Ron Weasley looked into the tiny mirror, the lone adornment on the wall of his bedsit, and straightened his tie. No real point in doing it, given that his black beard obscured the Windsor knot, but he was going into battle. It was reassuring to make sure every piece of his armour was in place.
He donned the cloak that matched his subdued tweed dress robes, placed a bowler atop his pomaded coiffure, and perched a pair of golden pince-nez on his nose.
He doubted his own mother would recognise him. The disguise was probably a bit much, given that Plautus Rhince's store was practically across the street from his flat, but if the eighteen Howlers he'd received from seven different senders were any indication, nowhere in the Wizarding World was likely to be overly hospitable towards him, at least not until the furore had died down somewhat.
After brushing a flake of plaster from his shoulder, he slid his wand into the hidden holster in his waistcoat and stepped into the corridor. The buzz of pedestrian traffic grew louder as he descended the narrow stairs to the street outside, and he adjusted his posture to that of a confident, wealthy wizard as he stepped into the crowd of Diagon Alley.
He allowed himself to be swept down the cobblestones amidst knots of witches, clumps of wizards, and harried families ensuring that their children were sufficiently equipped for start of term at Hogwarts.
There was a line out the door at Ollivander's, and amidst the hubbub Ron nearly walked past his destination, which had taken up residence in what had been the junk shop across the street from the wandmaker. It was a dark, narrow shopfront, and there was a sign that read "Closed" on the door, written in letters that looked as though they could have been painted in blood.
There was a hand-written sign in the papered-over window that said "Palindrome" in sharp script.
Ron knocked on the door, and to his surprise it swung open to reveal a shop whose walls were covered from floor to ceiling with empty bookshelves.
"Hello?" he called.
In response, a ladder descended suddenly from above and hit the floor mere inches in front of him.
Only his years of being an Auror kept him from shouting in surprise, even if it did make him jump, and his wand leaped into his hand seemingly of its own accord.
No explanation was forthcoming, and after blinking stupidly at the ladder for a moment, Ron glanced up, where light was coming from an aperture in the ceiling. He shrugged, holstered his wand, and hoisted himself up the ladder.
At the top of the ladder was a cosy office piled high with books, where a man in casual robes was making tea on a low bookshelf behind the desk.
"How do you do, Mr. Rhince?" asked Ron. "I'm—"
"Ronald Weasley," finished the man, turning to face him.
Ron felt the blood drain from his face, both to have his real identity out in the open and to find himself face to face with Severus Snape. The last time he'd seen Snape he had been bleeding to death on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. While he'd heard through unofficial channels that Snape had miraculously survived the ordeal, he hadn't given the matter much thought. It wasn't as if they'd had anything resembling a cordial relationship as student and teacher. Ron's dream job was looking less and less likely to become reality. Still, Snape hadn't actually attacked him yet or sent him off with a flea in his ear. He reckoned he ought to wait and see what happened.
Snape held out a cup and saucer to him and gestured for him to sit in the chair opposite the desk.
"Ta," said Ron, fixing his eyes on the steaming surface of the tea and forcing himself not to look at the ropy scars on the side of Snape's neck. He took a small sip and willed himself to stay silent as he returned the cup to the saucer and raised his eyes to Snape's.
"You needn't worry about the security of your alias," said Snape after a moment's pause. "I've no desire to reveal your whereabouts to those who feel they are entitled to make decisions for you."
Ron blinked in surprise. "Thank you, sir."
"I do expect you to return the courtesy, even if I decide not to take you on."
As if he'd be stupid enough to cross Snape. "Yeah, of course."
Snape nodded. "It is obvious that between working summers in your brother's establishment and having been an Auror, you are over-qualified to work in a shop."
"Nearly as over-qualified as a potions master super-spy is to run one," said Ron.
Snape pursed his lips at Ron's cheek, but he didn't comment. "What I would like to hear from you, given your demonstrated antipathy for books, is why you wish to work in this particular shop."
"That's easy," said Ron. "I love comic books. Always have."
"Really?" asked Snape scornfully. "What are your favourite titles?"
Ron felt the knot in his stomach relax slightly. He had no idea why Snape of all people wanted to sell comic books in Diagon Alley, but there were few people who knew more about comics than Ron did. "Narrow it down, give me an era or genre."
Snape sat back in his seat and looked thoughtfully at him.
"Postwar superwizard deconstruction."
"Remarkable Dragonman: the Black Flame," said Ron promptly. "Anything Artemisa Bloxom wrote, really. It could just as easily be her run of Wandmavens when Wonder Witch was corrupted by Mad Mazurka's Enchanted Lorgnette."
"Age of exploration ripping yarn."
"It's hard to beat Apparation to Jupiter, but I'll always have a soft spot for Professor Pfingleton-Psmythe, so probably The Adventure of the Murdering Magician or Secret Sorcerers of the Nile."
"Post-Martin Miggs Muggle slapstick."
"The Stanford Hodgekiss Mysteries, hands down. Even Herm—, I mean, even Muggleborns like those."
Snape narrowed his eyes. "Folkloric retellings of contemporary opera."
Ron snorted. "Has anybody actually written one of those apart from Panglorica? Not that it isn't brilliant, of course."
"Pre-war erotica," said Snape, relishing his consonants.
Ron felt his ears turn red. "I'm not really well-read in that genre."
Snape's mouth turned down in the scowl that Ron had hoped never to see again. "You disapprove of erotic books?"
For the first time in his life, Ron felt a certain amount of anxiety over the thought of disappointing Snape. "It's not me that disapproves," he protested. "I quite liked the Tilly Tickler books, especially Tilly and the Train Treats Trolley . But it's much easier not to read them than it is to defend yourself to people who think they're wrong and disgusting."
"Come this way, Weasley," said Snape, gesturing to a door at the far end of the office, beyond the ladder that led to the main part of the store.
Through the door was a balcony overlooking the back of the store, which was as full of bookshelves as the rest, though these shelves were nearly full of books.
"The back room contains the finest collection of erotic comics, illustrations, and graphic novels in Britain," said Snape. "If you wish to work for me, you will need to familiarise yourself with the genre, which is currently a gaping hole in your otherwise adequate knowledge, and more importantly, I need to know that you will never judge a customer for his or her reading choices."
"I would never—" said Ron.
"You must also be willing to defend the rights of all adults to read what they please, no matter how squeamish you feel about your own choices."
"Will there be much call for that?"
"One hopes not. However, one is not optimistic. Fortunately, there is an Age Line restricting access to the back room to those who are of age, so we will not be running afoul of any obscenity laws."
"Too bad nobody's invented an Arsehole Line."
Snape gave Ron a measuring look. "The position is yours, if you want it."
"I do," said Ron.
"The salary, while no less than I pay myself, is not particularly high, though you'll receive a modest commission on individual items over fifty Galleons."
Ron blinked in surprise. What on earth did Snape have that was worth fifty Galleons? Issue one of Professor Remarkable? He shook his head. "I've got a pension that covers the bare necessities. As long as the job keeps me in beer and comics, I'll be fine."
Snape gave him a pointed look. "I do hope that you will do everything within your power to keep your personal problems out of the workplace."
"I'll keep using the Terence Billingsby alias and disguise until things quiet down. As for the personal problems, I can't keep any of them from entering a place of business, but as far as I know none of them reads comics any more, so the odds of them walking in from off the street are pretty low."
"Perhaps I'll start you on the late shift," said Snape thoughtfully. "Five in the evening to one in the morning, Thursday to Sunday, but I'll need you during the day for restocking on Wednesdays."
"Fine," said Ron, hoping he didn't sound as pathetically grateful as he felt.
"Welcome to Palindrome, Mr. Billingsby," said Snape.
"Thanks very much, Mr. Rhince," said Ron, shaking his hand.
There was no grand ceremony the day that Palindrome opened its doors. Snape merely peeled back the paper covering the front window, where the name of the shop surrounded by an oval of numbers and letters was stencilled in antique gold, and propped the door open, letting in a gentle autumn breeze and the smell of cottage pie from the Leaky Cauldron.
Ron felt a flutter of anxiety as he Charmed the feather duster along the length of the tallest shelves for the sixth time that morning. He'd got used to the days of quiet industry with Snape getting the shop ready to open and the novelty of evenings by himself enjoying the store's more exotic offerings. Still, even Snape had admitted Ron's disguise would fool all but the most observant. He wondered if Snape was at all nervous. Snape was, after all, far more distinctive-looking than Ron was, even with his long hair tied back and the horn-rimmed spectacles he now wore.
Small wonder that he chose to open Palindrome for the first time on the Wednesday after September 1st, start of term at Hogwarts, to observe Ron in action and to ensure that Ron would be able to run the shop during the late shift up to Snape's standards.
The first person to wander in was none other than old Mr. Blotts, of Flourish & Blotts, who had a pinched, disapproving look on his face until he realised that Palindrome would not be directly competing with him for business. He even purchased the annotated reissue of Terwilliker's Spectacular, which he said he'd loved when he was a lad.
Ron rang up his purchase and wished him a good day, and that was that. Their first sale.
The curious trickled in and trickled out, which resulted in a handful of sales, mostly superwizard comics and the occasional adolescent humour of the Loony Nonby type. One woman who barely looked old enough to have taken her NEWTS asked if they had the new Wonder Witch figurine that shot curses and whose force-field could be used as a night-light, and Ron had to bite back a laugh at the sour expression on Snape's face as he informed her that they sold books, not toys. But before he knew it, five o'clock had rolled around, and it was time for them to close up.
Snape had Ron close out the cash register and accepted the mokeskin cash bag with a curt nod.
"I'll see you tomorrow at five," said Snape.
"Great," said Ron. "You don't want—?" he stopped himself mid-sentence and cursed himself for speaking out of habit.
"What?" asked Snape, with more curiosity than animosity.
"I was just going to ask if you wanted to have a pint at the Leaky to celebrate. But that's a pretty thick idea, even for me."
"Yes, it is," said Snape, crossing his arms.
Ron felt himself flush. "I mean, the last thing either of us needs is to run into our old mates."
Snape narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "The sentiment is appreciated."
"Sure," said Ron, as he shoved his hands into his pockets and turned to leave. "Good night, then."
"One moment, Weasley," said Snape, and Ron heard the sound of clinking glasses behind him.
"We needn't risk exposure to have a celebratory drink."
Ron turned to find Snape holding a bottle of Blishen's Firewhisky, and he poured them each a tot.
"Keep that behind the counter, do you?" asked Ron.
"Consider it an employee benefit," said Snape, handing him a glass.
"Thanks," said Ron, doing his best to ignore the sense of surreality that cropped up in the increasingly frequent moments when Snape was being decent. "I think we did all right getting the place together."
"It's sufficient," said Snape, his eyes gliding over the display shelves. "There are always improvements to be made, but it will do for now."
"Don't be too enthusiastic now," said Ron, clinking his glass against Snape's and drinking. The magical heat blazed down his throat, and he coughed, releasing a puff of smoke.
"I should warn you," said Snape, taking a sip. "I took the liberty of announcing the shop's opening in one of the more specialized trade papers, so it's likely that you may encounter a collector or two tomorrow evening."
"Never heard of it."
"You wouldn't have, given that you're not well-read in the genre in which it specialises."
"Oh," said Ron. "Do they only come out at night, then?"
"Not at all, I expect most of them to come during my shift, but that is exactly the sort of joke that you will not make when dealing with them, is that clear?"
"Right," said Ron, blandly. "Is it all right if I make jokes like that when there aren't any customers around?"
"Weasley, is there something you wish to say to me about the contents of the back room?"
"No," said Ron mulishly. "It just a bit dodgy that you're telling me not to make jokes when the whole point of this shop is that people should be able to say whatever they want to say. It's not like people don't say the same and worse every day."
Snape sipped his firewhisky. "The prevalence of the sentiments is precisely why it would be inappropriate to voice them to someone whose hobby is erotica. At best, it's impolite. At worst, it's a silencing tactic, a type of bullying."
Ron nearly spit out his drink to hear Snape, who had taken every opportunity to be cruel to Ron and his friends while under his care, disapprove of bullying. "That's exaggerating things a bit, isn't it?"
"Tell me, Weasley. Do you still support the Chudley Cannons?"
"Always have, always will."
"How would you feel if you were constantly surrounded by Ballycastle fans who made constant digs at the Cannons and their supporters?"
"Like normal," said Ron, joking half-heartedly.
Snape recognised Ron's concession and topped off his drink. "What did you think of Amazon Enchantresses?" he asked, referring to the antique titty rags Snape had assigned him to read.
"All right," said Ron, doing his best not to think of the excellent wank he'd had over the lesbian orgy at the stone idol. "Not exactly literature, but it gets the job done."
"You didn't find the shading and pencil work to be remarkable given the era in which they were produced?"
"It was all right," said Ron, not wishing to admit how distracted he'd been from the pencil work.
"Weasley, if I were simply trying to improve your masturbatory skills I'd send you to Knockturn Alley for some moving portraits. It's perfectly acceptable to have a physical response to the comics. That is their intended purpose. However, I'm trying to familiarise you with the classics of the genre, and if I've suggested a title to you, then I consider it to have one or more aspects of note beyond the fact that it is arousing."
Ron knew the colour in his cheeks had nothing to do with the firewhisky. "Sorry, sir. I'm just not used to thinking of them as art."
"I see," said Snape, tossing back the last of his firewhisky. He wandered into the back room and returned with a handsome set of folio volumes. "I had hoped that the reverence you showed for the other genres of comics would translate easily, but it seems that I erred in not giving you something more substantial first."
"Delphinia in Bloom? I've heard of this one. Inge Zoblansky also wrote Thaumaturgical Theodora for years, and it was my absolute favourite superwizard comic when I was a first year. I didn't know that one was dirty. I just thought it was, you know, for witches."
"It is," said Snape, smirking. "Nonetheless, I have every expectation that you will enjoy it. But do take your time. Try to see beyond the breasts and bottoms."
Ron sniggered into his drink, and Snape sighed.
"Good night, Weasley. Lock the door behind you, and don't forget to put the 'closed' sign in the window," he said, sweeping off into the back room.
Ron saw neither collector nor anyone he knew on his first night alone in the shop. There was a small crowd of cheerful wizards and witches when the Leaky Cauldron closed at eleven, but given that they bought Palindrome's entire inventory of Gninny the Gnome books, Ron wasn't going to complain. His evening shifts through the weekend brought a few of his former classmates from Hogwarts, and more importantly, none who saw through his disguise.
The following Wednesday, Ron ran the register while Snape re-stocked the shelves, and Ron got his first look at a collector, an elderly witch in bright purple who strode confidently into Palindrome and bellowed, "What ho, Severus!"
Snape's head whipped toward the door, but he relaxed immediately upon seeing the identity of the woman who had hailed him.
"Aquilina," he said, taking her hands and kissing her cheeks. "Welcome."
"I saw your notice in Osric's," said Aquilina, pursing her wrinkled lips in a smirk. "I hope you haven't been telling tales, old thing. I've come to see things for myself."
"I'd rather hoped you would," said Snape.
"Presumptuous of you. If you hoped to see me, you ought to have set up shop up north. You'd have done well in Hogsmeade."
"If I never set foot in Hogsmeade again it'll be too soon," said Snape, grimacing as escorted her into the back room.
Ron bit back a snicker at the thought that the old bird wouldn't be troubled by the Age Line. Audible laughter would be a bad idea, given Snape's warning and the fact that Aquilina was wearing more gold than he'd seen in Bellatrix Lestrange's vault after the Gemino Charm had been activated.
Unfortunately he was unable to eavesdrop, because a witch with triplets under the age of four walked into the store, and two of the children immediately burst into tears while the other set a display of Lark and Lachlancomics on fire. No sooner had Ron extinguished the flames, the two crying children began to manifest magic. One shot up into the air, bobbing just above his mother's frantic attempts to grab him while the other managed to merge himself with the bookshelf, which made him scream all the louder.
By the time the triplets had been caught, freed, and calmed and the mother had purchased an armful of Pip and Pep pop-up books in apology, Snape and Aquilina emerged from the back room. She was pink in the cheeks, and her eyes were sparkling, and she was holding a small package reverently in front of her.
"—exactly what I was looking for. However did you know?"
"I confess that I acquired that particular piece with you in mind. Your knowledge of seventeenth-century works is only exceeded by your taste in them," said Snape, somehow managing to sound matter-of-fact in his flirtation.
"Flatterer," said Aquilina, taking the package and handing Snape a sack of coins. "You know, Squingeworth would have charged me twice as much, and I'd have paid it."
"That's because Squingeworth is a speculator. I am a curator."
"A distinction that could cost you quite a few Galleons."
"Something that would concern a proprietor whose sole purpose in opening a shop was to make profit, I'm sure."
Aquilina laughed. "I suppose I shouldn't criticise when I have so much to gain. It was good to see you, ducks. I'll stop by again, soon, especially if you keep tempting me with delectable morsels like this."
Snape escorted her to the door and watched her walk away from just inside the threshold of the shop, his face in shadow. The peaceful, satisfied look on his face lasted until he turned and saw the burned books that Ron was picking off the damaged display.
"I remarked to Aquilina that it sounded as though you were wrangling dragons," said Snape, sighing. "I hadn't realised how correct I was."
"Toddler triplets," said Ron grimly.
"I trust you charged their guardian for the damaged property?"
"I didn't exactly have time to do inventory," said Ron. "I just wanted to get them out the door before they did any more damage."
Snape went to the register and examined the receipts. "Surely an Auror knows a number of nonlethal curses, jinxes, and hexes."
"Are you telling me that I'm not allowed to make jokes about dirty comics but I am allowed to hex children?"
"Cruelty can leave lasting scars," said Snape. "A Full Body Bind does not."
"Shame you didn't know that at Hogwarts," muttered Ron, tossing the damaged books into the bin and making a note on the inventory sheet.
"I did," said Snape, looking levelly at Ron in a way that made him squirm. "Scars were necessary armour for those who needed to fight."
"And now?" asked Ron.
"Fantasy can be a tool for healing," said Snape. "Are you enjoying Delphinia in Bloom?"
"It's not what I expected," said Ron, who had been surprised by lengthy meditations on art and identity that were sprinkled liberally throughout the nudity and sexual encounters. "I'm re-reading the first volume because I know there are things I missed the first time through. The art, it's in a famous style that I should know the name of, right?"
"Being able to name art nouveau is unnecessary in order to appreciate its beauty. Now, if you can manage to keep the store from catching on fire for a second time today, I wish to take my tea in peace."
"Fine," said Ron, straightening his robes and flicking a piece of burned book from his beard.
When Snape had gone, Ron flipped through the inventory list and whistled in admiration to see that Aquilina Rookwood had purchased a small pencil drawing called The Trollop's Triumph for a hundred and fifty galleons. Apparently the contents of the back room were worth somewhat more than issue one of Professor Remarkable. But her surname made his heart pound in sympathetic memory of the Death Eater that had been at least partially responsible for his brother's death. Could that cheerful old lady have been a Death Eater's wife? Or sister? Or even a Death Eater herself?
Ron shook his head, as if to knock loose the unpleasant thoughts. He didn't need to invent enemies, especially when they were obviously wealthy customers. And Snape wouldn't be so friendly with her if she'd been personally involved with any dodgy business.
The shop was empty, and what few wizards and witches were wandering Diagon Alley were probably in search of food, so Ron seized the opportunity to read a few more pages of his book. Delphinia and her erstwhile lover Rosalie had spied one another across an arena theatre whilst watching a production of Alas, I've Transfigured My Feet.
Ron wondered at the feeling of peace that stole over him as he let his thoughts merge with Delphinia's, imagining what Rosalie's hands might be doing under her robes, and he began to understand what Snape meant by contributing to his education.
Several weeks later, six post owls delivered a package from Rome while Ron was working the late shift. He reluctantly set down The Travels of Horatio and Hester, another one of Snape's recommendations, gave treats to the owls, and opened the box.
Brilliant, the English-language copies of Squiffly Squirrel's Sicilian Sojourn that had been back-ordered!
Ron entered the books into inventory, set them on the shelf in between Squiffly Squirrel's Roman Ramble andSquiffly Squirrel's Tuscan Trip and was about to go back behind the counter when the bell over the door rang, and Ron turned to greet the late-night customer only to find Hermione Granger standing inside the door with her wand drawn, blinking at him in disbelief.
Ron stared at her in mute horror. His fingers itched to go for his wand, but he didn't want to provoke her beyond what he'd already done. It was like staring down a Hippogriff if the Hippogriff was capable of casting permanent hexes and knew eight ways of removing a man's bollocks.
"Hullo, Hermione," he said, pleasantly surprised that his voice was steady.
"Thirty-four days," she said.
"That's how long it took to find you."
"The department signed off on that?" asked Ron.
"I took some time off."
Ron gulped. In the four years they'd been partners, Hermione hadn't taken a single holiday and nagged at him when he did.
"I need an explanation, Ron."
"I thought my note was pretty clear."
She made a dismissive sound. "It doesn't make any sense."
"You don't have to understand it, Hermione. But I need you to respect it."
"Respect?" she spat. "What makes you think you deserve any respect after you unilaterally destroyed everything we worked so hard for?"
"I think you're proving my point, love," said Ron, backing away slowly with his hands raised in front of him. Snape had installed a protective shield behind the counter that could be activated by pressing on a particular floorboard.
Hermione made a visible attempt to collect herself, but she didn't lower her wand. "Fine. Let's say no more about the fact that you destroyed my career."
"You're still one of the best Aurors in the business. If anything, you'll be able to do twice what you did before without having to wait for me to catch up with you."
"They resent me, they always have!" shouted Hermione. "They don't care how many dark wizards I catch or how many illicit potions rings I break up. They're invested in their cosy little boy's club, and without you to pal around with, doors are closing in my face left and right."
Hermione laughed nastily. "Harry won't talk to anybody about it, not even me. He said you needed some time and that you'd be back. But you're not coming back, are you?"
Ron slipped behind the counter and placed his toe on the floorboard that would activate the shield. "No, I'm not."
"You don't care what it'll do to my career if you don't?"
"Of course I care. But I care more what'll happen to me if I do," said Ron. "Things were all right when we were partnered with other people, but after they put us together, every time we succeeded and were given more responsibilities, a bit of what was fun about the job died. I hated working all the time. I hated that you needed me to be the clot so you could be the brilliant one. I hated that you and me always took a back seat to Aurors Granger and Weasley."
"I should have known," said Hermione, fiercely scrubbing tears from her eyes. "I should have known that you'd up and leave again instead of trying to fix what was wrong. You always did."
The accusation stung, as it always had when she'd fired it at him. But this time, instead of making him want to prove how wrong she was, it made him feel tired and a bit sad.
"Hermione, please. I'm at work."
"I'm not finished."
"Yes, you are. Do you not even see how backwards it is that you're madder at me for quitting my bloody job than for breaking it off with you?"
"Just because I have professional ambitions—"
"If you're not going to buy anything, I'm going to have to ask you to leave," said Ron stoutly, pressing his toe against the floorboard to activate Snape's magical shield. Thankfully, it was both silent and invisible.
"You always do this!" shouted Hermione, whose wand was glowing with an ominous yellow light. "You always find a way to avoid discussing what's important! You'd rather just give up than try to make it work!"
A truly alarming number of canaries came shooting out of Hermione's wand, their beaks and claws diamond-bright and ready to strike. Ron ducked behind the counter and heard the canaries bounce off the shield with a chorus of winded squeaks. There was a sizzling sound and a flash of red light as Hermione sent a Stunner into the shield.
"Huh," he heard her say, and she took several steps toward the counter.
There was a loud whirring sound followed by a wooden clunk, and Ron's heart shot into his throat. Snape was still in the upstairs office! He peered above the edge of the counter just in time to see Hermione leap back from the ladder that had descended from the ceiling, just as he had when he first entered the shop, and roll to the side as a series of spells Ron couldn't identify came raining down from the opening in the ceiling.
Ron was very glad the magical shield was still in place when Hermione pulled over a display for cover and began to return fire. When she realised that she was outwanded and her cover was made of pasteboard, she dove towards the counter and took cover behind a low bookshelf.
"Put down your wand!" she shouted. "I'm an Auror!"
There was a pause in the hail of hexes, and Ron realised that Snape was waiting for his instructions. Hermione's wand was still pointed at the ceiling, and she was breathing hard. She had no idea who she was up against, and the last thing Ron needed was to fill out the paperwork if they actually injured one another. Ron sighed, deactivated the shield and put his hand on Hermione's arm.
"You need to go," he said softly.
She whirled around to face Ron.
"Don't touch me!"
Ron bit back a sharp retort. "Fine. Just—get some rest. Aren't you supposed to be on holiday?"
"Sod off," she said, squaring her shoulders. She glanced up at the hole in the ceiling. "I was just going," she said to it, giving a sarcastic little bow.
She snatched a book from the box that Ron had been unpacking and tossed a handful of coins on the counter. "And look, I've even bought something."
Ron hadn't looked closely at the other contents of the box, but he immediately recognised Amadore Sarpiero's artwork on the cover, since he'd just read Sarpiero's beautifully drawn series of sexual vignettes the week before. Bloody hell, of all the books in the front room, she would have to grab the one that belonged in the back.
"That just arrived," he said, hating that his voice cracked. "I haven't priced it or put it in inventory yet."
"Well, I've just saved you some work, haven't I?" she said, making a beeline for the door. "That's what you wanted, after all."
She slammed the door shut behind her.
Ron grabbed the packing list and skimmed it until he found the book that Hermione had taken. Bollocks. It was the retelling of Simple Sherwin in which the title character, assumed to be a Squib, discovers that his one gift is magically impregnating every person he beds, witch, wizard, or part-humanoid. They'd been lucky to get the one copy, and now it was gone.
Snape appeared at his shoulder. "What did she take?"
"The Sarpiero," said Ron miserably.
Snape swore. "How much did she throw at you?"
"Five Galleons, nine Sickles."
"We'd have sold it for thirty Galleons. Miss Granger has gone too far, and she will face the consequences."
"No!" said Ron.
Snape looked stunned. "She attempted to assault you, she caused property damage, and she all but stole merchandise from us."
"Yeah, well nobody likes being thrown over."
"She falsely claimed to be an Auror."
"She is an Auror, just not an active one. Besides, she wasn't here acting as an Auror, she was acting as a woman scorned. Besides, if you file a report, they'll need a statement from me, and I don't want them to know where I am. Hermione wasn't the only one I left in the lurch, so they might even take her side."
"She deserves a reprimand at least," said Snape, looking none too happy.
"She also deserves to be in a department where single witches aren't the subject of a betting pool and where her male partner doesn't get all the credit for her hard work, but she's not getting that, either."
"Very well," said Snape, scowling. "But I'm going to document this incident, regardless. We can file the report if and when you feel the time is right. But if she ever attempts to assault you again, I am going to report her. People who are willing to abuse their power have no business wielding it."
"She's not usually like that," said Ron. "I've only ever seen her like that once before. The first time she shot those canaries at me, actually. She's usually the calm one who has to talk me out of a strop."
"Being an Auror must have disagreed with you more than you've led me to believe," said Snape, after a moment, pulling the bottle of Firewhisky from its hiding place.
"It does seem that having a job that you like does wonders for your temper," said Ron, accepting a glass and giving Snape a nod.
Snape's lips quirked, and they both drank.
"Well, I reckon I'd better finish unpacking this," said Ron, gesturing to the delivery from Rome. "Especially if Hermione decides to come back and yell at me once she sees what's in that book."
Snape returned to his office upstairs while Ron added several other books to the inventory and shelved them. A few minutes later, Snape descended once more with a handwritten description of Hermione's attack.
"Sign and date this, if you would."
"Sure," said Ron. "What day is it again?"
"September nineteenth," said Snape.
"Bloody hell," said Ron. "It's her birthday."
"Surely she knew not to expect a card from you."
"It's just that this is the first year I haven't gotten her something since we were twelve."
"On the contrary, you've given her a princely gift, if she has the taste to appreciate the Sarpiero."
"She'll probably criticise the grammar," said Ron glumly.
"Weasley, you've had a trying evening. Go home."
"I'm fine," said Ron. "You need your beauty rest more than I do."
Snape blinked, and Ron was shocked to see a hurt expression flicker across his features before he covered it with a scowl.
"Bollocks, I didn't mean it like that," said Ron hastily. "I just meant that I've got this stupid beard and spectacles. Nobody's going to notice me looking tired. Right. Shutting up now. I'll just show myself out, then."
"Good night, Weasley," said Snape, whose expression had gone back to inscrutable once more.
"Good night, sir."
Ron's next few shifts in the shop were busy. Aquilina must have got the word out, because Ron had one or two specialist collectors every night . Most of them rightly assumed that they knew more about the contents of the back room than Ron did and only bothered him if they wanted to know any prices. Except for one git named Smerdyakov who asked him snotty questions. Never had Ron been more grateful to be asked about unicorn comics by a couple who were looking for recommendations for their six-year-old nephew.
Still, the experience with Smerdyakov made Ron aware that he didn't really possess enough knowledge of erotica to bluster through even a short conversation with a customer, despite Snape's list of recommendations. Thus, Ron decided that it would be best to learn from the master, preferably without the master being aware of it. Thus, he drilled a hole in a gap between two shelves in the main room that allowed him to run Extendable Ears into the back room to listen, which is how he learned to ask questions like, "Whose version of The Tale of the Three Sistersdo you prefer?" and to say things like, "Perhaps I could interest you in these unauthorised issues ofProfessor Remarkable?"
He also spotted Seamus Finnegan, Michael Corner, and several other former classmates among a stag party that flowed in after last call at the Leaky Cauldron, but pulled his bowler down on his head, and none of them recognised him. Ron was getting ready to close up for the night when there was a flash of silver out of the corner of his eye, and Harry's Patronus came galloping into the shop.
"I'm sorry," it said in Harry's voice. "I tried to stop her, but you know Hermione when she's got a full head of steam. Don't say any more than you have to, because she thinks she's got you on Oglethorpe's."
The warm glow Ron had felt at seeing Harry's Patronus was abruptly doused as the message sunk in. The Age Line meant that the shop was in compliance with Oglethorpe's Decency Laws. Still, if Harry believed Hermione's arrival was imminent, he should make sure that Snape's latest recommendation was on its shelf in the back room.
After depositing The Illustrated Quidditch in Bed in its proper place in the back room, Ron entered the main store to find it completely filled with Aurors, one of whom was his ex-girlfriend, examining the contents of the shelves. Ron prayed for patience.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
Six wands turned towards him in concert, and Ron sighed. Granger, Chatsworth, Vandachari, Leung, Hernandez, and St. John.
"We're here to confiscate illicit materials in accordance with the Oglethorpe Decency Laws," said Chatsworth, the senior Auror, who clearly hadn't recognised Ron yet.
"Anything that you'd seize under Oglethorpe's in the back room behind an Age Line," said Ron. "See for yourselves. Come on, Chatty, I wouldn't be stupid enough to take a job somewhere that wasn't on the right side of the law."
Chatsworth did a double-take and peered closely at Ron. "Weasley!" he said. "I'll be blowed!" He let out a loud laugh, but his face quickly sobered, and he turned to Hermione. "Mind telling me where you heard that this place had smut out where the kiddies could see it?"
"It was an anonymous complaint," she said primly.
"Uh-huh," said Chatsworth, giving Hermione a knowing look. He let out a gusty sigh. "Well, lads, we might as well have a look-see while we're here."
"We haven't found anything suspicious, sir," said Vandachari, who had been examining the shelves with Hernandez.
"The Age Line appears to be intact, functioning, and tied permanently to the threshold," said Leung, poking it with her wand.
"And there are definitely materials that would fall under Oglethorpe if it weren't," said St. John, emerging from the back room fanning himself with an issue of Angelique of the Auvergne."
"But it is," said Chatsworth. "Does your 'anonymous source' remember anything else that might help us, Granger?"
"My source clearly saw a store employee handling adult materials in plain sight of everybody in the main room of the shop."
"Were there any children present?" asked Chatsworth.
"I don't—," said Hermione, flushing. "I didn't ask. But it doesn't matter. Oglethorpe is clear. 'Materials deemed to be indecent may not be stored or read in the Establishment.' The employee was obviously reading it."
Ron felt a flush creep across his cheeks. Hermione was right, damn it. He had been reading The Travels of Horatio and Hester at the counter before she arrived. But there was no way she could have known that. The book had a simple leather cover, and it was so old that the gold had worn off the embossed letters, making it impossible to read the title without close examination. He kicked himself for assuming that she'd arranged the raid because of Simple Sherwin, which was indisputably smutty but they could easily prove hadn't even made it into inventory yet.
"Chief, you really ought to see this," said Leung from the back room.
"You and I are going to have a conversation about this back at the office, Granger," said Chatsworth, making his way to the back room.
"Yes, sir," she said, her lips compressing into a stubborn line.
"What makes your 'source' so sure the store employee's book was dirty?" asked Ron in a low voice.
"Because she knew that particular store employee wouldn't be reading an actual book unless it was," she whispered back.
"You've got nerve, haven't you?" said Ron, temper flaring.
"Yes, I have," said Hermione smugly. "And I'm also right."
Fortunately for Ron, the bell over the door rang as Snape came into the shop with a ledger tucked underneath his arm. Leung and Chatsworth glanced through the doorway to the back room to see who had entered.
"What in blazes?" he asked, glaring at each of the Aurors in turn.
The Aurors fell completely still as each of them realised who was standing in front of them. Ron was gratified to see the blood drain from Hermione's face.
"We're being raided," said Ron, "in response to an 'anonymous' complaint that one of us had indecent material where children could see."
"I believe I recall the incident," drawled Snape. "That was the evening a valuable book was stolen from our store, was it not?"
Ron frowned. What was Snape up to? "The customer paid us."
"A pittance that hardly covered the cost of having it owled from Italy," said Snape. "I wrote up a complaint and would have filed it, but my associate asked me not to."
Chatsworth glanced at Hermione, whose hands were clenched into fists, and back to Ron. "Why didn't you want to file a complaint?"
"I thought it was a one-time misunderstanding," said Ron.
"And now?" asked Snape.
Ron met Hermione's eyes, which glittered with fury until she turned her head.
"I don't think I need to worry about it happening again," said Ron.
"I suspect you're right, son," said Chatworth.
"He had better be," said Snape coldly, fixing Hermione in an icy glare. "Otherwise the contents of the complaint combined with this and any other unwarranted visits from Magical Law Enforcement could be construed as harassment for reasons that are all too obvious. Now, get out, all of you."
Chatworth let out a loud whistle, and the Aurors snapped to attention.
"Apologies for the inconvenience," he said. "Now, how much do you want for this?"
Ron nearly let out a guffaw to see that Chatsworth had selected the special edition of Honeypot's Apothecarywith the moving cover. Instead he smiled blandly and took the Auror's money. St. John was next with several issues from the back room, Leung dropped a week's pay on a striking nude of the titans enjoying one another's titanic endowments, Hernandez bought the first volume of Remarkable Retaliators, and Vandachari, who had four children, bought four consecutive issues of The Further Adventures of Babbitty Rabbitty.
As Ron rang them up, he noticed that Snape had cornered Hermione and was speaking to her quietly. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but Hermione wasn't actively shouting or hissing at him, so he hoped she'd calmed down somewhat.
Finally the Aurors left, and Snape turned to Ron. "I'm afraid that henceforth I must ask you to do your more exotic reading in the privacy of your flat or in my office, if you must."
"She completely twisted the purpose of Oglethorpe's Law," complained Ron. "She was just looking for the smallest reason to get me."
"The fact remains that she found one. You prevaricated tolerably well, but Miss Granger is hardly the first Auror to selectively apply the law, nor shall she be the last. It must not happen again. I'm owling the Ministry Library for any and all laws, statutes, and legal precedents involving obscenity, indecency, and pornography and on Wednesday we are going to go through them together.
Ron groaned. "I hate paperwork. It's why I left my last job."
"Then let us hope that this was the final one-time misunderstanding between ourselves and the Aurors," said Snape.
That Wednesday found Ron nearly up to his neck in paperwork, scribbling notes on a piece of parchment when he found something relevant. It was cold comfort that Snape was also elbows deep in books and papers, since he somehow made it look purposeful. Not even Hermione had managed to look so methodical and organised when she was chasing down a clue. The colour-coded sticky flags were the same, though.
Ron had also developed a quasi-Pavlovian response to the bell over the door, since its every ring gave him an excuse to leave the tedium for a few minutes to talk about comics with somebody.
Shortly before lunch, the bell over the door rang, and Ron practically vaulted over the counter to get away from the eye-crossingly dull reading only to find Hermione standing in the door, looking so lost that Ron wanted to put his arm around her, an impulse he squelched immediately.
He glanced at Snape, who was studiously ignoring them, the traitor. Well, he supposed he should see if the dressing-down from Chatsworth had done anything to sweeten her temper. He was not optimistic.
"Good morning," said Ron, steeling himself for impact.
"This isn't an official visit," said Hermione. "I came to return your book."
"We're not filing the report," said Ron.
"It doesn't matter," said Hermione.
Oh. That explained why she was in civilian robes in the middle of a workday.
"It's only for three months. And Thurston and Hernandez hired me to consult on their serial hexing case before I'd cleared out my desk."
"Funny how they only appreciate you after you leave," said Ron.
She looked away from him for a moment before holding Simple Sherwin out to him. "Is it really worth so much?"
"Why, don't you think it is?" he asked, taking the book from her.
"It's disgusting," she said.
"I wouldn't know. I didn't get the chance to read it."
"Right," she said, shifting awkwardly.
"We don't usually accept refunds," he said, aiming at joviality and missing.
"I don't care about the money. I just want to forget about it."
"It can't be that disgusting. Sarpiero's a master inker."
"I hexed you."
"You weren't yourself," said Ron.
"Yes, I was," said Hermione, tears welling up in her eyes. "That's the problem. You were right to leave, and I did everything I could to deny that. I don't even like the witch who attacked you, but I worked so hard to become her that I don't know if I can undo it."
Ron was suddenly aware of stillness at the counter, where Snape had ceased working and was listening intently.
"If I learned anything from being your friend for so many years, it's that you can do anything you set your mind to."
"I don't know that I trust my mind any more," she said, allowing Ron to usher her over to the chair near the children's comics as her tears began to fall. "It's too easy to justify doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason when you've got the law on your side."
"There's nothing wrong with your mind, love," said Ron squeezing her shoulder. "I think it's your heart that needs some work."
Hermione's stopped sniffling. "That's an awful thing to say."
"I'm not the one who got suspended for harassing the same business you shot up before pinching their merchandise," said Ron feeling his temper rising. "You said I used to keep you in check. Since when did you start needing someone else to tell you the right thing to do?"
An ugly smirk crossed Hermione's face. "You tell me. Clearly you're dying to."
Ron knew she was baiting him and he didn't care. "The Quirke case. You knew that we had enough evidence to convict him of burglary, but we both knew he was guilty of casting an Unforgivable Curse, but he'd got rid of his wand, so we couldn't prove it."
"I got the wand, though, didn't I? And we were right, he cast the Imperius on the whole family."
She made an exasperated sound. "But?"
"But you found the wand by giving him Veritaserum-laced tea after locking him up for ages without food or water."
"I had the proper training to administer Veritaserum."
"So it was a coincidence that the very next week the department started requiring pre-approval for dosing people with Veritaserum?"
Hermione crossed her arms. "It was legal when I did it."
"Legal but dodgy, Hermione," said Ron. "But what I can't get past is that you did it to send a man to Azkaban for life when all he did with the Imperius was make sure nobody woke up while he ransacked the silver."
"The Imperius is Unforgivable for a reason."
"Are you hearing yourself?" asked Ron incredulously. "Harry cast the Imperius Curse! So did McGonagall! Should they be in Azkaban, too?"
"We were trying to defeat Voldemort!
"And Quirke was trying to feed his family. Yeah, he broke into a house and stole some valuables; he absolutely deserved to go to Azkaban. But not for the rest of his life."
"The Wizengamot could have granted him clemency."
"You made damned well sure they couldn't when you introduced evidence of the Unforgivable."
"Why are we even talking about this?" asked Hermione. "Our job is—" she cleared her throat, "—was to enforce the law, not question whether the laws are fair. That's what we swore to do."
"We also swore to protect people. That doesn't just mean people who've never put a toe out of line."
Hermione was silent for a moment. "You've really thought about this."
"I've had a quiet month," said Ron. "Minus a couple of incidents."
He could've sworn he heard Snape snort, but he chose that particular moment to shuffle some papers, so Ron couldn't be sure. The sound caused Hermione to glance at the counter, but Snape refused to meet her gaze. She turned back to Ron with a huff of annoyance.
"If you've had such grave concerns ever since the Quirke case, why is this the first time we're discussing it?"
"Would you have listened?"
"We'll never know, will we?" she said nastily before making a visible effort to calm herself. "I'm sorry. I'm proving your point again, aren't I?"
Ron opened his mouth to reply, but he had no idea how to respond.
"It takes time and practice to change habits learned of necessity," remarked Snape from the front of the room.
Hermione's head snapped towards him, and Ron quickly put his hand on her arm before she said something she'd regret.
"And wanking helps, too," said Ron, hoping to derail the conversation and distract Hermione.
"Don't be disgusting," said Hermione, making a face.
"Reading can be an invaluable distraction," said Snape. "As can acts of kindness to oneself."
Ron was surprised that Snape had followed his lead. "Not all dirty comics are like Simple Sherwin," he said.
"I thought you said you hadn't read it," said Hermione.
"I know Sarperio's other work. It's not what I would recommend to start," said Ron. He turned to Snape. "Can I give her Delphinia in Bloom?"
"This isn't a lending library, Weasley," said Snape.
"Fine, take it out of my wages," said Ron, striding defiantly into the back room. He winced slightly to see that the first volume of Delphinia in Bloom was priced at twenty Galleons. Perhaps Snape would give him an employee discount. He removed the tag, gave it to Snape, and handed the book to Hermione.
"It's fine," said Hermione, pulling out her coin purse. "I can pay for it. Thurston and Hernandez, remember?"
Snape glanced at the tag in his hand. "The credit on the book you returned covers the cost."
Ron managed to keep his jaw from dropping open. Snape's dirty look was completely unnecessary.
"Thank you," said Hermione, giving him a small smile. "Well, I supposed I'd better get back home. I've got some Arithmantical analyses to do on Hernandez's numbers. Are you sure you don't want to have a look at the case?" she asked, glancing at Ron.
"Positive. I've got a date with a book tonight."
"Ugh, Ron!" she said, laughing.
"Seriously, good luck. And you know I'm here if you want to talk."
"Thanks." She turned to leave and paused in the doorway. "Is it all right if I tell Harry where you are? He only sent the Howler under duress."
"From me," she said, blushing. "Sorry."
"S'okay. And yeah, you can tell him. It'd be good to see him. Maybe not here, though?" he asked in an undertone, glancing at Snape.
"Best not to," said Hermione. She gave him a little smile as she exited.
"You needn't worry about me hexing Potter without provocation," said Snape in a disgruntled voice.
"I don't," said Ron. "It's him I don't trust not to be provoking."
"Surely he doesn't still hold a grudge against me for his godfather's death."
"I doubt it. He commissioned Dean to paint a portrait of you. It's hanging in his office."
The last time Ron had seen someone's mouth shrivel up the way Snape's did, an unripe lemon had been involved.
"I see," said Snape. "Perhaps it's best that you meet Mr. Potter elsewhere. And be sure to let me know where and when so that I may be far, far away."