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The House of Black

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With a sigh of relief that had been building for hours, Hermione pushed open the front door of her flat. She could already hear the sound of the television from the front room, and she smiled to herself as she threw her keys into the ceramic dish on the hall table and shrugged out of her jacket. The slow bus journey through rush-hour traffic had been a fitting end to a long day. A frustrating day. A frustrating week, in fact, and she still had half of it to go. She was exhausted, her feet hurt in her boots, and her stomach was grumbling from having been ignored since breakfast. She was more than ready to shut the world out, pour herself a glass of wine, and catch up with her flatmate.

“Ginny?” 

“In here.”

She stepped through, kicking off the offending boots and leaving her small backpack stuffed with notebooks in the hallway. Her friend was curled up on their worn sofa, already in her pyjamas and with a half-full glass in her hand, red hair mussed around her shoulders as she gaped, open-mouthed, at the television screen.

“You idiot!” 

“Why, what have I done now?” Hermione flopped down next to her, and Ginny shot her a bemused look. 

“Not you, him!” She gestured to the quiz show contestant who had just lost himself a thousand pounds. “What sport makes use of the technique known as the Fosbury Flop? And he didn’t get it. Who doesn’t know the Fosbury Flop is the high jump?”

“Uh…me, a sport-phobic, until I lived with you?” Hermione laughed at the look on Ginny’s face. “But now I’ll never forget it. I don’t want to run the risk of embarrassing myself on national TV.”

Ginny humphed, before flicking the screen off with a wave of the remote. “Useless,” she muttered. “Wine?” She pushed the open bottle towards Hermione and grinned. “Long time no see.”

“And whose fault is that?” Hermione grinned back, grabbing the bottle and walking through to the kitchen to get a glass. 

“I’ve been training!” 

“I know - but not all night.” 

Ginny was a dedicated athlete, getting up at 5am most mornings to travel to the West London athletics stadium where she trained. The following year, she would be trying out for the British Olympic teams in relay, 400 metres, and high jump, and already had several sponsorship offers. Hermione couldn’t have been more proud. She’d known Ginny in school; the redhead had always made the effort to include Hermione in social things when no one else bothered with her, and they’d recently reconnected when Ginny moved to the capital and needed a place to stay.

“You’ve barely been home for a week. He must be good to keep you interested that long.”

“Hey! You make me sound so sluttish.” Ginny pouted, but spoiled the effect by laughing. “But unfortunately I was with Ron, not holed up with Dean. You didn’t get my messages?”

Hermione started to shake her head, and then remembered. She had had a couple of texts from Ginny at the start of the week. But they’d arrived right before she was due to lead a seminar, and she’d never really looked at them properly. 

“Ah, damn. Sorry, Gin. Yes, I did get them.”

“But you didn’t read them,” Ginny smirked, and Hermione opened her mouth to apologise again. She felt terrible - start of term stress and busyness were no excuses - but Ginny shook her head. “It’s ok, Mione, I know you well enough by now. I just didn’t want you to worry.”

“Is Ron ok?” Hermione remembered, now, that Ginny’s older brother had been hit hard by a break-up, and that Ginny had been worried enough to consider staying with him for a bit just to keep an eye on him.

“Yeah, he’ll be fine.” Ginny rolled her eyes. “Especially now that he’s already back with Lavender. They’re worse than teenagers, honestly. Being in the same house while they made up was traumatic.” She side-eyed Hermione. “But tell me about your week - because you look like you haven’t slept much either.”

“Same old. Seminars, mentoring, trying and failing to get any of my own research done.”

Hermione took a gulp of her wine and sank back on the sofa, starting to relax now that she was home. She liked their little flat, tucked away down a side street at the north end of Bloomsbury. It had been a mess when they first moved in, hence them being able to just about afford the rent, but they had persuaded the landlord to let them knock through a wall, creating an open-plan living and kitchen space on one side of the hallway that they’d decorated with an eclectic mix of second-hand furniture, cushions and rugs and throws, and various items that they’d each picked up when travelling. There were the small oil paintings on canvas that she’d bought from street artists in Paris, and the coloured glass oil burner that had somehow come back from Spain intact. Ginny’s good luck teddy bear, that travelled with her to every competition and had most recently come back from Germany, sat at one end of the mantelpiece; the rest of it was taken up with photos of them and their friends and family.  A huge blanket, block-knitted in warm reds and yellows - a housewarming gift from Ginny’s parents - draped over the back of the sofa. The old fireplace held a huge arrangement of dried flowers twisted through with fairy lights, and Hermione’s books had spilled from her bedroom onto a hefty oak shelf behind the sofa. It was cosy and homely. Hermione had grown to love returning there at the end of a long university day. 

“Didn’t you have a supervision today?”

Hermione grimaced at the reminder of the monthly meeting with her PhD supervisor. She also felt a slight twinge of guilt that Ginny had remembered, while she hadn’t even bothered to find out exactly where her best friend had been for the past four nights. 

“I did.”

“And?”

“She’s making me redo the chapter on Lady Macbeth,” Hermione groaned, and lifted her feet onto the coffee table. “The entire fucking thing. I mean, I can kind of see her point, it’s the weakest one so far, but it’s going to take me ages to rewrite.” She wasn’t sure how she would be able to do it, now that term had started. Between teaching undergraduate students, trying to move forward with the rest of her research, and the part-time job that she desperately needed but hadn’t got yet, she genuinely didn’t know how she would fit in a rewrite. “I’ve already applied for all the jobs going at the university library, and if I get one I’ll have to take it. I don’t want Mum and Dad having to help me out with rent again, it’s embarrassing. But that means even less time.”

“And shit pay.”

“Better than nothing.” 

Hermione had spent most of the summer in the city, only going home for a couple of weeks, concentrating on her research and stretching out the last of that academic year’s research grant. She’d just received the new one through, but it wouldn’t keep her going for very long. She desperately needed something, and at least at the library she would be surrounded by all the research books she would ever need. 

“Remind me what your thesis is again?”

The Perversion of the Feminine: Anger, Grief and Madness in Female Characters from Greek Tragedy to Ibsen.” Hermione reeled it off as if she was reciting a shopping list. Which, for all the passion she now felt towards the topic, she might as well have been. “I’m looking at how male playwrights have treated women’s anger and grief over the centuries, and how those emotions are so often portrayed as madness in order to make them acceptable for a female character. The Lady Macbeth chapter is big, obviously, so I guess…” She sighed, letting her head flop against the sofa back, and closed her eyes. “Andromeda’s right. It needs to be better than passable, but I’m already losing interest without having to go over it all yet again.”

“Andromeda?” Hermione heard the smirk in Ginny’s voice, and did her best to ignore it. “I thought her name was Professor Tonks.”

“It is. Until you’re a doctoral student and she’s picking your thesis to bits. Maybe she thinks Andromeda softens the blow when she tells you it’s crap and you need to do it all again.”

“Right.” Ginny pushed the throw off her knees and stood up, draining the last of her wine glass. “Well, whatever. It sounds like you need pizza, and since it’s my day off training tomorrow I can go mad. Do you want Four Seasons or spinach ricotta?”

“Going fancy as well as mad, are we?” Hermione laughed, and reached down to peel off her socks. “Four Seasons, please. I’ll get them, though.”

“No, it’s my turn.” Ginny picked up her mobile to call for the takeaway. “You go get showered. If I’m in my pyjamas, you should be too. Then you’re finishing that wine, and we’ll find a film, and you can worry about Lady Macbeth in the morning. Sound good?”

“Sounds perfect,” Hermione sighed in contentment. “Thanks, Ginny.”

“Go,” Ginny smiled, and made shooing motions with her free hand towards the hallway. “Four Seasons waits for no one, and if you’re not done when they arrive I’m eating yours too.”

 

~

 

On Friday morning, Hermione found herself standing nervously outside her supervisor’s office for the second time that week. The email asking her to a further meeting had been short, giving nothing away, but since she doubted Andromeda had changed her mind about the rewrite, she had been left wondering what on earth her professor wanted to see her about. She couldn’t think of anything else to do with her thesis that they hadn’t already covered, and she sighed. Maybe Andromeda simply wanted to help her more with the offending chapter. Maybe she thought it was time Hermione quit completely. 

It was almost eleven, and she raised her hand to knock firmly. Andromeda hated it when her students were late. 

“Come in.”

The office was the same as ever. Books overflowed the cheap university-standard bookcases onto the floor, where they tottered in seemingly random piles, daring unwary visitors to kick them over. A huge yucca plant took over one corner. The window was open to the late September sun, and Hermione could smell the blend of herbal tea her professor always drank, something with lavender and lemon and a smoky hint of rooibos. The desk was covered in papers and files, with a computer screen balanced on an ancient, battered copy of Shakespeare’s Collected Works. And in the middle of it all, somehow holding the whole lot together with far more effortless grace and ease than should have been possible, was Andromeda Tonks. 

“Have a seat.” She smiled up at Hermione, reading glasses perched on her nose as she tapped on the keyboard. “Sorry, won’t be a minute.”

“Of course.” Hermione took the proffered chair, shifting a couple of play texts off it first and depositing them on the floor, surreptitiously watching Andromeda as she typed quickly. She’d grown professionally close to her professor over the three years she’d been under her supervision, and usually looked forward to their meetings. The older woman’s curly hair was wilder than her own, with hints of chestnut weaving through the dark. She always wore casual clothes, and today it was jeans and a green blazer, a simple cream camisole underneath. Her face was open and kind, green eyes often sparkling with laughter, but Hermione knew the friendly exterior hid a thread of steel. Andromeda could be harsh, especially when she knew students weren’t doing their best. She was the only person Hermione knew to have taken the Board of Governors to task over something and won. She was fiercely intelligent, and could delight in battering her students’ - and colleagues’ - arguments down until they conceded defeat and began again, always with something far better and more substantial than they had originally planned. Which was why Hermione was becoming more nervous by the minute. She wished she at least had some idea of what….

“Right, that’s done.” Andromeda swept off her glasses with a sigh, and turned to face Hermione. “Tea?”

“No, thank you.”

“Okay. Don’t look so worried.”

Hermione raised an eyebrow. “I am worried. Are you going to tell me to rewrite something else as well?”

“No,” Andromeda chuckled, a deep rasping sound that always took Hermione by surprise. “I want to talk to you about your time management skills.”

“Excuse me?”

“That’s the jargon, I believe.” The professor sipped her tea, wrinkling her nose when she realised it had gone cold. “The old fashioned way of putting it would be to say that you already have dark circles under your eyes, and term has barely started. I push my students hard, Hermione, but not to the point of burnout. And now I hear you’ve applied for four jobs at the library. Are you planning on taking them all?”

Hermione blinked. Whatever she had expected, it wasn’t this.

“I….no, of course not. Just one, if I even get one, and how did you know about that?”

“And you have time for all the extra work you would need to even pay one month’s rent, do you?” Andromeda tapped one finger on her desk to emphasise her words, ignoring Hermione’s question completely. “Alongside rewriting your chapter, working on the next one, researching at the theatre as well as in the library, teaching, eating occasionally, and sometimes sleeping?”

Hermione's eyes widened, and Andromeda nodded. 

“I’ll take that as a no.”

“I need the money.” Hermione somehow found her voice, and wished that she’d accepted tea after all. Her throat felt dry. She hated that her supervisor was absolutely right. There was no way she’d be able to fit in everything that she needed to fit in, but she was damn well going to try. “At least at the library I’ll have all the books I need right there. I can maybe do some research on quiet shifts.”

“You’ll be bored out of your mind, and the pay is crap.”

“The point is not to stretch my intellect.” She sighed. Andromeda was looking at her as if she was waiting for Hermione’s plan B, which didn’t actually exist. “Do you have an alternative suggestion?”

The smile on Andromeda’s face made Hermione instantly wary. “I do, actually. My sisters are looking for someone part-time.”

Hermione had had no idea her professor even had one sister, never mind two; Andromeda never talked about her personal life or family. Up until now, their relationship had been strictly that of supervisor and student, sometimes fellow researchers, and occasionally rivals when their intellectual debates got too heated. This meeting was becoming surreal. 

“What do your sisters do?”

“They…”  Andromeda paused, as if thinking of what to say. It didn’t help Hermione’s suspicion one bit. “Let’s just say they run a small clothes shop and fashion design business. Cissy does all the creative stuff, Bella is the business head. But Cissy has just taken on a contract to do the costumes for the new production of Medea at the National Theatre, on top of her new season collection. She’s stressing already. Wants someone to help her son out in the shop part-time, so that he can then help her with the design work until things calm down a bit. I thought of you, I know you have a bit of experience.”

“I….” Hermione wasn’t sure that three months working at a luxury perfume shop on her year abroad in France really counted as experience, but Andromeda moved on before she could object. 

Medea is one of your source texts, is it not?”

“Yes,” Hermione croaked. “But because the main character killed her own children, not because of the costumes!”

“Oh, I think you’ll find it fascinating anyway.” Andromeda was looking at her appraisingly, a slight smirk on her face as if she was about to pounce. “It’ll only be two days per week, and the pay for that is more than you’d get working full time at the library. You won’t need to do overtime unless you want to and have room in your schedule, and if it works out they’ll likely keep you on. If you’re interested, you have a meeting at 6pm today. If not, I’ll simply let them know they need to look elsewhere.”

Hermione gaped. Her brain was taking longer than usual to process everything, and eventually she stopped trying. All she could manage was, “Why are you doing this for me?”

For the first time, Andromeda hesitated slightly. Hermione could understand why. She suspected that most students would see the professor’s offer as interference, and way overstepping the mark. It was, after all, Hermione’s choice how to manage her time. She was her own woman. But she didn’t feel offended or embarrassed; just surprised, and intrigued as to why her professor was going to such lengths to help her. 

“Because you’re my best student, Hermione, and I have no intention of seeing you drop out.” Hermione opened her mouth to protest, and Andromeda held up a hand. “No, don’t try and deny it. Your passion for this topic has dwindled to nothing over the summer, and I’m guessing it’s because you’re tired, run-down, worried about money, and can’t see the point of it. The usual things. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

Hermione nodded mutely. 

“You have the potential to do wonderful research. Your work is already far beyond most of my colleagues, both here and abroad, and I enjoy working with you. It’s in my interests for you to get your spark back. If nothing else, the job would be something different for you. You spend far too much time in the library as it is, if you worked there as well you’d need a camp bed.”

“I….” 

“Feel free to be angry with me for overstepping, but I’m not going to apologise.”

“No, I didn’t expect you to,” Hermione murmured, and smiled weakly at her professor. “And you don’t need to. I’m just a little shocked, that’s all. I thought you were going to call me in and tell me to quit.”

“Quite the opposite.”

“So it seems.” Hermione shook her head. The praise Andromeda had just given her was only just sinking in, and she felt almost giddy with it. All through her school years, and through most of her undergraduate degree, she had chased the approval of her teachers and lecturers. It had spurred her on, made her feel worthwhile, and clearly she hadn’t grown out of needing it. It didn’t change the fact that she had to do a rewrite, but still….”Shouldn’t you be pushing me towards Macbeth, not Medea?”

Andromeda laughed. “Forget Lady Macbeth for the moment. Your Medea chapter isn’t written yet, correct?”

Hermione shook her head. Despite the timeline implied in the title of her thesis - From Greek Tragedy to Ibsen - she’d actually started with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and had been working her way backwards, mostly because the Ibsen was the play that had given her the idea for the thesis in the first place. 

“Then start it while you have the possibility of backstage access, as it were. I know…” She nodded, anticipating Hermione’s argument, “that you aren’t interested in the costumes per se. But costumes are an intrinsic part of how the character is interpreted on stage, and that is part of your focus. And if it gets you looking at things with fresh eyes, then…” She shrugged, and leaned back in her chair, gaze never leaving Hermione. “You would also be doing me a massive favour. Cissy is impossible when she’s overworking, but she’s too snobbish to advertise for help. If you don’t take it, I’ll probably end up doing it myself and I’m not sure the family bond would survive that.”

Hermione laughed, feeling the tension in her body starting to dissolve into small pieces. “Professor Tonks, I had no idea we were close enough friends for you to be asking me favours.”

Andromeda smirked, rising to the teasing. “We’re not. But if it greases the wheels a little - since I suspect you’re more of the altruistic type - then so be it.”

Hermione shook her head, still smiling, not even bothering to call her supervisor out on the backhanded compliment. Almost better than the academic praise, she realised, was the feeling that someone genuinely cared about her and her research. Of course it was Andromeda’s job to care, but realising how far her professor was prepared to go to encourage her to stick with it, above and beyond what the position required, gave Hermione a warm, satisfied, and motivated feeling that she hadn’t had all summer. 

“And your sisters are ok with this?”

“You have an interview. They won’t take you on if they don’t like you, but I can’t see it being a problem. If it is, then I guess you’d better move into the library and stock up on Red Bull.”

“Right,” Hermione chuckled. “Okay. 6pm, you said?”

Andromeda nodded, and pushed a piece of paper across the desk. “That’s the address.”

“Thank you, Andromeda,” Hermione said, pocketing the paper. “Really. You didn’t need to do all this for me…I appreciate it.”

“No worries,” Andromeda smiled up at her as she stood to leave. “Good luck. And Hermione?”

“Yes?”

“Wear something nice. Bella doesn’t care, but Cissy will.”

Hermione closed the door softly behind her and stepped into the corridor, her boots sounding loud on the old parquet floor. After a few steps, once she was round the corner and safely out of sight, she stopped and leaned her back against the wall. She felt a little stunned. 

Wear something nice. She didn’t even think she owned anything nice - she lived in jeans, shirts and jumpers -  and she groaned. 

She didn’t know what she’d just got herself into, but she had a feeling there was far more to it than her supervisor had said.