Surely opulence must have been the theme running through the decorators’ minds when they attacked the Ministry ballroom. The tall windows were draped with gold velvet and over a thousand enchanted snowflake shaped crystals hung over the guests’ heads, each one glowing as if it held a small star. The effect was truly impressive. Which was as well because all the best and brightest of the Wizarding world had gathered tonight to celebrate the Midwinter Ball. Robes of rich fabric shone in the golden light and precious jewels glinted subtly at throats and wrists. Not for the first time in his life Severus Snape wondered what the hell he had let himself in for.
There was no Seer blood in his veins, of that he was certain, but he could not ignore the pull of instinct that told him something unpleasant was going to happen this evening. While the company was just the usual collection of tiresome nitwits and there seemed to be no obvious danger, Snape could still feel that something was out of kilter. He allowed the thought that this might be nothing more than the usual twisting knot of disgust and hatred that he always felt at these things, but he had also learned that he ignored his instincts at his peril. He held himself aloof always, but this evening he kept an extra edge of awareness about him: just in case.
The cheerful throng of wizards and witches resulted in a constant hum of conversation punctuated by the clink of glasses and the occasional burst of laughter. It was a far cry from the moods of previous years when hectic false gaiety battled with the sour tang of sorrow and guilt. Tonight no one could tell that this was anything other than an ordinary, if glittering, Ministry event and the crowd, while cheerful, was quite decorous. Ten years had passed since the Battle of Hogwarts after all and it was time to move on. Few were here that had not allowed the wounds to heal and if there were still scars, well, at least they were fading and no longer the livid gashes that they had once been.
Snape’s own scars had been well hidden behind both a Glamour and an immaculately folded snow-white muslin cravat and while he saw others wearing their battle honours, he had rejected such a display and remained in his customary black. His only concession to finery was that his robes were silk instead of linen. He admitted to no one that he enjoyed the whisper of sound that they made as he moved through the crowd. His face twisted momentarily. He had no one to admit it to anyway.
He had a brief flash of memory of his father. In one way it was jarring and in another it was completely apposite. In the midst of a magical ballroom he could almost feel the cobbles of the back lane under his old thin shoes as he stumbled after the snarling man.
‘The mill owners do what they like, son, and there’s nuthin’ we can do about it.’ His father threw a dog end down in front of him and crushed it out with his next heavy step. ‘We’re nuthin’ but cattle to them. Bought and sold, Sevy boy. Bought and sold.’
Plus ca change - he was just the Ministry’s tame Death Eater that they always trotted out at these events. The politicians liked to remind the general populace of what they had all been saved from after all. He had his medal and his admittedly generous stipend but due to that the Ministry felt as though they had some kind of right to his unswerving obedience. He did as they asked of course, but occasionally he did like to snap at the hand that fed him, just to remind them that he still had teeth.
The orchestra played light background music for the moment; the dancing proper would start later. House elves bobbed to and fro, on loan from Hogwarts no doubt, and all very smart in clean starched tea towels. Each little creature bore a silver tray covered either with delicate crystal champagne flutes or cunningly contrived canapés. Snape stalked through the room acknowledging acquaintances but pausing to speak with no one. He was being observed, he knew. His skin was prickling with the weight of an unaccustomed stare. He slowed his pace and began to search, on the prowl in earnest now. He was not worried, he would find them eventually: He always did.
The ball was going swimmingly. Everyone said so. And everyone was behaving beautifully. It was after all the Ministry’s flagship event, and all the names and faces came out to answer the call of duty. The Weasleys, the Creeveys, the Abbots were all present and of course the bloody Potters. Ginevra was due to drop yet another brat any moment but of course, glory hounds that they were, they never refused an opportunity to flash their happily ever after in everyone’s face.
However, all things turn in circles, and Snape was amused to note that not even the presence of the Boy Who Just Wouldn’t Bloody Shut Up had discouraged a small resurgence of the shadier pure blood families. One could see a small cluster of Notts in the corner, present if a little quiet, so too were some of the Parkinsons. The Malfoys, with the insouciant arrogance that only generations of breeding could bestow on a family, were in florid attendance, and if certain steps had been taken to ensure no unpleasantness occurred between any of the guests no-one would be so vulgar as to point it out or even to notice it. Time, tide and the chance of generous donations to a worthy cause waited for no politician after all.
Other than that, Snape was finding little entertainment in the evening. The Wizarding world persisted in holding him up as a war hero and, while he was pleased that Azkaban continued without his presence, the vapid gratitude of the general populace had palled very quickly. He no longer tried to hide his boredom at these affairs, and eventually he had found that he could enliven a dull evening such as this by scattering insults about like diamonds - each hard and glittering sentence designed to cut. Absolutely no one had ever called him out on it. He had carte blanche to be as abrupt and impatient as he chose and, naturally, he took every advantage of the opportunity. Take this pair of clowns that had importuned him: Shacklebolt and Lovegood, surely this was a conversation made in Hell. No wonder Kingsley was twitching.
‘But Neville is a dear boy and of course he makes my Luna very happy.’ Xenophilius chirped. ‘What a privilege it must have been for you to have the moulding of such fine young people, Severus. How could you bear to leave such rarefied heights of academia?’
Not a muscle moved in Snape’s face.
‘Teaching Miss Lovegood was always an exercise in two-way education, Xeno,’ Severus replied. ‘But watching Longbottom handle rare and precious ingredients was to experience all the horror of seeing an Erumpent horn in the hands of a chimpanzee. I would like to add that the only rarefied heights at Hogwarts are to be found on the Astronomy Tower, and had I spent any longer there I would certainly have taken a running jump off it myself.”
A certain rigor crept into his companions’ expressions, leaving them grimacing like idiots, and he could have smiled at his success but he resisted. Right up until the point where he looked past Kingsley’s shoulder and saw Hermione Weasley watching the show with an expression of unholy amusement. A flag went up in Severus’ mind. Here then was his little spy. She stood beside the ubiquitous potted palms, champagne flute in one hand, observing quietly from the sidelines.
She had attained poise over the years, Snape could see. Gone was the gauche young filly of yesteryear - in her place stood a woman of character. Snape’s gaze swept her from the glossy golden brown curls heaped around her head in elegant disarray, down the form-fitting amethyst robes to the dainty peep-toe satin shoes. Snape could see one shell pink toenail before his gaze travelled back up. Fine amethyst droplets hung from her ears and a matching pendant sparkled between the creamy rise of her breasts. She looked well enough, he supposed. She met his eye and she raised her wine glass in a silent, subtle salute. He did not return the gesture but unbent so far as to lift an eyebrow at her and bow slightly. Let the little minx interpret that how she liked. She smiled at him but his response was lost when she winced as she heard her husband’s strident tones coming from the card tables that were set up in one of the smaller antechambers. His attention was diverted from that little scene by the realisation that the Potters were bearing down on him in a direct line. He was obviously about to drop into a lower circle of Hell.
Hermione Weasley had been standing on the edge of the dance floor for some time. Soon someone or other would come to importune her for a dance and she would have to turn and face them and do the social pretty. For the present, however, she could just enjoy the atmosphere of frivolity and excellent champagne.
A slight shift among the guests attracted her eye and her gaze came to rest on Severus Snape, who was at the centre of the movement. He had probably said something awful and offended someone again. He bowed sardonically at a flushed and corpulent wizard and moved on. Hermione observed the dark man’s progress around the room. It was like watching a hawk among a flock of starlings. Wherever he walked he left ripples and eddies in the crowd around him. His face was set in a mask of boredom but there was also an aura of alertness, of controlled power about him that affected people on a subliminal level and commanded a response. She watched as the gathered witches and wizards waited for their moment of his attention as he progressed through the throng. Even she could feel the frisson of awareness rise within her as she watched his black-clad form travel closer to where she stood.
For the moment, though, she was safe. Kingsley had halted Snape’s progress and had obviously appealed to him for help in an increasingly torturous conversation with Xeno Lovegood. Hermione giggled to herself as she imagined that particular little tete a tete. Kingsley’s expression was just priceless. Heaven knows what the Auror was thinking cobbling those two together: His facial contortions were now bordering on the insane.
She knew the game was up when she felt Snape’s heavy gaze fall on her. Stark in his black and white among the jewel-bright throng, he looked desperately out of place. Still, he was a brave man even if he was obnoxious; she saluted him with her glass as he continued to stare at her. He half-sneered and dipped another mocking bow in her direction but she hung onto her smile. He had his reasons and his sorrows – as did she. Even now, attuned as she was to her husband’s voice, she could clearly hear him starting one of his rants. Floating through the music and the babble of conversation she could tell that he had already increased beyond polite volume. She wondered if he would ever learn to outgrow Hogwarts behaviour. Soon everyone in the room would be able to hear him but she knew that a remonstrance from her would only make things worse. Ron had always had a weak head for wine and given the fight that they had had before leaving for the ball, he would only create another appalling scene.
She winced as he let rip a blistering expletive then she caught sight of Harry and relief flooded through her. Perhaps he could help her in preventing Ronald from making an ass of himself yet again. She headed off to meet him and was unaware that they were, in effect, triangulating on Snape’s position.
Snape, however, was well aware that two of the unholy triumvirate were bearing down on him. He was also certain of their purposes. Potter was about to spout some trite, sentimental claptrap that he, Snape, would have to accept with the appearance of accord. The last he had heard was that they wanted to name their latest tadpole after him. La Weasley however was probably focussed on reaching Potter rather than her old Potions master, and it was not hard to deduce her purposes either: The purity of his blood aside, the youngest male Weasley was an oaf. He had probably drunk too much again and was hell bent on making his wife uncomfortable. She was probably about to enlist the Boy Wonder as an aide in damage control. They all arrived in a flurry of greetings and smiles as if they had not seen each other in years let alone the mere days that it must have been. Not one of the younger three were very tall and Snape took what pleasure he could in literally staring down his nose at all of them.
La Weasley was complimenting Ginevra on her boldly patterned robes and Snape caught Harry’s hearty tones.
‘See, Ginny? I told you the flower pattern suited you. You are blooming after all. What say you, Severus?’
Snape looked thoughtful and then pronounced: ‘I fear I am not an expert on feminine attire. You should ask Pomona, she is usually the one who looks like a fistfight in hydrangea bush.’ His tone was excruciatingly bland but there was just the slightest stress on the usually to plant a seed of doubt in his complete sincerity.
There was a brief silence while they absorbed that little sally. Snape felt his enjoyment of the evening crank up a notch but the easiest of his targets decided that the tadpole was making her uncomfortable and excused herself to the powder room. Snape raised his eyebrows enquiringly at the remaining two with every appearance of a man interested in his company. Unfortunately the full effect of this was lost when the unmistakable tones of a Weasley in full cry drifted out to the main ballroom. Ronald had finally hit the danger level of champagne.
The agonised expression on Hermione’s face told its own story and Harry immediately leaped into action. Taking the witch by the elbow, the young wizard escorted her towards trouble as was his wont.
Snape loitered briefly but he was well aware that curiosity was his besetting sin and, while he was mostly uninterested in watching a marital disagreement, the raised voices in the card room were starting to attract attention. Additionally there was every chance he might pick up valuable information: Some habits of the spy were just too tiresome to break after all. Privately he wondered why no one ever thought to cast a silencing spell on the man but no, there he was, spilling dirty linen out for all and sundry to gawk at. Snape arrived within clear hearing distance to catch -
‘…Poor excuse for a wife!…bloody humiliating…’
There were some ineffectual shushing noises and -
‘…Won’t be quiet! Get your hands off me, Bill!...’
Severus was strongly tempted just to slap a sticking curse over the man’s lips when -
‘And she works all the hours God sends…fed up with it…not my fault…’ A new note of real anger had slid into his voice ‘Don’t scowl at me like that, Hermione. Everyone knows it’s because you’re barren!’
A collective gasp rippled through the gathered witches, and Severus was unsurprised when he heard the sound of a ringing slap follow smartly after. He shouldered his way through to where he could see more clearly. Young Weasley, flushed with drink, was standing with the imprint of a hand clearly outlined on his face. Hermione stood tall but bloodless in front of him. Bill and Potter stood behind, stunned, while Arthur had hidden his eyes behind his hands.
‘By Merlin! I won’t have it,’ Ron stormed. He grabbed his wife’s left hand and held it up. Her wedding band glinted in the candlelight but the expression on her face was utter confusion. A sudden alertness spread in Snape’s gut. Here it was: Something irreparably bad was about to happen he could tell. Bill started to reach for his youngest brother but Ron’s words were out before he could be stopped.
‘I would be rid of this witch. Who will give me a Galleon for her?’
The embarrassed silence that followed the drunken question was exquisite. It had form and shape, and Snape could tell that not one of the watching wizards and witches knew where to look. He also knew that the Weasleys would not live this faux pas down for generations. Next he allowed himself an illicit thrill at the picture Harry Potter presented. The Hero of the Wizarding world resembled nothing so much as a witless bovine. However the only emotion Snape allowed himself to express was a sneer of contempt at the obvious ignorance of what had just occurred on the little wife’s face. All that talent, all that intelligence and verve, and she had no idea that she had just been put up for sale like a worn-out mare in the oldest form of divorce known to Wizards everywhere.
Decent people would turn away at this point: allow the family some privacy and forget that it ever happened. Of course that was a fool’s dream. There had not been a Witch Auction in over a century and for one of the oldest families to indulge in such a display at a Ministry event, no less: It was too much to hope for that the news would not spread like wildfire.
As if the whiff of scandal had Summoned him, Lucius Malfoy appeared at Snape’s elbow. The blond wizard took in the scene at once and Snape knew, with an instinct carved from old, that Malfoy was about to say something truly outrageous. He did not disappoint.
‘The Dark Lord would have been so pleased to see the Old Blood traditions being resurrected,’ Malfoy drawled, lifting a pale eyebrow at Snape to encourage him in helping drive the knife home.
‘Agreed,’ Snape replied coldly. ‘How satisfying it is to have one’s view of mankind confirmed in such a manner.’
It was true. A bitterly savage joy bloomed in Severus’s heart as his view of the world clicked into place once more: his misanthropy justified and his martyrdom complete. He had fought, wept, bled and damn near died for all the brainless morons gathered in this place, and they celebrated their freedom by reverting to type just as soon as they felt comfortable. Weasley was more than an idiot, his level of ignorance was insulting and that was something that Severus loathed more than anything else. Let them see, let them all see – scratch any wizard, even a sainted Weasley, and lurking beneath the surface there was a swine just waiting to get out.
However, there was always merit to every situation, and here was a plum chance to see Ronald Weasley, and by association Potter, further discomfited. It would also sow discord in the ranks of the Order and make a bad situation just that little bit worse. Such an opportunity was too great to pass up and so, in answer to Weasley’s drunken slur, Snape dipped into the pocket of his waistcoat and threw a Galleon down on the table. It rolled in a circle and fell over. The metallic sound as it wobbled to rest held the scene in perfect suspension. Snape could feel the insult growing within the silence. He hadn’t even had the decency to place it in the husband’s hand. He grinned mirthlessly as the fool picked it up, accepting the offer. Arthur Weasley whimpered. Bill made a quiet retching noise. Potter’s suspicions were rising but Ronald put the gold in his pocket and the deed was done. Hermione’s left hand was still in clear view and everyone saw the heavy red gold ring evaporate only to be instantly replaced by a slim band of platinum.
Hermione jumped like a startled rabbit but Lucius was in rare form tonight and for once Severus found that he did not mind one bit.
‘Seal the deal, Snape,’ Malfoy announced for all to hear. ‘You have to kiss the bride after all.’
It was unconscionable of him, Snape knew, but the sight of the suddenly revolted faces around them made his guts twist. They would stand by and let this travesty happen, would gossip about it for months, would remember it whenever the name of Weasley came up in conversation. No one else had stepped forward and Hermione’s humiliation was complete, but now the Auction had taken place the vulgar herd sincerely objected to anyone taking Ron up on his offer. Well, Snape would fulfil their expectations as he had done so many times before. They would not admit it but they wanted the beast to kiss the beauty to satisfy their prurient interest. And damn them all to hell, he would oblige.
He tugged Hermione away from her former husband. She was still dazed at this turn of events and he took advantage of her confusion to lift her face to his and kiss her.
For one brief moment he felt her respond; her lips were plump and sweet with wine. He had the smallest glimpse of how things might be if he chose to follow that path but the sound of Malfoy’s sardonic applause dragged him away from the softness of her mouth.
He trailed his finger down the chain that she wore about her neck, tracing his way along her collarbone and returning to brush over the cluster of curls at her neck. She looked into his eyes, still dazed and focussing slowly on his considering expression. A wave of red flooded across her breast and throat, turning her face scarlet with embarrassment. Snape suddenly had a vivid picture crushing herbs in his hand: The scent of the torn flowers had clung to his fingers for hours after.
Ronald, stupefied by wine, slumped into his seat, patting the pocket of his coat where Snape’s Galleon lay. Potter and the other Weasleys just gaped like landed fish.
Hermione started to shake and Snape guessed that he had one minute, two maximum, before it all went to hell. He snapped his fingers and was gratified to see that the house elf had popped up with not just his cloak but Hermione’s also. A whispered word over her dull blue wool transformed it to smooth black with a lustrous sable fur trimming around the hood. He shook it out and placed it around over her stiff shoulders. He felt her shiver under his touch.
Lucius waved a languorous hand: ‘Congratulations, old boy,’ he called. ‘I dare say Narcissa won’t be paying a bridal visit but you know where we are if you need us.’ And with that, he drifted away.
As if that released their audience, a sigh gusted through the gathered crowd as the tension faded. Slowly they dispersed, carrying their burden of news through the ballroom and out towards the ever hungry ears of the gossip mongerers.
‘What has just happened?’ Hermione whispered. ‘ I mean, I know what has just happened but tell me how. Tell me instantly.’
‘You have been divorced,’ Snape said baldly. ‘Come with me somewhere more private and I will explain further,’ he replied. As he spoke he held out his arm for her to take.
‘You are not going anywhere with her,’ Harry’s truculent voice rang out.
Snape raised his eyebrows. The Gryffindor cavalry had gathered their wits - ten minutes too late, as usual.
‘We can’t allow it, Snape,’ Bill said.
‘If you had wanted her for your own then you had only to place a higher bid,’ Snape drawled. ‘Of course, you would have first had to rid yourself of your own wife…’
‘That’s not the point!’ Arthur blustered.
‘I think you’ll find it is,’ Snape replied coolly. ‘Even considering how far the Weasleys have sunk this evening, bigamy is still frowned upon.’
‘This can’t be legal!’ Harry cried. ‘I won’t allow it!’
‘You are the Auror, Potter,’ Snape said. ‘Do you mean to tell me that you do not know our most ancient laws?’
‘Arthur!’ Harry appealed.
But Arthur shook his head in denial. ‘It is legal, if not right. The law stands. There is nothing to be done, my boy. It is bad enough that my son fell so low but for a man to exploit his drunken ravings…’
Potter’s hot green gaze fell on the dark wizard and Snape was satisfied to find the banked embers of hate rekindling in the face of enormous provocation.
‘You bloody fiend!’ Potter hissed.
‘Bought and sold, Potter,’ Snape murmured. ‘Bought and sold. I had every right to take Weasley up on his offer. I would be a fool not to.’ Snape looked appraisingly at the witch huddled, shivering under her new black cloak. She was probably in shock. ‘She has much to recommend her and while there is a chance that Vlad the Impaler over there has ruined her, it is a risk I am willing to take. I can always sell her on after all. Maybe the Weasleys will have resuscitated a fashion?’ Snape shrugged nonchalantly but his liquid voice turned sharp as a blade as he emphasised his next words: ‘But until such a time: She. Is. Mine.’
Harry moved sharply but Bill restrained him swiftly.
‘Snape, you are…’ Arthur’s words petered to a halt in the face of the shark-like eyes that met his own. ‘You are… serious.’
‘Do not be cruel to her, I beg you.’
Snape gestured to the chair where Ron was staring moodily into the fire. ‘Cruelty is hardly anything that she is not accustomed to, I deduce.’
Harry broke free from Bill’s restraint and lurched for his wand but was met with the same unrelenting black glare that had robbed Arthur of his breath.
‘Reconsider, boy. Reconsider fast. There are wards all over this building. I wouldn’t have to raise a finger and even you would be up on charges before the night is out. Now, while I am deeply unmoved by such a scenario it would be best, more politic,’ Snape grinned evilly as he enunciated the last two words with precise beauty, ‘for you to go about your business. Tonight’s dealings will have larger ramifications than you, with your somewhat limited comprehension, are currently able to process. Besides, surely your wife must be wondering where you are?’ He watched Potter falter at his words.
‘Are you drunk, Professor?’ Hermione whispered.
‘I never drink, Hermione,’ Snape responded instantly.
‘Do you go whoring?’
‘What does that matter to you?’
‘Can I trust you?’
‘You tell me, witch.’
‘You are cold and you are cruel.’
Snape nodded. It was the truth after all.
‘But before this you have always placed yourself between me and danger. You have never once broken a promise and, as far as you can, you always protect the people who depend on you.’
‘But I don’t like you,’ she said wonderingly. ‘In fact, right now, I loathe you.’ She placed her hand in his and she shivered as his long pale fingers closed possessively over hers. ‘You make me shudder!’
Fully aware of the effect their words were having on their audience he allowed his gaze to intensify. ‘How exciting,’ he purred as he pulled her unresisting form towards him. ‘How I long to make you shudder.’
He stroked along her cheekbone. Her face was gaunt and pale with shock. Her eyes were huge and rather blank but they fluttered shut under his touch. He forced himself to say his next words:
‘You know me for what I am. Nothing other than a cold, hard, difficult man. I’ll not be bothered by any foolish romantic notions. Is that clear?’
Hermione just nodded hopelessly.
‘Then we have an agreement.’
‘Bought and sold, Severus. Bought and sold,’ she murmured.
‘We are indeed.’