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"Malfoy!"

Scorpius half jumped out of his skin and grabbed the latch of the rattling compartment in front of him to keep from toppling over. He stuffed the Saunders' Invisible Silk back into his pocket with his free hand, making a mental note to set it up later... preferably when no one was rushing up from behind and shouting out his name. He turned around, all innocent smiles, to see an out of breath James Potter coming from the train compartment ahead with a squirming sack in his hands.

"Have you seen my brother?" James Potter asked breathlessly. With the way he kept jerking his head over his shoulder, he looked like he’d been running away from something.

"Hmm, let's see," Scorpius pondered, loving the way that James squirmed with impatience. "Looks like a Potter, dark hair and light eyes?" Even though they were separated by houses in school, he admired James for his tenacity and his inclination to push the boundaries of polite society. Always one to return the sentiment, Scorpius raised his hand above James' head. "Tall, like this?"

"Ha. Hardly." James' arms squeezed tighter as the sack lurched, this time having nothing to do with the movement of the train. The carriage connector opened behind him and he craned his neck to see who was coming. "Gotta run. Could you get this to Albus for me?" James shoved the sack at Scorpius' free arm. "Tell him it's a sixth year gift!"

He scampered into the next train carriage as Ford Chatham, followed by a small band of prefects stepped into the corridor from the other end. His badge flashed as the train passed a low copse of trees, letting the harsh mid-day sun through the windows. Scorpius tried to act casual in front of the new Head Boy, feeling suddenly crowded by all the official, law-abiding students surrounding him. He pretended as hard as he could that he wasn't holding a potentially incriminating sack and that his pockets weren't full of pranking supplies.

"Where'd he go?" Ford peered into the nearest compartment window. Six sets of innocent second year eyes stared back at him with gaping mouths.

Scorpius tried to blend in with the paneling. "Who do you mean?"

"The bloke running round setting off dung bombs. Did you see him?"

"Oh him," Scorpius waved it off. "Yeah. Next carriage. What a twat!"

Ford eyed the sack in Scorpius' hand. "What's that you have there?"

"This? Not a sack of dung bombs." The sack jerked in his hands. "See?"

Ford and his prefects nodded and headed off into the next carriage. Scorpius sank to the floor, relieved that he hadn't been searched by association. Chatham wasn't a bad chap, for a Gryffindor. Albus' big brother wasn't going to have an easy year of it with the Head Boy as both his roommate and best friend. He chuckled to himself. The whole situation took the phrase "sleeping with the enemy" to a whole new level.

When the passageway was clear, Scorpius looked inside the sack and found a large, fat rabbit staring back at him. He grabbed it by the scruff of its neck (something he'd seen Wren do once or twice to angry Kneazles) and pulled it out. "What is this?"

The animal peered at him from heavy lids with its beady eyes. Then it bared its teeth and he swore he heard it growl.

"Someone piss in your pie?" he asked it. "I suppose you've got every reason to be barmy, what with being thrown into a sack." He roused to his feet, still scruffing the rabbit by the neck. "Come on, then. Let's go find your new daddy."

The rabbit twisted to nip at Scorpius' hand. "Bloody beast!" he yelled and flung the rabbit away. Its fat belly slapped onto the ground, but it spun around fast and lunged forward. Scorpius danced around it, dodging its attempts to attack him and resisting the urge to kick it in the head.

When it made another move for his ankles, he drew his wand and fired off a Stunning Spell. He hit it square between the ears, but before he could check to see if any prefects had heard the commotion, the animal shook it off and lunged again.

"You're supposed to be stunned, you stupid..." Scorpius barely dodged out of the way in time, and in a heated moment of quick thinking, tore off his boot and pitched it hard at the little beast's head. It instantly collapsed on the floor.

Scorpius checked both corridor doors and the windows of the train compartments, waiting a beat. When he was sure no one had seen him stun the animal, he picked up his boot.

"Blimey! I'm never going to keep a shine on these things!" He made a feeble attempt to polish up the fresh scuff with his sleeve. Then he gave up, slipped the boot back on and hoisted the limp rabbit under his arm.

Two carriages down, Scorpius found his best mate feasting at the snack trolley. He tipped an invisible hat at the Trolley Witch and flashed her a smile. "Should have known you'd be stuffing your face here, Al."

"What is that thing?" Albus asked, unwrapping his third pumpkin tart. Scorpius had conveniently counted the wrappers littering the floor. He'd definitely rib his friend about all the eating later, after he got this half-crazed, seemingly hex-resistant creature off his hands.

He shrugged. "Sixth year gift from James." He held the grey lump out to his best mate.

Albus swallowed and gave the Trolley Witch a handful of sickles for several bottles of pumpkin juice. "I can't take it now, Scorp. I have prefect rounds." He tucked some bottles into his robe, twisted off a cap and downed half a bottle in a few gulps. "Besides, what am I going to do with a rabbit?"

"Oi! You're on snack break! This is the perfect opportunity to fix what you bodged up last time," Scorpius said, thinking back to Albus' half-cocked attempt to woo his best girl. "Take it into Wren's train compartment and start up a conversation. Girls like furry animals."

Albus eyed the animal warily. "It looks dead."

"Nah," Scorpius told him. "It's sleeping off the trip." He patted the drooling rabbit's head and then made to hand it over again.

Albus backed up several paces. "I'm on rounds," he said tiredly. "I'll see you later."

Scorpius stopped patting the head and tried to wipe the drool off his sleeve. "What am I supposed to do with this thing until then?"

"Whatever you're supposed to do with rabbits." Albus paid the Trolley Witch again and shrugged, stuffing two more tarts into his robe.

Scorpius thought hard as he watched Albus' retreating back. Then he grinned, arranged the stunned rabbit in his arms and headed three carriages back to where he had last seen Wren and Callie, telling exaggerated stories about the resident poltergeist to a group of first year girls. She was good with animals, he surmised. She'd know what to do.

When he slid the door open and stepped inside the compartment, Wren had her camera out with the new lens attached and was snapping pictures of a cuter, much smaller rabbit in her lap. A cluster of open mouthed eleven year old girls around her whipped their heads around to stare at him. One of them giggled.

"Oh, you've already got one," he said before Wren could comment on the comatose creature under his arm.

What now whatnowwhatnow, he thought quickly. Then Scorpius got an even better idea.

"Where's Rose? I've got something to show her."



**


After the opening feast, Wren carried her little rabbit gently up to her room. She felt a familiar pang of disappointment when the younger girls without their own pets fawned over him. Wren shared with them her own story of how Gran had half-heartedly told her that she could pick out a toad from under the porch. Wren had dreamed of having something soft and cuddly for years. She gazed down at the small animal in her arms as the moving staircase took her up to the Gryffindor Tower. Just like this one, she thought, smiling.

The little rabbit had mostly slept through the train ride in a small satchel that hung around Wren's neck. She'd even snuck him into the Great Hall for the opening feast. For the first time in years, Wren jumped at the appearance of Peeves the poltergeist, feeling the bunny tremble against her at every sound. Wren thought he'd leap out of her arms on the first moving staircase, but with some reassuring words, she'd gotten him to calm down.

"We're almost there," she whispered, climbing the extra flight of stairs to her new dorm room.

As she pulled open the door, she was hit with a swath of Gryffindor colors. The walls, papered with vintage floral patterns from the floor to the ceiling, made the whole room glow in red and gold overtones. Rose was busy at her side of the room, swishing her wand back and forth in front of her bookcase. "Alphabetical by author or subject?" she pondered, then swished her wand again as her books rearranged themselves on the shelf.

A dark mop of hair hovered at the ceiling above one of the beds, balanced on her broom with large paper rolls under one arm and a roll of spell-o-tape under the other. It looked like she was hanging every poster that the Kenmare Kestrals had ever produced in the same spot. "Oh, hi Wren," Trudy called from the ceiling. "Sorry I missed your party," she said, not really sounding too apologetic.

Wren hadn't expected Trudy to say anything about her birthday. As first years, they'd all thought Trudy didn't like them, but after a while, they realized that she just liked to keep to herself. Trudy swore to herself as the edge of the poster slipped. "A little help here?" she called down to them.

Rose flicked her wand and threw a sticking charm to the wall above Trudy's head. They'd stopped holding her antisocial ways against her a long time ago. She was just Trudy. They tried to include her when they could (and when she was willing). Mostly, they just left her to her Quidditch obsession and tried not to get in her way.

Callie's school trunk still lay untouched. Albus had mentioned a prefect's meeting when he'd stopped by her train compartment to say hello (and she'd said "hi" back while her stomach fluttered, even though she'd sternly told it not to). Her roommate was probably at that meeting too, Wren reasoned.

In Wren's corner (which wasn't really a corner, since the tower rooms were circular in shape), she found the usual note from her dad wishing her good luck in the new year, and a curious book on her night table, titled "Seven Stages of..." Wren brushed the book off the table and let it tumble into her open trunk before her roommates noticed. Then she gasped with delight at the lovely, well-furnished rabbit hutch next to her bed. She lifted the bunny out of her satchel. "Look! It's all for you!"

Rose flicked her wand at the posters. Bunny stared wide-eyed and quivered, which made Wren nervous for him. "It's alright, I'll hold you a little longer," she said to him.

"You can see the Quidditch pitch from the window! This is awesome!" Trudy exclaimed, still holding her broom. Wren went to peer out Trudy's window next to hers. They all had windows in the tower, but this year, the view was even better. Wren's eyes drifted from the pitch to the mountains on the horizon. She shuffled the rabbit in her arms and unsnapped her camera from its case to shoot a few pictures of the landscape.

"That's a new lens." Rose said from across the room, after Trudy's posters got sorted.

Wren looked down at her new lens. "It was for my birthday," she said, smiling and remembering. She hadn't mentioned to anyone that Albus had given it to her. Suddenly, she wondered if that was something she should tell them.

"It'll be perfect for this year," Trudy nodded eagerly.

"Perfect for what?" Wren wondered at Trudy's sudden enthusiasm.

"You didn't tell her?" Trudy shot at Rose.

"Tell me what?" Wren asked again. Obviously, she wasn't the only one who hadn't mentioned things.

"I might have talked to some people on the train about getting their pictures taken this year," Rose said. "And I might have told them that you'd do it for them."

"Rose!"

"And I might have also told them that your rates are less expensive than the photographer they used last year," she hurried on.

"And you're better, too," Trudy added.

Wren stared in shock at her two roommates. "I'm not a professional photographer!"

"But you could be!" Rose protested. "We all saw your photographs last year and they were much better than anything that hack gave the Quidditch team."

Wren had to agree. Last year's Quidditch pictures from the "professional photographer" were horrid. Even with her old lens, she'd taken some much better pictures from the stands. Ford's little sister had paid twenty sickles for a copy of the frame where Wren had captured James' goal from the last match of the season. The fourth year fan girl was probably spell-o-taping it above her bed at that very moment.

Bunny quivered next to her, and Wren remembered the dropped conversation. "Wait. You talked to the Quidditch captain about hiring me to be the match photographer? But you didn't even ask me about it first."

"Just for the try-outs, and if they like what they see, you're hired. Wouldn't that be great? You'd be getting money for your hobby!" Rose let the rest of it come out in a rush.

"And we'd get better pictures," Trudy murmured from the other side of the room as she straightened the bottom of her poster collection. "The last ones looked like the photographer forgot to watch the game."

Wren's eyes trailed over the shiny new lens in her hand. While her rabbit was sleeping, she'd spent most of the train ride figuring out all the new switches and dials it had come with and flipping through the instruction booklet. The wicked zoom feature would take great close-ups of a moving broom, and the instructions had hinted at a spell that would capture up to ten seconds longer action than normal magical photographs.

"I'm not promising anything," Wren warned, but Rose was already vaulting across the room in celebration. Sometimes Rose's enthusiasm was infectious. Right now, it was just plain irritating.

"Hi all!" Callie said, coming into the room at last, which thankfully dropped the photography discussion. She went over to where her trunk had been propped and hung her robe neatly on a peg near her bed. Then she flipped open her trunk and swished her wand at the closet door which opened on command.

Bunny shifted nervously in the crook of her arm as Wren reset the lens and took a few experimental pictures of her surroundings. Rose's trunk. Trudy's broom. Callie's clothes floating out of her trunk and marching towards the closet door by themselves. Wren lowered her camera and stared.

"I am so glad to be back!" Callie exclaimed, swishing her wand again to fetch more hangers. "I thought I'd die from magic withdrawal over the summer!"

"It's much easier to organize books," Rose agreed.

"And hang posters," Trudy murmured under her Quidditch shirt. She pulled it over her head. "Wait a minute. What is that thing?" She eyed the rabbit in Wren's arms. "We've got a smelly rodent in our room now? Oh, that's just great." She shoved her trainers over her yellow and green striped knee highs and laced them up.

Wren felt the little bunny flinch again as Rose pointed her wand at her bed, making all of her shoes jump in a line beneath the footboard. Then she pointed to the dresser, and then her trunk again, causing all of her neatly folded clothes to fly inside the drawers in perfect piles. Each time Rose used her wand, the bunny flinched. Wren's head began to throb. All the while, Callie was unpacking too, all with magic, and Trudy had charmed a small chart to execute Quidditch moves that she was staring intently at. Bunny was shaking so much that Wren had started to shake too.

"Everyone stop!" Wren cried out as Bunny trembled like a leaf against her. "Can't you see he's terrified?"

Her roommates all stared at her. "Of what?" Callie asked.

Wren clutched Bunny to her and heard his heartbeat thudding like an over wound watch inside her head. "All of this!"

"Wren, are you feeling alright?" Rose asked her. "If you're mad about the Quidditch team pictures, I can go and talk to them and tell them to find someone else."

Wren looked wildly around the room to each of her roommates. If she hadn't been holding her rabbit, she would have been doing the same thing as them, using her wand to unpack as quickly as possible and get it out of the way. She felt foolish and stroked the rabbit to settle him down.

"Sorry. I guess I'm just tired. And I'll think about the pictures, Rose. Just not right now." She went and placed Bunny in his hutch and sat down on her bed.

"Yeah, we'll talk later, when you're not losing your mind. I think there's a welcome party down in the common room. Anyone coming?"

"I told the team I'd meet them out by the pitch after dinner." Trudy said, slamming her trunk shut. She checked her watch. "There's a pick up game in ten minutes."

"Quidditch already? We've only just gotten back from the opening feast. Don't you want to unpack and relax?" Callie asked her. "Tryouts aren't for weeks."

"It's Thursday night, we've got two hours until curfew and no classes for three days." Trudy grabbed her broom and marched to the door. "See you all later." She gave Wren a concerned glance as she headed out.

The frantic, panicky feeling faded as Wren sat on her bed staring at the floor. She hadn't had anything happen like that since... her party?

"Wren, are you coming?" Rose tossed her braid over her shoulder and swept by.

"Sure. In a minute or two." She glanced down at the little bunny who had instantly curled up in the hay and fallen asleep again.

Callie waited for the door to close. "She thought you'd be happy about the photography job," Callie told her.

"I am," Wren said, unsure of why the thought had made her uneasy in the first place. She loved taking pictures. "I wish she'd talked to me first. But doing pictures for the Gryffindor team sounds like fun." In spite of her misgivings, Wren's mind was already formulating possible shots to showcase their team spirit.

Callie turned to face her in the doorway. "Wren, you should probably know now. Rose was talking about all four Quidditch teams."

Wren's stomach dropped as Callie pointed to the hutch.

"Why is your rabbit glowing?"

"Glowing?" Wren rushed to the hutch, where the tiny creature had been sleeping. Her eyes darted around the lower section of the room, looking for any sign of white fur. "He's gone!"

"He's in here somewhere, Wren."

"I have to find him!" Breathing suddenly became harder for her.

Callie shrugged. "I'm sure he's fine. It's just a rabbit."

"Not just a rabbit!" Wren cried. "He's my best friend! What if some magic whisked him away and he just... disappeared?"

"Wren?"

Wren dove under her bed.  She didn't notice when the door quietly latched closed, or that Callie had gone on without her.

"I've got to find him, I've just got to!"




***


Up above the streets of Diagon Alley, Hannah Longbottom hurried to put the kettle on as Augusta's quiet wails drifted through the family suite.

"What have I done?" the older woman murmured over and over weakly, rocking back and forth in her seat by the window.

Hannah tapped her wand to get the kettle hot. Tea had a calming effect when Augusta got too worked up to think straight. Hannah had to admit though, that the ranting had gotten less over the last few days. In fact, she hadn't seen a floating pillow since yesterday. But she knew from experience that when the fits took over, Augusta would hit bottom all over again.

"I've got your tea coming." She tossed the bag in the hot mug and balanced it on a saucer on her way to the window seat. If she hurried, she could sit a few minutes and get some dinner into Augusta before the evening shift began. Hannah hated to leave her alone for so many hours a day, but the Inn couldn't run itself.

Hannah had a fleeting thought about how her daughter had spent most of the summer talking to Gran when she thought no one else was listening. The Healers said it could take days or years, or maybe never, but it hadn't stopped Wren from spending as much time as she could showing off her photographs and describing the day's events in the tavern. The older woman always seemed calmer, more peaceful when Wren was around.

Her daughter always talked as if Augusta could understand her. Hannah decided that she should do the same.

Hannah wiped her hands on a dish towel and set the tea down next to her grandmother-in-law. She looked out at the darkening clouds and tried to think of something to say. "Neville says that the cottage has had a few offers, but they were on the low side. We're hoping that something better will come along soon."

"Get rid of it."

The gravelly voice, weak from disuse, startled Hannah. She almost knocked her elbow into the tea, realizing that her grandmother-in-law had stopped rocking and had actually responded to her. "Augusta?"

"You're working too hard," Augusta croaked, still staring at the wall. "When the cottage sells, the debts will be paid and you can hire all the help you need."

"You're right," Hannah said conversationally, trying to contain her excitement at the sudden topical outburst. It was the first time in months that her grandmother-in-law had said anything directly to anyone.

A million things flitted through Hannah’s mind. Should she call the Healers to get her checked out? Did Augusta need more potion? Should she owl Neville? Would he want to come out and see his grandmother straight away, or would it be a bothersome distraction so early in the term? Hannah hesitated over what to do next. Too many questions might send her back into her mind.

"Tell Neville to stop dithering around and take the first offer," Augusta said, and sipped her tea.

No, Hannah decided, Augusta was fine for now. She went back to the kitchen to bring out a plate of dinner and sank into a chair next to the older woman.

“I wish it was that easy." Hannah trailed off, thinking about their original plan to buy the Inn after Wren was finished with Hogwarts and they'd saved up enough money.

Instead, they'd taken out a loan. When Tom signed the papers, he declared his immediate retirement and she had to prioritize the essential tasks to keep everything running. She felt about as tired as Gran looked, and that was on a good day.

“I’m sure you were around when we discussed the broken water line and the basement that’s overrun with doxies. Neville fixed up the gardens and the lawn at the cottage, but he’s hopelessly lost around the plumbing. If we get a good price for the place, the loan can be repaid and whatever's left will go to repairs and improvements.”

Augusta nodded passively at the conversation. After a while, her head stopped moving and she stared into nothing. She hadn't said a word the whole time.

“Augusta? Are you still there?”

Someone knocked with light, frantic raps at the door. Hannah stayed where she was, afraid that if she moved, Augusta would be lost to her again. They sat quietly next to each other as the rapid knocking got more urgent. Suddenly, the older woman blinked and set down her teacup.

“Oh, for Merlin’s sake, go and answer the door!” the old Gran grumbled, making Hannah smile.

“I’ll be right back.” Hannah hurried to the door and opened it, but her smile fell. “Nellie!” she gasped. “What's going on?”

"Mrs. Longbottom, I'm sorry to disturb you, but there are a lot of people downstairs."

"They’re supposed to be downstairs. And you're supposed to be serving them." Nellie had offered to help with the weekend shift after Neville and Wren left for school, but it was becoming clear that she wasn't comfortable in the large evening crowds. Hannah glanced back at Augusta who was calmly picking at her dinner.

"I know, but there's a LOT of people. It started raining and then everyone just kept coming in and demanding things. I can't do it fast enough."

"Do what we always do,” Hannah told her. “Serve them, one person at a time." Through the open door, she could hear the crowd building, getting more restless with no one to serve them.

"But..." Nellie's hand gripped the doorframe, the whites of her knuckles showing. "There's so many of them!"

Hannah looked back at Augusta's form sitting at the window. She ushered Nellie into the hall, feeling bad for the poor girl who looked like she was on the edge of a panic attack. "I'll be downstairs as soon as I can to help you. Tell everyone to be patient."

She closed the door and watched Augusta sip her tea in silence. They couldn't afford to lose customers, but her family had to come first. Hannah felt like she was split in two, trying to take care of Augusta and the Inn by herself, but at the moment, she didn't have much choice in the matter.

"Give it to me." Augusta had set her dinner plate aside. “Give me the potion, Hannah. I feel it coming on again and quite honestly, I'd like to sleep through it this time."

“Are you sure?” Hannah didn’t want to do anything to make Augusta fall back into the trance she’d just come out of, but the older woman held out her teacup impatiently.

“I’m getting better, but it’s not done with me yet. I can feel it.”

Hannah stared at the old woman for just a moment. Then, she poured the potion into Augusta's half-empty teacup and watched her drink it down. Augusta hadn't been given enough credit. She knew what was happening.

Even through the closed door of the suite, the noise from below was growing. "I have to go downstairs now. Will you be alright without me?"

Augusta's eyes drifted closed in response as the potion took hold.

A continuous stream of people filled the tavern to get out of the torrent of rain that pounded against the windows outside. An overwhelmed Nellie shuffled by with a tray of drinks on her shoulder, shying away from the rowdy tables as soon as the drinks were served. Hannah got bumped and tussled as she slipped behind the bar and assessed the state of the pub; the heavy rain was driving more and more people inside. She and Nellie together could get out a first round for everyone and worry about orders later

Her plan seemed workable for about two minutes, until Nellie came back and put her empty tray onto the bar, followed by her apron. "I'm sorry," she said, tears glistening in her eyes. "I can't do this.” She wrung her shaking hands together. “I'm going home."

Hannah nodded to the distressed girl and carried on. She placed the next set of mugs under the tap and watched Nellie escape the sea of wet robes and run out into the rain. The last thing the Innkeeper needed was her mild-mannered and very reliable breakfast server suddenly suffering from a panic attack in the middle of a crowd like this. The temperament of the room was growing worse, and Hannah sensed that even with Nellie’s help, things were going to get out of hand very quickly. It was probably wise for the young woman to leave. Hannah wouldn’t have allowed Wren down here for anything.

"Just a moment, lads." She ignored the boisterous posturing in front of her filling station and reached under the bar for a large bottle of Tom's secret ingredient.

In more than twenty years of working the crowds, she'd rarely seen the old Innkeeper use it, but on a night like tonight, Hannah decided to put Tom’s special reserve bottle of Calming Draught to good use. She added a splash of the potion to the drinks on the tray and shoved it forward, staying clear of the tangled hands and elbows that reached out and emptied the tray in a flash.

The rain kept coming, and so did the people. Tom would have cast an extendable charm over the place by now, but Hannah couldn't catch a break to lift her wand. She quickly snatched the tray back and slid the next batch of mugs under the tap.

"I'm next." One of the loud men elbowed his way to the front of the crowd, so close that Hannah could smell his last drink on his breath.

"No, I am." A burly-bearded fellow in a tattered cloak blocked his way. Even the disgruntled crowd eased away from the bar.

Hannah reached into her robe for her wand. Tom had never Flooed the Ministry for assistance, but she would do it if she had to. On nights like this one, she dreaded not having any backup.

Just as the two men aimed their wands at each other, they suddenly rose straight up in the air by at least two feet. Hannah didn't waste another second and silently banished their wands to a jar above the door. She'd deal with whoever cast the levitation magic in a moment.

"Gentlemen, you'll each get a drink when it's ready." She shoved two glasses at them (half watered, double dose of Calm). These were going to be their last drinks of the night if she had any say in the matter. "Now, who's levitating people in my bar?"

She leaned forward, expecting to banish another wand, when she noticed that both men's shirts were bunched under their chins and stretched up the backs of their heads.

A single fist gripped each collar, attached to a strong pair of arms that slowly lowered the two men back to the floor. A tall, lean figure stood behind them and shoved them towards the counter. The men looked up uneasily at him, and then quickly took their drinks to opposite sides of the tavern.

"Sorry for the use of force, but things looked like they were about to get out of control." The man shook storm water from his robe and threw some coins on the bar.

Hannah was half relieved that her unexpected assistant hadn't used magic, and half put out by losing control of her bar. If Tom had been here, he'd have given her an earful.

She ignored the coins and passed him a drink. "It's on the house for you," she said. "Thank you for your help."

The crowd had eased away from the bar when the trouble started and hadn't closed in again yet, so Hannah performed a quick extension charm, giving the patrons more elbow room and more seats. No one else stepped out of line with the tall stranger sitting close by, but it still took a solid hour of filling glasses until everyone was sated.

Now that she had time to breathe, Hannah took stock of things. Maybe it was the foul weather, or maybe it had been a rough day (she'd had plenty of those), but now that the men had finished their spiked drinks, they nodded agreeably at each other from across the room.

The tall man ordered another drink and she refused his coins again. She noticed his black clothes were cut more like a Muggle trench coat than a wizard's robe. "You're not from around here," she said, not really wanting to chat, but it was part of her job and he’d been more than helpful.

"Passing through." The man looked around at the relaxed patrons, full of beer and Calming Drought. "Looks like you need some help."

"I can't afford the right kind of help."

"You can afford me. I have a few weeks of business here, and I prefer the night shift. Room and board sound affordable enough?"

"Any experience running a tavern?" It was the first question that Tom had asked her. She hadn't had a clue, but she had a sharp determination that Tom liked, and she knew how to handle a wash rag and broom. The man’s slender, well-manicured hands around his mug didn’t seem to be in the business of wiping down bars.

"I'm fast and I know how to read a drink card." He looked at her with a shrewd, almost dark expression that made the patrons near him squirm. Hannah was torn between the comforting thought of a barman who would keep the nights quiet, and the possibility of his cold demeanor chasing off all her regulars to Abbey’s pub down the road.

Practically, she should do a security check on him through the Auror’s Department. Reasonably, the Inn had a fantastic set of magical wards against vandalism and theft. Besides the register downstairs, the only thing she had to worry about was waking up in the morning to find her entire supply of meat pies gone.

The man saw her sizing him up and added, "I don't eat much. The name is Smeed."

With Neville gone until Christmas, at least she would feel safe with someone like him behind the bar. She’d have time for Augusta – and she was so tired of worrying all the time about tomorrow.

Hannah put aside her doubts. "Smeed." She thrust out her hand. "You're hired."


 
 







A/N:  Thanks so much for reading!  Cookies for your thoughts!

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