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Take These Stars Down To The World

29 Jun

Title: Take These Stars Down To The World
Rating: R
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Domestic Violence, Character Death (not our pair), Substance Abuse.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: Hermione creates a potion just for Severus, one which he doesn’t believe he wants or needs (SS/HG or SS & HG).
Note: Special thanks to stgulik, not only for the delicious prompt, but for her Herculean effort to pull this together, literally at the last minute. Because I was so late to the fitting, I was that bride walking down the aisle while my beta the seamstress was running behind me, sewing seed pearls on the train. You rock, babe. Thank you for putting up with me.

This story is inspired by the film Chocolat, which in turn was based on the novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris. This fanfic is based on characters and situations created by J. K. Rowling, and owned by J. K. Rowling and various publishers, including but not limited to: Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books, Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended by the posting of this fanfic.

Summary: Severus’ business, Potions Potentes, is not doing very well. In fact, he plans to shut his doors for good. Just when all seems lost, Hermione Granger arrives in town to open her own apothecary, bringing with her a very special brew. What exactly is she up to, and what exactly is this cure-all potion of hers? If there is one thing Severus knows more than most, it is that nothing is ever given without a price.


Take These Stars Down To the World

Chorus

March was a surprisingly calm month for England. After February’s snows, spring arrived early, her arms full of false promises. Warm days soothed winter’s stern features, and early daffodils poked their determined heads from the ground, gleaming in the buttery sun.

But spring has ever been a fickle and capricious flirt. While she hints at soft breezes and teases with balmy afternoons best spent in beer gardens and lolling on grassy slopes, she is far too whimsical and cruel by turns to ever be fully trusted.

Sure enough, by April she had run away laughing, leaving tearing winds and torrential storms in her wake. Beltane was too many calendar pages away; that wily old Cernunnos might eventually tame, then win her heart, but for now, spring’s jilted suitors were left to fend for themselves.


Chapter 01: Potions Potentes

Watching the black clouds scudding across the angry sky like children racing from certain punishment, Severus had a sudden desire to just take to the air, run away with the clouds, and never look back. He could not remember the last time he had flown simply for the joy of it.

In truth, he couldn’t remember the last time he had done anything simply for the joy of it.

The first fat droplets landed on the cobbles with a soft, plappy sound. The sprinkling became a drizzle, the drizzle a downpour, the downpour a deluge. Severus crossed the flagstone floor to the door of his drab apothecary, locked it, and turned his Open sign over to Closed. Potions Potentes would close early again today. It had become a commonplace occurrence as of late. No one would come to see him now, not in this rain. He told himself he would use the time to replenish his stock. His inventory count might be high, but so were the number of expiring potions.

Over the week, the heavy rain parked itself over Osmotic Alley, encompassing the street with a daily torrent of water-logged misery. No surprise there; Osmotic was a bleak enough prospect on the sunniest of days. Stray dogs slunk into the corners between buildings, too dispirited to beg for scraps. Hours, then days went by when Severus did not see one soul on the street. He was not a wizard given to talking aloud to himself, so the only sounds he heard were the steady, driving rain, the grind of pestle against mortar, and the slow tick-tock of his clock, measuring the increasingly-longer wet days.

So far, only three people had braved the rain to come to Potions Potentes. Hannah Longbottom, his landlady, dropped round to collect his monthly rent and accepted a sample of a new topical potion to dissolve warts. An elderly wizard slipped through the door one morning, needing “something to get my get-up-and-go up and going again.” He tittered lewdly when he said it, his eyes twinkling in a way that turned Severus’ stomach. He dutifully proferred a stamina/lust potion of his own making, but the old man balked on the price and left without it. And a witch stopped in to ask for directions to Phizzic Alley and a glass of water.

Occasionally, he would look out and see some intrepid soul trudging up the street toward Potions Potentes. Since there were no other open shops between his and St Mungo’s, Severus would straighten, place his hands behind his back in his best proprietor’s pose, and prepare a formal nod of welcome. Most hurried by without so much as a glance, too preoccupied with whatever fate awaited or had already dealt them at St Mungo’s. Some made rude gestures. Once in a while some little oik would throw a rock at the display window and run away laughing. With weary patience, Severus would repair the glass. As of late, his spells had become so apathetic it took almost two minutes to seal these cracks. That was when he knew he no longer cared.

At the end of each day, he dutifully locked the door and turned the sign from Open to Closed. He walked up the stairs to his sparse flat, ate something, drank something, read something. Slept. In the morning, he got up, freshened his appearance and did it all again.

One morning, as Severus ground and mixed his ingredients, the recipe so ingrained in his memory he no longer needed to consult his notes, his automatic movements slowed, then stopped.

A leaden, sullen weight settled into the pit of his stomach; he simply couldn’t be arsed to keep going. Tonight, he would lock the door for the last time. In the morning, he would turn his keys over to Mrs. Longbottom and walk away for good. With relief, he accepted the truth; the rain was not to blame for his empty shop, the ever-increasing amount of expiring potions sitting unused and unwanted on his shelves. He had no custom, no regulars, and the small bit of compensation from the Ministry was dwindling more with every passing day. With the acceptance of defeat came relief. Now that he had made the decision, he felt a measure of peace..

He placed the pestle on the counter, and glanced out the window to the street beyond. The rain tapered off enough to allow him to actually see beyond the edge of the awning, and through the gluey grey mist Severus saw a witch trudging up the long rise of deserted pavement toward the peak of Osmotic Alley. She was dressed in a brilliant, emerald-green cloak, the hood pulled up tight around her face to keep out the wind and rain. She carried a large carpetbag clutched tightly to her chest, but by the way she held onto it, and the lack of general bulk, it looked neither full nor heavy.

Just as she reached his door the rain stopped altogether, and a sudden, strange shaft of sunlight broke from its cloudy prison. The witch stopped and looked upward. The hood of her cloak fell back, and honey-coloured hair spilled from the cloth in wild, corkscrewing ribbons. She seemed to glow as she stood in the middle of the street, eyes closed, her upturned, heart-shaped face bathed in sunlight.

Severus left his counter and walked toward his window, his breath catching in his throat. After so many long days in self-imposed isolation, seeing this young witch awoke something primal in him, originating deep within his magical core. It stirred and flared in his chest.

Later, he would mull it over, and perhaps in the mulling it would become clearer, definable, and controllable. But now, it was a treacherous, undesirable thing, to be tamped down and smothered. What was he doing, Severus Snape, the greasy git, the dungeon bat, sparing more than a passing thought for a pretty woman? He knew what he looked like and who he was. This lovely stranger would either scorn him because she knew him, or dismiss him because she did not.

A gust of wind, and the shaft of sunlight was gone as suddenly as an electric light switched off. The witch opened her eyes and looked around. She glanced toward his shop, taking it all in, and took a step toward the door. For a moment, Severus felt a smug satisfaction that she had showed up too late, then came to his senses and prepared to whisk the Closed sign to Open. Before he could act, however, she turned and headed across the street to the shop opposite.

It was an old herbalist’s shop, long empty; its dingy grey walls and grimy windows told a story of disenchantment and failed dreams. She paused at the door, then produced a key. As he watched her struggle with the rusty lock, Severus rolled his eyes. “Use Alohomora, you dozy bint,” he muttered under his breath. She eventually muscled the door open a few centimeters, then tossed her carpet bag onto a shelf just inside.

Then she turned her attention to the old wooden sign above the door. Its shield-shaped board had once boasted the venerable name of Peaky’s Herbalist and Fine Tobaccos, but time and the elements had faded the lettering to nothing more than a greying smudge against a dull background. It hung precariously from two rusted and uneven chains, and on a blustery day like this, it could be heard creaking as it drunkenly swayed in the wind.

With a decisive flick of her wand, the sign and the iron arm that held it disappeared in a splash of raindrops. Hanging from heavy black chains was a brand-new plaque, a deeply burnished gold disk in the shape of the sun, with gilded rays that shot out from the centre in wavy spikes. On its face, in bold, black letters:

Medicura Apothecaria – Your Good Health and Happiness!

Severus stared at the gleaming sign in shock, his lethargic melancholy morphing into indignation. Why, that jumped-up little tart! Opening an apothecary – right across the street from his own! How dare she─

The witch paused from admiring her handiwork, and looked straight in his direction. He recognised her at last, and his resentment congealed into impotent rage. “Oh, no, you don’t,” he hissed between clenched teeth. Any last vestiges of peace or attraction evaporated, and he turned from the window, seething. If Hermione Granger thought she could just show up and run him out of business, she would be sorely disappointed.

Chorus:

Hannah Longbottom may have been a fellow Hogwarts alumna, and married to Hermione’s old school chum besides, but she had shown no preferentialism when it came to the monthly rent of the old herbalist/tobacconist’s shop in the dodgy side of town. “It’s just one street off Diagon Alley,” Hannah had explained. “Lots of through traffic to and from St Mungo’s, plenty of potential customers. It’s an up and coming area.”

Now that Hermione had the chance to actually see what her hard-won rent money had bought, she realised her landlady had been just a wee bit duplicitous. Heading up the deceptively steep road, Hermione passed only three stores currently open for business: a fishmonger’s, a pawn shop, and a shabby candy store called Truffles Sweeties, notable only for the heat-stippled Honeyduke’s knock-offs moldering in the display window. Its clientele was mostly made up of shifty-eyed wizards hanging around the shopfront muttering at passing witches, including herself. Hermione had decided it was probably a front for a brothel; it was the only really prosperous business on the street.


Chapter Two: Medicura Apothecaria

Looking around her new shop, Hermione thought, Up and coming, my arse. That must be landlord speak for, “I’ve got to make something out of this white elephant and you look as gullible as any.”

In all honesty, it was not a bad space. Though it had long been out of business (Mr. Peaky had been one of the unfortunates who had disappeared in Dolores Umbridge’s purges during the war), there was no sign of damp or mildew; it still carried the faintest whiff of tobacco. It was open-planned and high-ceilinged, and the shelves that lined two of the walls looked sound for all their grime and cobwebs. There was plenty of room to display her stock, and the back portion of the shop had good light and ventilation for brewing. As a bonus, there was a living space upstairs for her use as well.

“It could be worse,” she muttered aloud, whipping out her wand. “Well, time to get busy. Best side to London, as they say.”

Six hours later, the front of the shop was sparkling. The drab, no-colour walls were now a soothing, happy shade of blue-green; the wooden shelves and counters were scrubbed and oiled until the wood grain shone through. Bright, colourful tiles, a happy surprise buried under years of embedded grime, made a pleasing, almost Byzantine-like mosaic on the floor. With the addition of an inviting wreath of eucalyptus and lavender hung on the door, the shop looked almost customer-ready.

As she sat her old carpetbag on the now-spotless counter, Hermione heard a sharp rap on the door. With a casual wave of her wand, she unlocked the clasp. “Come in! I’m not open as of yet, but give me a-”

“I am not here as a customer, Granger,” came the terse, clipped reply.

It was true that the last ten years had been spent far away from old Blighty, but some things stayed with you, no matter how much time passed. Seeing her former professor standing in the doorway of this small, knock-about shop was like placing her old Time-Turner around her neck and giving it a twirl. He was ramrod straight, arms crossed imperiously across his chest, and dressed in his customary black, of course. His scowling face looked more lined than she remembered, but those snapping, angry eyes were the same. He looked as imposing, as immovable and unreachable as ever.

He also looked angry enough to spontaneously combust.

“Professor Snape─Ow!” She bumped her hip sharply against the counter in her haste to approach him. She held out her hand out in greeting. “You’re the first familiar face I’ve seen since I’ve arrived back home! Well, aside from Hannah, but since she’s my new landlady I don’t suppose that counts, does it? Of course, I’d heard you were around. I mean, she, Hannah that is, told me you and I were neighbours of a fashion─”

A stray curl dropped over her face, bisecting her vision, and she huffed upward to blow it out of the way. Snape’s eyes followed the tendril as it wafted upward. But for that minute movement, he might as well been carved out of onyx.

“Anyway…” she trailed off, then gave up and lowered her hand. “I hope you’re well?”

“What are you doing here?” he snapped.

“Excuse me?”

He uncrossed his arms and approached her with that same menacing, gliding speed that had scared her almost to the loss of bladder control in her youth. “I said, what are you doing here? Why have you dared open an apothecary opposite my own?”

Hermione peered through her shop window. “Oh, is that your shop? I thought it was just one of the closed…” She heard the words leaving her mouth, and cringed. “I─I thought Hannah said you were located on the opposite end of the street.”

“I am located on the opposite side of the street.”

“Huh. Well, easy mistake to make, I suppose. On the bright side, we’re both in a prime location, aren’t we? With St. Mungo’s on the far end, and─”

“Prime location? Is that what our august landlady told you? Let me assure you, Miss Granger, the only way this could be a prime location is if they shut down Diagon Alley, fumigated Knockturn, turned all the Janus Thickey Ward patients out onto Regent Street and dropped a bomb on London for good measure.”

Hermione blinked. “Did you just make a joke, Professor?”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His voice took on a prim, fastidious note. “I am making a point, and it’s Master Snape, or if that makes you uncomfortable, Magister Snape. I have full accreditation as Master Potioneer. As I was saying, Miss Granger-”

“Mistress Granger, actually. I’m fully accredited as well. You were saying…?”

Hermione waited him out. Finally he took another deep breath, and released it. A bit of the tension in his shoulders went with it. “I was saying, MistressGranger, I have been here for four years, and business has not grown. In fact, quite the opposite. I very much doubt it will support your endeavour. Perhaps another location would be better suited for your…” he looked around with an expression of mild distaste. “…name and reputation.”

Hermione could not suppress a smile. “Are you saying this street’s not big enough for the both of us?”

“I am merely suggesting that you might be more successful elsewhere.”

“I see.” Hermione crossed back to her large carpetbag. “What if I said I thought we could help one another’s business by each specialising in different things?” She opened the bag and started rummaging through its contents. “I could send you business, and vice versa.”

Snape’s eyes widened at the sight of her arm disappearing into the carpetbag up to her shoulder. “I’d say you have a lot to learn about business. Extension charm?”

“Yes. I had a little bag I carried around during the war. It held everything but the kitchen sink…” She floundered a bit, hating the idea of plunging her head down into the damn bag but if she couldn’t find─her fingers closed over the small case. “Ah! Here we are.” She hauled it out and placed it on the counter. “Engorgio!” It enlarged to the size of a suitcase. Snape drew closer as she opened it, revealing dozens of vials, each snugged down into its own padded compartment.

She plucked one of the vials from its bed, and held it out to him in silent offering. With his eyes still pinning her in place, he took the bottle from her hand. His fingers brushed hers as they closed around it, his touch warm and vibrant. “Exactly what the healer ordered,” she said with a tentative smile.

He gave her one of his epic frowns, then directed it at the vial so quickly she was sure it would shatter under such laser-intense scrutiny. “Go on, try it,” she urged. “It’s perfectly safe to use.”

He sneered in heroic contempt. “You should know better than most that I never take a potion without fully examining its contents.”

Her eyes met his, and held his gaze in friendly regard until some of the twitchy, nervous anger in his frame slowly bled away. Using The Gift on his large, black eyes was like scrying in ink; iffy and unreliable, but worth trying because when it worked…

He was there. She saw him there. Not a memory, as could be seen through Occlumency, but a whiff of emotion that smelled like bleach and camphor; failure and resignation…

Loneliness. Deep, drowning loneliness. I’m so tired of being lonely…

He flinched, then turned on his heel and headed for the exit. At the door, he turned back. “I hope you are at least planning on cleaning yourself up before this stampede of imaginary customers overruns your establishment. You look a complete urchin. Your clothes look like you slept in them. You have a great black streak of dirt across your nose, and a spider the size of a gobstopper in your hair.”

She managed to remain still until he left, then she flung herself around the shop, batting her hair furiously to dislodge the spider, but she never found it. She could hear him laughing outside the door as she performed a thorough Tergeo spell on her entire head.

“Git!” she muttered under her breath. Bloody git. He was still the most infuriating─

But fair play, he had made a joke. And played a harmless prank on her.

And he had taken the potion with him.

Chorus:

When Severus had awoken from St Mungo’s, alive and free, Minerva McGonagall had told him to think of it as his chance to begin anew. And he had tried, he had most certainly tried. But recreating oneself is never easy, even for the most confident. After careful consideration, Severus decided to take a chance and quietly reinject himself back into Wizarding life, not as a supporting character in someone else’s story, but as the drab and insignificant lead of his own.

He was one of the best, if not the best, potioneer that England had to offer, and he thought that at least would be enough to be accepted back into the Wizarding world. He had worried he would become a pariah, but that would have required a vengeful energy Wizarding Britain no longer had. The long war had left the population tired and jaded. People no longer hated him; people no longer cared. Indifference was his greatest enemy.

Chapter Three: Potions Potentes

Severus stormed into his shop and slammed the door behind him. He paced angrily, trying to keep up with the turmoil of his emotions. Who did this self-important little upstart think she was, moving opposite him, trying to run him out of business with her New Age stylings and her trendy little potions?

His hand cramped queerly, and he realised he was clutching the small vial so tightly the edges were cutting into his palm. His thoughts were a jumble of maddening contradictions. Mostly he felt insulted, angry, cheated, and confused. He had been on the verge of knocking it on the head not five minutes before Granger showed up with her box of tricks. Was he really so warped as to be angry she had spoiled his moment of defeat? Really?

With a growl of rage, he flung the potion across the room. The moment it left his hand, his wand was out. “Arresto Momentum! Accio!

The little bottle obediently flew back into his palm, and he smiled grimly as he sat down to analyze its contents.

Medicura Apothecaria

The next morning at precisely 9:00 am, Hermione propped opened the shop door and put the kettle on. She knew she would get a few curious stragglers on her first day, but she knew better than to expect any great ‘deluge’. It would be nice to start off at a more leisurely pace, and rev up as her popularity grew.

She glanced through the large display window to the shop across the street. The shutters were up, and the sign said Open, but it looked as dark and sombre as Peaky’s had before she arrived. Not dirty, exactly. More like unwelcoming.

Around 10 o’clock, an elderly witch hobbled in, leaning heavily on her cane. “Good morning!” Hermione sang out cheerfully. “Welcome to Medicura Apothecaria!”

The witch barely acknowledged the greeting. Instead, she made her painful way over to the shelves, peering creakily up at the jars of ingredients.

“Oh, and if you don’t see what you’re looking for, please let me know. I’m still unpacking. Can I get you a cup of tea? It’s on the house.”

“I’ll take two limbs of that Octopus Aloe over there,” replied the old woman. Her voice was soft and surprisingly girlish.

“Of course. Have a seat while I get them for you.”

Thankfully, it was early, and the Octopus Aloe was still sleepy. It fought like the devil when it was fully awake. Hermione managed to lop off two of its fattest tentacles, dodging a squirt of black ink in the process. “Here we are. Anything else?”

“Do you have dittany?”

“I do indeed.”

“Apex grade?”

Hermione saluted her with her secateurs. “You certainly know your philters. Would you like it in liquid or powder form?”

“Liquid. A quarter gill.”

Hermione measured out the dittany and placed it in one of her custom-made vials, a deep cobalt blue bottle with Medicura Apothecaria, etched in gold letters. She placed the items in a small blue bag, muttered, “Origamus!“, and the bag snappily folded itself into a tidy parcel.

Hermione placed it on a tray with the tea, and added a couple of chocolate digestives on a plate. “Since you’re my first customer, this calls for a celebration of sorts. I think I’ll join you for a cuppa, if you don’t mind. How do you take your tea?”

The old witch hobbled over to the table, and eased herself into a chair with a pained sigh. Her countenance was oddly blurry and out of focus. “Milk and two sugars,” she replied. Her breath smelt of harsh, raw liquor.

Now that she saw her customer up close, Hermione finally noticed the rather poorly-executed glamour. She placed the steaming cups on the table and sat down. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Hermione Gr-”

“Merlin’s sake, Hermione, I know who you are.” The woman’s eyes met hers. There was something familiar about them. “I realise I’m no oil painting, but after six years of living with me, I thought something would ring a bell.” She waved her hand irritably, and the glamour faded away like wisps of smoke.

Hermione gasped, “Lavender? Is that really you?”

With another wave, the glamour quickly slid back in place, but unsteadily, like a masque sitting askew on her face. “Oh, it’s me all right,” Lavender agreed, her voice bitter.

“Oh, Lav…” Lavender Brown had been the prettiest girl at Hogwarts. A little vain and a bit silly, no doubt, but she had been the very epitome of the English rose; large, cornflower-blue eyes, flawless skin, pink cheeks, and a very desirable figure. Her mouth was perfect, her oval face perfect, her shining wavy hair perfect… While Lavender had titivated and slaved for an hour every morning to achieve that natural, flawless effect, Hermione would stand beside her, brushing her teeth and pretending she did not feel like an old slag.

What had happened to Lavender was second-hand news to Hermione, mostly gleaned from Ginny Weasley’s infrequent letters. As Hermione struggled to find the right words to say, Lavender pulled out a small flask and unabashedly poured a generous measure into her tea. The smell of cheap whisky wafted from the steaming mug, stinging Hermione’s nose. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask, “Isn’t it a little early?” but she stopped herself in time. Instead she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Lavender. Is there anything I can do?”

Lavender put a gloved hand on her arm. Even through the cloth, her hand was hard and cold, like a corpse. “You can put away your pity, Hermione,” she answered with an impatient sign. “And no, there’s nothing you or anyone can do.”

“I heard about the attack, but only afterward. Those first few days…”

“I know,” said Lavender. She gave a twitchy little shrug. “We were the lucky ones, as the Daily Prophet says.” Her voice carried none of the anger Hermione would have expected; just weary resignation. “I’m just one of the fortunate few who managed to survive the terrible battle, and live to tell the tale. Everyone’s always so quick to remind me just how lucky I am.”

Hermione lowered her eyes. “Ginny told me what happened, Lav. I mean, erm, about … about Ron walking out on you after…”

“Oh, fuck’s sake, Hermione!” Lavender flung off her hat and then clapped her hands twice, letting the glamour fall away completely. Hermione could not control her gasp of horror at the sight of Lavender’s ravaged face. Where there had once been long, shining tresses, now sparse wisps of brittle grey hair clung to a scab-covered scalp. Her face was a shiny mask of acid-burn scars. There was an oozing sore on her forehead and another on her cheek. Her eyelids were tattered, and her once-lovely mouth was thin and colourless. Nerve damage had caused it to droop on one side.

“Ron didn’t leave me,” said Lavender. “I sent him away.” She pointed to her own face. “Do you think I would allow him to burden himself with this for the rest of his days?” Wearily, she picked up her hat and restored her glamour once more. “What kind of life would we have had?”

Shocked, Hermione spluttered, “But Ron always thought you were─”

“Oh, he actually liked taking care of me, the dopy arse. And he would have stuck around, if I had let him. We would both have been miserable then. I wouldn’t do that to him. He deserves better.” She sniffed. “I couldn’t do that to him after…after…” She sighed. “I think I should just pay for my purchases and go.”

Hermione’s face burned with embarrassment. “Of course. I’m sorry to have been so tactless.” She pushed the items into Lavender’s hands. “On the house.”

She snorted, “Don’t be daft. You won’t have a house if you give all your stock away. I can pay─”

“I know you can.” Hermione tried to smile. “But it’s bad luck to charge your first customer.”

“Says who, you silly cow?”

Hermione laughed. “Says the silly cow.” Besides she thought, I’d say you’ve paid enough. She made a quick decision.

“Lavender,” she said briskly, “I have something for you.”

She fetched her samples case from the counter, and selected one of the blue vials. Pressing it into Lavender’s hand, she said, “I’d like for you to give this a try. It’s a potion I perfected.”

The glamoured face shot her what might have been a suspicious look, but it was so smeary and indistinct it might have been curiosity instead. “What is it?”

“Well, it doesn’t really have a name, but…”

“But what does it do?”

Hermione chewed her bottom lip. “It… it helps. That’s all I can say. It helps,” she finished lamely. “Oh, do try it, Lav! You know I know what I’m doing.”

To her relief, Lavender laughed. It was a sharp, unwilling sound, raspy from disuse. “Well, you always did run rings around me in Potions. Alright, if you insist. I’ll be your guinea pig.”

“Good. Now be sure and come back and tell me how it worked.”

Lavender rewarded her with another tarnished laugh. “And how, pray tell, will I know it works, when I don’t even know what it does?”

Hermione felt her smile tighten her cheeks. “You’ll know. I promise.”

With some effort, Lavender hauled herself up, tucking her parcels into her pocket. “I meet with a group once a month at St Mungo’s. We talk about what happened to us, and the leader says it’s supposed to help. Who knows?” She gave a little shrug. “Perhaps it does. Anyway, I’ll tell them all to stop by, give you a little business.”

“Thank you, Lavender. And please stop by yourself, anytime, even if it’s just for tea.”

As Lavender shuffled toward the door, she glanced across the street. “I meant to ask, how’s His Nibs taking you being here?”

Hermione wrinkled her nose. “He wasn’t exactly thrilled.”

“Word is his business isn’t great.”

Hermione looked at his inhospitable shop. “It’s too bad. He’s the best there is.” Impulsively, she added, “Look, while you’re here, why don’t you drop by his shop? I think he mentioned he was working on some new products,” she lied. “You never know what he might have that will help.”

Lavender scoffed. “It’s a little early in the game to be giving away your custom, isn’t it?”

“That’s what I’m here for,” she whispered, as Lavender made her way out the door. Hermione watched as she approach Snape’s shop, but to her disappointment, Lavender gave her head a stubborn shake and headed toward Diagon Alley instead.

The bell above the door rang out, and a middle-aged wizard walked in. He looked around timidly, his nose twitching like a rabbit’s, ready to bolt. He spotted Hermione, and actually jumped. “Oh, uh, h─hello,” he stammered, blushing furiously.

Before he could dive for cover, Hermione put on her best smile and said, “Welcome to Medicura Apothecaria!”

Chorus

He tried distillation at first. He was convinced he would end up with nothing more or less than some crackpot cordial suspended in alcohol, but that had been a dead end. Severus gave the alembic flask a suspicious sniff. There was definitely something there, but it wasn’t alcoholic. The lab was steamy with the acrid fumes of apple cider vinegar. He usually found it a reliable component for breaking down the constituent elements of a compound, but Granger’s mystery potion was proving a tougher nut to crack.

Severus huffed in irritation. He had spent far too much time trying to decipher this damn concoction. He rarely had to resort to ‘foolish wand waving’, since the term itself set his teeth on edge, but conventional methods weren’t telling him anything useful. Either the potion was little more than monkey’s piss, or it was actually something of substance. Not that the vial gave any sort of clue. “What kind of potioneer gives you a bottle without anything written on it?” he grumbled.

His wards chimed, and Severus headed to the shop front, drying his hands.


Chapter Four: Potions Potentes

The year was 1971, and Severus was a scared first year at Hogwarts, struggling to fit into a House of elite Purebloods while fending off the fledgling Marauders of Gryffindor. Madam Calliope had been Professor of Muggle Studies, and one of the few teachers who had even bothered to acknowledge his existence during that first, difficult year. The only time he ever heard her raise her voice above her usual Cockney patter was on his behalf (“Minerva, if your hooligans would leave him alone for five minutes, that Snape boy might actually stand a chance around here!”)

He had a lot of time for Madam Calliope.

She had been pushing eighty then, a dotty old dear with a kind, friendly face and a laugh like a clucking hen. She still had the same pleasant countenance, but now, thirty-seven-odd years later, she looked a little down at the heels overall. Her hat had been all the rage when his mother was in school, and her stout men’s shoes could have used a good shine. Her skin had the leathery appearance of a dried apple, and her one remaining tooth looked to be hanging on by sheer determination alone.

But her broad East End accent was as fruity as ever, and her weathered face lit up with recognition. “If I’d known ’twas your shop, dear, I’d been here long before now. I didn’t think I knew anyone in London anymore.” She surprised him by clasping his hand. “Aw, it’s so lovely to see you again, Mister Snape! All grown up, and a war hero! Oh, I heard all about you, of course, even across the pond!”

“Across the pond?”

“Oh, yes. After I left Hogwarts I went to New Orleans, to teach at the Marie Laveau Institute. Lovely school.” She leaned toward him conspiratorially. “Don’t ever go there, dear boy. It’s like being buried alive, only hotter.” She chuckled at her own joke. “I moved back to England only last year, you know. Retired. I wanted to enjoy my dotage in a proper climate.”

“In that case, welcome home, Madam Ca─”

“Oh, we’re old friends, now, Severus! You must call me Simone.”

“I see. Well…Simone, how may I help you?”

“Well, I was passing by on my way to St Mungo’s, wasn’t I?” Her mostly toothless smile faded a bit. “You see, m’dear it’s the Thistle Gout, and it’s absolutely killin’ me poor old feet.” She raised her long skirt a modest four inches and eased one foot out of her unlaced shoe. Severus winced at the sight of the swollen, bruised toes.

“Madam─excuse me, Simone, as much as I dearly wish to help, I’m afraid this is beyond my abilities. I can provide temporary relief with pain potions, but ultimately you’ll need a healer to reduce the thistle crystals.”

“Oh, I know,” she replied with a sad little smile, “I’m on the waiting list. That’s England for you! Always standing in some queue or other! The WHS is lovely, but my appointment’s not until September.”

“That’s ridiculous! Those morons know Thistle gout isn’t like ordinary Muggle gout. You’ll be in agony by then…” The words faded as he saw her expression droop.

“I would go private, but it’s ever so pricey, you see. But not to worry,” she said, putting on a brave face, “In the meantime, I’ll just take a handful of those pain potions. At least you know I’ll be a regular customer.” She gave him the jolly cackle all the girls in Slytherin had imitated behind her back, but Severus could see the pain behind the bravado.

He conjured a pot of tea. “Help yourself, Simone. I shall return shortly.” He exited out of the shop, into to his lab, and crossed to his fireplace. Tossing a handful of Floo powder into the grate, he shouted, “St. Mungo’s!”

Moments later, he returned. Madame Calliope was sipping her tea and tucking into a rich tea biscuit. “Right,” he said. “I’ve had a word with Healer Curactacus Blyte. He has booked you in for treatment this Friday.”

She sat the cup down with a rattle, her button-round eyes wide with shock. “He never did! How did you do that?”

Severus shrugged modestly. “He consults with me from time to time. I just called in a favour.”

The elderly witch was so transported with joy, Severus feared she might have a coronary and collapse on the spot. “Oh, thank you, Severus!” she cried, fanning herself with a threadbare lace handkerchief. “Ooh, I don’t believe it! I’ve been on that waiting list since last February with no end in sight!” To his surprise, she reached up and patted his cheek. “Aw, you always were a good lad.”

Severus’ jaw tightened with the effort to smile. “Hardly, Madam Calliope.”

“I’ll have you know I am a very good judge of character.” Impishly, she added, “I told that Miss Granger the same thing. You’re of a piece, you two.” She waggled her finger at him mischievously.

Severus felt his body go cold. “You spoke to Miss Granger across the street?”

“I did. Told me to call her Hermione. Lovely name, I had a maiden Aunt named Heliotrope, reminds me of her. What was I saying? Oh yes! Hermione. Makes a nice cup of tea, does that one. And a lovely Calming Draught as well. Oh, she didn’t call it that, but you know how it is these days. Everyone tries to put their mark on it, don’t they? Make a name for themselves—same’s you.”

Stiffly, Severus asked, “May I see the potion she prescribed?”

Madam Calliope dug into her old handbag, tossing out lipstick-kissed tissues and unraveling rolls of Major Preatory’s Preposterously Intense Mints. With a triumphant flourish, she produced a little blue bottle identical to the one Granger had given him. “She said it would help. Didn’t say how, and I didn’t ask. In my day, you took your potioneer at his word that he knew what he was doing. I still do,” she added matter-of-factly.

“Let me see that.” Severus uncorked the bottle and sniffed. It was the exact same potion Granger had given him; he would have staked his reputation on it. That left him more baffled than before. Why give them both the same potion? Was it a placebo?

“I should take this one at a different time than the ones I’m going to make for you,” he said, returning the vial. “I don’t think they would counteract one another negatively, but one never knows.”

“Oh, I’ve already taken it. She gave me a free sample.”

Severus actually felt the anger rising. The heat of it burned his face. “And what exactly did it do, Madam─Simone?” If that charlatan potion had any adverse effects, he’d have Granger’s head on a spike─

Simone sighed. “It’s funny, that. You see, I felt ever so down when I woke up this mornin’. I was going to go by St Mungo’s to see where I was on the waitin’ list, do a little shopping. I’m all on me ownsome, you know. It was quite hard, moving back home. While I was gone, all my friends and family left. They died out or disappeared. I can’t find any of ’em.” She gave him a look of such regret he found himself nodding encouragement.

“You see, I was a coward, Severus,” she confessed. “All this war, all this sufferin’. I couldn’t face it. And so I waited until it was over to come back.” A lone tear spilled from her eyes and wound its way through the tributaries of wrinkles on her cheeks. “But I waited too late. They was all gone, Severus. I never got to say goodbye. I never got to tell them what they meant to me. I couldn’t even make meself go and visit their graves. I didn’t feel like I’d earned the right. They stayed here and fought, while I… and I…”

Severus waited as she dabbed her eyes. “I know,” he agreed, his chest tightening with a sorrow so fresh it felt as if the war had only ended. “Simone, I─”

“It’s all right, dear. I know.” She gave him a tight, brave little smile, and patted his hand. “It’s all right. No need to explain. No need at all.”

She daintily blew her nose and took in a deep, bracing breath. “So, anyway, there I was, on my way back, and I passed by Hermione’s shop. It looked so cheerful and welcoming, and, well, I couldn’t help but go in. And she gave me a cuppa and this lovely potion. I asked if it was alright to take with anything else I had and she said yes, so I did.

“Well, I couldn’t tell any real difference, really. We sat and talked, and I realised I felt ever so much better. Like some of the old cobwebs had been brushed out of me head. Before I knew it, I heard meself saying, ‘You know what I’m of a mind to do? I’m going to buy some flowers, and I’m going to go and visit my family and make sure they know I’m home again. And then I can say a proper goodbye.’” She shook her head in wonder. “Just like that, I knew they didn’t think ill of me. They understood.”

She beamed at him. “So then, Hermione says, ‘Well, Simone, if you’re of a mind to visit old friends, you should go over and say hello to Severus Snape in the shop opposite’. And look what became of that─I’m off on Friday to get meself all fixed up with the healer, thanks to you!”

Simone prattled on cheerfully as he packaged up some extra-strength pain potion, along with the Acid-Reducing Potion. She paid her twelve galleons, two sickles, nine knuts, and allowed Severus to talk her into an automatic owl-delivered replenishment service. “In case you need something in a hurry,” he explained. As he placed the package in her frail, bird-like hands, he added, “If you do, need anything that is, you may Floo me. I am available day or night.” The words came out in a great rush. He felt his voice tighten, and he cleared his throat. “And I would appreciate if you would stop by after your appointment with Healer Blyte on Friday to let me know how things went.”

Her dried-apple face broke into a million-wrinkled smile. “I’ll surely do that.” She paused on her way out the door. “Ain’t it funny, how things can turn on a sickle? This morning, I felt quite alone in the world. And here I am, I’ve made a new friend today, and reacquainted meself with an old one before lunch. Who knows what might happen before teatime? Tara, Severus dear!”

With a parting wave of her handkerchief, she made her dottering way down the street, smiling and chatting away at total strangers. Severus watched until she was out of sight. Gods, he hadn’t thought of Madam Calliope in years. And yet, as far as she was concerned, he was an old friend.

The Slytherin in him felt the weight of it pressing down on his heart, burning like a brand in his chest. There was also a fiendish satisfaction that she had not had the courage to return to England during the war. A well-meaning, Muggle-born witch like Simone Calliope would have been chewed into dog food by the Dolores Umbridges of Tom Riddle’s regime.

As Severus mulled over this new development, a wizard he did not recognise entered the shop. After looking around rather self-consciously, he approached Severus with meek, cautious steps.

“H-Hel-hello, M-master Snape?”

“I am. How may I help you?”

“Miss Granger, the, ah, the…the…ah, h-her across the way, she-she said you might be able to help me.” He gave a shy shrug, then glanced around as if afraid of being overheard. “I have a…”

The wizard, now purple with embarrassment, approached Severus as if he were crossing a minefield. He could almost see the poor sod screwing his courage to the sticking place. He explained his problem in a halting, pained whisper; Severus had to ask him twice to repeat himself. When he was sure he understood the situation, Severus asked, “And you are comfortable talking about this with your wife?”

The look of abject horror on the man’s face was all the answer he required. With an inward sigh, Severus transfigured a table and two chairs from a spare mortar and pestle. “Perhaps you would care to sit down and we can discuss the ways you can proceed, Mr Toggle. I suppose I could make another pot of tea…”

Something had to be done. He wasn’t a bloody Agony Aunt. His job was to provide potions to punters, not to play nursemaid to old witches and Hermione Granger’s cast-off customers.

Chorus

“The Gift,” explained Master Castillo, “is more than Legilimency, more than Divination. It is simply the ability to look beyond a person’s thoughts, to read the instinctive knowledge of the heart.”

In the early part of her apprenticeship, all that guff about The Gift struck Hermione as very woolly and unreliable, on a par with Sybil Trelawney’s natterings about ‘The Inner Eye’. When her mentor spoke in hushed reverence about ‘the sacred flowering of The Gift’ she could practically hear her former professor’s sepulchral voice intoning, “Embrace your inner Gift, children!” At one point, every time it was mentioned, she had to stifle the urge to laugh, but stifle it she did. To the followers of the Criollo, The Gift was serious business.

Besides, it would have hurt his feelings ever so much.


Chapter Five: Medicura Apothecaria

Hermione’s first week in business was, by her estimation, a raging success. She mostly sold herbs, basic potions and ointments; those items were any potioneer’s bread and butter. She also dispersed cups of tea and advice, served customers slices of cake and listened to worried and weary patients going to and from their appointments at St Mungo’s. She even patched up a young wizard’s puppy after a sudden fight with one of the many strays that roamed the alleys of Wizarding London. And with every package, every purchase, she included a sample of The Potion. It had no name and no definable purpose, other than being her gift to the world.

Hermione had originally quit England with the desire to put aside the painful memories of the war and her isolation from her friends and family. While in Australia, she met a young Potions student on a gap year. It was a classic case of who-seduced-who, and subsequently the torrid affair led her on a two-month, whirlwind adventure in South America. Later, sequestered in the mountains of Guatemala, learning new brews and harvesting ingredients under the watchful eye of Master Castillo, she would be reminded that nothing was true coincidence.

Compared to Snape, Master Castillo could not have been more different. He was patient and placid, and if his lack of passion sometimes left Hermione feeling a little underwhelmed by his tutelage, he did help her achieve the confidence to throw her memorised textbooks to the wind and cast herself onto the trickier waters of intuition.

Her final test as his apprentice was the most baffling of her entire academic career. Her objective: to prepare a special Potion. If she succeeded, it would ensure her membership into the Fellowship of the Criollo, a secret society of potioneers who sought and harnessed the power of magical cacao. Indeed, one of the reasons the Criollo was such a prestigious enclave was their dedication to the jealously guarded secrets of using these rare and fine grade cacao seeds in their potions.

When asked what this potion was supposed to do, Castillo had laughed at her until he was breathless. “Why, it will do what it needs to do, my dear,” he wheezed good-naturedly. “It is like The Gift, young Hermione. We do not tell The Gift what we want; it tells us what we need.”

Two years of her life were spent searching for and researching the perfect ingredients. A further nine months were spent perfecting the delicate balance between herb and suspension; the mystical union of ingredient and intent.

The night of her final stage of induction into the Criollo, Hermione and her sponsors met in a small Wizarding Mayan village deep in the mountains. As the evening fell, they sat around a fire, and the village elder created Tripoćion, a traditional brew blending Forastera, Trinitario and Criollo cacao. This mixture would be added to her potion to temper it. The Criollo believed Tripoćion to be the gods’ manifestation on earth; if it accepted her potion, her efforts would be deemed worthy of their favour.

With the solemn eyes of the entire village watching from the shadows, Hermione slowly stirred her potion into the simmering pot of Tripoćion. Master Castillo chanted the powerful incantation to invoke the gods, begging them to bestow upon her The Gift, the child born of the mating of these two elements.

As the rich, silky chocolate absorbed the potion, its aroma changed, and a cloud of deep purple steam curled from the pot in graceful, hypnotic waves. A chant rose, as if bourne up by the vapour: “¡Beban a los dioses! ¡Beban a los dioses!

Hermione’s hands shook as she offered the bowl to Master Castillo. He drank deeply, then passed it around to all the elders seated by the fire.

Finally it returned to her. “You must drink without fear. Fear,” warned Castillo, “will bar your passage to The Gift.”

Hermione brought the bowl to her lips. The aroma filled her nostrils, and without hesitation, she drank. It was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted; her mouth was coated with the velvety chocolate of the Tripoćion. Dancing beneath and through and around it was the bright citrusy notes of her potion. It was all she could do not to gulp down every last drop. She was only peripherally aware of her surroundings; her entire body grew heavy as stone and light as a feather. She tried to stay focused in the moment, but she was falling into the irresistible undertow of the potion.

All she could later say with any certainty was that she had experienced something that could only be described as ‘out of body.’ In her most pragmatic moments she told herself she had been tripping on her own, high-potency cocktail, but her heart told her it was The Gift, struggling to be born in her still-uncertain mind.

Hearing the stars tumbling through the heavens, seeing the music as it ducked and swooped around her, she felt safe, and powerful, and insignificant all at once, and when she let go of her doubts and her fears, her losses and her guilt, she was buoyed upon a tide of rich dreams and sacred visions, dripping with the delicious taste of chocolate and oranges. The brew filled her and emptied her at the same time, leaving her satisfied and craving all at once. She would never be hungry again; she would never be full.

Like dawn breaking over the mountains, her vision cleared. She was standing in the very space her body now occupied, this tiny little knock-about shop, in England. As her spirit-self walked through the shop, admiring the blue walls and the mosaic floor, she took in every detail, from its name to its décor to its purpose. In her mind, phantoms walked by and through her: an old crone with a toothless smile; a bitter witch, old before her time; an uncertain wizard, needing more than he could bring himself to ask for; a young mother with a protective arm around her son. They lined up one behind the other, like cards waiting to be dealt. And standing among them, arms crossed, his eyes blazing in challenge, her old potions professor, needier than the rest put together…

After receiving her accreditation, Hermione returned to London, because she knew she was supposed to be here, that The Gift had told her this was the time and place. It hadn’t told her, however, that she would be in direct competition with her former professor, or that his apothecary would be situated on the street opposite.

And while she never really thought of Severus Snape as being pertinent to her decision to pursue potions, there was still enough of the Hogwarts student in her that wanted to prove herself. During her time at school she had been naïve enough to think that if she just did more, if she could show off more knowledge, if she could impress him just one time, that would be enough.

It was only much later that she realised her goal was unobtainable. She would never impress her professor because he refused to allow himself to beimpressed. Once that card was off the table, Hermione stopped worrying so much and started getting down to the serious business of being a Potions master.

Potions Potentes

Severus watched as Lavender Brown made her slow way into the depths of the shop, toward his counter. He would not have recognised her, had Hannah Longbottom not pointed her out to him one night in the Leaky Cauldron. “Poor Lavender,” she had whispered. “Acromantula attack, and right as the battle was practically over as well.” She had served Miss Brown, then shook her head sadly as the veiled figure hobbled away. “It’s bad enough to look that way, but to spend your war pension on the booze…”

Severus, who knew something about self-medicating, had found his landlady’s words more patronising than pitying. But, as Miss Brown had never so much as glanced toward his shop on her way to the pub every day, he had never been in any position to investigate her assessment. “Good morning, Miss Brown,” he said pleasantly, placing his hands behind his back.

She looked first startled, then suspicious. “Alright. Here I am,” she said bluntly.

“Yes, you are,” Severus agreed, observing her more carefully. It crossed his mind that her intoxicated state might mask a more serious mental issue. “And since that is the case, how may I assist you?”

“So polite,” she said, a trace of wonder in her voice. “If I had known you could be that nice, I would’ve come here sooner.” Her tone was both bemused and impatient. “So… what kind of miracle cure do you have for me today?”

Severus peered into the heavily glamoured face. “Excuse me?”

The witch laughed humourlessly, burnishing the air with alcohol fumes. She had been drinking—a lot. She indicated the apothecary across the street with a sharp jerk of her head. “Hermione’s been pestering me to come over here. I got tired of her nagging.”

“Why? Is she incapable of providing what you require?” The moment the words were out of his mouth, Severus felt the heat of a blush darken his cheeks.

“No. I go there for high-grade Dittany and Octopus Aloe. Apparently, though, she thinks you have something I need.”

Something was happening here, something significant. Every time someone went into Hermione Granger’s shop, she immediately sent them to him. The truth of it danced just out of reach. Severus frowned; he had gone soft; what was that wild-haired minx across the street up to?

“No idea,” Miss Brown replied blithely, and he realise with even more chagrin he had muttered his thoughts aloud. She was now looking at him as if hewas the one with the lapsed mental faculties.

For a moment, witch and wizard glared at one another. Miss Brown was damaged, no doubt. But something beyond Acromantula poisoning was killing her, and both he and Hermione knew what it was. Hermione either didn’t want to insult her old school friend by pointing out the obvious, or thought that Severus was beyond caring if he offended Miss Brown or not. Granger knew he would treat the witch without clouding his judgement with sentiment.

Suddenly, he knew the answer to his question: What kind of potioneer gives you a bottle without anything written on it? One who believes you already know what the bottle contains. He held up his hand. “Stay here,” he said.

In the corner of his lab stood a large, warded cupboard. Within it were some of his most powerful and successful experiments. Several were awaiting patents; just as many were awaiting his courage to apply for them. He opened the cupboard with a word and selected a small glass vial and a needle-thin pipette.

Miss Brown was still waiting when he returned to the shop front. As he placed the items in a box, he explained, “Use the pipette. Three drops in a full glass of water, before every meal and right before bed. No more or less. The potion is anise-flavoured, but shouldn’t be unpleasantly so in that much suspension.”

She looked at the box suspiciously, but took it nonetheless. “And what will it do?”

“It’ll get you off the booze, Lavender,” he said quietly.

“Wh-what? I don’t—”

“I know what they did to you. At St. Mungo’s, after the war. They drowned you in pain potions. And they work, Merlin knows, but the ones they use are addictive as hell. Now you need to wean yourself off of them, and the alcohol too, or all the Dittany and Aloe in the world won’t help you get better.”

The witch’s eyes turned angry. “Get better? If all the healers at St Mungo’s can’t help, how in the hell are you supposed to help me ‘get better’? You don’t know anything about me!”

“Yes I do,” Severus replied softly. “I lived with the effects of alcohol most of my life. You deserve better, Miss Brown. Now this is an experimental potion, but it will work if you do it right.” To her surprise, and a bit to his own, he added, “You’re far from stupid, girl. There’s a life out there. Give yourself a chance to live it. Don’t rot from the inside out.”

She looked at him for a long time. Severus did not need Occlumency to read the conflict in her face. Resentment, humiliation, frustration. But deeper still, where the tiniest of light filtered through the rocky outcropping of fate and choice, hope struggled to find purchase. “Okay,” she replied, and uttered a short bark of a laugh. “Well, if this isn’t a day for the books. Two apothecaries across the street from one another, and both of them are using me as a guinea pig.”

“Let me guess. Miss Granger gave you an unnamed potion.”

“She did,” Lavender replied, as she tucked the package into her coat. With a hint of a smile, she added, “And whatever it is, it’s working.”

“In what way?”

She laughed. “You always were a contrary one, Snape. Why don’t you try it and see for yourself?”

She nodded toward the small, blue bottle. It was sitting on his desk where anybody could see it. Gods, he was soft. To cover his discomfort, he said, “You will keep me abreast of your progress with the─”

“Yes, of course I will, Professor.” She shot him a wry glance as she opened the door. “A guinea pig’s work is never done.”

As soon as she was out of sight, Severus strode out the door, hastily arranging the letters on the shop sign to read, “Back in 5 mins.”

Chapter Six: Medicura Apothecaria

He entered Hermione’s shop just as she was finishing up with a customer, a young witch with a boy in tow. The lad jumped as Severus barged through the door, and the boy’s mother started as well. “A word, Miss Granger,” he said in a dangerous tone.

“Certainly, Master Snape,” she replied pleasantly, then leaned over the counter toward the boy. “Anthony,” she added, her voice gentle and kind, “this is Mister Snape. He may look severe, but he’s very smart, just like you.”

Anthony looked up at him with wary, uncertain eyes. The child was small, almost dainty, with black hair and large, dark eyes almost the same colour as his own. But it was the fading bruise on his cheek that caught Severus’ eye and chilled his blood. Helplessness blended with the anger he had brought with him, diluting it to something that felt like pity.

Hermione’s voice cut into this thoughts. “This is actually quite a coincidence. I was just telling Cynthia you’re the very person she needs, Master Snape.”

The young mother turned and gave him a tentative bow. “Cynthia Belldon. N-nice to meet you, sir.” Her voice was muffled, as if she had a cold, and she kept her face downcast and refused to meet his eyes. Severus saw she, too, had bruises. She was also heavily pregnant.

Severus felt a familiar tightness in his throat. It was like seeing his mother all over again, slinking from shop to shop, shelling out her few pounds, shillings and pence to keep body and soul together, and dragging him along so he would not have to face his father alone. Even then, there was always the fear; wondering when you returned home which da was going to be waiting for you – the drunk, angry one, the slobbering one with the hard hands; the silent, sullen one with the unpredictable temper.

It was infuriating enough that Hermione probably knew of his past. Had Potter regaled the entire Wizarding world while Severus was still too weak and helpless to stop him? Severus turned away from the battered family and gestured toward the door with his wand. “If you please, Madam Belldon, I require a word with Mistress Granger. My door will allow you entrance. If you would care to wait, I shall be along presently.”

Both he and Hermione were silent as the young witch walked out of the shop and headed for his. As soon as Medicura’s door closed, Severus warded it and turned to his rival.

“Just what in Merlin’s name do you think you’re doing, Granger?” he hissed. “Getting me to do your dirty work? Or are you just play-acting at this?” He gestured around her shop. “I don’t appreciate being made a fool of!”

She looked stunned at his outburst, but to her credit she held her ground. “And exactly how have I managed to make a fool of you?” she challenged.

“Every morning, when I come to open my shop, people are waiting for me —all declaring you’ve sent them to me because I can somehow fix them!”

Hermione smiled. “Why, that’s wonderful!”

“It’s not wonderful—It’s unnatural. Why are you doing this?”

“Don’t you want customers?”

“That is beside the p─”

“Do you give them what they need?”

“I deeply resent you─”

“Now that is beside the point. Do you help them?” She walked around the counter, her expression fiery and relentless. “You know what they need. Do you deny them? Are my instincts unfounded?”

Severus glared down at her. He was breathing hard, and his body felt tense and rigid. He was also, to his shock and disgust, aware that his cock was stiffening. He stepped back, his feelings twisting into something uncertain. “I don’t deny them, none of them. In fact, I even sold Lavender Brown an experimental potion. It’s not sanctioned yet. It helps to purge the body of both toxins and cravings.”

Hermione’s shoulders dropped a little. “That’s…that’s wonderful, Master Snape. More than I even hoped for.” She nodded approvingly, as if he had answered some unasked question. “I do all I can to give them the desire to change,” she added. “You’ve provided the means to do it.”

With quiet menace, he warned, “I would be very careful, Mistress Granger. Giving someone the ‘desire to change,’ as you call it, is an empty promise.”

“It isn’t when you can show them the way to attain it,” she replied tartly.

“So that’s your game, is it? Bring on the miracle cure, then let me do the actual dirty work while you take the credit?”

Her expressive brows knitted together, and she stared at him in complete bafflement. “Since when am I taking credit? People come to me with their problems. Some of them are physical, some of them just need to talk to someone. Some of them need urgent help. I sent Lavender Brown to you because she knows you─she knows what you’re capable of. She was there, in that first class, the same as me. We both remember that speech─for gods’ sake, everyone still remembers it!”

“What the hell are you talking about, witch?”

She huffed in exasperation. “You said, ‘I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even put a stopper in death’!” She smiled up at him with an expression he had rarely seen aimed at him. In a voice trembling with awe, she said, “Do you have any idea how thrilling those words sounded, coming from you? You were so riveting, I thought you were casting an actual spell on us. It was all we first-years talked about for a week!”

Severus tutted scornfully, but he was unnerved by her regard for him. Reluctantly, he replied, “It was the same speech I gave every year. It was nothing special.” He sighed. “I didn’t even make it up. I read it in an old text when I was a lad.”

Hermione shook her head. “I don’t care if you read it on the back of a paint tin─I believed every word of it because you said it with such conviction, such certainty. It was the first time I realised magic could be made by my own hands, without wands or incantations. You were like…like Prometheus, bringing fire down from Mount Olympus to us!”

“What bollocks is this?”

Rather prissily, she replied, “In the Greek myth, Prometheus was a demi-god who took pity on humanity because he felt the gods were being unfair. So he brought down fire from Mount Olympus so humans would be warm and safe.”

“I know the story─”

“But the gods grew angry that he took it without permission. And besides, they were jealous of how mortals worshipped him for his kindness. So they chained him to a mountain. Every day, an eagle would eat out his liver. And every night, it grew back again so that he could be tormented afresh the next day.”

He sneered. “Gods, you still sound like a talking textbook, Granger. I thought you would have at least grown out of that habit by now.”

“But it did grow back.”

“Pardon?”

“His liver. It always grew back.”

“And this is significant why?”

She threw the entire weight of her soft brown eyes at him. “While he was whole, he at least had hope.”

Severus turned away, too distracted by those eyes. “He had no hope! The gods could have killed him outright, but they kept him alive to remind him of the cost of his sympathy and popularity. The gods don’t want us to be happy, Granger. They want us to remember our sins, and tear us to pieces with them every day. Survival doesn’t automatically mean happiness. The Lavender Browns of this world will be the first to tell you that.” Almost to himself, he added, “It’s been my experience that living is usually just a more insidious form of punishment.”

She didn’t reply, and he shook his head, aware that had already revealed too much, and he was no farther along than he had been the moment he walked through her door. She was watching him with a look he didn’t care for at all, a terrible mixture of pity and kindness. For a moment he hated her. Hated her sweet, intelligent eyes and her niceness. Hated her easy way of talking to people and her courage. Hated her stalwart belief in him most of all.

She seemed to sense his moody thoughts, and grew restive. “Now that I think about it,” she murmured pensively, “perhaps Prometheus chained himself to the rock.” She gave him a crooked smile. “He was a god as well. He could have always freed himself, if he’d truly felt he deserved to be free. But he didn’t, so he blamed the rock, and the eagle and the gods for his plight, because it was easier than admitting he’d brought on himself. Sure, the eagle tore his heart out, but he renewed himself every day. He could be reborn again.”

Severus felt a small demon plucking at his brain, and pinched the bridge of his nose in sympathy. “Merlin’s balls, Granger, but you still overthink the hell out of everything, don’t you? Let me put this more succinctly: Prometheus was an idiot! He was doing his good deed for the day by bringing fire down from Olympus. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that no good deed goes unpunished.”

Hermione approached him, and it gave him a little satisfaction that she did so tentatively. At least there was still enough of him to make her cautious. “He didn’t do it to be rewarded, Severus. He did it because it was the right thing to do.” She laid a gentle hand on his arm, and he felt his entire body grow warm.

“There’s a woman in your shop right now, Severus. She’s young, and she’s pregnant. She’s also married to a wizard who slaps her around just for breathing, and beats his own son for tripping over his shoelaces.”

“And what,” he snapped, shaking her hand from his arm, “does that have to do with me? I’m not a nursemaid, I’m not a healer.”

She all but growled at him. “No, you are Severus Snape! You make things right.” She stepped closer. “What are you going to do for her, Prometheus? Are you going to withhold the fire this time, or deny her because you’re afraid to care?”

“What in Merlin’s name do you want from me, Granger?” he roared. Anger and confusion fused in his mind, but his words sounded almost like a plea.

“I need you to step up and help this woman!” she entreated, angry now. “I need you to find the juice to bring her the protection she needs. I need you to be Severus Snape again!”

He was at her in an instant, bearing down on her, wand at her throat. “I’ve hexed men for less, Granger,” he snarled.

She bore his threat with absolute fearlessness. “I’m not the man who needs hexing, Snape,” she answered.

His onslaught took her by surprise; instinctively she recoiled from him. It was not a lover’s kiss; their mouths crashed together with such explosive force he tasted blood. It did not stop him from thrusting his tongue into her mouth, drawing out a moan that robbed him of the final shreds of reason. Then her hands were tangling in his hair, pulling him down to her with all the strength of a lioness. Her open, questing mouth was hot and wet against his; she tasted of tea and honey and a passion that more than matched his own.

He ground his hard cock against her belly, and he growled into her mouth as her tongue battled his for supremacy. Her lips were as succulent as ripened fruit, and he took her kisses in greedy, ravenous bites. She was gasping for air, but he would not relent. He could not bear to relinquish anything other than his own panting, desperate oxygen. He only cared about her scent, her taste, the yielding flesh, the voracious, astonishing brain that powered it all. She fused against him, drawing him in, dissolving him into her like amber.

He thought he had known desire before, but it was nothing like this – a maddening, incinerating thing that boiled his blood and charred his bones. He didn’t care what happened, if he came in his trousers or fucked her blind on her counter. This maleficent electricity sparking between them must either be appeased or discharged. This is the fire brought down from the gods, oh, Merlin, this is that sweet, forbidden fruit of knowledge, his for the plucking─

This is your former student and rival, Hermione Granger. That thought sobered him up with an icy jolt, and he pushed her roughly away, staggering backward. Hermione looked up at him dazedly, her swollen mouth open, her lips wet and red from his biting kisses.

Though the words tasted like bile in his mouth, he rasped, “Do you remember how the gods decided to punish mankind?” He leaned in for the kill. “They gave the world Pandora.” He pointedly cast his eyes over to her much touted case of samples. “With her little box of tricks.”

He fled from Medicura Apothecaria as if the very hounds of hell were nipping at his coattails. Hermione’s stricken expression chased him out the door. He did not care. No. Not this time. Not in a million lifetimes. He might lust for this sweet madness until Charon plucked the coins from his eyes, but he would be double-damned if he ever again willingly chained himself to any rock, even one as enticing and desirable as Hermione Granger.

Chapter Seven: Potions Potentes

Severus was still trembling and breathing hard when he reached his shop. He flung the door open with such force the frame bounced against the wall with a bone-rattling crash. The woman and her son jumped, exclaiming in surprise and fear, and the boy ran into his mother’s protective arms. Severus froze; it was the Belldon witch and her boy. He had completely forgotten about them.

Guiltily, he turned away, ostensibly to close the door, but also to give them all a moment to compose themselves. He was long past the desire for the entire population of Wizarding Britain to associate him solely with fear. A quick glance in their direction told him they had settled somewhat, although the child still regarded him the same way he had once eyed Nagini.

The woman was much younger than he had originally thought; no more than twenty-two or twenty-three years old. He could not recall seeing her at Hogwarts, though she would have been of age to attend at least her first year before he left. Taking in her clothing, an odd mixture of Muggle and Magical, and the clumsy way she tried to hide her bruises behind a thick layer of makeup, Severus deduced she was Muggleborn. That would explain her absence from Hogwarts during those days; her family would have been too afraid to send her to school.

The young boy, however, was every bit as magical as Severus himself had been at that age. He had a fine-boned look of a child who liked studies more than sports. His black hair was straight and fine, his olive skin smooth, his eyes large and expressive. His magical signature thrummed and sizzled around him, almost visible to the naked eye. This boy would receive his Hogwarts letter in a few years, Severus had no doubt.

He pushed his disastrous encounter with Hermione to the back of his mind. “My apologies, Madam,” he began stiffly. At her meek nod, he crossed to his counter, giving them a wide berth. “Now, how may I help you?”

She blushed, an unflattering, blotchy flush under the makeup. “M-Miss Granger said you might be able to help me, M-Mister Snape. I’m not really sure how. She gave me a good Anti-nausea Potion, and some Bruise Paste, and she gave Anthony a sweetie, but she said to come here all the same.”

“Mrs…Belldon, is it? I recall a Chester Belldon…”

“My h-husband,” she whispered. The boy stared ahead stonily, refusing to look up. Severus recalled her husband well. Chet Belldon had been another one of Minerva’s little scrotes, a fourth-year Gryffindor during his final year as Headmaster. He’d been an arrogant little toe rag then; the kind of shit that bullied all the younger kids and sucked up to the higher years. He’d always preyed on the weaker ones, but bowed and scraped around the Carrows like a proper little Death Eater in training…

Severus sighed impatiently. He had no business interfering in other people’s lives. He would tell them there was nothing he could do. This was beyond calling in a favour for an old colleague, or helping a defeated woman dry out. This had much less to do with the two individuals standing before him, and more to do with the one they would face when they went home. He looked at the two of them, holding on to one another, and thought, What if Mum had possessed the wherewithal to stand up to Tobias Snape? He thought of every bad decision, every sacrifice, every heartache he had endured, simply because he had been conditioned to believe there were no other choices for witches like her—and children like him.

In the end, looking at their tired, strained faces, his decision was not made based on Hermione Granger’s challenge for him to be himself, but the roughshod history he shared with his own abusive father. He left the safety of his counter and walked around to face her. Quietly, he asked, “Madam Belldon, are you thinking about leaving him?”

She turned away from the question as if warding off a blow. “I have nowhere to go.”

“If you did, would that make a difference in your decision?”

She pondered the question. “If I could guarantee I wouldn’t be separated from Anthony, I might.” She pressed a protective hand against her swollen belly. “I won’t let anyone take my children away from me.”

“That is understandable.” With his wand, Severus traced an elaborate symbol in the air. A small piece of elegant parchment puffed into existence and floated down to Madam Belldon’s outstretched hand. “Read it aloud,” he said.

‘The Halfway Home is located at 726 Yursaafe Place, Knightsbridge, London.’” She stared at the parchment in wide-eyed wonder.

“This is a safe house run by a friend of mine, Narcissa Malfoy,” Severus explained. “She is the chairwoman for an organisation that helps women and children who were widowed and orphaned in the war.”

“But we’re not-”

“Mention that I sent you, and have her Floo me with any questions. I assure you your children will not be separated from you.” Madam Belldon continued to stare at the parchment. “That’s the easy part, Cynthia,” he continued. “If you leave, you’ll have to leave for good. And you must tell no one who might inform on you, like his friends or relations. If he knows where you’re going, he’ll just follow you and make trouble. I know.”

He took her hand; it was cold, and he could feel it tremble as he closed her fingers over the note. “You will have to be brave, and you will have to be certain. But Madam Malfoy will do everything in her formidable power to help you, if you decide to do this. Give it some thought, and make your preparations as discreetly as you can. You will need to put a bag together for yourself and Anthony, and squirrel away a little money. You may have to wait until a good opportunity presents itself.

“But remember, there is no getting better with this, Cynthia.” He could see she still longed to be convinced. After a brief hesitation, he decided she needed to hear more—she needed his own story. “My father was a violent man who took out his anger on my mother and me,” he confessed. “We were very much like you and Anthony. He caused … irreparable damage, and much of it was not physical. And even though Da was Muggle, by the time I grew old enough to fight back, I was too conditioned to accept his abuse as normal. And every day you stay, it becomes more dangerous, and more normal.” He looked down at the handsome little boy. Quietly, he said, “I would not wish that on this child or any other.”

Cynthia hastily wiped a tear from her face. “You must think I’m a fool,” she choked.

“I think no such thing. I do think that you are stronger and more courageous that you believe yourself to be. Even considering taking the next step is an act of bravery.”

Finally, she nodded and placed the parchment in her bag. “Thank you, Mister Snape. I’ll think about all you said.” She hugged her little boy. “Come along, love. We need to hurry to get home before… before your dad.”

“Good luck, Madam Belldon. Be careful, but be canny.”

She rewarded him with a tremulous smile, and together she and Anthony headed for the door. As she reached for the knob, Severus impulsively called out, “Madam Belldon, did Miss Granger give you a potion?”

Her eyes widened. “Why yes. She said it was a free sample.”

“Perhaps…perhaps you should take it, before making your final decision.”

She drew herself up a little straighter. “Yes, sir, I will. Thank you.”

Severus watched as they made their way down Osmotic Alley until they were out of sight, and wondering what in Circe’s name he had just done.

Chapter Eight – Medicura Apothecaria

“Oh, that Celestina Warbeck! I’m one of the few who can say, ‘I knew her when,'” Simone Calliope remarked, pouring her second cup of tea. “A face made for wireless, I should say.”

Lavender stifled a guffaw as she passed the plate of biscuits. “I shouldn’t laugh, really. Seeing as how the same could be said about me.”

“Nonsense, dear! You’re an absolute doll. Isn’t she, Hermione?”

“Always has been,” Hermione declared with a smile. From her workbench she watched the two witches sipping their tea and gossiping.

“…and I told her, I said, ‘Celestina love, you wait. Once every one hears that golden voice of yours, a little complexion problem won’t matter.'” She leaned in. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that calling it ‘a little complexion problem’ was like saying that You-Know-Who had a little Death Eater problem. The woman had so many spots you could have used her face for an Astronomy chart.”

The shop rang with laughter as Hermione brought over a fresh plate of biscuits. “You’re certainly kicking up your heels this morning, Simone.”

And she had been, literally. Madam Calliope had been bouncing up and down outside the door when Hermione opened the shop that morning. “I’ve had the all clear!” she proclaimed, and to prove it, she did a little jig with surprising grace. “Healer Blyte kicked me out of physio this morning and told me not to darken his door for the next six months!” With a sharp wave of her wand, she had switched on the Wizarding wireless, and jaunty music filled the shop. The old witch grabbed Hermione’s arms and led her into an impromptu polka. “Not a speck of pain! Oh, Hermione dear, I feel like I could hop on a broom and fly to the moon!”

Hermione, embarrassingly winded, sank into a chair at her tea table. “Well, you’re certainly outpacing me, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you did,” she laughed.

Madam Calliope joined her at the table, plonking herself in the chair with a satisfied grunt. “I wanted to tell Severus, but he’s not open yet, the sleepyhead.”

“It’s Monday,” Hermione answered, trying to sound casual. “He usually has a bit of a lie-in of a Monday.”

“And what’s this party in aid of?” came a new voice at the door.

Hermione turned toward the voice’s owner, and gasped in shock. “Lavender? I don’t believe it! You look fantastic!”

Lavender Brown had also crossed the floor with a spring in her step. It was hard to believe this was the same witch who had stumbled into her shop on her first morning in business, reeking of cheap liquor and sporting a hideously ill-fitting glamour. Gone was the blurry, messy disguise. And while Lavender’s face would never be the flawless work of art of her youth, her skin was smoother, the horrible sores which had ravaged and riddled her face were all but gone, and she had a new glow about her. “The healers said the glamour was actually exacerbating the problem,” she explained, then dropped her eyes. “Well, that, and the booze.”

Hermione had gently touched the renewing flesh. It felt soft and resilient. “So Snape’s potion worked?”

Lavender nodded. “Did it ever. No cravings, no withdrawals, nothing. He says this is the last week I’ll need to take it. My body has adapted, and once I’m weaned off, not only will I not want alcohol, but my body will physically reject it. And if I need a pain potion, he promised me his aren’t addictive.”

“That’s wonderful, Lav!”

She gave Hermione a wry smile. “Those first few days were no picnic, I can tell you. He warned me about it. The potion actually ‘chases’ the alcohol from the blood, he said.” She chuckled ruefully. “I should coco! There were times when it felt like it was chasing it with tiny pitchforks and torches.”

The three witches laughed together. Hermione exclaimed, “Oh, where are my manners? Lavender, this is Madame Simone Calliope. Simone, Lavender Brown.” In ten minutes’ time, they were chatting away like old friends.

“Speaking of the devil, where is Snape?” Lavender asked, tucking into her cup of Earl Grey.

Hermione shrugged evasively. “Sleeping in. He always does on a Monday. I’ll get another pot of tea brewing.”

She left the two witches gabbing away as she went into the back of the shop. The mention of Severus Snape left her feeling jittery and confused, as it had ever since that moment when he pinned her against her counter with that blistering, brain-melting kiss. She had been ready to pull him down and have her way with him when suddenly he pushed her away like she was the one with pitchforks and torches. He had been avoiding her ever since.

Harry had always told anyone who would listen that Severus Snape was the bravest man he ever knew. So who was this Snape, who fled from her like a frightened Nogtail? Apparently, facing down Voldemort’s snake was a walk in the park compared to Hermione Granger and the Kiss-That-Must-Not-Be-Mentioned. His parting shot about Pandora had stung, but she had finally managed to kick her old insecurities into touch. He had been afraid, and he had lashed out, pure and simple. It finally occurred to her that measuring his Slytherin instincts of flight v. fight against her Gryffindor pushiness was not the best way to view the situation. At the end of the day, Hermione told herself the kiss was an anomaly of epic proportion, and if he chose to treat it as such, so should she.

Trouble was, she was not all that successful in heeding her own advice. The memory of it sometimes left her so weak-kneed she had to hold onto a table for support. She would be working on a batch of Pepper-up potion and she would suddenly recall the feel of his arms around her. A batch of Muscle-Rub would be accompanied by the remembered sound of his deep moan reverberating in her mouth. She woke from increasingly restless sleep with Severus Snape tangled up in her dark, erotic dreams. Unfortunately, he exhibited no further desire to join her in acting any of them out.

On the upside, both shops were doing well, and after the Beltane sales, business had been steadily increasing. Snape accepted any and all customers she sent his way, and in one or two shocking occasions had even directed his own customers back to her, but after almost a month, he had remained conspicuous by his absence.

The bell above the door chimed, and Hermione heard Lavender call out, “Good morning! Hermione will be right out─”

Her greeting stopped abruptly, and the shop grew strangely quiet. The Wizarding wireless was shut off with a sudden snap. In a low voice, Lavender said, “Hermione, I think you’d better get in here.” The urgency of her tone made Hermione abandon the tea fittings and head for the front of the shop.

Standing in the doorway was Cynthia Belldon and her son Anthony. Beside her was battered suitcase; Hermione could see bits of cloth and straps of underthings peeking from the seams as proof of hasty packing. Anthony was clutching a small knapsack to his skinny chest as if it held all his worldly possessions. Their clothing was torn and disheveled; their faces bore fresh bruises.

Behind them, looking every inch the dark angel of doom, stood Severus.

“Gods! What’s happened?” asked Hermione.

“I did it! I left him.” Cynthia seemed on the verge of hysteria, laughing and crying at once. With a mighty effort, she pulled herself together. “I waited until he was drunk, and I crept out. We tried to be quiet, but he woke up and…” Her emotions overcame her again, and she burst into tears.

“Oh, my dears!” Simone exclaimed in horror. She waddled over to Cynthia, and put her arm about her, urging her to follow. “You two have been in the wars! Come and sit down, darlings. Have a cup of tea.” She beckoned to Anthony. “You too, poor thing. Come and sit down beside Miss Lavender and have a biscuit.”

Hermione met Severus’ furtive gaze as the two allowed the other witches to fuss over them. “In the back,” she commanded, and though he looked none too happy, Severus nodded curtly and followed her.

Once they were away from the others, Hermione turned on him. “What’s going on? And how are you involved?”

“I had suggested Madam Belldon go to Narcissa Malfoy’s Home Away From Home,” he began. “It’s primarily for widowed witches and orphaned children from the war, but they do take… special cases.” Hermione must have looked confused, because he hastily added, “I’m on their Board of Directors. After the war, Narcissa founded this home. She wanted to do something to help others.”

“I suppose it didn’t hurt in mending her reputation, either.”

“Her reasons are her own, and I’ll thank you not to sneer,” he warned, his voice low and dangerous. “She’s done good work, meaningful work, most of it funded from her own pocket. People would have died without her aid.”

Chagrined, Hermione said, “Fair enough. I spoke out of turn. So, you recommended Cynthia leave her husband and go there?”

“I recommended that she give it serious consideration. I also recommended…” He paused, and seemed to find something fascinating under one of his fingernails. “I also recommended she take your potion before acting upon any impulses.”

“I see.” Actually, Hermione did not, exactly. “Go on.”

“She and the boy made it to the Halfway House. She was practically through the door when her husband arrived, drunk as a sack and swinging at anything that moved. Apparently their departure was not as secret as she had hoped. In her haste to leave, she dropped the parchment I’d given her with the address. I am Narcissa’s Secret-Keeper for the London house. At least, I was,” he said bitterly.

“Once he spotted them, he must have gone into a killing rage. He struck her so violently she was thrown against the wards, which actually saved their lives. The wards alerted Narcissa. She stupefied the bastard before he could murder his wife and unborn child.” He ran his hand absently through his hair. “After Narcissa alerted the Aurors, she contacted me, and she asked me to take them somewhere safe. By the time the Aurors pulled their fingers out and got there, Belldon had slunk off. They’re still searching for him.”

Uncomfortably, he continued, “The Halfway House is compromised now, and I think we both agree that it would be inappropriate for them to stay with me. Belldon isn’t aware of his wife’s affiliation with your establishment, whereas I am a bit more…” He swallowed, and looked away.

“Of course they can stay here,” Hermione said. “I have plenty of room upstairs.”

He sighed with relief. “Thank you… Hermione. It will only be for a day or so, just long enough for Narcissa to find alternate lodgings for them. Hopefully by then, the Aurors will have Belldon in custody as well.” He sneered. “I expect he will try and keep a low profile, or at least go somewhere he can sleep off his hangover.”

At that moment, Lavender poked her head into the room.

“Hermione? Simone and I thought we might take Anthony for a little walk. Wheezes isn’t far from here.” Her eyes were filled with sympathetic tears. “He’s such a brave little boy, but you can tell he’s just trying to hold it all together for his mum’s sake. A little fresh air, you know, might do him good.”

Touched by her friends’ thoughtfulness, Hermione answered, “I think that would be just what the healer ordered. Is that okay for you though?”

“Absolutely.” Shyly, she added, “In fact, I just Floo’d Ron and explained what was going on.”

“That-that’s great, Lav! I’m sure he was over the moon to hear from you.”

She gave a little shrug. “He did seem pleased. Anyway, I think Anthony could use a little cheering up, and if those Weasley boys can’t make you laugh, well…”

“Lav? Where are ya?”

“Ronald?” Hermione headed out into the shop, where her old friend was greeting Simone and Cynthia. The little boy, who had not spoken two words in Hermione’s presence, was already talking to Ron like they were old friends.

“I’m going to have a little brother or sister soon. I don’t know which. I hope it’s a brother,” Anthony was saying. He looked up at Ron guiltily. “But I don’t really mind, though. ‘S long as they’re, you know, okay.”

Ron knelt until he was eye to eye with the child. “I know what you mean, mate. I have four brothers and a sister meself—they’re all brilliant. Today you’ll meet my brother, George. He’s picking up some new stock this morning, but he’ll be back after lunch. You’ll love him.”

As he spoke, he spotted Hermione, and his eyes lit up with happiness. “There you are!” He raced over and enveloped her in a hug that swept her off her feet. “Good to see you, mate!” He gave her a comical smacking kiss on the cheek, and Hermione wheezed with breathless laughter.

“Ron! It’s good to see you as well-”

He released her. “As fun as this is, I can’t really stick around. I’m on me own in the shop this morning, but I thought I’d give Lav and my new friends the guided tour.” His expression sobered. “I remember Chester Belldon, you know. Cheddar Bellend, we used to call him. He was on the Quidditch team. Beater. Figures, huh?”

“Thank you, Ron. I’m sorry to get you involved in this, but…”

“I’ll make sure the lad’s safe. And don’t let Lavender fool you-she can still throw a deadly hex when the need arises.”

Even in the midst of the turmoil, Hermione felt a warm satisfaction at the faint blush in Lavender’s cheeks. In that same moment, Simone Calliope’s cackle burst into the room like fireworks, and surprise of surprises, Cynthia Belldon’s soft laughter was heard in accompaniment. Ron smirked. “That old bird, what’s her name-Calliope? She’s a right one as well. I reckon between us, the little boy’ll be safe as houses.”

Hermione gave him another hug. “I owe you one. You’ll have to stop by again when it’s not such a madhouse.”

“Yeah, wonder what it’s like to live a quiet life, eh?” He gave her shoulder a pat. “To be honest, I’m surprised Snape isn’t in the middle of all this. He never was one for keeping his big nose out of trouble-”

“Snape is right here, Weasley, and I think when it comes to noses, I would remind you that people in glass houses…”

They turned to find Severus glowering in the archway leading to the back room, arms crossed, brows furrowed in irritation. Ron never missed a beat. “Hello Snape,” he said pleasantly. “Glad to see you’re about. When it comes to the old argy bargy, you’re the one person I’d want on my side.” He gave Hermione a wink. “Now I know you’re in good hands.”

Hermione’s face flushed so quickly she could feel it burning her cheeks. “I think you’ll find I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thank you, Ronald,” she declared.

Ron only grinned wider. “But having Snape do it would be a lot more fun, eh?”

“OUT!” Snape hissed, his eyes like daggers.

Ron was still laughing as he took Anthony’s hand. Together, they escorted Lavender and Simone out the door. Cynthia sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. Now that the immediate excitement was over, she looked exhausted and frightened.

Hermione, her cheeks still burning with embarrassment, made herself face Severus. “We might as well all have a cup of tea. I doubt either of us are going to get much done today.”

“Speak for yourself. I must take Madam Belldon to St Mungo’s to make sure no harm has come to the baby. After that, I have to make a statement to the Aurors. In the meantime,” he added, carefully looking at a spot somewhere over her shoulder, “I could strengthen your wards. If you do require assistance, that is.”

To her surprise, Hermione realised she was no longer embarrassed, nor was she resentful of his offer. “I’ll see what I can do for myself, Severus, but thank you for your help. And thank you for what you did.”

He looked confused. “For all you did,” she explained, “For Lavender and Simone, and the Belldons. And me,” she added.

It was his turn to blush. His sallow skin darkened, and he lowered his head, his dark lashes hiding his eyes. “It was only what anyone would do.”

This coming from the man who thought Prometheus a fool? “Sure,” she agreed. “And while you’re away, I’ll watch your shop if you’d like.”

His eyes shot up to hers, and the frown softened. “That would be…appreciated. I am expecting a few regulars today. Mr Toggle should be arriving around one o’clock, wife permitting,” he added dryly.

“Mr Toggle… Toggle… Now he’s the one with the…” She realised to her embarrassment she was staring pointedly at Severus’ crotch. She shook her head quickly. “Oh yes! The…the um…”

“He is due for his fifth treatment. A strengthening potion, to increase, erm, stamina.”

She frowned. “Oh, is that all? I was led to believe that a lot of his problem stemmed from his relationship with his wife-”

“She’s a domineering harpy, don’t pretend otherwise,” Severus scoffed. “I warned him the potion would only work if he stood up to the beast. ‘If I can survive Nagini and Tom Riddle,’ I said, ‘you can certainly beard that lioness in her den and show a little backbone.'”

Hermione struggled with the effort not to laugh. “And how did he take that?”

Severus paused, considering. “He actually seems a bit braver,” he admitted. “At least, he has exhibited a bit more assertiveness. When she lets him.”

“Excellent!” Hermione beamed. “You know, I think this is the first time you and I have spoken like equals. It’s not a bad feeling.”

He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. His eyes lingered on her lips, and it took all of Hermione’s will not to lick them. “It is not unpleasant,” he agreed levelly. He turned and headed back toward the shop front. “Well, I will Floo you should St Mungo’s wish for Madam Belldon to stay overnight. In the meantime, the password for my wards is ‘Brassica.'”

“Figures,” Hermione muttered.

Cynthia did not, it turned out, have to remain overnight in hospital. After a thorough examination, and a few healing spells, she was allowed to return with Severus to Hermione’s shop. Hermione had kept herself busy by tidying up the little box room for her guests, and flitting back and forth from Medicura to Potions Potentes. Both shops were busy, and by the time Severus dropped off Cynthia and headed to Auror Headquarters, Hermione was knackered.

The young witch seemed amazingly refreshed and calm in spite of the day’s turmoil. She sat at the table, her feet propped on a low stool, while Hermione continued to run between the two shops.

After serving Potions Potentes’ fifteenth customer, Hermione tiredly entered her own shop to find Cynthia behind the counter, serving a young couple. “Oh, please, do let me help, Hermione!” she beseeched. “After all you and Mister Snape have done for Anthony and me, it’s the least I can do.”

“But you must be exhausted-”

“I feel ever so much better, truly.” Her soft green eyes were calm now. “To be honest, I find it very relaxing, just being in here, talking to people. It’s so peaceful and…” She glanced at the door. “I honestly don’t think I’m in danger here.”

At that moment, Severus’ wards clanged out the arrival of a new customer. Cynthia made a shoo-ing gesture. “Go. I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “You’re just across the way. If anything happens, I’ll call you.”

Reassured, Hermione dashed across the street, where she stayed until Severus returned nearly three hours later.

Ron and Lavender dropped off Anthony around six o’clock. They arrived laughing, ushering in the young boy, his arms full of toys and brightly coloured things for which Hermione had no name. He smiled when he spotted his mother. “Look, Mum! I’ve been made official tester for Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes!”

Cynthia held open her arms and enveloped her son in a warm embrace. “That’s lovely, dear! Let’s go up to our room and you can show me all your treasures. We’ll have wash up and then have our tea. Would you like that, darling?”

As they made their way up to the living quarters, Hermione turned to Ron and Lavender. “Have a good time?”

Lavender, who looked ten years younger, looped her arm through Ron’s. “We did! Played games at the shop, Simone bought us all ice cream at Fortescue’s. Ron took Anthony on a broom ride over London. It was like a holiday.”

“Did Anthony seem alright?”

Lavender nodded. “I think we tired him out a bit, but hopefully that means he’ll sleep well. He’s a lovely boy. All the little girls in the shop were flirting with him.”

“Were they ever! I was getting right jealous,” Ron exclaimed with mock resentment. “I was convinced he was gonna steal this one right out from under my nose.” He took Lavender’s hand and kissed it. “I had to promise her the best meal in Culinar Alley to win her back.”

Lavender rolled her eyes. “And we’re going to be late, Sir Galahad, so if you want to keep me, you’d best not blow your chance.”

Ron smiled at Hermione. “You heard the lady. Must dash. I don’t want to risk losing this beauty to a better-looking bloke.”

Lavender gave him a searching look, but whatever she sought, she must have found, for she rose on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “Come on, then, you.”

“Off with you,” Hermione commanded. “Have a lovely evening. And thank you.”

Lavender gave her a little wave as they left. “I’ll stop by tomorrow and tell you all about it,” she whispered excitedly.

Ron looked down at Lavender with so much affection, Hermione felt her throat tighten. “And so it begins,” she said to herself. She watched them go as she locked the front door and turned the sign to read Closed. Whispering, “Nox,” she sighed, feeling so lonely she thought she might cry.

Chapter Nine – Medicura Apothecaria

Later that evening, after supper, as Cynthia and Anthony sat around the fire eating freshly baked biscuits, Hermione brewed them her special hot chocolate. She made it in the French way, thick and velvety, using the finest Criollo, and adding a pinch of red pepper. A dollop of sweet cream garnished the top, and by the time it was done, the aroma of rich, enticing chocolate permeated the room.

Mother and son took an experimental sip, and instantly fell in love. “I’ve never had anything so scrumptious!” Cynthia exclaimed, eagerly accepting a second cup. “Isn’t it lovely, Anthony?” The boy nodded contentedly, his face smeared with chocolate, a cream moustache adorning his upper lip.

Hermione promised that the following Sunday, she would show them how to grind the nibs for tempering. Anthony had been fascinated to learn about the different types of magical cacao and how they were used in ceremonies. “It’s powerful stuff,” she told him, “but there’s trick to making it. I’ll bet you’d pick it up in no time, Anthony. I could even teach you how to brew your first potion with it, if you like,” she promised.

“Mister Snape said he would teach me how to make Giggle-box Potion,” Anthony replied, licking around the rim of his mug.

Hermione hid her surprise. Giggle-box Potion? Does the man ever cease to amaze?

Anthony swirled the rich, thick chocolate around his cup, entranced at the changing patterns. In a far-away voice, he added, “He says it’s not a real potion, but it will teach me the proper brewing technique.”

“Well, he is the best potioneer I know, so I would pay very close attention to him,” Hermione replied, sagely. “Now me, I can’t exactly teach you how to bottle fame and brew glory, much less the Giggle-box Potion.” She leaned in close. “But we can make a mean hot chocolate.”

As she spoke, Hermione saw his eyelids drooping heavily; he was practically dozing. She gently took the mug from his relaxing fingers and picked him up. “I think it’s time for bed, don’t you?” she whispered, and he nodded against her shoulder. He was surprisingly heavy for such a little boy.

Cynthia silently followed Hermione into their little bedroom, and after tucking Anthony in, she turned to Hermione and embraced her. “Thank you for everything,” she said simply. “I can’t seem to take in all that has happened.” She stepped back, and put her hands on her large belly. “I don’t know what will happen to us, but anything’s better than what we’ve been living through.”

Hermione smiled. “In a few days’ time, this will all be over and you’ll start a new life. This will all seem like a bad dream.”

Cynthia did not return her smile. “I want to believe that, more than anything.” She sighed, and glanced toward the window. Outside, Osmotic Alley was as dark and silent as the grave. “When I think he’s out there, somewhere─”

“They’ll catch him, and put him away. You have my word on that.”

Hermione helped Cynthia dress for bed and made sure she was comfortable. After saying goodnight, she went to her own bedroom, undressed and climbed into bed. Sleep proved to be elusive, however. Her mind replayed the events of the hectic day, and nothing she did could wipe the slate clean long enough for her to drop off.

And of course, all roads kept leading back to Severus. He had seemed to unbend a bit when they were talking about customers, and wards, and everything but the kiss-shaped elephant in the room. Hermione had hoped they might at last be turning a corner. But when he returned from his visit with the Aurors, he had merely thanked her for her assistance, checked on Cynthia’s welfare, ordered Anthony to ‘be a good lad and watch over Mummy,’ then formally said good-night and left.

She sighed. “Stop thinking about him. I don’t care how good a kisser he is, he’s not interested in you,” she whispered to herself. A wave of sadness washed over her, bringing with it a nice little catch of self-pity and regret. She had enjoyed several lovers during the past few years, but she had never felt anything like the desire she had experienced during their kiss. She had been overwhelmed by the sheer power and passion of the man, and in those heady moments, she would have done anything he commanded of her.

The Gift had spoken of his loneliness and his own isolation. And he had kissed her, so he must have wanted to. The more she thought about it, the more the Pandora dig wormed into her. She had forgotten just how adroit he was at planting a seed so deeply his victims often ended up cultivating it themselves. He had certainly not lost his touch over the years; he could still cut her heart out with a spoon when he wanted to.

But the cut is only as deep as you allow the edge to be sharpened. The little voice sounded suspiciously like Master Castillo. He had warned her more than once of the dangers of blaming others for her own insecurities. Good thing he actually never got the chance to meet Snape.

And, of course, after all that, instead of standing his ground and allowing her to defend herself, he ran. He ran. He ran. The words wore a monotonous groove into her tired brain until they were as mangled and confusing as the act itself. Whatever his actions had meant was not within her power to interpret.

She rolled over, punched her pillow into a different, hopefully more sleep-inducing shape, and closed her eyes, determined to shut down her troublesome thoughts. Around her, she heard the sounds of the building; the pops and creaks of old wooden joists cooling after the long sunny day, the unfamiliar sounds of her guests. Now and then, a whimper, and a soothing voice to calm it. So quiet, she could not be sure who comforted whom─

Then she heard the unmistakable sound of glass breaking, and she felt her wards shudder, then crumble. She jumped from her bed, wand in hand. “Lumos,” she whispered, and ducked into the guest room. Cynthia was also awake, and in the wandlight Hermione saw her fear. “Someone’s in here,” Hermione whispered. “Get dressed-”

“Cynthia! Cynthia! I know you’re in here, you stupid, fat cow!” The booming, male voice accompanied thundering steps up the stairs.

Cynthia clutched her arm. “It’s Chet. Oh, gods, he’s here!” Panic nullified anything else, and she sobbed hysterically, “What’ll I do? Where can we go?”

Hermione slammed the landing door shut, with her strongest ward protecting it. She tried to move, but Cynthia’s hand gripped like a vise. “He’ll kill us! He said he would if he ever found us again!”

“He’s not going to find you! Listen to me, Cynthia! You need to pull yourself together so we can get you two out of here now!”

Hermione took hold of her arms and was helping Cynthia to walk when she doubled over with a cry of alarm. They both watched in horror as her waters broke, and pooled at her feet. “Oh gods, the baby!” she cried, staring up at Hermione with eyes that were wild with distress. “The baby’s coming!”

“Mum!” Weeping with fright, Anthony threw his arms around his mother’s neck. “Mum, please, don’t let him hurt us!”

From the landing, a blasting hex shook the entire floor, but Hermione’s wards held. “Now listen to me, both of you!” Hermione hissed. “No one is going to hurt you, I promise-”

Another blast blew out the windows. “Let me in, you interfering bitch, or I’ll bring this whole fucking building down over your head!”

Hermione physically hauled a gasping, panting Cynthia to her feet and got them moving. “You won’t be able to Floo. Not in this condition. You’re going to have to sneak out down the back stairwell.”

They ran toward the other side of the building to a rickety fire escape and wrenched open the old door. When it swung out on one creaking hinge, Hermione’s heart sank. Even with every Strengthening charm she knew, the wooden stairs were so rotten from disuse and neglect she doubted they would hold Anthony’s weight, much less his mother’s. Hermione thought of levitating them, but she was afraid even that would be too much for Cynthia’s frail body to bear.

From behind them, the blasts grew stronger and more frequent as Chester Belldon’s anger and determination increased. The building shook with them; clouds of dust sifted down from the ancient rafters. Her wards were failing against his onslaught as fast as Hermione could reinforce them.

“Open this door! You have no right keeping me from my family! Cynthia! Tell this stupid cunt to let me in!”

Looking around frantically, Hermione led Cynthia and Anthony into the farthest, darkest corner of the room. As they huddled together, she Dissolutioned them, then covered them with a Silencing spell for good measure. “Don’t do anything to give yourself away. I’ll get help. Just stay hidden,” she urged swiftly.

Turning toward the door, Hermione closed her eyes, trying to bring forward her happiest memory: the night she was inducted into the Criollo. The smell of wood smoke, the chanting, the velvet potion on her tongue- “EXPECTO PAT-

A blast knocked her off her feet, and with her fell her wards. Dazed, Hermione struggled to right herself, when a vicious kick in the ribs knocked what little breath remained in her lungs. “Where’s my wife, you stupid cow!” a drunken voice bellowed. Hermione managed to roll onto her side as the second kick caught her in the back. She cried out in pain, even as she raised an arm to defend herself. A meaty paw wrenched her wand from her hand, and she heard the sickening sound of it snapping in two.

Hermione looked up into the face of her attacker. Chester Belldon was a big man, with dark, thinning hair. He may have played Quidditch in his youth, but he was now nothing more than a drunken lout, swaying over her menacingly. His face was twisted into a hideous, demonic mask of hatred. His food-stained robes stretched tightly across his wad of belly, and he stank of Muggle cigarettes, stale beer and vomit.

Her own anger rose with her desperation. “Get out of my house, Bellend,” Hermione spat, heaving herself to her feet. “Leave while there’s still enough for the Aurors to arrest-”

Her bravado earned her a slap that bloodied her nose and set her ears ringing. A swift jab to the stomach doubled her over, and she fell on her knees, gasping and retching. Belldon leaned over her, his rancid breath making her stomach churn. “Oh, Miss Hermione Hightit Granger thinks she can tell me what to do?” he snarled mockingly. “Well, fuck you! Incarcerous!”

Black ropes flew from his wand, enveloping Hermione in a series of knots that grew tighter the more she struggled. She fought as long and hard as her aching ribs would allow, trying for wandless magic, but she could not focus her concentration enough.

Belldon loomed over her, his jaw slackened with insane, stupid lust. “You know what? I think maybe I should have a little reward for all this aggro. Maybe I’ll just fuck you up the arse. I’ll bet you’d love it, you dirty cow. What do you think of that?” He straightened. “Did you hear that, Cynthia?” He roared. “You might as well come out of hiding, and bring that sniveling brat with you. Unless you want widdle Anthony to watch me fuck Miss High-and-Mighty Granger, right before I slit your worthless throat!”

“You couldn’t get it up with two lolly sticks,” Hermione ground out, and braced herself for the next blow─

“NO! Stop it, Chester! Just stop it! Stop it!” Cynthia’s hysterical voice, shrill and thin, rang out into the room, and Hermione slumped in defeat. Her Dissolution and Silencio had been cancelled the moment Belldon broke her wand; she had hoped she could somehow disarm him, or at least prove a more enjoyable distraction while Cynthia tried to escape.

Belldon spotted his wife and son cowering in the corner, and lumbered toward them, snorting like a bull. “You worthless piece of shite! I’ve got the Aurors looking for me because of you!”

Cynthia screamed as her husband yanked her to her feet. He dragged her toward the stairs by her hair. “I told you what would happen, didn’t I? I warned you what would happen if you tried to leave me, didn’t I? Try and make a fool of me-”

“Run, Anthony!” Hermione screamed. Craning her neck upward, she saw the boy; he was statue-still, staring motionless up into his father’s crazed face.

Cynthia cried out, as she doubled over in pain. “Chet, please! My waters have broken! I need the healer, the baby─”

“Oh, you’re gonna need a healer when I’m done with you, girl, never doubt it!” he shouted, and punched her in the stomach with such horrific force she dropped like a stone.

“Cynthia!” Hermione shouted, her heart in her throat. The woman lay unmoving on the floor, a pool of blood spreading beneath her robe.

Suddenly, the fever-like fear broke, and Anthony raced to his mother’s side. “Mum! Mum! No!” He shook her furiously, but she lay unresponsive. He turned on his father, tears of fury running down his face. “If you… If you’ve k-k-”

A swift backhand knocked him down like a leaf blown from a tree. “If I what, you little runt?” Belldon nodded toward Cynthia’s unmoving form. “What’re you gonna do about it, big man? Gonna burn me down?” He made a beckoning gesture, his face full of unholy glee. “C’mon then, big man, show me what you’re made of. I said c’mon!” he shouted, and Anthony flinched helplessly.

Belldon laughed. “Yeah, you’re a big tough guy aren’t you? You’re no better than that lazy sow there. Pathetic little runt.”

Hermione was no longer listening. She was watching Anthony’s face. As his father spoke, the fear slowly bled from his eyes. There was a strange, electric charge in the air. How old is Anthony? she wondered, her mind racing. Five, six? The very age when a wizard or witch starts to exhibit… Oh gods…

Belldon, however, was aware of nothing but his own mocking voice, his own pathetic power over his helpless child. He took a step toward his son, rolling up his sleeves menacingly. In a swift, practiced gesture, he unbuckled his belt. “C’mon, big shot. I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Anthony held his ground. In a trembling, small voice, he warned, “You better stop now.” A faint breeze, like a dust devil, swirled around his feet. “Go away and leave us alone.”

“Oh ho! And how’re you gonna make me?”

“Stop it. I mean it.”

“Do as he says, Belldon!” Hermione cried out.

“Shut up, Granger. You don’t have Harry Potter Almighty to protect you now.” He turned back to his son, oblivious to the rising wind, the churning dust gathering speed around him. “So what are you gonna do, big man?” He grabbed the boy by his shirt front and pulled him off his feet. “What are you gonna do?” he shouted.

Anthony opened his eyes, and what Hermione saw in them made her whimper. “I’m gonna burn you down,” said the boy with a smile.

The entire world exploded.

Chapter Ten: Potions Potentes

Severus woke with a jangling start, his heart hammering in his chest. He took several deep breaths, trying to dissipate the adrenalin coursing through his bloodstream. What had woken him?

His room was flooded with light. Dazedly, he swung his legs over the side of the bed; he rarely, if ever, overslept─

The crashing sound of broken glass brought him to his feet, and to his horror, he realised it was not daylight he was seeing at all.

Hermione’s shop was engulfed in flames.

He Apparated directly from his bedroom to Hermione’s front door, but the heat of the blaze was so fierce he reeled away, coughing. “Extinguetus!” he cried. A massive ball composed of ice and thick, powdery dust flew from his wand. It traveled straight through what had been the front door, where it burst on impact, smothering most of the ground floor flames. On the first floor, the fire continued to rage, a blinding, searing beast that swayed and roared like a rampaging lion.

“Hermione!” he shouted, but he could barely hear his own voice over the din. Despair twisted his gut. Surely no one was still in there. Granger was a resourceful witch; whatever happened here, she would have escaped with the Belldon woman and her boy. She would never have allowed any harm to come to them. Even now she was probably at St. Mungo’s, getting them all checked out─

He heard a high-pitched scream from above, and he flew up to the first floor, his eyes slitted against the black smoke. Hovering outside one of the blown-out windows, he saw Hermione lying on the floor, and a small shape huddled beside her. Severus cast Extinguetus over and over, tamping down the worst of the isolated spot blazes, until he could venture into the room. He cast a Bubblehead Charm, then flew through the window.

Hermione was bound by a complex set of knotted ropes. She was unconscious, but breathing. Anthony, his face blackened with smoke and bleeding from the mouth, recognised Severus and reached for him, wailing, “I didn’t mean to do it! I didn’t mean to do it!”

Without pausing to examine the significance of the boy’s words, Severus unceremoniously snatched him up by the waist. He levitated Hermione, then grasped her by the wrist. As he began to spin into his Apparation, Severus’ blood turned to ice, and he nearly splinched them all.

A few yards away, a figure dressed in a solid sheet of flame was running in screaming, deadly circles, frantically batting at the fire devouring it like a capering demon straight from hell…

As Apparations went, it was not his finest hour. The three of them landed with a crash on the floor of his bedroom, and Hermione regained consciousness with a wrenching cry of pain. She drew in a deep breath, as if it were the first in years, coughing and gagging. Severus vanished the ropes, and ran a quick and dirty diagnostic spell over her. She had cracked ribs and a broken nose, and that was just for starters. He staunched the blood from her streaming nose, and hastily healed the cut on Anthony’s lip.

Hermione attempted to sit up, but he put his hand on her shoulder, and pressed her to the floor. “Don’t move, Hermione. You have two broken ribs. I don’t want you to puncture a lung.”

She grasped his sleeve, her bloodied eyes wild with panic. “C-Cynthia,” she gasped, drawing in a pained breath. “Get Cynthia, please, Sev…”

“Do you mean she is in there?” he demanded, but Hermione was already sinking back into unconsciousness. He turned to the boy. “Anthony? Is your mother really in there?”

Anthony raised his pitiful eyes to Severus. They were swimming with tears, huge and hopeless in his smoke-streaked face. “I didn’t mean to do it,” he repeated in a quaking whisper.

Severus’ heart dropped, and he thought of the blazing figure he had seen dancing in the . Please, by all that is holy… “Wait here,” he commanded, and Apparated back into the building.

The fire was losing momentum, but black smoke still boiled in the room, clouding his vision. The old structure was already groaning under its weight; it would collapse in on itself soon. The burning figure was nowhere to be seen. Severus frantically looked around, calling Cynthia’s name. He cast another series of fire-smothering spells until the flames were completely extinguished. Syphoning the smoke from the room, he finally spotted Cynthia lying at the head of the stairs.

Miraculously, she had fallen between the stairwell and the landing, which had protected her from the worst of the fire and smoke. Severus dashed to her side, hoarsely calling out, “Madam Belldon! Cynthia! Can you hear me?” The floor around her was sticky with blood. Her blonde hair, stained with soot, hung in a curtain over her face. He brushed it away, and recoiled at the blank, cloudy eyes staring up at him. Kneeling beside the prone figure, he checked for a pulse. He found none. A sick helplessness overcame him as he gathered Cynthia up in his arms. Unsteadily, he rose, cradling her to his chest. As he prepared himself to Apparate to St Mungo’s, he spotted the blackened, misshapen lump on the far side of the room.

Chester Belldon was now little more than a pathetic bundle of charred flesh and blackened bones. Severus could not help him now. The floor beneath his feet shifted; the building was going. He Apparated away to St Mungo’s, with Cynthia Belldon’s body in his arms, just as Medicura Apothecaria folded in on itself and crashed to the ground.

Potions Potentes

Hermione was having the oddest dream. She was flying into the night sky, but not on a broom. She soared and swooped like a bird riding thermals; it was a liberating, exhilarating feeling. In the hot summer night, the wind that pressed against her face was uncomfortably warm. Her nostrils were filled with the smoky aroma of chocolate.

Higher and higher she flew, until she was surrounded by the black curtain of the heavens, with only the stars for company. They were so beautiful and bright and cold, and some selfish part of Hermione whispered she should hide them away all for herself. Greedily she reached out and gathered them up, like fireflies in a jar.

“No,” a deep voice admonished, and she turned to find Severus beside her. He plucked them from her grasping hands. “The only way you will keep them is to give them away. We do not ask The Gift for what we want. The Gift tells us what we need.”

He flung the stars out over the night. Hermione watched as they fell down, down, into other waiting hands. They glittered and winked in a million prisms of light and colour, like a fistful of diamonds strewn across a black velvet table. As they skittered away, she felt more than heard his low, hypnotic voice in her ear: “We do not ask The Gift for what we want. The Gift tells us what we need. Do you hear me, Hermione? Her…”

“…’mione? Hermione, can you hear me? Open your eyes, love.”

She woke with a start, sending a dull-knife stab of pain down her side.

“Easy, now. Don’t undo all my good work.”

Her eyes flew open. Ron was sitting by her side, holding out a glass of water and a pain potion. “Now, I’ve got strict instructions from Snape himself, so it’s more than my job’s worth to muck them up.” He uncorked the potion and pressed it to her lips. “Bottoms up,” he commanded, and poured the contents down her throat.

It was without a doubt the vilest thing she had ever tasted. Her expression must have shown her revulsion, because Ron quickly pressed a glass of water into her hands. “He said you’d probably want this after.”

Hermione desperately chased the potion with water. “Ugh,” she gasped, swallowing hard. “Cure…worse’n…disease,” she panted.

“Yeah, but to be fair, he did say desperate times call for desperate measures,” Ron commiserated cheerfully. “Meself, I think the git makes them taste that way on purpose. Can’t risk you enjoying yourself, can he?”

“Shh.” Behind Ron, Lavender walked into view. She was holding Anthony in her arms, rubbing his back soothingly. “See? Hermione’s all right, love. I told you she would be.”

The potion must have indeed been made of stern stuff; in a matter of moments, Hermione’s head cleared, and the pain in her side diminished to a dull roar. She glanced around at her spartan surroundings. “Where am I?” she croaked. Her voice sounded muffled and nasal to her ears.

“You’re in Snape’s bed right now. Lucky old you,” Ron replied with a strained smile. “I set your ribs and reset your broken nose. See, all those years patching up Quidditch players didn’t go to waste, now did they? How do you feel?”

“Wha-” Her memory came back with a jolt, and she sat up, or rather, attempted to sit up. Another burst of pain robbed her of breath, and she sobbed. “The shop… It’s all gone…”

“Here now! Don’t go spare on me. Just lie back. It took forever to stop your nose bleeding. Hey, you don’t want to the be the one to explain to ol’ Snape how all that blood got on his sheets, now, do ya?”

Hermione took a large, experimental breath. When it hurt, she exhaled. “It was Chester Belldon,” she rasped. Her throat was raw, her nose clogged. “He broke in…snapped my wand..” She looked up at Lavender. “Where’s Cynth-”

“Snape’s at St Mungo’s with Cynthia,” Lavender explained quickly. She gave Anthony’s head a tender stroke. “He got you and Anthony out of the building, but she needed some… some extra help.” She shook her head, her eyes telegraphing what she could not say.

Hermione remembered Cynthia’s pleas, her fear-maddened eyes, that horrible moment Belldon struck her. Her heart sank. “Oh no…” She pulled herself together. “How did you get here? I remember Severus Apparating us here, and then…”

Ron relieved Lavender of Anthony’s sleeping form, and placed him in a small cot Transfigured from a packing crate. “As much as we’ve been able to put together,” he said, as he pulled a coverlet over the child, “Snape woke up and saw the fire. He brought you and Anthony over here and went back for Cynthia. Shortly after that, I get woke up with Snape’s bloody great doe Patronus standing on my chest, telling me to get my arse over to his gaff to make sure you were alright. He was proper worried about you, I could tell, but he thought he might be needed at hospital.” He looked troubled. Lowering his voice, he added, “It’s pretty bad, Hermione. I don’t think-”

There was a soft pop of Apparation, and the three adults turned to see Severus standing in the room. He looked exhausted; stubbled face, smoke-reddened eyes, singed robes. He glanced at Hermione, and seemed to uncoil a bit. “Thank you, Mister Weasley, Miss Brown. Your help tonight has been invaluable.”

Lavender approached Severus; he answered her unspoken question with an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Lavender’s shoulders dropped, and she turned away, wiping a tear from her pale face. She sat down heavily beside Ron, and he put his arms around her.

In the awful silence, Severus turned to Hermione, his expression grim and shuttered. Hermione did not want to use The Gift. She did not ask to use The Gift. But looking at his unreadable eyes, his stiff posture, his distance, The Gift used her. Gone. All gone…

Anthony awoke, and rubbed his sleepy eyes. “Where’s Mummy?” he asked softly.

Severus swallowed, and lowered his head. “Anthony, would you come here, please?”

The boy slid out of the makeshift bed with a resigned reluctance. He closed the distance cautiously, fearfully─this was a child trained to expect the worst when a man summoned him. Almost cowering with apprehension, he faced Severus, but refused to look at him. To Hermione’s surprise, Severus took the boy’s tiny hands in his large ones. With great gentleness, he said, “Anthony, you know what happened tonight.”

The boy nodded, and began to breathe harder. “It was a fire,” he said, his voice no louder than a whisper.

“Yes. Your mother…” Severus sighed. “The healers at St Mungo’s tried very, very hard to help her, but in the end, her injuries were too severe. Her body… could not recover.” He glanced up at the adults. “The… the baby did not survive, either. I’m sorry. ”

Anthony seemed to crumple under the weight of Severus’ words. “Mum’s dead. They’re all dead.” It wasn’t a question, and it wasn’t a statement. It was a reparation, a penance.

“Gods,” Hermione whimpered. “Oh, Anthony, I’m so sorry, love.” She looked beseechingly up at Severus, but this time he was the one who refused to raise his eyes.

Lavender knelt beside the boy, and he laid his head against her breast. “Anthony, sweetie, do you have a Nan or an Auntie or anyone we can contact? We need to let them know you’re safe, at least.”

“No,” he replied as he pulled away. “It was just me and Mum. It was always just me and Mum.” He turned to Severus. “Will they arrest me now?”

Severus frowned. “Arrest you? Why?”

“For killing my dad.”

Lavender glanced at Hermione, her expression baffled. “Darling, you didn’t kill your dad.”

Anthony was nodding. “I did. Dad said he would kill Mum, and he did! He threw her on the floor and she didn’t move anymore.” He looked at Severus beseechingly, tears pooling in his eyes. “I didn’t mean to. Not really. But he hurt my mum!”

Severus turned to Hermione, and she flinched beneath his intense, penetrating gaze. “Do you mean to tell me that the fire was a result of Anthony’s spontaneous magic?”

Hermione thought of the dust devils swirling around his feet, the unconfined magic warbling through the room seconds before it burst into flames. Anthony had warned Belldon, but the fool was too drunk and angry to see what was truly happening. It was as if the boy had been in an altered state, a trance of sorts; she had seen similar states in Guatemala when the Fellowship of the Criollo were caught up in the ecstacy of the Tripoćion…

Anthony, his mouth smeared with chocolate, his little cream moustache as he licked the last dregs from his cup. Her special hot chocolate, made from the rarest and most highly prized Criollo, one of the three magical cacao in the Tripoćion.

Her eyes met Severus’. “No, Anthony,” she said. “I did it. I’m the one who started the fire.”

Ron’s eyes widened. “You did, Hermione? How?”

“It was an accident. A horrible, terrible accident, and I’m so sorry.”

Anthony shook his head, confused. “No. I felt it. I said it,” he pleaded, turning to Lavender. Plaintively, he added, “Don’t you see? I’m the one who told Dad I would burn him down.”

Hermione grimaced with pain as she hauled herself upright. She drew Anthony close, and stroked his dark head. “Listen to me, darling. You are going to make a marvelous wizard when you grow up. I have no doubt you will. But you didn’t start that fire. That kind of magic is something you’re just too young to create.” She rushed on to silence his protests. “This was my fault. I was very angry at your dad. He struck you and your mother. He broke my wand, and hurt me and tied me up with ropes. And then I saw him pick you up, and I just snapped. Ron can tell you, when I’m angry, I can… ” She looked at Ron. “I can do wandless magic.”

Ron frowned. “Well, you do have a temper, Hermione, but I don’t see─”

“I used wandless magic, Ron,” she repeated emphatically, shooting him a glare a blind man could read. She turned back to the confused boy. “But I didn’t control it well. What happened was an accident. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but I caused it just the same.” Her own tears streamed down her heat-blistered cheeks, burning them like acid. “But you are not to blame. You did nothing wrong.”

Anthony searched her eyes with the intensity of a Legilmens. Finally, doubt began to blur the lines, and he whimpered, “I didn’t do it? It w-wasn’t me?”

Hermione kissed his forehead. “No love. It wasn’t you at all.”

His courage failed him then; he blindly turned to Lavender, who drew him into her arms, crooning. With a wail of loss, he buried his face in her shoulder and cried as if his heart would break.

Severus looked from the grieving child to Hermione, his expression pensive. Crossing his arms over his chest, he said, “It was an accident, of course. A tragic one, but an accident nonetheless. And that is how it will be treated.”

Exhaustion and pain pressed down on Hermione like lead, and she lay back. She felt Severus’ weight settle as he sat on the bed beside her. His large, warm hand soothingly stroked her forehead. She met his strained, bloodshot eyes, and saw both understanding and apology. So quietly only she could hear, he mused, “Who’s to say who brought down fire from the gods? They took Prometheus at his word because they never question motive or blame.”With a bitter sigh, he added, “They don’t care, Hermione. They just want someone to pay for it.”

His resigned expression broke her, and Hermione gave herself over to her guilt. She turned away from the sound of Anthony’s sobs, and allowed Severus to comfort her.

Chorus

Pandora was the first human created by the gods as a punishment, specifically to get back at humankind for Prometheus’ unpardonable sin of wanting to help them. Her beauty was crafted by the gods, and Zeus himself breathed life into her. He also breathed into her insatiable curiosity. He sent her down to earth with a tightly sealed, ornate box, with the explicit instruction to never open it.

As time went on, however, Pandora’s curiosity grew like a hunger, and one day, she opened the lid just an inch, to see what was inside. Out few all the evils of mankind – spite, jealousy, greed, fear, gossip, indifference, pride, self-indulgence, hate. Pandora realised what she had done, and quickly snapped the box shut, thus capturing Hope within, so it would not be lost amongst its evil bedfellows.

Prometheus, on the other hand, was an odd duck, even for mythology. Part Christ the Martyr, part Satan the Tempter, part Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Did he take the fire from Olympus as an act of defiance, or arrogance? Did he know he would be punished for it? Perhaps that was why he had allowed himself to be chained for eternity, as both sacrifice and gift. But would he still have done it, knowing how indifferent mankind would be to his fate?


Chapter Eleven: The Ministry of Magic

Severus stormed out of the Wizengamot chambers, striding down the corridor, robes billowing out behind him. A few yards ahead of him, a door flew open, and he braced himself. Sure enough, flashbulbs popped, shutters clicked, and a cacophony of voices assaulted him.

“Mister Snape, could you give the Prophet a statement-”

“No.”

“Mister Snape, are you happy with the verdict?”

“I don’t answer stupid questions.”

“Mister Snape, it’s been almost two months since anyone’s seen Hermione Granger outside this courtroom. Is it true she’s currently living with you─”

“Fuck off.”

“Mister Snape, now that the trial is finally over, where do you go from here─”

He rounded on the reporters so quickly, some actually skidded to a halt. “There will be a press conference tomorrow, nine o’clock am at 148 Auldfogge Street, London South West.” He gave them his second-best sneer. “If you wish to ask your inane questions and satisfy your vulgar curiosity, that will be the time to do it. For now, piss off and go home. I don’t want you here when Miss Granger comes by. She’s been through enough without having to tolerate you lot.” He swept forward, and the rush of the crowd parted rather than risk being bowled over.

They continued to throw questions at his retreating back as he thundered down the hall. To his left, he saw Simone Calliope, in her best hat and umbrella, surrounded by a few also-ran reporters, hoping for a little dirt.

“Ooh, I don’t know my dears! But bless, Hermione’s a lovely gell. Did wonders for my Thistle gout! No, I had no idea that awful man broke in! Pity though; it was a lovely place. Everyone was quite saddened by it all. I know I was. Oh, no, dear, I was fast asleep at the time, if you’re interested. I’d just been listening to Celestina Warbeck’s song, ‘That New Black Magic,’ and I dozed right off. She’s lovely, isn’t she, our Celestina? I can call her that, you know. We’re old friends, actually…”

Severus strode past, briefly catching her eye. Simone made a show of checking her watch. “Blime’, is that the time? Oh, it’s been lovely chatting with you, but I’m just to St Mungo’s for my yearly. Been having problems with me bunions, you know. They’re ever so spongy…”

That was enough to drive off the most stalwart of the little gobshites, and Simone scuttled off with a cheery wave of her lace handkerchief, “Tara, my dears!” She fell in step behind Severus, and they soon left the stragglers behind. “D’you think we gave her enough time, lovey?” Simone puffed, hurrying to keep up with Severus’ longer legs.

“I believe we have,” he replied quietly. The reporters would gnaw on that juicy bone of a press conference for at least another hour, or until they discovered 148 Auldfogge Street, London South West was actually a public loo in the middle of a building site. In any case, it would buy him enough time to Apparate home and ward the shop within an inch of its life.

As they reached the door, a slight, balding wizard turned toward them, and cleared his throat with surprising delicacy. “Thank you, Toggle,” Severus murmured, never slowing down. They breezed past him. “Go home now and rest, Simone. I will speak to you tomorrow.”

“‘Course. And be sure and give my love to our gell,” she replied briskly.

Severus’ long stride faltered. Our girl. “Thank you. I will.”

Once out the door, both Severus and Simone immediately Apparated their separate ways, with Toggle close behind. While Severus and Simone bamboozled the reporters and rubberneckers, Hermione had secretly Floo’d back to Potions Potentes without anyone the wiser.

The Aurors had cordoned off Medicura for two weeks while they investigated every square inch of the place. It took another week to cut through the magical red tape. By the time Hermione had been allowed back into her own shop, there was precious little to salvage in the ashes and broken glass. Even the bright, sun-shaped sign was nothing more than a blackened, broken reminder of what had been.

“You can rebuild,” he had assured her, brushing the silt and dust from his fingers.

Shaking her head, she had replied, “Not here. Not after all that’s happened.” She shrugged. “Perhaps somewhere else…”

“Don’t make any hasty decisions,” he had answered sternly. “Do nothing rash. At least until the inquiry is over.” He did not know or care to know when the idea of her leaving had become so abhorrent. He could only envisage the large hole in his life without her.

She had rewarded him with a sad little smile. “Well, I have to eventually go somewhere, Severus. Staying at Lavender’s is fine for now, but it’s quite difficult, especially with her and Ron getting married in a couple of months, and Anthony trying to…” Her sigh was as dry and bleak as the ashes at their feet. “And I have to make a living somehow. I can’t wait indefinitely, not knowing when the insurance will come through. If it comes through.”

Impulsively, he had said, “You can work here.”

Her wide-eyed, surprised expression spoke volumes, particularly of the ‘are-you-insane’ variety. For all he knew, he was. “Here, in Potions Potentes? With you?”

“No, with the Duke of Edinburgh. Who else, Granger?”

She had coloured slightly, then gave him a tiny, bashful smile. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

That was when he knew he had won. “It’s quite possibly a terrible idea. I am sure we will drive one another mad.”

“I am too.” She paused, then laughed. “But seeing as my other prospects are nonexistent, thank you, Master Snape. I would be most pleased to take you up on your generous offer.”

Severus had felt a fluttering thrill in his chest. “Who said anything about ‘generous’?”

Potions Potentes

He found her sitting at his counter, looking out the window to the vacant lot opposite. A cup of tea sat by her elbow, forgotten. He could tell by the scummy-looking surface it was stone cold. She glanced his way, and sat up a little straighter.

“Any trouble at the Ministry?”

“None. Simone and I ran interference, Toggle provided adequate lookout, and the reporters are going to call me even more hideous names than usual come the morning. But trouble? No.” He nodded toward the stewed tea. “You look like you could use a fresh brew.”

Her look of gratitude spoke volumes. “I owe you one. Or twelve.”

He disappeared into the kitchen and soon returned, handing her a steaming mug of tea, milk and two sugars. “Good thing I keep count.”

“Thanks,” she said, bringing the mug to her lips, and sipped. “Oh, that’s good.” She sat her tea down with a long, slow sigh.

“You’re rather morose for someone who’s just been awarded for bravery by our esteemed governing body,” said Severus. “Not to mention receiving your second Order of Merlin Second Class.”

“I don’t see you bragging on your First Class commendation.”

“That’s because I don’t give a fuck about these tin ashtrays, while you do.” She shot him a look. “Or perhaps I’m mistaken,” he amended. “I stand corrected with magnanimous humility. I thought you’d at least be happy at securing that filthy sum of galleons so Mrs. Longbottom can restore that slum tenement of hers. So kindly explain why you aren’t celebrating your status as Wizarding Britain’s newest hero du jour?”

“Is that what I should be doing?” she asked wryly. “Gloating over my success?”

“I suppose someone has to. It might as well be you.” When she did not reply, he huffed. “I confess, I truly thought the verdict would make you happy.” He took a drink of his tea. “I am sorry it does not.”

“It’s not that I’m not relieved,” she replied with a sad little shrug. “There’s so much to be grateful about. I was worried that poor Anthony would be so traumatised he would never want to see me again.”

“Children are surprisingly adaptive and resilient. And as much as it pains me to admit it, Weasley and Miss Brown-”

“Um, I think you’ll find that’s Mrs. Weasley now.”

“─the Weasleys, then, have proved to be good guardians. And Molly is already doting on ‘her newest grandson.’ With time and care, Anthony will find his way in our world.” He waved dismissively. “There will be people who gossip, and it will not always be easy, but I think Lavender Weasley is more than a match for anyone trying to harm her new chick.”

Hermione refused to be mollified. “I know.”

“Of course you do. It’s your Modus Operandi to know everything.”

“Now you’ve just stepped over the line.”

“Merlin’s balls, Granger! What’s wrong?”

She looked at him with a mixture of frustration and anger. “Fine.” Quietly, she added, “When I was in the Criollo, all that mattered was coming back to England, and opening Medicura. It all seemed so logical. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I did it.”

Her eyes grew haunted. “I thought I was dispensing some kind of cure-all. The potion was my creation, but it was blessed by the Tripoćion, and therefore I thought it was worthy of the gods. I thought of myself as Prometheus too. Only this time, the gods wanted me to bring fire to humankind. And in my arrogance, I thought that meant that it was the right thing for everyone.”

Severus tried to interrupt, but she rushed on. “I wasn’t Prometheus.” Her eyes welled with tears. “You were right, you know. I was nothing more than Pandora, too curious and careless for my own good.”

“You really are taking this Prometheus analogy of yours to an unhealthy level, Granger,” Severus said, but privately he cringed. He had berated himself a hundred times for that Pandora remark. It had been unworthy of her talents, it had been unworthy of him.

Absently, Severus leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the counter. “We aren’t gods. We aren’t even close. We’re just human. Sometimes we make mistakes, in spite of ourselves.” He laced his fingers together and rested them on his chest. Almost to himself, he added, “And sometimes, if we’re lucky, or unlucky, depending on your point of view, we get a second chance. It’s been my experience that the only thing we can do is run with it and see how it turns out.”

Hermione watched him in growing bemusement. “I don’t think I’ve ever met Casual, Que Sera Sera Severus Snape,” she said, tilting her head, her lips curved in a smile. “I think I like him.”

Severus had rehearsed this moment a dozen times, and thankfully, in spite of his sudden nerves, at least his voice did not let him down. He held out his hand. “Come here, Prometheus.”

She sat down her tea and walked over to him. He rose smoothly to his feet and took her in his arms. Pressing his lips to her smooth forehead, he whispered, “I want to do something for you.”

He felt her breath quicken, and he chuckled. “You worry that bringing down the fire robs us mere mortals of self-reliance. Do you not remember Lavender before she took your potion?”

“You were the one who got her clean and sober─”

“And Simone, old and lonely and aging before her time?”

“I think you’ll find you were the one who got her that long-overdue appointment.”

“And Toggle? And Cynthia?” He kissed her again. “And me?”

She stiffened. “If I’d minded my own business-”

He pulled away from her and gave her a slight shake. “Hermione, don’t be dense! You made a difference to people who truly believed there were no more differences to be made!”

That got her attention. He drew her close again, not so much because she needed it, but because he did. “I’m sorry I was so…unpleasant that day.” He could not bring himself to mention the kiss, not yet. “I was afraid. I was afraid you would hex me for assaulting you. I was afraid of giving Lavender an untried potion. I was afraid of caring too much for Simone.” He closed his eyes. “And I was afraid of how much I envied you, and how much I wanted you.”

He made himself look down into those soft, brown eyes. They had seen so much, good and bad, and yet, they still shone with the cleanest, fiercest light. He saw himself reflected in them, and liked what he saw.

“Your potion didn’t heal these people; that much is true. What it did was give them the permission to accept help, to ask for it and believe they deserved it. Your potion allowed them to treat themselves like they would treat anyone else they love and treasure.”

Hermione’s smile faded; she looked suddenly uncomfortable. “You make it sound like it turned everyone into a narcissist,” she said.

He shook his head. “No. It allowed them to love themselves, not to fall in love with themselves. There’s a big difference, Hermione. I should know. I dealt with Lucius Malfoy long enough to recognise narcissism when it’s presented to me on a plate.”

That made her smile, as he knew it would. “It’s true, Pandora was insatiably curious, and a bit reckless, but she didn’t open the box out of malice. And when all those pesky little imps raced out, biting mankind on the arse and generally making nuisances of themselves, the brave ones among us, the ones with the courage to love themselves, saw those imps as a catalyst for change. ”

She was cheeky enough to blush. “Now who’s taking the Greek analogy to a crazy level?”

He went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “Only one little meek creature remained behind, and it only came out of the box when it was desperately needed: Hope.” He stroked her cheek. Gods, it was soft. “That’s what you gave to everyone, including me. Hope.”

He could see his words were stirring her emotions, and rather than allow her to give into them, he added, “You told me your potion was blessed by this ‘Tripoćion’. That’s a pretty impressive endorsement. And to show my faith in that endorsement…”

He withdrew the little blue vial from his pocket. Hermione’s eyes widened. “I thought all the stock had been lost in the fire!” she said.

“It was, sadly. No doubt your next few weeks will be spent working quite hard to replenish it, now that the Ministry is through with you.” He gave the bottle a little jiggle. “This is the one you gave me the first day you moved here.”

She gaped at him in surprise. Touching the tip of her finger to the bottle, she murmured, “I was convinced you poured it down the drain, or smashed it against a wall.”

“I nearly did,” he confessed. “But then I decided to discredit you instead.” She looked dismayed, but he continued. “I tried every procedure known to Wizarding kind to decode it, but I couldn’t. And believe me, Hermione, I have never encountered a potion I couldn’t break down and identify by its individual components. Until this one. Therefore, I can only conclude that the gods like it just the way it is.”

He paused, listening to the quiet ticking of the clock, the breath moving in and out of his lungs, the heart beating steadily in his chest. Under Hermione’s rapt, hopeful gaze, he uncorked the bottle and downed the potion in one gulp.

He had listened to countless customers try and explain the taste of this potion, but all their descriptions fell woefully short. A faint taste of orange danced over his tongue, and if he allowed some air to mix in, he could just sense the edge of a delicate chocolate undertone, as soft, as innocent as a first kiss.

“Oh, I am undone,” he whispered.

He felt a ridiculous grin stretch his cheeks as the potion lifted him to a different, kinder part of himself. Like dusty gems locked away in a dark vault for too long, this feeling started as a dim, distant glow, and grew more luminous and colourful as the light reached every corner, every nook and cranny of his being.

This was the cleanest, gossamer feeling, this ‘everything.’ And nestled within his affection and admiration for the woman in his arms was the complete forgiveness of himself, and the sweet, true acceptance of himself as worthy and deserving of love─and her. And what was more, the absolute knowledge that if she chose not return that love, he would lose no depth of his self-worth or faith in himself. He would let her go with love, and it would be enough to sustain his heart.

He opened his eyes and looked down at her, trembling with life and this new beginning of love. It stretched out before him like crisps sheets on a bed of down, and he could not suppress a smile at that analogy, especially when it included the fantasy of a naked Hermione Granger lying on top, holding out her arms to him.

She was staring at him with the same mixture of incredulity and happiness pressing against his chest, and he watched in delight as her expression dissolved into the most perfect smile he had ever been given. Whatever he was feeling for her, she returned it. “You have truly brought fire down from the mountain,” he marveled, and pulled her to him.

This time, Hermione kissed him first.

Chorus

Guatemala is touted as the birthplace of chocolate, with the Mayans worshiping the cacao tree and calling chocolate the food of the gods. During the Mayan and Aztec periods chocolate was mainly consumed in drink form. They liked it bitter and spicy, adding chilies and cornmeal to the fermented cacao pulp mixture and drinking it for health and vitality. Even modern studies have shown cacao has the ability to reduce blood pressure, boost energy, act as a diuretic, and treat certain ailments like asthma, respiratory issues, so it should not be too surprising this ingredient has long been cherished.

Today, Guatemala produces 10,414 tons of chocolate, with 9,172 cacao farms over 3,920 hectares of land. The main variety of cacao used in Guatemalan chocolate is Criollo — other types include Forastera and Trinitario — which is touted as the best. Classified as fine grade, Criollo is the oldest known variety, although the rarest as it produces the least amount of seeds.

With its sweet aroma, delicate taste and lack of bitterness it is a favorite among chocoholics, despite only accounting for 1% of world production. Not surprisingly, despite producing excellent chocolate, Guatemalan exports are low.

Source: http://epicureandculture.com/history-of-chocolate-guatemala/


CODA

Tripoćion

Surely, surely this wasn’t Severus Snape walking toward her. From the waiting area of the Portkey station, Hermione watched as every witch and wizard stopped to track the progress of her husband, bounding down the corridor toward her. His hair was tied back, showing the cut-glass planes of his swarthy cheeks. His complexion was sun-darkened and he glowed with both health and The Gift.

With his magnificent black eyes riveted only on her, Hermione was suddenly struck with one of the strongest cases of smug she had ever experienced. Severus was a beautiful creature, and he was all hers.

His dignity would never stoop to public displays of affection, however, even after five years’ absence. His embrace was brief, but in that pure moment of absolute union, Hermione felt it. She did not need The Gift to know how happy he was to see her, the bliss he felt in returning home for good.

“Welcome home, darling,” she said, “and Blessed Beltane.”

They chatted as they walked, ignoring the staring, whispering crowds around them.

“Master Castillo sends his regards,” he began, stretching and wincing as he worked out the kinks from the long Portkey journey. “He was miffed that you didn’t come for the induction, even after I explained for the twentieth time you couldn’t leave the business. He also sent you some first rate Criollo and told me to tell you the next time, you can come and get it yourself. Sentimental old bugger cried when I left.”

“He always does. It’s a sign that he loves you.”

“That’s no consolation when you’re running for your Portkey with a little old wizard slobbering all over your shirt, wailing, ‘If only you didn’t have to leave so soon!'” His credible imitation of Master Castillo’s fruity, lisping accent made Hermione giggle. “It may be awhile before The Guatemalan Portkey Authority will allow me back in the country,” he added ruefully.

Once they were outside of the station, he cast a Muffliato and a Notice-Me-Not spell, and pulled her properly into his arms. “Gods, I’ve missed you, witch,” he murmured into her ear, and Hermione shivered in anticipation and happiness. He pulled back from her and caressed her face with gentle hands that still held the faint aroma of chocolate. “Let’s get out of here, so you can give me a proper homecoming.”


The decision to embark on the spiritual journey of the Fellowship of the Criollo had been at once the most difficult and easiest decision for Severus to make. After the enquiry was over, he and Hermione sat down and discussed the way forward. With trepidation, he had voiced the possibility of going on this sabbatical, but she had already been on that page for some time. The Gift, you see.

And while the idea of five years apart had seemed interminable, she knew it was not her decision to make or influence. All she could do was support him. And so he signed the ownership of Potions Potentes over to her, then moved to Guatemala. Master Castillo had been ecstatic to welcome such a world-renowned potioneer to serve in residence.

Except for twice-yearly reunions, they satisfied themselves with Floo calls, massive letters and the knowledge that they were moving in the right direction. It never occurred to either of them that this journey was anything other than their path together. They married on the same mountain on which Hermione had been inducted into the Criollo three years’ earlier.


Hermione Apparated them to the corner of Diagon and Osmotic Alleys. In spite of his fatigue, Severus felt an excitement build in his belly. With a happy smile, Hermione took his hand and they walked down the pavement together. There was not much activity on the street as yet, but those who were out smiled as they passed, wishing them a Happy Beltane, and blessing them for a prosperous year. In the late afternoon, most of the shops were preparing to close for the evening Beltane block party. Severus knew that in a couple of hours, the street would be filled with witches and wizards in their ceremonial finery, dancing and eating and drinking and saluting the coming summer.

Standing outside on the pavement, dressed as Cernnunos and Hecate, were Ron and Lavender Weasley. Anthony, looking grown up and sporting a set of antlers that matched Ron’s larger headdress, was talking to a young, ginger-haired child that could only be some species of Weasley cousin. He was holding a piece of parchment, and he and the girl were regarding it intently. Ron and Lavender’s faces lit up when they saw Hermione and Severus, and they saluted them with glasses of wine.

As Severus returned their salute with a wave, Anthony spotted him and turned excitedly to Lavender. She smiled and nodded. He broke away from the others, and raced toward Severus, brandishing the parchment in his hand.

“Mister Snape! Mister Snape! Look, my Hogwarts letter arrived today!”

Severus read the letter with much ceremony. “Congratulations, Anthony,” he remarked, and shook the boy’s hand. “It is my earnest wish that Hogwarts will forever be both home and haven for you. My door is always open should you require any advice.”

Anthony smiled up at the man who had pulled him from certain death, and hugged him fiercely. A shaft of sunlight broke through the afternoon clouds, bringing to mind the first time he saw Hermione on that fateful day when he almost gave up for good. The sunbeam illuminated a single building, and Severus laughed aloud. He knew it wasn’t past her, but he doubted even Hermione could have planned it so well.

Bathed in the late sunlight was a two-storied building, its twin white porticos framing a bright teal-blue door. Welcoming, cheerful light poured from the windows, beckoning to one and all the promise of something wonderful inside. Even from this distance, he could see row upon row of shining canisters, sprigs of plants and flowers hanging from the rafters, the wispy, curling steam of a simmering cauldron. He could almost smell the fresh herbs, the powdery compounds, the bubbling concoction.

Swinging from a rose-gold metal arm was a huge sun-shaped sign that read:

Calliope Medicura – Life In The Key of Health and Happiness!

Hermione rose on tiptoe and kissed Severus, her lips honey sweet and soft as sin. “Welcome home, my love,” she said, and threaded her arm in his. “Come on, Anthony. Let’s show Mister Snape the house Simone built.”

Calliope Medicura

During Severus’ years away, Simone Calliope had become something of a legend. It had begun when Ronald and Lavender Weasley enlisted her aid in helping Anthony adjust to his new life. The boy’s horrible ordeal had left so many emotional scars, but Severus had been correct; he was resilient and strong, and Ron and Lavender, together with Simone, were patient and doting guardians.

On the day Anthony asked Ron if he could call him ‘Dad,’ Hermione knew the worst was behind him. Simone, who became a second grandmother to the lad, could often be seen squiring him about Diagon Alley, sharing ice creams at Fortescue’s and hot chocolates at Potions Potentes. They became a regular feature together on the streets of Wizarding London: the handsome, black-haired boy and his wizened, smiling companion with her unfashionable hat tilted at a jaunty angle, waving to shopkeepers with her handkerchief, her dried-apple face wreathed in smiles.

Through Anthony, Simone heard about Madam Malfoy’s Home Away From Home, and inquired if she might help in some capacity. Narcissa gladly accepted her offer. The old witch had a way of comforting and calming even the most damaged in Narcissa’s care. In time, these lost and lonely children, like Anthony, grew to know and adore Nanna Simone.

She had also taken it upon herself to act as Severus’ ‘official correspondent on all things Blighty’. Every Monday, as regular as clockwork, the owl post delivered one of her fat, wordy tomes to his remote lodgings in the Guatemalan hills. These letters were rambling and gossipy, written in the same juicy tone and rhythm as her speech. She wrote of her joy at being a gran to so many, but especially to ‘Her Anthony’ (‘Oh, Severus, he’s such a lovely boy, and every bit as smart as you were at that age!’). Every letter sang with her absolute delight at being part of a family again.

Severus’ frequent bouts of homesickness were often cured just knowing another of her prattling letters would be waiting on him come Monday morning. She took great pains to reassure him that Hermione was happy and well, but missing him dreadfully. Those letters helped most of all. His last two years in South America had been much longer and lonelier without them. Halfway into his apprenticeship, he received a Floo call from a heartbroken and inconsolable Hermione to come home: Simone had died unexpectedly but peacefully in her sleep. Severus, Ron Weasley, Draco and Lucius Malfoy had served as her pallbearers. Wizarding London mourned.

To their surprise, when Simone’s will was read, they discovered she had actually become an incredibly wealthy witch in her twilight years. All her family’s money had eventually sifted down to her, their last remaining relative. She not only left half of her vast estate to Ron’s family, but had given Anthony the lion’s share to be kept in a trust until he came of age. The remaining portion was gifted to Severus and Hermione. With it, they made the decision to build a new Apothecary in Diagon Alley, on the corner of the same road where their story had begun.

This beautiful shop, with its bright blue door and welcoming windows, had been Simone’s gift, her final thank you. If he closed his eyes, Severus could see her, waving her lace handkerchief like a pennant, and telling him how proud she was they had named it in her honour. The money had never meant that much to her; Simone’s legacy would forever be measured in the friends she made and the love she gave.

Outside, the Beltane revelers danced and sang and rutted in the dark alleys to their hearts’ content. Within, Severus lay in the arms of the witch he loved, flushed and damp with the sweat of their joining. He smiled to himself. Hermione had been right all along. Prometheus had chained himself to the rock, and waited for whatever fate had in store for him. And he stayed there, because through happiness or pain, he knew it had been worth it.

“I am surprised, knowing your insatiable curiosity, my Pandora,” he rumbled, stroking the satiny curve of her breast, “that you have not demanded to know the composition and purpose of my potion.”

“Well,” she began formally, “knowing the Tripoćion has blessed it, and you are a shiny new member of the Fellowship of the Criollo, I simply deduced it is brilliant and perfect and you’ll tell me all about it when you’re ready.”

He turned toward her, until they lay face to face. Teasingly, he asked, “You’re not even going to take a guess?”

She pretended to ponder. “I think,” she announced, her brow furrowed in mock concentration, “I think it must be a potion that makes me stop whatever I’m doing and shag you rotten.”

“Witty, but when have you ever needed a potion for that?” he retorted, capturing her lips in a slow, sensual kiss.

“Point taken.” She pressed against him as if she never wanted to be parted from him again, and his body responded to her warmth and her heat. “What, then?” she asked breathlessly, between his greedy kisses. “What did you create that the gods smiled so brightly upon?”

He rolled her over, pinning her beneath his weight. “Something so perfect…” he thrust into her tight heat, and moaned. “Something so prized…Something The Gift told me was mine for the taking…”

Severus soon found his rhythm, hard and fast and relentless, the way she loved it. He felt the impending climax building in his loins, saw the ecstasy on her face. He allowed himself to be taken away, knowing that the potion racing through his veins would spill into her clutching, grasping core along with his seed, and together they would bring down the fire…

They cried their release into the night. It fused them together, witch and wizard, man and woman, body and soul. Her waiting womb received him, the miracle shook them both, and they fell back, panting and replete. With tears in her eyes, Hermione clasped his hand in hers, and kissed it reverently.

There was no more past to atone for, no sorrow to relive. There was only the long road before them, the limitless now. They had done all that must be done; the rock was no longer a prison, but a shield to protect them. The eagle, nothing more than a shadow overhead, seeking its purpose elsewhere.

They fell asleep with their joined hands pressed gently against her belly, like guarding angels protecting the slumbering covenant.

FIN

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2 responses to “Take These Stars Down To The World

  1. EclecticBonVivant

    January 15, 2017 at 10:47 pm

    Beyond wonderful. I love the mythology you weave throughout, as well as the was you have Severus still giving of himself. So wonderful. I loved all the characters you created as well as the ones of old (even Ron who I normally dislike). So very well done!

     
    • Teddy Raye

      January 15, 2017 at 11:44 pm

      Thank you so much! I’m delighted you enjoyed it.

       

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