By Librasmile

Disclaimer: Of course, with the exception of the original characters, these are not my beauties. They are the glamorous property of JK Rowling who lets them slum from time to time. Thanks JK!

Author's Notes: It's been brought to my attention that several items in this story diverge significantly from canon. So let's get a few ground rules set. This will NOT necessarily conform to canon, so consider it an Alternate Universe story.

Here are the contours of my universe.

Although I've read all the books, I MUCH prefer the movies, including film Snape (i.e. Mr. Alan Rickman's portrayal). So I'm more likely to reference something from the film rather than the novel. Next, I don't believe that Hogwarts is tuition-free, even if book canon implies the Ministry provides subsidies. I also believe that wands should cost WAY more than Rowling says they do. To me, the necessity for a wand at Hogwarts is akin to a student's need for a personal computer today. As such, I think a wand can range from 100 to 500 galleons. The range in costs has to do with how well the wand is fitted to your magic as well as the varying cost of the wand materials.

A note about the timeline: I'm a bit fuzzy on the timelines but I should mention that this story takes place roughly around the Prisoner of Azkaban era although I don't tackle Remus or all the hoopla over Sirius' escape. My goal right now is to finish the story. I might go back and revise to add in the werewolf or perhaps I'll mention them in the next chapter. I don't know.

This story occurs between my Severus-centric WIPs "The Healer's Apprentice" and "Well Done, My Good and Faithful Servant." If you'd like to read more about the Broomall girl mentioned below you can read either of those – and feel free to leave a review! Also, I consider this story to be part of an entire arc whose prologue could be considered my completed three-chapter story "For the Price of My Familiar." At the moment, the last story of the arc is slated to be "Well Done, My Good and Faithful Servant" which is also a WIP.

I love the feel of his wand in my hand.

It's beautiful actually: carved ebony – a rarity – satiny and warm with the solidity of oak and a soft crimson undertone almost like rosewood. He doesn't mind – after all what harm could I do to him – but he doesn't tell me what its core is made of. I suppose it wouldn't matter if he did. I don't have one. Cornwall students don't get them.

Well, actually that's not quite true.

We do get them. But unlike Hogwarts students we don't start with them. There's no giddy trip to Ollivander's for us. We show up bare-handed and take a full year of core studies – fundamentals of potions (his specialty), fundamentals of astronomy, basic theory (though no practice) of charms and transfiguration – before we even touch a wand. There's no spellwork at all until the second year. And when we get a wand it comes from the school's general pool. There's no special fitting, no one-on-one time with the wand's actual maker, no careful selection of various woods, no weighty deliberation on wand cores. And when we graduate we return the wand to the school.

If we get a wand at all we pay for it ourselves and it rarely if ever comes from Ollivander's. We get ours second-, third- or fourth-hand from one of the quasi-legal dealers who skulk through the no-man's land of dead-ends and cul-de-sacs separating Diagon and Knockturn Alleys. Prices are inflated of course. What Ollivander charges between 100 and 500 galleons* for the dealers can inflate up to 1000. It's outrageous! How could something used cost more than something new? Even a Muggle wouldn't fall for that!

Or at least that's what I used to think. Then Severus explained: a wand is organic; so, like a fine wine, its quality – or rather its power – improves over time. Another surprise: there's even a sort of advantage in getting a used wand. You can do heavy magic with a used wand right away but not with a new one. A new wand and its owner need to get to know each other, become used to each other. The wand and the wizard grow together. If the wizard has it long enough, eventually his aura imprints itself onto the wand. So if it passes to another's hand the new owner gets to piggyback on the echoes of the pervious owner's power. Anyone who snags a wand once owned by an especially powerful witch or wizard actually gets to experience some of that person's power. Can you imagine the rush? No wonder the blasted things cost so much used! And no wonder you can't get wizards to sell their wands for love or money! I always knew it was an implicit rule that wands don't leave the family, I'd just never known why. I suppose I hadn't bothered to think about it. Keeping a wand in the family is like having a part of the deceased's aura still with you. So how unlucky would a family have to be to actually sell it? That's assuming it was actually sold and not stolen… Couple a tight supply with wizards desperate to cover up the lowliness of their origins and – voila! – high-priced used wands.

Of course the down side of buying used, Severus warned, is that you have to make sure the wand is clean; no Unforgivables showing up if some ministry officials find an excuse to cast priori incantatum on it. And despite the exorbitant cost, it's safest to save up and pay full price from what I hear. Unless you're absolutely desperate and in need of a wand right now, under no circumstances enroll in a payment plan; too many of these so-called dealers are little better than Muggle loan sharks. I'd rather take my chances with a goblin – except goblins aren't allowed to carry wands.** They fought the Goblin Rebellions over that and lost, so they're hardly in a position to try selling them. There are easier ways for them to turn a quick profit.

Some Cornwall alums just avoid the hassle altogether and never bother to get a wand. Some of us are lucky and have them handed down from relatives. I hear that's how the Weasley boy, the youngest, originally got his. Then he broke it in that fool stunt crashing his father's Muggle car into the Whomping Willow. Not only did his stupidity land all over the front page of the Daily Prophet, but his parents then had to scrape together the galleons to buy another. I don't know if Arthur Weasley took out a loan or got an advance on his pay. What I do know is that I had to extend the deadline for their tuition payment while they presumably scrambled to cover both costs. Wasteful brat!***

But I do actually have a wand. It was my grandfather's. I wasn't allowed to take it with me to Cornwall and neither was my sister. Our mother was using it. And since the school provided one and neither one of us could afford to pull a Ron Weasley, it made no sense to risk taking it away from home. That's probably where it is now. We share it among us. It's the last one left in the immediate family. My father never had one. Where the others went, back when we had strong magic in the family, I have no idea. Whatever happened I'm sure they weren't sold. You have to pay too dearly to get them – my parents certainly couldn't have afforded to buy one for me. And they're supposed to last a lifetime – or even, if misfortune demands it, several generations.

I don't have the guts to ask him whether his wand is an original purchase or a family legacy as I suspect, since I also suspect that he didn't grow up with money or even basic security. I wouldn't call it an heirloom. "Heirloom" is the word you use for something you want to have and use for generations. Most wizards prefer to be buried with their wands. If the family keeps them it's usually only as a remembrance of their kin; they usually would never want to keep using them. As Severus explained, a wand is a highly individual thing, a delicate instrument – for all the fierce power that can flow through it – that's meant to mold itself to its user, like a second skin.

That's why I love touching his wand, grasping it. It's almost like his skin. He smells and tastes bitter and sweet, like plums and every inch of him vibrates, like the thrum of power you get when you kneel down, really tune in and touch the earth. Even I can feel it. Sometimes it makes me shake just like the first time we…well…

Ironically I have his little favorite to thank for that.

No not the Malfoy brat. Her. The one with the fierce friend and faraway eyes. The Broomall girl. Ophelia. He'd been chaperoning a trip to Hogsmeade and I'd seen him duck into the Hog's Head for a quick drink. At the same time, I'd seen her with the Raby girl – Celia I think her name is – arm-in-arm as they'd headed toward Madame Etiquette's little matchmaking salon.

Abishag Witherspoon – who'd christened herself Madame Etiquette so long ago I doubt if any of the villagers remember her real name – is one of those dirty little Hogwarts secrets no one ever acknowledges. She's a marriage broker. Her main income comes from arranging marriage contracts and she gets a cut of every successful deal she negotiates. Oh she tells people she's an etiquette instructor; her avowed mission in life is to improve the deportment and social graces of local youth –including Hogwarts' students – and inculcate them with a respect for the old ways. Please. In reality, they go there to sip tea or undergo some other insipid ritual as a cover for sizing each other up. Presumably, they have their parents' written permission; otherwise the village or Headmaster could have shut Abishag down long ago.

I know they'd like to. I don't know of any young people in Hogsmeade – or their parents – who can afford her services. Besides, the only native young people who remain in the villages are those who can look forward to inheriting their parents' farms or shops or those doomed to repeat their parents' low-wage misery. The rest have either run for Diagon Alley or been sent off to Cornwall – if their families can afford the fees. Precious, precious few are ever enrolled at Hogwarts. Certainly none this year nor in the last 10. No one knows why. Or if they do, they're not telling. But the fact of it rankles. I've suffered through more than one dinner table tirade over it from Uriah's normally easygoing father. It's a constant source of resentment on the part of the villagers and wariness on the part of the faculty and Headmaster.

Madame Etiquette only makes it worse. Oh she takes care not to make waves. She resides in a crumbling but otherwise tidily kept country house just across the border of Hogsmeade. The strategic position keeps her outside the jurisdiction of Hogsmeade's village council yet close to her client base. I've seen her from time to time when I do my own shopping. She holds her grocery basket with an erect posture and genial hauteur that both annoys and impresses her humbler neighbors. Her silvery white hair remains tightly leashed in her neat little bun and her floor-length Victorian dresses boast almost as many buttons as Severus' frock coats. She always takes care to tip generously and donate substantially to whichever cause is the village concern at the time. Although she rarely stays for conversation, she never fails to greet anyone. Nevertheless, the chair of the village council tends to avoid her at all costs and her path never crosses the Headmaster's. I can only assume that's its fear on the part of the chairman, although why I couldn't say. The Headmaster is another matter.

But that doesn't still the tide of privileged sixth- and seventh-years who trek through the village to her home. Every year like clockwork, as the holidays approach and especially when spring arrives, the pilgrimage begins. I've seen the students from my office window, trudging through snow, huddled together for warmth like geese or giggling and whispering as they race across the thawing grounds, jumpy as the colts on Uriah's farm. Neither inclement weather nor impending NEWTS can deter them.

She does not restrict her services by house. Attendance is only restricted by age. No one below sixth year is allowed. I can't recall hearing about a single instance of a Gryffindor participating. She draws a fair number of Ravenclaws though (presumably dragged there by Slytherin boyfriends or girlfriends still hoping to marry for love). And she gets a surprisingly high number of Hufflepuffs – hoping to marry up I guess. But her clientele is dominated by the Slytherins.

It makes sense. The other houses have their share of blood pure and impure little Fauntleroys, but the majority of the undisputed pureblood aristocracy resides in Slytherin. While perhaps half of those whelps have their marriages arranged at birth, a healthy portion – for reasons the families prefer to leave unexamined – remain unattached. Without the advantage of the Malfoy name or wealth, they need a discreet broker to get their children respectably, preferably profitably, wed. After all, these aren't just individuals marrying, these are estates joining. Then there is the matter of combining magical bloodlines. Abishag has no qualms about thoroughly vetting a students' blood purity, and where purity of blood is a premium, there the Slytherins will follow.

Most of the students go under the cover of their Hogsmeade visits. Out of respect for their Head of House, the Slytherins do their best to remain undetected by the other teachers, but everyone knows where they are going.

Filch certainly does. How do you think I found out? He told me everything in dribs and drabs over tea. He always does eventually. You'd be amazed how informative the crusty old git can be if you just show him a bit of consideration and warmth. I know the students generally despise him and that he can be a nasty old bastard. But they have a future. He doesn't. He couldn't even get into Cornwall for gods' sake! And I've seen what he has to live on. I count it out every single month. I wouldn't exactly be Mr. Sunshine either if I had to scrape by on that. So what if he might be supplementing his income by running a few discreet tasks for Abishag, maybe even slipping her the Hogsmeade visit schedule, who am I to question that? And if my ability to open an account at one of Gringotts' more obscure branches turns out to be useful to him, well, again, it's not my business to tell him how to live. Besides it's always good policy to help a co-worker…

The rest I sussed out from one of the Slytherin girls. The girls are Abishag's best promoters. Any of the uninvited who'd peep their head into Abishag's drawing room – and there have been one or two – would see students congregated at low tables, genders mixed, as Abishag walks them through the mind-taxing intricacies of luncheon, dinner or high tea. Apparently the silver settings are exquisite and self-correcting when their user flubs. On other occasions they congregate in the music parlor for dance lessons as Abishag bespells the creaky old Broadwood grand into playing itself. Students learn when to dress for which by subscribing to her newsletter.

In the old days, under Headmaster Dippet, she'd send invitations by special owl post which arrived, as all mail does, in the Great Hall. But the delivery caused so much dissension – boasting from those who'd received them, anguish from those who didn't, and the inevitable brawls between them – that Dippet eventually banned student participation altogether.

It didn't stop them. The students went anyway. And Madame Etiquette hardly paused to draw breath. Within weeks she was publishing her newsletter, insufferably titled To aTea.Buried amidst a deluge of fluffy articles on true-life social gaffes, agony-aunt advice, and sleep-inducing treatises on manners, is her all-important schedule of events accompanied by a gossipy list of previous young soiree guests. Her clients live for that schedule – that and the registry, printed in the back, with lists of names, ages and carefully worded profiles that hint at who is likely to inherit what. The gaffes and advice columns are for the students. The registry and treatises are for the parents. Both groups devour the events schedule and gossip.

For all their quaint backwardness – the cramped linotype, archaic English, line illustrations and lack of photos – they're notoriously hard to get. Dumbledore banned those decades ago as soon as he'd assumed office. It was part of his effort to actually enforce Dippet's ban. Despite that, the newsletter circulates clandestinely through the Slytherin dorms with near impunity. The girls are the main readers and distributors. They pass the word to the boys. I snagged a copy from one of the Slytherin girls who'd needed me to change her wizard money for Muggle currency, no questions asked. There's no rule on the books forbidding it so I thought, why not? She'd smirked when she'd handed it over – probably amused at the peasant's curiosity. But I didn't care. There's something...titillating about seeing behind the curtain, so to speak, of a class above your own.

All of which makes Madame Etiquette Severus' particular headache.

No matter what he tries Severus has never been able to quash either the newsletter or his students' participation. I suspect his heart isn't really in it. I mean think about it. The Slytherin parents approve. They have to. They surely don't send their children to school with enough money to cover the kinds of fees Abishag's charges. I wouldn't be surprised if she requires a Gringotts certified letter of credit to assure her that a student's parents can cover a first round of candidate introductions let alone negotiations and proposals. That's a significant financial commitment. So if Severus stops it, the Slytherin parents' wrath will fall on him. And what's the payoff? I suspect he takes the stance that there are much worthier battles to fight and simply gives lip service to the Headmaster.

The Headmaster is MUCH more vexed by Madame Etiquette. I can't figure out why.

True, professional matchmakers tend to be the province of overprivileged underworked wizards. I mean why actually earn – or in most cases, replenish – your fortune when you can simply marry it? Despite its arcane aura, matchmaking is a delicate, highly subtle exercise that actually takes immense amounts of knowledge and sophistication to execute successfully. Someone who'd dare to wade into those treacherous waters, infested with Slytherin sharks, has to have absolute faith in her skill. The potential for retaliatory hexes is just too great. The only way to gain such knowledge is to claim actual close kinship to one of her clients or their ancestors where she could have learned the knowledge everyday at home – or she could study it at Cornwall. Although as a student I scoffed at Cornwall's combined Etiquette, Genealogy and Archiving concentration, seeing it in action, even if at a distance, has changed my mind completely.

In her own way, Abishag is as deft and useful a magician as the Headmaster. Without her, parents would pressure the school to have more social events – more opportunities for matchmaking – which would stress the operating budget. Or parents would be continually removing their children from school so they could attend such events at home. Severus' administrative life would be hell and Slytherin grades would probably fall. In my opinion, Madame Etiquette is a necessary evil. The sooner the Headmaster makes peace with that, the less stressed he'll be.

Of course the Headmaster would disagree.

One day I made the mistake of asking his secretary why it matters so much to him.

Hester Hardwick is a scary woman. She lives in Hogsmeade and drags her old bones here every morning at the crack of dawn, rain, snow or shine, to attend the Headmaster. I don't know why since she's all but in her dotage; perhaps she didn't save enough for old age. She spends most of her day hunkered down in what I swear used to be a monk's cell. She sits buried under rolls of parchment and muttering under her breath as she plows through the Headmaster's endless correspondence. I'm sure he's offered her quarters in the castle. But more than one elf has run screaming from that chilly hole she calls an office. It doesn't matter what they're bringing: a warm lunch, a hot tea, extra firewood. She brings her own lunch. She makes her own tea. She tends her own fires and Merlin help anyone – house elf or Headmaster – who interferes. So I doubt she'd take kindly to any change in her routine. That's fine by me. Anything that takes a few knuts off the food and firewood bills just makes it that much easier for me to balance castle accounts.

We typically don't talk; she's fiercely protective of the Headmaster and suspicious of any non-Hogwarts person approaching without a scheduled appointment or a damned good reason. You'd think he was her own child. She adores Severus too. I don't know if it's because they're equally caustic personalities or because she knows something about him I don't. I don't know. I doubt I'll ever find out because I certainly don't have the nerve to ask.

I knew better than to tickle that particular dragon so I don't know what I was thinking when I blurted out my question.

"I mean what is so wrong with Madame Etiquette," I'd asked.

For a moment I thought she'd hex me where I stood. She has a wand, although it's as gnarled and knobby as she is. But she didn't. She didn't curse me. She didn't insult me. She didn't even yell. She simply paused – the first time I'd ever seen her interrupt her work for something frivolous like office gossip. For one long chilly moment she stared at me with her rheumy, spectacled eyes. Then she said: "It's the sort of thing You-Know-Who was trying to do. Weed out the weak and breed 'em like cattle." Then she went back to work as if I wasn't even there.

It took me a full day to stop shivering.

But I guess it explains why, every so often, the Headmaster has Hester circulate an oblique memo warning students away from participating in "obsolete social rites disguised as deportment lessons or traditionalist gatherings." Inevitably, in a raging non-coincidence, the current issue of Hogsmeade's Weekly Whistler runs a frustratingly timid piece questioning what really goes on in Madame's salon. Translation: Is Old Abishag duping parents into financing the use of her mansion as a comfy setting for some discreet shagging by their mostly underage children? The first time I'd read the Whistler's watered-down version of that, it had taken Poppy Pomfrey to make it plain for me. Because the medical supplies budget is non-negotiable – wizarding parents would have the Minister's head if we skimped on even a bandage for their little darlings – we've never had a run-in over the Infirmary's finances. And she came out of Hufflepuff. They're always friendly, bless their clueless little hearts.

She has relatives in Hogsmeade, so she and I occasionally walk together when I have to shop in the village. It was while we were trudging back that she enlightened me. "Haven't you ever noticed how many female students check into the Infirmary or go home about two months after a trip to Madame Etiquette's," she said. Thankfully it was winter because I'm sure I would have collected a swarm of flies instead of a mouthful of snow thanks to my dropped jaw. You'd think an accountant would actually be able to count wouldn't you? You can't stop teenagers from having sex and no matter how well you school them in the use of contraceptive charms, mistakes will be made – which Madame Pomfrey frequently has to fix. And since an unplanned pregnancy can frequently force a match where none would have happened, she explained, enough parents put up with Abishag since she gets them what they want. The purebloods especially, since their numbers aren't exactly growing. Apparently, Madame Etiquette was having more of an effect on the student body than I'd realized.

And suddenly I saw another reason for the Headmaster's vexation.

The days the memos and "expose" come out, I see an extra tightness around Severus' mouth and the Headmaster's bright smile seems especially brittle. Nothing is said. But everyone knows. I used to think the tension between the two men resulted from the Headmaster's anger at Severus for his failure to stop the newsletters and Severus' frustration with the Headmaster's concern over such a seemingly petty issue. But now...

...or rather then. That day. When I saw the two girls. I knew where they were going and, thanks to Poppy, I had a better idea of Madame's success rate. She was nearly as old as the Headmaster and she certainly wasn't living on family money. True, a Malfoy or a Black would never be seen there. And in truth the Broomall girl didn't need to be there either. Not by class, not by money. And I'm rather surprised that it never occurred to Severus to persuade Malfoy to match her with his little blonde brat. He's another favorite of Severus' – a fact I diligently try to ignore – and I'm sure Malfoy senior would express his appreciation financially if such a proposed match actually took. Something I heard about the girl's inheritance...But of course she has no living parents. So that's probably why she was being more or less dragged along to Madame Etiquette's by the pushy Raby girl who, thanks to her reportedly murky lineage, probably needed more help in finding a potential mate.

He'd seen them too. He'd stopped dead, frozen, as his gaze followed the two girls into the distance. I couldn't interpret the expression on his face but I had a fair idea of what he was thinking. It wasn't the usual fear of possibly having to send a student to the infirmary to correct a potentially catastrophic mistake or, worse, having to send her home with an incomplete education. No. He was thinking: I'm losing her.

And then he'd executed one of his razor sharp turns, robes swirling against the wind, and gone straight into the Hog's Head.

Praise Merlin for Madame Etiquette!

I didn't even hesitate.

He's bitingly funny. And, yes, scary. It makes my mind spin to imagine if he was the Headmaster of Hogwarts. He skewers his colleagues so deliciously! I'll never be able to look at Prof. Sinistra with a straight face again. He freely acknowledges his reputation among the students as the "greasy git" and the "bat of the dungeons." He said he prefers to see himself as the dungeon master. I nearly fell of my stool laughing. Then he gave me a rundown of the tortures he'd inflict if he could. By the time he'd finished describing – with terrifying exactitude – how he'd slow-roast Minerva McGonagall in a combination of Muggle kitty litter and catnip, someone was scraping me off the floor. I should have been appalled. I suppose if I were a Hufflepuff I would have run a mile. If I were a Ravenclaw I'd have started questioning him on his sanity. If I were a Gryffindor I'd probably have thrown a drink in his face and walked out on him then and there. And if I were a Slytherin he would have told me nothing because he knows I'd have stored up every bit of data to use as a weapon against him later.

But I'm not any of those.

I come from the four corners of Cornwall. We don't warrant houses, we have corners. I was educated in the Civics and Commerce Corner. Uriah occupied the Crafts and Industry Corner where the aspiring carpenters, stone masons and metallurgists resided. If my hunch is right, I'm sure Madame Etiquette, graduated – generations ago – from the Instructional Protocol and Pedagogy Corner.

We hated the corners. Not the system, the name. The teachers said it was a play on the school name. After all, the motto is Cornwall stands on the four corners of practice, perseverance, pragmatism and possibility. Inspiring…it isn't. We students thought it was a bad joke, a cosmic pun on our fates. Hogwarts students get to live in houses. We get shoved into corners.

I don't want to stay in the corner anymore.

So I followed him. And I baited him. And I bedded him. Not all at once. Not even all in the same week. But that was the start.

Author's End Notes:

* This is NOT canon. According to the HP Lexicon, it costs seven galleons to purchase a wand. I was questioned about this and learned that some fans wondered how Ollivander could afford to live comfortably charging so little. I assume that he couldn't and so must charge more.

**According to the Lexicon, goblins are not allowed to carry wands. The part about the Goblin Rebellions I just made up. A quick search of the Lexicon didn't appear to tell me what specifically the rebellions were about, especially the one of 1612 which is the one I'm thinking of.

***According to the Lexicon, Ron's first wand was a hand-me-down from his older brother Charlie. After the Whomping Willow incident, the perpetually cash-strapped Weasleys got Ron a new wand with funds obtained by winning the Daily Prophet lottery. How convenient, lol. I'm not saying whether I believe that or not but thanks to H for raising the issue so I'd have a chance to make that little mention as factually accurate as possible. Since I've inflated the canon price of the wand to something I believe is more realistic I guess the lottery money would be sorely needed. Don't know if they'll still get to take the trip to Egypt though.

Thanks MUCHLY to P and H for their open, accepting and enthusiastic support! Their love of Part 1 completely took me by surprise since I had imagined Demeter Spencer as a throwaway character. I would never have added Part 2 without their encouragement. I don't expect this to go past Part 3 and perhaps an epilogue, but the Muse might have other ideas!