Disclaimer: It all belongs to JKR.
A/N: Many thanks to machshefa, richardgloucester, sshg316, Subversa, and tonksinger, the best beta team a gal could ask for. Any errors here are my own.
EDIT: I've been behind posting on versus other sites like The Petulant Poetess and Ashwinder, and I realized that I forgot to edit the A/N in chapter three which mentioned my impending nuptials (when it was published on the other sites, I was not yet wedded). The nuptials (and a variety of other huge life events which have prevented the updating of this story) have occurred, so while I appreciate the well wishes, it's a done deal! :-)
Severus tugged at the cravat to loosen it and fell into the large leather chair opposite his fireplace. He Summoned a glass and a bottle of whisky; Gerard and Clara had selected a truly singular malt for his last birthday, the sort one should reserve for celebratory occasions, and damn if this wasn't just such an occasion.
His heart was still racing, and he supposed that it was natural to be out of practice at this sort of thing. At least his body recognized that this adrenaline was of the pleasurable sort, otherwise he'd have had his head in the toilet the minute he got back.
The illusion had been successful, and he toasted his own success. He'd continue to tinker with the potion so that he could masquerade as Edmund for longer periods of time, of course, but—he couldn't help the smirk that spread across his face. Merlin, he was good.
He was relieved, in a way. Relieved that she had fallen for the illusion, but then, he'd known she would. Gryffindors could always be counted on where sentiment was concerned. A small part of him was pissed off at the Ministry for being content to let her blunder around with no preexisting knowledge of or skill with magical restoration. She was Hermione Granger, but she was also a Muggle born, and frankly, blood mattered in these sorts of affairs, not because of skill, but because of background. She had no idea what she was dealing with, and no book would have been able to stress to her the gravity of undertaking renovation of a magical manor.
On the other hand, the Ministry's general incompetence at everything gave him a wonderful reason to be around more often. He could give her the proper reading material, advise her course of action—he could practically do the renovation himself without ever leaving a trace of his magical signature. The thought practically made him giddy.
And in the meantime, he could redirect his energy towards figuring out a way to better secure the property. He was relatively certain that he knew what the Ministry wanted with it, and while Miss Granger—Hermione, he reminded himself, Hermione—might accept their asinine rules about protocol, he had no such compulsion.
He sipped his whisky, closed his eyes, and sank further into the chair, more satisfied than he'd been in years.
And if, in the dead of night when he was unable to sleep, he took some of his blood-masking draught and slipped across the barrier between homes and allowed himself to find the books she would need, and if he then placed them on her bedside table, and if perhaps he tucked an errant curl behind her ear…
Well. The world could just go to hell.
When Hermione awoke, she immediately noted the stack of books on her bedside table. Pip must have brought the ones that Edmund ordered.
No use imagining how these manors worked. She had the books, so she would read. After breakfast, and—she shuddered as a windy draft swept through her room.
After she reinforced the weather charms.
"Miss Hermione is being brilliant at weather charms! Pip has never felt so warm in the manor," Pip said as he set Hermione's breakfast plate in front of her.
"It needed the reinforcement, Pip," Hermione said, slathering butter on her toast. "Might I ask the extent of what you are allowed to do to … keep up with the place?"
At this, Pip started beating his head against the wall, and Hermione knocked her chair over in an effort to get to him. She took his arms firmly in her hands but didn't manage to avert his head, which came smashing into hers as though he was still standing at the wall.
"Ow!" she exclaimed, falling back on her rear. She rubbed her head as Pip let out a wail.
"Pip is sorry! Pip is not meaning to hurt Miss, and Pip is promising—" At this, he let out another wail.
"Pip, look at me," Hermione said firmly, still wincing from the pain of the head butt. "And stop crying."
He immediately did so.
"Look, I know that I'm not Mistress, but I really, really don't want you to hurt yourself like that. And I really, really don't want you to feel badly about the state of the house. I should have phrased it more carefully. I was just wanting to inquire as to what sorts of renovations and upkeep you are able to help me with. I'm assuming that the Prince family put some kind of bind on you that would prevent you from doing extensive work on the place?"
"Odd that such an enchantment would hold. Wouldn't the enchantment end once Professor Snape …" Hermione trailed off. House elves took great pride in their work, she'd learned (gradually, over many years), and it was obvious from the state of the house that Pip had been restrained from doing such work.
"Pip is being bound to the house by Prince family blood, Miss. Pip cannot be being freed from the enchantment unless a member of the Prince family is doing it."
She nodded slowly, digesting the information. "But why on earth would Professor Snape not have freed you to keep up with the place since he so obviously didn't?" She immediately cringed at the words. She knew how—busy, for lack of a better word—he'd been and imagined that the manor hadn't ranked too highly on his priority list. But still. To let such a lovely manor fall into such disrepair?
It was the closest she'd come to criticizing him.
"He was being busy, Miss. He was not caring about Pip," Pip sputtered, a wayward tear falling down his cheek. Hermione knew better than to wipe it away, but she patted his arm reassuringly.
"It's all right, Pip. Now … wait, the Ministry technically holds the house. Can they free you from the enchantment that restricts your work?"
"Only the Prince family can be freeing Pip, Miss."
"But the last member is dead," Hermione said, exasperated.
"Pip is not being clever, Miss Hermione. Pip is not being able to work a way out of the enchantment."
"Well, I'll just have to find something, then," Hermione said, ignoring the fact that she was a tenant and not the owner. Damn the pure-bloods, she thought. Damn them and their prejudice, damn them and their control issues, damn them, damn them, damn them. The thought occurred to her that Snape had been a half-blood, and she thought, well, damn the half-bloods, too.
Pip declared that he was going to clean the Portrait Hall, and so Hermione went back to her seat to finish breakfast and organize her thoughts. She had every intention of spending the day working on the kitchen and searching the manor for any reference to Hyacinth Grey (Charlotte was still hiding from her), but such plans were shot to hell when Blaise stumbled out of the fireplace, coughing and beating his chest.
"Merlin, do you plan on cleaning that fireplace anytime soon?"
"Blaise!" Hermione exclaimed, at first delighted before recalling one of the components of her lease. "Wait—how did you get in here? I had the Floos blocked!"
"Spent the night with"—cough—"a lovely higher-up from the Department of Transportation who"—cough—"offered to set up a temporary Floo connection for me."
She rolled her eyes. "Typical."
"Did I mention his name is John?"
Oh. Well, that was different. She arched an eyebrow, and he laughed.
"Come here, old girl," he said, wrapping her up in his arms and lifting her off her feet.
"Good to see you, too, Blaise, though next time you should probably send an owl. I had plans today."
"To what? Spend time locked up in an old manor driving yourself batshit crazy with all the restoration that's so obviously needed? Dear Merlin, this place is a fright." Blaise immediately started opening and shutting cupboards and cabinets, inspecting the state of the kitchen. Hermione ate up the last bit of toast as he did so.
"So why are you visiting?" she asked.
"Do I need a reason to see my dear friend?" he asked.
"Well, no, but—"
"I take it you've had no visitors since arriving."
"I made it perfectly clear to my best friends—including you—that I wanted to be left alone for a while."
"And Potter and Weasley accepted their dismissal?" Blaise rolled his eyes. "Gryffindors."
"They respect my boundaries."
"You are at a critical point in your life, Hermione," Blaise said, now crawling on his hands and knees as he looked under tables and in floor-level cabinets. "You need someone to violate those boundaries."
"You're doing a mighty fine job of it at the moment."
He grinned as he leapt to his feet. "It's official. We're going shopping."
"You came here to take me shopping? Blaise, what are you doing?" she asked as he dragged her up from her seat.
"Do you intend to live in filth for the next three months? We need to shop. Though Land's End is bound to be insane on a Saturday, hmm, there must be a village nearby." He scratched his head.
"Pip mentioned a small village—"
"Perfect!" Blaise said, and Hermione immediately regretted speaking up.
"I hadn't planned on outfitting the manor with new … everything," she said, waving her hands around the kitchen. "I can reinforce most of the material here until I've the money and inclination to shop. I mean, given the state of the manor itself, I'm just not that interested in buying new silver."
Blaise looked at her crossly. Hermione had known him long enough to know when to fight back and when to just give him what he wanted in order to get it out of his system.
"But I suppose if we have to go shopping, well …" She thought a moment. "I need some potions ingredients. And yarn."
Blaise blanched. "The pots and pans are almost worn through. Half the plates are broken, the silver is rusted, and you honestly intend shop for potions ingredients and yarn?"
She shifted and placed her hands on her hips. "I need potions for restoration and have decided to take up knitting again. It's calming."
He grinned. "Since when were you domestic?"
She bristled. "I used to knit with my gran. And Molly."
Blaise shook his head. "Whoever thought that the mistress of a pure-blood manor would knit?"
"I'm not the mistress, as you well know."
He smirked. "Well, don't be surprised if you find new cast iron in your cupboards next week."
"If you say so."
"I'm making you breakfast tomorrow."
"I don't recall asking you to stay over."
"Well, some man needs to watch over you while you sleep."
Now he was crossing a line. "Are you saying that I need protection?"
"You cast a mean hex, but—fuck, Hermione!"
She crossed her arms across her chest, inordinately satisfied with herself as Blaise doubled over. "You were saying?" she asked, infusing her voice with as much maternal warmth as possible.
She watched as he stumbled over to a chair. "Are you always this articulate when hexed?" she asked.
He gritted his teeth. "Shut up, woman."
"See, now we've a reason to go to town for potions ingredients. I need to make a paste to soothe that sting."
"It'll wear off." He was looking at her almost admiringly.
"My stinging jinxes have improved over the last few years, Blaise. You could be that way for days."
He shut his eyes. "Oh, sod it, we'll go to that village for potions ingredients. But I'm buying you new cookware before the weekend is out!"
Hermione healed the jinx before they left, of course, and was most gratified at Blaise's reaction to the village, which was appreciative silence. She felt similarly. Coleworth was quaint, clean, and sparsely populated. It was a scant mile from the manor, and she was thrilled to have found such a quiet, decidedly Muggle village that would suit her needs for the next three months. There was a grocer and a baker, and she was delighted to find that the herbal shop Pip had described was situated right next to a yarn shop. When she pointed the happy coincidence out to Blaise, he shrugged and pointed to the pub across the street.
"You know where to find me," he said, acting as though he was ready to take off.
"Blaise!" She tugged him back over to her.
"I'll take you for a drink after, how's about that? Now, which shop first?"
She thought a moment. "The herbalist."
"For those ingredients for the paste that will fully heal my stinging jinx?" He arched an eyebrow.
She smacked his arm. "I healed your arm before we left. Don't make me feel guilty."
"I'm actually quite proud of you. It was a rather Slytherin tactic."
"See, that makes me feel terrible."
"I know. You love me anyway."
She sighed and noted the sign above the door. Smith & Co. was printed in silver letters on a worn, terribly scratched black door. "Yes, Merlin help me, I do," she muttered as Blaise opened the door for her with a small bow.
"You can't jinx me in public," he murmured as she walked by.
She turned on her heel. "Watch me."
Blaise put a hand on her shoulder. "Look, I can tell that my comment got to you. I'm sorry, all right? It's just a big manor and the Ministry wards aren't that strong, and yes, I am suffering from that insipid male instinct to protect a woman one cares about. Can't you reinforce the wards?" he asked bleakly.
She shook her head. "I tried. There's some asinine rule about tenants not being allowed into the security in case they are able to keep the Ministry out, or some nonsense like that. But I should be okay. Besides, Pip is there, and he likes me a lot, and do you know how powerful house elves are?"
He nodded. "I know, I just … you're isolated."
"What is it with men being worried about a woman who's isolated?" She groaned and turned to properly take in the shop.
Blaise came up from behind and put his arms around her. "I will always worry about you, Hermione." He pecked her on the cheek. "I love you, goose."
"As much as you can be attached to anyone," she said with a grin, shrugging out of his embrace.
He put a hand to his heart in mock horror. "That hurt!"
She tossed her hair over her shoulder and walked to a table, appreciating the shop's elegant simplicity. She'd been in too many apothecaries that were haphazardly thrown together, wizard as well as Muggle. In such situations, the owner knew where everything was, but damn if a customer could find anything. At least in wizarding shops you were able to Summon what you needed, unless the owner was paranoid and blocked customers from doing such, which made any visit painfully slow.
But this: this was a Muggle shop with plenty of atmosphere—the long wooden tables set up in rows, ingredients in antique-looking bowls and jars, the low lighting, the cracked glass in the windows. But it was organized and clean, with all ingredients and prices clearly labeled and small bags, jars, sampling sticks, and Sharpie pens for marking. Hermione walked slowly along one of the tables, inspecting the quality of the ingredients. She dipped a sampling stick in one particularly lush bowl of cherry juice, sniffed, and flicked her tongue at it. She closed her eyes. Tasted like heaven.
She opened her eyes and started when she saw Blaise standing right next to her.
He grinned. "It's been fifteen minutes, and I can tell you're in your element. I'm going to the pub—come get me when you're ready to go back."
Hermione nodded her assent as she bent over a bowl to smell the mint leaves. She was delighted to find fluxweed next to them. She put a few leaves in a bag and marked the price before moving on to the next table.
The ingredients were all Muggle—spices, herbs, so on and so forth, with a few unique items like bits of bone—but as she reached the end of the table, her eyes widened and her heart started to race. Inhaling sharply, she went back to where she'd started and retraced her steps around the table. She walked to the table in the center of the shop and circled it, noting how ingredients had been arranged.
It was a guess, and she couldn't feel anything, even as she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, allowing her magic to search the shop for any energy whatsoever. Nothing. She opened her eyes and breathed again, somewhat disappointed.
It was just—it was such an odd coincidence. A few of the more unusual ingredients—leeches, for example—had been placed near items such as fluxweed. Sure, some ingredients defied classification, and a shop owner starved for time might just set one bowl next to the other without thinking twice.
But both leeches and fluxweed were ingredients in Polyjuice.
Unable to get the idea out of her head, she circled every table, looked on every shelf, and found similar occurrences elsewhere. The ingredients were all organized logically, and there wasn't a discernable pattern, and certainly such accidental placements wouldn't be recognized by most wizards and witches, but then, most wizards and witches were not potions geeks.
The particularly unique ingredients could have been placed randomly, she supposed. But there were six junctures where unusual ingredients had been placed near at least one ingredient that formed either all or part of a potion.
Hermione had waved the shopgirl away with a noncommittal wave after Blaise had left, but now she approached the black-haired girl, intent on asking one question.
"Is the owner here?"
The girl's eyes darted to a door that probably led to the back room. "Not at the moment."
"What's his name?" Hermione asked.
"Lionel Smith," the girl replied, looking a bit confused as to the sudden interest.
Hermione nodded slowly. She didn't recognize the name. She glanced out over the layout again. It had only happened six times, and there were hundreds of ingredients. Could be a coincidence.
Hermione didn't put much stock in coincidence. She pursed her lips. "Is there a time when he'll be back in?"
"Couldn't say, ma'am," the girl said, staring at the counter, fidgeting with the edge of her apron.
"Is he a particular man, your boss?" Hermione asked, smiling.
The girl shrugged. "Depends on the day."
It was clear that she wasn't going to learn much about Lionel Smith from this girl, who was looking more skittish by the moment. "Well, I'll take these, then," Hermione said. She paid and walked out of the shop quickly, eager to tell Blaise of her observations and maybe—just maybe—have him come and take a look for himself. Depending on his state of sobriety, of course.
And it wasn't even noon.
He had known the instant she walked in that he had to walk out. He did so, quickly, after instructing Caroline not to tell the brown-haired girl anything about him. Not that he was too worried—he'd given Ari's niece a job because of her skill with the product rather than the customers, and he was sure that the inquisitive Miss Granger would scare the daylights out of his reticent assistant.
He walked into the woods behind the shop. It was too risky to Apparate; Apparition tended to send a burst of magical energy, and even Neville bloody Longbottom would sense something like that.
He shouldn't speak too ill of the boy. Longbottom had beheaded that damn snake, after all. He snorted; that was something.
Finally under the cover of the forest, Severus leaned against an oak tree, and ran his hands through his hair.
Bloody hell. He was hiding. From Hermione. No, no, Miss Granger—but how could he think of her that way and then call her Hermione with any familiarity and ease? He couldn't afford to upset her as he had yesterday; who would have known that his use of her proper name would send her into such hysterics?
There were not enough obscenities in the world for a time like this.
She was in his shop. With Zabini. He wondered at her words yesterday—she'd seemed lonely, had said she wasn't expecting visitors. But had she said those things, or had he asked and mistaken silence for assent? Had he somehow interpreted her answer through his own—he shook his head. That did not bear thinking.
He dearly hoped that she wouldn't return to the shop, that for some reason she'd find it disappointing, but he knew that such wishes were in vain. She had been fond of potions even if she'd lacked the instinct, and she'd been determined to make up for that lack with exceptional zeal. If her determination with the manor's restoration was indicative, such zeal to succeed at the seemingly impossible still infected her.
Half an hour passed before he saw Caroline beckon him back. If she thought her boss's behavior odd, she said nothing and kept her face blank. He appreciated that.
He paused at the back door. "Did she ask for me?" he asked.
"She asked for the owner, yes."
"Did she have a reason?"
"No, sir, but she'd been searching the shop quite thoroughly—almost like she was looking for something."
He swore under his breath, and Caroline asked, "Sir?"
He took a deep breath. She'd noticed something. What could she have noticed? He'd been so careful—
"Caroline, this may seem like an odd request, but you are never to say anything to that girl—woman—about me, my appearance, anything."
Caroline nodded. "She seems rather persistent."
"She's a bloodhound," Severus said shortly. "I will be working in the back room and laboratory for the next three months. Tell other customers—not her!—that I am ill. Or—no, tell her that I'm ill, if she asks. It'd be suspicious if…" he trailed off at Caroline's wide-eyed look, though to her credit she remained silent.
He really needed to consider giving Caroline a raise.
"Should I tell Jack?" she asked, her tone flat.
"I'll tell him," Severus said. His other employee was the opposite of Caroline in personality: enthusiastic, disarmingly charming, a positive flirt. Not that Miss—Hermione—was pretty, per se, but Jack wasn't exactly discriminating. Severus winced at the judgment, and an image of her sleeping half-naked in his grandfather's bed, hair spilled out on the pillow, knickers riding up her arse, came to mind. He felt a flush of heat reach his face, and he waved a hand to dismiss Caroline.
He leaned against the brick wall, the sun beating down on his face. No, he'd have to tell Jack, and knowing Jack, his curiosity would be piqued. He'd want to know everything he could about Hermione and her possible connection to Lionel Smith. For some reason, Severus had failed to strike the fear of God into Jack. He considered this a personal failure. He'd have to bloody confound the boy or—or something. He'd figure out something. Maybe he'd send Jack on vacation for the next few months.
He walked back into his shop feeling like a condemned man.
That evening, for the first time in years, Severus watched security footage of his shop. He had concocted an elixir and applied it to surfaces in the shop; it wasn't strong enough to register on someone's magical radar but subtly alerted him as to any wayward activity. Within the first six months, theft had essentially ceased, and rumors of Lionel Smith's sixth sense had been greatly exaggerated. There hadn't ever been a need to watch security footage; the only reason he employed a high-tech system was in case an incident requiring the police ever occurred.
He watched as Hermione and Zabini entered the shop, and he smirked. They seemed to be having a spat. But then Zabini came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her and whispered something in her ear, and even his expression of feigned hurt couldn't stop Severus's hand from clenching the remote. What, precisely, were they to each other? She'd said she was—well, he'd assumed she was unattached. But Zabini's charm knew no bounds, and the way he'd embraced her from behind … so intimate. But what kind of lover was he if he allowed her to sleep alone at night in a drafty old manor "protected" by the Ministry? He took a deep breath and consciously relaxed his facial muscles. Merlin, he was tense. Why was he tense?
He focused his thoughts and watched her so intently he almost missed the moment when Zabini left the shop.
He needed to see what she had seen.
When she paused by the fluxweed and leeches, he knew, and he allowed himself some amount of self-recrimination. She'd paused six times, and each time he'd winced at himself. How could he have been so careless?
He'd tell Caroline to rearrange the shop tomorrow and to keep rotating certain items for the next few weeks. The next time Hermione stopped in, things would be different, and she would assume that such placements had been a coincidence.
But Merlin, he thought as he rewound the tape to watch her peruse the shop—dear Merlin, she was brilliant.
Hours later, after a glass of Ogdens, he held the blood-masking draught in his hands, debating whether or not to Disillusion himself and slip across the barrier once more. An image of Blaise and Hermione in medias res arose, and he clenched the draught in his hand.
Not tonight, at least.