Author's Note: This is completed story at approximately 9,500 words. My husband said, "Doesn't the title kind of give away your twist?" Why yes, yes it does. But, so does the first chapter, so no worries. You'll have to keep up with the time frame that each chapter represents in their journey, so I give you Ron as your guide. No, really - he does a pretty good job. Severus is my happily alive, sweet and sarcastic version. Call him OOC if you must. I give you five chapters. I give O. Henry his due for his saccharine sweet tale that inspired this little work. Rated M for language and mild suggestive scenes. No lemons to be found.
Disclosure: JK Rowling created and rightfully owns Harry Potter. I simply aim to give you a few happy minutes as you wait in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, as we imagine our favorite book characters living on past Deathly Hallows.
The magi, as you know, were wise men-wonderfully wise men-who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
– O. Henry, "The Gift of the Magi"
Harry eyed Hermione as she walked into the room. She looked happier these last six months than she had since before the war. It's not that she ever looked unhappy or depressed. But somewhere lurking alongside "determined, successful, friendly" and a host of other delightful adjectives, she just sometimes looked lost. He and Ron and Ginny and Ron's wife, Britta, took turns checking in with her to make sure that lost wasn't turning into something more serious. Lost was OK. Lost made sense. Everyone in the room had spent the last two years after the war either about to be lost, lost, or coming out of being lost. Which, Harry reminded himself, was probably why everyone in this room was here almost without fail, every three months. For the first few months after the war, it made sense that the Order would continue to meet. Death Eaters. Trials. Trials for an Ex-Death Eater-Turned Spy. But after the trials were over and Hogwarts was reopened, it soon became clear that they needed each other more than the wizarding world currently needed a covert organization.
Maybe Hermione was no longer lost, he mused. The thought made him happy. He continued his mental inventory of the people around the room. There actually seemed to be a buzz in the air that included more than just Hermione. Hermione, Minerva and Kingsley all looked like they knew a secret. Just as he had that thought, Kingsley jerked his head in recognition as the door to the kitchen opened once more. Harry followed Kingsley's line of sight to see Severus walking in, returning the Minister's nonchalant greeting. Now, he knew for sure that something was up. Severus was the exception in the Order. He had missed all of the Order meetings for the past eighteen months. While Severus was no longer a bitter and burdened man, he was still a very private, controlled man. Tonight, however, Harry saw emotions play across his face and seemed practically giddy in comparison to his normal stoicism. Harry sat up in his seat to see what would become of tonight's meeting.
Never one for a long meeting, Minerva went through the necessary steps of running an Order meeting. Right before she would have normally concluded the meeting, thus beginning the fellowship part, she looked at Hermione conspiratorially.
"I have an announcement," Minerva said, "that involves one of our own."
"I do too, Minerva," came Kingsley's booming voice. He walked from the back of the room by Severus to stand by Minerva. "It sounds like we will all be celebrating tonight!"
There were many murmurs as people looked around. Harry saw that all of a sudden, Hermione's eyes were as large as saucers, and she was white as a ghost.
Harry's eyes moved to the corner of the room, where Harry watched as Severus ran his hands through his hair. Severus caught Hermione's eyes and then startled the room as he said darkly, "Oh, fuck."
George laughed. "That's right! Oh fuck- there's good news! That's the spirit, Snape!"
People laughed, but then the laughing turned into odd silence. Hermione was looking at Severus, Severus was looking at Minerva, and Minerva was looking at Kingsley. Kingsley was smiling as he looked around the room, the consummate politician deciding how to recover a situation quickly turning pear shaped.
Arthur calmly rose from his seat to join Minerva and Kingsley at the front of the table. "I think we can gather that whatever you were about to tell us might be a little premature. Am I correct?"
Minerva recovered from her bout of silence. "Yes, yes, premature. Too true. The meeting is concluded. Molly, dear? Is dinner ready?"
Taking her cue, Molly stood. "Absolutely! I hope you're all hungry! George, Ron, come help me take the food to the back garden!"
George stood, but had to thump Ron to move, who had been watching Hermione, shaking his head. Everyone started drifting after that. Most left the kitchen to go into the garden. Hermione walked out of the kitchen and turned towards the library. Harry stood to follow her out, but his path to the door was cut off by Severus.
He turned to face Harry. "Not now, Harry."
Harry would have challenged Severus, but the pained look on his face spoke volumes.
"Yeah, all right. Are you going to," gesturing with his eyes to the door.
Severus nodded and stared at the door for a split second more before he stepped out of the kitchen to find Hermione.
After waiting calmly in the kitchen for a few minutes, Harry went to the library and tested the wards that were now in place. Strong wards, but not dark, and not too complex. A few years ago, every ward looked the same to him, but he had since come to understand that wards were not only locks on doors, but messages. This ward simply said that Severus wanted privacy, but wouldn't hex Harry if he took down the wards if there were a really good reason. He stood there for a minute, trying to decide if he should go ahead and eat, or stay for Hermione once she was done talking to Severus. Footsteps broke his train of thought and he turned to see Ron.
"She's in there," Ron said levelly.
"She is a piece of work," Ron said, without much heat.
Harry wholeheartedly agreed. "They are literally the most brilliant people I know, but she is..." he trailed off, shaking his head.
"I took the hit back then! When she broke it off, I took the hit! I was not intellectual enough. I was too immature. She's the damn mess, not me! I knew what I wanted!"
Harry chuckled, glad to see that chapter closed. What lurked behind the library door didn't look much better to him, but Hermione and Ron had been a train wreck.
Harry sighed. "I don't know how long this has been going on, but it's serious, mate."
"What?" asked Harry, shocked.
"It started six months ago."
As Severus finished up a batch of arthritis relief potion, he heard rapping on the door of his store. He easily ignored it, feeling certain it would cease as quickly as it came. His brow furrowed as he heard it again. He decided that if they knocked once more, he would answer it. He paused and was pleased that he didn't have to answer it, until he heard it the third time. Sighing, he descended the staircase leading from his upstairs lab to his apothecary. Only a truly distressed person would need a potion today. He would just need to obliviate them after he helped them.
He looked out the small, high half-circle window to see the top of a woman's head, and he smirked. He knew that hair.
Opening the door, he rolled his eyes as he stepped aside. "Granger."
Hermione narrowed her eyes at him, but then smiled largely. "You've forgotten my name? Are you that damn old?" she teased.
Severus stifled a smile. "Watch it, witch. I let you in, but I can throw you out again." He hung her cloak on a peg next to the door and gestured that she should follow him back up the stairs. "You know the rules. You disrupt the brewing, you chop the worst ingredients."
Hermione followed. "I can't believe you! I'm probably the only person in the world who knows you own this dump, and all I get is, 'Hey Granger, get to work?'"
Severus chuckled. "I'm trying to get some work done. I'll say it again: I let you in. But I know you. You're going to spend hours interrogating me and eating my ginger cookies. I might as well get something out of it." His back to Hermione, he smiled as he heard her laugh.
They entered the lab, and he drew the spare stool from the corner and set it down for Hermione next to where his cauldron was set up.
"What are we making, Severus?"
Her smile was easy, and finally broke him. He smiled back at her. "It's good to see you, Hermione."
"Well, you would have seen me sooner were you not so damn mysterious!" She paused. "I've missed you. But," she added, "now that I know your secret, can I actually stop by and say hello? Or is that bad? What the hell is this, Severus?"
"Well aren't you in a snit?" he replied dryly. "I actually have a reason for what I've been doing, and how I've been doing it. But, for once in your life, you are going to be patient." Ignoring her glare, he went to his storeroom and grabbed ingredients. He brought them back to his station and lit his cauldron. He chose one of his knives and placed it carefully before her. "Slice on the diagonal, please," he stated as he set some dried stems of lavender near the knife.
She accepted her assignment with good grace and cast a cleansing charm on her hands before picking up the knife.
"All right," Severus began. "You slice. We'll talk. First of all, you're lucky I answered the door today. I think we're the only two people in Hogsmeade. Why the hell aren't you at the World Cup with the rest of the world?"
"The World Cup is fun, I have to admit- even for someone who thinks Quidditch is boring. But, I've had this planned for months," she baited.
He furrowed his brow. "Then you're doubly lucky I answered the door. I'm surprised you didn't just break my wards."
Hermione blushed slightly.
"You tried," he said dryly. He rolled his eyes. "Not the first time. Probably not the last."
"Well, I didn't get that far," she answered sheepishly, "but I was pretty determined to see if I was right, that this was your store."
He lowered the flame and listened to her chop the stems. "Yes, this is my store," he stated unnecessarily. "How is it that Potter, a decorated senior auror, hasn't been able to track me down, but a five-foot-four fragile witch found me?"
Her non-verbal stinging hex was subtle, but hit his elbow perfectly.
"Shit, Hermione!" he exclaimed, jostling his mortar. Beetle eyes rolled off of the lab table. "I was just joking, woman!"
She laughed. "Oh, I know. I would have aimed much lower if I thought you were serious. Merlin, how I have missed being called, 'Woman!'"
Severus scowled. "Do that again, and I'll call you something else. Now tell me how you figured it out." He then smirked and added, "Woman."
"Well, your potions are the exact same as the ones at Hogwarts, for starters. After the war, I was shocked at how inferior the products were at other apothecaries. I got a product from here, and it was perfect. That should be enough for even the Prophet to put two and two together. Headline reads, 'Reclusive Ex-Spy Makes Potions'"
Severus shook his head. "Not by a long shot. I wondered if anyone could even tell."
"Of course they can! Your store always has customers when I come in."
Severus chuckled. "Good quality doesn't point to evidence of the 'Reclusive Ex-Spy' making potions to the vast majority of the world, so continue."
"All right, the next clue was Ves."
"Avesgus told you?" he asked baldly. The look on Severus' face was closed and angry.
"No!" Hermione voiced, wide-eyed. She put his hand on his arm, now stilled. "No, he didn't say anything at all!"
Severus put down the mortar and pestle and turned to face her. "Explain."
"Did you know that Ves has a twin sister?" she asked, and squeezed his arm before releasing it.
He turned back to his cauldron and doused the flame, resigned that they wouldn't get much brewing done today. "No, I didn't know that. He really is very tight-lipped, which is why I hired him in the first place."
"Yes, well, you're in good company! His sister, Avia, is an Unspeakable for the Ministry. A couple of the charms I've developed were useful to her, so she searched me out to talk about them. We're friends now, have lunch every once in a while. It's not easy being friends with someone who can't talk about anything, by the way. I seem to attract mysterious people as friends." He rolled his eyes and she continued. "I did find out, though, that she has a twin brother who works for the new apothecary in Hogsmeade. I asked who the potions master was, and she said he wouldn't even tell her! She was so mad at him! Can you imagine the gall of her? She never tells me anything!"
"Focus, Hermione, focus." He tried not to smirk as she raised one eyebrow in response.
"Anyway," she continued, "I like Ves fine, but he wasn't hired for his people skills. He's efficient and keeps secrets. I've listened to him fend off any questions regarding the brewer. He's unshakable. Well done finding him!"
Severus nodded and digested her words. "I pay him very well for his non-people skills."
"But why? You have a good name, Severus. People would love to know that they are buying your products. But instead of being 'everyone's favorite war-hero Potions Master', I have to endure ridiculous articles in the Prophet speculating as to where you might be, what you might be doing, why aren't you in the spotlight and how many women you're sleeping with."
"All part of the plan, and none, by the way," he added ruefully.
Hermione chuckled. "So, what is the plan?"
"I'm helping someone. I've taken an apprentice, and all of this is to help my apprentice take over smoothly. In another year, I'll turn it over and be gone from this place." He paused as Hermione's face fell. "Why are you looking like I just stole Crookshanks from you?"
"I'm jealous and sad and in awe of you, all at the same time."
"Start with 'jealous,' please," he said dryly.
"Well, you've never taken an apprentice before. Ever. You must really respect them."
"Hermione," he began exasperatedly, "I'm helping someone. Did you miss that part? They need help. You neither need my help, nor did you want to apprentice in potions. I let you in my lab. Can that suffice to stroke your ego without giving you an apprenticeship that you never wanted?"
"I guess, but I'm going to need those ginger cookies now," she said with a mock pout.
He stared at her for a moment, but gestured for her to follow him. They crossed the lab to another door leading to his living quarters. They were small: just a sitting room, kitchen and two doors leading to his bedroom and bathroom.
He pulled out the box of ever-stocked ginger cookies from his pantry and sat down at his scrubbed table across from her.
She took a cookie from the box. "Neanderthal," she chastised, as she got up and rummaged through his cabinets looking for tea. "You can't have cookies without tea."
"What was I thinking?" he asked sarcastically. "OK, we covered 'jealous', now on to 'sad', I believe."
She put the kettle on to boil and then turned back to face him, leaning against the counter. "Are you going to disappear again in a year? I just found you!"
Severus was a little shocked at her admission. "Have you really been looking for me?"
"Yes! At first, I thought I'd see you at the quarterly Order meetings, but you stopped coming. Then I thought I'd see you at the idiotic Ministry functions, but you stopped coming. I tried sending you an owl, but it came back."
"My apologies." He paused. "I didn't think anyone would be much affected by me shrinking away from the Order. I have kept in touch with Minerva. She knows where I am and what I'm doing. She wouldn't have told you, but she probably would have passed a message on to me. My floo is connected to her office, and only her office. It's a very secure connection. We talk about Hogwarts business, and I consult with Poppy on some of the more serious injuries. I still brew for Hogwarts, too."
Hermione still looked sad, so he continued. "I live here in Hogsmeade. I promise I'm not pretending to be a hermit. People in Hogsmeade see me every once in a while. You can come see me in Hogsmeade. Not here in the shop, obviously. I apparate from here to the alley behind the Hog's Head and walk everywhere from there."
That seemed to cheer her up. "So, you're not cooped up here alone all the time. That's good. I would like to come visit you! Would Minerva put letters from me through to you, do you think?"
Severus smirked. "That's how I get the charms journals you write for. That's also how I criticize your journal articles."
Hermione looked shocked, then her eyes narrowed. "Damn you, Severus! I knew that was you, you arse!" The teakettle whistled, distracting her from her tirade. She took the kettle off and took down two mugs.
Severus chuckled at the sound of the mugs being put on the counter with a little more force than was warranted. "You can be mad all you want at my criticisms. But, I knew you would get my nom de plume. I was trying to keep in touch with you, too."
His admission softened her expression, and she joined him at the table and handed him his mug of tea. "You're still an arse for some of the things you wrote, but I really had hoped it was you. I always looked forward to publishing an article, hoping I'd get a scathing letter from 'Severely Skeptical.'"
"Scathing? Those were real, lest you think I was just writing for old times' sake."
Hermione huffed. "Let's return to the topic of you, shall we?"
"All right, I think 'in awe of me,' was the next phrase. I'm all ears."
"Hmm. I guess I'm still in awe," she teased. "Who is it? Who is worth rearranging your life for? Who is worth building a lucrative business and then scrapping it?"
"First, I am not 'scrapping it.' It will survive, as will the residuals that my apprentice will pay me into perpetuity. I'm helping, not being a complete doormat. I don't think you'll like the answer to 'who?'"
"Try me," she said honestly. "I won't tell."
"I know you won't tell. I trust you, Hermione." He paused. "It's Draco."
"Oh, thank Merlin!" she exclaimed, drawing a surprised look from Severus. "I get it! He'll just become the new mysterious brewer. That is brilliant! I've been so worried about him."
"Why?" he asked, brows furrowed.
"Because no one's heard from him in ages, either. It was totally unfair how he was treated after the war. I have no love lost for Lucius. And I probably wouldn't have a good opinion of Narcissa if I knew the whole story, but Draco is being used as the whipping boy for the entire war. My letters to him got returned, as well," she added.
It was Severus' turn to be jealous, though he kept his expression neutral. He nodded while he collected his thoughts. "I'm sure Minerva would send through any letters for him, as well," he said stoically.
Hermione smiled gently at him and placed her hand on his arm resting on the table. Her smile was a knowing smile, and it unnerved him. "That won't be necessary. I just wanted to know that he was all right. We owe him a debt of gratitude. We aren't friends, and I doubt we ever will be. I'm glad that he has someone looking out for him." After a pause, she squeezed his arm. "That's enough awe for today, I think. I don't want it to go to your head."
He smiled softly at her and mused about how much he had missed talking with Hermione.