Hermione sank into her desk chair upon returning to her room and attempted to banish the image of a nearly nude Blaise from her mind. Splendid, she thought, he's just— "an idiot!"
She'd thought he'd stopped carousing. She'd thought that his interest in the Novitiate had meant he was finally moving on. The war had been hard on Blaise; he'd lost more than most, and Hermione had been so pleased by the return of his casual confidence, which had done much to inspire the junior Aurors.
I thought he was interested in me, as well, she thought, picking up her brush and roughly pulling it through her hair. "The Hog's Head, indeed!"
She wondered how that was even possible.
He's always on a mission, here, or visiting Professor Snape, isn't he? "Apparently not," she groused, tossing her brush aside and walking over to the hearth to fire-call Harry.
He wasn't at Twelve, Grimmauld Place as she'd expected, so she tried Headquarters.
"Hermione?" Harry asked, looking surprised. "Is something wrong?"
"Hello to you, too. How long have you been home, and why haven't you visited me?"
Harry chuckled. "I've missed you, as well. Haven't you been reading the Prophet?"
"First off, I'm fine, so don't—"
"Harry, just tell me, please."
"I had a close call with some Lethifolds in Anegada, but—"
"Yes, but I'm fine. See?" Harry asked, displaying himself.
"You look too thin."
"I always look too thin. Anyway, I killed the Lethifolds with loads of help from Professor Snape and a witch called Mary Millblossom."
"You killed Lethifolds?" Hermione asked, blinking in astonishment.
"Yeah, but I expect you didn't fire-call to discuss that bit of news."
"You mean you've had more excitement than killing Lethi—just how did you kill—wait, you have news?" Hermione asked, barely able to contain her curiosity about Harry's most recent "impossible" feat.
Running a hand through his hair, he replied, "Bill and I aren't together anymore."
"What? When did that happen?"
"He didn't take my encounter with the living shrouds well and ordered me to come home, retire, and marry him."
Hermione smacked her forehead. "It's Ronald Weasley all over again!"
Ron hadn't approved of Hermione's desire to become an Auror, and after a particularly nasty injury she'd received, he'd insisted that she leave the DMLE. Hermione had left him, instead, which had upset Mrs Weasley far more than Ron at the time.
"They're a stubborn lot, true, but Ron was just—"
"Don't 'Ron was just' me, Harry," Hermione interrupted. "He was engaged to Lavender not ten months after—oh, never mind."
"Funny you should mention engagements . . . ."
"Never tell me Bill's engaged!"
"Right then, I won't, but if you look at today's paper, Skeeter will."
"Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry. Is that why you agreed to be Severus' male escort?"
"Why does everyone but me get to call him by his first name? And what do you mean, his 'male' escort?"
Hermione found it odd that Harry seemed more upset by the first name business than he did about Bill and filed the information away for later thought. "He only asked me to help him tonight. That's why I called."
"That's . . . interesting. Ron's going to be gobsmacked."
"Good. Zabini seemed a bit put out, too," Hermione said, with more vehemence than she'd intended.
Harry snorted. "You might let on that you fancy him."
"What? That's ridiculous. We work together. Even if I did fancy Blai—Zabini, it would be completely inappropriate to act on those feelings. Besides, it seems he has company enough."
"He informed me tonight that he takes his . . . friends to the Hog's Head rather than bring them back to the Novitiate."
"Blaise said something that stu—I mean, I can't believe he said that. I'm sure he was just—"
"Oh, I'm sure he wasn't. You know how he's been since Susan was killed—anything warm."
Harry spit the tea he had just sipped, his eyes widening. "You must like him more than I realised."
"Dribbling," Hermione replied curtly.
"To whom is Bill engaged?"
Harry opened his mouth to say something, closed it, and then frowned.
"I'm sorry, we don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
"It's okay. I'll give you three guesses. The first two don't count, and if you don't get it in one, I'll worry about your powers of observation."
"I expect their correspondence over the years has been rather stimulating."
"She never gave up on him, according to Ron." And keeping someone in reserve appears to be a Weasley family trait, doesn't it? Hermione thought, with not a little bitterness.
"So I gathered," Harry replied, sighing. "So, seen Ron lately?"
"No. He's been busy coaching, or otherwise involved with his family. When we spoke last, Ronnie, Harry, and 'Lav' were all quite well."
"It's nice to see you're getting along so well with Mrs Weasley," Harry said, before quickly continuing, "but, uh, what can you tell me about the Courtship Ritual? I offered to help with it because Blaise seemed that worried about getting Severus married, and I don't want to do anything stupid."
"Actually, I was planning on researching the Courtship Ritual tom—"
"I might have known."
"Do you want my help, or don't you?" Hermione snapped, suddenly feeling rather tired.
"Then . . . then I will. Does your helping mean that you'll be staying for awhile?"
"Yeah, I've already put in for leave. I've got a lot coming, it seems."
"I suppose you do. Aside from taking time off to see the Quidditch World Cup, you've not taken any hols, have you?"
"Nope, and Ron's still crowing about the Chudley Cannons' win."
In spite of her renewed irritation with Ron, Hermione couldn't help but feel pride in his achievement. "He should be. He was the youngest coach in history to—"
"I know, trust me. Look, I don't mean to cut our call short, but I'm doing a bit of research, myself."
"The Scroll of Eligibles—well, the Eligibles, anyway. So far, so good, but I want to get it done as soon as possible."
"That's very nice of you, Harry, but doesn't it strike you as odd that Severus has chosen to escort a Muggle-born and a half-blood?"
"Now that you mention it, yeah, and we're both former students, too, which might—oh. Oh, no. I didn't think of that."
"Of what? Oh. That's—no. No one would ever believe that Severus—"
"Wouldn't they? Order of Merlin, First Class and some decent press, or no, people are quick to judge."
"Keeping up with him, are you?"
Harry flushed. "Don't grin at me like that."
"You have been keeping up a regular correspondence with him, and I doubt it's only because he's a font of useful information."
"I . . . I suppose it's because I rather like having him think of me as something more than a tosser, and his letters are interesting. Why else would I be writing Snape?"
Because you fancy him, that's why. "You tell me."
"Hermione, it's not like I'm actually thinking of marrying the man."
"You did agree to esc—"
"So did you. Do you want to marry him?"
"Don't tell Ron," Hermione said conspiratorially, "but no, I suppose not—although, he does have a spectacular 'seat' on a broomstick."
Harry laughed. "That's true enough. He can fly, can't he?"
"I'll never forget seeing him swoop through those Death Eaters in front of the Ministry to catch you as you fell."
It was seeing Severus rescue Harry, and watching his treatment of her friend in the wake of that rescue, that had first made Hermione suspect that the two wizards might have feelings for each other. It had vexed her to be proved wrong when nothing had developed between them after all.
"It was impressive, from what I saw of it. Mostly, I just remember being damn glad I didn't land at Malfoy's feet. If there'd been anything left of me after that, he would've finished me for sure."
"Severus has always looked out for you, Harry. Don't you wonder about your being on the Scroll?"
"You know why I'm on it. Blaise wants me to show off Snape. Why else?"
It was too good an opening, so Hermione hazarded, "Because Severus wants you on it?"
"Sure he does, but only to show himself off for the real Eligibles. He doesn't want me."
Hermione noted the way Harry's eyebrows knitted together, and she wondered again if Harry did fancy Severus. Best not to press him about that. "Harry, are you very upset about Bill?"
"I'm just . . . surprised. I thought he wanted me, but I see now that he just wanted someone to marry, someone safe, anyone, really. It's a blow to my ego, but I'll survive."
Four years of shagging, and you'll "survive"? "Bill might not. Molly will be furious with him."
"Ron survived his break-up with you. . . . Look, could we talk about something else?"
"Of course," Hermione replied quickly. "Tell me about this Mary Millblossom. Her name sounds familiar."
"She's the Ministry liaison officer on Anegada, a 'retired' Spellcraftre. It's all very informal there. I checked in with her when I arrived, and she got me up to speed. You'd like her—she's very bookish and proper and efficient—and she made a miracle out of Snape's Lethifold repellent. Frankly, I'm not sure what would have happened if—"
A tapping interrupted Harry's response.
"Just a moment," said Hermione. "There's an owl at the window."
She rose and let the bird in, recognising it as being one of the Hogwarts owls.
"Here you are," she told it, giving it a treat after taking the letter strapped to its leg. From Severus. "I'm sorry, Harry, but I've got to answer this," she told him, sticking her head back into the fireplace. "Want to meet for lunch tomorrow?"
"Where? The Three Broomsticks?"
"Sounds good. Noon?"
"It's almost one, isn't it? Could we make it later?"
"Tea then? Four-ish?"
"Super. See you then, 'Escort' Granger."
Hermione laughed. "I never thought anyone would be calling me that, especially with regard to Severus Snape."
"Me, either. 'Night."
"Bye," Hermione replied, ending the fire-call and unrolling the letter to read:
Dear Miss Granger,"'Comment' is putting it mildly," Hermione murmured, remembering the crushing press of reporters in the aftermath of the war. "Well, I've been through it once."
I feel it necessary to remind you that your escorting me during the Courtship Ritual will occasion comment. If, after further consideration, you wish to rescind your offer on that basis, I would understand.
She sat down and composed her reply:
Dear Professor Snape,She received a rapid response:
I'm quite used to being the object of commentary, and I have no intention of allowing the possibility of press coverage to deter me from keeping my word to you. I would, however, be interested to know what, exactly, my duties as your female escort will be.
Dear Miss Granger,Hermione was torn between chagrin and amusement after she finished reading Severus' reply. Well, he wasn't a spy for over two decades without reason, she thought, blushing as she rapidly composed her next letter:
The Courtship Ritual makes no formal provision for the duties of an escort of either sex. It was my Advocate's idea that I attend the first few of myriad obligatory social functions in the particular company of someone who would "make [me] look human." Your "official" duties will include appearing interested in my conversation, not appearing horrified by the "fitted" robes I must wear, and doing whatever is within your power to show me off to advantage.
Your unofficial duty, of course, will be to madden Blaise by appearing enchanted by my company.
I trust that you will acquit yourself well in all respects.
Dear Supplicant Snape,Severus' reply was a bit long in coming, and Hermione began to worry that her assessment of his sense of humour had been mistaken. When the large brown owl returned, however, she found that the wait had been well worth it:
I always acquit myself well in every respect, but I look forward to having your assistance with regard to Auror Zabini.
Hermione,"Excellent," Hermione said, closing the window behind the very well-fed Hogwarts owl. Blaise doesn't stand a chance—and neither do his "friends."
It will be my great pleasure to assist you in this matter.
She went to bed wondering how she'd ever imagined Severus Snape as a humourless, inhuman, elitist prig, but as her wakefulness left her, the image of Blaise's not-so-hidden musculature rose in her mind and lulled her into a rather wicked dream.