smutfree_mod (smutfree_mod) wrote in hp_smutfree,

Fic: "Congruity" for verseblack

Gift For: verseblack
Author: Hayseed (hayseed_42)
Title: Congruity
Pairings: That would be telling, wouldn't it?
Rating: PG-13, because Severus has a potty mouth
Summary: Phineas Nigellus doesn't usually pay any attention to the headmistress' meetings, but the latest one has piqued his interest.
Notes: Follow the story.

In general, Phineas Nigellus made it a point to sleep through all of Minerva's afternoon appointments -- all they ever seemed to consist of were chats with former students and anxious parents, and if there was one thing Phineas detested, it was aimless chatter. At least, aimless chatter that was entirely comprised of talk about nappies and irresponsible spouses and which parent the latest Gryffindor wunderkind belonged to.

He knew Minerva was merely being polite and suspected she had nearly as low a tolerance for such blather as he did. But it was quite fortunate that she was current headmistress and not he, because he would have simply thrown these people out of his office, while Minerva dutifully drank a cup of tea with each one and answered their questions with fairly good graces.

Of course, after approximately thirty seconds, most of the visits became more... direct. Minerva's former Gryffindors were pitifully inept at managing the conversation, and most of them literally asked, point-blank, about whichever child in their brood brought them to Hogwarts that day. Joshua Davies and Isadora Weasley, currently Gryffindor third- and sixth-years, appeared to be particularly difficult children, as their respective parents came in at least weekly.

This was supposed to be the day for Weasley's father to drop by. Phineas dimly remembered the fellow from earlier in his life -- the tall, thin Weasley with the long nose who was so friendly with the Potter boy all those years ago. He never made eye contact with Phineas' own portrait and could barely mumble a polite greeting to Albus', and Albus being the man's own headmaster. The lack of respect was appalling. Honestly, Phineas could see why the girl was so problematic if this was the man responsible for raising her.

But half past three chimed, startling Phineas out of his light doze, and Weasley's father was nowhere in sight.

Instead, Minerva was pottering around the office, humming. In the twenty years that she'd shared this office with him, he'd never, ever heard her hum. And certainly not when expecting a meeting with the father of a girl whose favorite pastime seemed to be bewitching the suits of armor to kick unsuspecting first-years in their backsides as they walked down the hall.

Not bad, but it lacked finesse.

And, of course, had nothing to do with Minerva's newfound musical affinity. Or the fact that she was currently running a feather duster around the edges of all of the portrait frames within her reach. He'd told her time and time again that the house elves always neglected to clean the portraits thoroughly enough but thought it rather odd that she was choosing now to finally do something about it.

Phineas suppressed a snort of laughter: maybe she was expecting a beau to come visit. He tried to go back through his increasingly rusty recollections and remember if she'd ever been courted before.

Up until her appointment as headmistress, he'd not known Minerva McGonagall very well. She'd made nightly visits to Albus before he died, always drinking about two-thirds of a cup of hot chocolate and eating exactly three biscuits, but they had never discussed personal matters. Their meetings were just that -- meetings. They discussed various students, the feasibility of certain teaching practices, house Quidditch prospects, everything but themselves. But he had to concede that Albus had been a master of small talk, keeping his guests all but spinning with his constant low-grade chatter. No doubt, Albus had known everything about Minerva based on their daily chats, and she probably only remembered how he took his tea.

During his stint as headmaster, Albus Dumbledore did not have even an eighth of the number of parent visits that Minerva had, and Phineas suspected that was largely because parents realized quite early on that trying to extract dragon's blood from a piece of chalk would be easier than prying any real information on student progress out of Albus.

For all Minerva's prowess as a professor, she lacked the people sense that Albus'd had. That his portrait still had. Phineas did not talk to Albus much these days -- the pain was still a little too fresh, even after these twenty years past.

Portrait time ran differently than real time. Sometimes, he took what he thought was a short nap only to find out that an entire decade had passed, but every now and again, the reverse happened and days in the world of the living stretched out to what felt like years within his picture frame. Some of the older portraits assured him that this was to be expected, although none yet had given him anything resembling a reasonable explanation for it.

No one really knew how sentient portraits were created, only that they had to be taken within a certain time after death for any real portion of the individual to survive. And the magic that went into the portraits was a highly protected trade secret -- in the past, the Guild of Artists had killed to keep it safe, and Phineas had no doubt that, even in these ‘enlightened' modern times, they would kill again if it were deemed necessary. The portraits themselves didn't even know how they came into being, which many saw as unfair. But he himself figured that there was no reason for the existential quandary they'd all felt while alive to resolve itself now that they had passed into the afterlife.

Besides, it gave one something to do with the rest of eternity. He'd always wondered at the idea of heaven, where every answer to every question was tied up with a bright ribbon and available for one's perusal, or some such nonsense. Such a place, he decided quite early in his life, could only be unendurably dull. Of course, when he'd calmly informed his grandmother of this conclusion and stated that he hoped he'd be sent to hell, where at least there seemed to be something going on, she'd beaten him with a leather strap and set him to copying out Bible verses for the next week.

To think that the modern ones seemed to believe that such religious fervor belonged strictly in the Muggle world! They strutted about under full moons, naked and painted up with Merlin only knew what, prattling on about chi and animae, believing that it made them better wizards than their parents. Medieval Christian wizardry was outmoded and backward to these children. And the professors were little better, filling their minds with modern claptrap about ‘progress' and ‘efficiency.'

They were talking about installing ludicrous Muggle machinery in his school. Half of Minerva's meetings with the school governors were nothing but talk about phony-comptor something-or-others, and apparently, the Ministry was hell-bent on making it all work, setting up task force after task force. Throwing out thousands of years of tradition on ridiculous gadgets that went ‘beep' all the time.

Sometimes, Phineas wished that he hadn't lost his magic when he became a portrait. It would be nice to remind all of these modern idiots of the sort of power that old-fashioned, out-dated wizards like himself once wielded. Could they call lightning to heel? Bewitch a man using nothing but the earth upon which he once trod? Phineas remembered his old headmaster fondly -- he could turn a man to stone with a mere blink of an eye.

That was power.

All of this loutish wand waving and incantation-chanting nonsense was unnecessary for real wizards. Magic was in the very air; all one needed to do was learn to feel it.

After all, what had it taken to defeat that moron Tom Riddle, with all of his newfangled spells and clever little illusions? Did they need a buzzing Muggle machine, full of eckeltricity or what have you?

It took a prophecy, one of the oldest magics known to man, and a wizard young enough that he had not been taken in by the modern lie that magic was something to be manipulated instead of channeled. A wizard who had won against impossible odds only because he hadn't yet learned that it couldn't be done.

A wizard trained under the watchful eye of Albus Dumbledore, a traditionalist at the very heart of tradition.

He wouldn't have tolerated this mechanical Muggle nonsense that the governors were trying to force down Minerva's throat either.

But his portrait kept silent most of the time. Perhaps he knew how disconcerting his presence was. Most of the professors made a point to talk to him, but not often, and Phineas could always see the pain in their eyes when they did so.

It had been necessary for young Snape to do what he did, but that did not lessen the grief, the fear, the hatred. Young Snape had been exonerated after the fact, thanks in no small part to the Albus' posthumous testimony, given by his portrait and confirmed by documents discovered at Grimmauld Place by the Potter boy's little curly-headed female friend.

Few had been happy to let the last known Death Eater go free, but after confronted with the knowledge that Snape had not only been feeding information about Voldemort's movements to Albus for years, but that he had been bound by wizard oath to perform any action required to ensure the Dark Lord's downfall, up to and obviously including the death of Albus Dumbledore himself, they had no choice. Snape had been free for years, although Weasley's father once reported to Minerva with a malicious glee that Phineas found inappropriate that people still spat upon Snape in the streets.

And it happened again. One moment, Phineas was tucked comfortably in his wing chair, watching Minerva fuss over the fireplace and letting his thoughts wander in any direction they chose, and another, the sun outside the office window was considerably lower in the sky and Minerva was pouring tea into a young woman's cup.

"...never get to see you," she told the woman as Phineas shifted in his chair and tried to regain his bearings. Had he fallen asleep? He didn't remember falling asleep.

"Well, work can be rather involving," the young woman replied demurely, pouring a splash of milk into her teacup and giving it a brisk stir. "I'd no idea that a life of thrilling adventure and danger involved so much paperwork."

Minerva chuckled, squeezing a lemon slice into her own tea. "I find that informational pamphlets are rarely truthful."

"Actually, they said that in the opening lecture," she said with a half-smile. "I believe that the brochure promised a chance to use my puzzle-solving skills and work with interesting people."

Raising an eyebrow, Minerva took a sip from her cup.

"Tonks is interesting," the young woman said, scowling. But Phineas could see a twinkle in her eye and wondered who on Earth could think that being fresh with Minerva McGonagall was a good idea.

Instead of asking her to mind her attitude (what he would have expected) or hexing her (what he would have done), Minerva just smiled. "Truly, my dear, is it what you wanted?"

With a shrug, the young woman sighed. "More or less. Although, honestly, who really knows what we want? When I was eight, I wanted a pony, and I doubt it would have made me happy in the slightest. If you're asking me whether or not I'm happy, Professor, then my answer is that I am content, which is enough for me."

"Please, Miss Granger, call me Minerva," she said. "I haven't been your professor for years."

"Only if you call me Hermione, then," the young woman replied.

Phineas started. Hermione Granger. That name was vaguely familiar.

"So, what's keeping you busy these days, Minerva?" Hermione asked while he continued trying to remember how he knew her. "I know that Isadora can't be taking up all of your time."

"She's certainly a handful," Minerva said carefully.

Chuckling, Hermione helped herself to a biscuit. "Whenever I speak to him, Ron can never seem to make up his mind whether he's proud of her inventiveness or ready to pull her out of Hogwarts and chain her up in the basement until she promises to behave. It's been interesting, hearing about her trail of devastation through school. Tell me, is it really true that she drugged Mrs. Norris in her fourth year? Ron would never say, but then again, he and Luna did ground her for the entire summer."

"Nothing was ever proven," she replied. "Else, I'm afraid I would have been forced to expel her. I will say that she does add a great deal of... color to whatever she chooses to participate in. And it's fortunate that she is quite a good student in addition to her... antics. There is nothing worse than a bright student who fails to recognize his or her potential."

It was clear to Phineas that Minerva was thinking of Joshua Davies, the third-year Gryffindor boy who was nearly as much trouble as the Weasley girl and failing at least half of his classes to boot. If the child could only manage to pay attention for longer than thirty seconds, he would be doing fine, but most of his professors had pronounced him a failure early on and contented themselves with keeping him from getting into too much trouble. Only Minerva appeared to maintain the vigil, meeting with his parents and scheduling tutoring sessions whenever she could find another student willing to help -- if the boy managed to finish school, it would only be because of her nearly constant intervention.

But the women were continuing their conversation. "I'm afraid that we're responsible for many of Isadora's tricks. Not only did she probably spend entirely too much time with the twins as a little girl, I have it on good authority that her bedtime stories consisted mostly of stories about our adventures at school. And I can only imagine what Ron made up."

"He wouldn't have to invent much," Minerva said ruefully. "The three of you got into rather enough trouble as it was. Trolls and giants and centaurs, and that was just while you were at Hogwarts." Her expression grew soft. "Tell me, Hermione, how is he?"

Phineas leaned forward; her tone was intriguing.

"Improving," Hermione replied with what was obviously an uncomfortable shrug. "But his mind is gone, Minerva. Even Ginny has given up hope of recovery, and the mediwizards all say that he'll be in hospital for the rest of his life. He can recognize us now. But I don't think he'll ever remember what happened to him."

He wondered whom they were talking about.

"Such a waste," Minerva said. "Every time I think of that poor boy, I wish Albus were still alive, so that I could give him what for. How could he let such a thing happen?"

Sighing, Hermione drained her teacup. "He didn't. It was a matter of prophecy; you know that."

"Oh, I know. But that doesn't keep me from believing, however irrationally, that Albus could have intervened somehow, and kept Harry Potter's mind intact, at the very least. After everything, the boy deserved some shred of normalcy." Minerva picked up the teapot. "Another cup?"

And it clicked. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. This young woman was the little girl with the unruly hair who'd spent so much time in his home during the Voldemort affair. The one who helped Potter in the end and wound up piecing together the evidence to exonerate young Snape.

"No, thank you," Hermione said. "I'm afraid I shouldn't stay much longer -- I'm about ready to fall asleep into the biscuits. A rather... trying afternoon meeting."

With a gentle smile, Minerva nodded. "I expect you have many of those. Interrogations and the like can't be easy."

After wracking his brain for what felt like an hour but was likely closer to thirty seconds, Phineas dimly remembered Minerva informing Albus' portrait some years ago that while Potter would never be well enough to hold down a job of any sort, Granger had joined the Aurory, and Weasley had gone to work in some sort of bookshop. Apparently, they had been surprised at their choices of occupation, but in retrospect, he couldn't see why. There was something in Granger's mien that seemed perfectly suited to an Auror -- a sort of quiet strength, suggesting that she was not one to cross. And he knew very well from listening to his weekly meetings that Weasley had been quite successful and now owned the bookshop he had originally merely stocked shelves in.

"...not quite," Hermione was saying as Phineas thought. "I was actually meeting with one of our more difficult consultants. We were attempting to unravel a hex that no one had figured out." She sighed. "It turns out that we were looking at crossed effects from two spells, but I hadn't thought to check it before calling him. Believe me, Severus isn't going to let me forget about that little fact for a good long while."

"Severus?" Minerva asked, blinking. "Severus Snape?"

"Well... no one will hire him, you know. And a few years back, Kingsley started calling him in when we were working with particularly puzzling Dark spells or poisons. I'm fairly sure it started because Kingsley felt sorry for him -- Severus isn't wealthy, and not being able to find a job was making life quite difficult. But he really is brilliant. Severus, I mean." Hermione's cheeks were slightly pink, and Phineas felt his gaze narrowing as he studied her.

"I suppose I'm glad that someone has taken pity on him, although I can't say I like the idea of him working so closely with you, Hermione." Minerva was frowning. "The man is dangerous."

Her sigh suggested that she'd spent a lot of time repeating the same arguments. "He was acquitted of all charges, Minerva," she said, sounding only the slightest bit reproving. "It wasn't his fault that Professor Dumbledore used his oath to force Severus to kill him in order to keep Voldemort out of his mind at the end. Imagine how bad it would have gotten if Voldemort had managed to get a hold of everything the headmaster knew! Harry would never have been able to find all of the horcruxes."

"Still..." Minerva did not sound convinced. "That he was even capable of such an act..."

"I went into Harry's memory of that day," Hermione said. "When I was putting everything together. You didn't see the look on his face."

The girl had practically transformed as she spoke of young Snape. Ten minutes ago, Phineas would have said that she was a nice enough looking young woman, but now, with her flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, he had to admit that she was something of a beauty. Not classical, but definitely attractive. And he found it absolutely fascinating that the change had occurred the instant she began defending Severus Snape.

"I know that he's not kind or polite or any of those things," she continued, "but given the life that he's been forced to lead, I can certainly understand why. It doesn't make the verbal abuse he unloads on everyone who crosses his path any less insulting, but it does make it a little more endurable."

The expression on Minerva's face could only be described as shocked. "I..." she stammered.

It was so rare that Phineas saw her at a true loss for words that he couldn't help but enjoy it, even if he was equally stunned at Hermione Granger's audacity.

But the emotion exited as quickly as it came, and Hermione's face smoothed out to a relatively pleasant smile. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just... every time Severus and I have a meeting, I spend the next two hours listening to everyone at work making snide remarks. I get... tense."

"Obviously," Minerva said dryly, refilling her teacup and taking a long draught nearly immediately.

The moment, then, had passed completely. Hermione tentatively changed the subject, asking after the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, and Minerva apparently accepted the change with relief. For the remainder of the visit, the subject of Severus Snape did not surface.

Phineas had seen trouble in the Granger girl's eyes, however, and he resolved to have a private word with her at his earliest convenience.

It took him two whole weeks to figure out how to get to her. The Aurory did not permit any sort of art within its facilities -- they obviously knew that some figures knew how to use them for their own purposes -- so finding Hermione Granger at her place of employ was out of the question.

Equally out of the question was attempting to extract her whereabouts from Minerva. He could tell how disconcerted she'd been by Hermione's visit and knew that bringing her up would make Minerva shut down entirely. From his own experience, he knew just how unsettling it could be to realize that someone you'd guided and molded had grown into a complete stranger with different ideals, and that you had no control over them any longer. It was an unteachable lesson, though, and Minerva had to deal with her disappointment on her own terms.

He'd been forced to go through the network of portraits. Something he detested, as it required being friendly with individuals who he'd long considered to be complete and total idiots. So he was faced with two weeks of being civil to the likes of Violet and Sir Cadogan, asking politely after their friends in other castles, waiting for the moment when he heard a name that might be connected at all to Hermione.

He found her in Hereford, living in a rather rundown old block of flats. It turned out that her landlady kept a miniature portrait of an old Prewett cousin tucked in her bedside drawer. The Prewett had briefly pursued a relationship with the portrait of a woman who turned out to have been married to Violet's brother while they were living. Why any of these people still kept in touch with each other, Phineas had no idea, but he'd gotten Hermione's address out of it, so he couldn't help but feel the slightest bit grateful for the connection.

Unfortunately, Hermione did not keep sentient paintings in her flat. Not surprising, really, as the sort of wizarding paintings that Phineas would have felt most at home in were exorbitantly expensive and not at all the sort of thing that an Auror's salary would permit.

Her photographs were out of the question -- he was a creature of pigment, not print, and could not exist within such a medium -- but she did have a cheap copy of Entwistle's most famous work, The Alchemist's Daughter, in a tacky frame propped up over her mantle, and that was enough for him. Muggle pictures were likely beyond his realm of existence, but even the worst wizarding painting could be inhabited for a while. Like called to like, he supposed.

Once he found her, he did not waste time, popping into the Entwistle that very evening and waiting for her to return home from work. As he waited, he amused himself by preparing the ingredients laid out on the table in the painting for use in the first stage of creation for the philosopher's stone that Entwistle had spent his entire life attempting to achieve. The Alchemist's Daughter was standing, frozen, in the background. It was strange, being in a painting that did not move. He'd met the original Daughter, and she was a saucy sort of wench, very fun to talk to, and he was surprised to realize that he was disconcerted by her copy. He wanted to scream at her to move, to blink, to do something, but he was well aware that it wouldn't make a difference.

Hermione returned to the flat soon enough, however, and he was able to ignore the Daughter completely. She didn't notice him at first, simply hanging up her cloak and changing into some appalling Muggle clothing without giving her mantle so much as a glance. Supper appeared to be a carton of some sort of takeout, brought into the den from the kitchen.

Settling on her sofa, she dug a fork into the box and happened to look over at him. She paused to give the picture a hard stare, and Phineas grinned at her.

The fork clattered to the floor.

"Hello," he said loudly. Unable to help it, he waved at her and tried not to laugh as her mouth dropped open.

The carton of takeout following the fork as she stood, Hermione walked over to him without even noticing as she trod in her food. "What the hell...?" she muttered, standing on tiptoe to get a better look into the picture. "Phineas Nigellus?"

"I see that I have startled you, Miss Granger," he said evenly. "Perhaps an apology is in order?"

"N-no," she said in a faint voice. "I just... not that I'm not positively delighted to see you again, Professor, but forgive me for wondering what you're doing here."

He had decided some days earlier that it would be best to get straight to the point. "Did you know, Miss Granger, that many years ago, Hogwarts was less a school and more a collection of apprentices and their masters?"

"Classwork was only for the first five years," she said, still sounding dazed. "Then the students who were deemed ready were paired off with masters in their discipline of interest, for further study. I read about it in Hogwarts, A History."

"The NEWTs were introduced rather late in my term as headmaster," he replied. "It was a difficult transition, due in no small part to the intimate nature of the bond between master and apprentice. It is, naturally, much closer than that between professor and student."

Her brow creased in thought. "Well, of course. An apprentice works with a single master. But I can't see how that has anything to do with--"

"I knew one such master," he continued loudly over the beginnings of her protest. "He studied Arithmancy but was far more interested in his craft than in teaching and therefore took on few pupils. He spent little time at Hogwarts, his family duties taking him away from the school often, and so spent all of his available time cloistered in his office, paying little attention to the younger students he was required to have and accepting no apprentices.

"There was a young woman, however, whose only ambition was to become a student of Arithmancy on the level of this master. She was a talented young Ravenclaw who could have done most anything she wanted. There were probably half-a-dozen others lined up at her door, begging to take her under their wing, but her heart was fixed on Arithmancy and she wanted only the best.

"The master was unfazed. He had turned away many others before and did not see the young woman as anyone special. For five years, she stayed at Hogwarts, attempting to get into his good graces and gain an apprenticeship. She taught his classes, knowing full well how he hated dealing with the children. She prepared his meals with her own hands and brought them to his office. They spent many hours together, discussing various aspects of their shared subject, but he still did not offer her an opportunity for formal study.

"It was somewhere around this time that the young woman began to fancy herself in love with the Arithmancy master." Phineas was gratified to see Hermione's eyes widen but restrained himself from commenting on it. "Her attentions became decidedly more... amorous in nature, but the master remained oblivious.

"By the time the master finally realized what had happened, it was too late for gentle rebuttals. As a result, he was... he was not kind to the young woman. And she was, of course, inconsolable."

Phineas closed his eyes as he continued his narrative. "She barricaded herself in her room, refusing to speak to anyone. It took ten days to notice that the young woman had stopped eating, and another three to convince the master to approach her quarters. When he did, however, she made no sound, no indication that she heard his apologies. Eight days later, after she had starved to death, the wards she had placed on the door dropped, and they were able to retrieve the body." He heard Hermione's sharp intake of breath but did not look at her. "She was buried on Hogwarts grounds, at the master's expense."

He counted the ticks of the clock as they stood in silence. Finally, after many minutes of quiet, Hermione finally spoke. "The... the master was you, wasn't it?"

Steeling himself, he managed to reopen his eyes at last. The compassion in Hermione's gaze was almost unbearable and quite unexpected. "I had never been in such a situation before," he said, shocking himself with his honesty. "I had a wife that I loved and no interest in dealing with such a little girl in any way, academically or otherwise. In retrospect, one of the more cruel things I have ever done was to tell her that to her face."

"You didn't know what she would do," Hermione said, and he found her defense as touching as it was surprising. "You didn't know she would kill herself."

Phineas shrugged. "I am certain that does not excuse the fact that she did. But I did not relate this story to you to justify my behavior in any way."

"Then why did you tell me this?" she asked. "I haven't spoken with you in more than twenty years, and you show up in a picture in my flat to tell me a story about a girl that died of a broken heart before my grandparents were alive. How did you get in here, by the way?"

With a sigh, he rolled his eyes. "How do young people get anywhere in life knowing so little? Think, Miss Granger!"

"Well, I'm not sure how you found out where I live, but I suppose that the artist of the work being a wizard has something to--"

"Great Merlin!" he bellowed, finally allowing himself to lose his temper with her. "Are you completely dense, child?"

She had the audacity to look offended. "I don't--"

Again, he interrupted. "Miss Granger. Hermione. Tell me, exactly how long have you been in love with Severus Snape?"

Hermione went white as a sheet. "I... I don't know what you mean," she stuttered.

"I heard your conversation with Minerva," he said. "No one defends a man like young Snape without having at least a modicum of affection for him, and you were ready to strike an old woman for merely suggesting that he might not be the best social companion for you. If that's not love, I don't know what is."

"I don't love Severus," she said, with a laugh that sounded forced at best. "He's... he's hateful and rude and I have to browbeat him into doing just about everything and..."

"And yet you continue to spend time with him. Don't deny it, Hermione," he said as her mouth opened. "You call him Severus."

"Mostly, I call him that to irritate him," she said, smiling fondly. "I told him it was either ‘Severus' or ‘hateful bastard.' At which point he replied that it mattered very little, as he had no interest in speaking to me ever again, and then we had a nasty row. He is at least considerate enough to use hexes that I know the countercurses to." Something in her face twisted. "Oh, all right. I will concede that I do... care about him. I don't ever want to see him hurt again, not after what everyone's done to him. No one's ever loved him properly, and..."

He gave her a pointed look, and she responded with a fierce glare.

"It's not like I'm about to wall myself up and starve over him," she said acidly. "I know him well enough to know that throwing myself at him would be futile. Moreover, if he ever said anything to me like what you think you said to that girl, I'd make sure that he would be fishing one of his more favored body parts out of the river Thames."

"While I don't doubt your... ability to look after yourself," he replied in as delicate a fashion as he could manage, "I do wonder at the fact that you've fallen in love with a completely unattainable man. Are you looking to have your heart broken?"

"Because I fell in love with him completely intentionally," she said, sarcastic and biting. "I just woke up one morning and thought, yes, that Severus Snape, he's the one for me, oh, how wonderful to be a woman in love. Please." Hermione rolled her eyes. "It's more like I contracted some incurable disease and didn't realize it until it was too late." Her tone turned thoughtful as she continued to speak.

"Not, of course, that I really want to be cured. He is brilliant, and witty, and one of the very few individuals walking the face of this planet that doesn't think I need to be cosseted and protected like a small child. It is pleasant to have someone that one can be completely honest with. Oh, and there's the whole ‘war hero' bit, I suppose," she added, almost as an afterthought.

"From what I recall, there was not much heroism going on," Phineas could not help saying snidely.

With a shrug, Hermione took a step away from the hearth. "That's actually the nice thing about it. People want so much to remember the downfall of Voldemort as a series of grand gestures and brave acts that they forget what brave acts actually are. The Ministry gave Bill Weasley a medal for getting bitten by a werewolf but tried to put Severus to death for keeping Albus Dumbledore's secrets out of Voldemort's hands."

"One of the idiosyncrasies of war is that people tend to forget that throwing yourself upon your enemy's sword is usually more stupid than brave," he said in a deliberately neutral voice.

"Although when it is necessary, there is no braver deed," she responded, no doubt thinking of poor idiot Potter, whose part in the entire affair had ended with him in St. Mungo's, relearning how to spell his own name.

Phineas chose to remain silent.

"It doesn't matter," she said in a final sort of tone. "What's done is done. And even if I am in love with Severus, I don't see how it's any of your concern."

"Oh, it's not," he said. "I just... wanted you to benefit from an old man's experience. Consider it my effort to atone for old sins."

Something in her eyes softened. "Who was she? The girl, I mean."

With a shrug, Phineas averted his gaze. "Her name is her own, but I will say that you have met her. In passing, at least."

Hermione's expression was puzzled as she thought. He could see it in her face when it connected. "Oh," she said quietly. "It must be difficult for you, living at Hogwarts."

"A difficulty entirely of my own creation," he replied. "And now, Miss Granger, I will beg your forgiveness for taking up your time with my flights of fancy. I only wish you the best."

"I think I feel sorry for you," she said, cocking her head as she studied him. "I'm sure it will pass, though."

As he left the Entwistle copy, he nodded. "As it should."

Young Snape was far easier to find. Not only did he already know where he lived, but Albus' portrait told him that he'd bequeathed an original Gainsborough landscape to Snape in his will.

Occupying the Gainsborough was like stepping into a dream. The man was such a brilliant painter that even Muggles collected his work, although they never seemed to realize exactly why his paintings felt so life-like. Phineas settled himself on a grassy riverbank and hoped that Snape took his time coming home -- the warm sun and bubbling water were quite pleasant, and he would be loathe to leave when the time came.

But he'd forgotten that Snape had far less to occupy his days than Hermione -- the man came slouching through the door around two o'clock in the afternoon, throwing his cloak into an empty wing chair and slumping into the chair's twin, situated nearly opposite from the painting.

From what Phineas could see, the room was a complete mess. Books were stacked on nearly every available surface, and papers occupied what little space was left. Half-drunk teacups were carelessly laid on several tables, and he even thought he saw a muddy boot print on the hearthrug.

The jury may still have been out on whether or not young Snape needed a woman, but it was patently obvious that he needed a house elf at the very least. Phineas wondered if Hermione had ever seen the interior of Snape's house and if it would change her mind about him if she did.

Snape took far less time to notice his presence, but he had not moved from his chair since entering the room. "Who are you, and what the fuck are you doing in my painting?" he asked harshly.

Phineas blinked. "Is it too much to ask for a little civility?"

"You're trespassing, and you wish me to be polite about it?" With a sneer, Snape pulled his wand out from somewhere in his robes. "Very well, then. I'll give you a warning: leave this instant, or I will hex you into a puddle of linseed oil."

"You know what this painting is worth, so you will do no such thing," he replied loftily. "Besides, I know very well that you would never destroy a gift from Albus Dumbledore."

Out of his chair, he was now advancing on the painting, a dangerous glint in his eyes. "What did you just say?"

"Come now, boy, this is ridiculous. You mean to tell me that you don't recognize me at all?" Phineas asked. "After all of the quality time we've spent together, in my own home, even."

Lowering his wand ever so slightly, Snape peered into the Gainsborough. "Are you... Phineas Nigellus Black?"

With an ironic flourish, Phineas stood up from the bank and bowed. "At your service, Mister Snape."

The wand now at his side, he gave Phineas a confused glare. "I still don't know what the hell you're doing here."

"I had a very enlightening conversation with a young woman of our mutual acquaintance two days ago, and I have thus taken it upon myself to have a similar discussion with you," he said pleasantly.

Snape's wand twitched. "Will our discussion be as cryptic as that was or may I be allowed to hope for a certain level of clarity?"

"I believe we will get on famously," he replied, chuckling. "Why we didn't speak more often before is beyond me."

"For my part, I was rather busy," Snape said cautiously. "Although if it will get you out of here in a more timely fashion, I'm more than willing to engage in mindless chit-chat with you now."

"I doubt that would be productive," Phineas said. "So I'm afraid I must go directly to the heart of the matter which brings me here: Hermione Granger."

"What?" Snape asked, fumbling with his wand and coming very close to dropping it. Standing there with his mouth open and eyes wide with surprise, he looked rather stupid, but Phineas politely refrained from saying so aloud.

"Hermione Granger," he repeated in a patient voice.

Snape recovered himself, but just barely. "What of her?" he snarled. "A nuisance. An annoyance. So full of righteous indignation that it makes me ill to even think of it."

"She and I spoke very frankly," Phineas told him.

"There's no other sort of conversation with that woman," he said with a snort. "She has an irritating tendency to drag truths from you that you didn't even know about yourself."

"Did you know that she's in love with you?" he asked conversationally.

In a hilariously accurate imitation of a goldfish, Snape's mouth flopped open again as his face blanched. His wand clattered to the floor, and Phineas thought for an astonished moment that the man was going to swoon. "Wh... no," he breathed. "No, she's not."

"Are we thinking of the same Hermione Granger?" Phineas folded his arms across his chest. "Curly hair, brown eyes, mouthy sort of witch? Because the one that I spoke with seemed fairly certain of her affections."

"She's not," Snape said, swallowing. "That's... that's impossible."

"As much as you and I and the rest of the civilized world believe in the accuracy of your statement, Hermione appears to have done the impossible and fallen in love with you anyway." He sat back down on the riverbank and propped his elbows on his knees.

Still white-faced, Snape wrapped his arms around himself, nearly shivering. "She pities me, perhaps," he said. "But not that. Not... love." He practically spat the word.

"Severus Snape, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you are far from pitiable," Phineas said, voice tinged with sarcasm. "At least, not in the way that you're thinking. If Hermione felt that sort of urge to care for something, she would probably buy a dog and be done with it."

"But she can't love me," he said, sounding pathetic. "She's... she's the sort who's kind to animals and small children. She probably donates to St. Mungo's Fund for Unfortunates and tutors Squibs. And I... well, I'm not."

Phineas rolled his eyes. "Great Merlin, she's not a saint, you know." Something occurred to him. "And you've just eased my mind about the entire situation, I suppose."

"How so?" Snape looked absolutely disconsolate, and Phineas found himself wishing he could reach through the painting to grab the man's shoulders and give him a good shake.

"You sound just about as far gone as she does," he said with a smirk.

Recoiling, Snape's expression shifted from hangdog to outraged. "Listen, you hateful old--"

"Call me all the names you want, but it doesn't change the fact that you're in love with her," Phineas interrupted mildly. "I came here to tell you that it would be an uncharacteristic but kind gesture to avoid breaking her heart too thoroughly, but I see now that there is no need."

"Of all the fucking arrogant..." Dropping to one knee, Snape began scrabbling about on the floor, ostensibly in an effort to find his wand.

Mouth twisting into a broad grin, Phineas stood up and brushed the grass off his robes. "I can only hope that you and Hermione will be as happy as my wife and I were."

He left Snape, still on the floor, cursing a blue streak.

How on Earth he'd gotten himself roped into this, he'd never know. But somehow, Phineas found himself sandwiched in between Violet and the Fat Lady, a cup of watery tea in one hand and a cake fairly dripping with chocolate in the other.

"I can't say that I approve," the Fat Lady said, making clucking noises.

"Come, dearie, don't you think it incredibly romantic?" Violet asked in a breathy sort of voice.

Something in Phineas' stomach twisted -- he couldn't tell if it was fear or nausea.

"I just thought that Hermione Granger had more sense than that," the Fat Lady answered. "With Severus Snape, of all people. You know, they say he was involved with..." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "You-Know-Who!"

"But he saved young Harry Potter's life," Violet said, wagging a finger toward her friend and coming very close to sticking it in Phineas' ear. "He has to be a good sort, after all that, doesn't he? Besides, Horatio Prewett told my sister-in-law that Severus Snape sends young Hermione flowers every day. Isn't that just the sweetest thing you've ever heard?"

He was almost certain now that the feeling in his gut was nausea.

"I don't know..." the Fat Lady said, clearly skeptical. "He just... he was always so sour."

"They say that love changes people," Violet replied dreamily.

Shaking his head, Phineas bit back an acerbic retort. Love didn't change anyone that much. Snape probably only sent the girl daily flowers because he had to apologize for something horrible he'd done earlier that day.

His brief tenure in hell was interrupted, however, as the Grey Lady drifted through the hall. Violet and the Fat Lady immediately fell into respectful silence as the ghost drew closer.

Phineas stared at the hooded figure, remembering the girl she once was, wishing that he could have been a different person. "I am sorry, dear child," he whispered, fancying that the ghost of the young woman he'd inadvertently driven to her death was looking at him as she passed by.

Maybe one day, she would hear him. Maybe they could understand each other in death as they never could in life. But if all that happened was that their story helped prevent young Severus Snape and Hermione Granger from making the same sort of mistake, it was enough.

It would have to be.


Final Notes: I've never written Phineas before, and I'm worried that I've put him unrecognizably out-of-character, but I have to say that I enjoyed tackling a new perspective. Also, I know that I've deviated wildly from the usual ideas on the Grey Lady (one of my slashgirl friends informed me as I was writing this that she tends to run across the idea that the Grey Lady is actually Lady Jane Grey quite a bit), but I wanted to make the time period fit. Thanks, verseblack, for giving me the opportunity to write a different sort of tale than I usually do.
Tags: fic, het, various pairings
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