To all Muggle observers, it was currently a run down launderette, perpetually closed. There was even the scent of cleaning chemicals hovering around the dingy doorway, and puffs of steam made their way outward from a vent at precise intervals (should anyone have been measuring these intervals, which they were not). To any and all wizards and witches, however, it was, and always had been (at least for hundreds of years) Cordial Spirits, the oldest and most reputable pub in all of Wizarding Britain.
And that is where Severus Snape found himself, the last Saturday evening before Christmas. Now that Voldemort was dead, it was the last place on earth he wanted to be. Snape knew that (like all civil servant parties) this one would begin early and end early. Thus he Apparated into the narrow service alley next to it at ten p.m. precisely, deciding that it would be best to enter from the back end of the pub. He hoped that there would be precious few people left by that time, that he would be noticed by even fewer people, and that after exchanging strained “pleasantries” with whomever decided to approach him, he could leave by eleven at the latest. In his entire life, Severus Snape had never been more profoundly wrong.
Oh, it started off well enough. Casting a Disillusionment charm upon himself, he managed to avoid the kitchen crew with little trouble. Then he moved down the hall towards the wait staff entrance to the bar. For a couple of moments he stood by the swinging doors, listening, then pushed the door open just a hair.
Snape grunted involuntarily. Cordial Spirits was the same insufferably stuffy place that he remembered it to be. The first and most horrifying feature was the color scheme. The entire establishment was and had always been decorated in orange and violet, no doubt because they were two colors that were not affiliated with any of the houses in Hogwarts. This, it seemed to Snape, was no way to make decorating choices. Deep violet velvet banquettes warred with muddy orange walls. The bar itself was as ostentatious as one might expect it to be. It was the only bar he had ever seen that sported a crystal chandelier.
For a brief moment, Snape thought seriously of leaving. Most of the patrons (many of whom he recognized) were clustered near the front door at the other end of the pub. They didn’t seem to be doing much, just talking in monosyllables and periodically checking their timepieces. It did not occur to Snape that any of them could possibly be waiting for him. That his appearance was to be the very highlight of the evening.
Snape scanned the room, searching for a place where he could sit unmolested for awhile. Then he drew in a quick breath. At a small table toward the back, not far from the very door where he was standing, sat a young woman alone. A decidedly bored and slightly peeved-looking young woman. A young woman with hair the color of pink bubblegum.
Snape had never been fond of Nymphadora Tonks. He had always thought that her position in the Ministry could be attributed almost exclusively to her metamorphmagia, and the previous year had done nothing to improve his opinion of her. To be lovelorn was one thing, but to lovelorn over someone so obviously bent just seemed to him gratuitously melodramatic. During the previous year Snape actually thought about taking the girl aside and telling her that Lupin was not able to properly return her affections, but he knew what her reaction would have been. She would have called him a liar, or she would have believed that somehow she could reform Lupin into the snatch pounder she so desperately wanted him to be. So, save for his remark about her Patronus, Snape left the truth to Lupin, who had obviously avoided it until the only other choice was to marry her (which Lupin to his credit could not bring himself to do). The only benefit to the insipid Tonks and Lupin “affair,” Snape thought, was that it had occasionally taken his mind off his own sodding life.
So there was no love lost between Severus Snape and Nymphadora Tonks, but when he saw her sitting there, blessedly alone, all of a sudden he felt a bit lighter. He passed through the door unnoticed, the concealment charm still in place, and slid into the chair next to hers while her face was turned from him.
With a whiplike movement Snape’s hand suddenly snaked out, and wrapped itself around Tonks’ wand wrist.
“Still off your game, Tonks?” he hissed quietly.
Well, Nymphadora Tonks was a talented Auror. But Snape was an even more talented spy. She jumped, and put her hand to her throat. However she quickly recovered.
“That the way you get your jollies, Snape?” she answered, wrenching her arm away from him. “Scaring unsuspecting women?”
Snape merely uttered a counter-charm, and the smug look on his face slowly became fully visible.
Tonks eyed him warily. “I was told you were supposed to be coming, but I didn’t believe it. What are you doing here, anyway? Doesn’t seem your kind of place. A little fancy-pants for someone like you, isn’t it?”
The last part was made as a dig, of course, one she’d probably been practicing for the past couple of hours. Not that he blamed her.
“I’m on assignment for the Order,” Snape said.
Tonks laughed sharply. “The Order of what?”
“The Order of the Meddlesome Codger,” Snape grumbled.
Tonks’ face softened then, and as she rolled her eyes, Snape saw a definite sympathy in them. Albus Dumbledore was the hardest on those that he most cared for and trusted, and Tonks knew that as well as anyone.
“Oh, I’ve been in that order for quite awhile,” she replied. "I’ve got the pains in my arse to prove it.”
“Did he demand your presence here?"
She nodded. “To serve as company for you, I suppose.”
Snape grunted. “Idiot. Why did he bother?” Then he waved his hand dismissively in the air. “Make yourself useful, Nymphadora, and get me a drink.”
“Great idea!” Tonks said, brightening. “You’ll be far more bearable once I’ve had a couple. Or ten,” she added. She got up and in very short order brought back two more beers. It was not of the quality of Mandrake’s Obsidian, but it was serviceable. Snape drank.
“Where’s Lupin?” Snape asked, wondering why Dumbledore had sent Tonks instead. The only person in the Order whose company Snape was less likely to enjoy was Molly Weasley.
Thank God for small favors.
“Remus is receiving the Order of Merlin tonight,” Tonks informed him. “Or didn’t you know?”
Snape said nothing. He knew about the Order of Merlin, of course, but Lupin had not mentioned the date it would be formally bestowed.
“And why aren’t you there, supporting him?” Snape asked, raising an eyebrow. “I thought you were one of his most ardent…” (and at this he paused significantly), “admirers.”
“Because I have been asked to come here and to admire you, Severus,” she said, her voice lowering a notch. Suddenly there was mischief in her eyes. As Nymphadora Tonks' idea of mischief tended towards bombast, Snape actually felt a tiny thrum of fear.
Suddenly her hair lightened into a pale gold, and her hand found his knee under the table.
“Would you like me to…admire you?”
Nymphadora Tonks was not serious. She was simply trying to embarrass him, and it worked. Snape could not stop the blood from rushing to his face. But he quickly recovered, and leaned in, a bit closer than he knew Tonks would have liked.
“I have noted that you seem to have a propensity for becoming attracted to flighty homosexuals,” he said, his own voice lowering now. “Do you really think, Nymphadora, that you could handle me?”
Then he looked into her eyes, and gave her a very sinister smile.
This time it was Tonks who reddened. “God, you’re awful!” she said, looking away.
Snape took another healthy swig of his beer. “Have you only just noticed? Good Christ, you’re even thicker than I thought.”
He hoped she would be quiet now, because he was tired of arguing with her. It reminded him of arguing with Jane and that only made him aroused. Snape spent the next five minutes staring into his beer, trying to imagine what Jane was doing at that moment. And what she was wearing. And how fast he could yank it up over her head and get to business. Perhaps she would allow him a late night visit. If she was in her rooms, that is. No doubt she was at the ceremony for Lupin as well. Still, she had to return to Hogwarts sometime this evening, didn’t she? Surely she wouldn’t turn him away. Surely she wouldn’t…
Snape was startled out of his reverie. No. Not possible. Could not be.
“Well, Professor Severus Snape! As I live and breathe! I didn’t notice you come in!”
Snape slowly looked up from his beer and met Tonks’ eyes, in which he saw a hidden glee. It was Snape who was off his guard, not Tonks. She had not alerted him to Dolores Umbridge’s approach, and she was taking a peculiar pleasure in his uncomfortable surprise at her appearance. Well, he would deal with Tonks later. Right now he had to invest most of his energy in trying not to breathe.
Umbridge had a particularly unpleasant odor, made more unpleasant for those with sensitive noses. She always smelled of an old lady’s powder, powder that had been liberally applied in certain nether regions to disguise other, even more disgusting smells.
“Perfume on crotch rot,” he had heard Ron Weasley say about her once. And about that, he had been right.
“My stars, it’s good to see you, and looking so well!”
Snape recovered quickly, and unfurled a slow, knowing smile. “Does this mean that I am no longer on probation?”
Umbridge’s sunny façade withered, but just a bit.
“Oh that was a misunderstanding of course, Professor Snape,” she insisted, bending slightly to touch his hand with her cool, stubby fingers. Her touch was almost slimy, and Snape made every effort not to openly recoil.
“All a terrible misunderstanding!” she was repeating. She was obviously waiting to be invited to sit down. This was not going to happen.
Tonks remained utterly silent, watching their conversation with that same guarded amusement. She could little bear the company of Dolores Umbridge, but she was of the mind that whatever or whoever made Severus Snape even remotely uncomfortable was most definitely worth watching, and from a ringside seat.
Dolores Umbridge, however, had other ideas, and having had no luck with Snape she turned with a vague menace on Tonks.
“Well, I see that you have been monopolizing Professor Snape, Miss Tonks,” she said. “Don’t you think it more appropriate that he visit with those a bit higher up?” Umbridge’s smile managed to be both cruel and unctuous at the same time.
Tonks rose carefully. “So long as I’m not downwind of the higher up,” she murmured, going to take a stool at the bar. At that moment Snape decided that perhaps he might grow to like Nymphadora Tonks after all. Perhaps.
Umbridge wasted no time in placing her putrid, powdered posterior in Tonks’ vacated chair. Snape said nothing to her, only looked at her with a hint of mirth. He tended to use this particular expression on soft-headed sycophants, of which Dolores Umbridge was certainly in legion. With enough time, Umbridge would grow extremely uncomfortable and suspicious. Watching her descend into sputtering paranoia might even be worth enduring her stink.
But this was not to be. Because, unknown to Severus Snape, he was in fact the man of the hour. Within a mere thirty seconds he sensed the approach of Lucius Malfoy. And at Malfoy’s right arm was Roland Gash. The father, of course, of the very Princilla herself.
The two men approached, Lucius with his smooth, affected gait, and Gash with a stalwart forward stride. Even at sixty, Roland Gash cut an imposing figure. He was a large man, both wide and tall, with a barrel chest and an intrusive handlebar moustache.
Snape looked up at them, offering a placid half-smile.
As for Umbridge, she clasped her hands together and blinked at them happily. “Ah, Lucius! And Roland Gash! How marvelous! Where is Sylvestra this evening?”
Gash smiled pointedly at Snape, and did not meet Umbridge’s eyes. “At home, nursing a head cold.”
Sylvestra Gash was apparently nursing the same head cold she had not been able to rid herself of for at least the past seven years. Snape had met with Roland Gash exactly seven times, one for each of the seven years Princilla had been his student, but he had never once been in her mother’s company.
“Severus,” Lucius began, after bowing cursorily at Umbridge, “how kind of you to join us this evening. You remember Roland Gash.”
Gash nodded to him, and Snape nodded back.
“Thank you for squiring me over here, Lucius,” Roland said as Malfoy put his hand on a chair, “but I would hate to take you away from your business with Caxley.
Malfoy’s hand froze.
“Tell them the toast will begin in, oh, ten minutes or so,” Gash said conclusively.
After proffering them an oily little bow, Malfoy retreated to the front of the pub.
Snape was very glad to see him go, and he motioned for Gash to join him.
“Get us something from the bar, won’t you, Dolores?” Gash said blandly as he sat. It was as if he had been ordering Ministry officials around his entire life.
The pinched look on Umbridge’s face as she rose to do the man’s bidding endeared Snape to Gash even more.
“Wh--What would you like?” she asked stiffly.
“A fine, tawny port,” he said, not looking at Umbridge at all. As she nodded and moved off, Snape thought (quite rightly, as it turned out) that Umbridge would not have known a fine, tawny port if it crawled up her odiferous genitalia.
“My Princilla speaks very highly of you, Professor,” Gash said, now that they were alone. “She takes the most meticulous notes. Writes down everything you say, not that I understand any of it of course. But you’re certainly quite a learned fellow.” Gash laughed, clapping Snape on the shoulder then.
“She is a fine student,” Snape said. This was a mostly correct statement, Jane’s class notwithstanding.
“Yes. Thinks quite a bit of herself, but I have encouraged that. No point in the girl selling herself short. I mean, after all I have an estate set aside for her in Cumbria, near Hawkshead. Two house-elves. Two! Have you been to the Lake Country, Snape?”
Snape shook his head slowly. The Lake Country was a world away from Yorkshire.
“It’s quite pleasant there. Not as grand as Gash Hall of course,” Gash continued, as, in clear violation of Cordial Spirits’ ban on smoking, he pulled out a silver case and offered Snape what appeared to be a Cuban cigar. “Only seven bedrooms. But it’s very workable for a young…family.”
At that moment Umbridge returned with the port, and coughed slightly as the smoke from the cigars made its way to her nose. Snape took a puff from his own cigar. Personally, he thought the scent ambrosial. It was incense, clearing the air of her stench.
Gash looked at her brightly, but there was a hint of mischief in his eyes. “Ah, Dolores…you’re piqued by the smoke.”
Umbridge was clearly nonplussed. “No, it’s just that, well it is prohibited in here. Quite against the rules.”
“There’s a thousand galleon fine if I’m not mistaken,” Gash said, smiling amiably. Suddenly a leather check register appeared at his elbow, and a gold pen alongside it. “To whom shall I make out the check?” he added.
“Well, I would not be the one to…it is not to me that you would…what I mean is…”
“The port, Dolores,” Gash interrupted, finally, his smile fading, as the leather check register disappeared. Umbridge actually curtsied at them then, and gave them their drinks. Gash continued to stare at her and Snape saw in her eyes that she knew better than to sit herself down again. With a slight backward look, she went to join Lucius.
“So, Professor Snape, when can I expect a copy of the contract?” Gash’s friendly smile had returned.
Snape shifted in his chair, uncomfortable. “Heretofore I have not considered your daughter as a…” Snape paused, searching for the right word.
“As a woman, of course. I’m glad that you haven’t. I try not to think about Princilla like that myself. But she is a lovely, is she not?”
Snape nodded. What else was there to do?
“And marriage is not merely about attraction, and attractiveness, is it?”
Snape took a sip of his port. It was indeed terrible, and he pushed the glass away from him. “As I have never been married, nor even considered it, I could not tell you.”
Gash pursed his lips thoughtfully. “A marriage…well it’s a more formal alliance between friendly countries, isn’t it? And as such each country needs to look at what it can gain.”
Snape met his eyes. There was a certain eagerness there, but all else was hidden. Gash was an Occlumens. Well, no matter.
“And what is to be gained?” Snape asked plainly.
Gash laughed. “Ah, a plain-spoken fellow. I like that. Too little of that in Slytherin, I think.” But after that there was a long silence.
“The Dark Lord has fallen,” Gash said at last, his voice much quieter now, “and there will not be another. Now, you are the most powerful and respected wizard in Britain.”
Though he had heard versions of this before, from both Dumbledore and Lupin, Snape still was incredulous. “Turn your head and you will observe where the Wizarding world has chosen to bestow its respect,” he said.
Gash looked back briefly at the front of the pub, then sneered, leaning in even closer. “Malfoy. The terrified toady of a dangerous, self-centered sociopath. The real irony of it is that Voldemort cared nothing for Slytherin. And in truth he cared nothing for the ideal of the purity of Wizarding blood. He used Slytherin, and his phony, useless ideas about race, to try to get what he really wanted—the entire world at his feet, worshipping him.”
In retrospect, Snape thought this was quite true.
“Merlin’s balls, is there anything more pathetic?” Gash added.
Snape was still rather shocked to hear Gash deliver such insights. “No,” he said slowly. “No, there is not.”
There was another long pause, after which Snape finally posed the question he’d been longing to ask.
“How did you avoid him?”
Gash chuckled, taking another puff then of his cigar. “How does one avoid anything unpleasant in life, Snape? Money. Do you know how much I spend on ‘consultants’?”
Snape shook his head.
“In a day, probably more than you make in ten years.” But there was no derision in Gash’s voice. Just the authority of fact.
“I was supplementing the salaries of nearly everyone in the Ministry," he continued. "Even Malfoy was beholden to me, because I own the rights to the land where he has sited his mills. Did you know that?”
Indeed, Snape did not.
“Oh, if Voldemort had survived, and triumphed completely, doubtless I would have been pressured into the fold. But that Pettigrew person served his purpose. That day, for me and for mine, never came.”
Snape still looked blandly at Gash. From long years of spying he had learned that most often when he wanted to learn something, all he needed to do was ask. And then, more importantly, listen.
Finally Gash sighed, satisfied. “There is no evil in the Wizarding world anymore, Professor Snape. The natural order of capitalism and bureaucracy has once again reasserted itself.”
Gash was smiling again, and now he stood. “And as for what you have to gain from an alliance with me, that is only limited by your imagination. You’re not a man of limited imagination, are you, Snape?”
Indeed, Snape was not.
Gash now turned to the front of the pub. “To the man of the hour, Severus Snape!” he said, in his booming voice. All heads swiveled towards them. All glasses were raised.
“To Severus Snape!” echoed throughout the room.
Snape stood, and for some reason he could not name, sought the eyes of Nymphadora Tonks. She too had raised her glass to him. As their eyes locked, her hair suddenly flashed green, then silver, then pink again. And though her face seemed pleased enough, in her eyes was fever of apprehension and concern.