Chapter Thirty: The Forgotten Tool
Neville ducked as a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling of the stifling tunnel in which he found himself: an unexpected passage beneath a shed behind the Ministry's old stable garden. The stables themselves had been abandoned after the Floo Network had been installed, and their surrounding garden had become nothing more than a stretch of weed-choked lawn.
"Poxy gnomes!" he exclaimed, brushing bits of rock off his shoulders. "Come back here, you barkers! This isn't a home-hole—it's dangerous!"
The distant, echoing chatter of his assistants met his ears, but he couldn't see them.
"Laura warned me you'd be trouble," he murmured, stopping as he came to a fork in the tunnel. "Great. Which way, now?"
He hadn't thought he'd have to monitor the gnomes, who enjoyed ripping out vegetation as much as they did teasing him, but when they hadn't returned at lunchtime, he'd grown curious about their activities. They probably found some ancient statue to destroy, he'd told himself ruefully, passing through the rusty iron gate and into the back garden to find that almost no weeding had been done.
After a brief look about, he'd seen the decrepit shed—and the red blur of the pointy hat on the head of the "watch gnome" as it had raced into it. He'd known at once the blighter'd meant to warn his fellows that their new residence had been discovered; the gnomes had been nattering on for weeks about the necessity of a burrow. Their women, apparently, had just sent them off in pursuit of real estate when he'd originally caught them.
Neville, who hadn't seen any female gnomes during his round-up of the male ones, had thought that they were having him on. But I expect Gilroy's garden must have a bunch of lady gnomes in it somewhere. He'd resolved to return for them as soon as he'd found their mates.
Spotting the watch gnome, he'd entered the shed and found that the rest of them had gone down the hole in the floor at the back of the structure, and that had worried him further. It wouldn't do for him to lose his Ministry account because of a gnome infestation, demanding lady gnomes or no, so he'd spent the remainder of the afternoon searching the passages that branched off the main one in the hot murk below. Having trekked through the first two of the three, he finally had only one tunnel left to investigate. Standing before the fork in the passage, he turned his wand to the floor. There were tracks leading down the left tunnel through an iron gate, but they didn't come out again.
I've got you now! he thought, mopping his face with his sleeve and kicking the rusting gate off its hinges before proceeding. "You lot! Where are you?"
"Is the digging wizard angry?" a high-pitched voice responded, and then the tunnel was filled by the sounds of mocking laughter.
"The digging wizard is not angry!" Neville called, the tone of his voice belying his sentiment. "Damn it—come out of there!"
"A merry chase, a cherry mace, a happy basket of fruit is this!"
"Stuff that nonsense! It's too hot for this. . . . Surely, you're hungry?" Neville wheedled, changing tactics in desperation of ever being cool again. "I've got a picnic aboveground, you see, and—"
Suddenly, the giggling ahead of him ceased abruptly and the sound of absolute silence met his ears. "Finite Incantatem!" he cast, dousing the light from his wand and dropping to the dirt out of instinct.
A wail of fear echoed from deep ahead of him, and it was followed by the furious patter of feet fleeing up the passageway. Before he could react, a stampede of gnomes raced over his head, down his shoulders, and back the way he had come.
Hells! he inwardly exclaimed, wishing that he knew a charm for seeing in the dark and attempting to push himself up when he felt a strong gust of hot air forcing him back down into the dirt. What's that? He remained still as the sounds of terrified gnomes met his ears. Something's attacking them! But what? I have to—
"Wizard!" a gnome hissed into his ear. "Wizard! Get up! The shadow is eating us!" the gnome exclaimed, its hands tugging at his hair. "I came back for you, wizard!"
"Make light. Make light, wizard!"
Neville had just cast his strongest sun charm when what appeared to be a cloak swirled over his head and then shrank back against the wall, pulsing with darkness.
"Fuck!" he yelled. "That's a Lethifold!"
"Predator! Predator!" the gnome exclaimed, beginning to run back towards the front of the passage. "Stupid wizard—run!"
Neville didn't have to be told twice.
He reached the stone stairs that led to the shed and the cooler air aboveground, and flung himself up each one, only to slam shut the rotting planks of the hole cover. Several of them snapped wetly as the cover landed, and Neville began piling whatever he could find on top of it to make it more secure. An old metal wheelbarrow, several mouldy sacks of some lumpen material, and various pieces of wood later, he was satisfied that his barrier would hold—for the moment. That done, he turned and looked at the floor of the moonlit shed to see to his horror the ownerless outfits of many gnomes, and the frightened faces of the remaining ones.
"Oh, this is bad, wizard!" the gnome who had rescued him wailed.
"How many?" Neville asked, panting. "How many . . . of you . . . did the . . . 'shadow' eat?"
"Ten hats' worth, wizard," the tiny being said, his eyes full of tears as he pointed to a pile of pointy red hats on the threshold of the shed around which his brothers were clustered. "Ten hats."
Severus noticed the glittering of Blaise's eyes as he directed the book his cousin had just hurled at him back to its place on the shelves, so he leisurely turned his back on him and began perusing the shelves on his side of the room. While he waited for Blaise to compose himself, he selected a book on the removal of unwanted magical fauna from one's garden, and flipped idly to the section entitled, "The Vexatiousness of Garden Gnomes and How to Turn It to One's Advantage."
Do tell, Severus thought.
"For trying to brain you. It was uncalled for."
"Was it?" Severus asked, depositing his book back in its place and turning.
"She's still in love with Ron," Blaise said, looking as morose as ever Severus had seen him.
"And you're still an idiot."
"Thank you. Perhaps you'll excuse m—"
"No, I think not. Sit," Severus ordered, taking a chair by the front hearth and gesturing for Blaise to take the other.
Blaise did so, snapping, "I'm not a dog."
"I'm certain that Hermione is gratified by that circumstance, though I expect you've been behaving like a bad one to have caused such a scene."
"So you heard it? Then you know—"
"I know only that you persist in indulging yourself in irrational jealousy that will do nothing to further your suit. What possessed you to accuse Hermione of—"
"She brought him up again!"
"Yes, but by all accounts, she left him there, as well," Severus replied, smirking.
"It's not funny. It's . . . it's too much to take, her always bringing Ron into things."
"Blaise, you turned down her advances. She was goading you because she felt humiliated. Surely you see that?"
"I don't see tha—she was? She did? She did," Blaise said, as the realisation of his error became plain to him. "Well, I . . . well, fuck!"
"Again, I doubt that you'll do any such thing until you can repair the damage you've done to Hermione's amour propre."
"Why are you so bloody cheerful?"
"I, cheerful? Don't be ridiculous."
Blaise narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "It's Harry, isn't it? Something happened. What?"
"Unlike you, I am a gentleman," Severus remarked, allowing himself to smile slightly in satisfaction.
"Do you know that Grassingsby proposes that garden gnomes might be useful in—"
"Stop it. Severus, you know that you can't—"
"Publicly appear to favour Harry—"
"Any more than you do!"
"Agreed. We weren't public."
"Being your Advocate," Blaise muttered, "is an utterly thankless task, I'll have you know."
"I imagine it is, with one exception."
"You mean Hermione."
"I do. You wouldn't have pursued her had I not arranged matters so neatly. You know that, don't you?"
"I would have!"
"Oh, yes. You would have continued to pester her about her cooking and allowed her to move from the Novitiate without so much as a word of your feelings for her. Did you know that she had taken a lease on a London flat?"
"What? No. How did you?"
"I know a great many things, Blaise, including how to procure Muggle property if need be. Need was, and Miss Granger found her lease voided by the sale of the building. I had hoped you would get on with it before I had to buy another."
"What?" he asked, suddenly impatient.
"I had no idea. Why would you—"
"Because your drugging and whoring yourself into an early grave doesn't sit well with me."
Blaise flushed. "I didn't realise that—"
"I knew? I knew. Further, so did Kingsley. Poppy, I'm afraid, is not as discreet as some."
"So . . . so you believe that Hermione will keep me from an early grave, do you?"
"No. You must do that. I merely wished to provide you with the opportunity of courting her in close quarters, for in such proximity, it would be more difficult for you to behave badly—or so I believed."
Blaise sighed. "Thank you, Severus, but it should be abundantly clear by now that I can misbehave to Hermione in close quarters. I don't seem to be able to control myself."
"That's the unresolved sexual tension."
"If you were intimate with her, you wouldn't be prone to so many missteps," Severus continued, unrepentant. "I strongly urge you to take Hermione to bed—or against the nearest wall—anywhere, and soon, before one of my guests suffers a brain injury during one of your fits of temper."
"I can't just shag Hermione! She's a—"
"Virgin. Yes, a twenty-six-year-old virgin with an ex-boyfriend who is still—despite his quite honourable, and, I would guess, fairly devoted marriage—in love with her. Hermione will always love Mr Weasley to some degree, Blaise," Severus continued, despite his cousin's outraged spluttering, "but that degree need not run so high if you cease putting her off. She wants you. She is in love with you. But she will no doubt fall into an indiscretion with Ron or some other willing wizard if you don't catch her before long."
"They have secret lunches together. Did you know that?"
"Ah, so you have been stalking her."
"I have not! I've just . . . . I've followed her once or twice, but it's Lavender who should be following Ron. It's not proper!"
"No, it is most decidedly not, but what would you have in its place?"
"What do you mean?"
Severus sighed. "Would you have Hermione hanging on to the ghost of an old love, or exorcising her desires with strangers, as some have been wont to do?"
"That's different, I—"
"Advocate Zabini, you might want to pull the lance of tradition out of your arse for a moment," Severus interrupted, his crudity shocking Blaise into silence as he'd known it would. "Better. Now then, we know that you're quite the traditionalist, quite the knight, though your armour is tarnished. But what you don't seem to realise is that Hermione Granger isn't in need of rescuing. She wants loving—in every sense of the word. She wants you, and if you don't decide that you're worthy of her, she will mistakenly attempt to save Mr Weasley from what I imagine that she's always flattered herself to be his ill-made marriage."
"Hermione would never commit adultery."
"That's a lie, and well you know it, or you'd never have shadowed her steps in fear of it for so long."
"How dare you?" Blaise demanded, rising from his chair.
"How dare you?" Severus asked mildly, surreptitiously making a gesture with one hand in Blaise's direction. "How dare you make her wait? How dare you keep her in suspense? You have behaved badly, and such as Auror Granger will not suffer your indecision forever. You know that there is at least one wizard who wouldn't do the same, were he to receive half the encouragement from her that you have."
"Hermione Granger is mine," Blaise ground out, "and I'll kill anyone who attempts to take her from me."
"Not if she kills you, first. For if you don't claim her, Blaise, the unspent passion between the two of you will express itself violently. You do realise that?"
With a guttural groan, Blaise threw himself towards the door, jerked it open, and left.
Severus, left alone with the congratulatory sniggering of the library portraits to encourage him, deftly rose and removed Blaise's wand from the cushion upon which he'd caused it to fall. I daresay he's carrying with him the only weapon he'll need, he thought cheerfully, pocketing the forgotten tool in relief.
He was certain that he could guess the future.
And it won't feature any ridiculous courtship games. "Tippy!"
"Yes, Master Severus?"
"See to it that Miss Granger's door and windows are charmed against breakage immediately, and lock them with your strongest magic until dawn."
"You is wanting to lock them in, Master Severus?" Tippy asked, her ears quivering in amazement.
Over the years, Severus had attempted to repair Tippy's fractured use of the English language, but on this occasion, her speech didn't disturb him. Instead, in a fit of unfamiliar whimsy, he commanded, "They is needing to be locked in—go to it!"