"Excuse me?" Hermione said, now absolutely baffled. The man looked desperate and there was an air of decay about him. He had a scruff of a beard clinging to his jaw and his hair was dirty and lank. Disheveled robes suggested he had been on the outskirts of polite society for some time.
"Leviathan," Rowle growled, a little louder this time. "You're supposed to know what that means."
"What is it that you want, Rowle?" Professor Snape asked, coming up behind the former Death Eater. The blonde whirled to face him and she had the sudden urge to turn and look behind her as well. How had the man pulled that off? She hadn't heard him Apparate.
"Snape!" The huge man's fingers twitched, as if he were going to reach for his wand at any moment. Hermione eyed him warily, hand in her pocket, curling fingers around her own. Professor Snape was completely relaxed as he stepped up beside their first customer of the day and set both hands on the counter, wand in neither of them.
"In the flesh," Professor Snape replied.
"They should have told me you were this so-called Leviathan," he spat out, his disgust evident. "I wouldn't trust you as far as I could throw you." Hermione looked at the broad-shouldered man towering above the both of them and thought that Rowle was definitely misappropriating that idiom. Although the Professor was a good foot taller than she, he had always been a rather thin man and she had no doubt that Rowle could easily throw him just about anywhere Rowle decided he wanted to.
The blonde Death Eater turned toward the exit, apparently believing he had concluded his business. Apparently, Professor Snape did not.
"You know that's not how this works, Thorfinn. You agreed. You've made your choice," Professor Snape said softly, almost casually. Hermione studied her former teacher. He had turned slightly toward Rowle when the big man had stepped away from the counter and she watched him make familiar but subtle adjustments to his stance.
In their DADA class at Hogwarts, he had taught them that a common mistake when facing a fight was to tense up because tight muscles could throw your aim off or interfere with an adjustment if your attacker did something unexpected. Instead he taught them to relax completely. He also told them to keep equal weight in both feet, to stay balanced so movement in any direction was an option. Hermione had seen him show the class this stance time and time again. That's how Professor Snape was standing now and somehow, without her seeing it, his wand was also in his hands, nonchalantly rolling it between his fingers. It wasn't pointing at Rowle - yet. She wondered if the big man knew how much danger he was in. He didn't appear to. He sauntered up to Professor Snape and shoved a thick finger into his chest.
"An uninformed choice is no choice at all," he snarled.
"Nevertheless, I can't let you leave here knowing what you know," Professor Snape asserted, looking the man up and down. "And it appears as though you've run out of options anyway."
From the expression on Rowle's face, Hermione could tell this last statement was true. The blonde Death Eater suddenly looked over at her and she shifted her gaze to find another target, glancing about for something else to look at.
"Miss Granger, I believe you have plenty of tasks awaiting you in back," Professor Snape said, never taking his eyes off Rowle.
Well, that solved the problem of what to look at. She nodded and quickly turned to leave. Very quickly, because she wasn't going to miss what was being said. She heard Rowle mutter "Granger?" just as the back door swung closed and she bolted down the hall to her quarters. Ignoring Crookshanks' meow for attention, she ran to a night stand and pulled out the Extendable Ear that had been left over from their mission to destroy Voldemort's Horcruxes. She had planned to use it as a chew toy for Crooks, but it would come in handy now. Closing her door quietly behind her, ensuring that her pet wouldn't interfere, she tossed the ear portion toward the shop door, put the Extendable string to her own ear and crossed the hall to the library.
"Those are your only choices now, Rowle." She heard Professor Snape's velvety baritone say.
"You betrayed the Dark Lord, Snape, and I know you'll betray me as well, given the chance."
"Ask yourself this, Thorfinn," Snape said softly, "Did I betray our Lord or did I arrange for others to believe that I did? Many have misjudged the extent of my talents."
Hermione's heart was in her throat - this was Harry's theory in a nutshell. Could it possibly be true that he had never been on their side? Her mind was torn. The opportunities that he had presented to her yesterday and the way he treated Winky - that had come from a genuinely good man. Yet here he was conspiring with wanted Death Eaters, as Harry had suspected, and now he himself had nearly verified Harry's theory. Her mind was in a whirl.
"I will Obliviate you and you can go your way. Perhaps Crabbe can help you, although I hear his methods haven't proven that successful."
"And from what I've heard, that's because of you. The Ministry used your Dark Mark to prevent Death Eaters from Apparating out of the country. With the borders magically warded in the same way to block physical exit, we are all trapped, forced to wait for the Aurors to hunt us down."
"Try to think this through," she heard the sneer in Professor Snape's voice. "How could I refuse the Minister's request after I had just proven myself a hero of the war? Really, Rowle, I saw you sorted Slytherin at Hogwarts. What would you do in my place? Especially when I knew I could make Portkeys for our brethren that could easily flout any restrictions the Ministry attempted to set up. There was much more to lose if I had refused Shacklebolt's request. Besides, Auror incompetence is at an all-time high."
"I'd rather take my chances with Crabbe," Rowle stated flatly.
"Excellent," Professor Snape said. "I'll just perform the memory charm and you can be on your way."
Rowle grunted and Hermione presumed he had agreed to the spell. But what she heard next dumbfounded her.
"Imperio," she heard Professor Snape whisper so softly she almost didn't catch it. Her astonishment at the spell he used made her wonder if she had heard him correctly. A few moments later and she heard heavy footsteps fade as they made their way out of the shop. And other steps, lighter and much more graceful and familiar . . .
"Accio!" she whispered and the Extendable Ear flew to her hand just as she heard the door open. Shoving it in her pocket she ran to her desk, sat down and flipped open the book sitting there, pretending as if she were studying . . . pygmy puffs. Oh, Merlin's beard, she hoped he didn't notice . . . as he strode into the room. Just then the chime sounded and Hermione jumped up from her chair, closing the book as innocently as she could.
"I'll get that, Professor," she said as she whisked by him.
"One moment, Miss Granger," his voice was stern but not threatening. She paused at the library door, not wanting to turn and face him, but knowing that not to do so might appear suspicious. She compromised and threw a look over her shoulder.
"I will be out for the morning," he said. "I believe you capable enough to run the shop in my absence. Please do not disappoint me."
"No, sir, I won't. I've got it," she assured him. He nodded and she had all she could do to measure her steps instead of bolting for the shop. When she got to the counter, she felt something brush against her hand. The string from the Extendable Ear was hanging out of her pocket. It was impossible that he hadn't seen it. Her only hope was that he didn't know what it was.
Professor Snape was not back by eleven o'clock for lunch and she ate alone, allowing Winky to serve her, though she wondered when and what the house elf ate herself. Perhaps Winky would like to eat with them occasionally?
But then she became distracted, her brain awash with everything that had occurred in the last twenty-four hours. In that short stretch of time, she had observed two Death Eaters colluding with Professor Snape, apparently to find a way to get out of England and avoid capture for their crimes during the war. And Professor Snape seemed completely amenable to helping them. She never liked jumping to conclusions, but Harry might be right about Professor Snape this time. With the contract preventing her from revealing what was going on, she would have to figure out a way to let Harry know what she had seen, but how?
She mulled over this conundrum while nibbling at her sandwich. First she would have to meet Harry somewhere they could talk. That couldn't be here and it would have to be on her own time, as Professor Snape would insist, only he hadn't told her when her free time would be. That's one of the things she would have to ask him about tonight at dinner.
Dare she ask about his meeting with two former, but fellow, Death Eaters? When she had first approached him for his help he had said there was no longer any need for lies between them. Was he actually lying when he told her that? She still had a hard time believing what the evidence was suggesting. And what about the reason that he had betrayed Voldemort?
Just as she was finishing lunch, he entered the kitchen and Hermione's surprise at his appearance overrode her anticipated nervousness at confronting him about his Death Eater friends. He seemed somehow thinner, his face pinched and gaunt, and he was slightly out of breath. She frowned. Yesterday morning when she had first come into the shop, she thought his wasted appearance was a trick of lighting, but now she could see that this was not the case.
"Are you okay, Professor?" Hermione asked. "You seem a bit . . . a bit drawn."
"Nothing lunch won't fix, Miss Granger," he said, pulling out a chair. "Winky? A plate please."
Winky hustled over with another sandwich, placing it front of Professor Snape and then looking up at him adoringly. Not ready to face the issue of Jugson and Rowle, she opted for a diversion, lest he see what was on her mind.
"Winky, would you join us for lunch?" Hermione asked the elf.
Winky inched closer to Professor Snape as he took a bite of his sandwich. He didn't even look down at her.
"You don't have to if you don't want to, Winky," Professor Snape assured the house elf and then looked over at Hermione. Exasperation, she would call the look on his face.
"Miss Granger, I give Winky everything that she wants, not what I think she should have. I see no ill effects on her behavior toward me." Indeed, Winky was gazing up at her master with the utmost loving expression on her face while throwing occasional suspicious glances Hermione's way. "Suppose Winky was at table with us. What would be her reaction if she took the last sausage and then she thought that you had wanted it? You would not be able to convince her otherwise. The self-punishment I might be able to order her to leave off, but the self-loathing would continue unabated. Do you really think she deserves that?"
Hermione had never thought about it that way. House elf behavior had always been a mystery to her. Professor Snape simply did whatever worked to keep the elf happy. Maybe house elves were more in control than Hermione had realized. They usually seemed to get what they wanted.
"Well, she certainly behaves as if she would do anything in the world for you," she commented.
"Winky has been an excellent house elf," Professor Snape stated and Winky simply glowed with pleasure. Yes, he certainly had a way with this house elf. And Winky was definitely happier than she had been at Hogwarts.
Fortunately, the chime sounded and since she had finished her lunch, Hermione stood to go and help their next customer. And, oddly, Professor Snape looked much healthier than when he had entered the kitchen. The sandwich was good, but she doubted that it could have induced such a profound effect on him. Another mystery to mark for solving, she thought as she headed for the shop.
"Why do you want me to research Fiendfyre?"
Professor Snape sat across from her at the table, a lovely dinner between them, and Winky nowhere in sight. Probably fearful of another invitation to sup with them and hiding in her nest. The rest of the day had been pleasantly busy, they had closed the shop and now it was time to ask the questions that she had been compiling since she arrived there.
"I don't want to tell you right now. It might prejudice your inquiry. I need your mind unbiased about anything you might find."
This pleased Hermione. It meant that he had not just given her make-work but actual research that he really needed her to do.
"There isn't much about it in any of your books," she said, slicing out a bite of lovely-looking ham. "My report will be quite brief."
"Then it shouldn't take you much longer."
She nodded and asked her next question.
"When do I get time off?"
"Sunday afternoons from 4 pm to 9 pm," he said, a slight smirk on his lips.
"Only five hours a week?" Hermione was indignant.
"If you recall, I advised you to read the contract before signing," he said.
"I'd like to read that contract now, Professor Snape."
"The bulk of the contract is in the library but I made several changes to it. The original is filed with the Ministry of Magic, which . . ."
". . . which is closed on Sundays," Hermione said flatly. She would have to ask Harry to have a copy made for her. That would mean about two weeks minimum before she could lay eyes on that piece of parchment since she would have to ask this coming Sunday and he couldn't give it to her until the Sunday after.
"Indeed," he said and she thought she saw the tiniest twinkle of pleasure in his eye. Git.
"Why aren't Jugson and Rowle in Azkaban?"
He stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth and raised an eyebrow at the audacity of her question. But his answer was calm and measured.
"Because they haven't been caught yet, Miss Granger."
"Then why don't you turn them in?" Hermione had decided not to ask him why he was making Portkeys for wanted Death Eaters trying to escape England and the Ministry Aurors. That would tip her hand that she had been eavesdropping.
"I have my reasons," he said and then quickly added, when she took a breath for another question, "which I will not share with you at this time."
"Because you have a notorious reputation for interfering and I will not allow you to do so in this circumstance."
"Where did you go today?"
The look he gave her over the pudding needed no explanation. He wasn't going to tell her that either. Hermione pursed her lips. Although he would not answer half her questions, he was not gulping down his food to avoid her either. That pleased her as well, especially in light of the nature of the questions she had asked. She knew how nasty Professor Snape could become.
Rain was streaming into her eyes, drenching her clothing and hair. Shivering against the vigorous wind she approached the cliff again, cautious as to what she would find. Might the beast still be there? The boisterous waves testified to the condition of the roiling sea below. She couldn't see the black serpent, so she took another step toward the precipice. Perhaps it was on the strip of beach proper? Feeling driven to catch another glimpse of the monster, she inched forward again.
And slipped. A firm hand gripped her elbow, righted her and dragged her back from the edge. Looking up to identify the hand's owner, she found herself staring into Severus Snape's intense black eyes. He pulled her close to him and wrapped his black cloak about her, shielding her from the rain and snugging her up under his arm. At first the warmth of his body against hers was comforting but as her shivering relented the contact changed into a different type of heat. Surprised, she looked up at him again and realized her arms were around his waist and his mouth was right there . . . she raised up on her toes and . . .
Yikes! Her eyes flew open. Her heart was racing as the remaining shreds of the dream drifted away. What the hell? Where on earth had that come from?
She lay staring up at the ceiling as Crookshanks readjusted his position and snuggled up against her side. Absently, she stroked his soft, warm fur and her mind, so difficult to quiet at night when there was nothing else to engage it, began analyzing that dream.
It was a variation of the one she had had last night. Obviously, it was at the same location and the same storm had been raging, but the monster in the first had been replaced with Professor Snape in the second. She didn't put much stock into dreams and certainly not to the extent her Divination class expected her to, but Muggle theory probably had it right - dreams were an expression of subconscious thoughts from her own mind. Was her mind equating him with the dangerous serpent of the first dream? That had been the train of her thoughts entertained earlier in the day. But that kiss! She had never ever thought about kissing Professor Snape. Had she?
Her body was still a bit aroused from the dream and so she considered the thought now, wondering how it would feel. He seemed such an aloof man for the most part, would his lips be as warm as they felt in her dream? The next thought was as good as a cold shower. He was a Legilimens! She couldn't be thinking this way - what if he caught such a suggestion in her eyes? He would laugh himself silly.
She cast about for something else to occupy her mind. How would she be able to tell Harry about what was going on here in this apothecary? Just trying to tell him the simplest thing about her new quarters had been impossible. She had overheard Professor Snape confirming her suspicions while talking to Jugson, assuring the Death Eater that she could not relay one word of what she heard to anyone else. Hmm. One word. She smiled devilishly to herself and wondered how good Harry was at the Muggle game Charades.