were aimed at Theo; he was so much more photogenic than her.
The walk up to Stonehenge was silent; Hermione craned her neck in an attempt to see the altar stone, but could see nothing unusual. In a burst of forethought, she conjured up two notepads and pens and wordlessly passed one of each to Theo. He pulled his camera out of his pocket and returned it to its usual size, focussing the lens on her.
"Smile," he said, as the sharp click informed her that she had been caught mid-yawn.
"Thank you for that," she said with a grimace. "Very thoughtful."
Theo grinned over the edge of his camera. "You're always so charming in the morning. Who wouldn't want to document it, especially given the setting? I promise that if I send it in to a photography competition, I will title it something along the lines of 'Celtic Goddess Expresses Displeasure'. Even the weather is fitting!"
"Yes, and there's a term for that: pathetic fallacy."
"I'll have you know that my lies are anything but pathetic." As if to spite her, he snapped another picture as he said it; Hermione burrowed her chin further into the collar of her coat.
It had been a mistake, really, to convince the department that the camera was a necessity for the investigation. True, having a Muggle digital SLR that didn't produce moving pictures of murder victims had helped endlessly in the case, but it also meant that he had countless unflattering photographs of her expressing various states of annoyance at that day's crime scene.
"It's a minor miracle that the lens hasn't shattered into a million little pieces, yet," Hermione said, narrowing her eyes meaningfully as they stepped over the small rope surrounding Stonehenge.
"Was that a threat?" Theo asked. "If so, not very subtle. I thought I had taught you—oh."
For the first time, the altar stone came into view, complete with a bloodied mass that she could only assume was their victim. A wave of nausea hit her as the scent of blood—she wasn't sure if it was real or imagined—crept inside her nostrils and hovered there, making her want to purge until every last trace of it was gone.
"Oh," Theo said again, his voice shaky, but no longer with amusement. "Sorry, do you mind just holding my camera? I think I need a moment to—excuse me."
Hermione looped the camera's strap over her shoulder, and she forced herself not to take her eyes away from the figure lying prone amidst the henge; after a moment she would adjust to the sight, it would lose some of its horror, and she would be able to approach it without worrying about being sick all over the evidence. Theo, she knew, was doing the same thing in his own way; his footsteps remained measured until he reached the nearest stone. He rested his head against it and proceeded to empty the contents of his stomach onto the grass.
When she was certain that he had finished, Hermione followed him and rubbed the small of his back wordlessly.
"Sorry," he said, once he had recollected himself enough to speak.
"I hardly blame you. That's—" She broke off as a shudder spread out from her spine and filled her stomach with an icy chill. "That was not what I was expecting.
"I always expect that I'll get used to it," he said, spelling the last specks of vomit from his shoes, "but if anything it gets worse."
"It's probably a good thing, you know. Do you really want to be used to looking at corpses?"
His mouth twisted into a wry smile. "No, but I'm hardly any help when I'm busy being ill."
"Do you want to sit down whilst I investigate?"
He grimaced, and his usual easy drawl returned, more forced than usual but a sure sign of recovery, nevertheless. "Hermione, darling, I realise that you mean well, and that you may be very talented in other areas, but you're an absolute shit photographer. Your composition is painful to my artistic eyes."
She rolled her eyes and suppressed the twitching of her lips, handing back the camera. "We could always crop them."
His eyebrows shot up and he cradled the camera, as though reunited with his firstborn. "That doesn't fix the fact that they're always out of focus. Besides, I'm certain you would kill my baby."
Levity—even when created through gritted teeth—somehow made the sight of the bloodied corpse easier to face. As Theo put himself to work, photographing every angle of the altar, Hermione checked to make sure the Aurors' stasis spells were adequate, and crept closer to peer at the naked body. Dried blood was caked to the stone where it had flowed away from the slit throat; she followed the streams up to the cut, which was accentuated by heavy bruising. Except for that on the face, the skin was covered in runes—she couldn't tell whether they had been carved or branded at first glance, or even what they meant—some obviously fresh, but others scabbed and partially healed over.
"Whoever did this planned it for a long time." Her throat was suddenly, inexplicably dry, making her voice scratch as it left her throat. "It's different from the others. The corpse—he—was held in captivity for a while, because some of the runes have had time to scar, and I think he was strangled before his throat was cut."
"It's much more ritualised," Theo agreed, moving his glance from the open, glassy eyes of the victim to the standing stones in the direction that his head was pointing. "The other bodies weren't arranged this precisely, more sprawled on the ground, and I'm afraid to know what those runes are for. We'll have to send away to have them translated—I've never seen anything like these."
"And this is a much larger working—whatever our little friend has been doing up to this point has either been in preparation for this, or he's getting more ambitious—"
"Please don't say that," he replied. "We're already having enough trouble with this case."
Her smile took on a predatory edge. "But ambitious doesn't mean successful—remember the centaur killer last year, and that murder in Accounting? Both made stupid mistakes because they woke up and added a lump of ambition to their morning coffee."
"I'm not sure that you can get much stupider than killing someone at one of the most popular tourist sites in the country, especially on the solstice."
"Then don't complain. Why don't we head back to the office and compare the case files? We'll have to have Hopkins come in to perform the autopsy and see what, exactly, our friend here died of."
"You can take care of that later—I like to keep my holiday season about the cheer and family newsletters, not cards that shriek profanities in my general direction. Besides, I think she actually likes you."
"Possibly because I'm the only one in the department that hasn't cracked necrophilia jokes when she's in the room." There were moments in which Hermione wished she needed glasses, so that she could peer over the top of them sternly; this was one of them.
"How was I supposed to know that she doesn't have a sense of humour? Besides, that was Birkley's fault—he dared me to do it."
"And I thought that pointless dares were one of those proud boarding school traditions that ended when one finished school. Silly me." She surveyed the scene one last time with a furrowed brow. "On the way here, Kingsley said that he had a team coming to collect the body, so they should be here soon. Do you think we ought to wait?"
"The longer we wait, the later I'll get to my parents' house, and the more likely my mother is to kill me for making her wait to set up the tree and deck the halls with sparkling garlands."
"And the more time Harry and Ron will have for setting up a death trap behind the front door, to teach me a lesson about why I shouldn't abandon them in their hour of need."
"Granger, you certainly have a talent for obtaining corpses," said Hopkins, brushing off the remaining ash from her robes and sweeping away from the fireplace that connected their office to the Floo network. "And Mr Nott, ever your partner in crime. Where have you stashed the body this time?"
Anne Hopkins was a slightly more frightening version of Madam Pince; she was well over six feet tall, with salt and pepper hair scraped back into a bun and a pair of small gold-rimmed spectacles perched on the bridge of her nose. Her features were as sharp and pointed as the gaze that peered over her bifocals, and every bit as humourless and sensible.
Theo tried to speak, but his natural fear of the woman who had reduced him to a blubbering wreck on his first day of training by suggesting he dissect a victim's stomach meant that his attempt faltered into a squeak. He cleared his throat and tried again, managing to be only moderately shaky. "We had the Aurors take it to the examining room."
"Then there's hardly a reason for you two to hover around as though you were incompetent tour guides; after thirty-five years in the department, I should be able to find my way on my own."
Hermione suppressed a grin at Theo's mortified expression as Hopkins strode past them into the corridor. As the door slammed behind her and the clicking of her heels grew quieter, he turned to her and pulled a face.
"And you wonder where the necrophilia rumours come from," he said, shaking his head. "If that woman has ever had a date…"
He was silenced by the speed with which Hermione's eyebrows reached her hairline. "Be nice. She's helping us."
He sighed and widened his eyes until he had to blink away tears. "You used to laugh at my jokes, even when you were scandalised, but those days are over. Tell me, so that I can stop losing sleep—is it something I did?"
She chucked and punched him lightly in the arm. "Yes, you photographically tormented me. Besides, you hardly need encouragement." She wandered over to her desk and shuffled through some of the papers until she found her box of thumbtacks and plucked out the red one. "Did you pull all the files pertinent to the case?"
He nodded and pointed to the stack of folders next to him. The fact that there were so many made her feel slightly ill; this murder would be the thirteenth since February. To distract herself from the guilt that was unsettling her stomach, she stuck the tack into the map of Britain they had hanging on the walls and pencilled '13' next to it. Theo crossed the room to join her, and for a moment they stared at the wall in silence, seeking a pattern.
"Well, it's more or less certain that the killer has been gradually moving south," Theo said, "but that's hardly news."
"It could mean limited mobility. The last three months, they've taken place solely in Wiltshire—depending on how old those wounds on the corpse were, it might be because they were hampered by a prisoner." She traced her finger in a line from Windmill Hill to the Avebury stone circles, and finally to Stonehenge.
"Or convenience." Theo leaned over her desk and picked up a green tack, sticking it in just south of Bath, where they both knew Malfoy Manor stood. "We ruled him out after the Avebury and Windmill murders because they didn't seem to have any lasting magical impact—he stood to gain nothing from random killings near his property—but this one changes everything. I think all of Wizarding Britain felt the power in the air this morning, and it is something that Lucius Malfoy is certainly capable of."
"Complete with his usual subtlety," Hermione added, making sure the green tack was pushed in all the way. "Any other magical families in the area?"
"None as prominent, as far as I'm aware, but I'll look into it. Also, no one fitting the corpse's description has been reported missing, and there's no one on the werewolf registry that looks like him."
Hermione could have hugged him. "All this whilst I was writing a letter?"
He winked. "I am more than just a pretty face hired to boost the department's morale."
When Hermione stumbled home at nearly midnight, half drunk and exhausted from following avenues of possibility, the first thing she noticed was a large auburn dog baring its teeth at her, closely followed by green eyes that had narrowed into slits. However, one look at her expression as she pulled her boots off and collapsed against the wall killed any reprimand that Harry had been about to give.
"That bad?" he asked.
She closed her eyes to block out the memory of the murder scene, but the carved up body and crusted blood seemed to be pasted to her eyelids. "Worse," she said.
There were benefits, she thought, to living with two Aurors; they understood the meaning of 'bad day' in ways that no one else did, and were well acquainted with the remedies for one. Within seconds, Harry had disappeared up the stairs and she could hear the bath running. As he shifted back, Ron still looked resentful, but at least he no longer had the crazed look of rabies in his eye.
"Cup of tea?" he asked as she hung up her coat and unwrapped the scarf from around her neck.
"Would be lovely," she replied, following him into the kitchen.
"So?" Ron asked when they had settled on opposite sides of the kitchen table. "How was it?"
She wrapped her hands more tightly around the mug and stared into it, momentarily wishing that she and Ron had never broken up, if only because it would mean a lifetime of perfectly steeped and sweetened tea, with just the right amount of milk.
"As wonderful as a day waiting for the lab results of the Aurors' swabbing can be," she said. "Oh, yeah, and we stared at the mangled corpse of a man of no known origins for a while, then compared it to photographs of other mangled corpses."
"So we'll not have any steak for the next month, or so?"
She laughed, and stuck her tongue out. "Best not to."
A grin flashed across his face as he settled back into his chair and stared out the window, giving an opportunity to study him. It was amazing how much he had changed in the past year, when her head had been lost in file folders and piecing together bits of evidence. Not her fault, really—serial killers were time-consuming—but it still unsettled her slightly and made her wonder where she had been when his posture had lost its defensive slouch and relaxed into easy confidence, what she had been paying attention to when his expression had become that alluring mix of eagerness and good humour. It begged the question of whether this was the reason for his current relationship with Mystery Girl, or its product; either way it was clearly good for him.
"Stop staring, I'm taken," he said, winking.
She held up her hand and curled it into a claw. "I'll fight her for you."
"Where was this Hermione three years ago, when I was madly in love and trying to hold her attention?"
"Fighting for goblin rights," she said solemnly. "As I have now moved on to the more lowly cause of solving murderers that the Aurors can't handle, I am much more aware of my surroundings."
Upstairs, the sound of running water stopped, and Harry shouted, "Hey, Hermione—your bath is ready."
She practically leapt from her seat, and smiled apologetically at Ron. "Sorry, I think Harry just pulled into the lead."
He pulled a face, and, as if to prove her earlier observation about his newfound confidence, only said, "I'll never understand you girls and your hero worship."
Still smiling, she hurried up the stairs as quickly as she could go without sloshing tea over her hands. She found Harry standing next to the bath, which was practically overflowing with bubbles, looking entirely too pleased with himself.
Gesturing towards the chair next to the bath, he said, "I put a warming charm on the towel, which should last until you're out, and I've brought you the book I saw you reading yesterday—hopefully you're not done with it yet. Need anything else?"
She shook her head, and he beamed—obviously he was practicing his good behaviour for when Ginny arrived. As the door clicked shut behind him, she pulled off her clothes, balling them up and tossing them into the corner, and sank into the bath with a sigh of relief. It took a moment of tingling before her skin adjusted to the heat; once it had, she submerged her head and scrubbed at her face with her palms until she could no longer hold her breath and was forced to break the surface with a gasp.
Instead of reading, she basked in the warmth, closing her eyes and letting her mind go blank. But the peaceful feeling only hovered over her for a moment; at first, it was only broken by a gentle nudging that there was something that she had missed when she and Theo had reviewed the last few murder files, but it quickly turned into a barrage. Corpses frozen in photographs played through her memory like a slideshow from one of her parents' vacations, and, with them, came the smell.
She ducked her head underwater again, trying to dissolve the thoughts, but it didn't work. A moment later, she had flung herself from the bath and was hunched over the sink, lurching with sobs as her body rebelled; as she clutched the cold porcelain, Theo's words came back to her.
I always expect that I'll get used to it, but if anything it gets worse.
She rested her head on the cool metal of the tap until another wave of nausea hit her.
It wasn't until she finished and had rinsed out her mouth that she realised Harry had laid the towel across her shoulders and was kneeling beside her, a hand stroking her damp curls.
There was a split second in which she wanted to recoil and apologise for her momentary lapse, but she choked it back. This was Harry, after all, who, after seven years of stoicism, hadn't been able to keep food down for three months after Voldemort's defeat.
"Dreamless Sleep?" he asked, and even though she hated the fuzzy cloud it enveloped her mind in, she nodded. Tonight she had no doubt that she would need it.