The short, plump woman in the faded purple gown and dusty grey cloak trotted as fast as her sturdy legs would carry her, down the dank, cobbled lanes off Knockturn Alley. She clutched a heavily-laden basket on one arm and muttered darkly as she heard footsteps behind her. She cut left abruptly, coming out into the relative brightness of Knockturn Alley itself, and gasped in relief at the sight of Bitworth and Slyme's All-Night Apothecary immediately across the road.
She hurried inside.
"Yesssss, madam?" an oily voice greeted her.
"Five ounces of pickled dragon's spleen," she ordered in a lightly quavering voice. "And mind it's properly pickled! The last I had from you was still twitching!"
"Certainly, madam," the proprietor assured her. "We have some very fine Fireball spleen, preserved in rice wine vinegar, put up in 1963."
She sniffed. "Hmph! Nasty foreign stuff. Well, I suppose it will have to do. Two pounds of hippogriff bone meal, and a packet of dried lacewings." She rummaged in her pockets and counted out sickles and knuts onto the counter, before adding one golden galleon and pushing the money across to him.
He scraped the coins into the till, bowed, and went to package her purchases.
"I haven't got all day, you know!" she snapped after a few moments.
"Certainly, certainly, madam," he said soothingly, coming out of the storeroom with the brown paper-wrapped parcels. "Here you are, madam. A pleasure to have your custom, as always."
She glared at him and stowed the packages in her basket, then cast an uneasy glance out the dingy shop window before turning back to him. "Where is it, today?" she asked carefully, sliding another galleon across the counter.
"Behind the Spotted Unicorn, madam, beside the rubbish bins. Our side door is at your disposal," the man offered, as the galleon disappeared.
"Very well." She hesitated, then placed another few sickles on the counter. "Good day." She sidled past a tall rack of thestral bones and ducked out the side door. She stood quietly for a moment, listening, then pulled a battered flask from her pocket and took a long swallow.
She gritted her teeth at the horrid taste and clung to the wall as the potion took hold.
In a few moments, she brushed long blonde hair out of her eyes and glared down at the gown whose hem now hung just below her knees. With a sigh, she pulled her wand from her pocket and muttered a spell, extending the fabric down to her ankles and darkening it to muddy brown. A faint sound made her look around, but no one was in sight.
She headed down the alley toward the back of the Spotted Unicorn, her wand tightly gripped in her hand. Her shoes pinched, but she could feel eyes on her and knew she had no more time to spare. The rank odor of garbage rose up as she reached the back of the pub. She ducked behind the rubbish bin and hurriedly scraped away the accumulated refuse to uncover a circle, nearly two feet across, inscribed in faintly-glowing blue.
Footsteps sounded nearby and the hair on the back of her neck stood up at the approach of malevolent magic. She quickly kicked the last of the rubbish clear and stepped into the circle.
She felt a tug behind her navel as the portkey activated. A heartbeat later, she lurched forward and only prevented herself from falling by clutching at the wall. She looked around quickly, assessing. She was in a stall, in what appeared to be a darkened public toilet. There was no trace of the portkey, of course. The automatically re-setting portkeys were one of the accommodations the merchants of Knockturn Alley maintained for patrons who required a safe, discreet and untraceable means of departure. They were scattered throughout the Alley, their positions changed daily, and their destinations altered with every use. If anyone had tried to follow her, they had probably found themselves twenty miles away, in the opposite direction. The terminal points were random, but guaranteed to be low-profile and unoccupied.
She breathed a sigh of relief, visualized a maintenance building at the corner of a long-abandoned mill, and apparated. Her arrival startled a feral cat, who gave her an offended glare before stalking off to better hunting grounds. She pulled off her cloak and transfigured it into a sturdy Muggle shopping bag, stuffing her laden basket into its capacious interior. Next, she cast finite incantatum on her gown, which morphed into a shapeless pair of trousers and a limp shirt of indeterminate colour. The clothes were rather too snug in certain areas and too long in general, but she merely sighed, slung the shopping bag over one arm, and began trudging home.
The polyjuice wore off half a mile from home, as anticipated. As the first quavers hit, she turned down a side street and ducked into the doorway of a boarded-up pawnshop to wait out the transformation.
After a few minutes, Severus Snape shook off the nausea and weakness left in the aftermath of overlapped, mixed doses of polyjuice and doggedly continued homeward.
It was full dark when he arrived, but he had the neighborhood toughs properly cowed. They either made hasty departures or gave him cautiously respectful nods in greeting as he passed by.
Once safely back behind the old wooden fence and solid front door that guarded his house, Snape sighed and went to stow the spoils of his shopping excursion in the few secret compartments neither Wormtail nor the Ministry had discovered in their repeated invasions of his living space.
When he was done with the essentials, he pulled more prosaic purchases - packets of tea, sugar and oatmeal - from his pockets and put them away in the nearly bare pantry, then slumped down onto his single kitchen stool and rested his head in his hands.
It had been three years. Three years since the Ministry, in its inestimable wisdom and mercy, had seen fit to grant him a conditional parole, "freeing" him from Azkaban and graciously permitting him to "reintegrate" himself into the fabric of wizarding society.
What a farce!
The conditions of his parole would have been less onerous, perhaps, if he had had a circle of family, friends and professional colleagues who had petitioned on his behalf and now stood by him. If he had been able to find a livelihood that would allow him to raise himself above grim poverty. If he had been able to find a place in that so-called society where he was not constantly shunned, hexed and spat upon, where his name was not synonomous with treachery and blackest evil, where people did not mutter darkly at his passing by, about the good old days when Dark traitors went to the Dementors, as they so richly deserved.
Instead, he had former comrades who had virtuously told the Wizengamot that Severus Snape had, at great risk to his life and his very soul, provided information that enabled the Order of the Phoenix to bring about Voldemort's fall. They had scrupulously recounted his part in the final battle, giving him full credit for every Death Eater he had killed, every curse he had cast, every hex he had intercepted in trying to protect the Boy Who Lived yet one last time. They had nobly sworn that he had been obedient to the wishes and orders of Albus Dumbledore, first to last.
And they had unanimously testified that he had cast the Killing Curse that took the old man's life.
Oh, they had been careful to explain that he had been under orders that Dumbledore had insisted he obey. But the fact remained that he had killed perhaps the most-beloved wizard of the past century, and the Wizengamot's decision was swift.
Fifteen years in Azkaban.
He had served seven before being granted parole. He was painfully aware that most people considered that a glaring travesty of justice. Certainly, most of the Order must have thought so, as he had had no contact with any of them since his sentencing.
So here he sat, in the wretched house he had grown up in, surrounded by memories he had no wish to recall, abandoned by his one-time colleagues, despised by the wizarding world, and looked upon with mingled fear and suspicion by his Muggle neighbors.
He was not allowed to apparate within a mile of Spinner's End - to quell any Muggle curiosity. He was not allowed to send or receive Owl Post, except indirectly through Gringotts' Post Forwarding Department, which maintained arrangements with several Muggle shipping firms.
The restrictions imposed to keep the locals blissfully ignorant of his nature were bad enough, but the conditions of his parole imposed to "reform" and "rehabilitate" him were nearly unbearable.
They had taken his wand at his arrest, of course, but on his parole, he had been dismayed, angered and alarmed to be given in its place a short olivewood wand with a core of unicorn hair. It was a lovely thing with an oil-rubbed finish that brought out the beauty of the wood. It was also guaranteed incapable of casting any Dark spell, and it grew uncomfortably hot in his hand if he attempted anything much more powerful than wingardium leviosa.
There was a long list of items not allowed in his possession. He was forbidden to go anywhere near Knockturn Alley, or to enter any business known to traffic in Dark or "questionable" materials.
His floo was connected, but charmed so that he could not restrict access by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement at any time, and a record of all travel through his floo was automatically updated at the Ministry every time the floo was activated.
They had confiscated his laboratory at his arrest as well, miniaturizing the entire contents of what had once been his mother's workroom. On his release from Azkaban, some of it had been returned to him - barely enough to adequately equip a Fourth Year's student workbench in his old Potions classroom. His rare ingredients, carefully collected compounds and delicate, expensive equipment had been withheld, pending successful completion of his "rehabilitation program" and the full term of his parole. After all, as his parole auror had pointed out, some of those supplies could be classified as Dark magic on their own, let alone their potential for being used to create Dark or otherwise harmful potions!
Oh, heavens, the horror!
Undoubtedly the worst element of the whole degrading and appalling mess was the agent and embodiment of his misery, Suzanne Marie Soleil. She was a Rehabilitation Specialist Auror, a hellish new variant of torturer, as far as he was concerned. She was horrifyingly cheerful and "perky," as she described herself, and his best attempts at intimidation had no apparent effect on her. The glares and snarls that had made Death Eaters quail and Seventh Years soil themselves were met with a look of sorrow and a solicitous inquiry as to the state of his bowels.
When he screamed at her, she merely sighed and shook her head. When he glowered or loomed threateningly, she had had the temerity to pat him on the shoulder and assure him that he would be much happier once he had begun taking the new tonic she had induced the mediwizards at St. Mungo's to recommend for him, to offset his years of privation in Azkaban.
If his wand had been capable of it, he would have blasted her where she stood.
Instead, he had to suffer her nauseatingly sweet lectures and promises of a ludicrously implausible future, founded on some mythical employment she insisted he could procure once he had been "rehabilitated."
It sounded unpleasantly like a slow and lingering death to him.
His own hopes had died long ago in Azkaban or even earlier, when the blast of green fire from his wand had killed the only man who had ever had faith in him. Or perhaps they had gasped their last when he had first surveyed the ruins of his laboratory and the pitiful scrapings he was to be permitted to possess.
He gave what thanks he was still capable of to the ghost of Salazar Slytherin, for instilling in all children of his House the healthy paranoia that had driven him to create dozens of hiding places and secret caches of ingredients and other useful items in every place he had ever lived. The more obvious ones had been ransacked, of course. Wormtail had stuck his pointy little rat nose into most corners of Spinner's End during his stay, and the aurors who searched the house after his arrest had been fairly thorough, for Ministry employees.
But none of them had been quite thorough enough.
In one of the undisturbed hiding places, he had kept a small stash of polyjuice base and the wherewithal to brew one more batch.
He would have starved or frozen to death, that first winter of his parole, if he'd relied upon the Ministry's reintegration efforts, or if he'd had to live on the proceeds of what they had left him able to brew. There was the dole, of course, but memories of his wretched father queuing up for government handouts, only to drink the proceeds away at the local pub the same afternoon, made the prospect of living on assistance abhorrent to him.
The irony was bitter, but his mostly-Muggle upbringing had been all that had saved him. He had taken any job that was on offer, from the most trivial of odd jobs to the most menial and most disgusting, counted his earnings and went on. Pride was far too expensive. The work had kept the utilities running and groceries in the pantry, and he had certainly soiled his hands in far worse tasks.
And Muggles were so trusting, in so many ways. A day's work doing odd jobs in the village had netted him enough cash to buy staples, but more importantly, it taught him exactly where La Belle Beauté Shoppe and Ben's Barber Shop kept their rubbish bins, and that no one questioned a man with a broom who was obviously tidying up behind a shop and virtuously discarding the sweepings in a rubbish bin.
He had enough different samples to be someone else every day of the year, if necessary, assuming he could make enough polyjuice. Even better, he had enough of each different sample to establish several new personnae for business purposes.
He might be banned from Knockturn Alley and a pariah in Diagon Alley, but if he wore a different face and form and was careful about the spells he cast, he could go wherever he pleased, buy what he needed, and sell to anyone who was interested.
It took him several months of exceptional frugality to save enough money to make a trip into Knockturn Alley worth the effort and risk. He had actually felt a tiny thrill of accomplishment when he had earned enough to begin restoring his lab and replenishing his stock. It took several more months before he had made his first potions sale. By the end of the first year, he was selling potions on consignment in a few small shops. He managed to gain repeat business from a few private clients and he occasionally took on the odd commission from anonymous customers desperate enough to pay half in advance for what he could brew.
His potions brought in just enough that he was able to keep the house going, keep himself fed, and keep his lab supplied to brew more potions.
As he slumped against the scarred kitchen table, the irony of his situation sat heavily on him. Another successful foray through the seedier side of the wizarding commercial districts, right under the intrusive noses of the Ministry - and what did he have to show for it?
Supplies to brew more polyjuice and other potions of dubious legality, enough galleons to purchase more socially-acceptable supplies in Diagon Alley, packets of oatmeal, sugar, and a half-pound of tea.
He was pathetic.
He sneered at himself in an attempt to drive away the looming black pall of depression.
When it didn't work, he rose, filled the kettle at the sink, and switched it on. The Englishman's answer to everything, he thought bitterly, wizard and Muggle alike - a nice hot cup of tea.
"Brilliant! Oi, Fred! Come look at this!" George shouted back into the workshop
"Be right there!" came the reply.
Remus smiled fondly at George's rapturous grin, as he watched him playing with Remus's latest creation.
"I see you! Hey, that's my shirt, you thief!" George yelled in delight as he stared off into the distance, a pair of plain wire-framed spectacles on his face.
Fred came out of the workshop, calmly wiping his hands on the shirt in question and grinning at his brother and Remus. "They work, then?"
"Just like a charm!" George said, pulling the glasses off and handing them over. "Might need to adjust the controls a bit. Here, see? There's a button on each earpiece."
Fred put the glasses on and fiddled with the earpieces, then turned slowly in place. "I can see into the workshop," he said, "and back behind the counter, and a bit of the window next door, and..." he tipped his head up, "...the balcony upstairs. These are great!"
"They won't see through walls or closed doors, but they do around corners just fine," Remus explained. "I thought 'paraspecs' might do for a name."
Fred took off the glasses and examined them carefully. "Great job, Remus! How soon can we start selling them?"
"I think we should test that pair for a few days to work out any issues. Then I'll have to document the charms and go over the process with you, so maybe...a couple of weeks?"
"Good plan." Fred clapped Remus on the shoulder. "Always a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Lupin. The Old Firm is still the best firm!"
"Hear, hear!" George added, pressing chilled bottles of pumpkin juice into their hands. "To Marauders' Magical Mischief Management, Inc., inspiring hijinks for more than thirty years!"
Remus gave a small smile as he sipped the icy juice. "Thanks, boys. I'd better be going. Rough moon this month," he added.
The twins nodded sympathetically. "I'll make up the new contract and we can sign it tomorrow, Remus. Anything you want changed from last time?" Fred asked.
Remus shook his head. "Standard fee and commission rate are fine, Fred."
"We should talk about raising them soon, Remus; it's been five years, you know."
"If you feel it's necessary," Remus shrugged. "But I'm all right, truly. My needs are fairly simple."
The twins shared a look of concern between them, and Remus had that odd feeling he got whenever they slipped into their silent form of communication.
"Mum wants you to come for supper this Sunday," George said, finally. "No excuses short of death or dismemberment."
"Charlie won't be there," Fred added.
"We'll see, boys," Remus said noncommittally. He couldn't have been fonder of Fred, George, Ron or Ginny, and he considered Bill and Arthur good friends, but Molly could be a bit overwhelming, and he didn't know if he'd ever be able to convince anyone that he really didn't mind that Tonks had married Charlie after his relationship with her had fallen apart. "Give my love to the family, in any case," he added, as he shrugged into his cloak.
"Take care, Remus."
It was only a short apparition hop to his flat, and he was grateful to kick off his shoes, hang up his clothes and slip into an old flannel lounging robe.
He hadn't quite lied to the boys; it had been a rough transformation the prior week, but he was mostly over it by now. He was just tired.
He scanned the contents of his small refrigerator for anything appetizing and reluctantly settled on the containers of leftover take-away Chinese. A flick of his wand had rice and moo goo gai pan steaming in a moment, and he set tea to steep while he got out a plate and a pair of lacquered chopsticks he'd had for ages.
He read the Prophet as he ate, grimacing at the more inane Ministry rulings that were reported and smiling slightly at the picture of Ginny Potter haranguing the Wizengamot at the latest conclave. Harry was nowhere to be seen, but that was hardly surprising.
The Boy Who Lived had rather surprised everyone by declining entry into the Auror training program and turning down all other offers of employment, including a rather prestigious position with the Montrose Magpies. He ignored the public clamouring for his attention, and lost no time in marrying Ginny, settling down in a comfortable country house and becoming a loving and dutiful husband and father with virtually no public life whatsoever. Ginny had presented him with six children in their first seven years of marriage, and Harry had been delighted to stay home and look after them, while Ginny embarked on a life in politics.
There was an advertisement on the second page for Granger-Weasley, Longbottom, and Boot, Advocates. Last he had heard, Hermione, Luna and Terry had a thriving practice and were talking about taking on more assistants. Ron was playing for Falmouth; Neville was working at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Magical Annex, and Terry's wife, Millicent, was making a name for herself in art circles, with her insightful and sensitive magical portraits.
Everyone seemed to be getting on with their lives.
Everyone but him.
Remus sighed and put the paper aside. He really had nothing to complain about, he told himself. Hermione and the twins had been so outraged at the Ministry's stance on hiring werewolves that they'd petitioned for months, and when they had hit the twelfth or fifteenth dead end, they had switched to finding a way around the legislation. It had been Terry who had pointed out that the law was not retroactive, so any werewolf gainfully employed at the time the law was enacted could legally keep his job. Luna found the loophole in the definition of "employment" that had made Hermione leap up in triumph. There was no law against contracting with a firm that legally employed a werewolf, nor with a company owned or directed by werewolves.
Remus hadn't been able to see how any of this would help, at first, as he had lost his last job before the law went into effect, he neither owned nor directed any sort of a company, nor did he have the funds to start one. Hermione had smiled at him and asked him to please bring out his old scrapbook from Hogwarts.
Amid the snapshots and animated doodles, notes from old teachers and long-dead friends, she pointed out the rather blotchy bit of parchment that was the answer to his problems.
Marauders' Magical Mischief Management, Incorporated
A Magical Corporation, Incorporated in Hogsmeade, Scotland, UK, this 21st Day of February, 1976.
James H. Potter, President and Chairman of the Board
Sirius Orion Black, Vice-President and Vice-Chair
Remus J. Lupin, Treasurer and Comptroller
Peter W. Pettigrew, Secretary
The document went on to say, in the most florid legalese four fifteen year olds had been able to devise, that they bound themselves by magical contract to the furtherment of magical mischief making, that all four were equal partners, that policy-making decisions required a 75% majority vote, and that the corporation and surviving partners were designated the beneficiaries of any corporate assets held by each partner, should any such partner die, become incapacitated, or date Vivienne LeStrange. (That last had been included at Sirius's insistence, after the tarty little Ravenclaw had turned him down for the fifth time.)
They had been as serious as they ever were, and Remus remembered the thrill of hope he'd had when they'd sworn they would go into business together after Hogwarts.
"Marauders Forever!" Sirius proclaimed as he added his signature with great looping flourishes.
"It'll be brilliant, won't it, Remus?" James asked, practically bouncing with excitement. "With Sirius and me to dream up the ideas and you to figure out how to make them work, and Wormtail to test everything - we can't lose! We're going to be rich and famous!"
"I'll settle for being comfortably obscure, thanks, Prongs," Remus said with a grin, signing beneath Sirius.
"We'll get a shop in Diagon Alley," Peter said solemnly. "My uncle's in real estate; I'm sure he can get us a good bargain on a prime spot. Maybe near Fortescue's, even!"
"You and your sweet-tooth, Pete! Gah, you're not going to fit in your robes, one of these days," Sirius jibed.
"No, really, it'd be the best place! Kids eating ice cream will come see the window displays and drag their parents in! We'll get a lot of foot traffic. Plus, Flourish and Blotts is right around the corner, so we'll get the school crowd every summer!" Peter said, looking dreadfully earnest.
"I nominate Peter Chief of Marketing!" James declared.
"I second the nomination!"
"All in favour? Aye!"
There was still a faint glint of magic sparkling from their signatures; quite enough to prove the document magically legal and binding. The Department of Magical Commerce had poked and prodded the parchment, and the examining wizard had pursed his lips and muttered over the witnesses' signatures (Hagrid, Madame Rosmerta, and Professor Flitwick, who had always rather winked at their more spectacular japes), but in the end, they had to admit that Marauders' Magical Mischief Management, Incorporated was a bona fide magical corporation, and that Remus J. Lupin, as sole surviving partner, was President, Chairman, Treasurer, Marketing Director, and Lord High Everything Else.
Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes had promptly issued a research and development contract to MMMMI, and Remus Lupin was finally able to make a decent living.
It wasn't a "secure position," at least not on the books. The contracts ran only from project to project, but he usually had three or four going at once. The boys' shop had been doing well since the war ended, and the business outlook was good. His commission rate was enough to keep him comfortable, and as he had told them, his needs were simple. It wasn't as if he had a wife and family to provide for, and years of scrimping had left him with no taste for spending money just because he had it. He paid his rent, ate out or bought take-away when he felt like it, purchased the occasional book that caught his attention, and kept himself in decent clothing. Most importantly, he could afford to purchase Wolfsbane Potion from one of the rather few apothecaries that were able to provide it. It wasn't as good as the formulation he had taken while teaching, or during the war, but it kept him safe and sane for those critical nights each month. It was his one luxury. He might never travel around the world or collect rare first editions, but he was not a danger to society, and he was comfortable.
He sighed as he finished his tea. It just seemed that lately "comfortable" had become a synonym for "bored." He didn't have much of a purpose, really, and although he was grateful beyond words for the work the Weasley twins kept supplying, he found it difficult to get as enthused about animated toy squids, umbrellas that created their own rain clouds, and "paraspecs" as he would have been when he was a boy.
He also found it difficult to get wound up in the lives of the people around him. Two wars had decimated his generation, and although wizards lived long enough that age differences didn't matter much past fifty or so, knowing that all of his friends from school were gone was such an isolating, lonely feeling. He looked at Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and he still saw them as his students, though they now had children of their own who would be attending Hogwarts before long. The twins were his business partners in all but name, but he found their incessant joking and refusal to take anything seriously for more than two minutes at a time a trifle wearing.
He'd told Tonks he was too old for her; he shouldn't have been surprised when she finally reached that conclusion on her own. They'd parted amicably, but part of him still resented her putting him through the doomed exercise from the start.
He seldom heard from Kingsley, who was steadily moving up in the ranks of Aurors, and Minerva, who had her hands full with Hogwarts business, was so upset at her inability to rehire him to teach that she avoided him as much as possible, salving her guilt by sending chatty little notes every few weeks.
And that was all of the old Order that remained. Albus, Moody...all the rest were gone or married or...
Well, or Severus.
He had tried, tried desperately to do something about Severus, once the Order knew the truth. It was clear from the beginning that the Wizengamot would never let Snape go free; Albus Dumbledore's murderer had to be punished, if only so that no one could begin to question whether the Ministry actually performed any useful function, seeing as a half-grown boy and his friends had brought down the most evil wizard of the century with little more than courage and good luck.
They had all testified, but no one could deny that Severus had cast the Killing Curse on Albus, no matter what the extenuating circumstances were. They had presented evidence of Dumbledore's physical condition and his orders to Snape, in signed documents, sealed memories, and even from the mouth of Dumbledore's own portrait, but it was no use.
After Severus had been sent to Azkaban, Remus had tried to get in to see him, but had been refused permission. He'd written, but his letters were returned, unopened. When he'd seen the notification of Snape's parole in the Prophet, he had written a long letter to welcome him back and catch him up on all the news, but the owl had come back hooting anxiously and returned the letter, which had borne a magical stamp - "Addressee Unknown."
He still didn't know what had become of Severus. He supposed the two of them were rather alike, really - relics, reminders of the war and of deeds most would sooner have forgotten. Perhaps he, too, should just vanish off into obscurity, one day...
Shaking his head ruefully at his little wallow in self-pity, Remus cleared away the remnants of his supper and did the washing up. He put the dishes away and stretched, feeling the muscles and tendons creak and pop. Getting old, he thought, then chuckled. He was just irritable and blue and perhaps what he needed was a good toss-off, followed by a good night's sleep.