She blamed Hermione Granger for her predicament. If that brat hadn't trapped her in a jar more than ten years ago, she never would have decided to seek revenge on the chit through, shall we say, more creative means than her normal vitriol-filled column at the Daily Prophet. She would have simply eviscerated her in text and been done with it. A few well-placed innuendos, a little eavesdropping, maybe a strategically timed photo and the little witch would've been social toast...just before lining the litter boxes and bird cages of wizards around Britain.

Revenge would have been sweet.

But no, Hermione Granger was a little witch with a brain...one that had cleverly deduced that Rita was an illegal animagus while the girl was still a student at Snogwarts. (Ooh. Clever. Must remember that one for a future piece!) So adhering to her modus operandi and performing a quick character assassination was, unfortunately, out of the question for Miss Granger. She needed to think outside the box and find another way to repay the brat for not only becoming the media darling of the wizarding world, but somehow redeeming a reformed Death Eater - one who proved to be rich as Croesus to boot - and then having the audacity to convince the man to propose to her.

It was really too much to be born. Hermione fucking Granger didn't deserve the Dark Hero for a fiancé. And if Rita had anything to say about it, she certainly wasn't going to keep him long enough to make it down the aisle.

At least, that's what she'd thought that morning.

The plan had been fool-proof, really.

All it would've taken was a well-timed dose of polyjuice, a quick confundus, and the coincidental appearance of her new photographer in The Leaky Cauldron when Snape showed up for his Thursday night drink with the male Malfoys and the younger Zabini.

Of course, she should have known better. Didn't Severus Snape manage to slither his way out of every objectionable situation he'd ever been in? And he was a dark arts expert; he'd seen the telltale wavering that marked a glamour a mile away. Honestly, she didn't know what she had been thinking when she'd cooked up this crackpot idea to begin with. She probably shouldn't had had so much wine the previous week when she'd thought of it. If it hadn't been for the quick thinking of Colin - who hadn't even bothered to hide his camera when he'd come to rescue her from the irate Headmaster - she doubted she would've escaped the confrontation with her limbs intact.

As it was, the photo had still managed to make the morning edition, and Colin wasn't answering her floo calls. "Desperate Skeeter Makes Mad Grab for Hogwarts Headmaster!" graced the front page. The photo was particularly horrid. A snarling Headmaster aimed his wand at Skeeter, banishing her Granger-Glamour (Excellent. Too bad I can never use that one.) before bursting into hysterical laughter at the sheer audacity of her seduction attempt. The picture looped and she watched herself stumble and fall on her bum at the bastard's feet and splitting her (admittedly very fitted) skirt. She ground her teeth as her bright blue quill-printed knickers flashed from beneath the fluorescent fuchsia satin skirt again. And again. And again.

Worse, she had roots. Roots! A public set down she could take (Desperate my foot!), but having her mousy brown roots showing in a publicly distributed photograph was too much. She had stuffed the newspaper into her purse, shot a curse at the owl carrying a telltale red envelope toward her front door, and apparated to Mimsy Borogrove's House of Hair to fix her coiffure.

That had, perhaps, been the second bad decision of the last 48 hours.

Mimsy had been shocked by the accusations in the Prophet. Not that Mimsy was such a great news reader herself, but when the paper had slipped out of Rita's purse and on to the floor as she mixed the tailored bleaching potion that kept the reporter's famous locks such a lustrous pale gold, she couldn't help but be fascinated by the wizard photo of her client literally throwing herself at Severus Snape. And falling to the floor. (Oh, that skirt had been such a bad idea! How many times had she told Rita that bright pink was not her color?) Mimsy hadn't noticed when she'd poured four times the normal amount of binding agent into the hair potion. She didn't even notice when she applied it to Rita's hair. She did notice when Rita's famous locks literally slid off her shapely skull. She definitely noticed when Rita aimed a rather poorly executed jelly-legs jinx at her and departed into Diagon Alley with her blazer wrapped around her head and without paying.

Mimsy shrugged. Rita had never tipped very well anyway.

For her part, Rita was livid. She ducked onto a side street and transfigured her blazer - a lovely shade of puce - into a fashionable turban and merged with foot traffic. First order of business would be a stop at the apothecary for hair-regrowth serum. She ducked into Slug and Jiggers and placed her order with Madam Jig herself, only to be told that they were out of the desired potion. Despite the fact that Rita could see the bloody bottle on the high shelf behind the counter.

Mr. Jig, it seems, was a long-term friend of one Severus Snape. And Madam Jig didn't appreciate attempted marital interlopers. Judgmental old bat.

And so Rita had decided to pick her way down to the other end of Diagon Alley in shoes that were most definitely not made for distance walking . She'd visit the new apothecary that had opened up a few months before; surely they had hair regrowth serum for ready coin. She hadn't made it three storefronts before the a witch jostled against her, knocking her off balance and forcing her to stagger back several steps. Moments later, a teenage witch "tripped" and fell into Rita, knocking her off the sidewalk and into a muddle puddle amidst the broken cobblestones of the street. Soon wizards and witches were going out of their way to sneer at the nosy reporter as she rose out of the filthy muck. Turned-up noses and shouts of "nothing but a gossip", "spiteful homewrecker" and (the worst) "talentless hack" started firing her way. Then someone knocked her turban off. Rita ran for it.

She had ducked into a public loo, raced to a stall and quickly shifted into her animagus form. With some relief, the bright blue beetle scurried out of the toilets and down the busy street toward The Leaky Cauldron so that she could floo back home. She kept close to the wall, dodging booted feet and dragging robes before darting in Old Tom's establishment. She would simply go to the floo, transform, grab the powder, and be gone before anyone noticed a thing. Yes. This was a sensible solution. She could sort everything out once she was home again.

Just as she approached the loo, a large barrier came down over her head. Startled, Rita glanced up and saw a veritable jungle of distorted wavy hair through the - oh Merlin - imperfect glass of a Muggle canning jar.

The little beetle saw a set of lips stretch into a grin across perfectly straight teeth.

No.

Oh no.

Not again.

"Hello, Rita." a poised voice said. "I see you're in need of another time out, dear. Just be grateful that I remembered to punch holes in the jar."

The last thing Rita saw was a battered purple handbag before the world sank into darkness.

❖HG/SS❖

Strong arms wrapped around Hermione's waist almost as soon as she walked into the Headmaster's quarters that evening. "Welcome home, pet. Where were you off to so bright and early today?"

Hermione snickered a bit and shot her husband-to-be a sidelong look. "Just a bit of entomological exploration."

"Mmmm." A broad nose sniffed at her neck as nimble teeth nipped at her earlobe. "Successful hunting then?"

Hermione shivered in anticipation as lips and teeth began to move lower. "Quite. I left Kings a little present at the ministry today." She couldn't quite prevent a bit of self-satisfaction from coloring her voice.

"I thought you might. Remind me to send Creevey a thank you card and a bottle of elf-made wine later, hmm? And we likely owe Seamus for outing Skeeter as well."

"Send Colin a magnum. I'm sure he'll share it with Seamus over dinner tonight." She moaned a bit as talented fingers slid her skirt down her hips and then rose to her throat. "Have I told you how much I love the idea being married to such a masterful plotter?"

The first buttons of Hermione's blouse unfastened as Severus moved his lips and nose toward her chest. "You might have done a time or two, but I never tire of hearing it." Delicate kisses drew a line of fire from throat to cleavage.

Hermione threaded her fingers through her love's hair and fought to keep her voice from wobbling. "I don't think your ego needs any more stroking today, darling. The Dark Hero is already being lauded for his faithful attentions to his loyal fiancée. Or don't you read your own press?"

"I make it a policy to never believe anything the Prophet says, pet," Severus said, straightening and looking into his lover's eyes. A little smirk graced the corner of his mouth as drank in the sight of Hermione standing just inside the door - hair mussed, blouse unbuttoned, and still clad in her stockings and court shoes. The smirk expanded into a genuine smile. "Come on. My ego may not need stroking, but other things certainly do. I had Winky draw us a bath."

Hermione squeezed him close and placed a smacking kiss on his lips. "Mmm. Best. Day. Ever."