I'm back! With a properly beta'd story, to boot. Huge thanks to heartmom88 and ofankoma for all their help - love you two!
NB The Evening Standard represented here has nothing to do with the any other papers of that name; it's just something that popped into my head. I have no wish to be sued by Russian Oligarchs.
Rating is mostly for occasional strong language. Mostly.
By marianne le fey
She had been given one last chance.
Hermione stared at the heavily annotated copy in front of her and sighed. She had known that no one had expected her to be able to produce her usual double-page article on a subject as superficially mundane as Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions opening a new store in Totnes, but that was before she had researched her subject with her usual determination. So her editor, Bertie Blitherswaite, had probably given her the assignment as either a joke or as an attempt to curb her rather unusual work ethic, and she had known exactly what he was up to.
Then she had dug a little deeper.
Though Hermione had always dismissed Madam Malkin as a reasonably friendly, rather dithery old lady, hers was quite literally a rags-to-riches story. She had inherited her father's rag stall in the little market that clustered on Petticoat Lane – one of the little snickets that connected Knockturn Alley to the more prosperous Diagon Alley – but had managed to establish herself in her current premises after ten short years. Ten years after that she had become the outfitter for both Hogwarts and the Ministry, pushing two other traders out of business in the process.
That wasn't all. Although the clothes were largely magically prepared, the sewing itself had to be done manually (or as manual as a bewitched needle and thread could be), as magical seams had an unseemly tendency to come undone in areas of highly concentrated magic, e.g., Hogwarts, the Ministry, Glastonbury, or for that matter, Skegness. As she worked mainly in cotton, wool, and silk, she was in close contact with the Muggle cloth trade and had made a point of employing Muggle-born buyers since the late sixties to ensure she got competitive prices. That was some seriously radical thinking from a woman who provided robes for some of the oldest institutions in the wizarding world.
Then there was Totnes itself, with its hippy Muggle shops and its decaying castle perched atop a rather steep hill. The wizarding community there was young and vibrant, mainly young Muggle-borns moving into properties vacated by elderly witches and wizards who had retired there at the beginning of the last century. They had opened Muggle-friendly cafes and bars, taken their place in the local community, and were positively thriving. So, there were many witches and wizards (rather vociferously represented in the Daily Prophet) who were scandalised, but despite the Ministry officials who had investigated, no proof could be found of any activity that threatened the Statute of Secrecy. It was an amazing, modern example of how closely Muggles and wizards could live without endangering each other.
Bertie's face had been a picture when she had handed over her scroll for the first edit. She had known it would be returned to her with a blunt request to shorten the eight carefully researched feet down to eighteen inches of 'readable' material. She hadn't, however, been expecting to be summoned to the editor's office and given an ultimatum.
Just because she was fascinated by minutiae, the average readership of The Evening Standard – despite having been founded on an anti-Prophet agenda of truth, accuracy, and thorough, unbiased journalism – was not. The Standard was about being up-to-date, independent, and punchy. They wanted to tell the truth, but they didn't wish to send their readers to sleep in the process. The choice was simple; either Hermione should finally get with the programme, or she should get out the door.
She had smiled brightly, informed Bertie (who was very much like a favourite uncle) that she lived for just such challenges and that she would have a story for him by the very next week that would be astounding, insightful, and most importantly, succinct. She had then headed to the ladies' loos and cried solidly for a good ten minutes.
She had been so certain that this job would be for her. She, who had suffered so much at the shoddy, poorly researched, Ministry-dictated hands of the Daily Prophet. The thought of an authoritative, erudite competitor to the Prophet (because one couldn't count the Quibbler, not really) was wonderful. She had already proved her abilities as a researcher (if her school work wasn't proof enough, then surely the fact that she'd help find any of those damned Horcruxes was indicative enough of her tenacity, her diligence and her quick-mindedness) and she worked damn hard.
She loved Bertie, with his stripy cardigans and slightly improbable moustache. He had taken her on at the very beginning and had been incredibly supportive as she had tried to hone her writing style, and she hated feeling like she had let him down. Hated feeling like this was something she couldn't do. She had always been praised for her work ethic at Hogwarts. Well, almost always; her mind flickered briefly to the notes scrawled at the bottom of her old Potions essays: If you do not curb the need to indulge yourself in such vapid discourses outside of the requested topic, it is unlikely you will ever grasp the nuances of the subject itself. Learn to control yourself.
So what if she over-researched her pieces? If deadlines were sometimes just too limiting, when a story deserved the extra attention? She couldn't write about something she had no interest in, but luckily she found it easy to become interested in almost anything once the finer details were explored, even if her work being edited down to the bare bones was the frequent outcome. The demands for constant rewrites meant that she had to submit her work even earlier if there was any chance of even part of it making it to print.
She supposed Bertie had tried to be lenient with her, even if eventually she was barred from articles and opinions altogether and given interviews instead, perhaps in the belief that even she couldn't spin a twenty minute conversation over more than two feet of parchment. However, her rather blunt form of questioning didn't always yield the necessary results. It would have been fine in the Muggle world, she decided, but all wizards seemed to expect to be flattered, not interrogated.
It wasn't her fault that there was always so much more to any one topic than most people would ever guess. And she was passionate about certain things. Surely, that was a good quality? So, some wizards didn't like being told that their opinions were outdated, outmoded, and deserved to be thrown out the bloody window, but that was usually because they were outdated and outmoded. It wasn't exactly her fault that their egos made it almost impossible to have a proper discussion.
She stared at herself hard in the mirror, hating that even after all this time, she still ended up alone and sobbing in the loos. Her flushed, dejected face stared back at her in rather unbecoming misery. This time, she knew there was little chance of Harry rushing in to save her. She was lucky that Sandra from payroll hadn't found her already, else her dressing down would already be common knowledge.
Thank goodness it was Thursday. Only one more day to go.
Leaving her wine glass on the low coffee table, she headed to the hallway and plastered a smile to her face before answering the telephone. It was only ever her parents who called her landline and her mother had an unerring ability to tell when her daughter was unhappy.
"Hello!" she answered, as brightly as possible.
There was a long moment of silence before a muffled voice queried, "Hermione Granger?"
The smile faded. "Yes?"
"Hermione Granger of the Evening Standard?" The query was slightly distorted, as if someone were attempting to disguise their voice.
"Who is this?"
"I've got a story for you. New potions shop opening up in Knockturn Alley."
"How did you get this number?" she demanded.
"S'in the book," came the terse reply. Which was true, actually. She hadn't honestly considered that a wizard might deign to trace her through Muggle means, else she would certainly had registered the number as ex-directory. "You want to know about this shop, though. The owner ain't right."
"Not meaning any offence to the traders of Knockturn Alley, but few of them are," she snipped. "Now I have to ask you not to call this number again. Good night, si—"
"He's a Death Eater."
"Thought that might get your interest. The old pawn shop, down by the pie and mash shop."
"How do you—"
She sighed as the line went dead; she'd rather been looking forward to hanging up on him. It was probably just some sort of hoax. She'd have to see how much it would cost to get her number changed.
Ten minutes later, she had her shoes on and was ready to leave the flat. It was just too good an opportunity to miss, the chance at a real scoop! The Ministry processing of the Death Eaters had been wildly uneven and mismanaged – it had provided the Standard with fodder for weeks! It would be just like them to have released someone still a menace to the public. Even if she couldn't secure an interview, the news itself was enough to secure her a reprieve. It might even make it onto the front cover, if other news was slow. . .
She paused at the front door.
Still, this person, whoever they were, might simply be attempting to establish an honest business. It couldn't be easy trying to move forward with your life after your own personal pantomime villain dragged you into a war, only to lose spectacularly to a teenaged wizard using a borrowed wand. Did she honestly have the right to go snooping in their past? Wouldn't that put her on a par with Skeeter, Heyer, and the one who had published all those pictures of Ron and the blonde girl?
She plonked herself back down on the sofa and toed off her trainers. Just because all the dangerous Death Easters were either dead or imprisoned, it was still probably not the best idea to head to wizarding London's most notorious street at this time of the evening, not when it got dark so early. She felt thoroughly deflated. For a minute, she had seriously believed that this might have been the answer to her current dilemma: a genuinely interesting lead, from her first anonymous source. Was it so terrible that she wanted to get a scoop?
Refilling her wine glass, she switched on the TV and flicked to the news channels, as interested in how the stories were selected and presented as the news itself. Her parents complained ceaselessly at how the dedicated news channels only seemed capable of focussing on one story per day, repeating the same information and interviews on a loop. Having been shielded from much of the recent war, they had never really had the frustration of having only one daily news source in the form of the Prophet, a paper that could be described as partisan at best and self-serving and largely fictitious the rest of the time. The Standard had seemed like a dream to her, a great white hope. She had been so proud to be one of the founding staff members. The thrill of seeing her name in the by-line far outweighed the dubious honour of featuring in the headlines.
She found the shop easily, simply by following the rather enticing smell of meat and pastry. She paused outside the pie and mash shop. It looked like one of those genuine old London eateries that promised hot, greasy, tasty food with a possible side helping of salmonella. She sniffed appreciatively. Had Knockturn Alley not leant the air of a stage production of Sweeney Todd, she might well have given in. Instead, she moved closer to the half-timbered building next door and peered through the window.
It certainly looked sinister enough. Nothing said 'Dark Wizard', after all, like peeling black paint, cobwebs, and tall towering shelves crammed with dusty bottles. It was a little suspect, those shelves being a week old at most, but then any dust that managed to exist in a world of magical cleaning was usually there for effect. The first time she had managed to repair a laddered pair of tights with her wand, Hermione had suddenly found herself incredibly uncomfortable at the memory of Remus Lupin's carefully neglected appearance. He had performed a non-verbal spell during their very first lesson. The patches on his robes had to have been a deliberate affectation. Most likely he had very good reasons for it, but it still jarred oddly with her memory of the kind, likeable older man.
At her knock, the door swung slowly inwards, granting her a glimpse of dirty blond hair and a large beard. She took a deep breath, gripped her wand tightly, plastered her intrepid reporter smile on her face, and began. "Good afternoon. My name is Hermione Granger of the Evening Standard—"
"I am well aware who you are Miss Granger, as I should imagine is most of wizarding Britain."
She stared up in horror. The voice, especially that snide tone, was familiar.
Black eyes stared down at her, narrowed disdainfully, and though it was hard to tell under that beard, she was certain his lips had curled into a sneer.
Worryingly, she was also pretty certain that the owner of that memorable sneer was dead, and had been for some time.
It was Snape.
Professor Snape, her inner monologue corrected, unhelpfully and quite probably inaccurately. Her carefully rehearsed greeting died on her lips.
"Well," she breathed. "Fuck."
His eyes widened slightly. "I had hoped for a rather more structured greeting from one of this country's newest writers. If I wanted base profanity, I could walk down this street any day of the month."
"You knew I was coming?"
"As I went to all the trouble of finding a working payphone in this part of London, you can assume I was certainly sincere about wanting you to come. Now, close your mouth and come inside."
She followed him mutely, incapable of doing anything other than obeying. The shock at seeing him alive and blond seemed to have caused her to regress to deferential student.
It was dark inside, the low shelves already crammed with assorted jars and bottles. Something skittered in the far corner.
"I'm still working on the charms," he commented, confirming her suspicions that everything she saw and heard had been designed to be as dark and forbidding as possible. He led her into an equally dismal back office and leant against the uniformly dusty desk.
"It's you," she breathed. "You're the Death Eater about to open up a shop."
"If that is an example of your deductive capabilities, then it is clear I summoned the wrong reporter."
She ignored the arrogant way in which he used the word 'summoned' and studied him instead. The hair and beard were disconcerting, but there was no mistaking those eyes, or indeed, the nose beneath them. The simple brown robe did little to hide his thinness, and without his billowing black cloak, he seemed slight, almost fragile.
"I saw you die," she whispered. "There's been no word of you for the past two years."
His shoulders slumped slightly, and he seemed to collapse in upon himself. "This is going to be impossible," he muttered. "Sit down and try not to interrupt."
Hermione sat on the slightly rickety-looking chair that he had gestured to and was pleased to discover that its spindly looks were also deliberately misleading. Feeling slightly reassured that it wouldn't collapse beneath her, she crossed her legs at the ankle and looked expectantly up at Snape.
The name didn't really do him justice any more. Professor Snape was all billowing robes, black cloaks and a presence far larger than his narrow frame. The man in front of her didn't seem to possess any of the vibrant anger or impatience that had let him silence entire classrooms with the rise of one eyebrow, or sent children quaking with the curl of his lip. Even now, sitting alone with the man who had played them all, right until the very end, she realised she didn't feel the least bit threatened. Even when he had insulted her intelligence, a subject still likely to provoke defensiveness, she had only been mildly goaded.
Who, then, was the man in front of her? She immediately chastised herself for sounding like something Rita Skeeter might have written. Yet it didn't make the question any less intriguing. If he wasn't the snarling, arrogant Potions master, what could possibly be left over?
"Are you quite finished?" he asked, managing to sound both bored and amused. Although she was certain that he couldn't possibly have known what she was thinking, Hermione immediately felt warmth stain her cheeks and knew that her blush would likely betray the less than professional quality of her thoughts.
"I'm sorry," she began. "But I think I'm allowed a few moments to come to terms with the fact that you're alive. And blond."
He glared at her. She folded her hands in her lap and waited.
"I am going to give you a very brief outline of how I have come to be both alive and about to open a shop in Knockturn Alley. Once I have finished, and please, only then, I will be willing to listen to your questions. Understood?"
She noticed that he hadn't offered to answer her questions, but allowing herself to be caught up in the surreal experience of being bossed around by a dead man, she simply nodded in silence.
He glared at her again until apparently satisfied that she had understood his instructions.
"Obviously, I survived Nagini's bite, else I would not be standing here in front of you. I was, however, gravely injured and have spent the greater part of the last two years recovering and rehabilitating. I am about to open this shop and thought it prudent to manage my return to public life as carefully as possible and came to the decision to involve yourself. I have no wish to speak with hoards of reporters, nor do I wish to cause innocent shoppers – or as innocent as those likely to frequent a shop in this less than salubrious part of town – the possibly dangerous level of shock they might otherwise receive should they enter this shop still under the misapprehension that I am no longer amongst the living.
"I wished to make my survival public knowledge in the least sensational way possible. The Quibbler would probably not be taken seriously. So I turned to the Standard, in the hope that it might afford me the understated disclosure I seek."
She had a feeling he had been rehearsing the more difficult sentences for a while. His delivery was as precise as always. His voice, it would appear, had escaped the injury to his neck unscathed. She was oddly comforted at the thought.
There followed a long pause until Hermione realised that she was finally free to ask questions. She dragged her eyes away from his rather bizarre facial hair and cast around for an intelligent question.
"Does the Ministry know?"
"Of course they do," he frowned, no doubt questioning her reasoning abilities once more. "I was in a private ward at St Mungo's until only recently. My official pardon was only granted after exhaustive investigation and thorough cross-examination."
"Huh." Well, that explained a lot. She wasn't certain whether the Ministry's role in keeping his survival a secret was better or worse that his having been a fugitive for the last couple of years. It was a terribly huge secret to keep from a public already nervous about the corruption exposed by Voldemort's ascent to power. "Why call me?"
"I told you, though yet to reach its full potential, the Standard shows at least some inclination towards competent journalism."
"No – I meant, why me?"
He looked slightly uncomfortable. "I hoped that despite my reputation, you might have been privy to enough of my true role during the war, to be willing to aid me in this venture."
Again, the line sounded rehearsed.
"Well, that certainly makes sense. After everything you did, I probably owe you a life-debt five times over."
"That's not—" he began, then nodded. "Though technically incorrect, you can see this as a way of nulling those debts."
"It hardly seems enough," she mused. "If you knew I would help you, why all the theatrics on the phone? Why not just tell me what you wanted?"
"Because doubtless you wouldn't have believed it was me," he shrugged. "Or worse still, you would have felt compelled to share the information with your colleagues, the Ministry, or more likely, Messrs Potter and Weasley."
He probably wouldn't have enjoyed all three of them turning up to investigate. Especially not if they had tried to fit under Harry's Invisibility Cloak while peering through his windows.
"Harry and Ron are the Ministry, these days. Harry's just about done with Auror training, and Ron's got a job in the Department of Magical Games and Sports." It was her turn to feel uncomfortable. "You do know that Harry will want to speak to you, don't you? He never got over misjudging you quite so badly."
He stared at her, and for the first time she was really aware that she was in the company of Severus Snape. The air seemed to leave the room as she realised that, despite the nondescript robe and the dusty shop front, this man had been Voldemort's most trusted servant. The man who had murdered Albus Dumbledore, betrayed the Dark Lord, and somehow survived the attack of a monstrous serpent.
Then he sighed, and in that brief moment, the tension fled the room and the air returned. "I already know of his attempts to clear my name. It was in large part thanks to him that I was finally exonerated." He seemed suddenly frail again, and Hermione wondered how much that admission had cost him. "I will answer his questions, if I can, but not yet. I would ask you to persuade him to refrain from contacting me directly, at least for the time being."
"I'll try," she agreed. "But you must know how hard it can be to stop Harry from acting on something once he's got the bit between his teeth. He's not nearly as bad as he used to be, but something this big—" She let the sentence hang unfinished between them as Snape gave another of his curt nods.
Belatedly, she pulled the slightly battered Dictaphone from her handbag, along with her spiral-bound notepad and a biro. If Snape found her use of Muggle stationery of note, he gave no outward sign of it, and simply waited while she set the small recorder up on the desk, next to where he leant.
She sat back down and considered the sort of questions she ought to ask. Where he had been for the last two years had already been covered, and she doubted he would be willing to be more explicit about his rehabilitation. Two years was a very long time, especially when you had access to all the magical healing St Mungo's had to offer; he must have been very ill, indeed. Focussing on the trials of his recovery would be an easy way to win sympathy for him from much of the readership, but she knew without asking that it would not be what he wanted.
Instead, she ought to focus on the reasons for his return. Had he grown weary of solitude? Did he miss potion-making that much? Then again, perhaps it was simply a question of monetary constraint. Two years was also a long time to be out of work, especially when one added the alarming cost of legal representation.
This line of thought immediately led to another. If Snape had been tried, then he must have had access to some form of legal aid – it had been one of the first amendments Percy Weasley had forced through in his new role, helping to root out the practices that had led to such wide-scale corruption within the Ministry – a job to which his fastidious, diligent nature was vastly suited. Legal counsel, a prosecution, an adjudicator, maybe even a jury. There was a growing list of people who had to have known about Snape's survival, even if you overlooked the Healers who had tended him in St Mungo's. How had it been kept a secret for so long?
A quiet cough brought her back to reality, and she realised that she had been chewing quietly on the end of her pen while staring at her old Professor in his current guise.
"Why the hair?" she asked. "It's a very weak disguise; the moment someone looks at you directly or hears your voice, they're going to know who you are. It seems odd that you've bothered with such a half-measure."
"This is Knockturn Alley," he offered by way of explanation. "Few are daft enough to stare a stranger in the face. Besides, I rarely leave the shop. It's only really there to fool the few passers-by nosy enough to try and peer through the windows." He met her gaze levelly. "There has been a surprising number of those."
Hermione felt a moment's uncertainty. Was he teasing her? To cover her confusion, she found herself speaking without really thinking what she was saying.
"So that hair isn't permanent? Thank goodness for that. The beard alone offends reason."
His eyebrows, which she now realised had been lightened to match his hair, reached new heights.
"Miss Granger, are you in the habit of insulting your interviewees? That would perhaps explain the rather lacklustre articles you tend to produce."
"You've read my articles?" Given his previous answers, she had expected that he had only contacted her as he had been reasonably sure of her response at seeing him. Knowing that he was familiar with her work, yet had still wished to have her handle his story, gave her an unexpected surge of pride.
"Don't be too pleased. I did, after all, find them rather limited."
She beamed. "After the comments you used to leave on my essays, that's almost complimentary." And it was. He would have had no qualms about demanding she introduce him to a more competent journalist had he felt her work to be substandard. Simply choosing her was a huge, albeit unvoiced, compliment.
The article had been a masterpiece of understatement, conveying the news of his return as if it were a mildly interesting aside rather than front page material, though, Hermione was thrilled to note, that was where it ended up. The very fact that he had survived was in itself perhaps the most newsworthy discovery since the war had ended. That his recovery had taken place with the full knowledge of the Ministry of Magic could well have been the biggest scandal to hit them since Umbridge's office contents had been seized by the Aurors. Of course, she'd had to beg Bertie to allow her to handle the news so sparingly, but had eventually agreed to let her go her own way.
In the end, her editor had seemed genuinely impressed at how succinctly she'd worded the news of Snape's return. Hermione, however, felt slightly guilty, as if she was letting her personal feelings of obligation dictate a story. She knew she wouldn't have been so delicate with the facts had it been a stranger's story she was telling. Still, for a girl who sometimes worried that her current career was still driven by her exploits during the war, it was really rather wonderful to be given such a visible vote of confidence.
Telling Harry had been surprisingly easy. After hours of imagining the twists the conversation might take, she had chosen to simply sit him down and hand him the copy she had put together for the paper. He was uncharacteristically silent as he read the carefully typed statement, though Hermione could see the blood draining from his face.
He read the final paragraph aloud. "Mr Snape believes that the few details of his treatment and trial that the Ministry of Magic were willing to release, printed in full on page five, and the information he has provided here, should adequately satisfy those who might question his right to retake his place amongst Britain's wizards. As such, he explained emphatically to our reporter, Hermione Granger, he would not be granting any further interviews, save on the subject of his new business venture. He also warns that the shop, located at the north end of Knockturn Alley, is 'not open to time wasters, lolly-gaggers or any members of the press ill-advised enough to ignore my request for privacy.'" He folded the paper and handed in back to her. "He doesn't want to talk to me, does he?"
"Not yet, no," she admitted. "But he says he will answer your questions at a later date. It was difficult enough for him to bark those few statements at me, and he was the one to arrange our meeting." She reached out and took Harry's hand. "Are you alright?"
"It's good news, isn't it? He survived. It's only right that he finally be allowed to live life on his own terms. How did he seem?"
"Smaller. He's still aloof and impatient, and when I annoyed him, slightly terrifying, but you can tell he was badly hurt."
"If you see him again, will you tell him that I don't need to ask him anything? I can't really express how grateful I am for everything that he did, and so I won't waste his time by trying. Unless there's a particular way he feels I can repay him, then I'll simply do as he asked in the interview and keep my distance."
Hermione nodded, honestly relieved at his response. Sometimes it was surprising just how much her friends had changed in the short time since war had ended. "Of course, but I can't imagine I'll see him any time soon."
She made her way back to the potions shop (or 'Ye Olde Potions Shoppe', as she had christened it in her mind, in keeping with its Dickensian aura. It was certainly better than the name Snape had settled on) the day after publication. She wasn't sure if Snape would have seen the article yet, and she was proud enough of her work to want to ensure that he did. Of course, he would probably have only negative things to say about it, but she wasn't going to let a thing like that deter her. Since landing the scoop of the year, she had never felt more like an intrepid reporter.
She was distracted enough by the tantalising smells emanating from the pie shop that she didn't immediately notice the crowd gathered outside Potions: Ingredients, Bespoke, Wholesale. They were mostly the usual rabble of Knockturn Alley undesirables, but she noticed a few of her rivals from the Prophet amongst their ranks.
It seemed that, despite her efforts, Snape's return was not going to pass unremarked.
They seemed to be having some sort of difficulty entering the shop. As she watched, a witch in silver robes was pushed out the door into the awaiting crowd by some invisible force. The crowd didn't seem to mind in the least being barred from the shop and seemed to be taking it in turns to try and force their way inside while indulging in the sort of petty crime that keeps a crowd entertained.
She watched in completely unprofessional glee as Aubrey Heyer had his pockets picked by a diminutive wizard (she was almost certain the thing under the fraying cloak was a wizard) before making her way towards the door. A slight cheer went up as she arrived and the crowd parted happily to let her through.
"Maybe he'll turn up now she's here," she heard one of them say, as she stepped through the narrow door.
She entered easily enough and looked round in interest. Inside, the shop was gloomy and smelt slightly of burnt cabbage. There were a few people quietly browsing the shelves and throwing furtive glances at the counter. Snape was nowhere to be seen; instead, a stooped old man with receding, greying hair was behind the counter, bagging the purchases of a wheedling Rita Skeeter.
"Surely you must know when he'll be in?"
"Any questions of a potions nature can be addressed to myself. Now, if that's everything, I'll bid you good day."
"He'll want to speak with me," she assured him, her forced smile becoming even more strained.
"That doesn't sound like potions-related to me," the old man grumbled, raising his wand from behind the counter. "You wouldn't be wasting my time, would you?"
Skeeter flinched. "Half an ounce of beetle eyes, then."
"We only sell by the ounce here, madam."
From the healthy pile of ingredients stacked on the counter, Hermione surmised that the conversation had been going on for some time. She settled to watch the argument in open amusement, knowing that even if Skeeter were to see her, she would not deign to acknowledge her. Hermione's job had somehow made them peers, and the older woman had become cautious around her, finally recognising that she may have met her match.
The old man looked up to see Hermione hovering near the dried Ragwort, and she worried for a moment that she, too, was about to be accused of time-wasting and subjected to whatever punishment was being meted out to those found guilty. His eyes really were very piercing, despite their rheumy greyness. He held her gaze even as he began to measure out the shiny black orbs, before raising an eyebrow, and jerking his head towards the door to the office she had been lead through only days before.
She slipped through the side door and sat herself down on the rickety-looking stool she had occupied before. It was less than five minutes before she was joined by the old man.
"It is you, isn't it?" she asked.
"Of course it's me," he sighed. "Who else would I let handle my stock?"
"I'm just intrigued by your sudden taste for dressing up," she shrugged, reassured to find that his normally terrifying glare didn't translate particularly well onto the old man's face. "Is this going to become a theme?"
He leant against the battered desk and crossed his arms across his narrow chest.
"I've only officially been open for eight hours and already I've made more than I hoped to in the first month. People are flocking to the shop in droves, and the enchantments only keep out those that have no intention of buying anything. Once they realised that, I started raking in the Galleons, even though I told them that there was no chance of seeing Snape."
Hermione attempted to arrange her features into a look of concerned understanding as she kicked the bag holding his copy of the article under her chair. It occurred to her that she had entered the shop without meaning to buy a thing, but she filed that question away for a different time and listened sympathetically as he began to rant.
"I'm getting letters, too, from people I've never met. They want to know everything. Was Dumbledore some sort of megalomaniac? Did the Dark Lord strike me as lonely? Is it true that Draco was my son?" He looked faintly horrified at that thought. "I don't know where they get these things from. The way Skeeter was talking, you'd think the Death Eaters were just a handful of fetishists with a bad reputation. It's only been two years."
"The Prophet delivered wildly contradictory coverage from the very beginning." Hermione shrugged. "First there was no threat at all, then Voldemort was going to kill everybody in their beds, then it was the Muggle-borns that were the danger. All people really know is that they were scared witless. It didn't help that Harry Potter disappeared for almost a full year during the worst of the violence, only to destroy the Death Eaters in the space of one night. Even the coverage of the final battle was mixed: so many traumatised children giving contradictory statements. No one who was involved in the worst of it really wanted to talk about it. The press simply filled in the blanks."
"You never tried to set them straight?"
She squirmed under his intense gaze, uncomfortable as always at the thought of speaking about the war. "How could I? I spent much of that final year cut off from the world. Even Harry only knows part of the story. Dumbledore's portrait is probably the only one who knows exactly what went on during those last few years, but even his knowledge is limited concerning what happened amongst the Death Eaters." She dropped her gaze. "There are still people missing, you know. Hardly any of You-Know-Who's surviving followers were in a fit state to talk. The Ministry had enough Dementors left under its control to kiss the ones that wouldn't stand down. Those who were acquitted were conveniently under the influence of the Imperius Curse and can't remember a thing."
Glancing up, she watched as heavy disappointment clouded his face. For an awful moment, she thought that he was disappointed in her, and was surprised at just how crushed it made her feel.
"I had no idea it was that bad," he admitted. "Lucius did try to warn me. Perhaps I was foolish thinking that I could simply take a new place in this world, hoping that being absolved of my crimes would allow me to lay the past to rest." He dropped his hands to his sides, suddenly looking very tired. When he spoke again, he sounded resigned. "Perhaps I was too hasty in refusing to discuss my greater involvement during the recent war, or indeed, the one preceding it. I had hoped it wouldn't come to this."
Hermione blinked. "To what?"
When he spoke again she could tell it was through gritted teeth. The Polyjuice Potion, or whatever variation of it he was using to disguise his face, was beginning to wear off, leaving him with a strangely piebald appearance, his awful beard beginning to re-emerge. Staring as she was, she didn't immediately grasp the meaning of his next words.
"Don't make me spell it out, Granger. The need to publish my side of the story. To share my part in the events, answer all the questions that it seems the public desires to hear. Correct any misassumptions." When she simply blinked again, he sighed. "I want you to write it for me. I'll pay you handsomely for it, though I can't afford to give you a whole lot upfront and I understand that your full-time work will come—"
Hermione closed the narrow space between them and wrapped her arms tight around him. "Thank you!"
They both froze. Though she didn't dare meet his eyes, she could feel him staring at her in a frank amazement that probably rivalled her own, but his voice, when he finally spoke, was as carefully bored and precise as ever. "Miss Granger, do you not think it perhaps unwise to attack a man with my reputation?"
"That had just occurred to me," she admitted to his armpit, her arms still locked around his narrow waist.
"So why do you persist in hugging me?"
"Honestly, I was afraid to make any sudden movements."
"It's a little late for that. Kindly unhand me."
He'd made her sign a confidentiality agreement the moment she'd said yes; of course he had, he was Snape. She was fairly certain that an affliction worse than severe pimples awaited her if she tried to break her promise of discretion. Still, it wasn't until she had got home and changed out of her smart work robes into her pyjamas and settled on the sofa that she considered what she had just got herself into. She had Apparated home in a cloud of feverish excitement at the prospect of becoming a published author, yet sitting alone in the dark, she found herself wondering if she really wanted to know the truth about Snape.
Snape. She had thought about him since the war, of course. Had cried herself to sleep a couple of times at the thought of a life so tragically wasted. It had all been so terribly romantic once his story had come to light, even if Harry had shouted it in a garbled rant across a battlefield. The man had dedicated his entire life to the memory of the one he loved. Such devotion hadn't married at all with the dour, impatient man she remembered from school, but she hadn't quite been able to resist wondering what it must be like to be loved like that.
Of course, rationally she knew she should have found it a little creepy. If Neville, say, had formed a lifelong passion for her, she would have felt embarrassed and awkward and more than a little pitying. Slavish devotion worked well in fictional romance, but would have most likely become irritating in real life. That hadn't stopped her wondering, though. About Snape, not poor Neville. But then, Neville had never had Snape's style.
She curled her feet underneath her and leant back against the cushions, a slow smile creeping across her face.
Authored by Hermione Granger, O.o.M., First Class.
It had rather a nice ring to it.
This is a completed story, though it might take a teeny while for the next chapter to be ready. In the mean time, I'd love to know what you think of things so far!