AN: Here's a little something for the lovely people that have been threatening me with dire consequences if I don't post something soon. It's un-beta'd, so no blaming my usual crew if you see a spot of yuk. I hope to start posting my next major story soon. It's a bit discombobulated at the moment and won't be posted until it's complete since it's been fighting me tooth and nail the whole way. Sláinte.
'Keep your old DA Galleon close. I need your help.
Hermione looked at the note Ron's pitiful owl had just delivered. Her brows first knit together and then sprang apart. She looked around her tiny flat and tried to remember where she had put the shoe box she kept all her old school mementos in.
It was two silent days later when Hermione Apparated to the lane behind Eeylops Owl Emporium. Harry arrived on her heels with a soft pop. They hadn't seen each other since Christmas at the Burrow. They exchanged warm greetings quickly before getting down to the heart of the matter.
"Do you know what this is about?" he asked, holding up his DA Galleon.
Hermione just shrugged. "He never replied to any of my owls and no one was home when I floo called."
"Same for me. Ginny couldn't reach him or Lavender either." They both turned at the sound of a third apparition.
"I knew I could count on you two!" Ron blurted. He ran towards his friends and gathered them into an emotional hug. He looked terrible, his hair was a fright and his face reflected both lack of sleep and deep anxiety. "Something's wrong with Lav. I need your help. This is as far as I can ever track her and then she disappears. I think she's been placed under an Imperius!" He started to sob.
"Slow down, Ron," said Harry, hugging him back hard. "Let's just take a minute and you tell us what's going on. We're here for you. We'll help."
It took a while for Ron's constant jumble of words to make any sense but eventually Hermione had the story as he knew it, and she was worried.
Hermione felt awful seeing his despair. Sure, Ron drove her crazy most days, and Lavender always managed to set her teeth on edge, but they had something Hermione always envied: a happy marriage. Ron and Harry had both settled down to domesticated bliss, while Hermione had merely…settled. She'd always thought she wouldn't mind if Lavender fell off the face of the planet, but seeing Ron's pain, she hated herself a little for the thought. Lavender might drive Hermione to tears with her vapid air, but she had never seemed the type to keep secrets before. She was too stupid. Hermione began to wonder if something wasn't really wrong after all. When Harry pledged their help, Hermione nodded enthusiastically.
"Ow! Get off my foot, Ron!"
"I will if Harry get's his elbow out of my gut. Watch it! You're dropping your corner!"
"I can't move my elbow. Hermione's arse is too big."
"Harry's right, Mi. You've been letting yourself go a bit. If you just found yourself a bloke-"
"Can we please keep our minds on task," Hermione hissed.
"Remind me why we're hiding behind my cloak and not disillusioned again?"
"So she won't see the shimmer! I think she suspects that I suspect. Or something."
"Oh, we really are pants at this," Hermione said disgustedly as she dropped her end of Harry's invisibility cloak. "I still say we need to hire an expert. We've been following Lavender for a week and I can't keep playing sick without getting sacked at the Ministry."
"Who'd notice you're missing? You spend all your time in the archives," sniped Ron.
"I hate you both. I'm throwing this Galleon out as soon as I get my fat arse back to the archives."
"I hate to break it to you Ron, but she's right. We're too out of practice with sneaking. It's been too long. We need help."
"We can figure it out! We always could! We're the Golden Trio!"
"Apparently some of us have been packing on more gold than others."
"Stop pouting, Hermione. We're here for you Ron, but we need a better idea. We've been at it for days with nothing to show for it. We should hire the Private Investigator Hermione found. There was a money-back guarantee."
"But we don't know him! I don't want some stranger mucking about in my business!"
"His advertisement said he's strictly confidential. Wand oaths and everything," Hermione reassured him. Ron heaved a sigh as his shoulders slumped.
"Alright, if you think I should."
"We do," said Harry emphatically.
Hermione tried not to look out of place as she sat on the stool and sipped her drink. She twirled her DA Galleon nervously as she scanned the darkened room using the mirror behind the bar. Only the old prostitute and the drunken wizard in the corner could be seen. Harry and Ron were somewhere nearby but she couldn't find them. How they managed to cover themselves completely with that cloak she didn't know. They'd all had their feet and elbows sticking out for days.
She contemplated her own reflection. For twenty-six she managed to pull off a convincing thirty-four. Her hair was pulled back into its usual knot at the back of her head and although it wasn't gray yet, it had lost it's youthful honey brown. If it had to be described, 'mouse' was the best one could come up with. Her features didn't seem that different, with the exception of being slightly blurry. She had recently become aware that she needed glasses. An image of Headmistress McGonagall popped into her mind and she winced.
The coin slipped out of her fingers and rolled across the polished wood. Just as she lunged for it, a pale hand snatched it up and, with a deft twirl, held it out to her between two long fingers.
"Miss Granger. I got your message."
His voice was the same and yet different. Deep and resonant, as always, it now had a subtle rasp from Nagini's bite. She stared at him rudely for a moment. He also seemed different, yet the same. The years had hardly touched him, but he looked healthier in a way that wasn't easily identified. He was still thin, still pale, still fastidiously unkempt. His nose was still frightful and his hair still lank, although he seemed to favor it slightly longer than his teaching days. It was his countenance that seemed changed. He seemed less terrifying and less repellant. He was just an awkward-looking gentleman waiting patiently for a response.
She felt her usual stab of envy when she encountered someone from the old days. Even he had weathered these last eight years much better than she had.
His glittering black eyes watched her expectantly.
"You work for Prince Private Investigations?"
"I am Prince Private Investigations."
"Oh. Of course. I'm so stupid."
He just looked at her and raised an eyebrow. She reached for the coin he still held and was surprised at how warm his fingers were as her own slid across them. He seemed nonplussed as well for a moment before he looked around the room and then jerked his head at the closest table.
"Come, let's sit so you can tell me what I need to know." He signaled the bartender and then moved away from her with an almost ghostly glide.
She grabbed her drink and the napkin tagged along, stuck to the bottom with moisture. It flapped in the breeze as she walked and made her feel even more like an awkward amateur. She snatched at it and wadded it up in her hand where it nestled against the coin she still held.
She sat down across from him and placed her drink before her on the table. He waited until his own drink was delivered by an ugly man with a Goblin in his bloodline somewhere.
"So enlighten me, Miss Granger. Missing loved one? Lost relative? Can't find the latest volume of Arithmantic Artistry? Or perhaps, Fate be kind, you have a real dilemma that might actually be interesting."
Hermione cringed at his tone of voice but when she worked up the nerve to look at him she found that he wasn't, in fact, sneering as his tone suggested. He appeared rather calm and patient and even a touch…amused. She took a deep breath and then yelped as the Galleon heated up unexpectedly. She dropped it but then slapped her hand over it quickly before Snape could read whatever message the idiots thought important.
"Actually, I sincerely hope it is as boring as you fear, Mr. Snape. But whatever is going on, a friend of mine is hurting over it and I can't seem to help. So I'm turning to you."
"And this friend of yours, I assume he also has one of these old coins from your Dumbledore's Army days?"
He reached out his hand expectantly. She found herself sheepishly dropping the Galleon into his palm like an illicit bit of school contraband. He held it up so they could both read the lettering around the edges that read: Don't tell Snape anything!
"Let me guess, Longbottom? I remember hearing the two of you were gossip fodder. Helping your beau?" Offended by his mocking tone, she snatched at the coin but he twitched his hand just enough to elude her.
"No, Neville and I parted amicably two years ago. And haven't seen much of each other since."
"Weasley then. Surely you aren't still running his errands? It can't be Potter, he would have come to me directly if only to prove he could." She made another futile grab for the coin. This time Snape seemed openly amused as he snatched his hand away. Suddenly he flinched and she grabbed his wrist before prying the Galleon from his hand. She was a bit shocked by her own audacity. She never would have foreseen her taking such liberties with his person.
The Galleon was still warm and the new inscription read: Stop messing with her, you git.
His amusement evaporated.
"Weasley," he spat. He grabbed his glass up and drained it in one go. "I'm sorry for wasting your time, Miss Granger, but I suddenly find my schedule rather full up." He stood up and started to turn away from the table but she reached over and grabbed his hand again.
"Please, don't go." She found herself staring at their hands. Again she was surprised by how warm and soft his were. She would have thought them cold and calloused from the life he had been forced to live during the war. She looked up and found him staring at her intently. "Please," she repeated.
He looked around the room in anger before sitting back down. He didn't shrug off her hand until he was seated.
"Tell me; what did Weasley drag you into this time?" His voice was still angry, but something about his expression told her it wasn't directed at her. She took a deep breath and told him the story from the beginning. The very beginning.
"And that's why I couldn't stand being around them anymore. The lot of them. Neville couldn't understand; it's what split us up. But I just got so tired of it all. The endless parading out of 'The Good Old Days' that got shinier with each telling. Being made to watch them all live happily ever after. I would rather live a boring life now than spend my days rehashing what was, in actuality, a rather psychotic childhood." She drained her second glass before picking up the Galleon and twirling it on the table top. "So I turned away from them all. I buried myself in my work at the Ministry, and, according to Harry and Ron, I let myself get fat."
"You hardly qualify as fat, Miss Granger," Snape drawled as he took another sip of his glass. "Self-pity is beneath you. You made mature, well thought out choices in your life. Whinging now just smacks of attention seeking. If you're unhappy, then change. Now tell me, how did the Spinster Cat Lady get caught up in Weasley's latest misadventure?"
Hermione blushed furiously at his epithet and then even deeper as she realized they had been talking for almost an hour and she still hadn't gotten to the point. Snape was remarkably easy to talk to. Who would have thought?
"That's easy, he simply asked for my help. I hadn't seen any of them since the obligatory Christmas at the Burrow, but one morning his owl just showed up with a short message telling me he needed me. It never even occurred to me to say no. He and Harry are my oldest friends. Despite my own personal issues, and despite their sometimes hurtful words, I would never turn my back on them in need."
For the first time, she clearly saw her old professor. He stiffened up and sneered at her, saying, "How Hufflepuff of you." Hermione felt the shift in his mood like a sting. She pulled back from the table and wrapped her arms around her ribs as he finished his second glass of Fire Whiskey. "Give me the details of the case, if you would." She nodded at his order and started to comply.
"Well, it's rather confusing actually. On the surface, it seems almost trivial, but knowing the people involved, I have to say I'm rather worried."
"It started a few weeks ago. At first it was a pleasant change. According to Ron, Lavender started to act rather happy, bursting with energy and bubbling with enthusiasm over the slightest thing, just like when they were newlyweds. Before she-" she stopped and lowered her voice. "Before she found out she couldn't have children. He was happy as well. Who wouldn't be? She had been an astoundingly happy newlywed." She couldn't help the irritated grimace when she remembered Lavender as a bride. She still had the hideous dress. She had several of them. Funny how she never actually could find an occasion to wear even one of them again, despite desperate assurances to the contrary.
"Anyhow, Ron didn't even start to worry when she evaded his many questions on what had brought about her changed mood. Not until she finally got mad at him for asking. Lavender would get mad at the weather for making a cloud when she didn't want one, but she could never manage to get mad at Ron until this change. I'm sure he was shocked speechless.
"She became evasive and eventually defensive and surly. When he dropped the subject completely, she perked right back up. He left it at that for a while. Then one day, when he was doing yard work, he found a shoe in the gutter of the house. He found the mate in the hedgerow. He'd never seen the shoes before. When he asked her about them she snatched them away and gave him a lame excuse. He knew then that she was lying. Ron probably comes across as a little thick in this story, but it's because he trusted her blindly. He loves her to bits.
"Eventually, his territorial male woke up and he started popping home in the middle of the day unexpectedly. What he found confused him. He had been preparing himself for another man, but he found an unfamiliar house-elf instead. The elf completely ignored him and went about the house doing all the chores that Lavender usually did. She was no where to be found."
"What did she say when he confronted her about it?" Snape asked.
"He didn't. He just started to watch her closer."
"That shows a restraint I wouldn't have thought him capable of," Snape commented, pointing at the Galleon with its immature message.
"True, but Ron's strength was always strategy and he wasn't ready to show his hand. He left for George's shop the next day as if he was off to work as usual, but he doubled back and hid in the hedgerow. She left the house fifteen minutes later. He's been trying to find out where she goes for two weeks now. He finally asked me and Harry for help last week."
"And what as the Golden Trio figured out so far?"
"Well, wherever she goes, she keeps regular hours. She always leaves fifteen minutes after Ron, and is always home an hour before he's expected. She's only gone weekdays, never on weekends. I haven't been able to find traces of any strangers in his house. No one has been able to get the house-elf to talk, so we don't know where it came from or who it belongs to."
"Aside from her daily disappearances, what else has he mentioned about her behavior?"
"Well, here's where I get confused. If she was cheating on him with another man, I would have thought she would either be impatient with him, or overly loving to throw him off the scent. But he swears that as long as he doesn't bring it up, then it's like they've just fallen in love all over again. So the only thing you can point to is that she's become secretive, deceitful, and oddly happy in her marriage when she's not taking off for parts unknown. Oh, and he reported that occasionally there is a strange smell in the house, though neither Harry nor I could detect it over all the potpourri."
"Ron's afraid she's been put under some kind of spell, or being made to do something dreadful, but we've not been able to find any traces. Four days running we've hidden out and each day we lost her. I have no idea where she's going or why she's going there, but my friend is devastated and I feel like I have to do something to help."
"Have you tried simply asking her? Woman to woman, so to speak?"
Hermione reacted like he had suggested she should kiss a toad.
"I'm afraid girl talk isn't my forte. Ginny tried but didn't get anywhere."
Snape gave her that look again. The one that let her know she had amused him slightly. She wondered if that was as happy as his face could go.
"What about her other friends? Have you talked to them?"
"Ron talked to Parvati but she didn't seem to know anything, nor had she noticed anything strange. No one seems to have noticed a thing but Ron."
"What would you like me to do, Miss Granger?"
"I'd like you to find out where she goes. I'd like to know if she's in any danger. Ron needs to know, regardless of what it is. Even another man. Not knowing is grinding him down." She picked up the Galleon and stared at it as if the answer to everything was written on it. Snape plucked it out of her fingers.
"I'll see what I can do," he said. His eyes grew intense for just a fleeting moment, before they shut her out completely. "You have been apprised of my fee schedule. I will start tomorrow. I need to do a bit more background research. You'll be hearing from me soon." He reached into his sleeve and pulled out his wand.
"Do you have any idea already? Any suspicions?"
"Yes. I have a very good idea, but I will refrain from making assumptions until I have more facts. You can tell Mr. Weasley that it is my opinion that his wife is actually not in any sort of danger. Who will be paying my fee?"
"I am. Hiring an investigator was my idea."
"That's a bit unfortunate. I was looking forward to gouging the fool." Hermione giggled and then clapped a hand over her mouth. Bantering with her old teacher was something she found a bit confusing. She wasn't sure which reactions would be considered appropriate. She stood up and smoothed down her robes.
"Do you want my address? In case you need to send me an owl?" she asked.
"No need," he said in a clipped tone. He pointed his wand at the coin in his hand and a spark shot off the tip and enveloped the Galleon. Twin yelps of pain were heard from the other side of the room and Harry's head and Ron's arms appeared first in a darkened booth as they both slapped at their pockets. Snape sneered and dropped the coin back down on the table. Hermione watched Snape as he headed for the door without sparing even a glance for the other two. When the last glimpse of black cloak disappeared out the door, she turned and looked at the coin. It now read: Selfish cowards.
Hermione stood naked in front of the mirror with a towel on her head. Her three hungry cats, all descendants of her departed Crooks, threaded themselves between her feet.
She examined her body with a critical eye. Why she was doing so was excused as practicality. Everyone needed to take a moment and make sure they were still the same person as the last time. It had nothing at all to do with a night full of dreams that included soft, warm hands with long fingers. Or remarkably patient listeners.
She frowned at what she saw. Once she had been willow-thin with subtle curves in the right place. Now, she was overly curvy. Or so she thought. Her thighs had thickened and her arse had grown. Her breasts were larger and gravity gave them a slight sag. Her belly was mostly flat but a slight pooch had developed. At least she still went in in the middle. She lifted up her arms like a body builder and then shook them, frowning at the jiggle under her arms.
"Something needs to be done, lads. If this trend continues I'll end up looking like one of those little fertility fetishes that always turn up in some field." The cats wisely held their counsel.
She dragged the towel off her head and her wet curls splattered her in the face before falling to her waist. She raked her fingers through them and then pushed it all out of the way and made her way to her chest of drawers.
Fifteen minutes and three fed cats later, she was headed out the door in a loose fitting jogging suit and trainers.
Hermione flopped down on the bench, exhausted. She had decided to start slow and just stick to power walking, but she'd underestimated just how out of shape she had allowed herself to get. She was only a mile from her flat but she was pretty sure there was no returning home unless a nap was involved beforehand. She watched the other people in the small park. They were all busy and active, either fast-walking or jogging, or chasing after children, or pushing them in strollers. Several managed a combination. They made her feel even more tired. Tired, and frumpy and lonely.
Ever since her meeting with Mr. Snape yesterday, Hermione had grown increasingly aware that she wasn't just alone anymore, she was lonely. Why else would she have found herself blathering endlessly to her old teacher? She'd known him for years, of course, but not in that capacity. If she needed to suddenly talk about her woes, why pick a virtual stranger? And why dream about him after?
She let out a small groan thinking about how much of a fool she'd made of herself. The man probably thought she was a complete idiot. He'd shown up to take on a job and she'd dumped eight years of personal angst in his lap and then perved on his hands. She really was pathetic. She leaned forward and cradled her head in her hands, letting her still damp hair fall forward and shelter her from the world.
She heard a mother and toddler stroll up. The child chattered on about how much a shiny, new balloon would make him eat carrots. The mother laughed indulgently just before a weight settled on to the bench.
Hermione's threshold for domestic bliss was at an all time low. She really didn't want to share her bench with a cherub and a paragon of motherhood, but she was too tired to get up and walk away. She decided to try for the unwelcoming glare and hope they ran away. If that didn't work, she'd try a small Muggle-repelling charm. She lifted her head.
"Mr. Snape! How did you find me?" He was parked on the other end of the bench. Relaxing, seemed a better word. He had one leg crossed over the other and an arm draped languidly along the back. He wore Muggle clothes, but of a cut and style closely resembling his usual attire, complete with loose-fitting black overcoat.
He gave her a look signifying his disappointment in her intellect.
"I assumed you hired me because I could find things, Miss Granger. It's what I do."
She straightened up and dragged at her hair.
"Forgive me. I'm not having a good morning."
"Difficulty sleeping?" Something in the way he phrased the question set her into a small panic. Did he know? Merlin! He could read minds! But didn't he need a wand to do that? Stop looking into his eyes, you daft moo! She jerked her face away from him and stared at a particularly homely looking child on a swing.
"Just worried about Ron. What are you doing here? How can I be of service?"
He paused long enough that she turned to look at him.
"I need some information. I'd rather get it from you than Weasley." He held up a hand when she began to protest his opinion. "His answers would be colored by their shared intimacy. You are more objective."
"Oh. Of course."
"I would rather we walked. I find the sound of infants repellent."
"I would love to accommodate you but I'm afraid I can't. I thought I would take up a bit of exercise and I fear I've done myself in. I can't move."
He smirked at her. She caught the amused glint in his eye again and wondered if it had always been there and she had just never seen it when she'd been a student. He reached inside his coat and pulled out a vial and held it out to her.
She plucked it out of his hand without making skin contact. No use making herself even more ridiculous than she already had. His hand dropped away suddenly.
"Thank you. You're very thoughtful."
"Don't be a dunderhead. I'm just well prepared, and I'll be including that potion in my fees."
Hermione couldn't stop the hurt expression that chased across her face. She turned away and drank the potion. Her body felt invigorated immediately, despite that not being the purpose of the potion.
She handed the vial back to him. "Infused with Pepperup? How did you avoid the bases not canceling each other out?"
He raised one eyebrow as he reached for the vial.
"Moonstone," he replied. His palm brushed against her fingers as he enveloped his hand around the vial. She tried not to react. He stood up from the bench and when she saw he was going to offer her his hand she bolted up beside him. He smirked and gestured back along the pavement. "Shall we?"
She started down the walk and he fell into step beside her. The breeze made her aware of his scent. Cologne? Aftershave? Shampoo? No, not shampoo. Now she was just getting carried away. He didn't smell this good yesterday. Did he? Perhaps he had and she'd been too distracted by his hands to notice.
"Tell me what you remember of our former Miss Brown, Granger. Every detail you can think of." She tried to get a grip on how happy she was that he seemed to be less formal with her and remember it was just a business arrangement.
"Well, I know a good bit. We shared a room at school. Some of it's not very flattering."
"I want everything from you, Granger."
She stumbled on a crack in the pavement.
"Of course they were lavender! What other color would she choose? Poor Ginny looked even worse, at least my hair didn't clash. And there were these huge bows everywhere and leg-o-mutton sleeves. In June! I looked like a right idiot."
"Yet you still have the dress, don't you?"
"Yep. I have them all. Ginny's, Lavender's, Parvati and Padma's saris, Cho's. I haven't a clue why; they're hideous. No, the sari's were beautiful. I turned them into curtains."
She gestured behind her to the bay window near the entrance to the building. Three ginger cats were staring holes through the glass.
"Oh! There they are. That's Wynken, Blynken and Nod. My helpers in my quest for Crazy Cat Lady status." They had reached the steps. She was reluctant to end the conversation. "Would you like to come in? I haven't had breakfast yet. Are you hungry? You can tell me all about yourself and what you are up to these days. I've told you everything there is to know about me."
He gave her that amused look again but backed away.
"I have some things I need to see to. Perhaps another time. I thank you for your cooperation, I gleaned nearly everything I needed to know from your words."
Hermione felt her stomach sink and chided herself.
"Oh, well, I'm glad I could help. Do you really think Lavender is alright?"
"Yes, Miss Granger. I do. I will contact you on Monday. I suspect I will have your answers then."
"That soon?" She was furious with herself for how disappointed she felt. Ron's peace of mind was infinitely more important than her enjoyment of Snape's company. Wanting to prolong the investigation just so she could speak to him more often was ghoulish.
"That's my belief. I wouldn't want to drag it out longer. My services are costly enough."
"Oh. Yes, of course. Would you like to use my flat to Apparate? There really aren't any good places to hide out on the street here."
"I'll be fine. I have a passing nostalgia for Muggle means occasionally."
"Right, well then…I'll look forward to hearing from you."
"Indeed. Good day, Miss Granger."
"Good day, Mr. Snape. Enjoy the rest of your weekend."
He gave her a stiff nod and turned away.
She turned and shoved the key in the lock, hurried into her flat and ran straight over to the window, where she peeked out from the shadowed side.
Snape strode across the road. His long hair flapping heavily in time with his steps. He passed a pretty woman who turned and gave him a blatantly appraising stare that set Hermione's teeth on edge. Once he gained the kerb on the other side, getting blurrier by the foot, he turned suddenly and lifted his arm. Hermione smiled and started to raise her hand until she saw a taxi slid to a halt in front of him. He got in without any sign that he knew she was watching. She felt empty as it drove out of sight. She really did need to get a grip.
She really needed to get glasses as well.
Hermione was deep in the archives when a chime sounded reminding her it was time for lunch. She pushed the files on Centaur Treaties to the side and heaved herself up and away from the table she'd been sitting at. She blinked as she looked around. There had been a few people here when she'd come in this morning. She was unaware as to when they had left. She frowned in disappointment. She frequently became lost in her research, but she had wanted to try and strike up a conversation or two. It had been part of her plan. The one she had spent all day Sunday putting together. The one that was supposed to change her life. Snape had told her that if she was unhappy then she should change. He had made it sound so simple. He obviously hadn't factored in her own inertia.
She made her way down to the cafeteria behind a group of people she was too tired to try and catch up with. The door swung shut in her face. She grabbed the handle and pulled but an arm came over her shoulder and pushed it closed again.
"Come with me, Granger. You don't want to eat that muck anyway."
She felt the bright smile that bloomed across her entire face as she turned toward Mr. Snape. It was almost painful, since it had been so long since she had smiled that hard. His arm was still on the door and so he was very, very close. Her whole being lit up with awareness of his proximity.
He seemed oblivious.
"I have something to show you," he said in a brusque tone as he pushed off the door and walked away.
She shoved her scrambled thoughts into a box and took off after him.
"Is it about Lavender?" she asked as they reached the lift.
"What other reason would there be?" he answered with irritation.
Hermione kept her silence after that. She merely squeaked when he grabbed her arm and Apparated them both to the alley behind Eeylops Owl Emporium.
"Can I interest you in a good curry?" Snape asked as he looked around the alley before moving to the back wall.
Hermione nodded before realizing he couldn't see her. "That would be lovely," she replied. She was thoroughly confused as to how she should behave. Was he taking her to Lavender? Was he taking her to lunch? There was no curry in the Wizarding World. And yet, here they were, in Diagon Alley. Perhaps he would show her Lavender's secret and then take her to lunch? Would it be considered a date? She patted at her hair.
"Sometime today would be good, Miss Granger. I was under the impression you only ever took a forty minute lunch." Hermione spun around to see that he had opened a hole in the back wall of the alley. It led into a darkened tunnel. She hurried after him, wondering why he knew she only ever took forty minutes when she was allowed an hour.
Once inside the tunnel, he tapped on the wall and it closed up behind them, leaving her completely in the dark.
"Lumos!" He was standing right beside her again. Very close indeed. Her heart started to beat wildly, either because of the sudden darkness, or because-no, it was because of the sudden darkness. His wand-light set his black eyes to glittering and she was utterly captivated by them. By him. She was a lost cause. He was studying her intently. She wanted him to kiss her. She suddenly wanted that more than anything in the world. Instead, he turned away and pointed his wand at what looked like a battered and broken wardrobe leaning against a wall with a large crack running down it. She blinked furiously as she walked over and examined the clothes neatly stored in it.
"Some of these clothes belong to Lavender. Ginny gave her this sweater. I don't understand the others though."
"They're all hers. She changes when she gets here in the morning and before she returns home."
"I'll show you, but first I must do something, if you'll allow it."
"Alright," she said without hesitation. He approached her and flicked his wand, cancelling his Lumos. She felt his spell as it hit her. He repeated the spell, she assumed on himself. When he relit the tip of his wand she took a step back until understanding stopped her. A glamour. He had cast one on her as well.
"This way," he said, leading her over to a door in the wall of the tunnel.
They stepped out into a brightly lit utility cupboard. Hermione pulled her robes in closer to avoid the mop bucket and precariously piled broom handles. It wouldn't do for her to look like she was wearing trousers and knock things over with her skirts. She had caught her reflection in the stainless steel towel dispenser and saw a typical London business woman. Unremarkable in every way. Her shoulders slumped a little. She followed the non-descript man with thinning blonde hair out of the room.
They made their way out of an old office building and down a side street until they came to a small Indian restaurant named Ustakhadus Patil's. They sat down at a small table near the back. Snape had requested this exact table even though there were better ones available and Hermione was constantly distracted by the staff bustling in and out of the kitchen.
She hadn't said a word since the tunnel, just followed his confusing lead, trusting in the fact that he knew what he was doing and would tell her in his own good time.
She had a hard time looking at him. He seemed physically repellant to her and she wondered if that was a part of the glamour. He perused the menu quickly and then pushed it to the side in favor of staring at the kitchen door.
"This place seems rather new from the look of it," she said.
"It is. It just opened a few weeks ago."
"What would you recommend?"
"I wouldn't have a clue. I haven't eaten here yet."
"How did you find out about it? Was it recommended? Or do you enjoy trying out new places?"
"I followed their Day Manager here this morning. She also pitches in as a prep cook. Tell, me Miss Granger, do you have any clue what Ustakhadus translates to?" She shook her head. "The word is not native to India, but it denotes a particularly fragrant plant. Any guesses?"
They intensity of his gaze clued her in. "Lavender."
"Right in one."
Hermione blinked. "That's the big mystery? She opened a restaurant?" Hermione looked at the embossed menu again. "Patil. Which one? Padma or Parvati?"
"Both. They're all partners."
Hermione felt anger start to infuse her confusion. "This was the big mystery?" she repeated. "She put us through hell for damned restaurant? What the hell is wrong with her?" Hermione slapped the menu down and got up. She was caught between storming into the kitchen or storming out onto the street. She chose the latter.
She stomped down the street in a cloud of anger. She wasn't even aware of when she had walked out of the range of his glamour until she started getting stares for the way she was dressed. She looked down and saw her familiar, plain robes. She growled.
She had been so worried. Ron had been devastated. Harry and Ginny had been sick with fear, and it was all over nothing. Just some stupid, domestic drama that she could have easily been spared. Her stomach growled in anger as well. She turned towards a chip shop she saw down the street. She'd sworn off grease as part of her plan, but to hell with it. And to hell with her plan.
She stood patiently on line and when her turn came she ordered the Chips and Cheese plate and the rice pudding with plum. And a Diet Coke. She stepped aside to wait for her order and heard a familiar voice order fish and chips. She sighed. Of course he was there. He seemed to always be there now. But not even remotely in the way she was beginning to become obsessed with.
She held onto her food until his was ready and then they both made their way to a filthy booth where she slammed her plastic tray down and knocked over her drink. Snape caught it, sacrificing the white cuff of his sleeve.
"I feel like such a fool." she said as she dropped down into the booth like a puppet with its strings cut. "You probably think I am a fool as well."
"Why? For caring about your friend? Why is that foolish?" She looked up and saw just the slightest hint of warmth in his eyes. "You might have realized by my history that I rather value loyalty." He looked down and set his plates on the table with precise movements and then put his tray on table behind them with barely a glance.
"You knew she'd just went off and got a job from the beginning didn't you?"
"I suspected. Listening to you talk on Saturday solidified my suspicions."
"That stupid cow. She almost ruined her marriage with her secrets."
"For a woman who twice ran away from the odor of domesticity I'm a bit surprised by your attitude. An intuitive man might even infer that you were slightly jealous of her life and angry that she would risk sacrificing it."
Hermione didn't respond to the well-placed barb. She buried herself in her food.
"I think you might be more understanding if you knew why she did what she did."
"You know? You've talked to her already?"
"No, but I am an intuitive man. The answer is obvious. You gave it to me. She simply lacked a purpose. Mrs. Weasley would have been content to be a full-time wife and mother. To use her creativity in the pursuit of a new way to prepare the Sunday roast or teach her children their letters. She was what you could never be. Easily contented. But a large part of her life plan was taken away from her by fate. She needed more than just the Sunday roast to feel like she had a place in this universe. Weasley told you she was suddenly happy. Just like the days before. She found a way to use the part of her that had been left to rusticate."
"But why the secrets? Why not just tell him?"
"Why did you and Weasley part ways after the war?"
It took only a moment for her to understand.
"Because Ron needed to be the provider and didn't want me to work."
"I doubt he ever changed his tune. He just found a wife who shared his philosophy right up until she didn't anymore. She tried to have it both ways. She wanted to protect him from her truth. She simply needs more."
Hermione closed her eyes and felt her anger recede.
"You seem to know a lot about people. I suspect you've seen this same story played out in many ways in your line of work."
He nodded. "I have. I learned to read people in order to survive during the war. Understanding human beings came along with it. It makes my job almost boringly simple. That and my skills at skulking around together with my prodigious brain." She looked up to see his amused look coupled with a smirk that could almost be a smile. Almost. She laughed.
"You're a humble one, aren't you?"
"Why should I be? Arrogance served me badly. Humility didn't do me much good either. Sticking to the truth about myself seems to have worked out."
They were both silent for a while after that pronouncement. The silence became a weight pressing on her. She flailed around for something to talk about.
"So how did you become a Private Investigator?" He seemed grateful for the change in topic as well.
"After I recovered from that damnable snake, the Ministry set me the task of tracking down my former brethren. At first it was part of my probation. After my year was up, they started to pay me. They still do. A lot. There is always someone who does a bunk, or a foreign villain that tries to start fresh in a new country. When the Aurors are constrained by their rulebook, they hire me. Cases like yours are just a bit of side work for monies to spend on holiday." She smiled as she watched him finish his drink. Snape drinking through a straw was more charming than was proper or correct.
"Did you ever find out about the house-elf?"
"No. But there was an elf nest in that abandoned tunnel. I suspect she found it. We won't know more unless we question her on it."
"So what do you think should happen now?" she asked, dragging a last chip through the salt on her plate.
"That depends on what you would prefer. Do you want me to tell Weasley? Or do you want the honors?"
"I think I would prefer you to tell him, but I'll be there to back you up." Snape gave her an odd look.
"Do you think I will need 'back up'?" he asked.
"No. But I will probably want your back to hide behind when the fur flies," she answered, candidly.
He scowled at her. "When did you become cowardly, Granger?"
Stung, she recoiled into the pain and anger that she hadn't yet sorted through. "When I realized how much life could hurt me, Snape." She piled her mess onto a tray and stood up. "I will contact your office after I've spoken to Harry. I'll let you know the whens and wheres for telling Ron. Maybe Harry will volunteer and spare you. If that's the case, then you can tally up your bill and send it my way." She dumped her garbage in the bin and stacked her tray on top before turning back to him. He had a guarded, almost wary, expression on his face. "Thank you for what you've done. I'm very grateful. And I will go ahead and say that I have enjoyed our various conversations and I hope our paths cross again in the future. Have a good day, Mr. Snape."
He didn't reply. He just looked at her with naked surprise on his face. She turned and left. She felt his eyes on her back until she was out of sight.
She Apparated back to the Ministry. When she was back in her stacks of legal files and forgotten precedents, she sat down at her usual table and burst into tears. She couldn't for the life of her figure out exactly why she was crying.
Ginny sat to Lavender's left holding her hand, while a tearful Ron was glued to her right side with his arm around her. Harry was crouched on the floor before her with his hand on her knee, nodding encouragingly as she spoke. Hermione stood off to the side and Mr. Snape stood in the center of their sitting room waiting for the last answers to come.
His assumptions had proved to be spot on so far. The changes of clothes were to keep her from bringing the smell of the restaurant home after Ron had started to notice. The shoes on the roof were from when she had slipped up and worn the wrong pair home and panicked. Only the last pieces were missing but Lavender was coming up to that part.
"I just snapped one day while I was shopping. I started to cry and I couldn't stop. People were staring at me. I ran into that alley and hid. The pain became intolerable. I felt like I would die if I continued on any longer as half a person. I started to beat on the walls. Then the hidden doorway opened. It looked like a perfect place to hide so I dashed inside. That's where I found Iggy."
The house elf in question moaned slightly and his ears drooped as he rocked back and forth in the corner.
"He'd been in there for ages. His family had hidden in that tunnel during the London Blitz. They'd been caught in Muggle London and tried to make a new way into Diagon Alley. Iggy made a new entryway but a bomb hit. They all died. Iggy didn't. He stayed there this whole time feeling like a failure. He's gone a bit mad."
She looked at the elf and then made a gesture. He crawled across the carpet, making a humming, gurgling sound and when Harry backed away he practically welded himself to Lavender's legs.
"I found my way out to the Muggle side and that's when I saw this little restaurant that had just gone out of business. I decided it was fate. I could give Iggy a purpose, as well as find my own. I dragged Padma and Parvati into it." Silent tears coursed down her pretty face. "I'm so sorry. Ron. I know you're disappointed in me. I should've been happy with what we had. It should've been enough."
"No! No, Lav. It wasn't. It couldn't be. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I created a situation where you felt you couldn't tell me. It's alright. I'm glad. I'm so glad. I thought you'd found another bloke." Hermione shrank into herself as she watched him start to sob and Lavender frantically reassured him that he was her one, true love. Harry pulled Ginny up from the sofa and hugged her tight. All was forgiven. Happy endings for everyone. Hermione wanted to curse them all for their happiness. She cursed herself for her pettiness. She wanted it so much but knew it wasn't for her. She moved forward and squeezed Lavender's shoulder.
"Lavender, I am very glad that you were never in danger. I know that now that everything is out in the open, you two will find a new and deeper happiness together. I'm going to go ahead and go now and give you some privacy."
She had to endure three rounds of heartfelt hugs and declarations of undying friendships and plans to eat at her new place, before she was free. She turned to Snape and nodded to him in farewell and he returned it with a solemn nod of his own before he started to make his own excuses. She didn't stick around to see if anyone had the courage to hug him.
Hermione sat in the darkened tavern staring at the people behind her in the clouded mirror behind the bar. She fiddled with her old DA Galleon in her hand as she finished her drink. When she got the attention of the ugly bartender with Goblin hiding in his bloodline, she signaled for another. He just jutted his chin in acknowledgement and went back to his conversation.
It was a dreadful place, full of dreadful people. But it was where he had said he would first meet her and she found it fit her maudlin mood. Certainly no one bothered her, so she assumed she fit in.
She twirled the coin on the counter. This foolish coin had started it all. This reminder of her dreadful youth. Everyone glorified that past. Everyone was a hero and everyone fought the good fight. No one seemed to remember that not everyone survived. Or that people like her and Snape had been forced to do terrible things and survive terrible pain. She was supposed to forget that and worship at the alter in the Church of Happily-Ever-After. She couldn't. She wished she could. She wanted what they all had so very much. But she just couldn't lie to herself that much.
The bartender brought her a fresh glass of Fire Whiskey and in a sudden and painful decision, she pushed her old Galleon across the bar to pay for her drink. Just as the man was reaching for it, a warm, soft, long-fingered hand closed over hers and covered the coin.
"You don't want to do that."
"No, I really do," she replied to the polished wood. Snape fished in his pocket and paid for her drink. She growled.
"You really don't. The coin isn't a real Galleon and he is part Goblin. Unless you want to get thrown out on your arse, you ought to reconsider."
Hermione growled. She reached back and violently snatched the pins out of her hair and scrubbed her hands through it while continuing to make little growling noises.
"Why do you do that?" she snapped at him in an excess of frustration.
"Why do I do what?"
"Why do you keep making these little gestures that look romantic one moment only to look practical and banal in the next?"
His eyebrows shot up to his hairline.
"You think I'm romantic? Why?"
She made a noise that sounded like a cross between a scream and a growl.
"I don't know, Snape. You're the expert on human psychology. You tell me? Why would I think you capable of romantic gestures? Wishful thinking?" She quaffed her drink until it was gone and then slammed the glass back down on the counter and hopped off her stool to face him. "Why are you here, Snape?"
He shifted slightly.
"We haven't settled that matter of my payment," he said. He stared at her as if she were a particularly intriguing puzzle.
"Right. Of course. Your money. I tell you what, send me the bill in the morning."
She turned away but he grabbed her arm.
"Miss Granger, are you sure you wouldn't want to stay and talk? You seem distraught."
"No. I think I should go. I'm not fit for conversation and I'm pretty sure the more time I spend near you the less coherent I will become. Good Night, Mr. Snape. Send me your bill in the morning."
He let go of her arm and stepped back. She turned and fled the bar.
She walked up the street to her flat. The night was full of city noise that soothed her. Muggles were always doing something and being among them always made her feel anchored, even if she spent most of her time in the Wizarding world.
She could have Apparated right to her apartment, but she needed the walk to clear her head. She'd managed to get her thoughts on Ron and Lavender under control and see her reactions clearly for the jealousy and envy that they were. It was past time that she stopped punishing her friends for being more resilient than she was. If she was unhappy, she needed change. She would try again tomorrow.
She stopped several yards from her building and just looked at the man sitting on the stairs watching her. She let out a long-suffering sigh and walked up to him. He stood up and stepped closer to her. She could smell his aftershave. She was pretty sure it was aftershave.
"What are you doing here? Our business is done, Mr. Snape."
"Yes. It is. You're no longer my client. I've run out of rational reasons to speak with you."
She gasped, suddenly aware of how very close to her he was standing again. Her foolish heart started to race again, not having learned its lesson these past few days.
"Why do you always stand so close to me?"
"Because I can't stand any farther away."
"Because you're beautiful. Hermione, may I kiss you?"
"I'll take that as a yes."
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and drew her in close before tipping her chin up with a warm knuckle. He moved slowly, giving her plenty of time to protest. She didn't. She couldn't have if she'd wanted to. She was nearly paralyzed. She just watched as his face loomed nearer and their lips finally met.
They were soft and warm. Oh, so very warm. She kissed him back with abandon. When their tongues finally tangled, he had to hold her tight as her legs turned to water and she started to sag. A quiet mewling noise escaped her and he broke off the kiss and pulled her close, rubbing his cheek against her temple. Definitely aftershave. He was breathing heavily and knowing it was because of her made her feel dizzy. She held him tighter.
"Why did you not say anything before this? Why leave me confused?" she asked on a breath.
"Because you're too beautiful," he whispered in a roughened voice. "You intimidated me."
She barked a disbelieving laugh. "I intimidated you? You must be joking! I've made a fool of myself fawning all over you these last few days. Hardly the stuff of intimidation."
"I never saw you be foolish. I didn't see anything more than your usual kind nature. I wasn't sure what you felt."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "How could you have missed it? I followed you around like a dopey puppy!"
"Hermione, I'm rather infamous for not having known when a woman didn't care for me. Why would you think I would be any better at seeing that one did? I'm sorry but you needed to get a little more obvious."
"I thought you were this great reader of body language."
"I'm not without my flaws. I've been known to reject reality when it seemed too good to be true. Besides, I've had precious little sleep since our first meeting Friday evening."
He nodded. "I've been lying awake each night trying to find even the slightest reason for a young woman as bright, beautiful and intelligent as you to be interested in me. The best I could come up with was that if I just stayed close, I'd grow on you."
"Excellent plan. It worked. Although I do think I was already quite smitten by the time I got home on Friday as well."
He smiled. A real smile. Okay, he used his whole mouth and his eyes, but his cheeks barely moved. But it was a glorious smile nonetheless.
"Would you like to come in and meet my cats?"
"Is the offer for breakfast still open?"
"Yes, but the kitchen is closed until morning," she said with a shy glance.
"I can find something to do while I wait."
He dipped his head back down and kissed her again. When they broke apart she sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder.
"I feel like I might be finally done waiting," she whispered.
"I hope you are."
AN2: I see that ff.n has twerked the line breaks in my absence. Silly ff.n. I hope that wasn't too annoying. Now, you know what I want…