OPPORTUNITIES
by R.J. Anderson 2006

8:24 a.m., Friday 23 March House-Elf Liaison Office

"Good morning, Mistr-- I mean, Miss. Would Miss like coffee?"

Distracted by the headline of the Daily Prophet on her desk (GOBLIN STRIKE IMMINENT, SAYS GRINGOTTS HEAD), Hermione takes a few seconds to answer. "That's kind of you, Libby, but it really isn't necessary."

"Oh, but Libby likes doing things for Miss Hermione! Please, Miss, the coffee is made already--"

"Well... all right then. Thank you." She sits down, eyes still fixed on the paper. Her unruly hair is already falling out of its bun, and she tucks a loose strand absently behind her ear.

"Here you are, Miss. Cream and two sugars, just the way Miss likes it. And Miss?"

"Yes, Libby?"

"Libby thinks perhaps she ought not to be telling this to Miss, but a few minutes ago Libby was passing by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement..."

Hermione looks up. "Passing? Libby, that's two floors away."

The colour in Libby's cheeks deepens, and she lowers her luminous eyes. "It is, Miss. But there is a house-elf named Tucker, Miss, who works there, and... he is paying special attention to Libby sometimes."

"Oh, I see. So you were looking for Tucker, and you overheard something? Or saw something?"

"Yes, Miss. Tucker is training to be a Listener, and he is working with a Mister Spungeon. And when Libby came to see Tucker, he was talking with Mister Spungeon about a conversation one of their Earwigs recorded last night. Mister Spungeon said he was going to take the record to Master-- I mean, Mister Harry Potter straight away."

A perplexed line forms between Hermione's brows. "But... that's not unusual, Libby. Harry is Head of the Auror Office, after all; if the Listeners overhear anything suspicious, they're supposed to report to him."

"I know, Miss. But this was different. They think they've found Mister Snape."

Silence.

"Has Libby said something wrong, Miss Hermione?"

Hermione gets hastily to her feet. "No, not at all. Please get started on the filing, Libby -- I'll be back in a few minutes."

- - -

8:32 a.m., Friday 23 March Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Auror Division

"Sir?"

Harry is scanning the records of Floo calls to the Department last night, and finding only minor incidents and false alarms -- something to be grateful for in theory, he reminds himself, however dull in practice. It takes him a moment to register the junior Listener's presence. "What? Oh, it's you, Spungeon. What's up?"

"I was just transcribing the latest batch of Earwig reports, sir. And there's one from last night that I thought -- well, you said you'd like to hear if --"

Harry pushes his chair back, nodding toward the Reader on his desk. "Put it on, then."

"Yes, sir," says Spungeon, fishing a bottle out of his pocket and tipping the contents into the bowl. As the Earwig slowly uncurls he adds, "Would you like me to leave you alone, sir? I know you're busy--"

"No, sit down." Harry waves his hand toward the chair on the desk's far side. "If it turns out to be an important lead, I'll need you to answer some questions." The Earwig is still moving, but sluggishly; he frowns at it. "And since this particular reading seems to be taking its time, I guess I might as well ask a couple of questions right now. Where was this collected from?"

"A wizarding pub called The Serpent's Arms, in rural Lincolnshire. It caters mainly to Slytherins, so we thought it a good spot to plant an Earwig, just in case..."

"Hold on a minute, I think this needs some prodding." He takes out his wand and taps the bowl. The Earwig squirms, and a high-pitched screech resonates around the room. "Ow!"

"Sorry, sir. I should have fixed that before I..."

"No worries. There, it's working now."

- - -

9:21 a.m., Thursday 22 March The Serpent's Arms, Little Steeping, Lincolnshire

"Evenin', sir. What's your pleasure?"

"One firewhisky."

"'Fraid we're out of Ogden's -- Fiskburton's Finest all right?"

"Very well."

"Here you go. Eight Sickles."

A prolonged silence, followed by a whirr as the recording skips ahead several minutes.

"More of the same? Right... that'll be fourteen and five."

"Fourteen--? For what?"

"Firewhisky and a Gillywater. That's fourteen and five."

"I didn't order a Gillywater."

"Maybe not, but she did, young lady in the back corner. Said you'd pay for it."

Pause.

"Did she. Well, then. Fourteen... five."

"Thankee."

Sound of footsteps, general crowd noise which subsides as the Earwig hones in on the new conversation.

"So, tell me, Miss Lovegood. What persuaded you that I would be in the mood to buy an erstwhile and not particularly gifted student a drink?"

"Nothing. But I thought it would be nice if you did."

"Really."

"And it worked, didn't it? Unless, of course, you're really Rabastan Lestrange using Polyjuice to make yourself look like Professor Snape. In which case this Gillywater is probably poisoned, because I don't think he liked me very much."

"Rabastan Lestrange is in no position either to take Polyjuice or to poison anyone's Gillywater."

"Yes, I rather thought that was the case. So that's all right then."

"Seeing as you have already finished half of said Gillywater, I would imagine so." Pause. "Miss Lovegood, I realize that you have always lived in a world of your own, but surely you are aware that I am a wanted man?"

"For killing Headmaster Dumbledore, you mean? Yes, that was very sad. But you couldn't have helped it, could you?"

Several seconds of silence.

"After all, he was dying anyway, and it probably would have been a great deal more unpleasant for him if you hadn't."

"Miss Lovegood..."

"Oh, but you needn't worry about having that printed in The Quibbler. My father said no one would believe a word of it."

"I should think not. Especially as the Wizengamot -- or more to the point, the Twice-Famous Mr Potter -- deemed otherwise."

"Quite. Which reminds me, it was awfully clever of you to escape before they could send you to Azkaban. However did you manage it?"

Pause.

"...Miss Lovegood, may I suggest that this is a remarkably indiscreet place to be having this particular conversation?"

"Well, I thought you must be in an indiscreet sort of mood. After all, you're here, aren't you? I know it's been fifteen years and I don't suppose Armenia was very comfortable, but it's still a little soon to be coming back if you were hoping people wouldn't notice."

"Ah."

"Not that the beard isn't a nice touch, and I like the shorter hair, it's very distinguished. But I'm afraid your nose is rather unmistakable." Pause. "Speaking of which, the bartender's just disappeared. Are you quite sure he hasn't gone to call the Aurors?"

"I doubt it. Even if he did recognize me, this is a Slytherin pub."

"Oh, but it's not a Slytherin pub any more. Houseism is prohibited by law, didn't you know? That's how I got in. In fact, I believe they even have to serve Muggles, if one should find his way in here. Not that that's likely, of course. But then, unlikely things seem to happen all the time."

"Certainly this encounter is one of the less likely things to have happened to me in fifty-six years of life." Pause. "Unless, of course, you have been tracking me all this time, as a sort of personal hobby?"

"Well, things were a bit dull after I lost track of Stubby Boardman."

Pause, then faintly:

"Of course."

"Professor Snape?"

"Yes?"

"I could help you, you know."

"Help me. How... novel."

"In case the bartender really is calling the Aurors, I mean. And if you decided you didn't want to give yourself up after all."

"And what makes you so interested in my welfare, Miss Lovegood?"

"Do you know, I'm not exactly sure. I'll have to think about it. I might say that I feel sorry for you, only I suspect you wouldn't like that. And anyway, it isn't quite true. But I did think the Ministry was unfair to you, even if you were horrible." Pause. "Perhaps you're still horrible? That would be interesting. But then you're talking to me, and you're even being somewhat polite, so perhaps not."

"Or it could simply be a prudent reluctance to draw attention to myself by making a scene. However, I will admit to some curiosity: what exactly is the nature of this 'help' you are so... magnanimously offering?"

"Well, last month's Quibbler had an advert for someone to help wrangle wild Basselopes in Montana. It seems a bit unlikely that anyone would find you there."

"...A bit. Yes."

"I know it's not really your line of work, but you might prefer it to living in our cellar and helping us run the printing press."

"Printing...?"

"After you Stupefied me for recognising you and disappeared very suddenly before the Aurors could come, that is. And after I told Harry and the others that I'd tried to keep you talking as long as I could, but now it was too late and you were probably on your way to Montana."

"I... see. And your reason for making this particular offer?"

"Well, we really do need someone to run our printing press. I'm so busy writing the articles now, and Father's rheumatism is making him peevish."

"Printing The Quibbler. For my sins, I suppose. Your father can hardly be much older than I am."

"Ten years, I think. But he really does have rheumatism. And it's a very old printing press." Pause. "It won't do forever, of course. But I thought it might serve, until you find somewhere else to go."

Very long pause.

"Miss Lovegood?"

"Yes?"

"Stupefy."

- - -

8:42 a.m., Friday 23 March Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Auror Division

"And that's the end of it, sir."

Silence.

"Sir?"

"What?" Harry shakes himself from reverie with an effort. "Oh. Yes. Yes, Spungeon, you've done very well."

"So... did the bartender call the Auror Office last night, sir? Or was Miss Lovegood mistaken?"

"I'm pretty sure she was wrong, yes. He'd probably just gone off to the loo." He gives a forced laugh. "Well. Thank you, Spungeon. You've done the right thing, bringing this to me. Has anyone else heard it?"

"No, sir. Well, just Tucker, the house-elf I'm training -- he was with me when I first played it through this morning. But that's all. I didn't want to waste any time, sir."

"Very good. Let's keep it that way for the moment. This could be... a bit of a tricky situation." Harry taps his wand against his open palm, his eyes narrowing behind his glasses. "But I'll see that you receive a commendation in your file."

"Thank you, sir! I'll -- Oh, I'm sorry, Miss Granger, I didn't see you there."

"That's all right, I should have knocked." Hermione smiles, but her brown eyes are serious. "May I have a word, Harry? It's important. And... private."

He sighs. Time for another lecture on the need to hire more house-elves, no doubt. "If you'll just step outside, Spungeon? I'll call you back in a moment."

"Certainly, sir."

A pause, while the door clicks shut. "What is it, Hermione? I'm a little busy just now."

"Don't do it, Harry. Please."

"Do what?"

"I heard that recording. Earwigs? Is this what you've made of Fred and George's Extendible Ears -- hiding them everywhere, using them to spy on people?"

Harry reminds himself to put Muffliato on his door next time. "Not everywhere, just in places where former Death Eaters and other Dark wizards are likely to turn up." He leans forward, willing her to understand. "It's the only way we're going to find some of these people, Hermione. Besides, look how it's paid off in just a few weeks -- Severus Snape!"

"Don't you think he's suffered enough? You know as well as I do that Luna was right. He didn't want to kill Dumbledore, the Headmaster made him do it--"

Harry sits back, his mouth a hard line. "He could have said no."

"Could you have said no to Dumbledore? Did you ever?"

Silence.

"Harry." Her voice is gentler now. "You can't bring him down without hurting Luna too. Heaven knows why, but she seems to have taken him under her wing... and surely he can't hurt anyone, hiding in her cellar."

"You always did have a soft spot for Snape."

"No, I just didn't hate him." A pause, then even more quietly: "I know he was nasty, I know he did and said some horrible things, but in the end he really was on our side. Aren't you tired of punishing him?"

"If it weren't for him, my mother would have lived."

"Maybe. And if it weren't for you, Sirius might have lived." Harry's breath hisses out of him, but she continues: "And if it weren't for me, then perhaps Ron--"

"Hermione!"

"We all make mistakes, Harry. Sometimes we regret those mistakes for the rest of our lives, whether other people blame us for them or not."

Silence.

"Please, Harry. Let it go."

"I can't." He tosses his wand down on the desk, where it spins around once before coming to rest beside the Earwig's bowl. "What about Spungeon? The house-elf? Or elves, I suppose, since you're here. We can't just order them not to talk about what they've heard. You've made sure of that."

"Libby and Tucker are Ministry elves. They trust us to know what we're doing."

"You mean they'd make pâté out of their own livers and serve it to us with crackers if we asked. You haven't changed them as much as you like to think, Hermione."

She opens her mouth and shuts it again, her face reddening. "Oh, all right!" she says. "But you see my point, don't you? And think of Luna, Harry. If you take a team of Aurors and drag Snape out of her cellar, she'll be implicated. You can't do that to her."

"I'm sure I could concoct her some sort of alibi. I'm just boggled that she'd offer to help him in the first place. What was she thinking?"

"Lonely people do strange things sometimes, and Luna was strange to begin with. I think she needs to feel like she's doing something worthwhile, and she's too bright to find The Quibbler really fulfilling."

Harry's brows shoot up. "You didn't even use to like her very much, as I recall. She drove you half-mad that first year, with her Crumble-Horned Sneezeworts--"

"Crumple-Horned Snorkacks. And yes, she did. But full of mad ideas or not, she's got a good heart. You helped me see that... don't tell me you've forgotten it."

"No, I suppose not." He pulls the basin to him and pokes morosely at the Earwig within. It feels rubbery, lifeless. They'll be lucky to get one more reading out of it, and if it isn't transcribed right away, the record of Luna and Snape's conversation will be lost. "Well, then. What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing. No, really. Nothing. I'll look after it. Just -- promise me you won't change your mind?"

He sighs. "I won't. Do you want this?"

"The Earwig?" Her nose wrinkles in distaste. "No, you keep it. I'll take care of the rest."

"With your usual thoroughness, I'm sure. Spungeon!"

The door opens promptly, and a tousled head pops in. "Yes, sir?"

"Come inside, won't you, and shut the door. Miss Granger has something to tell you."

Spungeon obeys, his eyes round and guileless. "Miss Granger?"

Hermione glances at Harry. He counts three heartbeats, while she swallows and takes a deep breath. Then she turns to Spungeon and says:

"Obliviate."

THE END