Note: This is a sequel to my one-shot, Liaison. Reading that first would be helpful.
The fireplace in a small London flat, previously empty, ignites with green flame. A disembodied head appears within it, the head's fiery-red hair contrasting nicely with the emerald of its surroundings.
"Hermione? Are you there?" the head calls with a woman's voice. "Hermione?"
The head disappears, but is soon replaced—after another green flash of fire—by an attractive young witch instead, stumbling from the fireplace. An old ginger cat meows grumpily from his place on the hearth. The witch brushes habitually at her robes, but they are not dirty.
"I do like how clean she keeps her Floo," Ginny mutters absently to herself, before continuing her search for her friend.
"Hermione?" she walks the short distance to the small bedroom and peers inside. Sure enough, Hermione is in bed. Ginny can spot the tell-tale remnants of a good cry as she approaches.
"Oh, you poor girl," she says softly and sits down beside the sleeping young woman.
"Hermione, wake up." Ginny gently shakes her friend's shoulder. Hermione turns over and opens her eyes blearily.
"Ginny?" she rasps after a few moments, then clears her throat. "What are you doing here?"
"We were going to have lunch, remember? I was worried when I didn't find you in your office... Thank you for not blocking your fireplace, by the way. That's always unpleasant."
"I called in sick. Sorry I didn't owl you," Hermione says grumpily and closes her eyes.
"I know. And I understand, I do. But is it really worth hiding and crying over?"
"What?" Hermione's eyes snap back open and look at Ginny with surprise. How does she know?
"I mean, I know it's embarrassing, but everyone who knows you knows it couldn't possibly be true."
"What!" Now she's confused. What is Ginny talking about?
Seeing Hermione's confusion, Ginny becomes confused herself.
"You did see the Daily Prophet, didn't you? Isn't that why you're upset?"
"The Prophet?" she whimpers. The Daily Prophet never brings Hermione good news.
"Oh Merlin, I'm sorry. I thought you saw it. Here." With a flick of her wand, Ginny summons the Daily Prophet and flips to the Wizarding Life section before handing it to Hermione, cautiously watching her friend's expression.
There in moving color was a blurry, amateurish photograph of Hermione and Snape, blown up to an outrageous size. (Wow, she thinks self-consciously, her hair looks a mess.) Captured: she touches his arm with a brilliant smile, looped over and over and over again. Conveniently, the angle doesn't allow the viewer to see Snape's murderous glare.
Clearly someone who was in the Leaky Cauldron yesterday fancies themselves a photographer.
Above the photo, a bold headline reads: 'Hogwarts Heart-Breaker Strikes Again'. A smaller photo of Ron Weasley looking angry and a number of ridiculous accusations disguised as harmless questions accompany the short article.
Written by Rita Skeeter, of course. She's registered as an Animagus now, and bringing up that she once wasn't would only bring out Hermione's role as a blackmailer. Mutual destruction isn't her thing, though.
After reading the rubbish through, Hermione is torn between anger, disbelief, and amusement. She lets out a long laugh that somehow embodies all three—though it might touch on hysterical if Ginny's worried expression is any indication.
"I haven't been with Ron in ages!" she says finally, "And suggesting that I—with Snape! I mean, he's so... old!"
Hermione immediately feels unkind for saying so, but without much thought she knows that's really the foundation of her aversion at the accusation. The things that would turn most people away—his temper, his past, his looks—don't bother her all that much. She could move past them with any other person.
But just nearing twenty, Hermione admits she still doesn't feel quite "adult" yet, used to seeing all of those she looked up to as old and wise as equals. Her responsibilities during the war might have helped her grow up and mature, but it's a very different thing: fighting for your life and demanding the respect of your elders. She's been facing life-threatening danger since she was twelve, after all. The past year at Hogwarts didn't really help, either. Being placed back into a role of obedience and submissive discipline. Saying "yes, sir" and not being out past curfew...
And Snape had been her Professor! That puts him forever in that category with her parents of "old people that don't have sex lives and if they do I don't want to know about them."
She knows about his fancy for Harry's mum, of course (who doesn't, at this point?). But that's abstract. Very different than actually imagining him as a... romantic prospect. She shudders, feeling kind of grossed out.
It's pointless to be upset. She's known for ages that the Prophet is practically just another gossip rag. But still...
"Shouldn't they be writing about something important? Or true? How can they print this-"
"I know, Hermione," Ginny soothes. "Everyone knows its ridiculous. The photo is just... circumstantial."
She can tell Ginny wants to ask. Why was she with Snape at the Leaky Cauldron? How is he? What has he been doing? Harry must be especially curious, as Snape never answered any of his owls. She decides to answer the unspoken questions.
"Yes... it is. I ran into him, literally actually, on my way to lunch and then offered to buy his lunch. Nothing scandalous. He seemed a bit out of sorts maybe, but functional. I... didn't really get a chance really, to find out what he's been doing since Azkaban."
And now Hermione feels guilty. She didn't get a chance because she'd been too focused on her own problems, not willing risk his temper to inquire.
"Though I think he said he's having trouble finding a job, actually," she admits.
Ginny frowns in thought. Harry wouldn't like to hear that, after all the effort he's put into changing public opinion about Snape. He actually granted interviews almost solely for that purpose. He stopped, however, when he found his remarks about Snape were almost always edited out of the final publications. And The Quibbler's readership is never very high.
Then abruptly Ginny remembers herself.
"Wait, if you didn't see the article, why are you at home, upset?"
Hermione shrugs and shifts under the covers.
"It's a bit silly, really... It's just... I had to charm a Muggle at work yesterday," she whispers.
"Oh." Ginny frowns with sympathy, but Hermione knows she doesn't understand. To Ginny, charming Muggles must seem as common and necessary as de-gnoming a garden. Nothing to feel guilty about, it's just the way of things. "I'm sorry."
"It's alright. I'm fine," Hermione says with a forced smile, "Just taking the day off to mope a bit."
Ginny nods, she can certainly understand that.
"I'm glad to hear it. Have you had lunch?"
"Yes, a bit. I'm sorry I forgot we were meeting today," Hermione says. Her forgetting anything is an indication of how truly upset she is, but Ginny doesn't catch it.
"It's all right. My break's almost done now anyway!" the red-head says, unsuccessfully trying to contain a wicked grin of anticipation. Hermione smiles fondly; Ginny just recently signed with the Hollyhead Harpies and so far is enjoying it immensely.
"I hope you feel better." Ginny gives Hermione a large hug. "Enjoy your mope, and don't let the Prophet get you down!" They both laugh.
"Thanks, Ginny. Have a good practice." Hermione watches as Ginny exits the bedroom. That girl is a whirlwind. Then she realizes that she never left her bed throughout their entire conversation, short as it was. She laughs again, before remembering the reason why she's in bed at all and sobering.
Hermione looks at the picture on the Prophet laying on top of the coverlet, watches herself smile brightly over and over again, studies the back of Snape's head.
Maybe she's being ridiculous, but she has a right to her feelings, doesn't she?
Just as Ms. Yates did, before Hermione stole them away.
With a pained groan, she collapses back into her pillows. Her thoughts keep going in circles. Was it necessary and right, or was it completely inexcusable? How is she possibly going to complete her assignment and speak with all those Muggles if she'll be faced with the same unsolvable dilemma again and again? Maybe Snape-
Oh shite. Snape.
Hermione scrambles for the Daily Prophet and stares at the picture, at the horrid headline and accusing article. What is he going to think of all this? She knows he values his privacy—his relative seclusion since his release is proof enough of that, and here she's caused his photo to be splashed in the Prophet and inadvertently started a nasty rumor with her attempt at a friendly gesture. Oh, he'll be furious, won't he?
She has to see him and apologize.
Hermione doesn't examine this sudden need to see him very closely, doesn't ask herself why she doesn't simply send an owl, why she thinks he'd even appreciate an apology at all. She just throws herself from bed and scrambles to get presentable, feeling suddenly energized.
She has a wizard to find.
Hours later, miles and miles away in Northern England, a wizard sips at some rather mediocre tea. He'd never really gotten the hang of making it himself. For so long there'd been House Elves for that. Severus would make more of an effort but at the moment he doesn't care if it tasted like Goblin piss, he just needs something to occupy his hands and mind. There's only so much time he can spend reading books he's already read without becoming restless.
He spent most of the day fruitlessly trying to convince himself to leave his house. But by this time, it's too late in the day anyway. Tomorrow, then. He'd been out yesterday, anyway, he deserved a day of peace. Not that yesterday was at all successful; he'd been distracted...
But London is a stupid place to get a job, anyway. It may be just an Apparition away, but it's far too close to the Wizarding world for his comfort. Severus refuses to acknowledge that may have been the reason he'd been there in the first place.
Severus again curses Albus Dumbledore and his blasted phoenix for all his troubles. Manipulating him into spying, paying him a meager teacher's salary (admittedly not Dumbledore's fault but Severus isn't feeling kind), begging him to kill the bastard. Then his cursed familiar wouldn't even let Severus die properly. No, the bloody bird had to come and "save" him, even as the old poof failed to leave any sort of evidence or testimony that would prevent Severus from being tried and quartered, shunned like a pariah. The feathered rat couldn't even heal his wound completely, at that.
Now here he is: alive, yes, but hated and practically penniless. The ingredients for his potions—his community service, aren't free. And some things just can't be conjured or transfigured (he doesn't like to admit that his transfiguration is more than a bit rusty, anyway.)
At least they didn't take his possessions—what little he has—in "reparation" or some such rot. Speaking of...
He looks around himself with consideration, wondering how much the worn furniture might fetch at a pawn shop.
But his mental arithmetic is interrupted by a knock at his door.
Severus freezes and stares at it suspiciously from the sofa. Who in the bloody hell would be knocking at his door? He doesn't like it. His last visitors were Narcissa and her bat-shit crazy sister years ago (he'd turned down the very few requests since then), and everyone knows how well that turned out. Knowing his luck, the consequences of this visit would be infinitely worse.
He waves his wand silently at the wood in order to turn it transparent from his side.
His feelings are conflicted. Their conversation yesterday was... interesting. Although damn it if he couldn't have a conversation with anyone without making them practically cry. It wasn't even intentional, but he just had to take the opportunity to lecture and talk of unpleasant things, didn't he?
The first person to smile kindly and actually inquire into his well being and he completely buggered it up. Not that he needs her kindness!
He can't decide if her abominably bleeding heart is admirable or pathetic.
But really, when most of his social interaction in the past twenty or so years fluctuated between scathing domination (with his students) and groveling submission (with both his masters), is it any wonder he has difficulty finding a happy medium?
And he's rarely had to deal with past students, reconciling his memory of their incompetent younger selves with their incompetent adult selves. He was so isolated at Hogwarts. When he did happen across a former student, he usually treated them as if they were still his student. They had always cowered quite satisfactorily.
Severus has the feeling that this pattern of behavior will no longer suit. For one, he actually respects Granger in his own way, and secondly, he hardly has a leg to stand on as far as superiority is concerned. He may have his knowledge and his pride, but Severus must admit that he's now a jobless ex-convict, idle and poor.
At least I don't drink, cheat, or steal, he thinks fiercely. If I ever start I may as well Avada myself now.
She knocks again, and Severus realizes he ought to either let her in or send her away or she'll probably stand there forever. He resigns himself to her company as he stands; she's nothing if not determined, after all.
Severus cancels the charm and opens the door.
"Miss Granger," he rasps with a scowl, ignoring the urge to cough in some pointless effort to soothe his throat. "How the hell do you know where I live?"
And he is curious. Was it a tracking charm? She couldn't possibly have access to the right sort of files at the Ministry...
"Um—a phone directory, actually," the girl admits sheepishly.
He closes his eyes and contorts his face into a sneer to smother his amusement. Blast. Foiled by his own weakness for take-away curry.
"I suppose now that you're here, you won't leave until I let you in," Severus says, feigning a great reluctance as he opens the door wider and steps aside. He's too interested in why she's here to make too much of a show of it.
She smiles gratefully and slips past him into the house. He feel a moment's embarrassment at its wretched state before brutally suppressing it. He didn't invite her, she'll have to take things as they are.
Severus follows Granger into the sitting room, and his lips twitch when she drifts toward the bookshelves.
"I assume you're here for a reason other than to drool over my library," he says scathingly. She spins around with a start.
"Sorry, sir! I mean, yes." She looks nervous, and his curiosity is heightened.
"Well?" He scowls.
"Er, I take it you didn't see it then?" Granger asks.
"Just what am I supposed to have seen?"
She conjures a paper and offers it to him silently. He takes it with dread. Severus doesn't subscribe to the Daily Prophet himself, unwilling to spend a single knut on the rag. He knows the sort of rubbish they publish. The fact that Granger is showing it to him now...
Severus looks at the large photo in the center of the page and sees the sensationalist headline. His body becomes terribly tense as he reads the short "article" beside it. A little further down is a summary of his lurid past. As if anyone could forget.
He forces his face to complete blankness to hide his utter mortification.
Severus is used to fear, hatred, attacks on his character. But to suggest that he—it's reprehensible. Even the ridiculous theories that he'd secretly fathered Potter are less offensive.
"I'm really very sorry," Granger babbles, distraught. "I know you must be angry. She has a bit of a grudge against me, you see, and that photograph... My behavior made it rather easy to suggest..."
He eventually gathers himself enough to scoff.
"The only thing more absurd than this article is your foolish belief that it's somehow your fault," Severus sneers. "If it wasn't this, it would be something else equally horrid, with just as little proof."
She sighs, looking somehow relieved and thankful.
"Still. I'm sorry you have to deal with it."
He won't really, being mostly isolated from anyone who would read that tripe, but he doesn't feel the need to point that out when she'll likely be suffering the consequences for a while.
"I've dealt with far worse," he says stiffly. She nods.
They stand for a moment in silence before he realizes-
"That's why you went to the trouble of finding me? To apologize for this idiocy?" He must admit he's somewhat disappointed.
"Um, yes?" She doesn't sound very convinced.
He gives her a piercing stare and raised eyebrow. Granger fidgets.
"Well," she continues. That look never fails. "There's also... I—charmed a Muggle yesterday, because she wasn't being reasonable." Granger whispers it like a guilty secret. Good God, her lower lip actually trembles. Is she about to cry? It couldn't possibly be his fault, this time. Though maybe he exudes some sort of aura...
"And?" he barks to cover his discomfort at her emotion. "Am I now some sort of priest at confessional? I believe you're given license to do such, by the Ministry. Why should such an... exploit concern me?"
She looks as if he struck her. Confused and hurt. It only makes him angry. What, was she expecting sympathy? Did she honestly believe he'd coo and coddle her because she had to cast a simple, harmless charm?
"I thought you'd understand," she admitted quietly, looking at the floor now. "Doing something you didn't want to, because it was necessary..."
"You're comparing your little spell with everything I've done?" he hisses. The rasp in his throat doesn't allow more than his consonants to be heard at that volume, but his speech is intelligible enough. "A little cheering charm with a curse to sever flesh? With spells to torture and maim, to remove the very soul from a wizard's body?"
She's shaking her head, but he keeps going.
"I would have thought you'd learned by now, Miss Granger, that some things have to be done and there's no use in feeling guilty. I find it difficult to believe that charming a Muggle is possibly the worst you've ever done."
"You're right," she says forcefully, revealing her temper, "It is different. There's no comparison. But that was war! It was life or death! And I thought we fought so we could live in a time where such things, even comparatively harmless, weren't necessary. Where I didn't have to manipulate and-and separate people from their children without their consent!"
Granger breathes harshly for a moment, then abruptly turns and tries to compose herself.
"I understand that sometimes it's necessary to do unpleasant things, break a few rules," she continues with more calm, facing his books. "But this isn't just being out after curfew, this is messing with people's lives. And I had a choice. And my choice wasn't fair to that woman."
Severus considers her silently. It's clear he'll have to approach things from a different angle.
"And is it fair that the Muggles feel those emotions in the first place? The fear? Are they right to be afraid? Of course not, not usually. So then what can be wrong with leveling the playing field, a bit? So they can make a decision without being crippled by an illogical fear?"
She turns to look at him with consideration, but is still clearly troubled.
"But when are emotions ever right or logical?" she asks, "Who are we to decide that they're wrong and ought to be changed? People have a right to their feelings and decisions, no matter how irrational or misguided. And altering them with a charm is no better than a love potion, or the Imperius.
"Should I charm you whenever you're being stubborn? You'd find yourself constantly in some sort of—drugged-like state. Every emotion and decision would be a lie. Your life wouldn't be your own!"
Severus laughs loudly, bitterly. It's a terribly harsh and grating sound, like he's choking, and Granger shivers.
"Because I don't know what that's like," he says. She has the grace to act a little embarrassed. "Look, Granger. As someone who has been on the receiving end, I can tell you truthfully that I may be angry at what I was forced to do, but even I recognize the necessity. It had to happen. It was for the best. I may be bitter, but I don't regret it. And neither would your Muggle, if she was capable of being rational and detached about it."
Her eyes fill with tears, and dammit, clearly he's just said something wrong, but what was it?
"I—thank you," she chokes out. "That's really all I needed to hear, I think."
Bugger it all, she's sniffling. He conjures a tissue and floats it in her direction.
"Sit down, Miss Granger, lest your emotions overwhelm you and you succumb to the vapors," Severus demands, only somewhat sarcastically. She takes the tissue with a small, grateful smile and obediently finds a seat on the sofa.
He continues to stand for a moment, watching her dab at her eyes, at a loss.
"I'll just... make tea," he mutters eventually, and snatches his empty teacup from the table before walking quickly—not fleeing—into the kitchen.
He vanishes the rubbish already in the pot and then stares at it with frustration. Right. Make tea. That doesn't taste like shite.
Severus applies himself diligently to the task, resolutely ignoring any small amount of guilt he may possibly feel at making Granger cry... again. Damn it.
A/N: Feedback is, of course, much appreciated. I'm posting as I write it, so I'm not sure exactly how long this will be, but probably not more than four or five chapters. This is also unbetaed and likely has errors. Feel free to point them out.