The first time Hermione thought she saw him, it was only for a brief instant and in the blink of an eye, he was gone.
She was in Knockturn Alley for Ministry business; leading a case concerning an issue with a kelpie. It led her near Borgin and Burkes, and a rather curious looking bookstore. Well, it seemed quite intriguing as she peered at it, quite intriguing indeed. The sign above the store was old and seemed to be hanging above the narrow entrance, and it rattled as the wind blew through the Alley. Hermione shivered and pulled her jacket around her tightly. 'The Poet and Pendulum,' what a strange name for a bookstore. A rush of sensation filled her; it was dangerous to go into a place that reeked of dark magic, but she could feel her heart pounding and her veins pulsing under her skin. It excited her more than anything had in a long time. Knockturn Alley's dealings were much tamer these days with Voldemort long gone, so she didn't see much harm in popping in for a bit.
The door creaked open, and Hermione stepped in. She inhaled deeply; the smell of old books filled her with nostalgia. Flourish and Blott's only sold the newest editions of books, and she missed the smell of Hogwarts, of ancient libraries and dusty, worn out pages, of blotted ink and yellowed parchment and home.
Hermione cleared her throat. Her heart was beating sporadically and she swore she could almost hear it. Well, she was a Gryffindor, and Gryffindors didn't balk easily. An old woman was sitting behind a counter, staring at her with a strange expression on her face. The woman said nothing, but nodded silently to Hermione and turned her head back down to a book that was open on the counter.
The store seemed larger on the inside than it did when she first saw it walking down the Alley. Hermione perused the first aisle, and the bookshelf seemed to tremble as she ran her finger down the spine of an old book. She sighed. She couldn't stay long. Metlock was expecting her soon, and she didn't make any progress in her investigation. Hermione made her way out the door and smiled at the woman, who peeked up from her book to give her another nod.
It was raining heavily again. She sighed and wiped her damp forehead as water drained down through the rain gutter and she stepped out from under the shop's awning. The rusty sign dripped rain that splattered on the cobblestone as she made her way past Borgin and Burkes, the thick silence in the Alley disconcerting.
She squinted as a tall, black shrouded figure strode in the distance, hooded cloak billowing. The person was holding a large parcel and seemed to be the only one wandering through Knockturn. Maybe wandering was the wrong word, she mused, as she watched the figure stalk forward with determination. She blinked. A strange feeling overcame her. It was as if she'd seen that walk before, but she couldn't place with anyone in particular.
The silhouette turned a corner, and she caught a brief glimpse of his face. Her heart froze and she inhaled sharply. A hawkish nose she'd never forget, waxen face stiff from lack of emotion. A man who should be dead and buried because she had seen it herself.
Hermione took a step back, watching as he rounded the corner. She had to see this up close because this was simply impossible. She trembled as she stepped hurriedly, her work pumps clicking on the slick stone as she tried not to stumble.
He was gone. She hadn't even heard the telltale crack of Apparation. It was as if he'd vanished into thin air. She pinched the bridge of her nose. It was Knockturn Alley, it could have been a trick, a play on the mind with some sort of spell. He could have been Polyjuiced.
But why on God's green earth would someone impersonate Severus Snape?
Hermione looked up from her butterbeer. Harry sat in front of her, folding the newest issue of The Daily Prophet.
"I...no. Nothing's wrong," Hermione said, swirling her foamy glass of butterbeer.
"It's not really like you to zone out like that. Something's on your mind, you can tell me." Harry flashed her a smile. "I've got all night, Ginny's practicing with the Harpies tonight so I'm home alone, bored out of my mind. It's a shame Ron couldn't make it tonight."
"Hmm," Hermione answered.
Harry scrutinized her. "Are you and Ron having issues?"
Hermione choked on her mouthful of butterbeer and Harry held up his hands. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked. I just wanted you to know that I love you both. If you're having any problems you can talk to me, I give pretty good advice these days, believe it or not."
"No, Ronald and I are fine. He's just sleeping off his fever, he's drinking a lot of hot chamomile and I've never made so much chicken noodle soup in my life."
Damn Harry for being so intuitive lately. She almost missed the days when he hadn't a clue how to deal with a weepy Cho Chang or Yule Balls.
"I just saw something strange last week. It's been on my mind ever since."
Harry knocked down a gulp of Firewhisky. "Go on."
"It's going to make me sound loopy, honestly, but I was in Knockturn Alley for the investigation on that kelpie fiasco, I thought I saw...oh Harry, I sound ridiculous."
"Nothing ridiculous as seeing someone familiar in a seedy place like that," Harry said.
"Even if this person is dead?"
Harry looked up. "Who?"
"Harry, I saw Snape."
Harry's hand clenched and froze on his glass. "Snape."
"I told you it sounds preposterous."
"That's impossible," Harry whispered. "We saw him in the Shrieking Shack. It must have been someone Polyjuiced as him, that's the only explanation."
"Yes, but how?" Hermione said in a hushed voice. "How would this person get a lock of his hair? The way he walked...it was a perfect imitation."
"Someone could have had hair and saved it for awhile. Maybe it's someone who's trying to hide."
"But why would they masquerade as a dead man?"
Harry rubbed his temple with a single finger. "I'm not sure, 'Mione. I could look into it, see if any other Aurors catch word, but this is the first time I've heard of this. Are you sure—"
"Who else do you know with a nose like that? Honestly, I saw his face. It was a spitting image of him."
"Did you see where he went? Heard him talk, anything?"
"No, by the time I got close to him he just—" Hermione paused. She drew a ragged breath. "He just disappeared like smoke. I didn't even hear him Disapparate."
Harry frowned, gazing closely at her face. Hermione looked down into her butterbeer. "I think I'll have a bit of Firewhisky now," she sighed. "This is troubling."
"Are you sure—"
"I don't really know what I'm sure of right now, Harry," Hermione interrupted, "but we can change the subject anytime you like."
Harry nodded. "Ginny's been promoted as first-line Chaser," he said, smiling warmly. Hermione looked in his eyes, and she could still see something like unease in them.
"That's wonderful, Harry!"
"Yep, she's a winner," Harry gushed, grinning easily now. Hermione let a soft sigh of relief. She knew how illogical her story sounded. "Oi, Aberforth! Can you change this song, I've had all I can take of Celestina for the night."
Aberforth grumbled under his breath but flicked his wand to the old record player. A metal rock song started playing, something about beetle eyes and a love potion gone wrong.
"Harry, I'm going to hit the road. I'm exhausted," Hermione yawned. Harry got up from the chair to hug her.
"Just get your rest. It sounds like you've had a long week. Tell Ron I said hey! Hope he feels better soon."
"I'm sure he will," Hermione smiled. "I'll see you, then." She Disapparated to her flat, leaning her back against the wall. She exhaled a shaky breath. Harry didn't believe her, and even she didn't know what to believe anymore.
Hermione's new hobby was Snape-watching.
She had to get down to the bottom of this. Ron was back at work and she was on a two-week vacation, so she had time to investigate by herself. Harry was the only one she'd told, Ron didn't even know, and she was very thankful Harry didn't tell him. Ron would have a million questions for her and she didn't feel up for that. Harry must think I'm going bonkers.
She found herself wandering into the Poet and Pendulum for the third time in one week. She knew the owner by name now, though they didn't talk much. Old Aceline Gordon was quiet, but a sensible and well-read woman from what Hermione knew of their brief conversations.
"Back again," Aceline said, and it was more of a statement than a question.
"Yeah," Hermione smiled. "You have a very broad selection of books. I can't find anything as remotely interesting as this at Flourish and Blott's."
Aceline scoffed softly. "It's all rubbish anyway. All textbooks and Lockhart, I swear. Nothing remarkable or classic about that place."
Hermione laughed heartily, and even though Aceline didn't, the woman's eyes sparkled and crinkled up a bit. "I forgot to tell you that I've found an original edition of an old Arithmancy book from Egypt and Olde Potions in the Dark Ages."
This was one of the longest talks they've had. Aceline plopped a huge tome onto the counter and Hermione felt instant glee. Snape wasn't at the forefront of her mind now, and frankly, she was grateful for that.
"I've only had one customer buy this, and there's only the two," Aceline said. "I'll give it to you for 50 Galleons but it's easily worth 120. Quite hard to get my hands on, I'll tell you."
"Really?" Hermione could feel her face light up. Oh, it's beautiful, she mused, stroking the leather bound book and running her fingers down the gold leaf pages. Olde Potions in the Dark Ages. Olde Potions in...
"Aceline," Hermione said, still gazing at the book. "Do you remember who purchased this before?"
Aceline cleared her throat, and she suddenly seemed a little uncomfortable. "I—I don't get many customers these days. I'd say he's my best, but I usually don't talk about people who shop here. Customers in Knockturn value discretion a great deal. Why would you want to know?" She peered sharply at Hermione.
"It's nothing, really. I just thought it might have been someone I knew a long time ago."
"Hmph," Aceline huffed. "I'll tell you this much; he isn't the nicest man I've dealt with. Uptight, has a stern look about him. He doesn't speak a single word, no 'thank you' or anything of that sort, he just throws the money on my counter and walks out. Rather ugly too, I've never seen a nose that large in my life."
Hermione swallowed the lump in her throat. "Well, that's...curious."
"Yeah, he's strange, alright. Wears such stuffy black clothes even in hot weather. You'd think he was heading to a funeral. He's not my favorite customer, but he's good for the business. In fact, he just left here ten minutes ago."
"He—he was here?"
Aceline nodded. "Don't tell me you're interested in him. I'd avoid him at all costs if I were you, young lady."
"Thanks for the advice, but I'm definitely not interested in him." Not in that way, at least. "I'll buy the book, but I'm heading out early today. I still have that kelpie business to take care of, my boss will have my head if I don't finish it soon." Hermione reached into her bag and counted out 50 Galleons as fast as she could. She usually didn't carry this much money on her, but now she was glad she did today.
Aceline's eyes widened as Hermione waved at her and rushed out the door. "See you soon!"
"But—" Aceline called after her, and Hermione heard her from a distance, "I thought you were on vacation..."
Hermione blinked, the sun harsh on her eyes after being accustomed to the dim light in The Poet and Pendulum. From visiting Knockturn Alley on a regular basis now, she knew that it was never really busy, not how it used to be. She peered the window of Borgin and Burke's as discreetly as she could while she walked past. No customers. God, but this was insane. There was just no way that the man was really Severus Snape, but she had to get to the bottom of this. It was like an Arithmancy problem she was just too impatient to solve. She had to know the truth.
An unfortunately very familiar man tapped his cane loudly on the cobbled stones as he walked on the opposite side of the street.
"Malfoy," Hermione muttered darkly, a bit louder than she intended, and Lucius Malfoy's eyes widened as he snapped his head to look at her.
"Ah. The prodigy herself," Malfoy simpered, tossing his long hair back behind his shoulder and giving her an unconvincing smile. If she didn't know any better, he seemed wary and a little nervous. "How does the illustrious Granger fare these days? Or is it Weasley now?" Lucius snorted. "I apologize that I've never kept track of the ever growing band of Muggle obsessed red heads."
"I'm quite well, thank you," Hermione said briskly. "Not that it's any concern of yours, but I don't have a gaggle of Half-blood Weasleys. Yet." Hermione shot him an ironic smile. "Is Draco busy trying to live up to the Malfoy name so your lineage doesn't die out? I'm sure he's with an upstanding Pure-blood now trying to procreate the perfect blond specimen."
"Yes, quite," Malfoy bit out, and Hermione could almost hear him grit his teeth. Ha. "What brings a mudblood to Knockturn Alley?"
Hermione inhaled sharply and willed herself not to lose her temper. She hadn't heard that word after the war ended five years ago. Suddenly she heard an angry hiss from the dark alley ahead of her, and she turned her head to see the source of the sound.
Malfoy's face turned ashen and he slammed the end of his cane on the street. "Well. It was so good to see you, Miss Granger." His eyes shifted to the dark alleyway quickly before he averted his eyes and swirled his robes in a flurry of green velvet.
Hermione didn't have time to hex the retreating man. She rushed to the dark corner, her footsteps echoing around her. Damn. She couldn't see anything, and it was nearly dusk. "Lumos."
Her heart pounded in her chest as she saw a shadow move at the end of the alleyway. She could see the edge of a long black robe flutter before the figure drew back behind a stack of wooden crates.
"Hello?" she croaked, sweat beading on her forehead. "Is someone there?"
A low growl sounded from behind the crates. She sucked in a deep breath and made her way toward the pile. "Hello?"
Hermione screamed as she was dragged behind the crates and a hand clasped over her mouth. "Shh, shh."
Her nostrils flared and she grappled at the hand clutching her arm. The other hand lifted off of her mouth, and she gulped a deep breath down and turned.
Snape was standing there.
He had a dangerous glint in his black eyes, and she took a step back. "You. I knew it."
Snape stared at her silently.
"Are you real?"
Snape let out a throaty chuckle. "You've been watching for me." His voice was still the same, still deep and menacing, but a bit coarser now, like rough velvet. Hermione glared at him.
"Why—how—why didn't you tell us you were alive? All this time—how did you—"
"That's none of your business," Snape whispered harshly, "though I must admit, I was impressed with your tenacity. You wouldn't have stopped until you found me, would you?"
"How did you know..."
"I'm no fool, Miss Granger. I'm aware of many things. I decided to take pity on you. You've found me, so let me leave in peace."
Hermione's mouth dropped open.
"Close your mouth, girl, you'll catch a fly. Oh..."
Snape's dark eyes narrowed. Black as they were, she could swear his pupils were slitted.
"...do keep this to yourself. I'd hate to have to..." He snapped his long fingers, "silence you with something. I'm capable of many things, Miss Granger."
"How do I know this isn't just some elaborate ruse?"
Snape's lips formed an oily sort of smile. "You don't."
And with a crack, he was gone, leaving Hermione in the dark alley as her knees trembled.