A/N: Hello, lovely readers! Happy Monday! It's too bloody warm here but at least it isn't raining. I hope you all had a lovely weekend!
Thank you for all of your gorgeous reviews on the last chapter, it means so much to me to see your enjoyment laid out in words. Speaking of, please enjoy this latest offering from the Muses!
Disclaimer: I do not own the works made use of herein, none of the Harry Potter features or characters belong to me. I make no money from this work. (Basically, if you recognise it, it's not mine.)
Warnings: Rated M for situations, LOTS OF swearing, violence, sexual scenes, minor character death, graphic descriptions of murder victims, references to cannibalism, torture...
Apples and Oranges
When Peg had mentioned a feast, Hermione hadn't been sure whether to believe her. Perhaps it had been a mirage formed of her hunger, the promise of exorbitant amounts of food. Certainly, it wasn't possible that there could be a feast; not with the whole pack down in the woods for the ceremony. Or, at least, it didn't seem possible.
Not until she was back in the Great Hall, breathing in the smell of dozens of dishes, each equally as inviting as the next. There were breakfast foods and lunch foods and even a stew or two; someone had baked bread, another a cake. The meat was still warm, the potatoes steaming merrily on the sideboard, and Hermione was at a loss as to how it was achieved.
"People have been up all night cooking," was the answer, delivered to her by a grinning Greg as he took the seat opposite her. She blinked, looking down at her own food, then frowned.
"Should I have been cooking?" she asked, her motions somewhat impaired by the fork she still held. He seemed to get the gist of it, however, because he shook his head ruefully.
"I wasn't, and nobody expects it of you. You're new. How would you know?"
Hermione nodded, but still felt… gauche. As if she were taking advantage, which she was. She wasn't meant to be here, after all. Certainly not eating the food of mourners, made by people who'd been so committed they'd foregone sleep. "It was a lovely service," she said instead of giving voice to any of these thoughts.
"I saw you. You're not lying."
"Of course I'm not! It was magical. And not… not in the same way as the magic I practice. It felt real. Raw." The true feeling was beyond her ability to describe, never mind sign, but Greg seemed to understand. He nodded, suddenly pensive.
"One gets caught up in Pack life. The special parts about it lose their shine, you forget how unique it is, how wonderful. Seeing it through the eyes of a newcomer is always a pleasure."
They shared a smile, and Hermione saw him, as if for the first time, as a man apart from his long-lost but oh-so-similar cousin. No wonder Lavender liked him; he was intelligent, snarky, and just a little bit soft.
And that thought ruined her mood; the memory that everyone was a suspect, that she would soon have to confront a childhood friend with the idea that she might be a murderer. Glitter in the woods for goodness sake.
"Molly thinks you hate her."
Hermione frowned, replaying the motions over in her head to make sure she'd read them right. Greg cocked an eyebrow impatiently. "Why?" she asked, the sign more vicious than she'd intended it to be. She had deliberately seated herself at the far end of the hall, far from Molly's little group, far from Isbeil, far from Greyback where he sat at the centre of the middle bench, moodily picking at his food. She'd needed time to think. Space.
Greg hadn't seemed like he'd be that much of a disturbance.
"You're not that dim. She looked for you last night."
"I'd had a long day."
"I guarantee hers was longer." Greg cocked his head and blinked in bemusement. "I thought you were her friend. You acted like you were. But you weren't there when she needed you."
His words ached, a lead weight dropping into her stomach. She prodded at her breakfast, but what had seemed so appealing just minutes ago now seemed like so much gunk. She pushed it aside with a sigh. "I'll talk to her, but not right now. I have to work."
His eyes, so very familiar, narrowed slightly, and his next movements were stiff. He seemed older, all of a sudden. "Don't let your job ruin the possibility of something good." He frowned. "But I understand responsibility. Can I help at all?"
No. She highly doubted it, anyway. But he was a member of the Pack…
"Do you remember anything about the night Matthew died?" she asked, following it up with a sip of her drink for the sake of nonchalance.
"I do. I remember everything - everyone will, even if they don't admit it. It's not something that happens every day."
"Where were you, then?"
He smirked. "I was with Lavender."
Perhaps the shock of the answer had had her mouthing the word, because Greg certainly caught it, his smirk getting a touch more smug and extremely reminiscent of his cousin at his worst. Just like with Draco, Hermione felt that itch in her fist that reminded her how slapping the boy had been oh, so satisfying.
"All night?" she asked, instead of digging into that whole pile of oh god she did not want to know.
She got it anyway. "All night," he confirmed, following it up with a raised eyebrow and a lewd hand gesture that was almost but most definitely not BSL, and specifically designed to make her uncomfortable. "Are you happy with my alibi?"
"I'll confirm it," she muttered, glaring at him.
"Lavender's down at the school, if you want to ask her."
Hermione looked at her food, then back at Greg, and realised that no matter how reluctant she was to make the inquiries necessary, she was no more keen on the idea of staying here. "Fine," she muttered, her eyes sweeping up to glare heavenwards. "I'll go talk to Lavender."
Sunrise had happened in full while Hermione was inside, and the entire castle was bathed in cool yellow light. Dew still covered the grass and the world smelled sweeter, but it was clear that the world had moved into a new day and the Central British Pack had moved along with it. The village was louder than it had been the day before; despite how it seemed that everyone had been in the Hall for the wake, there still appeared to be people everywhere. Hermione decided to take a longer route to avoid the crowds, skirting the main road for a less-beaten path around the main cluster of huts, and nearly tripped over little Joe when he shrieked a greeting, skidding to a halt in her path.
"You're mama's friend," he said, his voice high pitched and a touch nasal. In his arms he held a squirming, growling poodle, its hind legs caked in mud.
"Yes, I suppose, though I wouldn't put it that way - is he alright?" Hermione eyed the dog with some concern, given how it had twisted to begin gnawing at the boy's fleshy forearm. Joe followed her gaze down and cursed, the word coming as a shock from one so young.
"Bad Pepper!" he snapped, kneeling and letting the dog spill from his arms onto the floor. He waggled an angry finger at the creature, but Pepper merely snarled, lunging at him, and Joe stopped her with a growl of his own - impressive, from one his size, and loud enough to make Hermione fear for the state of his throat. "Bad dog!"
"Don't you have a lead for him?" Hermione asked, warily eyeing the creature. It was clearly well-cared for but, in her opinion, far too vicious to leave with a child. Especially children here, who seemed to have little to no adult supervision. Gods, this one was bleeding.
"Her," Joe corrected her primly, "and she's usually a better listener!" This was directed at the dog, who merely gnashed her teeth in threat. "She's not mine," he added offhandedly. "She's too girly."
"Well, perhaps until we get her back to where she belongs, I'll give her this," Hermione said, in her best adult voice, pulling her wand and conjuring a leash and collar for the creature. Pepper immediately turned her attention to chomping on the lead, and Hermione handed the handle to the lad, who stared at her with wide eyes.
"Cool," he breathed, fiddling with the rope. "It feels so real!"
"It is real," Hermione assured him, a little offended despite his youth that he thought her so poor at the simplest of magical tricks. "Will you let me heal your arm? I doubt your mum would be happy to see it like that."
"Like wot?" Joe asked. "It doesn't hurt."
It should, Hermione grumbled, holding out a hand. He presented his arm with the sullenness of a child who did not wish to displease an adult but thought they were stupid, still. The bite marks went deep, which was unsurprising in a dog nearly equal to Joe in height. She paused, staring at the marks.
"Yes, sorry," Hermione murmured, coming back to herself. She hovered her wand just above the wound and muttered a spell, feeling something heavy drop into her back pocket. So quickly that the boy wouldn't have noticed, even if he did know magic, she added a swift Tergeo. Then she kneeled down and rifled through her bag, ignoring the growling creature at her side. "I'm going to give you some antiseptic," she explained to him as she pulled a little vial of purple liquid from the depths. "This is going to sting."
Joe allowed it stoically, hissing only slightly when the potion was applied. "What's that do?" he asked, curiously.
"It's cleaning out all of Pepper's nasty germs so that your arm doesn't go green and fall off," Hermione informed him matter-of-factly, taking her wand to the wound once more and murmuring Episkey.
"That would be cool," Joe grinned.
"Not for your mum," Hermione replied, rolling her eyes. They slid to Pepper, who seemed to have calmed down slightly and was watching them, her head resting on her paws as she lay on the ground. When she noticed Hermione's eyes were on her, she let out another rumbling growl. "Is she always this vicious?"
"Mrs Quinn says she's sad," Joe told her, reaching down to scratch the dog's ears, and Hermione scowled at his lack of care when the dog snapped at him once more. "She was Mr Turner's dog, before he died."
"I wasn't aware he'd had a dog," Hermione looked at the pathetic thing. "No-one mentioned her."
"He didn't look after her very well, Mrs Quinn says, but dogs will love you anyway and still be sad when you die. Abigail got Pepper, but she always runs back to Mr Turner's house. I want a dog, but mum says I'm not old enough. Abigail lets me look after Pepper though, she doesn't think I'm too young."
Given that Abigail was a child herself, Hermione doubted her opinion would hold much weight with Molly. How odd, though, that the girl would have been gifted the dead man's dog and not mention it. Nobody had mentioned it. "Who gave Pepper to Abigail, Joe?" Hermione asked, her mind working.
"Dunno," Joe shrugged, then looked over Hermione's shoulder and grinned. "Hullo, Miss Mary-Rose!"
"Hello, Joseph, Auror Granger."
Joe skipped happily from foot to foot, seeming thrilled to have Mary-Rose's attention on him. Hermione, knowing her time with the boy was up, got to her feet and brushed off her trousers. "Did you know that germs can turn your arm green? That's what Auror Granger says, and I don't think she'd lie. Is Pepper magic too?"
"Not quite," Mary-Rose replied, coming closer and chucking the boy's chin gently. Hermione watched her cautiously, new information swarming her brain. "I believe I saw your mother looking for you near the orchard, why don't you go and find her?" The teacher's usually sweet voice was edged with tension. Joe, who wasn't too young to recognise this, lost his grin at the mention of his mum and possible trouble.
"Bye, Auror Granger," he said, politely if a little glumly, before making a show of sloping off towards the back of the castle. Both adults watched him until he was out of earshot, the air between them vibrating with energy. Hermione wasn't the only one nervous about the coming confrontation, it seemed, though Mary-Rose was less reluctant to start it.
"I think that's quite enough of that," she said, before Hermione could get a word in. Hermione turned to face her fully and noticed the harsh set of her features. "How dare you question that poor boy without permission or supervision? Do you know how many laws you are breaking?"
"The dog had bitten him, I was merely healing the wound," Hermione reassured her in as soothing a voice as she could muster. Mary-Rose's face contorted with something akin to fury; pure protective anger from an adult over their vulnerable charge.
"Dont you lie to me. Do you think I'm an idiot, Auror Granger, because I am not. I heard you interrogating that poor boy!"
"I did no such thing. I asked one question - for mere curiosity's sake, that's all." Hermione paused, drawing it out and then speaking again just as the woman looked about to retaliate. "Though now I wonder why you're so worried about my questioning him at all. Do you have something to hide, Mary-Rose? Perhaps I ought to be interrogating you, instead."
Mary-Rose was near-panting, her face beet-red, but she didn't look scared. If anything, this made her even more furious. "I'd have you 'interrogate' me ten times before I let you near one of my children," she snarled. "How dare-"
"Where are you from, Mary-Rose?" Hermione interrupted her, squaring her shoulders and facing her down. "Only, no-one will tell me, and you're not on any British records."
"Is that relevant?" She snapped, but a little colour left her face. "You're deflecting, Auror Granger - you crossed a line here, and when I talk to Molly - talk to the Alpha-"
"A powerful werewolf, aren't you, for all that you seem so sweet," Hermione interrupted, forcing her tone light and meandering. "You have the respect of the Pack here, and not just for being a teacher, though the Gods know teachers deserve far more than they get. You speak, and people listen. But you're nowhere on the hierarchy. Why is that?" Mary-Rose seemed to shrink, opening her mouth for what would no doubt be another rant on Hermione's rotting morality, but she cut her off with a slash of her hand. "I think you're the one deflecting here, Mary-Rose. "
"I don't know what you're talking about," she sniffed, but her hands were balled into fists at her sides. Hermione caught that, and other things, as she gave the girl a once-over, cataloguing all of the things she'd once dismissed as unimportant. Her size, for one; short, barely five-four if Hermione was guessing, but slim enough to make her seem taller. There was an aura around the girl - as though someone had cast a notice-me-not on her, masking everything but the essentials. She was young, too - younger than Hermione herself, around twenty, but her eyes were cast deep in her skull and could fool a person into adding another decade to her age.
"Do you not," Hermione murmured, dragging her gaze to those eyes, reading the impotent anger, fear, anxiety in their depths. "Little Red."
Hermione's head smacked against the ground, barely cushioned by the mud that was kicked up by constant passage, and Mary-Rose had her elbow digging into her throat and she could not breathe - or she could, but barely, little rasping breaths that took great effort to drag through a windpipe that was squeezed closed. The other woman pressed a knee into her ribs, the pressure just enough to hurt but not enough to crack anything, not yet, though the threat was very real and nearly there.
"Don't say those words," Mary-Rose hissed, her mouth next to Hermione's ear as she wheezed and gasped. "That is none of your business, Auror Granger. If you are even an Auror - watching your inept, stumbling attempts to solve a crime you have no business interfering in has been amusing, I admit, but now you are crossing into territory best left alone and if you take another step I cannot be held accountable for my actions, do you understand me? No, no - don't try to speak. You'll only choke, and if you choke then your body will realise you cannot breathe effectively and panic. If you panic, you'll black out faster, and then someone will find you here - unconscious, helpless, and entirely without defence. You shouldn't like that very much, I don't think." Hermione froze, her heart pounding, head clouding, and Mary-Rose gave a bitter little chuckle at the response.
"We are werewolves, Auror Granger. We are not pleasant, house-broken creatures who take tea and biscuits and smile politely at you when we wish to rip your throat out. We simply do."
The pressure lessened just as Hermione's vision began to darken, and she blinked rapidly. Mary-Rose's face hovered just inches above her own, her eyes savage and golden, her teeth long and sharp and vicious.
"Do not give me reason to wish," she spat, and then she was gone. Hermione gasped in great, gulping lungfuls of air, flipping herself onto her front and coughing into the dirt as adrenalin rampaged through her system. Her muscles ached and her fists itched and more than anything she wanted to run the bitch down and show her just how thorough her auror training was in some areas, but she couldn't - that was not wise, not logical. She had to think of her next move. Acting on beastial instinct would not resolve this matter.
"Granger?" another voice asked, and Hermione groaned, pushing herself up onto her elbows and knees. Footsteps pounded closer to her but she held out a hand to stop them, shoving her way upright. Her hair was matted with mud and her clothing damp, but a spell fixed that, and she was at least somewhat presentable by the time she faced Agata.
"Don't-" Hermione began, to warn the woman not to ask, not to take action, but Agata merely shrugged.
"Uppity bitch, that one," she scowled, motioning with her fingers for Hermione to join her as she turned and walked towards the village. "Nobody ever believes me when I say it, but she really is."