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Toil and Trouble

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"I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently?
And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt;
and perhaps it says, 'Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.'"

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There 1871

 

Excerpts from the Daily Prophet, Friday 18th December 1998

Front page headline:

WIDOW-MAKER GETS LIFE

Yesterday evening the Wizengamot, by unanimous verdict, found so-called 'Widow-Maker' Niccolo Zabini guilty on sixteen counts of murder, one count of wanton destruction of sentient property, nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, and a further twenty-three serious criminal charges.

In a move that has shocked many traditionalists, the Wizengamot allowed the Prosecutor to submit evidence of a Muggle's death at the hands of a wizard on an explicit charge of murder.  Hitherto, such incidents have been presented as infringements of the International Statute of Secrecy.

Appearing alongside Zabini were his co-conspirators, most notably his own son (see lower article) and the disgraced former Deputy Head of Improper Use of Magic, Jasmine Churlish.  Churlish received a two year prison sentence, reduced from her original sentence of five years following submission of Pensieve evidence.

Since Zabini came to trial, the country has been gripped by the catalogue of his crimes.  Followers of the story will remember how a splash of continental glamour was added to the early proceedings, thanks to evidence presented by the Contessa Zabini, Elettra D'Agostino.  Niccolo Zabini's older sister described how her brother's childhood was idyllic, and Zabini himself was a model son and brother until, in 1963, the Italian Ministry voted to modernise the country's inheritance law and allow titles to pass to female children.

Thus supplanted, Zabini received the lesser title of Nobile, though he remained heir to a handsome manor house and several hundred acres of parkland and forest.  Outraged by the manner in which he perceived his birthright had been denied to him, the seventeen year old Zabini made a vicious attempt to poison both his sister and his father, Conte Antonio Zabini, a man who had for years been a leading advocate for equal inheritance rights.

The attempt fortunately failed due to Zabini's poor brewing skills.  As Zabini was still a minor in the eyes of the law, and the family wished to protect their well-respected and scandal-free reputation, Zabini was quietly stripped of his inheritance and encouraged to move abroad.  His influential family procured for him an apprenticeship with Gringotts and considered the matter dealt with.

Following the death of the Conte and the succession of Zabini's sister in the early nineteen-seventies, Zabini successfully campaigned to win the forgiveness of his family, professing deep sorrow for his youthful 'moment of madness'.

It seems that Niccolo Zabini had allowed his thirst for acquisition and revenge to take the form of a much longer game, however.  Another early incident which demonstrated his disregard for the law stretches back to 1968, when a priceless artefact known as a Quickstep stone – a reusable Portkey with a blood-soaked history – was stolen from the International Artefacts Archive in Alexandria.  For thirty years, the item on display there has been no more than an accurate replica.

In 1982, Zabini fabricated his own death after deliberately triggering an avalanche in the Italian Alps: an event that killed several Muggles.  Leaving his wife without a husband and his infant son without a father, Zabini established a secret life for himself in Muggle society.  It was during this time that he travelled to the Caribbean island of Grenada and implemented the next part of his plan, the details of which were analysed in Tuesday's edition of the Prophet.

More recently Zabini has obsessed over the considerable wealth of his former wife and son.  A plot to arrange the death of Muggle businessman Philip Richmond, ensure an Azkaban life sentence for his ex-wife Jossinia Trelore and, perhaps most obscene of all, mutilate his own son's magical ability had observers in Courtroom Ten transfixed as the details emerged.

All through the Prosecutor's examination, Zabini refused to speak a single word.  The only time the court heard the voice of this killer was, surprisingly, in response to a throwaway question born mainly of frustration: "Why this convoluted plan, Mr Zabini?  Potions?  Azkaban?  Why not just kill your victims?  You're clearly ruthless enough!"  To which Zabini replied, "Kill Jossinia?  Oh, but my son would never have forgiven me!"  Even as the public galleries wondered whether this showed a glimmer of humanity, Zabini added, "I wanted his money, not his rage."

We now know, thanks to the diligent work of the MLE investigation team, that Zabini could have raided his wife's vault any time he liked.  Yet Niccolo Zabini, in both Wizarding and Muggle societies, had a lavish income of his own courtesy of an illicitly obtained property empire within the Diagon shopping and business district.  Zabini was also the founder of the GalloLoans Company, and owned a beautiful Dorset home set within several acres.

Niccolo Zabini passed no further comment during his trial, nor at his sentencing.  The Contessa Zabini has offered a formal apology to the British Ministry for her family's part in failing to predict the crimes her brother would go on to commit on British soil.  [...]

 

Lower front page headline:

BLAISE ZABINI SPARED AZKABAN

Blaise Zabini has escaped a prison sentence after standing trial for his part in his murderous father's criminal activities.  While there will be few who feel sympathetic towards a young man who systematically poisoned his own mother, opinion in the public galleries was quietly supportive of this outcome.

Acclaimed war hero Severus Snape, presenting arguments for the defendant, painted a vivid picture of the manner in which Blaise Zabini's father returned to his son's life after a sixteen year absence.  Professor Snape spoke eloquently of Niccolo Zabini's strategy for control: encouraging his 'pawns' to commit minor infractions and then using fear of discovery to force them into greater misdeeds.

The court was captivated as Professor Snape teased out the details of Blaise Zabini's ordeal.  When the early plots to sabotage the romance between Jossinia Trelore and Philip Richmond failed, each new idea suggested by Blaise's father ramped up the harm.  Upon being given a recipe scrawled on parchment without title or description, however, Blaise Zabini hesitated.  He recognised the structure of a hate potion, and knew the cited ingredients indicated a powerful concoction.  Pressing his father on the details revealed the potion's source: a banned dark text.

Blaise refused to brew the potion: testimony that was independently confirmed by Zabini's cohort, Gustiver Walsh.  Unwilling to take 'no' for an answer, Niccolo Zabini attempted to change his son's attitude.  When all other options failed, Zabini gave up the pretence of a cordial relationship and held his son captive at a Muggle address.

The most shocking moment of the exchange was doubtless the revelation that Blaise Zabini had been subjected to an Imperius curse by his father in order to continue brewing these injurious concoctions.  Having been threatened with this measure on several occasions, however, Blaise had cleverly prepared for it.  He sabotaged his stocks of ingredients, thus ensuring that though he might be forced to brew the dark potion, the results would be unusable.  This act of defiance was considered pivotal in the Wizengamot's eventual decision to spare Blaise Zabini a custodial sentence.

Professor Snape concluded his persuasive defence of his former student's actions thus:  "Witches and wizards of the Wizengamot, in the last few months Blaise Zabini has rejoiced in the miraculous return of a father, only for that father to betray him.  His admitted mistakes led to an ordeal in which he demonstrated the wit and courage necessary to prevent much greater harm.  Imprisoning this young man would serve no one.  It would also cause distress to one of the victims of Niccolo Zabini's litany of harm: Blaise's own mother."  Professor Snape paused then, and took in the entire courtroom.  "Eighteen year olds make mistakes," he said.  "Sometimes very bad ones.  No one will ever punish Blaise for what he did more than he will himself.  Believe me – I am in a position to understand this all too well."

Blaise Zabini was convicted on seven counts of Administering a Malicious Substance.  He was also found guilty of infringing the International Statute of Secrecy and failing to report a crime.  His sentence has been suspended for a probationary period of three years.

 

Page 8, upper right quadrant:

MINISTRY ANNOUNCES REVIEW OF CRIMINAL PROPERTY LAW

[...] based on what has become known colloquially as the 'Azkaban Slip': a legal loophole by which a convicted prisoner's property is transferred by deed of gift to their proposed heir.  It is designed to prevent automatic seizure by the Ministry of the prisoner's property, should the prisoner die mid-sentence.

Zabini's attempt to exploit the 'Azkaban Slip' to gain access to both his wife's and his son's separate fortunes created some discussion regarding the current state of the law.  There is a growing sense that denying prisoners access to a document as important as a will is unjust.  Minister Shacklebolt himself, at his appearance before the press following his recent landslide election, was asked about his thoughts on this matter.

"I believe we must make clear the difference between property that has been acquired through criminal activity, and property that is owned legally.  The former, I would suggest, should be forfeited by any criminal successfully convicted of wrongdoing.  The latter, however, is nothing to do with the Ministry."

When pressed on how this distinction might apply to situations such as the Ministry's ongoing attempt to seize control of the abandoned Malfoy Manor, Minister Shacklebolt replied that until the scene of a crime has been thoroughly investigated and then declared clear of evidence, Magical Law Enforcement should have sole access.

It remains to be seen whether this means that Malfoy Manor will eventually be returned, intact, to its current owner, Draco Malfoy.  [...]

 

Page 12, lower left quadrant:

EXPLOSION SITE REOPENS

343 Diagon Alley South has finally reopened following weeks of accelerated rebuilding.

Much discussion has taken place regarding the best way to use this location in order to recognise the officers of MLE who sadly lost their lives there in October.  In talks chaired by newly-elected Minister Shacklebolt himself, a solution was agreed upon by all parties invited to contribute.  The building that occupies the former site of the GalloLoans Company will now house a new impartial advice service, accessible to all.  Ministry-trained consultants will be available to provide financial, business, legal and even personal advice to any witch or wizard in need, with absolute discretion mandated and at no cost to the petitioner.  A novel idea indeed!

An anonymous source present during the talks indicated that the initial idea came from Hermione Granger: a young woman almost as famous now for her part in apprehending the villainous Niccolo Zabini as she is for her friendship with Harry Potter.

The new service has already procured funding for the next ten years.  With the consent of the bereaved families, a plaque has been installed above the door of the newly built 'Wizarding Advice Bureau', commemorating the service of those five officers who were killed.

 

Page 17, upper left quadrant:

SHAKE-UP AT ST MUNGO'S

In the wake of revelations made during the trial of Gustiver Walsh, St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries has issued the following statement:

"St Mungo's Hospital would like to announce that Mdm Amanda Crossley, a board member for the last twenty-nine years, has voluntarily stepped down from her position.  We thank her for her service and wish her well in future endeavours."

The hospital declined to comment further, though a respected source in a senior position informed the Prophet that Mdm Crossley's departure was far from voluntary and, indeed, was notably acrimonious.  A vote of no-confidence in Crossley's propriety had been tabled, and passed with a significant majority.

Mdm Crossley's role in preventing a timely investigation into Gustiver Walsh's illicit activities at the hospital was unwelcome publicity for St Mungo's during the recent trial coverage.

The vacant seat on the board is to be filled by Senior Healer Gloria Montague, whose efforts alongside her herbologist son Joseph Montague alerted Hermione Granger to the thefts at the hospital, and led directly to the successful apprehension of Niccolo Zabini.

Mdm Crossley was unavailable for comment when contacted.

 

Page 24, upper left quadrant:

BRAMBLE TEXT TOPS BESTSELLERS

Reclusive potioneer Roksana Bramble's latest book, The Art of Experimentation, has topped the monthly bestsellers' list at Flourish and Blotts: a feat never before achieved by an academic text.

Mr C. Gadfly, the bookshop's manager, informed the Prophet: "The book has been selling very well since its publication in the demographic you might expect: older students, educators and those involved in all facets of the potions business.  Of course, the additional publicity garnered during the recent trial hasn't hurt at all.  People are intrigued by the connection with Professor Snape, the author of the book's foreword, and the fact that Mrs Trelore and her Muggle companion took refuge with Mistress Bramble when they were in such terrible danger."

Mistress Bramble declined the offer of an interview when approached, though she has issued a written statement:

"The sales of my recent book are naturally very gratifying.  I will, however, defer judgement on the success, or otherwise, of 'The Art of Experimentation' until I have evidence of its true legacy: the inspiration and assistance it might offer to the next generation of potions professionals."

~~~

The wintry air at Upper Flagley stung Hermione's cheeks.  The sky overhead was white with snow clouds.  Wood smoke drifted on the air from the chimneys of Mistress Bramble's house.

Hermione waited outside the barn conversion in which Bramble's potions research business was housed.  For the several minutes since she had arrived she'd been doing her best not to stare at a specific place on the pathway between barn and house: the place where, ten weeks ago, she and Snape had ended a shouting match by kissing each other breathless.

This was the first time she'd been back here since that night.  Until today she'd successfully reined in her libidinous impulses, and concentrated instead on getting to the end of her Lost Seventh Potions course.  Snape had made it easier; in recent weeks he'd barely acknowledged her presence in his classroom beyond the occasional unimpressed grunt, a bite or two of sarcasm, and of course the necessary marking.

(Her final tally on the brewing practicals stood at twelve Competents and eighteen Adequates.  This had required only three early morning starts on a Friday.  Indeed, she'd requested the final morning session in order to improve on an already solid Adequate: a feat she had achieved.  When Snape had muttered, "Ridiculous over-achiever," in deliberate earshot, it was the closest they'd come to conversation in two months.)

And now, here she was: North Yorkshire.  On a snow-threatened December afternoon, preparing for the final lecture of her Lost Seventh course.  It was to be delivered by guest-speaker Roksana Bramble, so Hermione had brought along her copy of The Art of Experimentation.  Hopefully Bramble had forgiven her for the unfortunate scene last October, because Hermione was keen to get the book signed.  In the last month her copy had become one of her very favourite possessions.  The woman was brilliant.

Hermione's fellow students waited with her.  Three of them had their noses buried in the Daily Prophet as they read all the gory details on Niccolo Zabini's decades of murder, manipulation and acquisition.  Hermione's own part in the investigation and trial had exhausted her curiosity, however.  She didn't need to know anything more about the harm Zabini had caused.

A distant door opened: the front door of the house, the one with the Hufflepuff door knocker.  Snape preceded a veiled Mistress Bramble outside.  The two walked together towards the barn, their hands tucked into their sleeves against the chill.  Snape's head was bowed slightly to listen to whatever Bramble was saying.

Hermione swallowed and looked away.  The two of them looked right together, truth be told.  Bramble might have turned Snape down once, but that information had been current a whole ten weeks earlier.  A lot could have happened in that time, and as far as she knew, Snape remained a house guest.

"Hey, Hermione," Terry said as he read the newspaper over Michael's shoulder, "can I ask you something?"

"You can ask," she said, and added silently to herself, 'I will either answer or I will not,' because she'd got into the habit of revisiting her exchanges with Snape.  Just to keep herself company during this period of abstinence.

"Zabini.  Our Zabini, I mean, the slightly less psychotic one.  Did he really help out at the end as much as you said?"

Hermione looked steadily at Terry.  "You're suggesting I might have been economical with the truth when appearing in front of the Wizengamot?"

Terry startled.  "Oh!  No, course not.  Just, you know, it doesn't sound like Zabini.  Playing the hero."

"Heroes sometimes come in the oddest packages," she said.

Michael said, "You're not kidding.  Hermione Granger takes on the criminal mastermind in the heart of his lair, and with a dislocated shoulder.  All five foot four of her."

Hermione rolled her eyes.  "One – I had quite a bit of help.  Two – my shoulder was not dislocated, it had suffered a partial separation."

"Oh, well–"

"And three – I am five foot five, and I'll thank you not to forget it."

She watched Michael chuckle, shaking his head, and was surprised to hear Theo Nott give one of his rare snorts of amusement over to her right.

Terry said, "I take it Zabini hasn't had the good grace to say thanks for saving his arse, eh?"

Hermione shrugged.  "I haven't seen him to speak to.  Can't imagine he'll want to change that, any time soon."

"He's probably alive because of you."

"Maybe.  I'm probably alive because of him, too.  I think it best that we both quietly call it quits and go back to ignoring each other."

And that was two snorts from Theo in one day.  Hermione was on a roll.

"Is everyone here?"  Snape drew up with Mistress Bramble and looked around, as though he hadn't already accounted for the six students he was expecting.  Then the professor did a theatrical double take.  "Ah!  Miss Bulstrode.  I thought we were one too many.  I'm not sure why you're here."

Bulstrode blinked at Snape.  "Um," she managed.

"Perhaps you did not receive the owl I sent this morning?"  At Bulstrode's slack-jawed confusion, Snape cast his gaze heavenwards in search, apparently, of patience.  "Miss Bulstrode, you have been expelled from my Lost Seventh course.  Please remove yourself from Mistress Bramble's private property."

Everyone else went still as they waited to see what Bulstrode would do.  (Everyone except Bramble, who tut-tutted and muttered something about a 'dramatic so-and-so' and proceeded to make for the main doors into the barn conversion.)

Bulstrode finally spluttered out a demand for Snape's reasons.

"Plagiarism," he said.  "Obviously."

"Pl...what?"

"Plagiarism, Miss Bulstrode.  The theft of intellectual property."

"Theft?  What am I supposed to have stolen?" she demanded.

"Essays, Miss Bulstrode!  You have represented another's work as your own.  This has been apparent in every single piece of written coursework you have submitted to me in the last three months.  Upon reviewing everything you submitted to Professor Slughorn during your year six studies, the strategy is clearly not a recent one for you."

"Oh, that," she said.  Then, almost as an afterthought, she thrust her shoulders back and added, "Um, you've no proof!"

Over to her right, Hermione noticed Draco rolling his eyes at this spectacular incompetence from a former housemate.

"Admittedly," Snape said, "you took the trouble to copy out your cousin's original essays in your own hand, for my course.  You didn't extend the same courtesy to Professor Hobday, however.  He was struck by the difference in handwriting when you submitted your end-of-term test paper."

Bulstrode was developing a head of steam.  "He had no right to spring that test on us!"

"Oh, indeed, a teacher assessing the progress of his students – what nerve!  What temerity!"  He sighed.  "You can expect some correspondence from Professor Hobday, and a great deal more free time when term begins again.  Really, Miss Bulstrode, do you believe teachers never consult with each other?  Or that we are blind imbeciles when it comes to cheating?"

Bulstrode drew herself up, pink of face, and said, "If you're so smart, why did it take you fifteen weeks to work it out, then?"

Snape gave one of his micro-smiles.  "It took me fifteen seconds, in fact."

Bulstrode frowned at that.  "Then why didn't you say anything sooner?"

"Call it generosity of spirit.  You got fifteen weeks of lessons, free and gratis  You might even have learned something during all those tedious hours you spent laboriously copying out endless essays."

Bulstrode's outrage got tangled up in her throat, and monosyllabic sounds were all that emerged.

Snape turned away.  He glanced around, as if the last two minutes hadn't been rather entertaining, and gestured for his remaining students to precede him through the doors of the barn conversion.

"I need those NEWTs!" Bulstrode finally yelled at him.

Snape tossed a disinterested look over his shoulder.  "I suggest you set about earning them properly, then.  You are trespassing, Miss Bulstrode.  Good day."

Hermione followed Michael and Terry into the barn.  They entered through the main double-doors that opened out into a large space set aside for bulk deliveries.  Behind her, she heard Bulstrode stalk off down the path, growling obscenities along with each stomp of her feet.  Draco and Theo were a quiet presence behind her, but she'd learned to be less wary of them in the last three months.  Snape's rearguard prickled at her skin, but only because the change in their location had made certain suppressed memories spring sharply into focus.

Draco sighed and said, "I ought to feel badly for her," to Theo Nott.

"Why?" Theo asked.  "Girl's an idiot."  He moved past Hermione to take a seat along the bench Mistress Bramble had set up for her lecture.

Draco paused.  He looked at Hermione, moved closer.  "I suppose we can talk, now Milly's no longer here to have her worldview shattered..."  He glanced around, saw Snape refastening the double-doors against the chill, leaned in.  "So go on.  Tell me.  Why did you do it, Granger?"

"Bulstrode?  I had nothing to do with that."

Draco narrowed his eyes.  "Zabini.  Why did you save him?" he said, as though it hurt his facial muscles to speak so directly.

Hermione smiled.  "Because I could."

"Narcissism, then.  Your hero's complex."

'Sometimes he is,' her mind put in obliquely.  Out loud she said, "Let's call it that, shall we?  I wouldn't want to shatter your worldview."

She moved off to join Terry at the space on the bench he had saved for her, bless his misguided but hopeful little heart.  Not before she heard Snape give a low murmur of amusement, however.

She'd known he was listening, of course.  He always was, if he possibly could.

~~~

A smidgeon over two hours later, Hermione emerged into the Yorkshire winter to see that the snow had begun to fall.  The flakes were small and frail and drifting for now, but the sun would be going down in less than an hour.  The snow would probably thicken up, enough to stick for the night.

She and her fellow students had enjoyed an informative lecture.  So captivated had Mistress Bramble's audience been that even the usually awkward Terry had put aside the self-conscious way he kept trying to avert his eyes from the scarring on Bramble's hands.  After the lecture, the potioneer had led them on a tour of her research facilities, conducting her question and answer session as she went.

It had been a fantastic afternoon.  Hermione only wished she could stay another hour, and pepper Bramble with even more questions.

As Draco and Theo headed off down the lane towards the main road, Michael said, "Me and Terry fancy a swift one at The Candles before we Floo home.  Join us, Hermione?"

Even as she racked her brain for a polite excuse, Mistress Bramble said, "My apologies, gentlemen, but I must borrow Miss Granger for a while longer."

Michael shrugged.  "Come and find us after, if you like," he said.  He and Terry left with a wave.

"Join me for some tea?" Bramble asked her.

"I'd be honoured," Hermione replied, entirely without hyperbole.  She looked over Bramble's shoulder, but the main doors to the barn were closed and there was no sign of Snape.

"He's tidying up for me.  Then he'll settle in for the evening, I expect," Bramble said.  "I shouldn't think you'll see him again until your exam – which, I believe, is scheduled for next Monday?"

"That's right.  Monday afternoon."  The two of them began to walk along the path towards the house.  "I'm sorry, I...settle in where?"

"In the flat.  Where he lives."

Hermione blinked.  "The flat."

"Yes."

"In the barn annexe."

"That's the one."

"He lives there."

"He does.  He needed somewhere to stay while he emptied out the place he calls his 'ancestral hovel'."

"Ah.  I see."  Hermione frowned.  "He was in your house, the last time I came."

"Hmm.  The flat was providing witness-protection services."  At Hermione's startled look, occasioned by an unexpected Muggle reference, Mistress Bramble explained, "Half-blood."

"Oh.  I see.  About the, um, the flat, I mean.  Not your parentage."  She tut-tutted.  "I do get my words in an awful tangle sometimes."

"Things were a little fraught, last time you were here."

"That's definitely one way to put it," Hermione agreed.

"Severus told me he explained.  That there is no understanding between us."

Hermione nodded, feeling odd about discussing this with a woman who was all but a stranger.  "Yes, he did.  Um, sort of."

Bramble huffed a laugh.  "Yes, that sounds like Severus."  She shook her head.  "I hear he took his time about it.  Clarifying things."

Hermione considered all the occasions when Snape could have made things clear and had chosen not to.  "I think he felt it was not something we should discuss.  He and I, I mean.  As professor and student."

Bramble rolled her eyes.  "Yes, well, I'm sure that's what he told himself."

They paused by the gate.  Hermione looked curiously at the potions mistress.  "What do you mean?" she asked.

"We all do it," Bramble said with a sigh.  "Human beings.  We're all terribly good at finding reasons to do the things we want to do, and excusing the things we know we shouldn't do, but do anyway."

Hermione blinked.  "That's Muggle psychology.  Cognitive dissonance.  Self-justification."

Bramble pushed the gate open and gestured Hermione through.  "Yes.  I've studied the subject.  Just as a layman.  Quite some time ago, something happened to me that prompted a desire to understand the way the mind works a little better."  She smiled tightly as Hermione looked back at her.  "You'll know something about how traumatic events cast a shadow across your mental well-being, of course."

Hermione nodded slowly.  "I do."

Bramble followed Hermione into the front garden and then closed the gate.  "The point I'm making is that Severus had numerous reasons for failing to set your mind at ease regarding his presence here, with me.  And none of those reasons were very flattering, so he did what people always do in such situations.  He made up a few that sounded much, much better."

"I see."

"Do you?  Good.  Because forcing Severus into some genuine emotional honesty is going to be as necessary for the two of you as it is going to be difficult."

Hermione felt herself bristle.  "I'm not going into this with my eyes shut," she said.

Bramble reached for the latch and pushed her front door open.  "Apologies.  I'm sounding patronising, and that is far from my intention.  The fact of the matter is that I care very much for Severus, and I anticipate that the road ahead of you both will not be an easy one."

"I think he's worth it," Hermione said.

"Oh, he most certainly is."  Bramble nodded Hermione into the house.  "Now then.  He's informed you of the unfortunate misstep he made regarding his friendship with me, I understand?"

Was Hermione finally to learn the details of the 'proposition' Snape had made?

"He, er, said he felt guilty about it," she ventured.

"As well he might.  It isn't much of a compliment, when someone makes a pass at you as a trial run."

"A trial...I'm sorry, but I don't understand."

Bramble led Hermione off down the hall.  "Let's have some tea, and I'll try to explain."

~~~

"That can't be right," Hermione said, a short while later.

"No?"  Bramble settled comfortably into the corner of her armchair.  The warmth of her smile and the wryness of her humour had combined to make what would otherwise have been an excruciating conversation bearable.  "Then let me ask you this.  Do you feel you have an understanding of how romantic relationships work?"

"Um, well, I couldn't say how complete my understanding is, but I suppose I feel I have some."

"You were lucky enough to grow up in a house where your parents care for each other, I'm given to understand."

"Yes."

"And you have had romances yourself?"

"Blink and you miss it, but yes."

"Would you agree, then, that this is the main way we learn of such things?  By observing and by doing?"

Hermione considered this.  "That's applicable to most behaviours."

"It is."  Bramble sipped at her tea; her veil had been cast aside, apparently with some relief, and her facial scars were partially covered only by her silk head-scarf.  For a while, she seemed quite taken with the rim of her teacup.  Then, finally: "You are aware, I take it, that Severus's home life as a child was not filled with good example?"

"I know the broad strokes.  If I ever learn more, I think that should be down to Severus."

"Indubitably."  The teacup seemed to provoke a weary sigh before Bramble looked up at Hermione.  "And over the course of his adult life, you're aware that opportunities have been limited for him?  Partly because of an emotional block instigated by himself.  Partly because his circumstances did not lend themselves to the inherent vulnerability of caring for someone."

"That sounds...plausible.  You've gone beyond the scope of my experience, though."

"The scope of one's experience is exactly what we are discussing.  What do you usually do when you feel you need to correct an absence in your knowledge?"

"Well...I suppose I research."

"Quite so.  Is it unthinkable that Severus would do the same?"

Hermione frowned.  "He used you, a friend of his, as research material?"

"I'm sure the opportunity was irresistible."  Bramble smiled, clearly finding the whole issue more droll than insulting.  "I'd already invited him to use the flat here.  I was on hand; he trusted me more than most.  And I am famously scarred and reclusive – this no doubt conjures up a woman so desperate for a bit of attention, she'll go along with anything."  A glint in her eye.  "Perhaps that's unfair.  Perhaps it is not.  Either way, I appeared unencumbered by other attachments.  At least, so far as Severus understood things."

"He was wrong about that, I take it?"

Bramble gave a sigh.  "He was always on a hiding to nothing, Miss Granger.  I'm forty-five years old.  I have neither the patience, the energy nor – frankly – the time to mentor someone like Severus Snape in the ways of grown-up romance.  But even if I was inclined to take on such a project, I am at present in a very happy and decidedly monogamous relationship, and therefore am not free to do so."  A small smirk.  "For the record – even if that were not the case?  Severus Snape is, in the most fundamental way I could describe, not my type."

Hermione tried to take all this in.  "Oh," she said.  "I see."

"Don't get me wrong, now.  I adore the man.  He has a fierce and creative intelligence, a delightfully dry sense of humour and a sense of loyalty and courage that deserve respect.  He has flaws, of course.  Don't we all?  But he's ready to identify them and learn better."  Bramble made an expression that could have been an arched eyebrow, had she possessed such things.  "And by the way – Severus has led me to understand that much of what I just said about him could also be said about you."

"I don't know if that's right," Hermione said, quite honestly.  "But it sounds like something worthy of aspiration."

"Too true."  Bramble shrugged a shoulder.  "I probably know him better than most.  He certainly seems to think I do.  Ours has been mainly an epistolary friendship down the years, but a valued one.  A long time ago, we found in each other a quietly kindred spirit, given to voluntary acts of isolation."

Hermione considered these words.  "I'm not sure whether to celebrate or commiserate," she said.

"Oh, a bit of both, but that's life, isn't it?  What happened to me in Orkney...happened.  I can't change it.  I wouldn't if I could, because my own life was not the only one affected.  It's a shame that the incident has since defined the extent to which I can deal with other people."  Bramble smiled at Hermione.  "You're in the minority, Miss Granger.  Few are the people who meet me, look me over, accept my appearance and proceed henceforth to converse with me quite normally, person to person.  Direct eye contact that does not constantly wander, expressions that do not flinch – these are rarities in my life."

"You bear that burden with grace," Hermione said.

"You're kind to say so.  Sometimes I do; sometimes I don't.  You are no stranger to navigating the burdensome reactions of others, of course.  But we're getting away from the subject in hand."  Bramble sipped her tea.  "After the furore over his trial, my correspondence with Severus resumed.  He needed a place of privacy.  I had the space."

"I'm glad," Hermione murmured.

Bramble gave her the smallest look of amused doubt: just a glimmer in those expressive eyes.

"No, I am," Hermione insisted.  "I can be glad Severus has a good friend like you to help out.  And, simultaneously, I can wallow in insecurities about that friend having more to offer than I have."  She sniffed.  "I'm multifaceted like that."

Bramble snorted a laugh.  "Quite right too."  She set her cup down.  "I'd be giving you the wrong impression if I told you Severus and I spend long, talkative evenings together.  But we talk sometimes.  Sometimes he assists with work.  Back in late August we were on the edge of Bilsdale, ingredient gathering.  Pre-dawn, it was.  And he said to me, quite out the blue, 'Roksana, it's the oddest thing but it turns out I am not dead.'"

Hermione shifted in her chair.  "Unlike Severus, to state the obvious."

"That's just it, though.  At that point the comment wasn't obvious.  Not to him.  Anyway, the conversation took a few twists and turns over the days that followed, and no, I'm not going to embarrass you with the details because they're private.  But the upshot is – Severus is a man who is painfully aware of his inexperience in the area of committed romantic relationships.  He saw me as a way to correct this."

"How can you be sure you were just a – how did you put it?  'A trial run'?"  Hermione hated herself for saying this, but intellectual honesty always had to be served.  "Maybe he saw the potential for more between you."

"I know, because I called him on it and he admitted it plainly."

"Oh."  Hermione pinched her lips hard and glanced at the parlour window.  "Does he know you're telling me all this?"

"Of course he does.  I'm not in the business of betraying personal confidences without permission."  Bramble looked rueful.  "This conversation you and I are having, right now – Severus considers it his comeuppance.  For a misguided attempt to seduce me, and an equally misguided attempt to use the hint of a rival to assess the depth of your feelings."

Hermione thought about this.  She finished her tea and used the delay this bought her to try to formulate a careful reply.  She set her cup and saucer down, quite delicately, and then sat back.  Her hands were folded with studied poise.  She looked across the low table at Roksana Bramble, who waited patiently for a response.

Hermione cleared her throat.  "If you like, I'll hold him steady while you kick him in the balls."

~~~

Mistress Bramble signed Hermione's book with a thoughtful, personal message of encouragement.  They talked for a while about Bramble's philosophy regarding patents.  The potioneer showed genuine interest in an Arithmantic matrix Hermione was developing in an attempt to prove a consistent, perhaps even predictable, relationship between brewing variables and their effect on recipes.  Bramble asked some interesting and constructive questions.

Finally, Roksana Bramble offered Hermione a part-time job beginning in the new year.  (Hermione hadn't realised she was being interviewed.  Perhaps Mistress Bramble hadn't realised this either.)

"You're no doubt very useful to the Muggle-Worthy Excuse lot," Bramble said, "but my goodness, they're no use to you at all.  Come and be an egghead here for a while.  You might find you like it."

At a little after five o'clock in the evening, the sun was already going down.  Hermione stepped outside into the crunch of new-fallen snow.  Over to the right, the barn conversion showed a warm light upstairs, in the flat where Hermione had heard Jossinia Trelore say that love demanded sacrifice.

Such bollocks.  Love required patience and consideration and good-humour.  Hermione might well be a relatively inexperienced nineteen year old, but she thought that this was a sensible starting place.

Not, of course, that she was allowed to use the word...

The door closed behind her.  Hermione walked up the path, smiling as thickening snowfall attempted to colonise her eyelashes.  She let herself through the front garden gate and then took the time to hoist up her coat collar against the cold air.

"Hermione," Snape said quietly.

She jumped.  Pleasingly, she managed not to yelp, though she needed a couple of breaths before she said, "Are you trying to frighten me to death?"

Snape gave her a steady look.  "It's never worked in the past."

"Too bad, then.  On the day I finally irritate you beyond your tolerance levels, you'll have to jolly well brain me with a hammer, like normal people."

He did the exhale that meant he was amused.  Hermione wondered whether being able to interpret his breaths meant that she had it very bad indeed.  She looked him over.  His overcoat was buttoned and a scarf was tucked around his neck, hiding his scars.  He'd meant to come out here and lurk, then.

"Mistress Bramble didn't think I'd be seeing you until Monday," she said.

"Naturally.  To seek you out would demonstrate a foolish disregard for boundaries."  He looked disapproving.  "That doesn't sound like me at all."

"Perhaps you're not you, then."  Hermione stepped in closer and inhaled theatrically through her nose.  "How odd.  No burnt hair."

He gave her the briefest twitch of his lips, then indicated the lane.  "May I walk you to the road?"

"If you like," she said.

They strolled slowly, eking out the time.  The gathering dark and the thickening snow felt a bit like a screen between them and the rest of the world.  A privacy curtain.

"I suppose," Hermione said, when it seemed that Snape was not going to speak, "that it would be absurd for me to hope that completing the written paper next week will signal an end to this wretched distance between us."

"Indeed."  Snape nodded.  "You may lack subtlety on occasion, but you are rarely absurd.  Fortunately for us both."

"Hmm.  Lucky, lucky us," she said gloomily.

He was right, though.  If they were going to do this, it would have to happen organically and at a careful pace.  They were still in the process of recovering from traumas, some recent, some less so.  This was a complicated, transitional time for them too: she and Snape were both working out what the coming years might hold for them.  Everything else besides, whatever was to happen between them should probably develop with a sense of timing that others – strangers, people who didn't know them and shouldn't matter but damn well did because no man was an island – might consider acceptable.  Things were going to be tricky enough without the additional need to deal with sly insinuations and outraged disgust.

Of course, that was the rational, sensible part of her brain talking.  The more hormonal, lascivious part was also busily engaged, considering how far she might get if she tugged Snape close and began to explain, in unexpurgated detail, the finer points of the erotic dream she'd had earlier that week, in which he had very definitely taken a starring role...

Hermione took a deep breath and shook the idea away.

As slowly as they were walking, they were getting closer to the junction.  Contemplative silence was not doing it for her.  "I'm very glad I've had the chance to talk to Mistress Bramble," she said.

He nodded, but made no reference to the events that had prompted Hermione's conversation with the potions mistress.  Which was very Snape, of course.  In giving Bramble permission to explain, he had already made the most overt and genuine apology that he could.  Hermione knew by now that the best way she had to acknowledge this was to refrain from humiliating him further on the subject.

"Roksana did not invite you to use her name?" he asked.

"She did.  Then she offered me a job.  My mind did its usual recoil in the face of authority.  She's back to being Mistress Bramble, now."

Snape turned to look at her.  "That rather begs the question of how and when my own authority failed."

"It never did.  But I separated you out.  I told you, the night you sort of came to my party – we aren't monochrome, you and me.  You're my professor.  You're a fellow Order member.  We've saved each other's life a couple of times; that seems to complicate things.  And..."  She shot him a sideways look.  "Okay, this probably won't come as news – I'm attracted to you.  Perhaps even enamoured of you."

Snape hummed.  He didn't offer a more coherent response, though.

"Having said all that, first and foremost you're my friend," Hermione decided.  "I think that's the most defining thing, right at this moment."

They were nearly at the road.  Snape inhaled deeply.  "I find I look forward to resuming our...friendship."

"I do too," she said.  "This last ten weeks I've missed nothing more than I've missed talking to you."

"Speaking of which," he said.  They paused, tucked inside the junction.  The snow was making the landscape around them soft-lined and pristine.  Snape dug in his coat pocket and then handed Hermione a small phial.

"What's this?" she asked.

"You're the advanced student of potions.  You tell me."

She shot him a mock-glare, but dutifully examined the phial.  In the gathering dark, under a sky blanketed by snow, there was insufficient light to perceive colour or sheen.  She unstoppered the phial and breathed the scent in.  It was a flat, matt kind of fragrance, unprepossessing, like a dull but nutritious meal.  But out of the flatness rose the hint of crisp acidity.  A fruit – a berry? – with undertones of something sharp and leathery...

"Boom berries," she said.  "Sopophorous beans..."  Her brain caught up with her sense of smell, which always meandered into unexpected cul-de-sacs as it tried to tell her what a scent felt and looked like, as well as its technical notes.  "Ah.  Eve's Drops?"

There was a lengthy pause.  She'd learned when to wait, though.

Snape cleared his throat.  "It occurred to me that there are things we should discuss."

"Yes."

"About the way forward."

"I'm all for being forward," Hermione agreed.

Snape rolled his eyes at the comment.  "We should probably not be seen together in any social setting.  Not for a while."

"Perhaps not.  But there are non-social settings that are perfectly respectable."

He cleared his throat again.  "It also occurred to me that our discussions might be easier with some...separation."

Hermione tilted her head as she considered his increasingly snow-bound form.  "Are you worried about having to bear witness to the horror that is my face?  Or merely concerned that I cannot be trusted to keep my hands to myself?"

"And thus you prove my instinct is correct."

"What?"

He glared, briefly.  "You are being provocative.  What you expect to provoke in the middle of a blizzard is beyond me, but nonetheless you are infusing an innocuous conversation with innuendo."

"Innocuous?  I'm offended.  You'll be calling me banal next."

"And still you provoke me."

She gave a tiny smile.  "Is it working?"

"It is."  He stretched his shoulders and looked up at the falling snow.

She'd pushed far enough.  Perhaps too far, but she'd missed him, and those weeks of constantly smothering her longing had taken their toll.  "Eve's Drops, then.  Okay."

"If I have presumed too far..."  He stopped.  His chin dropped.  A suspended moment, then he met her eyes again.  "There will be things I misjudge.  Advise me of them."  His formality faltered and his voice became no more than a whisper.  "Please."

Academically, his attitude was spot on.  Still, they were not researching glasswing beetles here; this was life.  This was messy and subjective and prone to their all-too-human foibles.  Hermione could see that these words were costing him, because admissions of ignorance felt too much like admissions of weakness, and Snape's background had not allowed for weakness.  Not in him.  Not ever.

The only thing she could offer was an equal footing.  "Likewise," she said.

His inhale was broken by a hitch.  She decided to put it down to the cold air.  Snape stepped close to her, brushed aside a heavy curl that had grown damp with melting snow, then leaned down to press his lips to her forehead.

His kiss lingered.  Though it was chaste, he was giving her a run for her money when it came to being provocative.  Her knees gave an encouraging shiver.

After he'd moved back, she lifted the phial.  "When?"

"We should delay until after Tuesday next week.  At that point I will no longer have any jurisdiction over the marking of your paper."

Hermione nodded.  His values were his own, and they were immutable.  "Wednesday, then.  What time?"

"Whenever we can both claim some privacy."

Wednesday was curry night.  "Late evening.  Ten o'clock."

He nodded.  "As you suggest."

Hermione offered a wan smile.  "I should go."

"Safe Apparition."

She turned away, tucking her phial into her pocket.  Then she turned back.  "Did I get offered a job because of you?"

"I doubt it.  I noticed a glint in Roksana's eye when you were talking about researching the magical signature of potions."

"Yes, well, we obviously need to come up with a way to discern whether someone is acting under the influence of a hate potion!"

"Undoubtedly.  Shall we do that right now, here in the snow?"

"I'd rather just kiss y–"

"Enough," he said quietly.  "There will be time."

She breathed her frustration out.  "Just so long as you realise that when you start murmuring straight into my ear, in the privacy of my bedroom, I'm going to be about as functional as a wet noodle."

Snape regarded her a moment longer, then he blinked the snow from his eyelashes.  "An interesting prospect," he said.  "Go home before you freeze."

He turned his back and was walking away before she could think of any means to extend their reunion further.

No matter.  She focused, cast and wrenched herself back to Islington.  The sky was lighter here.  There was no snow in the air.  She cloaked and then dashed around to the front door, brushing displaced snowflakes from her coat.

Once sequestered in her bedroom, she placed the phial of potion in the top drawer of her chest.  "Talk to you soon," she whispered.  Then she closed the drawer and turned her back on all the delicious ideas it wanted her to entertain.

She'd waited ten weeks already.  Five more days wasn't going to kill her.

~~~~~~