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Left Me Lamenting

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Persons in power should be very careful how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasure, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy – because his body, which you can always conquer, gives you so little purchase upon his soul.
--Gilbert Murray

It was the first day of summer and Rose had been whinging for all three hours of the morning so far about something that sounded like it being unfair that she didn't get to see MumbleSigh for months. Today was Saturday and Ron was out doing the shopping because they both worked weeks most of the time and when Hermione did the shopping, she never remembered the simplest things like--well, Hermione never remembered what.

"Life isn't fair, sweetie," Hermione told her daughter for the umpteenth time that day, that week, that year. But Rose, at fourteen, was impervious to reality. Hermione distinctly suspected that MumbleSigh was Scorpius Malfoy, which only served to enforce the impression that Rose lived in a fantasy world. Since they had removed to Salisbury for Hermione's work (Ron could commute, but Hermione refused to), Malfoy Manor was hardly an unattainable destination. No-one in the Weasley-Granger (Granger-Weasley, Ron had insisted when they were twenty, twenty-two, twenty-five, but Hermione, as usual, had won that argument; Granger-Weasley had always sounded to her like some sort of proper name for either a disease or a pharmaceutical product) household had anything but kind things to say about Scorpius. Ron would certainly dig up old protests if it made Rose feel like more of a Juliet, though Hermione felt Rose eminently capable of imagining life into old family feuds on her own.

Rose had come downstairs that morning with an exceptionally bad attitude and tear stains on her face. Now it was: "Why do you hate me?"

"I don't hate you, Rosie." It was at times like this that Hermione seriously considered corporal punishment. It was still early enough on Saturday morning; she just wanted to pretend the bit of a hangover from last night wasn't real and finish the crossword puzzle she'd started on Thursday--Thursday!--while waiting for portkey clearance between inspection sites.

"You do! You resent me! I was born when you were too young to be a mum! That's why you won't let me see MumbleSigh out of school. I know it!"

There might have been some truth to the part about resentment, but the rest was pure invention. Hermione rolled her eyes and prayed Ron would be home soon. "Life isn't fair, sweetie."

"You hate me!" Rose wept. The door to her room slammed shut and Hermione relaxed in relief. A flick and a swish of her wand later, and the sounds of Rose's sobbing faded into blissful silence.

***

Ron didn't quite meet her eyes when he came through the front door floating the week's shopping behind him.

"Every time they're gone for the year, I forget how much the kids eat," Hermione said. "Want a hand?"

"I've got it," Ron mumbled.

"Didn't Hugo come back with you?"

"I left him at Mum's. His cousins are at the Burrow."

"Ronald Weasley," said Hermione in her best You-Listen-To-Me-Here voice, "I don't care if today is both a full moon and a solstice; I haven't the slightest idea what's gotten into everyone."

"Don't you?" His eyes came up to hers over a sac of vegetables. An aubergine, a vine of tomatoes, the green leaves of something Hermione couldn't see enough of to identify. His eyes were greener, bright with emotion.

"No," she said. "I don't." He blinked, assessing her. "Were you planning to tell me?"

"Sure, Hermione." He pulled something out of the sac of vegetables. "Care to explain this?"

He held out a white packet. Hermione glanced up at his face, which was reddening, and back down to the packet in his hands: a white postal envelope with the brown markings of the Owl Post and a red "FRAGILE - DO NOT BEND" stamp across it. She'd seen hundreds, maybe thousands like it in her life. Ron clearly expected a reaction, so she reached out for the envelope.

She turned it over in her hands, split the seal that had already been broken, and found herself holding a thick bundle of papers. The first several pages were black and white photos of a young woman's body in shadows, closely framed. At first it wasn't clear whether they were Muggle or Wizarding photographs: the model was perfectly still and the lighting didn't flicker. A stretch of neck and collar; the curl of an ear; the arch of a foot; the muscles of a forearm; the curve of a woman's waist: tight young skin, a prominent hipbone, and--was that?--yes, it was. A red flame burst into being on the woman's hip. She couldn't--didn't need--to watch as it burned lively, smoldered, curled, and died into an ember before fading away. That flame still burned on her own hip where she had had it tattooed after lying convincingly and producing corroborating forgeries concerning her age.

"Where did you get this?" she managed to ask, having swallowed several times first. It had all come back in a rush with the final photograph: Colin Creevey and her stupid, stupid idea to have him photograph her. She had never seen the results.

"Look at the rest," Ron replied, his voice tight.

It was the hundreds pages that followed the photos that were the problem, it seemed. The thick bundle of pages were covered in a half-remembered handwriting that glowed under the faint blue of an advanced duplication spell. The text shimmered as though it had been enchanted; though some words seemed to leap fully-formed into her brain and though she could see the handwriting clearly, the text itself remained indecipherable, as if it had been written in another alphabet and another language.

"Where did you get this? Where are the originals?" Hermione demanded and she flipped through the files in her brain, trying to place the angry slant of the handwriting before trying to decipher the encoding--a Muddling spell, perhaps? She couldn't help but catch the occasional phrase out of the corner of her eye: "seed overflowing into" and "slating rain on the" and "bright blood" and "sullen, broken" and "forgive me" -- "splattered" -- "I thought" -- "burn". Disturbed, she stopped paging and waited for Ron's answer.

"Harry," Ron said, when he saw he had her attention.

"Where did Harry get it?"

"Luna, he said."

"And where did Luna get it?"

"I don't know. Hermione, would you please just tell me what Severus Snape--" It was Snape's handwriting! Hermione had a mental view of the full array of every potions essay she'd ever written, covered in his acerbic remarks in this very handwriting. She Banished it from her mind. "--was doing with naked pictures of you?"

When Hermione replied, "I haven't the slightest bloody idea," it was the Absolute Truth.

Sixteen years of marriage and thirty years of friendship were a very good thing, as Ron had learnt to recognize Absolute Truth coming from Hermione when he heard it. "Hey," he said. "I'm arse at ugly surprises. You know me." He stepped towards her and Hermione felt him bury his nose and his fingers in her frizzy hair, stripping out the clips and pulling it down around her face in a halo of fuzz and tangles. "Forgive me?"

"Oh, Ron," Hermione said, hoping it at least sounded more like love than exasperation.

He tugged lightly at her hair. "I thought my heart would stop when I saw those pictures. I knew it was you. You've always been my gorgeous girl, but when I saw our flame, I couldn't--I just-- Shite, Hermione."

"They were for you," Hermione admitted. "It was stupid. Colin took them the summer after sixth year. He was going to develop them and give them back to me once term started." She cherished how she never needed to say things to Ron like, then neither he nor I went back to school that term or that was the last time I saw him alive. She also cherished how Ron could be depended on, in the glaring absence of sentences like these, not to ask awkward questions like, what, you took sexy pictures of yourself for me and then forgot about it? (yes; there were other things on her mind in 6th and 7th year) and why didn't you tell me about them earlier? (see the previous question). She took a breath. "You said got this from Harry? Oh, I am going to dismember your sister."

"No," Ron said, pulling back and finally smiling. "No killing Gin. Even if she did try to get you drunk last night as a pre-apology."

***

Two more 500mg pills of paracetamol and a third dose of Gin-Be-Gone later, Hermione's headache had faded to a Manageable Nuisance. She and Ron were sitting on the couch trying to sort through the pages and pages and pages of Snape's handwriting, though Hermione couldn't read more than a handful of scattered words and Ron claimed it was all illegible, when the fizzle of Hermione's earlier silencing spell dissipating made them both jump.

"You Silenced Rosie?" Ron asked, clearly amused. "Again, Hermione?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Not Rose; just the general direction of her room. She's convinced I had her too young--"

"At twenty-eight?" Only Ron would be incredulous. Well, Molly, too.

"--and that it makes me hate her, which is in turn why she says she won't be able to see MumbleSigh until fall term starts."

"Scorpius?"

"How would I know?"

"I'll go talk to her. Poor girl. You're better at this research and paper stuff anyway." He kissed Hermione's cheek and took the stairs two at a time to comfort his daughter. Hermione rolled her eyes.

***

The first page, when she found it, began, in clear black ink and utterly unambiguous tones, the letters free from the enchantments that Muddled the rest of the document. "Lucius, whatever happens, do not let her find this. I shall hold you responsible." Beyond that, nothing seemed readable. The more closely she examined the pages, the less she could read, though here and there she caught words in her peripheral vision that became indecipherable when she looked at them directly. Once, she thought she saw her name, but when a second glance scrambled the letters, she gave it up for a figment of imagination.

That sent her back to the photographs, which sent her back to that first sentence. No one knew about her tattoo then, even if "then" remained so loosely defined as "before Snape died". Ron had discovered it shortly before they were married. Only the artist who had laid the initial spellwork and the ink pallet knew it was there, but as magical tattoos depended heavily on the body that carried them, and Hermione knew that the artist was just as likely to have no idea what her final tattoo actually looked like. There were few identifying marks in the other photos.

Severus Snape had been her teacher. It was one thing for Ron to recognize disjointed parts of her body, but her long-dead Potions Professor should absolutely not have been able to. She turned from the photos to the hundreds of pages of scribble and back again, trying to figure out how to link the two.

Perhaps there was no link, Hermione thought, already halfway across the sitting room. She dipped her fingers in the bowl of green Floo powder that sat on the mantel and tossed it into the fireplace as she conjured a small flame. "Potter Place, please."

Ginny Potter's head came into view almost immediately. "Hermione!" she cried. "I didn't expect to see you up today!"

"I know," Hermione replied, wryly. "You certainly did a good enough job plying me with nettle rum last night. Gin, seriously, copious drinks is not the best way to prep anyone for what Ron brought home today."

Ginny flinched. "I'm sorry, Hermione. If it makes you feel any better, Harry said it was a rotten thing to do and I'm out of Gin-Be-Gone."

Hermione decided to ignore the implied "could you send me over a batch?" and went directly to the point. "Is Harry around? I have a question--actually, I have several, but he might be able to answer this one--about the parcel he gave Ron."

"Right here," Harry himself replied, stepping into Hermione's view of their kitchen. "Here I was, hoping you'd have answers. I told Ron not to jump to any conclusions. I hope he wasn't too hard on you. What is it?"

"No, Ron was Ron. I'd be more disturbed myself if it weren't so mysterious. I can't figure out how Professor Snape would have recognized me in the photographs. It occurred to me that perhaps he didn't, and that you or Luna might been the one to make the association between the old photos and the handwritten document."

Harry snorted. "It's hardly a 'document'. More like a book. Luna just handed me the envelope and said you'd be interested in the contents."

"Well, find out. You're the Auror. Call me back?"

"Yes, ma'am!"

***

Rose came downstairs with Ron in tow.

"Go on, Rosie," he encouraged.

"Sorry, Mum," she mumbled. "I didn't mean it."

"Hermione?" Ron said.

Hermione sighed. Ron micromanaged the entire family. "I know you didn't, darling. I love you, Rose." Hermione hated lying, but it was easier than the alternative.

"See?" Ron announced, pretending not to notice the glare exchanged between mother and daughter. "I'm sure if you ask politely, Rose, your mum and I would be happy to help you out."

"Mumble mumble MumbleSigh mumble?" Rose asked.

"I'm sorry," Hermione said, "but if you don't speak clearly we can't answer the question."

"I said," Rose repeated, all teenager, "Could I please send an owl to Scorpius Malfoy?"

"Certainly," said Hermione. They didn't have their own owl, so Hermione opened her mouth to offer her daughter change for the post fee, but Rose was already speaking over her.

"Daddy, can I have a sickle for the post?"

"'Course, sweetheart." Ron dug in his pockets for loose change. Hermione assumed the matter was closed. She bent her head back to the papers. She saw him flip the coin to Rose out of the corner of her eye, saw Rose reach and--

"Oh, sorry, Hermione!" Ron cried as Rose knocked the coffee table, sending Hermione's carefully-ordered stack of papers floating to the floor.

"Got it! Thanks, Daddy," said Rose as Hermione said, "Oh no! Are you hurt, Rose?" The two exclamations tripped over one another.

Then Rose was out the door and Hermione and Ron were looking at the cascade of papers.

In the middle of a paragraph, an elaborately long phrase stood out to Hermione's eye: "My dear Miss Granger," Snape had written, and Hermione prickled uncomfortably at the presumptuous familiarity of an old man, though she suspected she was older now than he had been when he had died. "I will try not do you the dubious honour of mentioning your name again, but let us be perfectly clear that it is you to whom I am writing."

She dove for the sheet and scanned it quickly. Nothing else stood out. Even that phrase, though it hovered, intact, at the corners of her vision even once she'd looked away, was illegible when she stared directly at it. "Do you see that, Ron?"

"See what?"

Hermione pushed the pages around on the floor, looking for anything, undoing what was left of the careful sorting based on handwriting and ink. The it was: another phrase with her name in it that held more or less steady under her peripheral inspection: "What is Right, Hermione? What is Right? I am so lost."

This was absurd.

***

Hermione paged through Hugo's copy of Hogwarts: A History, which had finally been updated the year before, desperately searching for a better picture of Severus Snape than those grainy, shadowed ones in the Daily Prophet. She finally found one of him standing next to Septima, which was a shock. Her school day memories of him were of a tall, thin, greasy man with crooked yellow teeth and a nasty disposition. He had seemed to tower over them with unbanked power and an infinite capacity for cruelty couched in a certain irreproachable etiquette. She remembered him as being always alone, and had assumed that the hatred rolling off of him served to discourage students and professors alike. In the Hogwarts: A History photo, the two professors stood talking with no apparent animosity, heads bent towards one another as if in confidence or respect. Septima Vector, who was--as of last Tuesday--nearly the same height as Hermione (Hermione had not needed to be out-of-doors on Tuesday, so she had lent Septima her cloak because Septima's no longer held an Impermeability Spell), stood over Snape by half a head. He looked as greasy and pale and bad-tempered--and certainly more ugly--than she had remembered, but the evil aura and the extreme height from which he'd looked down on them as insects to be crushed beneath his heel were gone.

Here he was again in the next chapter, as headmaster, giving a speech in the Great Hall. Oh, she remembered that thin-lipped sneer, those gestures--but the hands with which he made them, while large and long-fingered, were not half so bony as she had thought them.

The only other picture of him in the book was of him dead in a pool of his own blood, looking impossibly pale and, to Hermione, impossibly young.

"What are you doing, Mum?" Hugo's voice made Hermione's heart jump. He was watching her from the doorway to his room, wearing one of Ron's Falmouth Falcons uniforms that had been Shrunken to fit him. The shirtsleeve was torn and the kneepads were stained beyond recognition--Hermione was not going to even ask what with. She was glad to see that the embroidered falcon was the old splayed-winged design dating back to 1742, rather than the new falcon head in profile that had been drawn by none other than Lavender Brown and adapted as the official team emblem in 2015. Hugo was not above nabbing his father's actual jerseys to impress his friends.

"Looking at the new pages about the time when Dad and I were at Hogwarts," she replied, holding the book up so he could see it was his Hogwarts: A History text.

"Can I see?"

"Of course."

Hugo knelt down next to her on the carpet and leaned his sweaty head on her arm. "Who's the dead man?"

"That's Severus Snape."

"Oh!" said Hugo. "That's who Al's named after, right?"

"Yes: Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape."

"I know, Mum. We learnt about Dumbledore in school. Is that how he died?" Hugo asked, pointing to the photo of Severus Snape lying stone-still on the floor while the blood seeped out from under him in an ever-widening puddle.

"Voldemort's familiar bit him. He was our Potions Professor, like Professor Trindle is yours."

Her son's fuzzy red head bobbed once and his fingers curled around her arm. Hermione liked that little gesture of comfort and how it warmed her--so much like what she'd felt for Ron when they were teenagers. He was so much like Ron, sometimes. I love you to pieces, my darlingest of boys, Hermione wanted to tell him. But he was twelve-years-old now, half-too-old and half-still-child.

"I hope you remembered to leave your broom by the door instead of tracking muck through the house again," she said instead.

"Muuuuum," the little demon whined. "You're so unfair. Dad lets me bring the broom in. It's Robin Roos's fault anyway. Victoire was referee and so Lily was seeker and so she didn't see how he cobbed me in the middle of a Porskoff Ploy in the second half an--"

"Stop right there and go put your broom away. When I said 'not in the house' I meant 'not in the house'."

"You're so mean! You'll be sorry when it gets stolen and you have to buy me a new one!"

Just like that, the love she felt evaporated and she only wanted to snap at him. Hermione was a terrible mother.

***

Septima met her--surprisingly--at The Wig and Quill after work on Monday, ostensibly to return her cloak. While wholly approving of Muggle-friendly Wizarding society, Septima wasn't a Shifter, slipping in and out of the Muggle world as desired. "It's closer to the old Apparition point," Septima had explained when she'd chosen the Muggle pub. They usually met at Wickham's Arrow in Wizarding Salisbury on Tuesdays when Septima had the evenings free, though it meant a bit of a walk for them both. Still, Hermione half-expected her friend to suggest moving on to Wickham's after their first draft, but Septima merely ordered a second.

"Want to have a bite to eat? Or did you need to get home to the kids?" Septima asked as her pint came. "Cheers."

"Ron's got the kids tonight. If you don't mind, I'd love to."

Septima ordered battered fish and chips like any good tourist in England. Hermione asked for lamb, was told they were out for the night, and what about a nice beefburger instead?

"I wanted to ask you about Severus Snape," Hermione said without preamble as soon as the server was gone from their table.

"Severus Snape! There's a name I haven't heard in a while." Septima took a swallow of beer and sat back. "Something tells me this could take a while. Have at it, Hermione."

"No, no," she assured her friend, quickly outlining what had happened over the weekend: the photographs, the papers, the pictures in Hogwarts: A History. "I just wondered: what was he like?"

"A right arse," Septima replied instantly. "A snubbing, spiteful, bitter arse. There's never been a wizard with such an unfortunate personality. But I'll tell you this. We were colleagues for twelve years, and he never let me down. Why d'you ask?" The blunt question tacked onto the end of an answer was pure Septima. The witch was sketching on the tabletop with her fingertip, leaving glowing trails of arithmancy symbols.

Hermione cast a discreet Privacy charm to keep the doodles of magic from catching the eye of a dining Muggle. "I saw a picture of you talking to him in Hugo's new expanded version of Hogwarts: A History and have had to revise my memories of him."

"Ah," Septima sighed, and added a thorn to her equation, which darkened and then dissipated. "He bullied you students in the worst way, particularly during the war years. Mind you, I believe in strict discipline and classroom order, but that's not the same thing. Learning he had been Dumbledore's spy made everything ever so much clearer. We weren't close. I don't know that anyone truly knew him."

"What was your equation?"

"Trying to figure out what your intentions towards him are."

"And?"

Septima grinned. "You're curious. Aren't you always, though?"

Hermione grimaced. "That I am. Someone digs up Professor Snape's papers after all this time, and they appear to be addressed to me with a caveat to Lucius Malfoy to prevent their delivery? I'm hooked, but utterly flummoxed, to be honest."

"Hmm." Septima's sharp gaze faded into the middle distance. "I don't remember him ever mentioning you particularly, but like I said, we weren't close and didn't discuss students unless there was a problem. It's also been twenty...-three years. Twenty-two? I must be getting old."

"Just tell me what you do remember," Hermione encouraged.

"He was quiet," Septima said slowly. "Not shy, but reserved. And quiet. Oddly easy to speak to, but you always risked him making you feel like the worst fool later. He knew how to deflect attention away from himself. I honestly--other than his teaching style, which you clearly remember well enough, and his soft-spoken, ugly prejudices--don't remember much myself. Let me see.

"He never shirked hall duties, which we all hated. And he was my mentor when I first started teaching. He made me feel worse about myself than the students did. I used to cry in my rooms at night. The professors used to have a pot on which student would fail the most OWLs--he never participated. That started before my time, though, so perhaps it wasn't exactly on principle. He never wagered on how long your longest essay would be, either--that was a weekly one, Hermione. I don't think he ever recommended a student for discipline, other than Harry, and I know he never complained about another member of the staff and never received complaints, either, because Minnie said something about it once, how he was the only one who never seemed to find something to bicker about, nor anyone to squabble with. It struck me as odd at the time."

"It is odd," Hermione assured her, then smoothly lifted the Privacy charm for their food to be delivered and set it back down firmly as soon as they were alone again. "If he was so nasty..."

"Oh, he was. I think you should talk to one of the Slytherins from the period when he was Head of House. They might be able to give you a more rounded view."

"Do you have a suggestion?"

"No. Anyone. Wait--oh, what was the Sturridge boy's name? Fergus? Felix? Seven or eight years older than you lot, a smarmy kid. He did a potions project his final year." Septima smiled wryly at her. "There can't have been too many of those during Snape's years. You could look it up. And it could be that Draco Malfoy knows something further about him. They said Snape was or had been a sort-of friend to Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy."

"Why do you call him Snape?"

"Because he only ever called me 'Vector'. Just like that; no title, no first name. I was an equation to him, and he made it clear. I didn't rank among human beings in his book." Before Hermione could comment, the other witch shook her head. "I don't think anyone did. Muggle or Magic, without distinction, but worms, all of us."

"Ugh," said Hermione. "Wasn't there perhaps something he enjoyed?"

Septima shrugged. "It's more or less common knowledge that the Dark Arts fascinated him. And he must have enjoyed watching his students..."

"Suffer?" Hermione suggested.

"Struggle," Septima corrected firmly. "He was only a man. Not a nice one, I'll grant you, but you stood toe to toe with the worst of humanity in the War, Hermione, and it wasn't Severus Snape."

***

Harry was waiting for her in the parlor when she got home. She kissed Ron hello and offered Harry a drink. He refused: "I had one or two with Ron while we were waiting for you." Ron winced. That meant they'd had three or four, which explained why Harry hadn't stood up to greet her. He was probably wobbly.

"Ginny said she was out of Gin-Be-Gone. Remind me to give you a bottle before you leave, or that's going to hurt tomorrow," Hermione told him.

"Yeah, thanks. I talked to Luna, Hermione." Harry pushed his glasses up with a finger on the bridge. "Do you have a moment to chat?"

"I always have a moment for you."

"It's about Snape's papers. Luna says they were found in his old home, Spinner's End? That was ages ago, but the Ministry's finally granted the petition to have the spell on the papers lifted so that they can be read. Luna wanted you to know what they were looking at before something gets leaked to the papers."

"What about the pictures?"

"Everything in that parcel was found bound together, with, uh, Muggle twine. She asked if the photographs were of you. Apparently the Ministry isn't sure."

Hermione nodded. "They're probably some of Colin Creevey's last photos. Ron recognized me, too. I have no idea what Snape was doing with them."

"That doesn't explain anything. I don't understand any of this," Harry admitted. "If it makes you feel better, I'll ask to be transferred to the case."

***

"Go to bed, Rosie!" Ron called up the stairs ahead of them. There was a flurry of whispers, the whoosh of a closing floo connection, and the patter of Rose's footsteps taking her back to bed. Ron shrugged in response to Hermione's look of surprise. "She was probably talking to Scorpius."

"Puppy love," Hermione said, dismissively.

"I loved you when I was her age. You weren't puppy love," Ron reminded her, nuzzling her neck.

Hermione let him lead her into their bedroom and cast a silencing charm on the closed door. He never minded that they loved each other unequally and that, ever since they were teenagers, she'd never been enthusiastically attached to anyone, him included. When he'd proposed and she'd said, "I like you lots, Ron, but I don't know...", he'd merely said, "Don't I know! But I'll love you enough for both of us." And he did. And Hermione sometimes loved him for that, too, but it came in unexpected spurts, much like the intense desire to cuddle Hugo, which was either overwhelming, or overwhelmingly absent.

When Ron wanted children and Hermione didn't not want them, they'd had children. When Ron wanted her to be happy at work and she wasn't not happy at work, they'd made sacrifices (hence the smaller home in Salisbury than the large plot near the Burrow that they could have had) to make it happen. If Hermione had lost something of her enthusiasm (said Ron) or her emotional sensitivity (said Harry) during the disastrous end of their disastrous childhood, well, they'd all lost something. Hermione often thought, in Ron's case, that it was the ability to grow up. When he was happy, he was uncomplicatedly and wholly happy, and it showed in everything around him: his dedication to the team, his joy in his children, his pride in his home. When Hermione was happy, she was still restless.

As Ron moved over her she reveled in the comfort and familiarity of their actions. She was a bit put off because her body was quiet and complacent, though she knew he was working to turn her on. And then he brushed against her flames and she lit up from the inside out--oh, yes! This was warmth--this was what the tattoo was there for, after all. When she had been sixteen, there had been months and months of feeling emptied and wishing Ron would just look at her the way he was doing now; she had wanted to mark herself so he would take notice. And then after Dolohov's curse had marked the inside she was certain she wanted to mark herself on the outside, to mark herself with something whole and real and vibrant: she had chosen red for love, for Gryffindor and for passion: those elements of herself that she felt slipping away. She, at sixteen, had wanted to gouge them into her skin to keep them from sifting through her fingers; it had only partially worked. Ron slid his hip against hers, deliberately this time; her body bloomed and swept her mind along.

"There you are, Hermione," he sighed into her shoulder, before she was lost.

***

Tuesday morning, Hermione was interrupted by a MLE official who entered the office brandishing a drooping scroll held in front of him at arm's length. He was followed by two officers in plain robes. "Where can I find Hermione Weasley-Granger?" the official. "I have a writ here stating, by the authority of the Department of Mysteries and Testaments, Dr Weasley-Granger is to leave work immediately and come with us."

"That would be me," Hermione said, dusting off her hands as she stood up from the frame she had been appraising.

"Will you come willingly or do we need to restrain you?"

"What's this about?" The warmth of her flames bloomed along her hip, in time with her temper.

"I have a writ here stating, by the authority of the Department of Mysteries and Testaments, Dr Weasley-Granger is to leave work immediately and come with us."

"Yes, you said," Hermione agreed tersely. She had just enough time to Accio her cloak and toss a "Sorry" to her colleagues before the MLE official Disapparated her with a snap.

All four magical persons reappeared a moment later in the Atrium of the MLE building, where Luna was striding towards them.

"Wonderful, wonderful! You found Hermione! How are you, Hermione?" Luna had threaded bangles in her white-blond hair that slithered about her head as she moved. "You can go now, official." The official handed her the scroll he'd been carrying, and hurried off, followed by the two officers.

"Hi, Luna."

Luna looked surprised. "I didn't think you'd remember! I'm so glad you did. It'll make things easier." Luna motioned for Hermione to follow her to the laboratory where she lead a team of curse breakers. Luna kept up a steady stream of friendly talk, only half of it apparently relevant to their meeting. Hermione was used to filtering out Luna's whimsies, and learned by listening to every other sentence that they'd cracked the last few words of the document and wanted Hermione to look at them, at Harry's urging.

The original document was yellowed with age, unusual in a wizarding document that couldn't be more than half-a-century old at worst, and barely more than twenty years at best. Luna's team had ordered the pages as Hermione had tried to do on the coffee table at home, though with more success. And more tabletop, Hermione thought, eyeing the backlit table on which the pages had been laid with a spark of envy. The backlighting was a newish technique that supposedly revealed any eventual imperfections or spell residue on the paper, and the table had clearly been charmed, as it was exactly as long as it needed to be to hold every page, yet still fit in the room. Luna pointed to the far end of the room where the de-Muddled bit lay, but Hermione couldn't resist approaching the table, where she found herself examining the second page.

The dark ink shifted under her gaze, leaving her slightly dizzy. Hermione was glad the effect was muted on the duplicate Luna had sent her. She blinked, and looked again. The words were blurry, but they were definitely there, and she was staring at them directly. Focusing on something halfway between herself and the page, she began to read.

***

summoned me late in May and said: "I know you are Dumbledore's man."

I said: "That's a nasty theory. You know I'm not." It was utterly unthinkable at the time. What did I care for Dumbledore?

He said: "I have evidence. Dumbledore may be a sentimental fool who still believes you are making retribution for a Mudblood, but he'd have never gotten you into the Order of the Phoenix if the others weren't convinced you'll do as you're told. What hold can he possibly have over you? You can't possibly hope to survive this war."

I said: "I don't." I had fashioned a life devoid of tears, of fire, of love. I strove for an easing of tension and a widening of the void. And the assurance of eventual death. I was proud of it.

Lucius made a polite noise of disbelief. He said: "You are the least altruistic wizard I know. You haven't a child running about that one or another of your masters holds over your head?" When I replied that I had not got any such thing, nor any living family, nor home but Spinner's End, he said: "We shall have to remedy that. I am being forced into a position in which I must be sure I can count on you."

I said: "What proof of my loyalty would you accept?"

He pretended to consider the matter. He said: "Proof can be forged and loyalty swayed. I don't care whose man you are, so long as I know you won't cross me. I'd much rather you provide me with a counterweight when I entrust my son to you."

I said: "Why the devil would you do that?"

He said: "Because you've got means of being where he is." Which even at the time I recognised as a non-answer.

It is now approximately seven weeks later. I haven't slept more than an hour here and there. The entire board has changed. Dumbledore has reduced his own life to, at best, a year. I have concocted my potion on hasty research. The Dark Lord has revealed himself to all the world. I linked myself to you and delivered your name to Lucius as the counterweight he requested. The idea that I could deliver my heart to anyone I so chose, and then hand that person to him for "safekeeping" delighted him. He believes in the procedure and has been a great aid to me in my research. Therein is my deception: I have no heart, the procedure is inherently inconceivable and poorly documented; the whole concept is spurious at best. When I told him I had set our machinations loose on you, without your knowledge, he laught.

He said: "A better choice I could not have made myself. It would be impossible to guess that the Mudblood is your weakness, yet she's eminently and desirably expendable. I admit I was afraid you might have picked a friend of mine, just to spite me, should you force my hand. Thank you, Severus. I shall treat this valuable gift with the... care it deserves."

Lucius sits in Azkaban and his wife has wound me into an Unbreakable Vow. Lucius knew what was coming.

This is all very well. Only one thing is unwelcome as it is unexpected: Your absence pains me physically. My heart aches. I don't understand it, nor like it, but I feel I must tell you this. I am beginning to suspect I have gravely miscalculated.

The writing broke off near the end of the page, leaving the bottom blank, and picked up on the next sheet that Hermione didn't dare look at. "What is this, Luna? You didn't say you'd gotten so far!"

"We just have the last four words. We think he must have Muddled the ink, and finished in haste or had to dilute it at the end, which--"

"No," Hermione interrupted. "I can read this. It's not quite clear, and it would probably nauseate me to read more that a page or two at a time--"

"Shh!" Luna hissed, clapping a palm over Hermione's mouth. "The wuffalumps! You don't want to scare them off by speaking too loudly. They can be dangerous when frightened," she continued in a whisper. "So just come this way and look at the end, will you?"

"Luna, there are no wuffalumps," Hermione said patiently.

"That's what you think," Luna replied. "Here, look."

The last sentences were blurry, like the page she had just read. That spiked, antiquated penmanship taught to Wizarding children (which Hugo seemed to have already mastered and which Ron made an appalling mess of but which Hermione had never quite learnt to imitate) turned into something precise and dangerous. I know this is the end, Snape's handwriting said, but I will make it count, if there is still any thing one man alone can do to make this world worthy of you. This missive is spelled so only I may read it. It will not be used against you. I have done everything I can--and here the words became abruptly clear, easy to read despite the ink fading as though he had scratched the last bit of ink from his quill and tried to make it last--"to protect you, Hermione," she read out loud.

"You see?" said Luna.

"What is this?" Hermione demanded again.

Luna shrugged, scrunching her ear to her shoulder. "At least we know it's definitely linked to you, Hermione. But at the moment we're as stumped as you are."

"So why continue?" Hermione asked. "Why does anyone care about this now?"

"But that's exactly why it has to be now," Luna said brightly. "No one cares. How do you know there isn't something important in the rest of this?" She swept a hand out, indicating the other hundred pages. Then she looked hard at Hermione. "Off you go now. You know we work under strictly confidential conditions. Your badge should expire in twenty seconds. Goodness! Come along!" She grabbed Hermione's hand and they raced out of the laboratory just in time to miss the door that snapped shut behind them, the aborted intruder alarm's first echo dying off as soon as it began to sound.

"That was close," said Luna, grinning. "You'll come back to look at the rest some other time?"

Hermione groaned.

***

Felix Sturridge gave Hermione the creeps. For one thing, his eyes were too small; it looked as though he were perpetually squinting. For another, he had offered her a seat and then, instead of sitting across from her, had pulled the chair around the table to sit beside her. He clearly had a hard time keeping his hands to himself--he kept stroking her arm or the back of her hand or (ugh) the small of her back with a finger.

"Severus was invaluable to me," he oozed. "To my early research. He was utterly impartial. I have never found anyone like him since. You could propose the most unexpected and unethical things, and he would merely consider their merits and their problems. He worked utterly outside the bounds of right and wrong--concerned only with what was true and what was convenient--"

"Convenient?" Hermione asked, alarmed.

"Yes--you know, what could be of use? He was the only real academic I've ever encountered." Sturridge steepled his fingers together and peered at her over them. Hermione hoped he kept them that way.

"Yes, that's nice. What was your Hogwarts potions project, if I may ask?"

"You certainly may. Severus's advice was invaluable. He had such a detailed knowledge of human pain, and I was examining the possibility of developing better anesthetics. Shall I tell you why?" He leaned forward, hands gliding towards her again. It was all Hermione could do not to lean back.

"Sure."

"It was the first step in my research for a blood cleanser. Think how much better your life could have been if we could have just opened you up and purged the impurities inside you. Of course, now when we bring up blood purity, it's received as though we were talking about euthanasia." He paused, as if considering. "I wish I could have discussed euthanasia with Severus as well. I'm sure he would have seen things--less emotionally."

Hermione shifted so that she could rub a hand against her flames. Even through her robes, the touch warmed her, sending a small wave of steadiness across her belly. "Er, yes," she said. "Thank you. This has been very illuminating, but I'm afraid I've misjudged my free time. I need to get back to the office."

"Of course. I'm glad to have been able to help," Sturridge said, stroking her elbow.

***

"Take this to Draco Malfoy, please," Hermione told the owl as she finished tying the note to its leg. "If he has a response for you, you can bring it to the return address." The owl blinked at her and took off in silence.

After Sturridge, it seemed like the most logical step: ask Draco for an interview with Lucius, who seemed up to his neck in the whole thing. An interview with Lucius Malfoy could not possibly be worse than an interview with Sturridge. (Hermione knew this was a tactic to placate herself; Lucius had been dangerous--Sturridge appeared only to have dangerous ideas.) It was easy enough to send off a note with a pre-paid return before she changed her mind--she'd even added a post script at the last moment about how she hoped Scorpius was well. She felt silly jotting down the request in the post office, but the Owl Post was on the way and it seemed silly to head home just to backtrack a few minutes later, especially when she would likely lose her nerve on the way.

When she'd gotten home, she'd attempted to find the passages she'd read in the laboratory. The bit at the end was readable, her own name jumping out so clearly and steadily that she couldn't see how she'd missed it earlier. However, she couldn't even identify which page corresponded to the one about Lucius demanding a counterweight.

She was still at it when she heard the door bang and Ron's cheerful voice greeted her. "Hey, Hermione! I thought you'd be out with--"

"Septima! I'm late!" Hermione cried.

"Give me a kiss and off you go then," Ron said, embracing her as she stood up. "You've already got your shoes on, so you're almost ready. See you later!"

Hermione knew it wasn't polite, but she Apparated from the parlor as soon as Ron let go of her and nearly ran to Wickham's Arrow.

"Your usual?" the waitress asked as she slid into the booth across from Septima.

"Yes, please," Hermione panted. Septima looked amused.

"First time you've ever been late," Septima said. "You didn't have to run all the way here."

"I didn't," Hermione gasped. "Just the last block or so. Wait til I tell you what happened today."

"This'll be good," Septima said. "I've just had the dullest day in wizarding history. I could use a good story."

Hermione described Sturridge in excessive detail, then recited their conversation, which left Septima in stitches.

"Hoo! " Septima said, wiping away tears of laughter. "I'll grant you, he wasn't the most personable child, but I would have never sent you if I'd imagined anything so disgusting."

"It's fine. I wasn't in any danger, I don't think. Do you believe what he said about Professor Snape?"

Septima tapped her fork against her lips. "Yes and no. Look, Snape was unemotional. I'm sure he was appropriately unscrupulous as a spy, and as headmaster he was creatively terrifying. We lived in fear of him that year, but now I'm not sure how much of that fear was merited and how much was fruit of deception. It stands to reason that if a student had approached him with an ethically-dubious project that he thought was academically sound, he'd have provided guidance and structure. He was, after all, a teacher."

"That's the yes, then," Hermione said. "That's essentially what Sturridge said. What's the no?"

"My instinct," Septima replied. "As a colleague, he was oddly hard to hate. I'm having trouble voicing it, especially in the face of what you just told me. Imagine this is pure objectivity, as a personal trait." She drew a rune on the tabletop with the tip of her wand, where it glowed a steady pink. "Now, this is a vector of malicious intent, such as--er--" She lifted a finger, glared at the tabletop, and wiped the whole thing out. "Sorry, the angle was off. Okay, so here's the objectivity, and here's the vector of intent for blood purity. See how the pure objectivity is incorporated as an asset?"

"Yeah."

"Better yet, if we add ethics to the equation, we can see that objectivity is an asset because it skirts or replaces the ethical question, depending on what the other variables are. Okay, so now this is a vector for parenthood. What do you see the objectivity as in this context?"

Hermione squinted at the pink characters. "Fairness," she said. "Moral judgement?"

"Pretty much. Of course, without the full range of variables in a given situation, this sort of experimentation is only an exercise. Still, you can see the two vectors aren't mutually exclusive, since I was able to place both in the same configuration. I just mean that if Sturridge was right when he said Snape was utterly and academically objective in all things, it doesn't imply Snape was necessarily unethical or corrupt." Septima wiped the arithmancy figures away. "Who'd have thought little Sturridge would become such a shit?"

"I hope that's a rhetorical question, because there's more."

"About Sturridge?"

"No, about Snape." Hermione told her about the forced visit to Luna's laboratory. "What I don't understand," she said, "is why I can make it out, if the MLE can't crack the Muddling spell, and if Snape charmed the manuscript to be legible only to himself as he wrote that he did. The text swims, but I can definitely read it."

"Did you mention that to Dr Lovegood?"

"Tried to. She shushed me with something about startled wuffalumps."

"Be careful there, Hermione. She's not as full of fancy as she seems. Do you mind telling me what you remember of what you read?"

"Not here, but I'll tell you later if you want. The jist of it was that he'd been asked to provide a counterweight--blackmail material, if you will--in order to ensure his trustworthiness."

"Ensure? Not prove? And to whom?"

"Ensure. To Lucius Malfoy, who said that loyalty could shift and proof could be forged."

Septima shuddered. "Malfoy was a nasty piece of work. Did Snape say what he provided?"

"Me, I think," Hermione said.

Septima laughed. "Come on. What did he provide?"

"I'm quite serious," Hermione bristled. "He wrote that he'd made me the unwilling participant in some procedure he had researched. There was a potion involved. Lucius was pleased because I was 'desirably expendable' and called me Snape's weakness."

"He mentioned you directly?"

"Well, no, but--"

"No buts."

"I'm not making blind assumptions." Hermione held up her hand and ticked off her reasons on her fingers. "My name shows up at least three times in that document as the addressee. The description of the unwilling participant fits a lot of people, but it also fits me. The participant is also the addressee. I can read the original manuscript. Pictures of me were found with it. Ron flipped out. Luna is convinced the document has to do with me."

"You read a few sentences and one page out of hundreds and you're convinced? Hermione... And what kind of reason is 'Ron flipped out'?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Ron has a fuse, yeah, but it's been years since I've seen it. You can't expect me to overlook that."

"I still think your conclusion is wrong. Can you think of any magical bindings that you wouldn't be aware of?"

"Plenty," Hermione said. "They're all either classified as Dark, or they're ambiguous enough that they probably should be. And it depends what you mean by 'aware of'. Victims are arguably not aware of the Imperius Curse when it's in effect. Anyway, I owled Draco Malfoy about talking to his father."

"Well, that'll be good entertainment for me if next Tuesday is as dull as today was."

***

Someone bumped into Hermione on the street on the way home, knocking her down. She scrambled to her feet with the help of a pair of tiny, thin hands that belonged to Luna Lovegood, who was half-Disillusioned.

"Sorry, Hermione," said her voice from a bit above the fluttering hands. "I hope you're not hurt. I was watching a memory when I should have been looking where I was going. Let me know if it's any better?" The hands patted her robes as if to make sure she was whole, then waved goodbye and hurried away.

Hermione shook her head, reached into the pocket that Luna had just pat down, and withdrew a rolled parchment glowing with the tell-tale pale blue of a duplication spell. She unrolled it as she walked. It was a long scroll containing a page of Severus Snape's manuscript via a duplication spell that was clearly much more advanced than the one used on the papers she had at home. The words were foggy and shifted constantly, but she could make them out with a bit of effort. The rest of the scroll was blank.

Hermione realized she was about to walk into a lamppost, shrugged somewhat foolishly, and rolled the scroll up to tuck away in her sleeve alongside her wand. She would have to wait until she got home to read the scroll, since it was going to involve concentration, squinting, and possibly a potion for motion sickness.

At home, she checked on the kids. Rose was pretending to sleep and Hugo was sprawled on his back, snoring lightly. Hermione felt oddly detached from them both. She stood in the doorway to Hugo's room and tried to imagine herself bargaining with someone like Professor Snape to ensure Hugo's life the way even Lucius Malfoy was capable of doing for his son. She could, and yet she couldn't. That all-consuming need to keep someone safe was something she'd felt for Harry, and by extension, for Ron. Perhaps it was only because she knew what it meant to give up everything for someone's safety, and because they were not at war now, that she could not entirely envision that need directed at her own son.

She heard Ron behind her and turned slightly as he put his arms around her.

"Our son is perfect," he whispered. "Isn't he? And our Rosie is growing up into such an amazing young woman. I love you three so much. I'd do anything for you."

Hermione turned to him in shock and sorrow. He kissed her upturned face. "We made something so beautiful," he said, mistaking her emotion, making her feel sick with guilt.

"I know," Hermione said. She let Ron take that as heartfelt agreement. It felt like lying.

They stood for a moment more watching Hugo sleep, Ron's arms around her and his chin on her shoulder. She squeezed his forearm.

"Coming to bed?" he asked.

"Not just yet."

Ron yawned. "I'll probably be asleep by the time you tuck in, then. Good night, love." He kissed her ear and padded down the hall to their bedroom.

She turned and made her way in the opposite direction, down the stairs to the kitchen. She sat down at the table where Ron had put out the place settings for breakfast, lit her wand, and unrolled the parchment Luna had given her.

***

I am so bloody tired. It was raining earlier and the blood ran to the gutters. I never cared before other than the impression that it was a devil of a waste, but tonight was particularly bad. I have rarely been so glad of the mask. I come back to pander my colleagues and play children's games, pacify the Ministry, pacify my Master, and brew before bed. This is a dog's life. I can't think, I am so tired. Which is likely why I am writing now.

I hope you will never know what it is like to see a face turned up to yours begging for clemency, whilst you know you could probably find some way to grant it, but won't waste the effort. Clemency is a revolutionary measure--I am merely the servant of a common terror. I am not writing of a child's desire to escape punishment meant to guide him, whether or not he has actually misbehaved. I am inured to that sort of pleading. But that child becomes a man you believed you could respect, a woman defending her offspring, a young person with dreams. All adults have done something heinous worthy of the worst punishment, but this is not that punishment. They confess to me. The things they have done and the people they betray disgust me. Their faces, their words, their lack of control over their own bodies, these revolt me. There is so little good in it all. I have no illusions; what I do is not justice. I am far worse that they because I am aware of what I perpetuate and what sort of creature I am. What do you call a man who can look into the faces of his victims and recognise them as human before beginning an intricate torture that will leave them unidentifiable to Muggle means and Magic?

My Master calls this man--this thing--obedient. Sometimes I retch in the street afterwards, but it helps if I take a potion beforehand to dull the smell. It is mostly the smell that bothers me.

The worst is the effort after so little sleep to be gentle enough in the morning with you miscreants, you children who will all grow into monsters. I have often thought that were I not to curb my desire to take the full extent of my disappointment out on my students, I might indeed serve you better by preventing what you will someday see and what you will someday become. I have thrown myself between you children and danger, scant or bloody, too many times to count. I don't understand why I do it.

Hermione knew the feeling--she didn't understand herself, either. Her wand light pulsed slightly with her heartbeat in the quiet of the kitchen. She shouldn't feel more kinship with this morally ambiguous (no, he was more evil than that if he admitted to being a monster, surely?) writer that with her husband. Snape was struggling to raise other people's detestable children to be socially acceptable creatures in a fashion that did not involve eviscerating them before breakfast; Ron adored their own children and would--she was sure--give his life for them out of love, rather than principle. It bothered her that she felt vaguely thwarted by Ron's attitude, as though she'd been weighed and found wanting--yet warmed by Severus Snape's disdain.

Her hand on her hip touched the flames. There was a slight comfort in knowing there was no grave danger now. Ron knew her faults and loved her anyway. She was worthy of that love. There was good in her. There was.

***

Draco Malfoy's study was intended to be imposing, but Hermione didn't mind. It was full of dark wood and deep colors and objects chosen to project wealth. The visitor's chair that he had shifted for her before taking refuge in the huge armchair behind his desk was narrow, tall-backed and surprisingly uncomfortable. The desk was tastefully adorned with expensive-looking photo frames and statuettes. Hermione, however, couldn't keep her eyes from drifting to the medieval tomes behind Draco's head as he talked, and hoped desperately that he didn't think she was trying to be rude.

"I don't suggest you talk to Father," Draco was saying stiffly. He'd had his hair shaved close to his head since the last time she'd seen him, perhaps in a effort to hide the balding on his crown and at his temples. "He's more than half-mad these days."

There was a knock on the study door. "Come in," Draco called.

A straight-backed blond boy took a step into the room before noticing Hermione. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Father."

Draco stood as the boy entered and was quick to reassure: "No, no. Hermione, have you met my son, Scorpius?"

"I don't believe we've been introduced, no. My pleasure, Scorpius."

"Oh, no, entirely mine, ma'am. Are you Rose's mum?"

"Yes, and Hugo's."

"Why won't you let her see me?"

"Scorpius!" Draco snapped, clearly horrified. "Apologize to Mrs Weasley-Granger immediately!"

"I'm sorry, ma'am." The boy's head dropped, as though he were trying to hide the brilliant red flush that absolutely did not go with his blond hair.

Draco tapped a finger impatiently on the edge of the massive desk. "Now, what is it you wanted? I'm in the middle of an interview."

"Mother's gone to see Aunt Daphne and I wanted to know if I could go over to the Notts' for the afternoon."

"Of course you can." The boy was halfway out the door before Draco stopped him. "Scorpius, please remember, a Malfoy mustn't be rude. But you're--a good boy."

"Always, Father. Good-bye, Mrs Weasley-Granger."

Well, thought Hermione bitterly, jealous of whatever it was she had just witnessed between father and son, that was interesting.

"I'm sorry about what my son implied. You've got every right to keep your daughter from my son if you wish." Draco looked like the admission pained him.

"Don't be ridiculous. The only thing I've forbidden Rose recently has nothing whatsoever to do with seeing your son and everything to do with keeping Cockroach Clusters under her bed."

"I know a very good fairy exterminator," Draco offered, softening.

"Had you said so when we discovered the mess two months ago, I'd have been in your debt, but we've managed."

"I'll tell Scorpius, then. We were talking about you talking to my father? Perhaps my mother could help? Or perhaps I could, if you'd tell me what sort of information you're looking for."

Hermione weighed the possibility. "Actually, I'm not sure. It's about Severus Snape."

"Who?" Draco sat down sharply, making the huge leather chair behind his desk creak. "Severus Snape? Don't you think he suffered enough? Can't you let the dead be?"

"It's not my fault!" Hermione cried. "The Ministry's pushing to crack a spell protecting his papers, and I'm somehow wrapped up in this."

"What? That's the daftest thing I've heard all year!"

"And your father knew something about it!"

"I doubt it."

"He did!" she insisted. "And you're the first person to defend Severus Snape. The best I could get was from Septima Vector, who told me he wasn't actually 'the worst of humanity'."

"You still get on with Septima Vector?" This seemed to amuse him.

"I also talked to someone named Sturridge, who apparently appreciated Snape a bit too much."

"Felix Sturridge? If I were you, I'd take whatever he told you with a grain of salt. What possessed you to visit that freak?" Draco frowned at her. "Nevermind. Professor Snape was a good friend to my parents. Did you know my mother made him take an Unbreakable Vow to aid and protect me?"

"And kill Dumbledore in your stead?"

"You don't mince words." Draco looked down.

"I hope we're not still enemies. I know we've barely spoken since school. I'm not trying to malign anyone's fragile reputation. I'm just trying to understand why and how any of this involves me. And, erm, the naked pictures Colin Creevey took of me when I was seventeen."

"What? You're going to have to tell me the whole story now. Or rather, not now." He glanced up at a something over Hermione's head. When she turned about, it was a clock; the hand labeled "Draco" was moving from "Late!" to "Very late!"

"We could meet for lunch tomorrow?" she suggested.

"Done," Draco said. "I'll send you an owl. Sorry to hurry off on you. Can you see yourself out?"

***

When Hermione unrolled the Luna's scroll again at work, she was surprised to see it no longer ended where it had. After a gap of several inches, a new text had appeared:

He said: "See that you do." Flick of his hand. I was dismissed.

That was the first time. I have been playing two madmen and their fanatical minions off of one another for so long that actually having a desired outcome makes me sweat with fear. I have long known I would die, vanquished, led in irons, consumed by regrets, burnt by more fires than I ever lit; I deserve and desire nothing else. You, though, should not be confined to live in a world run by either of my masters--they are both ruthless; one sees you as a pawn to use and dispose of and the other as vermin--but you would not live long at all in a world ruled by the latter. This knowledge terrifies me because I am valuable in this world so long as I am dangerous, and I am dangerous only so long as I care for nothing, not reward nor relief nor my own life. I will drive myself to madness with the need to rid the world of him. Logic tells me to forgo this as folly. I am not sure I can. Will you, fire-eyed maid of smoky war, look at me as fondly as you look at your familiar when he lays the dead bodies of your enemies at your feet? I think not.

There's a certain irony to all of this: Lucius's meddling will be his own downfall, if I have my way.

Since Ron had advised her to trust Draco ("He cheers for the Falcons, love; of course he's trustworthy."), Hermione brought the packet of photos and papers along on the lunch date. He had owled that evening to suggest a time and a restaurant; when Hermione arrived, it was to find that he'd reserved a private room and had already selected a menu. The decor was very seventeenth century--lots of moulding and gilding and high ceilings with painted cherubs among the clouds--and Hermione tried not to feel underdressed or overawed.

Draco paged through the packet while they waited for their first starters. "This is definitely Professor Snape's handwriting. Do you know why only the first sentence, the one addressed to my father, is clear?"

Hermione shook her head. He returned to his perusal of the packet.

"Hmm. I didn't know you had a tattoo."

That was precisely the problem. "Theoretically, neither did he. Ginny and Harry and Ron know now--and Colin Creevey knew at the time, obviously--and I'm certain the tattoo artist knew who I really was. But there shouldn't have been anyone else."

"It's nice work. Must have been expensive."

"Oh yes," Hermione said, remembering. She'd saved all of the pin money her parents sent her for the entire year, and sold three of her more advanced text books to make up the difference. "But some things are worth paying for, though the price could have been much worse."

"Certainly. Can I ask who did the inking?"

"Ixion Pearce."

"Is this a joke?"

"No... What do you know about Ixion Pearce?"

"Uh, Death Eater, Hermione? Died in a brawl when my father got out of Azkeban, which means he did something Father didn't like--which also means you got that tattoo way before you were legal. At any rate, he would have certainly known who Professor Snape was. Why did you let a Death Eater ink you? Have you ever had it looked at by a healer, just in case?"

"Ixion Pearce was a Death Eater? I went to the only person I could afford." Hermione suddenly felt very cold.

"Merlin, Hermione, you've gone white; did you never think there's a reason he charged less? Though it looks good here. Did it age well?"

"Perfectly. You'd never know it wasn't new."

"That's odd," Draco said, and rolled up his left sleeve. "I had this done when Scorpius was born, so it's much younger than yours." Over the scorched and scarred remains of Voldemort's brand, a blue scorpion writhed. "Astoria was furious. Anyway, you can see how dull it already is. It used to be much more aggressive, but they say it's not just the color that ages. I originally had it done in a bright scarab blue; I've been thinking of having it re-inked. You're sure yours hasn't faded?"

"I can hardly check here," Hermione said wryly. "But, yes, I'm sure. If there were anything wrong, it would have surely manifested by now. I've had it for twenty-five years."

Draco swept the papers out of the way just in time for their plates to arrive. "If I were you, I'd get it looked at. Given what I assume Ixion Pearce's blood prejudices to have been, there's no telling."

"I'll consider your advice." Actually, the idea terrified her and if she didn't get it looked at--or at least research the possible health complications--in the next few days, her name wasn't Hermione Granger. Hermione Weasley-Granger, she corrected herself. How had her life spun so far out of her control?

"So why come to me?" Draco asked. She was glad for the distraction his voice brought, and took a moment to phrase her answer.

"Luna let me see the original papers; MLE is working to remove the spell on the text. There's been no visible change, but I could read it when I saw it. The page I saw was the retelling of a conversation he had with your father."

"Really? What did it say?"

"Essentially, that I was the blackmail to ensure that Professor Snape would protect you."

Draco gave her a wide-eyed startled look that made him look at least twenty years younger. "Shit." He swallowed convulsively. "I was ready not to believe you, but that actually makes sense."

"How could that possibly make sense?" Hermione demanded. "That was the part that I found the most confusing."

"Before Sixth Year, just before he was sent to--prison--Father told me that I was to leave you alone. I think he said something about Potter being a good target, and your husband would make for easy practice, but that I wasn't to touch a hair on your head. He made me swear a wand oath to protect you if I could until he released me or until the war ended."

"What happened?"

"The war ended," Draco said. "I never knew why I was supposed to avoid you, but it makes sense if you were standing surety for my safety. I know both of my parents asked Professor Snape to take care of me."

"Asked?" Hermione nearly shrieked. "A Vow and blackmail is asking in your family?"

"Calm down! Circe's tits, Hermione. We're in a public place, even if the room is private."

"All right, say your father wanted a way to ensure Professor Snape would do what he wanted and keep an eye on you. Why me? You mean a lot to your father, obviously, but I have no connection to Professor Snape at all."

Draco grinned. "That's obviously not the case. I was hoping you'd tell me why Professor Snape named you, and why my father apparently accepted."

"And I was hoping to ask your father that, since I have no idea and a certain Severus Snape can't answer."

Draco stared at her for a moment, then agreed. Nothing so vulgar as an exchange of money occurred as they left the restaurant, but Hermione had the distinct impression that he'd taken care of the note. On the pavement outside, he offered her his arm.

"I don't mean to be rude," he said, "but it's the fastest and safest way of getting home, and I expect you'll have to be back at work."

Hermione took his arm. "I don't mind Side-Along, but if you splinch me, Draco Malfoy, you will have a serious problem on your hands."

"No worries," said Draco. Hermione felt a tug, and then her feet were slipping on a perfectly-shined marble floor. Her grip on Draco's arm kept her upright. When she had regained her balance, he led her to a door, knocked, and let them both in.

Lucius Malfoy was strapped into what looked suspiciously like an old Muggle wheelchair, attended by a pair of droopy-eared house elves. He bared his teeth and hissed at them. "Get that filthy creature out of my sight!" he snapped.

"Sorry," Draco whispered. He raised his voice. "Father, this is Hermione Weasley-Granger. She has a question for you."

"Should have been Hermione Snape," he growled. "He would have treated you the way you deserve."

"Er," said Hermione, "That's rather what I wanted to ask about. Why should I have been Hermione Snape?"

"Because you hated him," Lucius replied, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "And I would have loved to see you grovel. To plead, to beg, and never be free from under his thumb. I've seen him torture, seen his face when they implored him. Glorious!" He bared his teeth and lunged at her, jerking the chair forward.

"Father..."

"It's all right," Hermione assured him. "Mr Malfoy, why would Professor Snape have, er, wanted me?"

Lucius threw his head back and began to laugh. "Severus? Want you? A Mudblood?" His laughter became more and more wild. " You were merely expendable. Want you! Ha!"

Draco steered her back out the door, then shut it firmly on the rising gales of laughter. The sound stopped abruptly when the door clicked shut. Hermione suspected a silencing charm.

"I'm sorry," Draco said. "I was afraid of that. It could have been worse, but he's not entirely well. Hasn't been for years."

Hermione bit her lip. "Do you think he was telling the truth?"

Draco shrugged one shoulder. "Who knows? Probably."

***

I woke thinking of you and found I had nearly brought myself to completion. So I finished. Forgive me. I am disgusted--never by you, but you will bear the brand of it all the same.

I passed on information last night to a woman who thought my service was to be repaid. I did not like her hands on my person. I repulsed her, snarling, and she subsided and left me to walk back in the dark alone. I am poor company even for myself these days. I am also fairly certain the information was falsified, which cheapens her gratitude, but it was made quite clear to me the other night that I am here for my ability to pass and glean information, not my common sense. It was suggested to me that it is generally believed I am frequently tortured, if not by one master then by the other, but were that the case, Wednesday night's lesson would have been effectively mitigated. I ache like the devil. The curse still sends ripples of fire along my nerves. Even this morning's completion was less relief than pain. I am not used to this. I am used to being on the other end, to loneliness and suspicions and constant fear, constant vigilance, all unacknowledged in the void. I am used to knowing that if my hands tremble it is because my mind is not focused. I am not used to muscle damage.

This is none of your business. You are sleeping in a tent near a lake and suffering the weight of a burden of an evil that you should not even know, much less have to bear. I do not expect you to bear mine as well. Kick up the fire, and let the flames break loose; you should have light.

It was Friday night and Ron had a game up in Scotland against the Prides. Hermione was staring at blank screen because she was tired and the telly wasn't working again. Adapting Muggle electronics to work in the Wizarding world defied the rules of the universe, though Hermione sometimes got lucky and caught a whole programme now and again.

"Mum?" Rose slipped around the couch and sat down next to her. "Are you going to leave Daddy?"

"What?" Hermione chuckled at the absurdity of the whole idea. "Of course not. Why would I leave your dad?"

"I know you went to see Scorpius's dad."

"I did. That has nothing to do with your father, with whom I discussed the visit."

"I thought you didn't want me to see Scorpius so I wouldn't find out you were cheating on Daddy."

Hermione stared at her daughter in shock. "I would never, ever, ever cheat on your father."

Rose just shrugged. "Scorpius's mum is cheating on his dad."

"I don't need to hear about it, Rose. What other people's parents do has no bearing on what your own parents do. We had this discussion when you were seven and wanted your ears pierced because Uncle Bill and Aunt Fleur let Victoire pierce her ears."

"Mum, that was ages ago. I know it's not the same. I'm not a baby. But..." Rose gave her a fearful look. "Don't get mad at me. I know you don't love Daddy."

Hermione felt the full force of the accusation: you don't love Ron like you should; you don't love Rose and Hugo like you should; you don't even love Ron like Rose does; your love is wrong. She knew Rose was waiting for her to deny it.

"Lots of kids' parents get divorced," Rose said quickly, as if to cover a mistake. "It's not like when you were our age. I thought if you didn't love Dad, maybe you loved someone else?"

"No," said Hermione. "I don't love anyone else either."

Her daughter frowned and hugged her knees. "Is that okay, then?"

"I don't know," Hermione said. "It's always been like this. Your father knew it when we got married. It makes me sad sometimes."

"Mm," said Rose. "Mum?"

"Yes, darling?"

"I think I love Scorpius. Not like a girl with a crush, but something so big I can't breathe. It isn't puppy love. It won't go away."

"Oh dear."

"Mum! I'm serious," Rose snapped, and broke into tears. "It just gets worse and worse, since First Year. Scorpius--Scorpius likes me a lot, I think, but it's not the same way I love him and I wanted to know if it's possible--" she hiccuped-- "for that to be real."

"For what to be real?"

"This! Everything! Even though it's so unequal. Or is it mean of me to want it?"

"Oh dear," Hermione heard herself say before she could stop herself, and then had to tear up the stairs after Rose and pound on the door her daughter slammed in her face. "I'm not laughing at you, sweetie! I promise."

Hermione eventually sat down on the carpet in the hall to wait her daughter out, and when that didn't get her anywhere, tapped on the door again. "Rose? You'll have to ask Scorpius if it's real for him. I can't tell you that. But it's human to want it. That's the good part of being human."

"Go away," came Rose's muffled voice. "I hate you."

Hermione didn't want it. That good part of being human wasn't for her. But Hermione knew what the expected motions were supposed to be; she knew how to pretend, and she was getting surprisingly good at it. When Rose told her to go away, Hermione went.

***

Luna kept feeding her readable passages duplicated from the original Snape manuscript, though when they had talked by floo, Luna claimed it was merely a more sensitive duplication technique, that the MLE had come no further in their efforts to decipher the mess than before.

Many of the passages were a record of interactions, each serving to isolate him, although he himself was often a participant. They were marked by his peculiar way of presenting dialogue with a simple "he said:" or "she said:" or "I said:" before every line and his self-mocking forthright irony in the comments and annotations around the conversations. He never recorded conversations of strategic importance, and the only proper names were hers, Lucius's, and Dumbledore's--Hermione wasn't sure whether "my Master" counted as a proper name. Everything else was disguised thinly as "a colleague", "a man", "a student", "a contact". Hermione wasn't certain how reliable his reporting was, though at points she was fairly sure she recognized speech patterns. Was that Professor McGonagall? And she could have sworn that was a description of Harry.

The rest was introspection, cautious but surprisingly open, always directed at her as though he were speaking, not to a void but to her as a person. He must have hated himself by the end. Yet when he described the person he wrote to, Hermione was astonished by the prickly tenderness and the uncanny accuracy with which he had seen--well, whatever small part he had seen--of her younger self.

***

I can take little more of this weariness. Paired with the distance I keep from everyone, it is unbearable. I hope you will never know how desperately I love you. I have no illusions as to what I am, and how little good I have to offer. What of me is worth having is yours; the rest I shall endeavor to do away with before you can be tainted further than you have already been. I did not understand the harm I did you when I mixed the ink that would mark you. It wasn't that my moral compass sent me shy of north; it's more that I hadn't got one at all. What is Right, Hermione? What is Right? I am so lost, yet you know the answer and you fight for it. I have been at war for all of your life, and never once had your tenacity.

I don't know how it will be for you when I am gone. I did not expect to have embedded my actual heart in your skin, but I did not expect that I would be affected by it, either, heartless as I am. The best I can hope is that when I am gone the poison that I am will fade from you, or that you will realise what you wear and do your best to counteract it. I should have found a way to have the pictures I confiscated from the dead boy's belongings returned to you, but I cannot. I cannot explain the comfort it gives me to see my mark on your body. The fact that it comforts me assures me that it is Wrong. There are five ways of fighting with fire; you have mastered at least one.

If nothing else, it is Wrong because you wish to belong, and I will have cast you out if this is known. It is Wrong because you will look for answers in a book, where there are none to be found. I have destroyed my own notes; I know dangerous magic when I touch it, and this is most definitely something you will call Dark--though I wish your adulthood would bring you the ability to see things less in terms of pure dark and pure light. I fervently hope that will come after this war has ended. Your belief in the light will serve you now. There will be time later for the rest. If there is not, you will not need it. I wish I could have bargained for something better for you.

That sent her directly to the floo to schedule an consultation with a healer.

***

On Tuesday evening, Septima held her hand as Hermione shifted on the examination table in the green and white room at St Mungo's. The healer peeled back the paper robe.

"When did you say you had this done?" the healer asked.

"Twenty-five years ago," Hermione said.

The healer smiled indulgently and shook her head. "You can own up to it. Many witches your age have tattoos done. This can't be more than a few months old. Nice work, by the way."

"But it is twenty-five years old," Hermione insisted. "I was recently told that the artist was a Death Eater, and I have reason to believe the ink was--well, maybe not cursed, but modified."

"Let me scrape some skin cells, and I'll run a few tests," the healer said. "But you are in overall good health and it looks like a perfectly executed, perfectly healed recent tattoo." She swabbed the ink and Hermione gasped. "Extra-sensitive?"

"It always has been. My husband, uh, is fond of it." Septima squeezed her hand.

The healer frowned at them both. "Sensitive how? I thought you were reacting to the cold. Is it merely physical?"

"No," Hermione confirmed. "It didn't feel that cold. I thought that was normal."

"I'm going to run your tests right now, if you don't mind waiting?"

"Please," said Hermione.

"I'll be back in twenty minutes with the results and an expert in spell damage."

The door shut behind the healer's green robes. Septima pulled herself up onto the examination table with Hermione. "Don't panic yet," she said wryly. "If between you and Severus Snape the only magic you can come up with is something she's seen before, I will be sorely disappointed."

Hermione glared at her.

"No, really," Septima insisted, and dug a folded sheet of parchment from her pocket. "Here."

"I can follow your reasoning, I think," Hermione said, accepting the paper and unfolding it to reveal a full page of equations. She began to laugh. "You calculated the probability that it's malignant? Based on what?"

Septima leaned over. "This is your aura, and this is your children's health, and this is your relationship with Ron, and that's your own health, and that's Ixion Pearce's intentions, and that's the time passed since Snape died. This one here is Lucius Malfoy, Snape's purpose, and so on. The other variables are less important, but I put in everything I could think of. Nineteen percent it's malignant. Sixty-two percent percent you're worrying over nothing. And another nineteen percent it's actually done you good."

"All right," said Hermione. "So, distract me properly for twenty minutes, then."

"So," Septima mimicked. "You were saying earlier about something being the matter with Rose?"

"That's not a distraction. Tell me about your weekend instead."

"Trust me," Septima said. "That's not a distraction, either."

Fourteen minutes later there was a knock on the exam room door, and the healer entered with a young woman who introduced herself as Susan Pickering, Spell Damage.

"None of the tests suggested anything wrong with your tattoo, Mrs Weasley-Granger," the healer said, "but there is a fair amount of latent magic, which is very rare in a tattoo this old. We ran tests for magical signatures in your skin cells and found two very different strands. That is why Dr Pickering is here. If you'd like me to stay while she examines you, I'd be happy to help."

"No," Hermione declined. "I think the fewer people the better."

"Then I hope you continue to keep up your good health, Mrs Weasley-Granger."

"Well then!" Dr Pickering said brightly, once the healer had shut the door behind her. "This is a pleasant change from my usual patients!"

"Oh?" Septima asked.

"I see a lot of splinched limbs, cursed appendages, hexes, that sort of thing. Your friend here seems to be thriving. Let's just run a quick diagnosis to see what the spell is, shall we?" A flick and a swish and a muttered incantation later, and Hermione felt like she was being compressed under a pile of bricks. "Oh my," said Dr. Pickering. "Let's try a different one before we suffocate her, shall we?"

"Thanks," Hermione wheezed as the sensation changed entirely. Now she just itched.

"Sorry about that. Happens sometimes with the bits of Dark magic, and there's a nice one for you," the expert said jovially. "Reminds me of a horcrux--" Hermione blanched. "--except without the soul and without the nasty side effects, as far as I can see. Hmm, and the second magical signature seems limited to the tattoo, so we aren't talking about Possession--"

"Do you always talk as you work?" Septima asked mildly.

"Oh, yes," Dr. Pickering said. "It makes it much easier to confirm a diagnosis; my spells are charmed to ring if I mention something that doesn't correspond to the symptoms. I'll say, that's very interesting! I hope you don't have any intention of trying to remove the tattoo, ma'am. It looks properly laid and responds well to all of my spells, so I'd guess it's the ink. But as long as you keep it, there shouldn't be any trouble. Have you had any health problems since you had it? Injuries?"

"I don't think so. Nothing major," Hermione said, and suddenly realized that, other than hangovers, it had been a very long time since she'd had so much as a headache.

"Hmm. Children?"

"Two."

"Easy childbirth?"

"Normal, I think."

Dr Pickering grinned and shook her head. "I'd need your permission to go through your records, especially this far back, but I suspect this has been protecting you. I wouldn't be surprised to find you should have had long and difficult labour that inexplicably took only half an hour."

"That sounds like Hugo," Hermione muttered. "Breech. There was a bit of panic, but everything sorted itself out suddenly."

"Exactly that sort of thing. And perhaps, uh..." The mediwitch blushed, waved her wand, and tried again as a wave of red bloomed around Hermione. "Uh, it might be fun to stroke in bed."

The only thing worse, Hermione thought, than the embarrassment she was feeling was likely the embarrassment the young mediwitch was feeling. "It is," Hermione said, testily. Dr Pickering flinched.

"Well, there you go. I should think getting rid of it would be riskier and a lot more painful than keeping it, but it's up to you."

"You said it was like a horcrux," Hermione prompted.

"Not exactly. Whatever was in the ink was a dear part of someone else, and now it's yours. It's the same basic principle as a horcrux: embedding a part of the self in something outside the self, and probably a very nasty requirement to make it stick. It's the only thing I can think of that would make these waves here--" she pointed to red glow of the spell, where it rippled around Hermione's hip "--and produce a double magical signature." She looked up at Hermione's face, then groaned. "You're Hermione Granger, aren't you, ma'am? Oh Merlin, I'm so sorry, you must have terrible memories associated with horcruxes. Your experience during the War is the only reason they teach us about horcrux wakes in training and I've never met anyone..."

She trailed off into silence as Hermione and Septima both stared at her.

Hermione recovered first. "You're telling me that someone put part of himself into the ink that was used on my hip by means of something kin to Dark magic, left it there, and that it's fine where it is?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"How sure are you?"

"About sure, ma'am. I can show you the references--"

"Yes, please."

"--and you're entitled to a second opinion if you wish."

"Yes, that too. Can I use your floo? I'd like to tell my husband I'll be later than I thought."

***

They met with the board that would give her a second opinion at what was rapidly become an ungodly hour in a small conference room reserved for visitors, which Hermione strongly suspected was often used to tell family members that their loved ones had died. The four healers--including Susan Pickering, Spell Damage and the original healer who had examined the tattoo--sat on one side of the conference table with notepads and medical files. Hermione and Septima found themselves seated across from the healers. There was a moment of silence whilst they all waited for someone else to start, then Hermione said, "Let's get this done. What exactly is the spell on my tattoo?"

"We weren't able to determine that, ma'am," the third healer said. He was the only man in the group. He sat up straighter and glanced down at his notes. "As you've already been told, it bears certain resemblance to a horcrux, though I assure you there is no soul involved. We also found elements usually associated with betrothal bindings--illegal nowadays, you understand, so unlikely--and properties of ashwinder eggs, also a controlled substance, though not dangerous. These findings support the theory of blood magic, which would account for the second magical signature. The enchantment or ritual is not one we have encountered before. Finally, we found evidence of the addition of a very strong Shielding potion to the ink, which is why, as you have also already been advised, our official position is that it would be dangerous to have the tattoo removed."

The second specialist, a psychologist, continued. "My colleagues' diagnoses and tests have given no counter-indications. Your medical history suggests that the Shielding potion has had positive effects on your general health. Personally, I would like to see you back here under my care for other issues, but you don't appear to have had a negative reaction to the person who donated their magic and their blood. This could be a sign that they wished you well, or that you had a personal affinity, or it could be meaningless. It's always hard to tell with this sort of thing, especially so long after the fact."

"Can you identify this person based on the magical signature?"

The healers looked at one another. Susan Pickering answered. "Yes, if you give us something to compare it to."

"Would this work?" Hermione pushed Luna's duplicate scroll across the table. "As you can see, it's a duplicate, but the original is heavily charmed."

Dr Pickering unrolled the scroll enough to examine it briefly, then passed it to the original healer on Hermione's case. "Oh, I think it might. Tess? Do you mind?" As the healer took the scroll and left the room, Susan Pickering explained, "She'll run the comparison tests and will be back in a few minutes."

"Ashwinder eggs are commonly found in love potions," Hermione said. "Do you think I could have been influenced to feel or behave artificially?" Septima shifted beside her, but Hermione refused to turn her head.

"No," the male healer answered steadily. "We didn't find enough trace to influence you. My specialty is medicinal potions, though I'm not a Master. This looks more like it was meant to influence the caster. If you'd like, we can have potions brewed that can be used to verify that. I would personally advise against that sort of treatment, in part because of the Shield and in part because we would have to give you the sort of love potions you suspect you've been subject to; their ineffectiveness would be the only sign you are or have been under their influence. It can be unpleasant. I also have doubts that we'd find evidence of influence that likely ended more than a decade or so ago. I'm sure you can see the loopholes yourself."

"Still," said the psychologist, "I'd be extremely surprised if carrying around someone else's essence hadn't influenced you, the way any normal relationship would have influenced you over so long a period."

"What about future complications?" Septima asked. "Say my friend wants to have the tattoo modified, enlarged, touched up--something like that."

"Don't do it," Pickering said. "You'll likely have no problems with the Shield if you do it yourself, but it would be a waste of galleons to even try."

Her colleagues agreed. "But there's no reason at all to expect complications unrelated to modification of the tattoo to arise. In terms of general physical, magical and psychological health, you have nothing to worry about," Pickering assured her.

"You asked for references," said the potions expert. "I had one of our interns compile a bibliography and duplicate internal documents that you won't be able to find elsewhere. Accio binder." It flew off the cart in the corner of the room into his hands, nearly knocking him backwards. He set it on the table with a thud and pushed it across to Hermione. It was strapped shut in order to keep the cover from bursting. "Because of the complexity and the unknown qualities, uh, it's a bit thick."

"It's not a problem. I like research," said Hermione. Septima snickered.

The general healer knocked and returned with Hermione's parchment and a sheet of test results. She cleared her throat.

"Yes?" said Hermione.

"It's a match. No loose strands. Both are pure products of the same witch or wizard," she announced, handing the scroll back to Hermione. "I hope this answer puts you at ease."

Hermione shrugged. "It's better than the alternatives."

The healer nodded in acknowledgement. "We don't have this identity in our files, and confidentiality is your prerogative, Mrs Weasley-Granger, but I do have to say, given the nature of the work embedded in your tattoo, we would be required to arrest this person for multiple counts of practice of Dark magic with an intent to deceive."

"That won't be a problem," Septima said dryly. "This person died a long time ago and nothing would be gained from that sort of posthumous inquest."

"I'll note that in Mrs Weasley-Granger's file, then," said the healer.

"If that is all for the moment?" Susan Pickering asked. "Of course, we're just a floo-call away should you have further questions."

Hermione shook herself out of shock, which Susan Pickering, Spell Damage interpreted as an answer to her question. Hands were shaken. Septima, bless her, took Hermione home. Hermione was fairly certain she wouldn't have arrived on her own.

***

Nothing more was added to the scroll for several days, until Hermione finally took it upon herself to floo from work in the morning before her coworkers had arrived. Luna's head bobbed in the fire as she explained excitedly that they were making such excellent progress that keeping Hermione updated had slipped her mind. When the two women had said good-bye, Hermione unrolled the scroll to find a new passage, longer than the previous ones, the narrow, curling tail of the G in the final line touching the very bottom edge of the parchment. This would be the last, then, unless she went in to the laboratory or unless Luna passed her a new piece of parchment.

***

I wish to the devil I could give you lessons in military tactics. You are not a strategist. I am curiously glad of it, but, still. Dearest, in all things, dissemble. Recklessness leads to destruction. Honor and over-solicitude for your soldiers will lead to worry, shame, and ruin. Do not underestimate your enemy. I had perhaps better send a book your way; you will heed its instructions more than mine.

Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men. Yes, we can all be paid, bullied, tortured or rewarded into betraying one another. We all act to our own best advantage. Control those advantages, and you control the man. Control the man, and you gain knowledge. With knowledge of your enemy, you win the battle. There is no shame in that, no matter what you consequently sentence the man to. Answer with fire and blood. You can and you may. That is the charm of free will. His, that is. You will have to learn to live with your own guilt.

You would not believe the intimate secrets people confide to me. You've seen me: do I look like an appropriate confidante? You know what I am, I think. A turn-coat, a slave to two masters, a master of lies, a monster. Yet a neutral expression and a manifest desire to avoid petty conflicts and they will tell me the most unexpected things. I am carrying the entire castle's worries and hopes--and sins. It gives me nightmares. Not the metaphorical kind.

As a boy, I adored my mother. My father was a drunkard. My mother loved him. She was terrified he would kill me one day, but she refused to leave him. And she told me so. Why would my own mother tell me she would betray me? Why do I lead the rest of my life hoping against all evidence that this despicable, traitorous streak at the heart of every human being was a figment of my childhood imagination? This war is Truth (and Truth is Beauty): you and your friends will grow up knowing humanity for the base, vile thing that it is. You will not be deceived.

I treasure the paradox by which we talk of good, of hope, of love. These things are truer in their absence than when they are on display. Were I a better sort of creature, I'd pluck their golden apples and bring them back to you.

In this real world, you would probably find that they had been poisoned. Therefore, I shall not waste my energy. Today has been unbearable. Tomorrow will likely be worse, but I am thinking of you tonight, and it has left me in a good mood. If it were possible for both of us to meet without prejudice in a world at peace, I think I should like to have a civil conversation with you. It will not last much longer.

She fought a growing dread that she might have liked this man, had she known him as his contemporary. It was comforting to remember that even his contemporaries had apparently not known the man who was writing. Had she met him as his equal, she would not likely have met the writer, either.

The thought made her smile fondly; the fondness made her frown.

***

"Hi, Harry," Hermione said.

"Hi, Hermione. Aren't you supposed to be at work?" He looked up from the paperwork spread across his desk.

"Yeah. But I need to talk to you about your scar."

"What?"

"Your scar, Harry," Hermione said impatiently. "I spoke to a healer. St Mungo's thinks there's some similarity between your scar and my tattoo."

"I bloody well hope not!" Harry said, standing up suddenly in a flurry of Ministry forms. Hermione had to calm him down before he would listen to her explanation: the tattoo; the ink; the healers' conclusions; the ability to read Severus Snape's papers; the conversation between Severus Snape and Malfoy that required Severus Snape to create and surrender something that mattered to him; the weird, fond kinship she felt.

When she finished, he just stared at her. "Say something."

"What the fucking hell, Hermione?"

"It's not my fault!" she said.

"It wouldn't have happened if you didn't decide to have a Death Eater magically tattoo something onto your body."

"I didn't know!"

"D'you think he chose you? Or were you just in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

"I don't know!"

"Stop saying that," Harry snapped. Then he dropped his head and took his glasses off to rub the bridge of his nose. "Sorry. Does Snape say anything about you in his papers?"

"He talks about love," Hermione admitted.

"Lust," said Harry.

"Love," said Hermione.

"Lust," Harry repeated firmly. "I saw his memories. He was obsessed with my mother. That man was not capable of love."

"That's what he thought. He didn't expect it to work, and he hated that it did. He said he wanted to leave a better world for me. I'm beginning to believe it."

"Shit," said Harry. "Shit, shit, shit. You think there's something of that in your tattoo?"

"I thought it was normal," Hermione protested. "I wanted passion and love and comfort and courage from it. Er, in it. Why should I have been surprised when it worked? You know Magical tattoos aren't just decorative. No one's going to forget that after You-Know-Who."

"Please tell me you've talked to Ron already."

"Leave Ron out of this for the moment. I came to talk to you because the healers don't know fuck all--no counter-indications, Mrs Weasley-Granger--, and I'm worried a bit of a dead man's self--even something other than his soul--is a Very Bad Thing to wear under my skin. Ron can wait ten more minutes for once in his bloody life. Tell me what I don't already know about your scar."

Harry sat down abruptly. He looked at his hands. "Don't you dare repeat this to anyone," he said. "Losing that connection was the worst part about winning the war. I know it hurt and gave me nightmares, and was a link to pure evil. That scar was part of me. I was more sure of Tom than of anyone I've ever met. I don't mean I liked him. I just, I don't know. He didn't know he knew me but he did, better than anyone else ever will."

"I think," said Hermione, "that Ginny might actually understand you better than you think."

"Yeah." Harry made a show of examining his glasses. "Do you think you love him?"

"Severus Snape? That would be a little narcissistic, don't you think? All I have of him is a bit of red ink."

"Oddly appropriate," Harry snickered, "what with the liters of vitriol he poured over our essays in red ink. If it hasn't faded, whatever he felt for you was huge. Bigger than death."

"I don't know. I feel like he would have disliked me as much as he disliked the rest of humanity, although he wouldn't have thought there was something wrong with me for not being able to be a loving wife or a doting mother or an enthusiastic person. I think..." She grasped for words and found them all lacking. She settled for saying, "I could have been happier with that."

"We don't think there's anything wrong with you, Hermione."

Hermione smiled at him. "Yes, you do."

"We just want to see you happy."

"That's just it. I don't think I can be."

"I don't understand," Harry pleaded. "I know you lived through a war and it was tough, but so did we. It was a long time ago. The thing with your parents could have turned out better, but you have me and Ron and the kids and Molly and Arthur. You have a good job, and good friends, and a nice home. You're a respected witch who lost a lot less than other people. What else do you need to be happy?"

"Severus Snape would have understood," Hermione said. Harry met her eyes. They sat staring at one another in silence until Hermione finally sighed. "You wanted to talk about Ron. I'd like to stop pretending. I don't know how he's going to take it. He might need you."

"Right." Harry said, and heaved his own sigh.

***

"Harry said you finished! Let me see the manuscript," Hermione demanded, slightly out of breath, having taken the stairs from the atrium up to Luna's lab in double-time. Her knees ached slightly.

"We did it!" Luna said, hopping so that her bangles danced. She clapped her hands and reached out for Hermione's, but Hermione was already pushing past her. She could see the difference in the manuscript at a glance. It was still laid out on the charmed backlit table, but it looked--wrong.

All of that lovely, elegant handwriting in uneven paragraphs--gone. The quill scratches and inkblots--gone. His words, despair and comfort, love and disgust--gone. In their place were the magically drafted even letters and figures of Gringott's bank statements.

Hermione approached the table with something like grief and ran her fingers over the pages. Severus Snape's meager accounts spread before her, from September 1979 to May 1998, so miserable that they never required more than one page per month. The note to Lucius was scrawled across the top of the first page, September 1979, the month Hermione had been born. Two hundred and twenty-five months of accounts that dwindled slowly. The paltry salary came in, and went out again, along with taxes, rent, and sundry expenses. Two hundred and twenty-five months during which their lives had overlapped.

In the end he'd had nothing at all. Hermione blinked at the zero balance on the April and May statements, and finally noticed the faint words at the bottom of that last page: to protect you, Hermione.

***

Ron found her sobbing on the couch. "Is this about that Snape thing again?" he asked as he sat down gingerly next to her and pulled her partway into his lap.

Hermione blew her nose. "Yeah, I guess so. MLE cracked the Muddle charm, and it's--it's--"

"What is it?"

"It's nineteen years of Gringott's statements!"

"You must be relieved, love."

"I'm not!" Hermione said. "I know there was something else there, and they ruined it with their decryption. He wrote throughout the last two years of his life--to me--and I think he loved me, but it's all gone."

"It's better off this way. I love you, Hermione."

"I know but I never thought I could feel anything--at all--and now I do."

"What do you mean?" Ron dislodged her from his lap.

"I thought it would be all right if you loved me because I couldn't love you back. I haven't felt anything since the war ended."

"No--Hermione--"

"Just listen, Ron, for once. I'm tired of living in a fog of trying and failing, trying more and failing more, and pretending I'm happy enough to keep you happy."

"No, you listen, Hermione. After everything I've done for you, and 'now you do' feel something? You've got gall!"

"Let me grieve!"

"You'll grieve for that traitor but you won't grieve for my brother? Is that it? You won't grieve for your parents, but a Death Eater is good enough? You won't love your own children, but you'll break your heart for a pervert twenty years dead? Is that it, Hermione?"

Yes. But how could Hermione say that to his face? She just sobbed.

"You are something else," Ron said, shaking his head in utter defeat. "I'm so angry I can't even find the energy to yell at you. I'm going to go talk to Harry, and I really hope you won't be here when I get back."

Still crying, Hermione went upstairs to pack.

***

It was Tuesday again, late in August. Septima had been invited to a Magic-Muggle barbecue and Hermione had nearly had to threaten her to make her go instead of showing up at Wickham's arrow as usual. They all treated her as though she were made of glass. She wasn't. Ron was still furious. Hermione had spent at least a month not caring about anything, avoiding Harry's birthday party, sleeping on Septima's couch, and trying not to want to die. Then she had scraped herself together, rented a flat, and started looking for a job. Something different. Teaching, perhaps. Anything that did not have the words "Magical Artifacts" in the job title, really. She hadn't found anything yet.

Rose was sitting with Scorpius Malfoy on the back steps to the narrow garden of Hermione's new basement flat. Hermione suspected they were holding hands, but it was hard to tell from this angle. She leaned on the counter in the equally narrow and rather dingy kitchen to watch them.

Rose drove her up the wall, if Hermione was going to be honest about it, and she intended to be. Half of their conversations ended with a bounce of Rose's perpetually-tangled red hair and her tearful voice crying, "I hate you!" Hermione found herself wanting to smack the girl, but she had--she hoped--more self-control than that. It didn't have to make her a bad mother any more than the same impulse had made Severus Snape a bad teacher. A mean one, perhaps, but not bad.

"Mum?" Rose called now, having heard Hermione moving around in the kitchen. "Can we have some lemonade?"

Instead of answering, Hermione took three glasses out of the cupboard and set them on a tray. She charmed the icebox to stay cold and filled a pitcher with lemonade made from a Muggle concentrate.

"It's all right," she heard Rose say to Scorpius. "Mum won't mind if you stay for supper. She likes you."

"Yeah, right, Rosie," Scorpius muttered. "Your mum is scary."

"I can hear you," Hermione called.

"Bugger!" said Scorpius, his voice breaking between the syllables. Rose giggled.

Hermione didn't need to touch the flames on her hip to feel their reassurance. If she went outside with eyes puffy from crying and a half-scowl, it would be all right. There was nothing wrong with her. Her life was in shambles--but so was she. And Rose had come anyway when Hermione asked if they could have dinner together. She'd come with Scorpius, which had been a surprise.

"Hey, Scorpius," she said as she stepped outside with the tray. "Nice to see you."

"Hey, Ms Granger."

"It's Hermione," Hermione said.

"Muuuuum," Rose whined. "You're embarrassing me again."

"I know, darling," said Hermione. Rose was impervious. Scorpius was shy; he was the one embarrassed. Hermione watched him tuck his head to hide that brilliant blush.

Severus Snape was wrong, she thought suddenly, watching Draco Malfoy's boy blush. There was something fiercely beautiful in all of them.

It wasn't happiness that pricked her eyes then and burned at her hip, but it was enough for now. Hermione turned her head so that Rose wouldn't see the tears.

***