Hermione Granger looked steadily at her employer – no, as of forty-five seconds ago, her former employer – and asked, "May I know the reason for my dismissal?" Her voice didn't crack. She was proud of that.
Andraste Snowquill, the witch who ran the potions lab, wouldn't look Hermione in the eye. "So many new regulations," she said absently, pretending to arrange a few pieces of parchment on her shining, well-ordered desk. "It's holding up our distribution, and that cuts into profits, and part-time employees such as yourself are paid out of those profits – temporary, I'm sure, but you know how things are."
"Yes," Hermione said. "I know how things are."
She curled her hands into fists, felt her bitten-down fingernails against her palms. This job – menial and tiresome and low-paying as it had been – had at least provided enough money for her to keep up the rent on her wretched attic flat. She'd even been saving for a new robe. The one she wore now was the best she had left, and even it was fraying at the sleeves.
Now that money would have to go for food, until Hermione got a new job. If she could get a new job. The new laws didn't explicitly forbid wizards and witches to employ Mudbloods, but Hermione suspected that was only a matter of time.
What will I do then? she thought. Oh, God, what will I do now?
Snowquill folded her hands – well-manicured and soft – on the desk. "They'll give you a form in the front office; take that to Gringotts and they'll give you a week's severance."
When she was a young girl, full of righteous indignation at the troubles of house-elves, Hermione had been quick to speak up. She had liked to argue, to debate, to try and show those around her the way things should be. Now, she understood quite well that nobody cared about the way things should be, not any longer. It wouldn't make any difference, none at all.
Nothing could, now that Lord Voldemort ruled, and Harry was dead.
"We're done, Miss Granger," Snowquill said.
"I suppose we are done," Hermione replied. "YOU'RE done looking down your nose at me, giving me twice the work to do in half the time and giving me instructions so ignorant that you don't even bother to hide the fact that you can't tell mandragora from murtlap. I'M done working at slave labor for sub-slave pay, letting all of you talk down to me to make yourselves feel superior, and enduring the unending frustration of always, always being the only one in the room who isn't a complete and utter bitch."
Sometimes, speaking up had to be its own reward.
None of the other pestle-grinders looked up as Hermione gathered up her cloak and bag from the table that had been hers. One of them – Orla Quirke, a girl she'd known slightly at school – was obviously crying, her shoulders shaking as she hunched over her work, but even she said nothing.
Lucky I'm not looking for sympathy, Hermione thought, taking up the severance slip, a pink bit of paper that tsk-tsked at her gently. She took in a deep breath of cool as she stumbled out into the street, throwing off the scent of cinnabar and toad's blood, hoping to steady herself.
The February sun was pale through a skein of clouds; it was a few degrees too warm to snow, but Hermione felt certain it would rain again that night. Puddles lined the cobblestone streets, and she thought despairingly of the cracked pane in her skylight. She'd used repairing spells on it a dozen times, but it seemed to have been weakened through years of being spelled by similarly desperate tenants.
To hell with it, Hermione thought. Her bravado was quickly fading into a kind of exhaustion that went far beyond the physical. She was sick of counting her problems and trying to think of solutions. She was sick of every aspect of her life, and the fact that her sole consolation was that it wasn't yet as bad as it was likely to get. Ghastly, she thought, to be bitter at 21.
But didn't she have reason? She'd spent her adolescence fighting a war that ought to have been left to adults, only to see them lose. She'd cherished Harry as her best friend and Ron as her lover –
-only to outlive them both. She'd been the most talented witch of her year at Hogwarts, only to find herself uneducable and unemployable due to laws meant to punish Mudbloods for the crime of having been born.
Hermione shook her head, trying to cast off the shroud of self-pity that had settled over her. You could have it worse, she reminded herself fiercely. You could be a Muggle, trapped under Voldemort's rule with no status, no power, no hope of ever changing your fate and, probably, still no idea exactly how or why the world changed. You could be like poor Neville Longbottom, rotting in Azkaban for being a footnote to a prophecy that already came true in the worst possible way. You could be like Professor Dumbledore or Kingsley Shacklebolt or Cho Chang or any of those thousands of others who died in the Battle of Samhain. What would they give, for one of your days?
But this litany, which usually had a jolting effect on her, was stale and powerless in her mind. Hermione had worn it thin through repetition. At that moment, the thought of being dead had lost its terror. Harry had always sworn that there was another country past the living one – she could find Harry there, and all the others she'd lost, and Ron, her own Ron. If she could be with him again, have the knowledge of him for even a minute –
"Hermione!" Startled at the sound of her name, Hermione whirled around; she steadied herself when she saw who had spoken.
"Luna," she said evenly. Quickly she folded up the severance slip, ignoring its protests; Hermione didn't think she was strong enough to handle pity at the moment. "Well. Haven't seen you in a few months."
"Important business," Luna said meaningfully. She wore black from top to bottom, including her trenchcoat and a beret that tilted on her head; she looked like a secret-agent doll, Hermione thought with scorn. Then again, perhaps it worked for her: Nobody who saw her over-the-top getup would ever believe that Luna really ran messages through the underground, which she did. Pity the messages were never worth listening to. Luna shrugged toward a nearby newsstand. "Let's pretend to shop."
Marvelous. More useless secrets. But Hermione moved to the newsstand window to stand by Luna's side nevertheless. Any time spent thinking about anything besides her own plight had to count for something. As the wind blew more strongly, she tucked the ends of her scarf – one she'd knitted herself, far too long ago – into the collar of her outer robe. "What's the word?"
"The word is good," Luna said vaguely. She generally led into her picayune revelations with quite a lot of doubletalk.
Hermione stared stonily at the newsstand. On one magazine cover, a witch ran a tape measure around her waist and repeatedly marveled at the slim results. On another, beneath the headline "Band Breakup?" the Weird Sisters were scuffling with each other; the drummer appeared to have the lead singer's nose in a twist. A newspaper showed Voldemort himself, smiling evilly, staring directly at Hermione. "That's good to hear, Luna," she said automatically.
"There's someone you'll want to see," Luna said.
This was slightly more concrete than most of Luna's messages; against her will, Hermione felt a faint tickle of curiosity. "Who's that? Another messenger?"
Luna shook her head; she didn't look directly at Hermione, but in the newsstand window, Hermione could see a reflected smile. "Remus Lupin's in Tartrosgate."
Hermione covered her mouth with her hand to keep from crying out the name. Remus Lupin! Alive! Then her brain absorbed the rest of the message, and her heart plunged – in Tartrosgate? Oh, but it was better than him being dead. Wasn't it? Her mind whirling, she whispered, "How did you hear?"
"Can't say. Firenze is with him."
This news affected Hermione less – she'd only met Professor Firenze on a handful of occasions – but it still gladdened her. "Thank God," she said shakily. "Thank God."
Luna risked a sideways glance then. "Bet you're glad to see me now."
"I'm sorry." Hermione knew her cheeks were flushing, but it was excitement rather than shame. "I know I was rude to you at first. But, you see – I just got sacked. Again."
Luna bit her lip. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "I know it must be hard."
Yes, I bet you know, Hermione thought, looking at the gleaming black trenchcoat and wondering how many months of her rent its price would have covered. But she said only, "Thank you for telling me about Professor Lupin. I'll – I'll go see him soon."
"I'd go too, if I could risk it," Luna said. She held up one fist and whispered, "For Neville!"
That stupid revolutionary salute. Hermione didn't return it, but she forced herself to smile as Luna slinked away. For safety's sake, Hermione lingered a while at the newsstand window; she watched a magazine cover at the very top of the rack, where a scantily clad witch danced around a pole and tossed her hair.
Remus Lupin is alive, Hermione thought. Against the darkness of all the deaths she'd witnessed or known, that fact was such a faint light – and yet it shone brightly inside her. It would be so good to see someone from the old days; Hermione thought of Luna and amended that to someone SANE from the old days. Though, of course, if her own psyche had become so strained, what must Lupin's be like, after being jailed within Tartrosgate?
But he must be sane, or else he couldn't have thought to get a message out. However she found him, Hermione knew she'd go see him as long as she could -- it would be worth it, to remember.
The skylight had cracked again.
Hermione lifted her wand up and said, "Reparo!" but without much hope. Above her, she could see the glass sluggishly knitting together; the flaw in the glass remained visible, and she had a feeling the pressure of a rainstorm would break it again.
Honestly, she thought, it would be better to just call a Muggle repairman, actually replace the glass, sometimes the wizarding world doesn't use the most basic logic -
Then again, where would she find such a person? The Muggle economies had collapsed after Voldemort's takeover; she'd read the Guardian as long as it continued printing and followed the news as best she could. Now that the world had essentially been plunged back into a sort of medievalism, where only magic provided the luxuries of modernity, most Muggles were reduced to struggling for their own survival -- and, of course, to pay Voldemort's tithes and tributes.
Sometimes, when it didn't seem too horrible to put into words, Hermione was glad her parents hadn't lived to see this.
She bustled about and got a fire started; one of the few good things about this flat was that it was small enough to warm up quickly. Next, she put an antitheft charm on one of the drawers in the rickety dresser, then slipped in the gold she'd collected from Gringotts. It was her severance and her savings, every galleon, sickle and knut she had in the world. (The goblin who'd helped her at Gringotts had made some nasty insinuations about freezing Mudblood accounts. Better safe than sorry.) Her gold didn't make a very large pile.
Hermione resisted the urge to count it; instead, she spread out the Daily Prophet she'd fished from a trash bin and settled down on what she euphemistically called the chaise-longue. (When she added a couple more pillows, she called it the sofa. At night, she removed all but one pillow and faced the fact that it was just the bed.)
New job, she thought resolutely. I'll find something. I know what I'm doing, and there must be someone who won't care that I'm a Mudblood, or remember that I was connected to Harry –
She caught herself, sucked in a quick breath. Had she really just called her friendship with Harry a handicap?
I won't think of it that way, she told herself. I won't.
From her bedside table, two old framed photographs reflected a summer sunlight that seemed too brilliant to ever have been real. In one of them, she and Harry and Ron and Ginny and Dean and Lavender all jostled for room in the frame, making rabbit ears behind each other's heads, giggling madly. Harry, 16 years old, was ruffling Ginny's hair despite her protests; Hermione could see herself scolding them to be still and pose for the portrait. As usual, she thought, I entirely missed the point.
In the other photograph, taken perhaps a year later, Ron hugged her in the shade of one of the old trees next to the Burrow. The wind ruffled their hair, and Hermione's head rested against his chest. Every now and then, Ron would kiss her forehead, and Hermione would snuggle closer to him. They didn't even seem to realize they were in a picture.
Hermione closed her eyes tightly. She wouldn't think of it at all.
When she opened her eyes again, she quickly blinked away the moisture on her lashes and began studying the Daily Prophet want ads again. Naturally, she thought, they're hiring Seers. The one bloody thing I can't do.
So few jobs, she thought, and even fewer I'd have the slightest chance at. But there must be something, something –
Her finger halted at the very bottom of the page. Hermione's eyes widened, and she pulled the paper closer to her face, as though the words might say something different if she looked at them another way:
"POSITION AVAILABLE: Seeking a capable spellcaster and potion-brewer for assistantship. Hours flexible, discretion mandatory. All applicants' backgrounds will be checked. Apply Snape Manor, Tuesday."
Snape Manor. Ridiculous name, really. It suggested a familial home, centuries old, deep in wizarding tradition.
In point of fact, Severus knew, the home was a few decades old, and he was the first Snape to ever live within. The sumptuous furnishings within it were recently purchased; the all-but-invisible house-elf who tended the home was newly brought on, still spending most of her free time up in the attic thinking wishfully of her old family.
Yet he had strived to create a sense of age. The carved wood furniture was so deep a brown as to be almost black, polished so that it reflected the flickering from the great fireplace. On its stone mantel, he had portraits of the parents he had so despised – enchanted to remain as still and quiet as Muggle pictures, though sometimes he caught their eyes following him around furtively. The candlesticks were gold, the drapes a dark green velvet. He had chosen what the women in the shops had told him were the best things, and to judge from the approval of the few guests he'd been forced to entertain, they'd spoken the truth.
Sometimes he told himself that he'd succeeded, that the manor had the feel of the grand old wizarding homes he'd visited. But so far as this was true, it was Malfoy Manor that Severus remembered, and their similarity was in the overripe glamour of ill-gotten gains. Only his library and his workshop seemed to truly be his own.
As much as any of this was his own.
This house had been purchased with money that he'd been given by Lord Voldemort; it was called "Snape Manor" because of honors Severus had won for undermining Dumbledore's work from within. In short, Severus had everything he'd ever dreamed of – all because the world had never known the truth.
He had never been captured as a spy. All the work he'd done for the Order of the Phoenix was as lost as the rest of the world he'd known. Severus was hailed as a hero, publicly praised and acknowledged as a brilliant wizard and courageous warrior – everything he'd ever wanted.
The irony of it had threatened to overwhelm Severus at first, but by now, guilt was no longer his master. He'd stopped grieving for the past, then stopped thinking about it altogether. What point was there, in continually reminding himself of the futility of his former endeavors? A new world had arisen to take the place of the old, and if he had gained a better position, that was no more his fault than the poverty of those wretched Muggles was theirs.
He'd done his best, his very best, for years and years, and then that fool boy had ruined it, confronting Voldemort before he was ready –
"Just like his father," Severus muttered, dismissing all memory of Harry Potter and turning back to the matter at hand.
Half-a-dozen applications for work lay on his library desk, each of them sterling. Accompanying them were letters of interest, each of them appalling. Every applicant gushed over the war record of Severus Snape, the heroic double agent: shallow, insincere and ingratiating, the lot. Severus rather thought these would make a fine exhibit for precisely why he found politeness such a bloody waste of time.
The bell rang, and he steeled himself. Another applicant, no doubt shining with confidence and ambition, the carefully chosen green-and-silver school tie around his or her neck: Severus hated the process of hiring an assistant only slightly less than he despised the idea of having such a person within his home for hours a day, for months to come. But if the locator spell couldn't be completed on time any other way –
When his door swung open and Binks the house-elf cleared her throat, Severus looked up, hoping he did not appear quite so bored as he felt. Then he recognized the girl standing there, and hoped he didn't appear utterly shocked.
"Professor Snape," Hermione Granger said evenly. "Is it still correct for me to call you Professor?"
"Quite appropriate," Severus said, though he had no opinion in the matter. He simply needed to say something to cover his own astonishment.
Had he known that Miss Granger had survived the war? He'd never heard her reported as dead, but Severus realized that he had assumed her to be as lost as all those others. She belonged to another life entirely, and her presence in his study jarred him almost past the point of composure.
No, Hermione Granger belonged to a Hogwarts filled with laughing children, presided over by a wise and strong Dumbledore who could never disappoint them, who could never die.
Lies. All lies.
Severus' eyes narrowed. "My patience for games has not increased since your school days, Miss Granger."
"I beg your pardon?" Her smooth face shifted into an outraged frown; she looked more like herself then -- precisely as self-righteous and annoying as he remembered.
"You have no doubt come to chastise me," Severus replied. "To bestir my conscience through some touching allusions to days gone by. But those days are indeed gone, Miss Granger. And I am not interested in listening to your remonstrance."
She drew herself up. "I don't suppose you are interested in days gone by." Her frowzy hair stuck out in all directions, as if electrified by her anger. "Nobody who ever – ever – gave a damn about what we were fighting for could possibly make himself comfortable while his old friends starve and die."
He'd never thought of any of them starving before.
As coldly as he could, Severus said, "As we have established, Miss Granger, I am unconcerned with what you have to say. As you've already said it, regardless, perhaps it is time for you to depart."
She began bundling up her things, breathing heavily through her nose in something that was not quite a snort. Only then did Severus realize she was holding a piece of parchment. He arched an eyebrow. "Don't tell me you've brought a petition."
Miss Granger laughed slightly, more, he thought, at herself than at anything else. She half-crumpled the sheet, then thrust it at him. "I'd come to apply for the position you advertised," Miss Granger said. "I must say, I've had some smashing job interviews the past two years, but this was by far the worst. At least it was also the shortest."
All at once, she changed in his eyes; it was as if he had put on a pair of spectacles that snapped the world into focus. He pushed aside his own reaction to her presence and studied her: shabby robes, scuffed shoes, nails bitten almost to the quick. She'd done her best to look presentable, but her best was no longer very good. And had her cheeks always been so hollow? Of course not – but the difference was more than years.
She was staring at him, startled; only then did Severus realize he was staring at her in return. "I shall let myself out," Miss Granger said, more quietly.
"Why did you believe I would hire you?" he replied.
The question did not confuse her; her eyes met his steadily. "You know my capabilities," she said, her chin lifting as she spoke. Miss Granger was still proud of her fine mind, and as often as Severus had despised her pride, he had always respected her intelligence.
"Yes," he replied, "I do." Out of a sense of perversity – he could call it nothing else – he continued, "Undoubtedly you would be one of the top candidates for the position."
Miss Granger was taken aback, as he had intended she should be. "After what you just said – after what I just said –"
"I told you before, Miss Granger: Your opinion is of supreme unimportance to me. Your abilities, however, are potentially useful."
She gaped at him, clearly still struggling to understand. Unpleasant memories of befuddled teenagers flickered in his memory, and he fought a sigh. At last, Miss Granger managed to collect herself somewhat and say, "I always thought you, ah, valued your work."
Apparently that was as close to a compliment, or gratitude, as Severus was likely to receive. He hesitated for only a few moments before continuing, "The project for which I am hiring an assistant is one commissioned by the Dark Lord himself. We would be experimenting with a potion used in a spell that is very important to him, and attempting to make that spell more powerful and accurate than it has ever been before. That is the work you have come here to do. I mean – to ask to do. Are we quite clear?"
Her face went pale, and Severus waited to see if she would rail at him some more, attempt a hex or simply storm out. Instead she stood there, carefully controlling her reaction. In a sense, he could respect that. "If I had been hired for this job, I would have performed it to the best of my ability," she said. "Sir."
"Perhaps we understand one another now," he thought. "There is no such thing as taking Lord Voldemort's side, not when there is no other side to take. There is only the world we are left to live in."
"I don't care to discuss that," Miss Granger replied.
"It is not your position to say what we will and will not discuss," Severus replied. "I am your employer. As such, I dictate the substance of our conversations."
She stopped and stared at him. "You mean – I'm hired?"
"I mean that, by your own request and choosing, you work for an assistant to the Dark Lord," Severus said. "Unless, of course, you choose to storm out into the night and throw this job offer back at me. No doubt your principles will keep you quite warm."
It was both beautiful and horrible to watch her, hesitating in front of him, torn between her desperation and her idealism. Severus had fought this battle long ago, but he still found a rich fascination in watching another grapple with the hard realities of the here and now. What would she do? Which way would she turn?
Miss Granger took a deep breath. "When – when do I start?"
"Tomorrow morning," he said. "Nine a.m., and I do not condone tardiness in employees any more than I do in students. Are we quite clear?"
"If you'll excuse me, I have other work to do." She did not say any farewells, just turned on her heel and left.
Severus realized that he felt vaguely disappointed. He immersed himself quickly in his notes, before he could ask himself why.