Disclaimer: It all belongs to JKR. I'm just borrowing her toys and playing with them.
A/N: Many thanks to the wonderful women who made this story possible. To Shug (sshg316) for sitting down with me and hashing the story out and telling me to just write the damn thing. To DeeMichelle for coming on board at the last minute (and for her all-around badass beta skills). To Camillo for her Brit-picking and patience with the questions that inevitably resulted. And last but certainly not least, to averygoodun for writing such a provocative prompt and for giving me the freedom to take it in any direction.
"When I was a little girl, I just wanted the fairy tale, you know?"
Hermione rubbed Ginny's back and gazed out at the city from her perch on a bench on Primrose Hill. The view of the London skyline was beautiful.
"Things will turn out all right," Hermione repeated. "So what if he's not Prince Charming? No one is. You've got to take these guys off their white horses, Gin. They're human beings. Bound to fail. That's not necessarily a bad thing. No one can live up to fairy tale expectations."
Ginny sniffled and blew her nose into her handkerchief. "I thought Dean could."
Hermione put her arm around Ginny. "The view is beautiful, isn't it?"
"Not exactly subtle, but thanks for the distraction," Ginny said. "This park is great! Thanks for bringing me here. And lunch was good."
"Marks and Sparks is always good for comfort food."
Ginny sighed and wiped her nose. "It's nice to be able to cry in public."
"Nobody knows Weasley hair in Muggle London," Hermione said. "Here, they just think you're a foxy ginger."
Ginny giggled. "Oh, I needed that," she said, calming down. "I suppose we'd better get back to work."
"I don't have to get back to work right away—" Hermione started.
"But you will. Even as a consultant you can't help keeping to an eight-to-four schedule. I would Iso/I not do that if I were in your shoes." A breeze gusted in, and Ginny bent forward and slid her arms into her jacket.
Hermione wrapped her shawl around her shoulders. "I like the freedom in consulting. I keep regular hours, but I choose my own projects."
"If not your research partner." Ginny grinned and winked.
Hermione was less than amused. She let out an exasperated sigh. "I don't know why they put us together. We drive each other mad."
"But the results are spectacular," Ginny said. "We hear about them in the Wizengamot. Once people got past the shock that Snape was actually willing to work with a former student, they were able to concentrate on the amazing work you were doing. It's been … what, a year now?"
"A year since they started putting us together on every project? Yes. To be fair, we always wanted the same assignments. Except right now—we're working on solo projects. But I still ask him for his opinion. I'm so used to working with him every day that I can't help but ask." Hermione noted Ginny's expression. "It's not like that. You know it's not like that. He's an incredible researcher. Wickedly smart. I have to remember that when he's being his infuriating self."
Ginny snorted. "So long as his personality doesn't start rubbing off on you. Or his fashion sense."
Hermione looked down at her black-and-white outfit. "This is professional."
"You haven't worn color in I can't remember how long—" Ginny started.
"This conversation is over." Hermione reached for her purse, a smile on her face. "Shall we?"
Ginny took Hermione's arm as they started to walk down the hill. "Diagon Alley, here we come. Maybe we can grab a drink before—"
"I am not drinking during my lunch break," Hermione said firmly. Ginny laughed.
Two hours later, Hermione was power-walking down a Ministry hallway, her heels clicking furiously against the marble floor. She rushed past other employees only to stop suddenly in front of a mahogany office door.
"Snape!" She banged on the door, ignoring the frightened look of employees passing by. "I know you're in there. Let me in!"
She shoved the door open so hard it banged into the wall. She immediately looked at the sullen man behind the desk. His hair fell in jetty, oily strands against his shoulders, standing in stark contrast to the crisp white shirt. She knew he was wearing black trousers, and she immediately regretted their matching wardrobes. Ginny was right.
Severus hadn't flinched, but he did look rather annoyed. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It's early, Granger."
"It's two o'clock in the afternoon." She paused. "Late night?"
He waved her forward.
Hermione smiled at him ruefully. "What—no flask to tide you over?"
He folded his arms across his chest and glared. She met his stare straight on.
"Right, well." Hermione dropped the inch-thick folder on his desk and dragged the heavy chair around so that she could sit next to him.
Severus pulled the file toward him and flipped it open. "What exactly should I be seeing?"
"Grids," she gritted through her teeth as she moved the chair. "What is this chair made of? Adamantium?"
Snape ignored her. "What should these grids be telling me?"
Hermione grunted as she sank into the chair. "There's text," she said.
"I need bi-focals."
"You had a corrective—"
"Simplify it for me," he said, tapping his fingers impatiently. "Now."
She breathed in through her nose.
"Subtlety, Granger. Subtlety if at all possible."
Ignoring the fact that it was the second time she had been told that in one afternoon, she sat down in the chair, reached for the files, and pulled them closer to her, ignoring his sullen posture.
"These maps show the geographic locations that have high concentrations of magic. Basically, magical communities. London, Paris, Moscow, and Athens have the highest concentration of magical activity in all of Europe. There are a few other clusters around cities or sights of historical importance." She turned the page. "And this grid attempts to identify the locations that influence the public attitude of magical communities."
She studied his face as he drew the map side-by-side. His brow furrowed. "They don't match."
"Exactly," she said. "What I hoped to find was that the sights of influence would match the magical communities, but there are a few influential locations which do not register—at all—on the magical communities map."
Severus turned to Hermione. "Have you ever seen X-Men? You're rather like Dr. Xavier."
"Pardon?" she asked, eyes widening in surprise.
He looked back at the grid. "Never mind."
"Were … were you offering personal information just now?" she asked, attempting to suppress a grin.
Severus gave her what she had come to call his professor glare. "So the sights that don't match, Granger—what's your diagnosis?"
She raised her eyebrows. "Well, I'm worried!"
He gave her a chastising smile. "Why?"
"You don't see the dangers?" she asked, gesturing towards the grids.
He waved his hand. "Your influence grid, if I may call it that, does not register whether the sights of influence are inducing negative or positive emotions in the magical communities. For example, those sights could be considered holy to certain faiths—"
"Are you honestly going down that road?"
"I'm just saying to take a step back and think about the various types of influence that are exerted on witches and wizards every day, and the way in which they differ in the type of activity they inspire. For example, a romantic advertisement may inspire a husband to buy flowers for his wife, whereas the latest song by the Weird Sisters may inspire a wife to hire a private investigator. There are very, very different types of influence, Granger. I suggest you get a better map before showing it to anyone."
"I already showed it to an Unspeakable, and he thought it should be given critical attention right away."
Hermione glanced at him sharply. "Don't. He's a good man."
"I still can't believe they recruited him as an Unspeakable." Severus swore under his breath. "Was my generation the last to learn common sense at Hogwarts?"
Hermione ignored him. "Look, I can try to quantify the types of influence, if you like," she offered. "It'll be damned near impossible, but I'll try. For you, I'll try."
He snorted. "How generous."
"It's just that I'm worried about one spot in particular," she continued.
Severus lifted his chin, interested. "Which one?"
"Well, more than one. These." She pointed to several dots. "They're emanating from France, and they hold a powerful influence on citizens in every single magical community in Europe. In some cases, they have more influence than the ministries."
Severus leaned back in his chair, unperturbed. "And you're worried because…?"
She sighed. "I don't trust anything that holds that kind of power. Whatever it is, it can't be good."
He paused and licked his lips. "What if it is?"
Hermione did a double take. "Come again?" she asked.
"What if those spots are exerting a positive influence?"
She folded her arms across her chest. "Who are you and what have you done with my consulting partner?"
"I'm not your partner on this project," he clarified. "No matter. I'll be sure the appropriate people are on my side."
She chuffed. "So now you're claiming that you're better with people than I am?"
"Just better at scaring them. On the whole, you're far more pleasant to interact with."
Hermione threw her pen at him, grabbed the file, and started toward the door.
"Aggravated assault?" she heard him say behind her. She whipped around to see him grinning behind his desk.
"I'd be doing wizarding Britain a favor," she said.
She slammed his door shut and let out a loud groan just as Arthur Weasley was walking past. He approached her with a wide smile.
"Trouble in paradise?" he asked.
"I don't know why I ask his advice, Arthur. That man makes me hopping mad!" she exclaimed.
Arthur patted her shoulder. "I don't know that I've ever seen you so flustered in public. Might want to tone it down a little," he said.
"You're retiring and yet still giving advice," she said with a chuckle.
"What kind of ministerial advisor would I be if I didn't?" he asked, nodding to other employees as they passed by. "I'll see you tonight?"
"I wouldn't miss your party for the world." Hermione grinned.
The grandfather clock in the hall started to chime, and Arthur checked his watch. "I'm late," he announced. "See you this evening, dear."
"Goodbye, Arthur," Hermione said. She walked down the hallway, already counting down the hours to the private retirement party. And, of course, the deliciously spiked punch that George would be sure to supply.
Hermione Apparated onto the lawn around five o'clock. She smiled as she walked toward the house; the lights illuminated it against the setting sun, and the raucous noise coming from within told her that the whole family must have arrived by now. There would only be a few non-familial guests; the retirement party at the Ministry had satisfied that need.
She knocked on the door and was met by Headmistress McGonagall.
"Hermione," the older woman said warmly, beckoning her into the kitchen. "It's good to see you."
"You, too, Minerva." Hermione embraced her mentor. "Looks like I'm a little bit late."
"Fashionably, as it were," Minerva said, smiling as Ginny threw her arms around Hermione's neck.
"Ginny, where did you put the cinnamon?" Molly's voice boomed through the kitchen.
"Hi, Molly," Hermione called.
"Oh, Hermione," Molly said, sticking her head out from the cupboard. "So good to see you, dear. Would you be a love and lend Ginny to me for a second?"
"Coming, Mum," Ginny said, rolling her eyes.
"So who is here and where is George's punch?" Hermione asked her mentor.
"Difficult day?" Minerva arched an eyebrow.
"Snape," Hermione said, her lips pulled into a thin smile.
"Speak of the devil," a low voice came up behind them. Hermione turned around, whipping her hair in Snape's face.
"You," she said.
"Punch?" he asked, holding out two glasses.
"You're a gentleman when it suits you," Minerva said. "Thank you, dear boy."
Hermione snorted. Snape glared.
"You can't intimidate me anymore, Snape. I've worked with you." Hermione took such a large gulp of punch she almost choked.
"I thought you might need a drink before sitting down to dinner with … the clan." Snape paused. "If you'll excuse me."
"How dare he walk away?" Hermione asked, putting her hands on her hips.
"He marches to his own drum." Minerva waved her hand. "Never mind his antics. This is exceptional, though." She admired the glass. "Ah, I know where I've had this before."
"The last Weasley celebration?" Hermione asked.
"Hogwarts staff party. Snape brought his own brew tonight. And thank Circe, because George's punch has been lacking since the twins were born." Minerva smiled. "Cheers to you, darling."
"Cheers to Arthur." They clinked glasses.
Dinner was a smooth affair, if a loud one. Kingsley gave a moving toast that was punctured by the squalling cries of Fred and Roxanne Weasley. Snape's grimaces were entertaining to watch. Hermione had situated herself between Minerva and Ginny at the children's table, where they listened to Molly and Angelina swap tales of motherhood. Every once in a while, Hermione glanced over to the other table, where Arthur, Kingsley, Snape, and the Weasley brothers were sharing laughs over something that was sure to be more interesting than nappies. They all were smiling, Snape included. Even Ron's presence at the table didn't seem to bother him.
"Stop staring," Ginny whispered at one point. "Mum will notice."
Hermione turned her attention back to the table and ignored the flush creeping up her chest. "Where's Fleur this evening?" she asked.
"Away on business," Bill said. They all looked up as he strode into the kitchen to put his plates in the sink, an action that earned him a glowing smile from his mother. "She'll be here in an hour or two. In the meantime, would Victoire like to read a story?"
"Yes!" the four-year-old said, waving her hands in the air.
"She can read?" Hermione asked, surprised.
"For six months now. She's smart as a whip, my baby." Bill kissed her forehead. "Uncle Ron wants to read you a story."
Victoire clapped her hands together. "Uncle Ron, Uncle Ron!" she said, perfectly articulating his name.
"Bless that child," Minerva said as they left the kitchen. "She's going to give some poor boy hell one day."
The women laughed.
A half hour later, Hermione stood in the doorway between the dining room and sitting room, watching Ron read a story to Victoire. He really is good with kids, she thought. She was still surprised that he didn't have a family of his own by now. They'd decided to call things off five years ago or so, after she'd taken the consulting job with the Ministry. Simply put, Ron wanted a family. She didn't.
Not yet, anyway. She glanced around the room. Kingsley had been called away on Ministry business, and George and Angelina had packed up the twins and headed out for the night. Minerva was having a cup of tea with Molly and Ginny, and Arthur was with his older sons on the back porch enjoying a pipe. And Snape …
She jumped. "Snape." She put her hand over her heart. "Why are you always creeping up on people?"
He chuckled and leaned against the other side of the doorframe.
"You're not going to answer, are you?" she asked. He smiled. "Well, at least you seem to be in a jovial mood."
"Jovial, no. Pleasant … perhaps."
"Arthur seems happy," Hermione said, keeping her eyes on Ron and Victoire. "Some people, when they retire—it's like they're being forced out. They don't have anything else to go to."
"Arthur doesn't have that problem," Snape said. "He's got more grandchildren than he knows what to do with."
Hermione laughed. "He only has—"
"See? You have to count."
"Three were here tonight … Fleur is pregnant … who am I missing? Percy! Percy and his wife weren't here," Hermione said. "And they have two little ones."
"I didn't figure you for the mothering type."
She shrugged. "Not really. I like kids, but it's more the idea of …" She cut herself off and stared at the floor.
"Hermione—" Severus started, but he paused. She looked up at him, surprised.
"You said my name," she said. He didn't respond; he just looked at her. In the background, she heard Victoire's high-pitched voice reading, "Once upon a time …"
They stood there, barely a foot apart, looking at each other. Hermione jumped when she heard Minerva call for her from the kitchen.
She swallowed and met his gaze. "I—"
"Go," he said softly.
Their arms brushed as she walked past him. She shivered and willed herself not to turn around. When she walked into the kitchen, the conversation stopped. "What?" she asked.
Ginny's eyes were wide. "You're flushed. Blushing like crazy."
"What?" Hermione whipped around and looked at herself in the hallway mirror. "Oh, shit."
"Who were you talking to?" Minerva asked, though Hermione knew that Minerva knew exactly who she had been with.
She noticed Molly's curious glance, and she tried to silently communicate not here to Ginny when they heard Ron scream.
Hermione's eyes widened, and the four women bolted into the sitting room, where they found Ron sitting with Victoire on his lap, her face buried in his chest—and a very dead Snape lying on the floor.