Chapter Four

She heard the lullaby again in her dreams that night, but, perhaps due to her own fatigue, the tune was comforting rather than plaintive, and soothing rather than agonized as it had been the previous night. She greeted the day with a smile at Mona and a burning curiosity as to the next project Mr Peters would assign her. Working on the wolfsbane had been a welcome surprise, and she was cautiously optimistic that he would have another interesting assignment for her.

When she arrived at breakfast, she was disappointed to find herself alone. She was assuaged, however, by Mona's message that Mr Peters was awaiting her presence in the library. Gulping down a scalding cup of tea and toast with strawberry preserves, she hurried to the library, thankful that at least she could find that room easily enough. The layout of the estate was still something of a mystery to her, and she'd been so engrossed in her previous reading that she hadn't taken the time to amble about the sprawling home. That would change, she promised herself. After all, they didn't appear to be on a deadline. She'd been working almost without a break since she'd arrived, and certainly it couldn't hurt to take an hour to explore. Perhaps in the evening, before she Floo called Harry.

Almost before she realized she'd arrived, she found herself in the library and peering over her employer's shoulder as he studied a book. He smiled up at her, a cheerful look on his face.

"I've been going over your resume," he said, head cocked to the side in order to look up at her. "And I can't find any mention of your Animagus form. Am I to assume that you are unregistered?"

Hermione blinked. The ability to take on the form of an animal had most certainly not come up during her interview with Mr Grotts.

"I understand your reluctance," he said, mistaking her silence for acquiescence. "I'm unregistered myself, though I rather believe I might have registered, had my circumstances..." His voice trailed off. "Well. In any case, I would like for you to do some research into the logistics of forcing someone out of their Animagus form. I have an idea that the standard spell being used, the one that requires two moderately strong casters, or one very strong one, can be modified in order to make it easier to force a person to shift back. I imagine that our research will involve considerable practical application as we test each modification. Is the library conducive to your form, or will we be required to conduct these experiments out of doors?"

He looked so expectant, so cheerful, that Hermione was reluctant to dash his hopes. Still, it had to be done. "I'm afraid I don't have an Animagus form," she informed him, and felt a tight pressure in her chest, as she always did when she felt she'd failed in some intellectual endeavour. But she wasn't a failure, she reminded herself sternly. Not everyone was an Animagus. And she certainly hadn't led him to believe that she was.

He blinked, as if this was a turn of events that he hadn't anticipated or prepared for. "I'll admit that I'm surprised," he said, and to his credit, he did sound more surprised than disappointed. "With your outstanding O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. scores, added to your magical strength and ability to do wandless, silent magic, it didn't occur to me that you wouldn't be an Animagus," he said thoughtfully, gesturing for her to take a seat at the table with him.

She sat down, unsure if she had displeased him more than he was showing. The misunderstanding certainly wasn't her fault, but that hadn't prevented people from blaming her in the past...

"May I ask why you haven't taken an Animagus form?" he inquired. "Is it because you were unable, or were you unwilling?"

She folded her hands in her lap and resisted the urge to fidget. "I've never tried," she said. "My experiences with others in their Animagus forms..." She shook her head. "To me it has always seemed more of a vulnerability than a strength."

He considered her statement. "Because you have been stronger than those wizards," he said. "Haven't you?"

"One was a witch," she corrected automatically, thinking of Rita Skeeter and shuddering. Trapping the woman in a jar in her beetle form had been necessary, but horrible. And Peter Pettigrew in his rat form was even worse. She hadn't harmed him, but Crookshanks had certainly given him a bad time more often than not. Pettigrew must have often cursed his talent which could so easily be exploited by Voldemort.

"Would you like to learn?" Mr Peters asked, politely studying the shelf behind her instead of watching her as she struggled with her memories. "I have no doubt that you're a fast learner, and it really would be a benefit to this project. No one need ever know," he finished, "and I certainly wouldn't hold it against you if you were unable to master the skill."

The lure of learning something new, of stretching herself after lying in stagnation at the Ministry for far too long, was strong.

"I thought it was a long and involved process," she said. "Is it a feasible undertaking for this project?"

"It depends how motivated you are," he said with a shrug. "I mastered my form when I was a teenager, and though I was very dedicated, I certainly didn't have an overabundance of patience. I was still successful."

Did she want to be an Animagus? She bit her lip and turned away from him, ostensibly studying the rows of books. It was incredibly tempting to learn a new skill, and her reasons for not becoming an Animagus no longer seemed relevant. Really, how would someone use this skill against her? She had every intention of registering with the Ministry if she was successful—with Kingsley Shacklebolt in charge, she didn't have to worry that the knowledge might leak to persons who would exploit it. Really, there was little to lose and much to gain.

"I'll do it," she said, nodding decisively.

Mr Peters' face lit up. "Excellent," he said, and for a moment, she fully expected him to lift her up and twirl her around, as Harry would undoubtedly have done in the same situation. Instead, he took a step back from her, but continued beaming.

"I admit it took me about three years," he said, and Hermione winced, "but I have no doubt that you'll have it mastered within a few weeks. After all, I was struggling through on my own without any guidance. And I'm afraid I was rather leery of research back then. Most of my attempts were of the 'let's see what happens if I do this' variety," he admitted.

"That's awful," Hermione said, eyes wide. Becoming an Animagus was inherently dangerous, as it was possible to be trapped in animal form. "Why on earth—" She shook her head, realizing that she had no right to pry into his life. Everyone did questionable things in their teen years, after all. When she thought of all the risks she, Harry, and Ron had taken, Mr Peters attempting to become an Animagus without proper instruction didn't see quite so remarkable.

"You'll need to learn the spell and proper wand movements," he said. "They're rather intricate, but I imagine you'll not find them too difficult. The real trick is being able to simultaneously focus and allow the spell the freedom to do its work—choose the form best for you. Your wandless and silent magic will help with that, I expect."

She felt a rush of anticipation. This was something she could do! Something completely new. Something to engage her intellect. It was perfect.

"Choose what books you like," Mr Peters continued, handing her a slim volume, "but I found this one to be the most helpful. Enough information to get you started without bogging you down." He nodded once. "I'll leave you to it, then."

Hermione was so deeply involved in the book that she scarcely noticed him leave.

"Did it work that time?" Hermione asked hopefully. "I thought I felt something..."

Mr Peters' expression was answer enough.

"Bugger," she sighed, and sat down heavily on the couch. "I thought I was getting it! I opened my mind, relinquished control, and focused my intent on the spell." She kicked at the faded rug beneath her feet. "What am I doing wrong?"

He shrugged in a way she felt was decidedly unhelpful. Honestly! She'd been trying for three days. It was supposed to take a long time; she knew that. And it was arrogant of her to assume that she would pick up the skill more quickly than the average witch or wizard. She knew that, as well. But still! She'd devoted herself solely to the endeavour! She should have results, for Merlin's sake!

"Take a break," he advised, plucking both the volume and her wand from her grasp. "Have a cup of tea."

"I've had three already!" she exclaimed, incensed. "I don't need tea! Or biscuits!" she clarified as Mona popped into the room with a tray, and then promptly disappeared upon judging Hermione's level of frustration. "What I need is to realize my Animagus form!"

"Well, you won't accomplish it by terrifying the poor house elf," he said mildly, and she strongly suspected that he was smiling. "Come with me."

She narrowed her eyes at his outstretched hand. "Come with you where?" she demanded, not bothering to hide her suspicion. He'd been a perfect gentleman, if somewhat distant, since she'd arrived, and she really didn't think he intended to harm her, but she'd been studying the blasted books for hours every day, and memorizing spells, and practicing wand movements and none of it was working. She didn't need a mystery outing; she needed results! Results that involved her taking on a spectacular form smoothly and easily. Maybe something that could breathe fire, she thought, a crafty smile sneaking across her face. A dragon wasn't a terribly practical form (it certainly couldn't wander into Muggle areas), but it most definitely made a statement. And she was more than ready to make a statement.

"I don't like that look," Mr Peters said, and she realized that what she'd thought was a crafty smile had changed into a downright diabolical grin. "You need a break," he repeated.

Fine. She could always turn into a dragon tomorrow, she supposed.

She took his hand, and before she quite realized what had happened, he had draped a sturdy cloak over her light summer clothes and he was leading her through the back garden.

Though still preoccupied with thoughts of her extremely unsuccessful Animagus training, she did have to admit that the yard was beautiful. Mature trees dotted the landscape, surrounded by tasteful flower beds and the occasional bench or statue. Mr Peters, however, did not take the time to point out any of the many features of the garden.

"Just over here," he said, pointing to a small outbuilding a short distance away.

A tool shed, she observed, amused. For the briefest of moments, she wondered if it was filled with Muggle spark plugs and old radios, as Arthur Weasley's shed was. No, she decided. Jamie Peters did not appear to be a man who tinkered in the Muggle world. He didn't put on airs, but his aristocratic, Pure Blood status was obvious in his every motion and word.

"Ah, here we are," he said, ducking into the shed and returning almost immediately with two brooms. "A short flight does wonders to clear my mind," he said, handing her a broom.

Eyes narrowed, hands fixed at her sides, she stared at him. "No."

"No what?" he asked, still extending one broom to her but also studying the other. "They're not the latest models, but I assure you that they're high quality and very responsive."

"I don't fly," she said flatly.

"Of course you fly. Everybody flies." He looked up from the broom bristles he was smoothing into compliance and noted the stubborn jut of her chin. "You really don't fly?" he asked, cocking his head to the side.

"No." He really needn't sound so surprised about it, she thought sourly. Honestly! She couldn't be the only person in the wizarding world who didn't fly!

"Don't, or won't?" he asked, and she detected nothing other than friendly curiosity in the question.

"Both," she replied firmly. Losing the battle with her arms, she crossed them over her chest. There. Let him think on that. She wasn't hired for her flying skills, she thought resentfully. And he probably hadn't meant to discourage her further, but it really wasn't helping her state of mind to be forced to describe yet another failure in her life.

"Well, then," he said with a wink, "I suppose I'll have to do all the work." He tossed aside the broom he'd been trying to coerce her into accepting and, before she knew it, his arms were around her and she was seated on the broom in front of him.

"What are you doing?" she demanded, and patently ignored the squeaky quality of her voice. He was manhandling her! He had no right!

"I should think it obvious," he murmured in her ear, even as she attempted to sort herself off the broom. "Now hold still. I'm certain you're a dab hand with cushioning charms, but I doubt you'd like to try it from a fifty-foot drop."

Hermione stopped struggling long enough to notice that they had indeed left the ground and were currently skirting the top of the very highest trees in the wooded area adjacent to the house.

"Circe," she whimpered, feeling her stomach drop right out of her and land somewhere on the black ground beneath them.

"See?" he said, taking a gentle corner. "It's not so bad, is it?"

She gripped the broom more tightly and tried to unclench her teeth. Clenching teeth was bad. Clenching teeth led to tender gums, and tender gums were unacceptable. Her parents were dentists—she ought to know.

When she felt she had distracted herself as much as she was able to do with only oral hygiene as a topic of focus, she attempted to speak.

What came out was another whimper.

"I know!" he enthused. "There's nothing like it! The feel of the wind in your hair, the bird's eye view of the world..."

"Take me down," she finally managed to gasp. Now it wasn't only her hands and teeth clenching; her thighs were wrapped so tightly around the shaft of the broom that she was starting to worry about splinters in highly undesirable locations.

Some of her panic must have finally registered with Mr Peters, because the broom jogged slightly to the side as he attempted to see her face.

"You weren't kidding," he said, sounding shocked. "You really don't fly."

She closed her eyes and wished that he would bloody stop talking to her and take them back to the bloody ground, already. Bloody hell! Was the man dense? She'd said she didn't fly! What on earth had made him think that this could possibly be a good idea? Probably the same misguided thought Charlie Weasley had, she surmised. Well. At least she hadn't thrown up on her employer yet. Despite the stress she was under, she smiled grimly at the "surprise" she'd granted Charlie when he'd tricked her onto his broom. She'd been sitting behind him, holding on for dear life when he'd attempted some sort of rolling manoeuvre that she was convinced ought to be deemed illegal when she'd lost the remains of the heavy lunch Molly Weasley had fed her.

Charlie had yet to mock her for her fear or offer to take her up again.

Smart lad, Charlie.

If Mr Peters wasn't careful, he'd be learning the same lesson shortly, even if she had to pry her eyes open and somehow twist so that she was facing him in order to facilitate said lesson.

The broom slowed. Hermione gripped the shaft harder, certain that a bumpy landing was in their future. But no. Even with her eyes still closed, she could tell that they were on a steady, shallow incline. Bugger! Wrong direction, she wanted to scream, but opening her mouth would require ceasing to clench her teeth again, and though she couldn't be certain, she couldn't fight the impression that the tight set of every muscle in her body was the only thing holding her together and on the broom.

"Keep your eyes closed for the next little bit," Mr Peters advised, which almost prompted her to open them, just to spite him. Who did he think he was, telling her what to do!

"Ah, there now," he said, and she felt the trajectory of their path level off once more. "I think you'll be fine to open your eyes now."

Shows how much he knew, she thought bitterly. She couldn't open her eyes now if she tried! If she did, she might catch a glimpse of the trees below them, or, even worse, the pond. Why did anyone think it was safe to ride on a broom over a body of water? It just didn't make sense! Cushioning charms couldn't help if you were drowning, after all.

"Are they open yet?" Mr Peters asked, still sounding amused.

"Take me down," she managed to gasp.

It had been the wrong decision. She should have known better. She'd unclenched her jaw enough to speak. The broom was wobbling; she was certain of it.

"Still closed, then."

He sounded even more amused, and Hermione realized that the broom was wobbling because he was laughing. Laughing. At her.

Anger overrode her fear, and she contorted her upper body, keeping only one hand on the shaft of the broom. With the other hand, she hit at him, causing the laughter to stop abruptly.

"How dare you!" she screamed, and she wasn't sure if the roaring in her ears was her own blood rushing through her over-stimulated system, or if it was the wind. "What were you thinking? I. Don't. Fly! Ever!" She punctuated each word with increasingly violent hits to his midsection and arms. "I've mastered every other fear I've ever had," she hissed. Clenched jaw be damned; she was letting him have it. She'd even opened her eyes, though she only allowed herself to look at the dark cloak and white shirt Mr Peters was wearing. Rage was excellent for helping to ignore all the little things, like the fact that she had no idea how high they were flying, or how far they'd travelled from the house.

"I overcame every other fear from the war and my school days," she ranted. "Every other one! I'm allowed to keep one!"

Much to her horror, she burst into tears. Humiliated on another level, she took a particularly vicious stab at his side, just as he attempted to hold her more tightly on the broom.

In an example of her worst fears being realized, the boom careened off to the side, jolting out of control. Hermione flashed back to Harry's wild and horrifying ride on his Nimbus 2000 in their first year at Hogwarts when Professor Quirrel had enchanted his broom. She didn't have Harry's reflexes, though, and Mr Peters' focus was split between trying to keep her on the broom, and trying to regain control of the broom.

He failed at both.

She felt herself slipping, and her stomach roiled. Another spastic jerk of the broom, and she was suddenly looking up at the broom instead of sitting on it. Her hands were slipping, and the broom was plummeting faster and faster. She felt the wind whip her hair into a curtain around her face, and then she couldn't see anything at all. It was worse than scrunching her eyes closed, she thought in a moment of clarity. If her eyes were closed, she still had options. Now, the curls she'd tried so hard to keep secured in a pony tail were taking those choices away, and blinding her to her fate.

Which wasn't so bad, she thought even more distractedly. After all, did she really want to see the ground (or the pond! Don't forget the pond!) as she hurtled to her death?

"You're going to be fine," Mr Peters said, and this time, he wasn't laughing. In fact, it sounded suspiciously like his teeth were now clenched as tightly as hers had been before she'd taken to castigating him.

Hermione, however, was out of both words and whimpers. She silently clung to the broom with both hands, dangling below it as they drifted closer and closer to the ground. Were they slowing down? Or was that wishful thinking? It almost felt as if Mr Peters was now in control of the broom, but she couldn't see a thing, and it seemed foolish to get her hopes up.

"Hang on," he muttered. "Nearly there." Seconds later she felt the brush of a tree branch against her feet, and promptly fainted.

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Author's Notes

Characters from the Harry Potter series are the property of J.K. Rowling. They are used without permission and not for profit.

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