Hermione sighed and settled her shopping basket on her shoulder a little more comfortably as she sidled through the crowd in Diagon Alley. Sunlight slanted down onto the cobbles of the narrow streets as she edged past a slow-moving group of gossiping witches in tall peaked hats, then was buffeted by a cluster of running children, a frustrated babysitter hard on their heels. A centaur trotted down the middle of the street, unconcerned as he scattered shoppers.
"Lizard tongues! Fresh lizard tongues!" a bearded old warlock called, pushing a cart.
Hermione wrinkled her nose and hurried onward. They were very far from fresh.
So far, in her basket, she had an entire week's groceries, a new set of robes, several books she hadn't intended to buy (but couldn't resist), a broom-carrying case, the baby shower gift for Ron's wife and a 20-pound bag of owl treats. And thank goodness for shrinking charms. There was only one more errand to run, though she wasn't looking forward to it.
Reluctantly, she turned towards Knockturn Alley.
At the corner of Knockturn and Diagon swung a dingy grey sign with an arrow pointing up the rickety wooden stair to the second floor:
Unguents, Oils, & Apothecary Severus A. Snape.
It had been a year since her last visit, but she always put it off as long as possible. For one thing, the shop was as dark and untidy as Snape's former workroom at Hogwarts; one had to maneuvre between the elaborate tubes and noisome potions that bubbled about. And it was filthy. There had once been the remains of a carefully dissected rat on the counter as Snape rang up her purchases, giving her an evil glare from behind that mop of thick, greasy hair. But the worst was Snape himself. One could hardly expect a marvel of customer service from him of course, but really! His snide comments about the laziness of students who ought to know how to make such simple concoctions were intolerable -- as if she had time to stand about and watch it for twenty-four hours at the nadir of the dark moon. Unfortunately, no one else made a decent contraceptive potion, and she wasn't trusting anything but the best.
A cheerful little bell dinged as she opened the door, startling her almost as much as the colourful scene in front of her.
There were customers. A great many of them. So many, they blocked her view of the counter, though a large dial on the wall read "Now Serving Number 34."
The room was bright and airy, with white walls and oak floors. Baskets, vials and neat shelves were labelled in cheerful reds, blues and greens.
A cluster of comfortable chairs were gathered in the corner of the shop by the window (which was clean!), where a number of (apparently happy) customers chatted pleasantly, sipping cups of tea. There were biscuits and snacks for sale -- a sign read "candied Dragon's Eyes" -- while another offered free tea from a Bottomless Tea KettleTM ("Drink until you explode!").
Oh dear. Perhaps Snape had gone out of business?
But then Professor Snape emerged from behind the curtains in the back of the shop, and scowled down at a pair of chatting customers in squashy chairs. Their smiles faded. He held out a small brown-wrapped package.
"Drop it and you shall most assuredly die," he snarled, looming over them.
A familiar haughty voice cut in, "Well of course, as it is after all a very potent gnome poison."
Percy Weasley?When did he get out of prison?
"Only the best – the professor here," Percy emphasized the title as he crossed the shop, "decreases that mixture no fewer than four times." The patrons looked impressed. Snape appeared mollified and then irritated, but Percy continued, gently dislodging Snape's grip and handing them their package, "Careful. You won't find poisons of that quality anywhere else."
Snape glowered. "Unsurprising, considering none of them ever listened to me as students…."
"Come back again," Percy cheerfully interrupted with a tight smile. The look Snape turned on him was murderous. "Oh, hello Mrs Goodbody--!" Percy made for a fat witch wearing a hat that looked like a feather duster. "So glad to see you again. How did that facial cream work out for you? You do look radiant."
"Wonderful, Percy. I must have six more. I'm giving them out as gifts."
"Very thoughtful of you," Percy purred, reaching around Snape to collect several small clay pots.
"Get these people out of my shop," Snape hissed at him.
Percy – astoundingly – merely patted Snape's shoulder and cooed, "There, there, the quicker they have their potions the quicker they'll be gone." Then he breezed back to the counter. "Will that be all…? I do have a new mixture that's good for, well," he grinned at her, "freckles." They shared a hearty laugh as he rang up the purchases.
Snape stood, fuming. Hermione braced herself for the impact.
And then, most astonishing of all, Snape spun around in a swirl of black robes and silently stalked back through the curtains.
Dumbfounded, Hermione took a number. What sort of hold did Percy have over Snape? Some inside Death Eater information? Not that she'd believed Percy had been that involved… she scoured her mind for the details of his trial, but all she could recall was that very few had come to his defense.
Then she glanced down at the slip of paper in her hand and groaned inwardly -- number 65.
The clock dial turned: Now Serving Number 36.
She selected the most comfortable wingback chair she could find, poured herself a cup of tea, and settled in to the cheerful murmur of conversation, grateful she'd brought a book.
Hermione had reached chapter eighteen by the time she realised that her number must have been called already. The warm, late afternoon sunlight poured through the window where she'd been so comfortably curled up with her tea. She'd completely forgotten where she was.
The low murmur and chatter of customers was gone, replaced with the soft swish of a broom against floorboards. A comfortable homey burble of cauldrons, reminding Hermione of stews and holiday dinners, was the only other sound. The shop was empty. Embarrassed, Hermione noted the dial: Now Serving Number 104.
The back curtains rasped open with two impatient yanks, and over the edge of her book, and past Snape's irritated form, Hermione spied the familiar mess of his workroom. Snape was tying back the curtains and it appeared that it was near closing time.
"Where's the wormroot?" Snape snapped at Percy.
"Ah… third shelf from the bottom," came the slightly hesitant reply from the floor behind the counter.
"No. It is not. You have been cleaning in here again," Snape accused him. "I have a carefully arranged system. Just because you can't fathom it doesn't mean there isn't one."
Hermione shrank behind her book. She'd had enough experience with Snape's temper to know it was better spent on Percy.
With a put-upon sigh, Percy stood and ducked around the corner. He returned with a small phial he set in Snape's hand rather firmly. "It was by the sink, right where you left it, Severus."
Snape still glowered at him suspiciously. "Three rooms are off-limits to your cleaning neurosis, Percy. That workroom." He pointed. "My library. And the bedroom."
"I know, I know," Percy said, picking up the broom again. "Although how you manage to have an entire collection of black socks with no two that match is utterly beyond me. I was only searching for at least one mate."
Hermione blinked to herself at the odd pair. Apparently they more than worked together -- they were roommates. She shuddered at the thought, unsure who was the worse off.
She wondered if Ron knew, and just how long Percy had been out. His trial had been two years before, but these things took time… Ron hadn't mentioned anything about Percy's release, though he'd been rather busy lately with his baby on the way, Hermione smiled to herself.
"I will not have a house-elf rifling through my belongings. Nor you."
"I'm not a house-elf." Percy sounded astonished.
"No, certainly not. Thus, take care that you do not behave like one."
There was a pregnant pause. Hermione suddenly felt she was witnessing something she shouldn't and carefully didn't move. Or breathe. They clearly didn't realise she was here. The two men stood face to face on the other side of the counter, Snape slightly taller than the gangly Percy, whose glasses had slipped down his nose as he gazed up at him defiantly. They were no more than a handspan apart.
"Your broom?" Snape suggested softly.
Percy gazed at the broom in his hand in obvious confusion.
"Use magic, Percy."
Percy's shoulders slumped and he shut his eyes. "I forget sometimes."
"I assure you, I haven't failed to notice that fact."
Percy fumbled in his robe… left pocket, right pocket… like a man searching for spare change.
"Right breast pocket," Snape said in a smooth voice, unmoving.
"Ah," Percy said with an embarrassed half-laugh. "There it is."
Hermione stared and her book slipped a little lower. What wizard lost track of his wand? Certainly a first or second-year would, and one might lose it in a duel, but… in every day use? It was like… forgetting where one put one's hand. Hermione sat up. Percy had been a first-rate wizard with any number of N.E.W.Ts.
Percy glanced hesitantly at Severus, and then, tight-shouldered, he performed a simple charm with excessive care. A tiny perfect dust devil swirled about the floor, devouring the dirt he'd swept, then vanished in a wisp of smoke.
With a forefinger Severus tipped Percy's chin up. "Better."
Percy let out a barely audible breath. Snape released him.
"Use magic for everything," Snape advised him with a curious intensity as Percy leaned against the counter and listened with an avid patience. "Use it to wash your dishes, to carry your bags -- Apparate five feet to the bottom of the stair. Use it put your pants on if need be. It is only the way. Else the fear alone will make you live like a Squib."
Snape smiled grimly.
"Much as I didn't enjoy or appreciate it, Albus did me a great favour by forcing me to become a teacher after my… containment… by the Aurors. The staggering variety of spells I had to use just to keep up with you little monsters…."
"If I recall, I was rather good at potions," Percy protested indignantly.
"No. You weren't," Snape assured him. "You were a walking disaster. All of you were. I've no doubt he scheduled Gryffindor and Slytherin together simply to increase the challenge."
"When you make dinner tonight," Snape added in a light tone, almost as an afterthought. "I don't want to see you crack so much as a single egg without using your wand."
"Hey!" Percy said. "It's your turn."
"You need the practice," Snape purred, his voice sly.
"You mean you're lazy," Percy smiled at him, folding his arms.
"I mean I am sick to death of cooking and I promise to transfigure a dirty sock for dinner if you utter even one word of complaint. How many customers was that today? Five hundred?" Snape glared at the dial. "This is entirely your fault."
Hermione shrank back into her chair and wondered if she might have to come back tomorrow. But no, she didn't have time, and she was a customer for goodness sakes. She hardened her resolve.
"Weekends are difficult," Percy agreed and picked up the broom again with an unthinking gesture.
Hermione coughed deliberately, and the two of them jumped. Snape had his hand on his wand.
Old habits, she thought to herself.
"How long have you been spying back there?" Snape accused her. But Hermione stretched ostentatiously as if waking from a long nap.
"My goodness," she said, "I must have fallen asleep. These chairs are ever so comfortable. What a grand idea!"
Percy smirked at Snape, who'd relaxed. Snape rolled his eyes and stalked into his workroom.
"What can I do for you?" Percy said smoothly.
Hermione gave him her order, noticing the carefully controlled crinkle of a wince around Percy's eyes as she described the complicated potion. "I'll see if we have some in stock," Percy said hesitantly, his arm coiled around the doorjamb as he leaned into the backroom. "Severus -?"
"I know what she wants," came the low growl.
"Ah. I believe so," Percy told Hermione with a doubtful shift of his eyes.
There was an awkward pause as Percy examined the cash register, the counter, the walls – pretty much everything but Hermione's face. Which told her all she needed. Ron must not know Percy was here, and Percy must connect her with Ron in his mind.
Finally, as the silence stretched on interminably, Hermione swallowed.
She asked softly, "How long have you been out?"
Percy studied his hands and didn't answer. She decided that had definitely been the wrong thing to ask, but as she was seeing Ron at the baby shower and if he didn't know….
Percy sighed, "Not long enough."
He didn't look up.
A dark shadow fell across the counter, and Hermione found Snape had emerged from the back room. His black eyes flicked from her face to Percy's, filled with suspicion and malevolent warning.
"It's all right, Severus," Percy said, unmoving, his eyes still on his hands. "It had to happen sometime."
Snape's eyes narrowed at Hermione and he stalked forward. He set her potion firmly on the counter. Then remained slightly beyond Percy's shoulder, immovable, glaring steadily until she was afraid to pick it up lest she lose a hand. Finally, she reached out and snapped it up without incident.
Taking a step backwards, she again noted how closely Snape stood to Percy, like a dark shadow by his side, their arms nearly touching. How Percy didn't flinch away even with Snape so angry, but instead his chest angled slightly towards him.
Hermione paid for her purchase with that steady black gaze still fixed on her. Percy didn't look up once as he counted out her Sickles and Knuts, his hands not quite shaking. Then, as the door-chime rang cheerfully behind her, she glanced back through the glare of sunset across the glass, in time to see Percy reach for Snape, a reassuring hand on his shoulder. In a way no one would dare touch Professor Snape.
Severus, Percy had called him.
She had already decided that they were friends, odd though that seemed. Now she thought they were more. When had that happened? Snape had shown no liking for Percy at Grimmauld Place. It had to have been after the war.
She walked down the stair, her mind buzzing as she wondered if Ron knew that Percy was gay -- not that it was all that surprising. His chaste fling with Penny Clearwater had always seemed a bit phony. She'd have to ask Ron at the baby shower. She doubted he knew, though perhaps Harry did. He was still in touch with Dumbledore after all. She'd have to ask him to lunch.
Hermione trundled down the rickety wooden stair, now aware that it was carefully swept and repaired. With no cobwebs on Snape's sign anymore.
Gazing up at it as she took the last two steps, Hermione nearly walked into a large witch. The woman was carrying two bins of garbage in her huge arms, sleeves rolled up to her armpits.
"It's quite a nice shop these days, isn't it?" Hermione said, just to make conversation.
The old witch banished her rubbish with a gesture. Flies rose from the bins in a swarm. "Eh? Yeh. Lucky for that Snape he found his little poufter. Two months without paying the rent -- and not the first time neither? And a bit of attitude to go with it! Oh, I was ready to heave him out on his skinny arse, till Red showed up and put some elbow grease into it." She added in a lowered voice, "But I'd be careful of what you buy in there. I hear them two were all for You-Know-Who."
Hermione's mouth opened. "But… I thought Percy was rather nice." She couldn't quite bring herself to say anything pleasant about Snape.
"Oh yes, he's a very nice fellow, and a Weasley even. But, you know," the witch waggled her eyebrows and leaned closer, "the wrong one."
She seemed to mistake Hermione's shocked expression for encouragement as she nodded sagely, eager to share her gossip. "Yeh. Just got out of Azkeban not four months ago. No Dementors there now – more's the pity – but the Ministry makes sure they regret it, that's for sure." She slammed the lids on her bins heavily and stood with a hand on her doorknob. "If you ask me, they should never let them out, those Death Eaters."
The door shut solidly behind her.
Hermione stood quietly aghast. Percy was never a Death Eater. She gazed up the stairs to Snape's shop a long moment, facts and impressions clicking together. No wonder they had been so…. Shaking her head, she decided that perhaps things were best left alone. At the very least they had enough trouble without Ron's predictable bad reaction.
Then with a sudden warm glow, she thought, Or better yet… there's a marvelous Potions shop to recommend, to any number of people. They'll be a wonderful success.
Feeling better than she had since the ribbon-cutting ceremony for S.P.E.W.'s national headquarters, Hermione straightened her shoulders and crossed the dusky streets towards home.