A/N: Harry Potter is JK Rowling's baby. This fanfic is solely for my enjoyment, and as such, I make no money from it.
After Neville left, Snape shut the shop down early.
"You are so lucky that most of your business is mail order." Hermione sipped the tea he offered her, allowing the warmth to soothe the tightness of her throat.
"Yes, well. You seem to be the only person who'd rather come buy a book from the Greasy Git face-to-face rather than through the post." His voice was satisfied, and it brought a small smile to Hermione's face.
"Your evil plan worked, I see. You never have to see another dunderhead ever again if you don't wish to."
"You're mistaken, Hermione. After all, you are remarkably persistent."
They turned small, knowing smiles towards their tea cups.
She sank deep into the leather couch with a sigh. Outside the sky darkened and lamps from neighboring Diagon Alley stores began to glow.
"So, I'm pretty screwed up, huh?" Her voice was small.
Snape leaned forward and set his tea cup on the table between them. "I can't tell you how honored I am to have been invited to this pity party." He sat back and rested his cheek on his closed fist, the scarred palm turned away from her.
"I mean it. There's something wrong with me. Ever since Ron died. I'm just… off. Wrong."
The dark-haired man watched her carefully.
"I knew, Severus… I knew I was being a right bitch to Neville, but somehow, it was just so important that I keep him at arms length. I don't want anyone that close to me." She bit her lip and looked at Snape with a pleading expression.
He rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest.
Hermione walked around the table and sank down next to him. She tilted her head so that it rested on his shoulder. The older man allowed it, sighing in exasperation.
"I mean, it's obvious what the problem is, isn't it?" Her voice was sad. She tried to wriggle under his arm, but Snape tightened his hold on his own biceps, keeping himself closed to her.
"Stop, Granger. I'm not a cuddler." He said the last word with the same horror he would have shown a Weasley sweater with a cuddly-looking Voldemort emblazoned on the front.
"What are you talking about? You hug me all the time!"
"I've hugged you twice. Ever. And both of those times it's because you were sobbing like a ninny. I'm concerned enough about the humidity level in here without adding your waterworks on top of it. Leather rots, you know." The dark wizard looked disgruntled, his eyes on the tea resting on the table.
Hermione waved her hand brusquely in the air. "What I'm trying to say is that it's pretty obvious what my problem is." She cleared her throat, and when she began to speak again, her voice was crowded with regrets. "Harry and Ron gave up their lives for the cause. How can I just… move forward with my life when they can't? And Ron and I were so… I just… How could I even think about trying to replace him with someone else?"
She turned to look at him and noticed how tightly he held his shoulders and how thin he'd pressed his lips. Snape stood suddenly, and Hermione shivered, missing his warmth. He walked away, putting distance between them and presenting her with his back.
"I can't believe how blind you are sometimes, Granger."
"Do I look like I can shed light on moving on? Are you expecting pearls of wisdom to fall from my mouth?" Presenting her with his profile, he began to rearrange the Charms section once more. "For Merlin's sake, girl. It's called Survivor's Guilt, and do you really think I'm free of it myself?"
Reclining and tucking her feet up onto the couch, Hermione watched him organize the shelf. His movements were jerky and flustered, like a marionette whose strings had been pulled too hard. "I am well aware that none of us escaped unscathed. It's just that you seem like you are so much happier than you were when I first knew you."
Snape turned to her, a muscle ticking in his jaw. "Not being Crucioed half to death several nights a week does wonders for a man's spirits. Also, I feel marginally less tense now that I know for sure that Voldemort failed in his attempt to commit genocide!"
"On your list of pros, don't forget that black is back in style, Snape." Her voice was teasing. "Your bat persona might actually become fashionable."
The edges of his mouth twitched as if he wanted to smile, but he scowled instead. "Don't do that, Hermione. You brought this up. Let's finish it."
"Yes, of course. It's just… let's not yell about it. Can't we discuss it? I haven't the heart to fight with you. I'm tired and I feel like a giant, walking wound at the moment."
His nostrils flared as he exhaled. "Fine."
Hermione carefully examined her nails. They were ragged and bitten to the quick. "So, you're saying that despite the positive changes in your life since the war ended, you're not happy?"
He slid a slender white volume onto the shelf with tender care. "Yes, well… no. I'm as happy as I'm going to get. I like my shop and working here with you. I love that I'm not teaching dunderheads any more. But it's not enough, really. This life is full of the shadows of real happiness. Even worse, I feel guilty for even having the shadows. What about our dead? Dumbledore? Or Lupin? All of the children I taught who didn't make it. Can you even imagine the guilt I feel that there were students who fell to the Dark Arts that were in my Defense Against the Dark Arts class?" Snape cleared his throat and very carefully did not look at her. "And others who never made it from the first war. Promises broken. Penance denied."
Silence embraced the room, and it was a long moment before Hermione spoke again.
"So what do you do?"
Snape sighed and glanced at her from the corner of his eye. "You just keep living, you daft bint. As best as you can."
After imparting his pithy words of wisdom, Snape ignored Hermione for the rest of the afternoon. He grumped about the store like a moody black stork, responding to her attempts to converse with him rarely if at all. She recognized his stormy expression from the dark days of her Potions apprenticeship when the war was at its height. Snape was brooding. He'd even taken his hair out of its queue so that it could hang in shiny black curtains in front of his face.
It bothered her.
On one hand, she understood that he wasn't actually upset with her. Snape had never been the sort who liked to hold hands and discuss his feelings. However, the way he'd closed himself off from her made her feel isolated. He'd snapped shut like a mousetrap the instant she hit a sensitive spot.
Well, no reason to stick around if he was moping. Nothing would bring the man around once he'd settled in for a good long brood.
She sighed and gathered her things. The sky was still ominous, promising further rain throughout the night. Remembering Snape's earlier admonition, she cast an Impervious charm before flicking her fingers in farewell towards the dour wizard. Snape grunted as she left.
Hermione walked quickly down the narrow street that connected the bookstore to Diagon Alley. The cobblestones were slick from the rain, and the heels of her boots thunked with each step.
Holding Neville's hurt expression close to her chest, she wondered how things had fallen so far. She'd wounded him deliberately, without a second thought. When had she become that person? Keeping people at arm's length was one thing. Lashing out and wounding people she'd known since she was eleven – a war compatriot, even – that was something else entirely.
Maybe she needed help.
There was no shame in it, she knew. Well, she knew it in the sense that she wouldn't hesitate to direct a friend to counseling. She'd even believe the words wholeheartedly when she told that same friend not to be ashamed. Hermione had just never expected to need help herself.
Hermione Granger shouldn't. She was the brains of the Golden Trio, a war heroine, and the first woman to pursue her Potions mastery since 1926. To need counseling felt almost like… failure.
A shuddering sigh escaped her chest. Of course, she also was a combatant in the bloodiest Wizarding War to touch Britain's shores since the 1940's, had lost her lover on the battlefield, and was part of a minority group targeted for extermination.
Her eyes studied her toes as they scuffed along the street beneath her feet. She was so deeply entrenched in her problems, turning them over and dissecting them as if they were dispassionate logic puzzles to solve, that Hermione failed to notice the two men who followed her.
She would have screamed when she was seized and forced into an alleyway, but a blunt, calloused hand clamped painfully over her mouth.
When she and her attackers were deep enough in the shadows, her attacker pressed her up against the wall, his hand so tight against her mouth that Hermione's teeth ached.
"Hello, Hermione." His voice was playful and cruel. Crackling pops from his lungs peppered his speech, making him stop to take great, wheezing gulps of air. His face was obscured by a leather mask that covered all but his clacking yellow teeth framed by peeling lips that hung loose as he spoke. Hermione shuddered. The condition of the man's skin combined with the mask that was pulled tight across his features gave her the impression of a corpse cobbled together with bits of leather and dust and irresistible will. "Long time no see," he whispered, his breath causing her curls to sway.
Hermione said nothing, her eyes darting back and forth between her two attackers. The other man was dressed in Death Eater's robes, the upper portion of his face covered by a silver mask surrounded by a corona of curling red-brown hair.
He stepped forward, his bright blue eyes warm as he pressed the cold silver of the mask against her neck and inhaled deeply. "Mmmm. You smell divine, Granger. Like old books and peppermint." Hermione felt his tongue drag a slippery path from her shoulder up to her ear. "God, it's been too long since I've had a woman."
She cried out in disgust and twisted to get away from him, but he laughed and pressed her squirming body tighter against the wall. "You feel delicious… so nice and trim. What with your bookish habits, I always figured you would run to fat. It's nice to know that I'm still wrong occasionally."
"Focus," his companion wheezed.
"Get your hands off me," Hermione shrieked, struggling to thrust her knee between the braced legs of her captor. The brick wall behind her wasn't smooth, and she could feel the bulging edges of the mortar snag her hair when she pressed away from the erection nudging against her hip.
"None of that, darling," Silver Mask murmured. He bit her sharply, and she could feel the blood welling and running down her neck.
"Focus!" Leather Mask hissed, and the brown-haired man stumbled away from her, clutching his cheek where Hermione could see a red imprint of a hand.
"All right," Silver Mask sulked. "But I get to have her after."
"Fine! Who cares as long as we get what we need?" The man turned back to her, his lips hanging slack and moist. His breath popped and whistled as he asked, "Where is it, bitch? Where's the journal?"
Hermione blinked, suddenly very conscious of the weight of her bag. She cocked her head and did her best to appear confused. "What journal?"
Silver Mask cocked his fist and slugged her sharply in the jaw. He looked at her, tilted his head appraisingly, and punched her once more for good measure.
Hermione tasted blood and concentrated on holding back her tears. Her heart pounded against her ribcage as she tried to calculate the likelihood that she would escape from this situation intact and with the journal. Thinking became increasingly difficult as she stared at her attacker as he licked her blood from his knuckles.
"Now, now. None of your stories, Hermione." Silver Mask watched her, his blue eyes guileless. Never moving his gaze, he spoke to his ally. "She never was a very good liar, was she?"
Leather Mask laughed, a choking, wheezing sound.
Hermione shook her head to clear the darkness from the edges of her vision. The pain in her jaw sparked down to her belly, causing a wave of nausea. Hermione swallowed tightly and licked her bottom lip.
Silver Mask tut tutted. "Well, we certainly don't have time to deal with a stubborn Mudblood."
"Who are you?" she said with gritted teeth.
Leather Mask smirked and raised a silver-toned flask. "Stop asking stupid questions. Drink this." The edge was lifted to her lips, but before he could force Hermione to take a sip, the smell of the potion contained within hit her nose.
Her stomach, already unsettled from the pain in her jaw, tightened and she vomited on the ground between them.
"Fuck!" Silver Mask shouted. He danced out of the way of the river of sick that was flowing in the spaces between the cobblestones. "That potion's expensive, bitch." Turning to his compatriot, he said, "Veritaserum works just as well topically. Splash it in her face."
Hermione gagged as she was covered in the potion, pressing her lips together tightly. As Leather Mask screwed the cap back on, she watched as a spare drip of potion slid over his thumb. He tucked the flask away and casually grasper her around her neck. "You'll answer the questions we ask now, won't you?"
She nodded, but Hermione's mind raced. She felt no compulsion to tell the truth. Why? She swallowed painfully, her throat struggling to work despite the hand smashed against her windpipe.
Leather mask snarled, "Now, I'll ask you again. Where is Hildebrandt Frost's journal?"
Her wand was tucked in her right sleeve. Could she curl her hand enough to touch it? Touching it might be enough to help her Apparate, but the reprobate with the Leather Mask held her so firmly that she knew she'd bring him with her via side-along no matter where she went.
"Come now, Hermione. Where's the journal?" Silver Mask crooned.
It was in her bag. "I have no idea."
"Bitch, don't lie," her captor snarled.
Why wasn't the Veritaserum affecting her? Was it a bad batch? She watched as the trail on Leather Mask's hand dried, and his eyes began to glaze. Apparently not.
"I have no idea where it is. I've been looking for ages, but I'm no closer today than I was two years ago." The hand around her throat loosened and the man in front of her swayed slightly as he began to suffer from the effects of the potion. Leather Mask's eyes became soft and confused, and Hermione felt an unexpected twinge of recognition.
Silver Mask shouted, "Come on! We know she's lying. What are you waiting for?"
"'Mione?" His voice was confused and the man's restraining hand fell from her neck to dangle loosely between them.
With a burst of speed she would never have suspected she possessed, Hermione jumped away from the two men and ran for the mouth of the alley. Relying upon the skills she'd acquired from her years in Dumbledore's Army, she deflected two Stunners cast in rapid succession and sent back a powerful Jelly Legs Jynx. When she reached the turn to Diagon Alley, she whirled back to face her tormenters.
"Who are you?" she shouted, tears streaming down her face.
Leather Mask turned dark green eyes on her. "Harry Potter," he moaned.
Hermione Apparated and fell sobbing to the floor of Snape's book shop.
A/N: Like it, love it, hate it, review it.