Chapter 7: The Right Idea

Snape took a tentative sip from his goblet, lip curling in distaste at the rough texture of the wine. Of course, he had expected a certain degree of belt tightening in the immediate aftermath of the war, but he rather thought that the period for outward austerity had overstayed its welcome. Merely enjoying oneself seemed to be something of a social crime these days. Snape thought that this was hardly fair considering that he had devoted the better part of his youth to defending such prerogatives, only to be rewarded with a dose of dour Puritanism once he was finally in a position to enjoy them. What the hell – he had little enough reputation left. Shrugging, he downed the rest of the objectionable wine in one swig.

"Now, now, Severus, are you sure that's wise – wouldn't want people to get the wrong idea."

Snape spun around to face a middle-aged woman regarding him intently from behind a pair of jewelled spectacles, long red talons clinking impatiently against her wineglass.

"Not that anyone could blame you for turning to drink after all you've been through, of course," she simpered sympathetically. "I can see the headline now: 'Controversial war hero driven to drink by demons from shameful past'. How about an exclusive interview on your battle with the bottle?"

Snape looked down his hooked nose imperiously at her, a look of bewilderment puckering his forehead. "Do I know you?"

"I expect so. Rita Skeeter, Wicked Whispers columnist on the Sunday Prophet."

Snape ignored the proffered hand and eyed her suspiciously. "Didn't you report on the Tri-Wizard tournament at Hogwarts?"

"That's right!" she exclaimed, showing a flash of gold as she grinned triumphantly. "At least, until a certain interfering little madam decided to stick her grubby brown nose in where it wasn't wanted," she finished darkly, shooting daggers across the room at Hermione's turned back.

Snape followed her line of vision, snorting when he discovered the target of her vitriol. He should have guessed – no one had the ability to turn up a back quite like a self-righteous Gryffindor. His gaze caught her engaged in earnest conversation with a wizened looking gentleman, forced into a deferential pose by his diminutive stature. Next to him she managed to look tall – graceful, even, Snape realised with a start as he followed the slim outline of her body. Well, provided you liked that sort of thing.

"Former pupil of yours, wasn't she?"

Snape snapped his attention back to Rita with obvious surprise that she was still there, assenting with a curt nod.

"And now you have to work alongside her as equals!" she cackled, eyeing him shrewdly.

"Equals, no," Snape barked abruptly. "I would like to think that two decades of experience count for something against youth."

"Oh, I didn't mean to cause offence," Rita said unconvincingly, laying a hand on her chest in a gesture of sincerity. "But I suppose it must be terribly trying working alongside one of Dumbledore's favourites. Get much preferential treatment, does she?" Despite the casual tone, Snape noted the look of feral excitement in Rita's eyes and looked down to see her hand gravitating toward a Quick Quotes Quill sticking out of her purse.

Snape sighed boredly. "I can't imagine why you think the inanities of Miss Granger's life worth reporting on, but I can assure you that there is nothing of the extraordinary about her."

"Harry Potter sells." Rita shrugged, as if to personally disassociate herself from such frippery. "Say, how about an exclusive from his former teacher," she continued, perking up considerably, "something about teaching the Boy-Who-Lived everything he knows?"

Snape snorted. "Believe me, if I thought that were the case the last thing I'd want to do is advertise the fact in a national newspaper."

Rita looked at Snape curiously before leaning in closer and dropping her voice dramatically. "You know, it's practically impossible to publish any criticism of the boy these days – the Ministry's still so uptight about the war. Unfortunately there's only so much column space I can squeeze out of his puerile existence before I want to gouge my eyes out with my own quill. Nobody said anything about his little friends though," she finished with a malicious glint in her eye.

"You mean to expose Miss Granger?" Snape said, staring thoughtfully into his goblet as he swilled the dregs around the bottom.

"Why, got any goods on her?" Rita replied mischievously, raising a heavily pencilled eyebrow in open invitation.

Snape's mouth lifted in a wolfish grin.

Hermione smiled politely as the tiny professor excused himself, scanning the atrium for a familiar face. She dismissed the idea of wandering over to George and checking on his progress, realising with a slight pang that any such move would really be for her own sake. He had barely stayed by her side for more than five minutes before slipping off to participate in more advantageous converse. Not that that was a bad thing, of course - that was the whole reason why she had invited him along to the Academy of Magic Gathering – but she had been relying upon him to provide some enlivening intervals.

A splash of magenta suddenly caught her eye among the muted greys and blacks. Peering through the crowd she drew back with a start as she was confronted with the unmistakable profile of Rita Skeeter. Well, she may have been running a little short on stories recently – her expose of the flavourings used for Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans being a particularly moot case in point – but surely even she couldn't hope to wring much by way of scandal out of these grey-haired academics? And yet she certainly looked curiously pleased about something. Craning her head, she tried to ascertain the identity of the companion responsible for putting the triumphant glint in her eye.

Merlin's beard! She recoiled in horror as Snape's smirking features swam into view. Only one thing ever put a smile like that on his face – and it certainly wasn't Christmas sodding cheer. Schooling herself to breathe, she strode across the room to halt the potential catastrophe. Or rather, she contorted herself through a maze of elbows and feet, her panic heightening with each muttered 'excuse me'. Snape had been trying to secure her dismissal ever since she had arrived at Hogwarts, and she had practically saved him the trouble of prevaricating over the means by volunteering the information of her illegal marriage. But maybe it was not too late, maybe Rita hadn't yet provided sufficient incentive for his slippery little Slytherin mind.

"Professor!" she gasped as she threw herself between a closing gap in the crowd like Jason through the Clashing Islands.

Snape looked down at her with studied disdain, his glittering eyes taking in her slightly dishevelled appearance.

"How nice to see you here," she finished lamely as his gaze remained fixed levelly on her flushed face.

"You didn't tell me you and your colleague were on such good terms, Severus," Rita said sweetly, although the accompanying smile didn't reach her eyes.

"Rita," Hermione said coldly, acknowledging her presence with a curt nod. "Attempted to ruin any more lives recently?"

Rita laughed; a high, brittle sound. "Such a sense of humour!" She smiled indulgently at Severus, who grimaced before diverting his attention to a passing drink's tray. "Not since you kindly saved me the bother," she hissed out of the corner of her mouth as she kept the rigid smile plastered to her face.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Hermione replied tight-lipped.

"Well we're not looking quite so clever now that we're babysitting spotty teenagers for a living, are we?"

Snape eyed the sparring women and took a step back, marvelling at the good fortune that had intervened to combine two tedious conversations into one, thus allowing him the opportunity to slip away and participate in neither. Now, what sort of food did this place have to offer? He wandered over to the edge of the atrium, making eye contact with as many people as possible in order to ensure that he was not ambushed into conversation. It was funny, but he had learnt that the more he tried to repel interest the more it seemed to be pressed upon him, as though his peers took some sort of perverse pleasure in imaging themselves submitting the notorious Severus Snape to reluctant social intercourse. Yet any occasion when he actually felt inclined to talk to his fellow wizard – a rare enough occurrence as it was - then it would be all eyes down to the floor and six feet of Potions Master reduced to an invisible dot.

"Snape! Snape!"

Selective deafness was another tactic he had learned from them. Most impressive though was the contagion of muteness he was capable of imposing upon even the liveliest of gatherings upon his approach. One by one the fundamental human senses had been denied Snape, locking him out of social existence.

He frowned as a weight bore down on his arm, looking down at the hand resting on his sleeve with alarm. Touch had been one of the first senses denied the former Death Eater so that eventually – like a poor man who can preserve his sanity only by convincing himself that his previous riches were an unwanted burden – he had schooled himself into believing that the choice had been his. He froze, rooted to the spot as he internally raged at the impudence.

"Snape?"

He turned around painfully slowly, counting to ten in his head.

"If you value your fingers, kindly remove your hand from my arm, Granger" he said through clenched teeth.

Hermione's mouth opened in an 'o' of surprise before she whisked her hand away, suddenly struck by the impropriety of the gesture. "What were you talking about with Rita?" she said, trying to keep her tone as casual as possible.

"A shared interest in Japanese flower arranging – what's it got to do with you?" he retorted.

"Nothing, but I think you should be careful what you say around her," she replied quietly, "she has a habit of twisting even the most innocuous conversations into sensationalist lies."

"Sounds like a typical day in the Slytherin common room," Snape said dryly.

"I mean it," Hermione insisted earnestly, "she's utter poison and you can't trust her. Oh, she may seem charming enough now, but she'll turn on you the moment she runs out of stories."

"Oh, well that swings it," Snape said sarcastically. "Miss Granger means it. Excuse me a moment of worldliness, but my actions have rarely been dictated by your sincerity." He paused, seeming to savour the opportunity to insult her. "Say, didn't she once publish a rather damning portrait of you?" he continued slyly.

"That's got nothing to do with it," Hermione said steadily. "I'm warning you not to underestimate her - and you of all people should appreciate the fickle nature of the press."

Snape laughed harshly. "Or perhaps you are merely trying to cover your own back – worried I may let your little secret slip?"

"We both stand to lose something by dropping our guard with Rita," Hermione said coldly.

"Oh get over yourself. Typical Gryffindor arrogance," Snape said contemptuously, "imagining that no one has anything better to do with their time than sit around discussing you and your tedious little lives. It's all you, you, you," he sneered. "Excuse me, I feel the sudden need to participate in some intelligent conversation – possibly with a hat-stand if needs be," he muttered as he stalked away.

Hermione stared at the empty spot he had occupied seconds earlier. Why did conversation with Snape always leave her feeling like she had just gone ten rounds in the ring?

"Interesting level of professional respect your colleague maintains," Rita said indifferently, sidling up unseen.

"Don't you have anything better to do with your time than eavesdrop on other people's conversations?" Hermione snapped irritably, tearing her eyes away from Snape's retreating back.

"Not really, no," Rita replied brazenly.

Hermione scowled but refused to rise to the bait.

"Well at least we can discount one theory of how you managed to snag the most eligible bachelor this side of Diagon Alley," Rita said dryly as she eyed Hermione's thunderous expression. "Wealthy, intelligent and handsome – however did you manage it?"

Hermione was momentarily stumped as to whom she was referring, until she realised with a jolt that it could be none other than George. Her eyes automatically skimmed across the room to where he stood, laughing with his head thrown back as a distinguished-looking wizard slapped him heartily on the back. Undoubtedly George was not short of a galleon or two as one half of Weasley Wizard Wheezes - although she would probably have used the label 'prosperous' rather than 'wealthy'. As to his mental abilities, it was true that he had little enough paper qualifications to prove any claim to intelligence, but what George was capable of when he applied himself went beyond any bland recital of N.E.W.T. work, and she had always been ready to acknowledge this after that initial, unflattering, surprise. But handsome? She looked at him a little closer, taking in his amiable features and lively blue eyes, the irresistible hint of mischief hovering at the corner of his mouth. He was shorter than his brothers and stockier, so that he had never gone through the same gangly phase as Ron and carried his frame with easy confidence. As her eyes travelled back up to his broad shoulders she had a momentarily flash of running hands down those contoured muscles and felt a sharp, breathless stab in her stomach. Catching her eye across the room George raised his glass to her, taking it as a signal to make his way toward her.

She snapped her eyes quickly back to Rita's expectant gaze, snorting contemptuously. "Well if your bewilderment continues you could always stick with what you know and accuse me of slipping something into his pumpkin juice."

"Yes, I did rather enjoy that one," Rita sniggered, "and the readiness with which people were willing to believe you'd resorted to using illegal love potions has got to tell you something."

"Only that your readership is either stupid or gullible," Hermione flashed back.

"But seriously, how did you manage to get him down the aisle so soon?" Rita said, leaning closer in an attempt at creating intimacy. "I didn't even know the two of you were an item until your wedding invitations went out. Bit of a shotgun wedding, was it - wanted to make sure baby was born the right side of the bed sheets?" Rita winked suggestively, nudging Hermione hard in the side.

"That's none of your business!" she choked, taking a distancing step back as the colour rose to her face.

"Oh it's quite alright," Rita said airily, "no one takes much notice of it these days. Of course, the older families are still terribly traditional about such things, but nobody expects the same standards from witches of your background."

"I may not be able to claim a blood line back to the founders of Hogwarts but I can assure you that it carries no bearing on my sense of propriety and moral compass – unfortunately it appears that the same cannot be said of you," Hermione said through clenched teeth, forced to moderate her response by George's arrival. 'Bloody pure-blood mania,' she raged inwardly. If anything it had got worse since the Marriage Law had been enacted, suddenly necessitating the wholesale segregation of society as never before – which was painfully ironic considering that the Act had been passed as a direct response to the inadequacies of pure-blood offspring.

"Wotcher, Hermione." George beamed as he took his place beside her. "Rita." He nodded a civil acknowledgement to her.

"Oh, how nice," she said with a sickly smile, clasping her hands together. "I was just commenting on what a lovely couple you make."

"Funny, I recall reading a rather contradictory description of our wedding – 'a tasteless display of classless money' were the words I believe you used," George said, looking at Rita directly with a twinkle in his eye.

"I was just making the point that Mermish choirs are not quite to everyone's taste," she said, without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

"Anyway, I think I'm going to head home now," George said as he turned to Hermione. "All in all, a successful night."

"Good." Hermione nodded vaguely, wishing that Rita would take the hint and buzz off.

"Tut, tut, leaving without your wife – you will set tongues wagging," Rita said gleefully, wagging her finger at George as her other hand started to gravitate towards her Quick Quotes Quill.

"Of course he isn't," Hermione said bossily, suddenly realising the train of Rita's mental arithmetic as she looped her hand hastily through George's arm and shot him a warning glance. "Come on, let's go home, darling."

George bit the inside of his mouth to stop himself laughing at the term of endearment. "Quite right, dear," he responded, patting her hand lightly as he began to get into the pantomime.

Rita watched them walk over to the Floo queue at the fireplace with a look of calculating suspicion distorting her features. She wondered…

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A/N: Sorry about the long wait for an update – my memory stick broke and I lost a lot of work. However, I'm now back on track and things should really begin to kick off in the next chapter…

1) The Clashing Islands of Symplegades swung together to crush anything that attempted to pass into the Euxine in Greek Mythology. Jason and the Argonauts successfully navigated between them on their quest for the Golden Fleece by sending a dove through first.

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