By Bellegeste

Author's note: READ MY MIND is the sequel to POST MORTEM. It is set partly in December 1998, (by which time Harry, Hermione and co have left school and been working for five months) and partly in November 1996 (following on immediately from Hermione's abrupt departure from Snape's cottage).

The aim of the story is to take the SS/HG relationship (?) to some sort of conclusion…

Through a series of conversations (SS/HG, HP/HG, SS/AD, HG/RL, SS/DM, SS/HP/HG …) I am also examining the different persona we present to different people, and how events can be variously interpreted; how we say one thing while we are thinking another and meaning quite the opposite…


December 1998

Diagon Alley

The young woman strolled down Diagon Alley, her feet kicking through the thick snow with the kind of playful delight that greets the first onset of real winter. Either that or she hadn't seen snow for a long time. It was early afternoon in the Alley, but already the Christmas lights were twinkling, and the festively decorated shops beckoned brightly, cheerful and inviting, brimming with warmth, peace on earth and seasonal goodwill to all wizards.

Outside Ollivander's she stopped, adjusting her grip on the draw-cord handles of several glossy carrier bags, flexing chilled fingers inside soft leather gloves. Catching her reflection, she couldn't help checking herself over, more in disbelief than vanity. This cloak had been a good buy, she decided, twisting and craning slightly to see the back view. There was something about the hang and swing of it that made her look…not glamorous, not even beautiful, that would be stretching it, but, well, quite grown up. After so many months of feeling drab and dusty, hot, sticky and wilted, the crisp air was refreshing; she was invigorated. For a moment she tilted her head back, allowing the gently falling snow to brush her face and, mischievously, caught a snowflake on the tip of her tongue.

Oh, it was good to be back in England, back in London, back in Diagon Alley…

The hood of the fur-lined cloak slipped, revealing a weight of golden-brown hair, and a halo of the kind of highlights you only get by magic or from weeks spent outside in the sunshine. She was not especially attractive - not conventionally pretty - but there was a firm, determined look about her features, and an air of quiet self-assurance that was enough to turn heads. And, amidst the pale, sun-starved, hearth-hugging, winter shoppers she stood out, tanned and glowing like a Galleon in a stream of silver Sickles.

As she passed Flourish and Blotts, her pace checked, the force of the books exerting their sage, siren pull, drawing her towards the tantalisingly piled, holly-trimmed display of 'Sparkling Spells for a Magical Christmas'.

Hermione Granger did not need any more books. Where would she keep them? The bookcases in her old room at her parents' house were already double-stacked, and so full that any new addition had to negotiate for shelf space. She couldn't bear to use a Shrinking Spell purely for the sake of storage - that would be sacrilege! And, she knew only too well, her parents had earmarked that shelving for their combined collections of 'Dentistry Digest' and 'Molar Monthly' magazines, their Dental College alumni yearbooks and sequentially labelled box-files of the trade journals which they speed read over the breakfast table, skimming for the latest developments in tooth technology, before filing them for future reference.

They were just waiting for Hermione to get a place of her own.

And she would. Definitely she would, she thought - once the job had settled down. It had all been so hectic - everything had happened in such a rush. She'd hardly had a chance to luxuriate in her outstanding success in her NEWTs when three recruitment owls (the first of many) had swooped silently down, each bearing an enticing employment proposal. First there was an open scholarship to the Cadwallader-Clagg Institute of Advanced Magic, with a view to a Junior Research Fellowship on graduation - it was like a dream come true. What more could she possibly want? Next, there was an unconditional offer of a place on the Ministry's fast-track Auror Training Scheme (with guaranteed Ministerial fringe benefits and immediate full pension entitlement) - she thought she'd 'pass' on that one. Finally, there had been a letter from the Director of the charitable foundation, Wizard-Aid, politely requesting that Hermione join him for a chat over a light lunch.

Far from finding it a tough decision, far from wanting to wait and consider her options, Hermione had known instantly what her choice would be. She knew exactly what she had to do, and why. She had to get as far away as possible from Hogwarts…

The moment Hermione paused outside Flourish and Blotts, she sensed she was a lost cause - that the lure of learning had yet again seduced her. She could feel the literary undertow sucking at the melting snow beneath her feet, undermining her resolve to walk on by. Already she found herself drifting towards the door, swept along by her insatiable love of books. Some things didn't change. She'd just pop in for a quick look around…

Inside, the shop had that comfortable, frowsy, slightly yellowing smell of parchment, ink and papery promise. The very air was laden with erudition - merely standing there, Hermione felt she was absorbing information, breathing in a mellow wisdom.

She was at home in a bookshop. Whereas in a fashion boutique she felt out of place, gauche and uncertain, with the impression that smart clothes were somehow wasted on her, amongst the books she was in her element, confident, decisive; amongst the stacked maze of volumes her sixth sense came into play and she navigated the unmarked shelves instinctively. Today she was merely browsing.

In Flourish and Blotts there was little discernible order in the arrangement of the books. Hermione revelled in its old-fashioned, hap-hazard system of cataloguing - if indeed it followed any system at all - which lulled the unwary customer into a false sense of shambles. The assistants, Hermione had long ago discovered, could, if required to do so, pinpoint any title, author or topic in seconds. There was no need for colour-coding, bar-coding, price-coding or indexing by subject-matter or the writer's name. At a single wave of a wand the requested volume would slide from the shelf and materialise at your fingertips, or else shoot across the shop to join your other purchases on the counter.

She xylophoned her fingers along the spines, halting at one in particular which struck a familiar note; plucking it down, she read the cover affectionately: 'Hogwarts - A History'. Well, it was history now; that part of her life was over. She had begun the next chapter…

Somewhere in the distance a clock chimed three. Hermione realised that she'd have to go, or she'd be late. She took a final, lingering look around, taking comfort in the reassuring rows and stacks: paperbacks, hardbacks, pamphlets, books with mysterious bulges in their covers that might turn out to be wings, or biting jaws; furry books, squeaky books, waterproof books for aquatic or bath-time perusal, books with self-illuminating pages so that you could read in the dark… each one a treasure trove of wonderful secrets waiting to be discovered, each one a companion, a potential friend. She felt sad to think that it might be months - years perhaps - before she came back this way again. It was like saying goodbye to a dear, slightly shabby, eccentric, elderly relative.

She regretted not having had time to go through to the 'specialist' section at the back - she should have made for that first, instead of getting side-tracked by all the tacky Christmassy trivia. That was where they stored their rare and arcane volumes, the first editions, collectors' items, signed copies and, of course, the restricted 'Dark Arts' titles. She could never afford these gems, but sometimes just the act of looking, taking the valuable pages in her hands and holding them, was a treat in itself. It connected her to the Old Masters in a tangible way. Perhaps it was just as well, she thought, protectively hugging her new cloak against her, away from the antiquarian grime - the cloak was the first 'grown up' piece of clothing she had bought with her salary, her own money, since arriving back in the country (she hadn't been near a decent shop for months - there simply weren't any shops where she had been), and she was still self-consciously proud of it, not yet taking its elegant practicality for granted. The back of the book-shop was always such a dingy mess of cobwebby clutter; not many customers penetrated that far.

It was then, as Hermione was turning to leave, that she heard a sound - a voice - that imploded her stomach like a collapsing star and sent her cart-wheeling uncontrollably back through space and time. It was a voice she had not heard for two years…

"You cretinous numbskull! Leave it! I'll do it myself!" There was a frantic, scrabbling noise and a stout, red-faced assistant shot across the back aisle as fast as his bow-legs would carry him. Milliseconds later a Curses' Compendium, hurled with what must have been considerable force, whizzed after him, missing his puce ears by fractions of an inch, and crashed into a pyramid display of Boggarts and Bundimuns – a Beginners' Bestiary.

Arrested as completely as if she'd been petrified, Hermione stopped to listen.

"Mon Dieu! Merde!" The exclamation was followed by a sharp sneeze, two sneezes, and more angry muttering,

"Damnable dust!"

Hermione edged to the end of the bookcase and peered round the corner. There, a handkerchief clamped to his face, surrounded by a swirling vortex of ashy cloud, stood Severus Snape.

"Nollecto finite!" she heard him growl, and the tiny twister dissipated, leaving him clearing his throat and smacking dust from his cloak in annoyance.

"Scourgify!" Hermione murmured helpfully. "Hello, Sir." She managed to say it without a quaver, even though her vocal cords were busily knotting themselves into a noose.

He whisked round, his wand already raised; a reflex response.

"Miss Granger!" he breathed, defensive adrenalin being replaced by an altogether more subtle tension. Hermione tried to catch his eye, but, darkly elusive, he shifted his gaze to the floor where a fat, leather-bound tome lay emitting wheezy puffs like a pair of asthmatic bellows.

"Illegibility Hex," Snape commented by way of explanation. "Those idiots at the desk assured me that all deterrent jinxes had been counter-spelled. You'd think they were deliberately discouraging sales. They don't deserve to be in business."

It was not the friendliest of greetings, but it salvaged an awkward moment. But then, what did she expect?

"It's messy," replied Hermione, following his cue. "I thought the Nollego group of Hexes was auditory - Screechers and so on?"

"Some damn fool's idea of a joke," Snape said caustically, with contempt. "The assistants should be sacked for crass incompetence." He hadn't changed. He hadn't changed

They seemed have exhausted the safe topic. With a final sniff, Snape pocketed his handkerchief and bent down to pick up the dusty book. He showed no inclination to pursue the conversation. Hermione took a step forwards.

"I've been away. Abroad," she said, determined to be civil, at least.

"So I see."

She felt his eyes upon her: a look of appraisal, observing at one glance her healthy, outdoor complexion, her air of new-found affluence and independence, her status - no longer that of a student. She had to keep reminding herself that she was an adult now - in front of Snape she felt like a quaking First Year.

"And yet you eschew the Travel section, in favour of the Dark Arts? You surprise me." Hermione couldn't believe her ears. Was he needling her already?

"No… no, Sir, I heard the books falling, that's all…"

"So you rushed to the rescue? How very noble. Still saving the world, I see. Once a Gryffindor… But don't let me detain you…"

Hermione clenched her teeth and took a long breath in through her nose, counting to at least ten, before she trusted herself to speak. This wasn't Hogwarts - she didn't have to stand for this. However, she was determined not to allow herself to be goaded. If she'd learned anything over the past months, it was to weigh the consequences of her actions, not to be precipitate. Snape dusted the leather cover carefully before replacing the book on the high shelf. He had turned his back on her again. Hermione wasn't sure if this signified her dismissal, that the abortive dialogue was over, but she wanted to end the conversation on her own terms.

"I'm visiting my parents for Christmas. And Crookshanks, of course." She hurried to say anything to fill the silence.

"Your animal?" he frowned, turning. "Still flea-ridden?"

That could have been a put down as well, but he had phrased it more neutrally as a question. And toned down the defensive edge in his voice. It was as though he too had needed a few moments to collect himself. Flea-ridden? Hermione was amazed. He had remembered. That had been so long ago, a triviality, a nothing. But he had remembered. She forced a soft laugh.

"That was a one-off. A Hex. He's usually very clean."

She was inwardly cringing, each new inanity a little death in her soul. Why, oh why, were they calmly discussing her cat? This was the moment she had rehearsed in her mind for two years, practising each 'casual' remark to epigrammatic perfection; the moment that had dogged her waking dreams, monopolised her imagination; the moment that had obstinately claimed squatters rights in her thoughts, working or relaxing, as she journeyed south, sustaining her across the arid miles; that had lived with her in huts and tents and rondavels, stoked campfires in the insect-clicking African dusk; the promise she had made to herself, the goal she had set herself… Somehow it had lent her patience in her work, in the endless days of debate and persuasion as she nurtured her sensitive projects through the stages from proposal to practice…

In her mind this had become the hurdle, the watershed that divided past from future, her youth from the rest of her life. The loose end that needed to be tied off and sewn in; the nagging, scratchy hang-nail waiting to be smoothed… This was the moment when she would finally confront Snape and confess to that crazy, ill-conceived, childish crush - confess and emerge with adult dignity intact. This time she would not run away like a flighty, frightened schoolgirl. He still loved Lily. OK, she respected that, she had accepted the fact. She was over him. This was the moment to clear up the misunderstanding once and forever. And move on. She had resolved to do it the very first opportunity she had, and this was it. This was the moment at last, and they were talking about Crookshanks?

"You're looking well, Sir."

Oh, Merlin! That wasn't in her script at all. Why had she said that? Because the last time she had seen him he'd been barely conscious, recovering from a potentially fatal snake bite, racked with pain, prostrate and deathly pale. That was the picture she had nursed in her memory all these months. By comparison, anyone would look well. A ghost would look well.

And she had imagined she was in love with him! It made her blush just to think of it. At least she had maintained some self-respect; she hadn't been too impulsive – she'd got out before she'd said or done anything she would later regret. Though sometimes she had found herself secretly wishing she'd been that little bit bolder, that she'd kissed him while she had the chance - purely to get it out of her system - while he'd been too weak to object, while she had held him in her arms…

Snape coloured. He also remembered their last meeting: she had seen him wounded and helpless and she had fled back to Hogwarts disillusioned, in disgust. He didn't blame her. He must have been delirious to have imagined otherwise…

The distant clock chimed a quarter and Hermione started. She bottled out. Now wasn't a good time; she was too rushed; he had taken her by surprise. Flustered - and that wasn't in the script either - she gabbled a goodbye. Slow down, slow down, slow down…

"I'm sorry. I have to go. I'm meeting someone at three. Well, it was supposed to be three. I'm late as it is. Actually, it's Remus I'm meeting - er, Professor Lupin. For coffee, in Fortescue's. Or tea, probably, knowing Remus. You're welcome to join us, Sir, if you'd like to. I'd… well, it's entirely up to you. I really must go now. It's good to see you…"

All notions of a chic, cosmopolitan kiss on both cheeks scuttled away with the dregs of her composure. She extended her hand, praying it was not too clammy. He took it in silence. As their skin touched, Hermione's remaining poise liquefied into molten confusion. Two years' worth of resolutions dissolved in a handshake.

End of Chapter. Next chapter : HERMIONE:HARRY. Flashback to 1996. What did happen when Hermione abandoned Snape in such a hurry?