Smoke, or a companion of sorts to 'Honeysuckle'.
As she had done every working afternoon for the last ten years, Hermione Granger closed and locked the Queerditch North Village Library. Elderly wizards were forcibly removed from the racks of newspapers, last minute romance novels were checked out and the children's section was de-gummed and de-chewed with only the slightest of elegant wand flicks. A murmured word extinguished all but the necessary lamps, while another set in motion a maelstrom of paper as the entire library catalogue shelved itself.
Satisfied that all was as it should be, she pulled the front door closed with a resounding meaty thump and trotted down the uneven footpath towards home, fussing with her overcoat all the way.
That evening Hermione skipped dinner in favour of playing game after game of Patience and listening to the lonely-hearts programme on the Wizarding Wireless Network. Before sleep she washed her face, stared balefully at her nest of hair and climbed up the rickety spiral staircase to her tower bedroom, thinking only of getting her hair chopped off entirely – and she thought about writing to her late mother and sullenly saying that no, it didn't calm down once she became an adult – and putting aside some time to cut back the vines of honeysuckle that choked her home. A part of her wondered exactly when she had reached this particular plateau of dullness, but that thought was summarily dismissed as self-indulgent twaddle.
A quiet life, she thought as she turned down her bedding. My kingdom for a quiet life.
Deep in the belly of night, light flared and flickered and began to paint the sky in blushes of orange and gold, sheets of colour pinned in place by the jagged fingers of bare trees.
Hermione merely grunted in her sleep and pulled the duvet over her ears, dreaming of cradles and fireworks, completely oblivious to the frantic knocking on her front door.
This air, she thought, smells completely putrid.
Hermione sat on a milk crate, oblivious to the unmerciful wooden splinters that threatened to burrow through her tunic. She was too busy staring at the piece of broken brick by her foot, elderly red on one side and charred black on the other. Exploded load wall, they said. The heat and pressure blew it outwards, and that was what made the roof cave in. There were bricks and roof tiles as far as the swing set on the corner of Market Square, and the whole frontage of Leaven and Loaf's bakery had been scythed out by flying debris.
She prodded the brick with the toe of her shoe. After all, it was easier to focus on one small thing than to stare the hulking mass of smouldering blackness in front of her. If she looked at that for too long, she would be filled with a desire to weep, or shout, or take up accountancy, or do something else completely inappropriate.
The library had burnt down.
Just thinking about it made her head swim. The library had burnt down. Merlin. One of the lamps had fallen, they said, and that she wasn't to worry over it. The place has been a firetrap for years, and the shifting brickwork made all the fixtures loose. There was nothing she could have done about it, and all the cheerfully expressed sentiments did absolutely nothing to make her feel better.
The books… the books didn't worry her. Books were like hammers, merely tools that only had value when you needed them. There were always more books to be had. It was the histories, the maps, the ridiculous squeaky toys in the children's section that she always tripped over, her desk, her quills, the trashy novel she was reading, the portraits… the portraits! She talked to the paintings all the time, and now they were so much burnt pigment. She hoped that they hadn't hurt when they blazed, and felt foolish for thinking that way.
Hermione buried her hands in her hair and stared furiously at the single burnt brick, willing herself to not cry.
Gradually she became aware of a crowd of onlookers gathering behind her, all murmuring and mumbling in the smoky morning light. Queerditch Village residents loved a good spectacle, and the library burning down was probably the most interesting thing to happen since the Caerphilly Catapults forgot the location of the Unplottable Queerditch Marsh and held an impromptu Quidditch game on Cleary Weatherbottom's back lawn, back in the long hot summer of 1983.
Someone from the Prophet had been by just as she arrived, snapping pictures and gleefully writing hyperbolic copy for the type of human-interest story that would fit perfectly on page eight. Vicious flames scarring an uncaring indigo sky, indeed.
She supposed that this would be what finally broke her little bubble of privacy – all the new wands, blocked mail and quiet living in the world couldn't argue with a photograph of her looking ill at the sight of someone stamping out a flaming copy of A Brief History of Horklumps.
Feeling that she had allowed herself an adequate amount of moping, Hermione got her feet and rolled up her sleeves. Holding her wand ready, she picked her way past the mounds of hot bricks and soggy paper, drew back her shoulders and stared into the black abyss of the gutted library. For a moment, Hermione imagined that it stared back.
Someone in the crowd applauded, but was quickly shushed.
Enough. Enough, enough, enough. The smell of wet, burnt paper was clinging to her nostrils and despite her completely ineffectual paper mask, she felt like she'd breathed in enough charcoal dust to make a briquette. Her head span from the dirty air and to make things worse, her shoes were soggy. Hermione was only one woman, and one woman alone could not clean up several tonnes of burnt slop.
She carefully slipped and slid to the front door – or where the front door used to be – and took a deep breath of clean early afternoon air. The oxygen flooded to her head and the world span as she sagged against the pillar, her legs turning into so much unset jelly. She crumpled to the floor, wondering what else could possibly go wrong today, and completely failed to notice someone in a shapeless black hat make a half-hearted grab at her shoulder as she blanked out.
Passing out isn't uncomfortable. It's the waking up part of it that's embarrassing, when you feel hot and prickly and your tongue tastes like ash. In Hermione's case, the latter part was literal, and she gagged as her vision came back into focus.
"Don't throw up," said exactly the last voice she wanted to hear. "There isn't any water for you to drink and you'll wreck my shoes."
She scrubbed at her eyes and stared at his boots, crusted in mud and ash. "They're already wrecked."
"Then I don't want them wrecked more," Snape said. "Get up off the floor, you're making a spectacle of yourself."
Hermione stared up at him, too dazed to come up with a cutting reply. Snape made to say something but caught himself, swallowing whatever acid comment had graced his tongue. Instead he seized her elbow and forcefully dragged her up to balance on unsteady feet.
"You look revolting," he said, indiscreetly wiping his hands clean on his robes. "Have you eaten?"
She rubbed at her elbow and gave him what she hoped was a peevish glare. "I was planning on having an apple after I opened the library."
Much to her eternal shame, her voice caught and choked on the last word and traitorous tears gathered, threatening to roll down her cheeks. Her hot churning embarrassment was only compounded by Snape impassively watch her sniffle, and she desperately wanted to wipe her nose. Finally he took pity on her – inasmuch as he ever took pity on anyone – and rummaged around in an unseen pocket before passing her a grubby handkerchief.
"Once you've regained your control," - and here she punctuated him with a loud blow, evidently having found a cleanish bit of cotton, "I suggest you eat something solid before you faint again. I've made it this far in my life without making a habit of catching swooning women, and I've no desire to start now."
With a grimace, he declined to take back the now decidedly soggy hanky. "Consider it a gift, Miss Granger."
Deftly sidestepping her as she took the steps at an awkward stagger, he pressed a hand to the small of her back and steadily pushed her through the diminished crowd of onlookers, ignoring any and all her protests as he jolted her along the narrow side street.
Hermione's equilibrium wasn't at all helped by Snape shunting her through the doors of Queerditch Village's seediest pub, thrusting his satchel into her arms along with a brusque instruction to sit down, before making his way to the bar without asking if she wanted anything.
He must be the darling of the social set, she thought muzzily as she found a relatively clean table in the far corner. The bench chair groaned as she sat carefully on it, and she felt the urge to groan in harmony when her shoe stuck to an unidentifiable substance ground into the rushes on the floor. The one hospitality venue in all of Wizarding Britain that still had mice-riddled reed flooring, and he took her straight to it with unerring accuracy. Wonderful. She stared daggers at the back of his head and wondered what would happen if she looked through his grotty old bag.
Severus Snape, the surprising constant in her life for the last four years. He turned up in Queerditch Village roughly every six months, or exactly one week before school holidays started, and spent the afternoon going through residential records as they ignored each other at a mutually comfortable level.
She asked him one day exactly what he was doing, and he'd given her a long unreadable look before turning back to his own little ledger. "A Hogwarts education isn't cheap, Miss Granger. Certain parents think that by making their family Unplottable before the invoices show up, they won't have to pay. Minerva sends a literate lackey off to the nearest residential record facility, which would be your hole of a library, to find the names and addresses of the closest family relative, and we make them accountable for the bills instead."
She presumed that he was the errand boy by choice, not by force – after all, a few extra Galleons in a pay packet wasn't anything to be sniffed at, especially not on a teaching wage – and had left it at that. A valid excuse to escape from school early on a Friday afternoon was probably just the icing on the cake.
He was, in his own way, decent enough company for those few short hours. Snape rarely gossiped and his grasp at small talk finished somewhere between discussing the weather and insulting her appearance. There was something vaguely comforting about him scratching away at his notes or complaining as he shifted his satchel (now mostly held together by Spellotape and hope; in a fit of generosity she'd thought about giving him a new bag, but rightly thought that it would go down about as successfully as a lead balloon) from shoulder to shoulder and taking one step for her every two on their coincidental walk home – her to her overgrown house, him to the Western Wood and a short Apparition to Hogwarts.
He returned a while later, setting down a pint of dark beer and a small glass of lemon squash.
She looked at the glasses and at him. "I don't drink lemon squash."
Snape pointed in the vague direction of the bar. "You can always get yourself something else."
"I can't get myself anything else. You didn't give me enough time to get my purse."
He shrugged and made himself comfortable, and she knew that he was thinking whether to say something about beggars and choosers.
Hermione tentatively sipped at her drink, jealously watching him take a long swallow of his beer with evident enjoyment written all over his thin face. She huffed. "You've made your point."
A plate of thick sandwiches materialised on the table between them, the blue china hitting the wood with an obnoxiously loud bang. The bread looked like it had been hacked at with an axe rather than sliced with a knife, and she didn't even want to think about what the filling consisted of.
"Eat," he said, the words more directed at his beer than at her.
She stared at her glass instead, fighting off the waves of nausea caused by the soot in her throat and the musty air of the bar. Unconcerned, Snape ignored her and industriously set about eating. He was halfway through her portion and about to reach for the last sandwich when she waved his hand away.
"Leave off," she said, taking a bite before she remembered that she didn't know what was in it. She chewed experimentally, and was somewhat disappointed to realise that it was only plain cheese and tomato relish.
Snape drained his beer and sat back, folding and refolding the brim of his shapeless black felt hat as he waited for her to finish. As she swallowed the last mouthful, he pulled out a late edition newspaper from his bag, flipped through a few pages and pushed it across the table.
Hermione read the article and reread it, examining the picture carefully. "Well," she said finally, "at least they photographed my good side."
Snape took the paper back. "Minerva sends her regards. So do Filius and Pomona."
She grimaced and shook her wand from her sleeve, rapping it against her forehead and murmuring a cleansing spell. Snape helpfully pointed out that she still had grey teeth and lips from the charcoal dust, and she pointedly ignored him. "Right. Anyone else send along any messages?"
"Pince extends an offer of help in the holidays, as does Flitwick. Minerva would like to meet you somewhere for lunch."
"Oh," she said again, and traced her finger around the lip of her glass. The ringing sound made Snape wince, so she did it again. "Would they be terribly offended if I said no to all three offers?"
Snape drained his beer. "I wouldn't think so, no."
"Well… well, good. Tell them thank you anyway." She scuffed her feet in the rushes, suddenly feeling all of twelve years old again. "How are things at Hogwarts?"
"Things are as they always are," he said, waving over a passing barmaid and, much to Hermione's annoyance, ordering the same as before. He turned back and picked up his hat again, reshaping the brim under his spider-legged fingers. "Dumbledore has been bedridden for six months now and Minerva is the head in all but name."
"Vipaka finally kicked in?"
"I think so, yes. And before you say 'oh' again, don't. It's tiresome."
"Then you've left me without much to say," she said, and immediately wished she hadn't spoken.
Snape's mouth was a cut in his face, lips pressed white and bloodless as he collected his fresh drink. "Don't be so bloody flippant."
She didn't apologise and he didn't expect her to, so they sat in silence as he drank his beer with barely contained resentment and she stared out the window, wondering when the ash would clear from the sky.
It was five past four when they emerged from the cloying earthy heat of the pub, blinking and shielding their eyes from the watery sun. Hermione patted her pockets and smiled weakly.
"I'll pay you when I get my purse back."
"Consider it a gift," he said for the second time in less than an hour, waving her words away.
"I'd be careful," she said. "People might suspect that you have a gentle and giving nature."
He only gave her a carefully cultivated blank look in return, and took her elbow to half push, half guide her back to the burnt-out shell of the Queerditch North Village Library.
The crowds had gone by then, and someone had thoughtfully hammered a 'do not enter' sign across the charred gate. Behind the four corner pillars of the building pointed like broken fingers at the clear blue sky, a last remaining piece of roof sagged like a damp flag, and the cellars were no more than vast gaping black holes.
"Quite impressive, Miss Granger," murmured Snape from behind her shoulder. "Even I've never seen quite so much damage done in a single sitting. Imagine the Reparo job you'll have to do…"
Imagine how powerful you'd have to be to repair an entire building with a single spell.
She thought of Harry Potter for the first time in years, and wondered how he was doing for himself these days. His name only added to the heavy lump of lead that seemed to appear in her gut whenever she talked to Snape, and she knuckled away the unexpected wet from her eyes.
"Please don't start," she said, turning and slipping on the thick black mud that coated the footpath. She clutched at his robes to regain her balance, and was almost inordinately pleased to see his eyes widen under the shadow of that ridiculous hat. Hermione resisted the urge to roll her eyes and instead carefully regained her footing, ignoring that his breath huffed across her cheek like so many invisible fingers.
Snape took a sharp step back, and she brushed herself down with more force than was strictly necessary. "Don't compliment yourself," she said, more to reassure herself than waylay any thoughts he might be having.
"I wouldn't dream of it, I assure you." He looked at the town clock and absentmindedly patted his satchel. "As remarkably thrilling as it would be stay and chat…"
Hermione summoned her purse from behind a burnt-out wall and settled it on her shoulder, carefully untwisting the charcoal-smeared strap. "The nearest residency records are in Sheffield, but their office closes at five sharp. If you hurry, you might make it."
He snorted. "These days I make a point of not hurrying for anyone, Miss Granger."
"Go tomorrow then, it's no skin off my nose." Carefully she picked her way along the slick walkway and turned down the lane that threaded back towards her quiet street, painfully aware of Snape shadowing two steps behind.
Hermione stopped at her gate, one hand on the latch. Snape watched her warily, waiting for her to speak.
"I'm not inviting you in," she said. "Thank you for this afternoon, but I don't want you in my house tonight."
He shrugged, not particularly offended. "When will you be back at work?"
"When it's rebuilt and restocked, if it's rebuilt at all."
"Don't underestimate the unwillingness of the average wizarding bureaucrat to accept change, Miss Granger. It won't be rebuilt new; it will be rebuilt exactly as it was before, including sagging steps and creaking floorboards."
"Including the draught that whips under the back door in winter, I'll bet." She bumped the gate open with her hip and fixed him with the sort of open, earnest look that she hadn't given anyone since she was a student. "Thank you for not saying anything to them." She didn't specify exactly as to who she was talking about.
He pulled his hat lower against the late sunlight that poured off her vine-strangled home, and balanced his weight from foot to foot. "Your house is still a mess, I see."
Hermione laughed then, the sound bubbling slow like air through oil. "It'll get fixed one day." She went to reach for him as one would for a friend but caught herself, instead awkwardly patting him on the wrist. Unsettled by the moment of bent near-intimacy, he took a half pace forward and stopped, his hand resting on the gate.
Everything was silent for the longest of moments, hanging pregnant and heavy over their heads.
Then he stepped back and Hermione carefully closed the gate, the air turning thin and faintly bitter. Snape tipped his hat ever so slightly, and was halfway past the neighbour's fence before she thought to say anything.
He stopped and looked back over his shoulder. He might have been smiling or grimacing, she couldn't tell. "'Considering that you’re already being rude and nosey, you might as well dispense with the formalities and call me by my given name.'"
Her words, venerable at four years old, sounded strange rolling off his tongue.
"Snape," she amended. "Is Dumbledore ill?"
"He fits daily, he pisses himself constantly, his bones are riddled with cancer and now we're all quietly waiting for him to die. I'd seriously think about having those lead-lined water pipes in your house removed, if I were you."
He paused like he was about to say more, but instead let the words fade in his throat, excusing himself with the faintest of almost cordial nods. Ten more steps took him into the shadows of the Western Wood, his shape threading away like so many strands of smoke.
That evening Hermione took her dinner in the sitting room, eating careful mouthfuls of soup over her stalled game of cards and listened to the request programme on the Wizarding Wireless Network. Instead of sleep, she cleared a space at her desk and composed a small yet respectful note to Pomona Sprout, apologising for not replying to her letter ten years previous. It was unsent and crumpled in the rubbish bin the next morning, but she felt all the better for writing it.
A/N: Many thanks to Liz and Gary for their ruthless cutting of extraneous adverbs and general sharp editing.
Thank you for reading.