Title: Rule of Law
Fandom/Pairing: HP, HG/SS
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts owned by JKR, Scholastic, Bloomsbury and WB.
Summary: Hermione believes that the reasons behind one's actions really do matter.
A/N: Any science related mistakes are due to the fact that I know nothing about science and did no research for this. Sorry.
Ginormous thanks to Beth for doing an incredibly quick beta on this. All plot mistakes are mine as I had her look at grammar and over-all making-sense issues.
Hermione could feel Harry whenever he was within a mile or so of her. Remus and Ginny said they could as well. Hermione never talked with anyone else about it but she saw the way other people's eyes narrowed when the feeling came over a room, saw the way people skittered and scattered so as not to be near by the time Harry actually reached her.
Harry didn't enjoy being scary. He did enjoy people leaving him alone.
Hermione worked as she waited for Harry to slide inside her corner cubicle. When he did, he said, "I'm sorry, I know you must be busy."
Hermione always had time for Harry. She imagined she always would. "I know what you're going to ask."
"One trial, Hermoine. One chance. And I figure you probably don't want to spend it on what could very likely be a lost cause, but I need you to."
"I've already chosen my defendant."
"Hermione, please. He saved my life. He bloody well saved the lives of everyone Voldemort didn't agree with."
"Which is among the reasons I've chosen to re-open his case as my trial run. Pardon the pun."
"I know that his crimes- What?"
Hermione smiled tiredly. "I'm taking up his case, Harry, you can relax."
"Without my even asking."
"As you said, he saved our lives. Repaying that with seven years of jailing seems rather a travesty, yes? I set out to reform the system for a reason, you know."
"You're the love of my life, Hermione Granger."
"Right after all the other women," she agreed.
"Right after those." Harry grinned. "If you need me to stand as a witness-"
"I will. But that will come later. First I'll need to speak with him, look in old records, prepare the case."
"If you need any help with that-"
"I think not. Just because you're grateful doesn't mean the two of you will get along any better than you once did."
"The same could be said of your relationship."
"Indeed. Luckily I'm infinitely more patient than you are. Not to mention trained in my chosen field. You'd only be in the way."
"Thanks for the ego boost."
"Someone's got to be on Potter-mania patrol."
"Valiant of you to constantly take on the task."
"Don't mention it."
"Truly, Hermione, I owe you."
Hermione tilted her head. "Here I was thinking we were past all that between the two of us."
Harry's lips twisted slightly. "I'd rather this than me taking you for granted."
Hermione didn't know which she preferred. "Buy me dinner and we'll call our debts settled."
Harry laughed. Hermione asked, "What, you don't think that's a good trade?"
"For months and months spent at the task of trying to free one Severus Snape? Somehow I believe you've landed yourself with the short end of the stick."
"We shall see," Hermione told him. "We shall see."
There were only five wizards in the world, all Unspeakables, who had the ability to release the complex series of wards at Azkaban's outermost edge. The wards that led up to those, the ones woven through the waters, were less complex. Most specially-trained Aurors knew how to pass through them.
Once inside the layered wards, the inmates were held to the prison by something Hermione found to be infinitely more cruel than the Dementors ever had been: an Unbreakable Vow.
After Voldemort's defeat there had been the necessity of punishment for war crimes. As the Ministry had struggled to find a way to guard wizarding prisons without the use of the obviously treacherous Dementors, a member of the squad for Accidental Magic Reversal had--appropriately--accidentally stumbled upon the answer. The squad had been sent out to reverse the effects of a man taking an Unbreakable Vow with an inanimate object--something heretofore thought to be impossible. The squad had not been able to reverse the Vow, but had been able to figure out a way to bring it to completion. Meanwhile, the Ministry had its answer, bind life-sentenced criminals to Azkaban through their own words, with their own magic. Non-lifers took a Vow of however long their sentence was to be.
One of those five Unspeakables was Ginny Weasley, and so it was her that Hermione asked to be accompanied by out to the prison for her first interview with Severus Snape.
Ginny didn't say much as they were traveling out over the water. Hermione didn't mind the silence, chalked it up to Ginny's concentration on getting them where they were going. When she did speak, Ginny's voice sounded oddly like the waves lapping at the boat, like the stiff winds surrounding them. "You haven't been before, have you?"
Azkaban was rising in front of them, somehow more gray than all the depictions Hermione had ever seen, more hopelessness exuding from it than Hermione could imagine existing. "No."
Hermione tore her eyes away from the approaching structure. "Yes?"
"There are things that nobody else would have told you. Few people come here, know what it's like."
"You've seen him?"
"I wanted to remind him that-" Ginny shook her head. "Sometimes I'm unsure if I'm even being kind by making sure I find him when I'm here. The others remind him surely enough of his innocence, although that's not what they call it. They are often more brutal without magic than they ever were with it."
For Ginny to say that, Ginny who lost two brothers and her mother, saw one brother permanently disfigured and had to have her own eyes replaced (thankfully not with the prosthetics of Moody's choice), sent shudders down Hermione's spine. Hermione wasn't terribly easy to shake up.
"Yes," Ginny said. "And he. . . The isolation from those who fought for Dumbledore eats at him."
"I wasn't aware he liked us."
"He didn't. But it seems man actually can't live entirely alone."
"I've heard the Vow can. . . I've heard people will do awful things to break free of it. That most of them get to the point where death is preferable to having your own magic bind you in a punishment of other's devising."
"That's the worst part. The Vow is possibly the one thing that doesn't bother him at all. I've never asked, but I'm pretty sure-"
"He believes he deserves it."
Ginny's eyes slid to the quickly growing monolith, steady in the water's waves. "Yes."
Severus Snape's hair was longer and dirtier than Hermione had last seen it. It was an odd first thought to have after seven years of not seeing someone. Hermione would have laughed in any other situation. She didn't laugh. She held out her hand by way of greeting, not at all surprised when Snape merely looked at it as though it might transform into a wand and perform the killing curse on him. Hermione didn't miss the flash of yearning beneath well-practiced disgust. She didn't call attention to it either.
"Has anyone bothered to explain why I've come, Professor?"
"Shall we dispense with useless and irrelevant titles, Miss Granger? Who, exactly, would you imagine speaking to me about that?"
"Mr. Snape, then, and I was unsure if the prison elves were used for communication at all. It's rather hard to get information about how things work here, even knowing someone who knows."
"The elves prepare food when they're told to by the Ministry. An order that somehow manages to only find its way here on a somewhat irregular basis. Other than that, they are a conglomeration of elves who served dead Death Eaters, the intent is to punish them by robbing them of purpose. The Ministry has no desire to use them more than absolutely necessary and undermine this punitive measure."
Hermione filed away what he'd said about the regularity of meals for another time. Snape had always been sharp lines drawn on other sharp lines and skin so pale and off-color that Hermione had needed to force herself away from making curdled milk comparisons. Now, though, he was just. . .gray. Like the stones of Azkaban and the sky behind them. She should have noticed, part of her occupation was close observation to detail, but there were so many details to take in all at once. "All right, let me explain then, sir."
"Please," Snape sneered, "take all the time in the world. You aren't keeping me from anything."
Despite the sarcasm, Hermione didn't imagine that she was, so she ignored this interjection. "As of last month the Ministry passed an act that provisionally re-envisions its judicial system." Hermione heard the sound that Snape made low in his throat at that and privately agreed. If she didn't she wouldn't have bothered taking the trouble to falsify documents so as to get herself into Muggle law school, nor to complete the program and certainly not to bring its tenets back to the wizarding community and fight hand and wand to rework the system in a way that was both fairer and yet suited to the uniqueness of the people it would serve. "Among the changes made were to the system of representation, or lack thereof. Assuming the provisional Act proves satisfactory to the Ministry and the community at large it will be adopted as a full Act. In order for this to happen, there must be a trial run, if you will. Inasmuch, I've come to re-open your case. As your representation."
"Still as mentally insufficient as you always were, Miss Granger. You could present Albus in living form to them and they would find some way to keep me here. Your little Act is doomed to fail given the choices you make regarding it."
"The Act is only good if it keeps innocent people from imprisonment. If I cannot succeed with you, then the Act is flawed anyway."
"You are conveniently forgetting my lack of innocence."
"Harry and me both, evidently, as he asked me to take your case. That was after I'd already decided, of course, but I found his support cheering."
"That makes one of us."
"As you killed the only person for whom you had any fondness, you'll just have to forego the comfort of compassionate support. Now, shall we start?" Hermione, watching his sunken eyes flicker behind bruises that she wondered at but refused to ask about, immediately regretted the snap. She sensed that apologizing would get her nowhere, so she didn't.
Eventually, Snape's lips moved to speak. There was something wrong with this jaw, something that Hermione couldn't identify but knew was there anyhow, and when he spoke it was with as little movement of that part of his face as possible. "I have been the failed party to the Light's endeavors long enough, shouldn't you think, Miss Granger?"
"Precisely why I think you might try being the successful party to our endeavors. Just for a short while." She waited for his response. When it didn't come she said, "Despite your verbal amusements we both know I'm not stupid, sir. You trusted in cleverness once and it won you your conscience. Try it once more and see if it can't win you your freedom."
"And if it doesn't, Miss Granger? Shall you repay my generosity or merely sail away and get back to the trivialities of your reforms?"
"If it doesn't. . ." Hermione shrugged. "I've already murdered once."
His response was nothing, a breath, if that. "Very well, Miss Granger. You have yourself a test subject."
In the nightmare it was always Hermione's Avada Kedavra. It hadn't been, not the one that killed Ron, but it might as well have been, and her subconscious mind couldn't so much be bothered by minutiae.
She flooed Harry at well past two when the nightmare woke her up. She didn't have them constantly anymore, not at all like the first year, or the first four months after Harry and she had taken a pledge to reduce their dependence on Dreamless Sleep. Those four months were three and a half years behind her and now the nightmares came once a month or so. Usually when she was stressed out by something else.
The pledge had involved being able to floo each other day or night if needed to keep from taking a dose. Harry had called every night for a month after his and Ginny's final break-up. There had been four prior to that one, and Hermione hadn't believed it was going to last, either. But it did.
Hermione suspected that Harry was sleeping at Tonks place again this evening. He had been the last two times she'd flooed. Hermione wasn't wild about the thought of waking someone else up as well, but the last couple of times Tonks had just smiled tiredly at her and greeted, "Wotcher, 'ermione," dropping the H into a large yawn that she never looked abashed about.
Tonight was no different when she flooed. Harry came to the fireplace looking disoriented for a second but then saw her face. "Nightmare?"
"Same as always."
"Why don't you come over?"
"Harry, are you sure-"
"My fireplace is your fireplace," Tonks called from somewhere in the background.
All that was waiting in Hermione's flat was darkness and the remnants of the nightmare, so she took another step into the fireplace and allowed herself to be pulled into Tonks's bedroom. Harry was at the door to the room. "C'mon, let's leave her to sleep."
Tonks waved a vague hand in their direction. Hermione said, "Thanks for-"
But Tonks said, "Nothing, go on. 'M tired."
Hermione followed Harry out of the room and down a short hallway to where the kitchen awaited them. "Toast and jam?" he offered.
Surprised to find herself hungry, Hermione nodded. Harry said, "It's probably just the visit to Azkaban. Seeing all the-"
Hermione nodded again. "She was there. Avery."
Lucius Malfoy, delighting in his own sense of irony, had hit Ron with an Imperius in the confusion of the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, when all the horcruxes except the final one had been destroyed. The one in Harry. The Imperius carried with it nothing less than the command to kill Harry, of course, and it was only because she had known Ron so very well that she had even realized anything was wrong before he was actually able to get away with it. After all, Harry trusted Ron to fight at his back, there was no reason to keep his distance. Hermione had felt it though, felt that something was off in Ron's approach, in his manner, and struck him with a Petrificus, needing to stop him long enough to reach him and figure out how to undo the Imperius. Only as Hermione was struggling to reach him, Morticia Avery took advantage of his petrified state to hit him with the killing curse.
Hermione knew it had probably all been necessary. That without the rage of loss and the despair bound up in his love for Ron, Harry might not have been able to outright kill the Death Eater with whom he'd been dueling. That without killing, Harry wouldn't have been able to use the same magic Voldemort had used to splinter his own soul to eject the part of that soul that he'd planted in Harry.
Without having ripped the horcrux free Snape could not have destroyed it without destroying Harry as well. As it was, Snape had only narrowly survived destroying the horcrux loosened from its resting place. He'd spent the months leading up to his trial in St. Mungo's, where healers worked half-heartedly to save him only so that he could be sufficiently punished for crimes with better motives than most of the Ministry officials who had killed Death Eaters in the pursuit of Voldemort.
Finally, without the destruction of the last horcrux, Harry could not have killed Voldemort, effectively, finally, and without recourse.
Ron may have had to die. In her heart, Hermione had long admitted this. But she would never forgive herself for contributing to that death, anymore than she suspected Snape would forgive himself his crimes. In a way, it made her the only person to represent him, the only person who could understand that being proclaimed innocent was likely to be as painful as being kept in that dank cage, seething with those whom he had truly betrayed.
Harry said, "You didn't kill her, or anything, right?" although he sounded as though the only reason he was asking was to make sure she would still be around for Harry's own revenge.
"I wasn't feeling in the mood to be kind."
Harry spread bing cherry jam over Hermione's piece of toast and handed it to her. "No, I don't suppose you would have."
Hermione took a bite. "Mm. This Neville's?" Neville made a mean fruit jam.
Harry nodded. "Sent a package over last week."
"The git. I didn't get any."
"He's probably waiting for the nectarine crop to come in, he knows all your favorites."
"You've a point."
"Don't sound as though the world might be ending or anything."
"I'll do my best to disguise my shock."
"I'm the one making toast at two in the morning to comfort your nightmare-having self."
Hermione leaned over to kiss his cheek, her lips sticky. "Yes, thank you."
"Ugh." Harry rubbed his cheek. "Nevermind."
Hermione finished her toast.
Hermione unsheathed a flask along with her bundles of papers. "It's a mild heal-all. We have to talk about the lack of evidence today, I thought you might want to feel decent before starting in."
"Who made it?" Snape's voice was raspy and there was a new cut above his eye but some of the bruises from her last visit were disappearing.
Snape unstoppered the flask and drank it down. "She added lavender stems."
"She has her own style. Is it working?"
Hermione took that to mean the effects bordered on the spectacular. "I'm going to go through some information unearthed at the previous trial to verify certain issues with you."
"As we were both at said trial I shall have to assume that you mistrust either your memory or the veracity of my statements."
"It's merely for clarification, and to give me some basis for the questions I'm about to ask."
"You'll trust, then, that I can answer truthfully without the aid of Veritaserum?" Snape sharpened his gaze.
"My being here is proof that I do and will." One of the major problems with the original trial had been that Snape had a tolerance to Veritaserum. Which, Hermione had more than once pointed out, he had admitted to having without provocation. "Headmaster Dumbledore left neither pensieve nor written documentation of the strategy worked out between the two of you."
"As I've said numerous times, we weren't entirely sure there wasn't a second spy in the Order."
"And there is no trusted third party who was privy to this strategy?"
"Now that you mention such a thing, there is, but I felt like I'd rather bind myself to a prison in the midst of the Aegean Sea with all of my worst enemies rather than bother that person."
"We all have our peculiarities."
"There is nothing, Miss Granger, absolutely nothing to this case that there wasn't the first time, and people's opinions of me haven't changed. Nor are they likely to when my pictures are printed with headlines in the Prophet. Oh, and do be prepared for those headlines to be absolutely torrid."
"There is something to this case that wasn't there for the first." Hermione caught and held Snape's gaze.
"I seem to have missed it, as my examinations of the issue have been hindered by a nearly complete apathy."
"That, and you always underestimated me."
Snape made a noise. "So, what it this new piece of yours, this key to my freedom?"
Hermione smiled, tight and not very amused. "It's me, professor."
Ginny cajoled Hermione into coming home with her after one of the more volatile visits with a "Dad would love to see you." Hermione had no defenses when it came to Arthur Weasley, who had quit the Ministry and gone to work for the twins in the aftermath of Molly's death. Ginny had moved back into the Burrow so that he wouldn't be there alone, and Bill and Fleur had followed in her footsteps shortly after the birth of their first child. Remus was often around as he and Bill had formed a bond in the weeks after Bill's initial wounding, one that had never broken.
Hermione suspected that Bill and the twins filled in spaces that had become too empty for Remus but she'd never said anything, didn't really feel it was her place. Remus was loyal and whatever else, he loved Bill for Bill, so the complications that were implicated by substitution were unlikely to arise.
As expected, Arthur was thrilled to see her. He sat her down and talked at length about the passing of her Act and how things were going. Hermione was relieved to see Remus slink in for some tea and then stay to listen; there were things she wanted to ask him later and if the background work was already done that would most likely make things easier.
Fleur and Bill worked together to make dinner, leaving Moll (their youngest) in the charge of their two older children, Rona and Valerie. Arthur often joked that Weasley's had been storing up girls for generations just so that Fleur and Bill's squadron could come along. As Charlie's children were all boys, Fred and George were living the life of confirmed bachelors, and Ginny had yet to show any interest in settling down once the ashes of her and Harry's rather dysfunctional post-Ron relationship had blown away to parts unknown, there was no way to dispute this theory.
Of course, where Harry and Ginny had imploded, Remus and Tonks had naturally fallen apart when she'd come to realize that he wasn't the man she'd idealized him as and he came to realize that just because he wanted to love someone didn't necessarily mean he could. The slow deterioration of Tonks and Remus had happened in the midst of everyone placing pieces of Harry and Ginny back together and when everyone had raised their heads from the dust, there had been no more Remus and Tonks, Tonks and Remus.
Hermione was just relieved that Harry and Ginny had finally gotten around to realizing they missed each other's friendship, because the three years after their spectacular six month break up had been some of the most stressful of Hermione's social life. She knew that it may have been the tantrum she threw in which the words, "You're not the only people who miss Ron Weasley, you know!" were screamed rather forcefully in the middle of the twin's birthday party in both Harry and Ginny's direction after nearly a full day of tension and three-year old like antics that had played a part in the reconciliation. While she'd been embarrassed by the outburst at the time, she couldn't regret the outcome, nor even be bothered by the twins incessant teasing about it to this day.
Especially not as they'd never once charged her for anything after that. Not a thing.
Fleur disappeared after dinner to put Moll to bed. Ginny set to cleaning things up, Arthur went off to spend time with Rona and Valerie, and Hermione stole Remus, which meant getting a handful of Bill as well. Bill tended to be useful in odd ways, so Hermione didn't complain. The three of them stole out to the back.
Remus didn't waste time. He asked, "Severus giving you trouble?"
Hermione smiled. "I actually don't think he's doing it purposely. He doesn't believe I can get him out."
"Do you believe you can?" Bill's voice was even, unrevealing.
Hermione fought the urge to remind him that she'd spent seven years of her life working these laws into place. "Yes."
"What do you need from me?" Remus asked.
"I know you've never been each other's. . .friends. But I thought you might know small things that I wouldn't know. Right now I just need him to trust me enough to work with me."
Remus shook his head slightly. "I'm not sure that I have anything that will help. It's entirely possible that you know as much as I do."
"If you could just tell me anything you know. I might be able to pick out something."
"Well, you already know he's an only child. He's brilliant at Potions, Dark Arts and their Defense, and more than passable at Charms and Arithmancy. He doesn't like the color green, coffee, or frogs."
"I suppose it would be easier to make a person's life hell knowing all the things they don't like." Hermione sighed.
"He likes chocolate," Remus said.
Hermione blinked. "Chocolate?"
"Poppy gave some to him after the prank. I was in and out, but. . ." Remus put his hands out, palms up. "I know it's not much to go on, and that was about a hundred years ago. It's the best I have."
"No. Chocolate. That's great. Thanks." Hermione grinned at him.
"If I can help you with anything-" he offered.
"Or just wish you good luck," Bill said.
"I'll certainly come and ask," Hermione told them. "Certainly."
Snape's response to Hermione's offering was less than overwhelming. Luckily, she'd expected nothing more from him. The fact that he ate the chocolate without checking for poisons was more than enough thanks for her. He chewed quietly and politely waiting until he was entirely finished to accuse, "You've been speaking to Albus's portrait."
Portraits held accurate reflections of the subject's personality but Snape and her both well knew that they didn't hold the breadth of their living being's knowledge, or even most of that knowledge. Snape read her silence correctly. He took a third piece of chocolate and worked at it slowly. "I had been of the opinion that I'd killed every last person who knew something so mundane about me. Unless- Poppy?"
Hermione couldn't quite bring herself to lie about her informant. There was already too much distrust between the two of them, something that made Hermione's job infinitely harder. "Remus, but he. . .observed Madame Pomfrey feeding you some."
Snape looked at the chocolate as though considering giving it back. "I should have remembered that. I suppose I thought he wouldn't have been aware enough to recall anything."
Snape gave into desire and took another piece. "Just how many people have you felt the need to indulge in gossip over me?"
Hermione made a show of the fact that he wasn't getting to her. "Bill Weasley was there when I spoke to Remus. One's hard to get without the other. Harry and Professor McGonagall have asked about you a few times, and tried their best to contribute. Some might say my grapevine is sorely lacking."
"Some." He smirked. "How then is the fight to prove my innocence coming along?"
"There is no fight to prove your innocence. You killed Albus Dumbledore, we both know that."
Snape was silent at that for a bit. "Then why are you here?"
"Because you did it for all the right reasons. Something that was never so much as mentioned in the first 'trial,' excuse me if I laugh a bit as I say that word. You're a brilliant man, Severus Snape, but your brilliance isn't at legal defense and even were it, your own sense of guilt would never have allowed you adequate ire to fight the charges. That's why a representative is essential. I don't care a whit about your guilt, I care about what is right and what isn't. You being in here isn't."
"Wizarding courts don't try on motives, they try on deeds."
"There's never been a system wherein trying by motives could work. With everyone self-representing, the only thing that could be important was deed. After all, everyone believes she has a reason for committing the crimes she commits."
"And how am I different?"
"Well for one I'm not sure you do believe that, but more importantly you're different because I believe you had a reason. And I'm willing to stand up in front of a court and prove that reason to be more significant than the crime itself."
"As Mr. Potter was more significant than Mr. Weasley?"
"Of the two of us sitting in this room, I'm the one with the wand. And I've learned all sorts of nasty things from the twins that aren't in any way Unforgivable. So our courts say."
"There, that's better."
"Feeling more like I might fight to the death for you?"
Snape's eyes flickered. "I should hope not."
"One of these days when you're free and needing someone other than your old friends to torture you so that your guilt can be expunged in alternative ways I will teach you the beauty of idioms and metaphors."
"Your mercy is perhaps more sinister than those old friends."
"Oh, I'm entirely sure it is."
Snape took a bite of the chocolate. He held one out to her, offering. After a second, she took it. They chewed in silence.
Snape was usually waiting for Hermione when she arrived at Azkaban. The day that he ran late she did her best not to become nervous, instead re-checking her latest notes, ordering the questions she most wanted to get to and thinking up strategies for actually getting him to answer. Some days he would without prompting. Other days. . .
She brought bribes constantly now. Food of some sort. Chocolate of course, but other things too. She hadn't forgotten about the erratic orders to feed the prisoners. She had found that in his hunger he would eat anything but that he preferred meats to starches and root vegetables to the more colorful variety. He liked oranges but only green apples, and he adored tomatoes in any form. He hadn't said a word of this but he had his own ways of communicating, the way he ate certain dishes faster and others slower, the latter being the ones he was savoring. The way he inclined his head in thanks for some food and actually reached out for others. Hermione had no problem with non-verbal cues.
She wasn't feeling very non-verbal when he finally showed up, ten minutes late, limping and with a cut at the corner of his mouth. At her look of outrage he said, with neither pride nor sarcasm, "The others look worse."
"Do they?" she asked.
"Well, a few of them might."
"A few? How many were there?"
"Four, they like to attack in groups. You already knew that."
Quickly, Hermione put her questions into order of priority. She took out her wand and ignored the way he blinked at it suspiciously, quickly casting Healing Charms at some of the worst of the damage. "Are there things I can't see?"
There was an odd second before he answered, "Ribs, right side, bottom two."
She took care of it as best she could. Medicine wasn't her area but she was well-enough versed in emergency field treatment. "Do they attack because of my visits?"
"If it wasn't for that it would be for something else, Miss Granger. It has been for seven years."
"Do they know why I come?"
"I'm sure they've puzzled something out."
"Do you- I could try and arrange for a different type of communication-"
"Did you hear what I said, or are you only intent on listening to me when I say things that mean the advancement of your career is well at hand? You're just one excuse among many."
Hermione considered her options. "Then I believe I'll keep coming. It's easiest." She sat down at the table the Ministry had provided for her in the room they'd allowed for these proceedings only after begging and pleading of a more dignified sort on her end. "Chicken?"
Snape held out a hand.
"You're late," Snape observed. To Hermione's surprise there wasn't any frustration, anger or malice behind the words. There might have been a bit of surprise but she couldn't have said for sure.
"How can you tell?"
He dipped his head in acknowledgement. "One either loses all sense of time in here, or comes up with a system of making the passage of time something of which one is innately aware."
Hermione didn't have to ask what he had chosen. "How does one go about such a thing?"
"Pays attention to the way the daylight comes through the cracks, doesn't alter a schedule of sleeping if possible, listens to the tide. There are ways."
"It was an. . .interesting morning," Hermione admitted.
"News?" And although Snape kept his tone firmly even, she could hear the yearning in it, the need to hear of something outside these cracked walls which never let anything pass between them.
"Nothing of interest. Gringotts is fighting an initiative to impose bank holidays."
"Muggle thing, giving the businesses a day off in celebration of something."
"The Dark Lord's defeat?"
"That's an all around holiday. This would be something more like Harry's birthday."
Snape gave her a rather indescribable look. She laughed. "Believe me, Harry feels the exact same way. He actually offered to help back the goblins. Their faces. . . I hadn't laughed that hard in quite some time."
"I didn't know he had your penchant for pursuing lost causes."
"Sometimes I wonder if I don't get mine from him." Hermione questioned many things in her life in this vein.
"Yours predates his."
Hermione stilled for a second. "I suppose I'll have to trust your judgment."
"Anything but that."
"Yes, well, life's full of things we don't want to do."
"If the news is quiet, what made your morning so interesting?"
Hermione waved a hand. "Personal things. Unimportant."
"Are you ill?"
"No." Hermione frowned. "No. Why would you ask that?"
"You reek of healants."
"You can smell the potions they gave me?"
"Being imprisoned hasn't weakened my mind, Miss Granger. Who, exactly, are 'they'?"
"The healers at St. Mungo's."
"And why were you at St. Mungo's if you are not ill?"
"I-" Hermione looked at the scrolls she'd set out in front of herself. She wanted to lie, oh how she wanted to lie, but it seemed a poor way to capture his trust. "There are people who would prefer I hadn't chosen to represent you. They sometimes send me owls. Most of them time I catch the problem before anyone or anything is hurt but occasionally there are those who really know their stuff."
"Oh, no. It was a curse."
"I don't- I'd never experienced it before. I was going to do a bit of work on it when I got home this evening."
"How many curses are there with which you haven't in some way come into contact?"
"I'd imagine thousands but my parents always said I had a wild imagination."
Snape blinked at her. Slowly, he smiled, a small, twisted thing, but Hermione knew it for what it was. He said, "If you would give me your wand, I could most likely figure out what it was."
The quiet was practically crushing as Hermione weighed the choice. Making sure that her hand wasn't shaking, she drew her wand out of her robes and handed it over, handle first. She didn't miss the way Snape's fingers tightened over the wood, the way he couldn't quite look at her eyes. He waved it ever so slightly and Hermione felt a small tug of magic at her navel. It was over quickly and then he was handing the wand back over to her, as if holding it any longer would mean the loss of his ability to give it back at all.
She took it and pocketed it. "Well?"
"I'm not surprised you haven't run into it, it's not much practiced in the Isles. It originates from Eastern Europe, although where precisely I'd have to look much closer. If you're wanting to pursue it, I would talk with your old friend Krum. He might have some leads for you."
"You made yourself friends all over the place, I see." Hermione nodded. "All right. Thanks for that. We were talking, I believe about the Legilimantic conversations between you and Headmaster Dumbledore in the months before his death-"
"You would have had blood bursting from underneath your fingernails."
"Curses aren't meant to be pleasant. Harry ran a little bit of interference for me. His magic's hard to argue with these days, and the potions cleared the rest of it right up."
"Most of those conversations were meant to mislead. There were only a few- You won't find anything there. We covered our tracks too well."
Hermione made her hand keep moving, writing notes, at the relative flood of information. "Where will I find something?"
"That's-" Snape pursed his lips. "Albus would have left a trail, a Fidelius, I believe, would have been his style. But either the Keeper is dead or he left the secret in the hands of the wrong person."
Hermione heard his doubt on the last. "I'm looking for a Secret Keeper?"
Snape let out a mirthless laugh. "One evidently as reliable as Peter Pettigrew."
Hermione grimaced. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"You can't track a Fidelius. Either the Keeper comes forward or he doesn't."
Hermione tilted her head to one side. "Hm. I suppose."
"But odd things happen all the time, don't they?"
"What in Merlin's name are you jabbering on about?"
"It's probably just my being more optimistic than you. Although, seeing as how you live in the world's ugliest castle and I don't, we'll call that fair."
"Am I to take it you have a plan?"
"A loose confederation of thoughts might be a more appropriate label."
Snape glared at her. She shrugged. "All right, plan it is."
"And this plan would be?"
She shook her head. "I have to talk with Harry first."
She glared lazily back at him. "Oh stuff it."
"You're being disrespectful."
Snape sighed. "Your bag smells of chocolate."
Hermione kindly didn't ask for the magic word.
"I'm not, y'know, god-like."
"Harry." Hermione let him know with her tone that she wasn't in the mood for this. Among wizards, Harry was god-like, both in terms of power and clout. "There has to be a way."
"Well, all right, if you say so, but let me remind you, it's you who does the figuring out and me who does the. . .doing."
"I don't have your innate understanding of magic, nor have I worked with the Fidelius in the ways that you have."
"Did the background reading for how to unlock a Fidelius once the Keeper has died-" Hermione stopped herself.
"What's the likelihood Professor Dumbledore guessed wrong?"
"About who the Keeper should be?"
Harry made a face. "Not huge, but he wasn't infallible. Obviously."
"Right, but if the Keeper was still alive he or she'd have come forward."
"So what if we tried what we did on number twelve?"
"It's not the same. We all knew where number twelve was, we just couldn't say anything. We were unlocking our ability to talk, not the secret itself. And there are plenty of people who can vouch for Snape after-the-fact."
"Right, but what if there are those who can vouch for him at the time who haven't been able to come forward because of the Fidelius? If we unlocked it we might at least be looking at a larger group of witnesses, some of them actually useful."
"But why wouldn't any of those people have at least told us there was a Fidelius? Being under one doesn't keep you from telling that to anyone."
"Under normal circumstances, no, but given how careful Professor Dumbledore was to hide away all knowledge of Mr. Snape's status it wouldn't surprise me if he altered the Fidelius somehow to disallow even that liberty."
"If the Fidelius has been altered, though. . ."
"The Breaking Charm might not work, I know. But I figure it's worth a try. You tend to have a good feeling for why things go wrong when they do, so if it doesn't work we might at least have an idea of why that is."
Harry ran a hand over his hair. He was keeping it shorter these days, nearly cropped to the scalp. It made the scar easier to see but since he'd magically corrected his vision foregoing the glasses and changed his signature hairstyle, people were less likely to look twice and notice it. "And if this doesn't work?"
Hermione shook her head slightly. "I'm still working on that. It'll take us a week to set up the Breaking Charm, that's seven days of thinking time."
"You. . . Are you going up to the school?"
Harry and Hermione both had a rather tentative relationship with Hogwarts, viewing it both as a sort of home and then again as a place with far too many memories. At times the memories and the comfort of the library got Hermione where she needed to be, and at times they just drove her crazy. "I was thinking about getting out of town for a bit, going to see Viktor, use their library. I don't know if I want to leave like that, though."
"He notices when I'm late."
"Can he cast a wandless Tempus?"
"No, he's figured out other ways."
"Ah." Harry crossed his arms over his chest. "Still, it's five days, if that."
"After seven years."
"It's not your- He's not your burden."
"We're all each other's, Harry. Every last one of us," Hermione said tiredly. "It's when we forget that that people like Tom Riddle happen."
"I just meant-"
"I know, but if you really thought that you wouldn't have asked me to take his case. So he is my burden. And yours and Ginny's and, I don't know, Moll and Rona and Valerie, who have never even met the man."
Harry said quietly, "Go see Viktor. Read his books."
Hermione smiled. "That's what they're calling it these days. The Ministry hasn't given permission for anyone to go in my stead."
"They won't fight me. And Ginny already goes. We'll take care of it for a few days. Four, say. And you'll come back with options, for if this doesn't work."
"Books don't always have the answers."
"No, but you find them most of the time anyway."
"Thanks," she said. Harry shrugged.
Viktor met Hermione at the Apparition point beyond Durmstrang. He asked, "How are you?" He had long learned how to pronounce her name but very rarely did so.
"Glad to see you," she said.
He smiled and took her bags from her. She thought it was a shame that the two of them only had enough in common for letter writing and occasional--if particularly satisfying--sex. She liked, here and again, to be treated with old-fashioned courtesy. "Thank you."
"You've come for ze library."
Hermione smiled apologetically. "Durmstrang has resources that can't easily be found elsewhere."
"I vas forced to give flying lessons to ze the librarian in exchange for a guest pass."
Hermione caught the teasing note in his voice. "New librarian?" She seriously doubted the last one, an older man who had reminded her eerily of a Filch with magic at his beck and call, would have been much entranced by the idea of flying lessons. Not even from Viktor Krum, all time record holder for most snitches caught during a professional career.
"You vill like her."
Hermione looked at him. "Ah. I told myself I'd have to stop imposing upon you one of these days."
"No. The librarian and I, ve are just friends."
"Oh but I do know that tone of voice."
Viktor smiled in guilty admission. "Vell."
"You shouldn't allow yourself to get sidetracked," Hermione told him.
Victor glanced sidelong at her. "Zere's sidetracked and zen zere's tradition. You are ze latter, I believe."
Tradition. The word made her feel old and comfortable, like the favorite pair of pants her father had worn until they'd fallen off his body and crumbled into specs of dust. Surprisingly, it was a feeling she enjoyed. Her dad had loved those pants. "Mustn't mess with tradition."
"No." With the doors to the school in plain view, Viktor asked, "Can you tell me for vat it is zat you come looking?"
Other than a little healthy creature comfort? "More information on the Fidelius."
"I thought you managed to break it?"
"If you talk vith Uta, ze librarian, she might be able to help. Her knowledge is different, more current zan Leonard's vas."
"I have no doubt I'll be appealing to her tender mercies for as long as I'm here. You're sure we aren't going to-"
"Positive. She doesn't even notice me, except ven she vants to fly."
"You like the chase."
Viktor sighed. "I like ze catch, too."
Before opening the door, Hermione pressed onto her tiptoes and kissed him in belated greeting. "I'm here for four days."
At the end of the four days Hermione told Uta, the hard-bodied, fierce-eyed Scandinavian librarian with the sweetest dimples and most precise memory Hermione had ever run into, "You should ask for more flying lessons."
Uta raised an eyebrow. "Oh. I should?"
"If you're really. . .willing to follow through."
"I thought you-"
"No. Just friends with a bit extra on the side now and then."
"Ah, so you vould not mind?"
"It would please me."
"I love to fly."
Hermione smiled. "Thanks for all your help."
"Good luck vith your. . .project."
Personally, Hermione was pretty sure she would need it.
Viktor walked her back to the Apparition point, kissing her on the cheek as she left. They never started anything that would remain unfinished upon her leaving, never left things open-ended. She also didn't say, "I think this is the last time for this," even though she did. She didn't think over the implications of yet another ending in her life. She just brushed a kiss over his corresponding cheek and said, "Your library's as helpful as ever."
"More, I should hope."
She nodded. "Indeed."
She Apparated back to her flat but only stayed long enough to set down her bag before flooing to Harry's. The place was empty and she used the time alone to look over her notes. When Harry came in she said, "Hello."
He said, "Welcome back. You're taking Snape back, right?"
Hermione smirked a little. "He's perfectly polite to me."
"No he's not."
"I might have overstated the case a little. How's the charm shaping up?"
"I'll be ready to perform it in a few days. You come up with a plan B?"
"Yes, but not a good one. It would be infinitely preferable for A to just work."
"I can think of several things I've said that about in my life."
Harry skipped a beat. "You. . .feeling any better?"
Hermione didn't know that she was. Still, "It's good to be home."
"We missed you too. I think even he did."
"That I doubt."
Harry shrugged. "It's sort of one of those things you have to see to believe."
"I didn't know any of those still existed."
"Trust Severus Snape to still be teaching us things."
"It's sort of endearing," Hermione deadpanned.
"Get out," Harry said.
Snape was nearly translucent across the table from her. Hermione cursed herself for not mentioning to Ginny that the elves would probably need regular orders to make food. Hermione had a note from Kingsley Shacklebolt, recently appointed head of the MLE, which the elves accepted, that being a Ministry position. They wouldn't have listened to Harry, but Ginny--being an Unspeakable--probably would have managed just fine. She made a mental note to talk with the elves before leaving. She then held back a sigh. The elves, traumatized by the Blood Fracturing spell the Ministry had performed on them to transfer ownership and afraid of the constantly angry, largely psychopathic wizards who considered them lower-life forms living all around, were a pain to find. She wished Snape would figure out how to hide from the others half so well.
His expression, defiant of his reduced appearance, was customarily cutting. "How was the Riviera? Madrid? Where does one go this time of year?"
Hermione frowned. She was talking to Tonks. No sex for Harry for months, and that was final. As for Ginny. . . Hermione would have to inquire what exactly went on there. "I went to Durmstrang, which is certainly nowhere near anywhere that anyone would go any time of the year. I'm sorry nobody felt the need to tell you."
Something flickered in Snape's eyes. "Ms. Weasley mentioned you had gone to see an old friend. I was unaware you had any in that corner of the Dark Arts infested realm."
"Durmstrang isn't infested, as you well know. The school just supports a greater poverty level, which oftentimes means more striving for things that don't come without a price. But somehow I sense this is a lesson you've already learned."
"I'm only liable to be impressed by you when you're actually being clever."
"I was under the impression you weren't liable to be impressed at all. I might consider that progress."
"Do us all a favor and don't."
"I'll consider the pros and cons carefully."
"An old friend, like Ginny said. And their library. I don't know if Harry told you, we're working on a Breaking Charm-"
"He mumbled some things that I imagine I interpreted correctly. Your efforts are doomed to failure, you realize?"
"Well, what fun is life if you can't fail miserably once in a while? Besides, they're not, not necessarily, and you know it. A Fidelius is a singularly unique incantation, which makes it harder to break given a loyal or dead Secret Keeper, but also pretty standard once a key has been found."
"Albus wasn't one to-"
"No, but it was his Fidelius we broke last, nobody else's. As I said, intricate and fairly standard, particularly when cast by the same person."
"But you went looking for a backup plan."
"I'm not one to rest on my laurels."
"Particularly as they don't yet exist in this case."
"Excellent point. I found something, but as it's even less likely to work than the original plan, I think I'll keep it to myself for the time."
"Some people find me to be so." Hermione smiled sharply at him.
"We begin a waiting game, then."
"Oh no, I have more questions about your deal with Headmaster Dumbledore."
"I've told you everything."
"No you haven't."
"If you can't trust me, why do you bother trying to represent me?"
"I do trust you. But Professor Dumbledore had a way of. . .complicating things, and so far this situation is far from complicated enough for me to feel comfortable that I know everything."
"Don't disrespect the dead."
"Not even if the dead's names are Lucius Malfoy and Tom Riddle?"
"There are always exceptions."
"I wasn't disrespecting him. I was. . .those are things I remember with awe. I was sixteen when he died, he's still something of a hero for me."
Snape's voice was low and somehow painful as he said, "I was thirty seven when I-" The breath he drew in was shaky, despite his keeping his head steady and his eyes on hers, "When I killed him. He's still a hero for me. My only hero."
Hermione swallowed, his pain apparently taking up residence in her throat. "Then tell me what it was you told him to make him trust you."
"I told him nothing. I took an Unbreakable Vow."
"To be loyal?"
"You think he would accept something so mundane? Hardly. To fulfill my life debt to James, doubled through my culpability in his death, in Potter Junior. To keep Harry Potter safe in every way I could. To be his champion in all things."
Hermione shivered slightly at Snape's acid tones. "So that's how you were able- All right."
"The Vows pull against each other," he said softly.
"Yes, Harry out there, you promised to be in here, I imagine they would. Luckily I would also imagine that Professor Dumbledore was canny in his wording, that he put some sort of clause about your abilities in. Else you would already be dead."
"When he came it was. . .better. And worse, all at once. He isn't safe here."
"Safe enough. You haven't known him these past seven years. You never really knew him at all. He's formidable. If it was better, I can bring him-"
"No." He shook his head once. "No."
Hermione didn't say anything to that. Finally she said, "Ginny will be back soon, and I need to find a house elf."
"Sometimes they hide in the western underground. It's wet down there, most of us won't go near it."
"Most of them won't go down there. There is no 'us' for you, not in here." She stood. "Thanks for the tip."
He blinked and watched her go.
It took two days for Hermione to finally fall asleep after the Breaking Charm failed to bring about any results and she set into motion plans to try her second, more haphazard option. She woke immediately no more than fifteen minutes after tumbling into sleep when her fire blazed and Professor McGonagall's voice called out, "Hermione?"
Hermione's head reared off the book she'd been reading when she dozed off. She attempted, fruitlessly, to straighten her hair, and rushed to the fireplace. "Yes, I'm here. How can I help you, ma'am?"
"Oh, none of that, we're both adults here."
"Minerva, then. What is it I can do for you?"
"I just awoke to the most extraordinary knowledge."
Hermione's stomach twisted so hard with hope she had a hard time not wincing. "And that knowledge would be-"
"I've been under a Fidelius. One with a strong element of Obliviation to it, if you can believe that."
"I suspected, actually. Have you any idea who the Secret Keeper is? Was?"
"Originally it was Emmeline. Vance. Her and Severus. . ."
It took Hermione a moment to catch on. "Oh. Right. He would have changed it, though. Wouldn't he?"
"Yes, but a transfer of a Fidelius doesn't require those who know the secret being aware, just the actual Keeper himself."
"But you know. You know that Mr. Snape and Professor Dumbledore held conversations concerning the possible need for Mr. Snape to infiltrate the Death Eater organization more deeply, even at the cost of the Headmaster himself."
"I was at times even in hearing distance. Severus, of course, does not know this."
"Why didn't Professor Dumbledore trust you as- Nevermind, irrelevant."
"Because I was the obvious person, wasn't I?"
Now that Hermione thought of it, "Yes, rather obvious. Very few people knew of him and Miss Vance, I suppose whoever the second Keeper was also had little known ties."
"Whoever it was, he or she is dead now. Albus would not have chosen someone who would have betrayed Severus."
"We'll have to prove you were under an altered form of Fidelius, that's why you didn't come forward the first time."
"Now that I know, I'm pretty sure I can find the incantation. Albus could be surprisingly organized when he felt like it."
"All right, and I can have Harry testify as to the Breaking process, as well as display a little well-placed Priori Incantatum when the time comes." Hermione's mind was racing so quickly she nearly didn't hear Minerva when she began to speak again.
"You look completely worn."
"Wha- Oh, well. Not so worn as my client."
"Nobody, dear, not even Severus, wants you to look as though you've spent the last seven years with your own magic binding you to a horrible fate for a crime that wasn't entirely your choice in the first place. Get some rest."
"What did I say?"
"Yes, Minerva." Hermione placed an emphasis on the name, the same way she would on a title or honorific.
Minerva shook her head. "So long as you listen, I suppose. You'll be in touch when you need me?"
"There probably won't be a day goes by that you don't hear from me from at this point out."
"Just as well. I rather prefer to know what's going on."
Right before Minerva severed the connection, Hermione called, "Prof- Minerva!"
"I know. . . I know this isn't for me, maybe not even for Mr. Snape, but. Thank you."
"Of course it's for you. And for him. And Albus and myself." Minerva shook her head slightly. "You're welcome all the same."
Hermione stared at the empty flames for a few moments after Minerva's head disappeared. Finally she rose, glanced at her books, and then decided instead to take her old mentor's advice, and headed straight for bed.
Hermione pushed an entire jacket potato at Snape and announced, "I have good news."
"You've found a client more likely to prove the success of your new system?"
"I'm going to win your case."
"You've gone entirely mad now, have you? On top of everything else?"
"Minerva's going to testify in your defense."
"Much as she did the first time. The goal wasn't to extend my sentence, was it?"
"She didn't know anything the first time she testified. Professor Dumbledore lacing the Fidelius with a reworked Obliviate saw to that. Harry's Breaking worked, it just took a few days given the strength of the incantation involved. The Headmaster was really protecting you."
"Minerva was the Secret Keeper?" Snape frowned.
"Well, no. We're not sure who that was. She says it was Emmeline Vance at first."
Snape's eyes darkened past the shade of their normal pitch black. "I see. But you can prove she was under the mutated Fidelius?"
"Yes, and that she knew about your positioning. Everything I need to prove, in fact. From here it's just a matter of presenting it all in a logical fashion."
"And you surpassed my logic puzzle your first year."
She glanced at him sharply. "Yes. I remember being saddened that someone so clever was so evil. The simplicity of being eleven years old."
"Was it simple?"
"In retrospect. Not so very much then."
"What do you plan to do once you win?"
"You. Regardless of innocence or no, I've made a Vow. One that is by its very name and nature, Unbreakable. There is no leaving for me, the magic doesn't care how good or bad a boy I've been this year."
Hermione was distracted for a moment. "I thought St. Nick was a Muggle thing."
"I may not have liked my father or the part of me he represented, that doesn't mean I didn't learn things from him."
"It's hard to recall sometimes-"
"The very face of Slytherin being a half-blood?"
"You just always seemed so at home with magic, like it had parented you, rather than anything flesh and blood. You railed against wand waving but I always thought that was because your own use of the wand was so fluid, more like your hands reaching out to take care of something that was across the room. I find it nearly impossible to imagine you in front of a television or writing with a ballpoint pen or doing any of the things that I rather took for granted as a seemingly muggle child."
"Practice and perfection, Miss Granger."
"Yes, and I've had quite a bit of practice. Which brings me back to your earlier point. Did you honestly believe that I would have put all this work into your trial and not given a thought to the logistics of freeing you? You're right in that I haven't an answer yet but I will. I've only failed to find the answer to a pressing problem once, although sometimes it takes me a while to realize I've found my answer. I have time. The Ministry likes its pomp and circumstance, as you well know. I've been hurrying things as much as I can but they're upset with me and only amenable to suggestions when Harry's there to punctuate all of my sentences with a mild glare."
"Upset with you. That wouldn't be for taking my case on, would it?"
"I haven't the slightest idea, Mr. Snape."
Snape stared at her for a moment but all he said was, "Thank you for the potato."
Hermione handed him a chocolate frog. "You're welcome."
Despite her outward confidence to Snape, the issue of freeing him from his Vow was weighing heavily on Hermione. Neither Hogwarts nor Durmstrang's libraries had been of any use on the topic and everyone Hermione trusted enough to talk to about it had no ideas. Wizards didn't break Unbreakables. Hence the name.
It wasn't until she was taking Harry through his testimony for her that the idea came to her. They were at the character part of the testimony, where Harry relayed Snape's destruction of the horcrux Harry had carried inside himself when Hermione interrupted with, "How'd you- From what you told me, a horcrux is a part of one's soul. One uses an action violent enough to fracture the soul and shelters the fractured piece elsewhere."
"But you ripped something that wasn't part of your soul. You rooted out a specific, erm, invader."
Harry frowned. "I've never really thought about it."
Harry looked at her with something like surprise which quickly turned into acceptance. "Well, I suppose. . .it was just so entirely different from me."
"But how did you." Hermione made some fruitless gestures with her hands. "Locate it, get at that specific thing, take that when you left the rest?"
After a bit, Harry said, "Because I knew what I was looking for."
Hermione grabbed her cloak. Harry asked, "Are we done?"
"No, but there's something I have to look into." She rushed back to Harry's side and kissed his cheek. "Sorry to run, I wouldn't if it weren't terribly important."
"You've only been working on this case for six or more years now. Give or take."
"Yes, and I'm preparing for the very good chance that I win. I'll floo you later."
"All right," Harry said with a resigned wave. Hermione slipped outside his Apparition wards and then placed herself as close to St. Mungo's as possible without attracting Muggle attention. She found her way inside the building and to the fifth floor, which now housed administrative offices behind the gift shop. She slipped in past two secretaries who barely looked up from their work and knocked on the door to the Liaison for Magical Malady Research's office.
Anthony Goldstein glanced up in annoyance and held the expression for a second before realizing at whom he was looking. "Hermione Granger! Whatever brings you here?"
"I need help."
"You have no idea the dread those words fill me with." His smile belied his statement. "Come in. Sorry it's a mess. We've been in talks with Rossignol's in Morocco about a possible interdisciplinary training, they've been-" He cut himself off. "Nevermind, you came to ask about something."
Since establishing both his position and communications between Mungo's and nearly twenty other wizarding medical establishments worldwide, Anthony had become known as one of the foremost Healing Experts on just about anything having to do with a person of magical abilities, be she or he a fully-trained human wizard or a house elf.
Anthony had been severely injured in the final battle against Voldemort and due to a shortage of rooms and beds had ended up directly across from Snape in a hallway in St. Mungo's. It was there that his enormous talent for intuitive healing had made itself apparent, as out of a hospital full of well-trained healers, Anthony alone had managed to isolate the curse that Voldemort had placed to release itself upon the person who destroyed his horcrux and figure out that the curse had managed to entangle itself with the lingering echoes of Voldemort still vibrating in the Mark. Despite his injuries, Anthony had drawn the malevolent magic out.
When Anthony had woken four days later from the dead faint of exhaustion the healing brought about, Severus Snape was awake and indebted to him by one Life Debt, and the hospital was offering him on-site training.
Hermione seated herself. "I'd like to hear about Rossignol. Maybe dinner some time?"
"Alicia and I would love that." Alicia Spinnet became an Auror after graduating from Hogwarts and was injured on the job three years later. At the time Anthony was still in the process of setting up the liaising office and so on the floor as a healer at least half the time. He'd taken her as a patient and within a year they'd announced their engagement.
"How's Armand?" she asked after their first child, now nearing two years of age.
"He's already started asking questions. Alicia and I agree this is a bad sign for the future of our sanity."
Hermione grinned. "But only fair, I'm sure your parents would say."
"Oh, and they do."
Hermione knew there wasn't any good way to ask a favor of someone with whom you were only lightly acquainted so she didn't bother with preliminaries. "I need a favor, Anthony."
"You had that look."
"Rumor has it that you've a fairly extensive knowledge of how the magic core functions within the magic-adept's being."
"I'm much more familiar with human magical cores than otherwise and even being a so-called expert, you must realize there's loads we don't know."
"Fortuitously it's the human core I need. I need to know if it's possible to bind the magical core to a piece of the human soul."
Anthony's eyes widened ever so slightly. "That's. . .a complicated question. You're assuming that the core isn't essentially a part of the soul."
"Is that how you would categorize it?"
"If I were being asked to simplify the matter enormously, yes."
Hermione allowed her mind to race for a few moments before forcing her attention back to the man in front of her who was asking, "Was that all you needed?"
She made a split second decision and shook her head. "If I asked you to work on a project with Harry Potter and myself that would include Dark Magics but save someone's life, would you agree?"
"Harry Potter and yourself."
"Whose life would I be saving?"
"Thank you," she whispered, low and sincere.
"You want to have that dinner now?" Anthony offered.
"It's my night to cook."
"Ah. Then, yes, that would be perfect."
"Rather thought you'd say that." Anthony stood and made his way toward the door.
It was Alicia who spoke for Anthony when Hermione was done explaining, as Anthony was looking at her as though she were mildly insane and Alicia evidently found that to be a bit lacking in manners. "To sum up, then, you think that you can find an alternative way to create a 'light' horcrux--for want of a better descriptive term--which will house solely the person's magical core. Once the magical core is freed from the user it can be, erm, dissected, I suppose, to find the base of the Vow, which you will then find a way to free from the core, the success of that process or even the possibility of it being highly hypothetical at best, and when all that is done, find a way to reverse the effects of the horcrux and reintegrate the non-bound core into the subject."
Hermione took a sip of the after-dinner brandy she was enjoying. "You have no idea how thrilled I would be to hear a better idea. I am the person who has to go to Mr. Snape with the plan, the one who has to explain that in order to free himself from his dank, near to freezing prison where they only feed him when they bloody well feel like it and allow the other prisoners to physically gang up on him whenever they so choose that he has to conduct an experimental soul-fracturing procedure which supposedly doesn't have the detrimental effects of Dark horcrux creation but, well, just might, and that once he's done this he will have voluntarily given up his own magic on only the hope that I, a girl he only trusts out of absolute and complete desperation, can figure out a way to do not one but two things that have never before been attempted let alone successfully completed and draw out a magical binding leaving the rest of the core intact and then safely reintegrate it into his being. Really, who do you imagine, other than the man himself, is getting the short end of this wand?"
Alicia tapped a finger to her jaw. "You have a point. But then, you were always good at having those." She looked at her husband. "Anthony?"
Anthony shook his head a bit. "I don't know. Certainly magical cores have been removed from people before. In odd, extremely rare cases the core began to react explosively with a person's basic physiognomy and that person chose to give up magic rather than die slowly and painfully of its effects. So that part is more than plausible. The horcrux idea is a valid one as well, as previously the core was just released into the greater. . .atmosphere of magic, if you will. I can't imagine there's any way to reassemble the core at that point so keeping it contained will be essential. But to specify that particular transfer. . .I'm not even particularly familiar with Dark horcruxes other than what every schoolchild these days knows."
"I'll be handling that part. I have a contact at Durmstrang who I think might be able to help, and Mr. Snape himself certainly knows about as much as anyone alive. Harry as well. What I need from you is the way to take the binding out of the core. As far as I know nothing like that has ever even been dreamed up, let alone has anyone had a go at it."
"You wouldn't be far off. The last time anyone looked into something like that it was the Romans and their ways of experimenting were less than ethical."
"The tone of your voice suggests they might be useful, however." Hermione hated herself for being relieved at that but she would take what she could get at this point, and if it meant that those test subjects had suffered for a reason, then so be it.
"I'll see what I can work out," Anthony promised, the expression on his face giving truth to the fact that he was already thinking things through. He snapped out of it long enough to ask, "Look, I don't mean to sound a prick here, I mean, certainly I want the professor free and all and not just because he owes me or anything, I- that's nothing to do with it at all but I don't suppose you'd mind me publishing on this? Were it to work, of course. Because really, nobody's even. . .the practical applications of this on a large scale? Lycanthropy, Dragon Pox? I can't even imagine all the possibilities."
"I wouldn't in my wildest dreams have the audacity to ask you not to publish."
Anthony grinned. "Brilliant, then."
"There's one more thing."
"Yes?" he asked, arching an eyebrow.
"When you saved his life. Did you drain all the Dark magic out?"
Anthony's eyes darkened slightly. He shook his head. "I couldn't. I can't imagine, no, don't want to imagine what that feels like day in and day out. Foreign Dark Magic? The few accounts we have of people who have survived with it are. . .gruesome, at best. I like to think it's not so bad with him, I probably managed to draw out nine tenths of it. Still, it's in him. It probably always will be unless I find a way to unwork that as well as the binding. I'll look into it, thanks for the reminder." Which evidently made him think, "Why did you ask?"
"I just." Hermione smiled. "Think I may have a way of making a Light horcrux."
"Of course you do," Alicia said. "More brandy?"
Hermione was really quite all for that.
Hermione pushed a carton of soup in Snape's direction. "We've scheduled the trial. I was able to push them out of the six months from now that they wanted to convince me was the first slot they had into two months from now but that's the best I'm going to do."
Snape wrapped his hands around the recently warmed canister. "Six and a half years, two months, a lifetime. Time, Miss Granger, is near to completely inconsequential."
"Six and a half years and two months shall be all the time we're talking about so far as this place is concerned."
Snape didn't look at her. "You've found a solution, then?"
"The beginnings of one." She pinched the skin on the inside of her wrist sharply to both goad herself and distract from what she was about to ask. "I have to- Anthony Goldstein mentioned that you probably still felt the leftovers of the Guardian on the horcrux." Guardian. What a name for something that was a veritable hydrogen bomb of Darkly crafted magic, left to warn an item or place or person. In this case, the horcrux that Harry had knocked loose and Snape taken care of in his place.
"Healer Goldstein took care of most of it," Snape replied softly but not entirely without annoyance.
Hermione wondered if that debt took better or worse forms than his in regard to Harry whilst Snape forced it to lie dormant. "But you can feel it?"
Snape caught her eyes at that, washing from them his barriers for just one moment. Behind the sleep-deprivation and hunger Hermione saw fear and frustration and even more overpowering than either of those, pain. "Oh yes, I can feel it."
His shields whipped back into place. "Good?"
Hermione didn't allow him the pleasure of thinking he'd been proven right after all these weeks, that in fact she was here for the joy of watching him suffer. "I've been on the floo practically all night. Uta, the librarian at Durmstrang, agrees with me that Guardians probably attack the magical core. Historically, they only kill when something goes wrong. Usually they eat at the person's magic through to the nervous system, which is the closest of the body's systems to the core. Guardian's use the person's own magic against himself by forcing their magic to. . .expand, I suppose, and bleed into places it shouldn't be, whereby it then infects those places. Really very nasty."
"Have we gotten to the good part yet?"
Hermione slanted a look at him. "The Guardian that leaked into you was weakened enough by Anthony's siphoning that your magic has shown its superiority and contained it."
"Which means that my own magic hasn't brought me to a paralytic state. I will agree, that is good. I'm still not sure how constant discomfort counts as a positive."
Hermione held back a scoff at the word "discomfort." She knew what she has seen in that second when he had let her see everything. "Because it means you can locate your magic core. And if I'm right, and if Anthony, Harry and I can formulate things properly, that means I can get you out of this place."
"I don't suppose you'd like to tell me how?"
Hermione shook her head. "Not until I'm entirely sure. You ask too many questions." She tapped the canister he had seemingly forgotten with her wand, Warming it again. "Eat your soup."
Snape pointedly ignored the command. "I ask too many questions?"
Hermione's lips quirked. "Soup."
Snape gave in, and brought the spoon up to his lips.
"If an act of enormous, one might even say supreme Darkness can cause a part of the soul to splinter off in a rendering of Dark Magic, then were I to desire an ejection of the Dark in someone, an act of enormous Light might be just the thing."
Harry just looked at Hermione. Anthony said, "I suppose that's solid. What I did in order to heal him in the first place was to replace Light energy in him. It's essentially all a balancing act, so yes. You might have something."
"But what is an act of enormous Light, then?" Hermione asked, more rhetorically than anything.
"Love," Harry said without even waiting for her to finish the last word, and well, Harry would know. Then, in typical Harry fashion he looked up and said, "Erm, I'd guess. Considering."
"No," Hermione said, some of her dispiritedness leaking through her tone. "You're probably right about that."
"What's wrong?" Harry asked.
"You don't know? Harry, this is Snape. He loves neither anyone nor anything."
Harry scrunched his eyes together momentarily. "That's not true. He loves Professor Dumbledore. And possibly Emmeline Vance." Harry looked slightly flummoxed and not a little unsure of what to do with that concept but soldiered right on, just like the good little Gryffindor he so unquestionably was. "Love isn't, I don't. . .well, I mean you and I still love Ron, right?"
"But what qualifies as an act of love for those who are already dead?" Anthony looked from Harry to Hermione.
Harry said, "Coming up with the plan is your thing."
Hermione closed her eyes and ran through the conversation once more. Then she went still. Anthony and Harry asked as one, "Hermione?"
"A balancing act, you said."
"Yes," Anthony said, as Harry asked, "Sorry?"
"Filling him with Light forces out the Dark."
"One can only hold so much magic at one time," Anthony said, "regardless of content."
"Cheering Charms," Hermione said.
"Make you happy?" Harry asked.
"Use synthetically conjured magical happiness to mirror that sensation in a human for a temporary amount of time. They push out, for lack of a better explanation, the more unsavory emotions a person is experiencing. Of course, those emotions come back as soon as the happy or light magic has drained but for the time allotted by the Charm, the Cheer takes over the, erm, Gloom."
"You want to perform a Cheering Charm on Snape to force out residual dark in order to pull along his actual magical core? Because I gotta tell you, that's going to be one hell of a Cheering Charm." Harry frowned.
"No," Anthony said slowly. "She wants to create a new charm based on the principal, one that will start by eliminating the Dark but force the core to follow it given the amount of Light magic being poured into his system. Too much. That's still going to be one hell of a Charm."
"Harry's one hell of a wizard," Hermione said, deeply unconcerned at that. "I still have to figure out a way to contain the core. It's not exactly like a horcrux is it? Not if he doesn't perform the magic."
"No, but once the core is vacated the principle should be much the same," Harry said. "Give me some time to think on that."
"Can you have something for me in a week?" Hermione asked.
"I'll try," Harry said.
"All right. I'll be burning the candle at the other end," Hermione promised.
Harry smiled. "Always."
Anthony said, "I'll take the middle."
Both of them blinked at him, nearly having forgotten he was there. Hermione said, "I'll meet you there."
Hermione had accustomed herself to finding Snape with new bruises every time she came. Most of the Death Eaters had always enjoyed a small to large slice of brutality as a daily meal, it was one of the things that had lead them to follow Voldemort. Trapped together of their own accord, they were slowly tearing each other to bits even without the aid of their wands. Once in a while one of them would somehow manage to tap raw magic and at least one of the others generally ended up dead at those times.
Snape had evidently managed to avoid that, although how Hermione couldn't imagine. She knew for a fact that as interested as they were in tearing each other apart, they were ten times more interested in tearing him to shreds. She had never yet found a polite way to ask, though, and declined to do so until the day she showed up to find him with a multiple compound fracture on his arm that he was doing his best to hide with his severely worn prison garments.
Hermione glared at him for his attempts and said, "Let me see," even knowing mostly what she would see when he let her and that this sort of thing had been her very least favorite lesson when she'd gone to Madam Promfrey in search of a way to keep all her friends alive while in the midst of battle. It hadn't done her much good then but there was a reason why Hermione stored as much knowledge as she came across wherever possible. Something was bound to be useful eventually.
"I'm going to numb the area slightly," she warned, before tapping her wand over the worst part of the break and waiting for his nod that the spell was working properly. "Stay still."
He did, even as the bones slid against each other with an unholy sound and then popped back into their rightful place. She attacked the second worst break after that, and the third, which wasn't a compound, last. She then spelled the bones and skin to knit, adding a spell protecting against infection at the last moment. The spells were neither as efficacious nor as thorough as potions would have been but both of them knew it, so there was no use to saying anything. She asked, "Want me to keep it numb?"
He looked down at the arm, which showed no particular signs of trauma. "Perhaps for now."
"Yes." She sat down, not wanting him to be able to tell how relieved she was that she'd actually managed to do that correctly. It had been quite some time since she'd practiced, and then only on the medical dolls Madam Pomfrey had leant her. "At the risk of prying, how is it that they haven't killed you?"
"The likes of which you shall never know. I just don't understand it. Two of the Crabbe clan is gone, one of the Jugsons and even a Malfoy. But you, whom they all hate, you get off with multiple compound fractures."
For a second he just stared at her. Then, surprisingly, he laughed. It was short and more frustrated than anything but it was laughter. "For one thing because I know how to play them against each other."
Hermione didn't doubt that. "And for another?"
Snape tilted his head in contemplation, as though trying to figure out how much to tell her. She wanted to point out that she already knew quite a bit. She didn't. He rewarded her patience with, "They like having a common enemy. And each and every one of them knows how to go far but not too far. The Dark Lord taught us that. He was a bigger fan of self-control than anyone gives him credit for being."
"Yes, that doesn't really make the list of top ten adjectives I generally apply to him."
"Some of us knew him better than others."
"Why did you join?" Hermione used her tone to make it just a question, akin to "what's your favorite food?" or "have you ever been to the north shore?"
"Because I hated Gryffindors and enjoyed revenge."
"I was seventeen years old. Yes, really."
"You were. . .what, nineteen when you left?"
"Twenty, nearly twenty-one."
"That's not so much older."
"Older enough," Snape said.
Hermione was about to argue but the ghost of Ron's kisses and the touch of his dead skin under her palms stopped her. "True, I suppose."
"Does any of this matter, Miss Granger?"
She shook her head. "Not really."
"Then why are you here?"
Hermione opened her bag. "I had leftovers after eating last night. I live by myself."
Snape opened his mouth but then shut it, accepting what she told him and the food she handed over.
Bill was the one who came up with the answer for Hermione. Not on purpose, as he barely even knew about her research. He was worrying at the issue of Remus and Ginny, who seemed to be getting along very well ever since Ginny had asked Remus, "Is it just my brother you come around for?" and he'd said, "Well. . .no."
Bill said, "It's funny, because of course if I could have her be with anyone it would be Remus- What?"
Hermione shook her head in amusement. "You sound like Ron when she started dating Harry."
"It's worse. Ron was a year old when she was born. I was eleven. That's, well you know, the gatehood to adulthood from where we stand."
"We being wizards?"
"Remus was twenty-one."
"You're being less than helpful."
"Bill." Hermione put her hands over his. "You're seven years older than Fleur and neither of you has ever once noticed. Yet seven years is the difference between entrance into wizarding school and the exiting thereof."
"They used to have chastity belts," Bill mourned, obviously not listening to word a Hermione was saying. "Actual chastity belts, with a girl's chastity encapsulated in the belt."
Hermione, however, was listening. "Chastity isn't tangible."
"It's a virtue. They would draw it out by way of a curse and then put it in the belts and keep it locked around her waist."
For a moment, Hermione was distracted. "If you took it out of the girl-"
"It's a force to be reckoned with in its concentrated state. The sheer power of it emanating from the belt kept anyone who was thinking about approaching the girl away."
"That's a bit barbaric."
Hermione laughed a little. "If I wanted to read about this spell, where would I go?"
"Ministry spell archives. You probably can't get in but I bet Ginny could. Why?"
"I think it might have practical uses for a spell I'm trying to modify."
"Do I even want to know?"
"I can state for a fact that you really, really don't. One of these days you can read a paper on it by Anthony Goldstein."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Remus popped his head in the room at that moment. "Hello."
Hermione smiled at him. "Go away, we're talking about your tawdry affair with Bill here's baby sister."
Remus's eyes shone with a small hint of laughter. What he said was, "Bill, you know I told you-"
"That you wouldn't do a thing without my blessing. I know, it's all the more terrible, having to be party to her shocking and sudden loss of innocence."
"Ginny is twenty-six, you realize," Hermione said.
"And was deflowered long ago in a far away land by a magical prince named Harry Potter," Ginny said in her own defense as she entered the room.
"Hence making it hard for her older brother to decide between him and the dragon in the epic battle of wills," Bill lamented.
"How are you feeling about that these days?" Remus asked.
"Still wondering if maybe it wouldn't have been so bad, living under the tyrannical rule of an insane Dark Magic guzzling git."
"Oh but Bill," Ginny said, "think of the children."
"Chastity belt research it is," Bill said.
Hermione burst out in laughter. Ginny and Remus looked vaguely amused and only slightly confused. Hermione asked Ginny, "Is there some way for you to get me into the Minstry spell archives?"
"Sure. Can you come by tomorrow in the early morning?"
"That's when I was thinking."
"There are people who aren't going to be happy if you can get him out," Remus said.
"You've been talking with Harry?" Hermione asked.
"He comes to me with questions about the Dark Arts sometimes. Who only knows why, his expertise far outstrips mine."
"Experience," Hermione said, "not expertise. And he likes having parental figures." Behind Remus, Ginny met Hermione's eyes knowingly. "In response to your original comment, people can be unhappy all they want."
"Until you figure out a way to reintegrate his magic, he's a fixed target," Remus said.
Hermione sighed. "I'm hoping to have that figured out before we even enact but in the case that I don't I'm working on plans to keep him safe until I can figure on a solution."
"You should count on my support," Ginny told her.
"Certainly," Bill said. Remus nodded in agreement.
Hermione closed her eyes a moment in gratitude. "Thanks." She opened them and fixed them on Ginny. "So I'll see you in the morning."
"First thing," Ginny said.
Hermione arranged to meet with Anthony as soon as she'd found the Chastity Spell and after two weeks of very little sleep and pounds upon pounds of Columbian dark roast the two of them had found a way to combine its principles with those of the Cheering Charm to create an entirely new spell. Since Harry was the only one with the strength to perform the needed spell, Anthony and Hermione based the transfer of Light Magic on Harry's feelings of loyalty to Snape. It wasn't love, nor did it have its power, but if Hermione knew Harry at all, love was part of loyalty, even when he'd really prefer it weren't. Harry might not have loved Snape, might not have even liked him, but he loved Professor Dumbledore and several of the other people whom Snape's actions had protected. Harry's ability to create mindstates for himself was nearly unrivaled, and Hermione knew if she could just get him in the right head space, this could work.
Harry, for his part, came through with a way to contain the Core, partly from his knowledge of horcruxes, partly from Hermione sharing the Chastity idea, and partly through Harry's intuitive sense of what would work for him.
The only way they could figure to test the idea was on somebody whose core was so minimal that the loss wouldn't bother the person. Hermione discussed the idea with Fleur who convinced Gabrielle to come on board. Squibs had a core, it was just entirely depleted or non-functional at birth. Gabrielle was doubly convenient, as Harry had carried a sort of older-brotherly fondness for her ever since saving her from the mermaids which only grew as the years went by and he saw her at Weasley event after Weasley event.
Gabrielle, who had worked with Hermione on more than a few Squib Rights issues asked, "Will it kill me if it doesn't work?"
Hermione said, "There are safeguards against it touching anything but the core. The worst that happens is we can't locate your core and have to stop before it even begins."
That wasn't an issue with Snape, the Dark Magic still leaking from his core making location a moot point. There was no perfect way to test this sort of thing, though. One couldn't go around taking magical core's from fully grown wizards without a guaranteed way to put them right back where they were. Hermione hadn't gotten that far yet.
"Where are you planning to keep my. . .core?" She laughed then. "Hard to imagine having something that's never really bothered to make itself known."
"Harry suggested the locket you always wear."
Gabrielle put her hand to her throat. Inside, Hermione knew, was a picture of her and Fleur as kids on one side, and Fleur and Bill's children on the other. "Yes, I like that."
When Hermione told Harry they were set to try it he said, "I need a good night's sleep first."
"Maybe I should go home." Tonks smirked.
"Don't," Harry said, and it was a request.
"Nah," she said. "I can be good."
Hermione thought from the way Harry'd been holding his head up in public of late that Tonks could be very, very good. She said, "It can wait a few days but not much longer. If it's going to work I still have to convince him to agree."
"Have I mentioned how much I don't envy you of late?" Tonks asked.
Hermione's lips quirked. Harry asked, "You think he will?"
Behind her eyes Hermione saw the broken cheekbone she'd fixed on the man two visits previous and the look of eagerness that he'd quickly hid at her latest delivery of food. "If I say the right things."
"Then I can't find it in me to worry," Harry said.
Hermione found that funny as there had been a time--several, really--when she couldn't say anything right to him or Ron, and it wasn't like Snape had ever shown the enormous desire to listen to her even when her words and syntax did form correctly. Harry's faith wasn't something she'd ever been able to dismiss lightly, though, and now was no exception. "That makes one of us," she said, making sure it sounded enough like 'thanks' that nobody could mistake her intent.
Harry smiled. "I'm going to bed."
Tonks stood in his wake. "I'll just follow, shall I?"
Hermione sat on Harry's couch long after, until she was ready to go home and face her own bed, knowing that it only offered temporary sanctuary against the 'maybes' of the next day.
Gabrielle said, "All right. That wasn't the most pleasant thing I've ever experienced."
Harry winced. She quickly restated, "Not the most unpleasant either, just somewhere in the mildly uncomfortable category."
Anthony touched his wand to the pulse at her throat, one of hundreds of loci for the core in the physical body. "Good news, anyone?"
Harry and Hermione both raised their hands. Gabrielle followed. Anthony smiled. "It worked."
Harry grinned and leaned over to kiss Gabrielle on the cheek. Hermione's muscles loosened in relief but she couldn't bring herself to smile. Harry straightened up. "When do you see him next?"
"Tomorrow," Hermione said. "I've procrastinated a bit on this aspect of the plan."
"You're going to find a way to replace the core," Gabrielle said, as confidently as if she'd been in on the planning since the beginning or even had any idea of what they'd actually just done to her.
Hermione gave her a look of appreciation. "I had this thought that I would wait until I had actually won the case and then tell him but that seems cruel and unusual by any standards."
"Nearly as cruel as the fact that he can't even be at his own trial." Harry walked off to glower a bit. His stress level rose as the date of the trial beckoned nearer. Hermione wasn't worried about that. Even by the old standards of justice Snape would have to be acquitted by the Wizengamot, and the standing board was the same that had approved her changes to the system. They were a fairly moderate group and two of them were ex-Order members who had helped her along, presumably with the intent of seeing this very deed done.
That said, she sympathized with Harry. She wanted Snape at her side. She wanted people to see where their choices had landed him. She was more than old enough, however, and had lived through enough, to know that what she wanted was less important than what she needed, and all she needed was to get him free. She could do that without his presence. "Anthony, I don't suppose I could borrow the notes you've been keeping? If I were him I'd want to see all of this written out."
Anthony reached to his side and handed her a roll of scrolls. "If there's anything else-"
"No." Hermione brushed his fingers with hers as she took the scrolls. "I appreciate it, it's just that I think he might listen to me. Not swearing to it, mind you. At the very least I tend to be able to get in a word while he's chewing."
Anthony huffed a bit. "Tricky."
"She is," Harry said, slinking back into the conversation. "I could donate some chocolate to the cause."
And because she knew he probably needed to help out, she said, "All donations accepted here."
When Hermione had finished explaining, Snape had gestured for the scrolls wordlessly and she'd handed them over in equal silence. She waited with that same silence while he read them, word for word, once, twice and finally a third time. At which point he looked up and said, "No."
"I was pretty sure we'd have to start there."
"Believe me when I say we'll be finishing there, too. Think, Miss Granger, you can use me as your banner child for the problematics of the current Azkaban system. Your little reforming heart should trill at the possibilities."
"And yet, it does not."
"I gave up my freedom with my own words. I'm not giving up my magic."
"What magic? As it stands now your magic is a cipher." The words burned on her tongue but she made herself say them, comforted in the fact that at least they were tasteless. "And I will find a way to reinstate your magic, I just haven't had enough time to look into the problem. Two months wasn't exactly a huge amount of time to find a solution to the Vow problem itself, let alone a solution to the problems incurred by said original solution."
"You can find a way to dissect the core so as to release the Bonded ties and then reinstate in into the human host without problem? Not even Slytherin himself could have done that."
"Underestimating me has always been personal joy of yours and while I'm loathe to rob any of those from you at the moment, I feel obliged to tell you that when I dedicate my energy into solving a problem, I overwhelmingly solve the problem."
"The modifier 'overwhelmingly' was probably of more use in that last sentence than it has been in previous happenstance."
"If I were to make an Unbreakable Vow of my own-"
"Don't even think it." The lines of Snape's lips went so flat as to nearly disappear. Hermione couldn't help leaning back from him just a fraction of an inch. He calmed into his normal state of acrimonious ease. "Besides, a Vow means nothing when the person on the receiving end hasn't a core. It nullifies the magic."
"Nonetheless, I do believe my offer of taking one displays not only my certainty in this but my dedication to it. Tell me what I can do to make you say yes."
"There is nothing."
"There is always something."
Snape opened his mouth. Before he could say anything a look of introspection flickered over his face. When he finally passed air over his tongue and between his teeth it was to say, "Potter and Goldstein must formally release me from the Life Debt."
Hermione knew she was missing something, something important that she would have to work out for herself later. At the moment, though, no matter how big the quibble turned out to be, it wouldn't be big enough for her to allow him to stay in Azkaban. Even Hermione's advocacy of self-choice couldn't relent on this issue. "Not a problem. Anything else?"
He waited a moment before saying, "No, I do believe that will be satisfactory," and Hermione wondered if he'd actually thought about it or if the moment had just been to make her feel better. She settled on the former as being more likely.
Having gotten her way anyhow, Hermione relaxed. Fractionally. She was not a fool.
"It's like physics," Hermione said to Harry, who was pretty much the only person with whom she could talk over Muggle things without weird facial acrobatics being required from the other person as signifiers of their lack of understanding.
"I know fuck-all about physics," Harry told her, not without sympathy for her plight.
"You know what an atom is, right?"
"I've heard of one, is that good enough?"
It would have to be. "Sure. All right, so scientists found a way to split the atom."
"Wait, this is sounding familiar. Are there bombs involved in this lesson?"
"You've hit at the nucleus of the issue," she said, with what she felt was inordinately bad pun usage, even for her. "From what I've read, and it's as much as I can find in any of the languages that I know plus a few I was able to craft workable Translation Charms on, the way an Unbreakable Vow works is for the bonded magic to literally become part of what is--for lack of a better term--the atomic makeup of the core."
"So rather than just yanking a thread, you have to split an atom?"
"Millions of them. Without destroying the core itself."
"Maybe you need a physicist."
"I'm not finding some poor physicist, explaining all this to her, convincing her of its truth and then obliviating her once I've gotten what I needed."
"While I solute your evil genius in even thinking that up, I had a somewhat more benevolent plan in mind."
Hermione put her palms against the back of her ears and pushed forward so that they extended perpendicularly from her head. Harry laughed. "Your mum and dad are dentists. Dean's parents are uh. . .I think one's a grocer and the other's a college professor. And one of his sisters is a cosmetics lady. My point is that there are tons of muggle-borns with family that know about them but exist in a perfectly muggle world. We just have to find someone related to a physicist and hope that physicist doesn't have Dursley-itis."
Hermione reached out and squeezed his knee. "Hm. But how. . . You have any contacts at the Prophet?" The paper had improved considerably since a muggle-born from Cardiff had taken over, and Hermione could now stand to read it for more than just the philosophy of knowing from where your enemy was most likely to attack.
"Just the sports section," Harry said, somewhat predictably.
"Ask them how one goes about printing a Classified." Normally Hermione would just pick a paper up and read but one of the problems with the change in management of the paper was a high turn-over rate in certain areas of the staff and the last three times Hermione had tried to put something in print the instructions she'd been given had proven wrong.
"If you give the advertisement to me, I'm sure they can just slip it in for you."
Hermione wasn't arguing with anything that made her life less arduous these days. She summoned parchment and quill and wrote out a succinct request for a muggle physicist with knowledge of the wizarding world, willing to help work on a theoretical study on the magical core. Details available upon request.
She read it over twice, fixed three problems and handed it to Harry. "I hope this works."
"I'll be thinking about what we can do if it doesn't."
"Right," she said.
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "You could concentrate on one thing at a time for a bit, if you wanted. Nobody would blame you."
Hermione bit back an ugly smile. Nobody but the person most central in all of this. "Thanks for the thought. Are you free for dinner Tuesday night? You and Tonks? Anthony and Alicia invited us all and I've things I need to talk about with the both of you."
"I'll talk to Tonks but I can certainly be there."
Hermione walked to the door. "I have to run out on you. See you tomorrow."
"If not before," Harry said, and if that wasn't the truth, Hermione simply didn't know what was.
Anthony made stew, which suited the constant need Hermione had to be warm whenever she returned from visiting Azkaban. She tried not to think of the implications her own reactions had for Snape. He was human, whatever else he was, and she knew that he couldn't enjoy the soul-deep chill of the place any more than she did. Not even with his penchant for underground places of habitation. There was drafty and then there was a castle in the middle of the bloody sea with no insulation of which to speak.
Alicia brought home bread still warm from the bakery oven which Hermione dipped into her stew and savored for a bit while Alicia, Harry, Tonks and Anthony talked about their days, lives, small things and not so small things. Tonks finally called Hermione out with a, "I get a bit nervous when you think for this long at one go."
Hermione smiled. "Not without reason. But no, it's just that there's something I have to tell Anthony and Harry. Something I did that I didn't precisely have their permission to do."
"You've traded us into sexual slavery to Professor Snape, haven't you? His price for the sacrifice of his magic to your noble cause."
Because Anthony had the very best facial expressions when taken off guard, Hermione took the opportunity to say, "Erm, it's a bit like that, yes."
Tonks laughed. Alicia gaped. Anthony delivered on the expression front. Harry threw a roll at her. She threw it back. "Very grown up of you."
Harry caught the roll and took a bite. "What'd he ask for that you gave him without consulting us?"
"He wants the both of you to waive your Life Debts."
"Waived," Anthony said.
Harry looked at Hermione. "I've been trying to get him off my back for the better part of my living existence and his price is that I now have a way? Surely there's something else, we all know I'm not that lucky."
"You've been pretty luck of late," Tonks pointed out dryly. Harry offered her the rest of the roll by way of mollification. She took it.
Anthony tilted his head. "That was really all he wanted?"
"Oh, there's a catch to it somewhere," Hermione reassured him. "I just haven't figured out what it is. And even if it's huge there isn't really anything that could impede my agreeing so as to get him out. Generally I prefer worrying about the long term in the short term but I can make an exception for this."
Everyone was silent at that for a bit. Alicia asked, "What are you using as the focal object? For the horcrux?"
Hermione looked at Harry. She'd left those details to him. Harry's skin darkened ever so slightly, and though nobody else would read it as a blush, Hermione knew it for what it was. "A book," he said.
"Just any ol' book?" Alicia asked, her doubt apparent.
"Potions text," Harry clarified. Hermione narrowed her eyes and wondered if Harry had kept his sixth year textbook for some reason she couldn't fathom. At the time Harry would've preferred to kill Snape. Then again, the devil you know is the devil you can very likely defeat. As Dumbledore had taught all of them.
If she was right, the choice was a good one. Something of Snape's, it would ease the transition. That was another mistake Voldemort had made--horcruxes held the partitioned soul much better when they found it to be familiar, a good fit. The one in Harry had always rubbed against the grain, making it that much easier to free when the time came. Harry would have remembered that when putting his plans together.
"Trial's in little over a week?" Tonks asked, and Hermione was pretty sure she'd missed something else while thinking but as nobody was staring at her impatiently, they must not have needed her to participate.
"Twelve days." Hermione forewent being any more specific.
"Dinner here in eleven, then," Anthony said even as he looked at Alicia to confirm. She didn't contradict him, so plans were set.
Hermione would mark her very extremely not busy social calendar.
"Did your golden boy even raise an objection?" Snape sneered. Or at least Hermione knew that was the affectation he was attempting. He was shivering though, and his efforts to hold himself still enough for the intimidation factor to go over weren't quite working. She'd never seen that happen before, although she imagined it must have. Nearly seven years was. . .almost as long as she'd known Ron. A long time to suffer.
She cast a light warming charm over him. Just enough for him to catch his breath against the freezing of the air. "You'll have your revenge soon enough, I'm sure."
"You forget I'll be powerless."
"I forget nothing, Mr. Snape, nor will I ever believe in your so-called powerlessness." She released the words lightly, as though at a society tea.
"You don't know me very well."
"If you expect me to take responsibility for that state of events I fear I'll have to disappoint you."
He took a deep breath, now growing accustomed to being able. The breath was silent but she heard it all the same, even over the constant, inaudible creak of misery that filled Azkaban. "Expect a Gryffindor to own responsibility for something? I would never."
"You really are quite the charmer."
"What brings you here, Miss Granger? You've gotten what you want, every last morsel, so I can only conclude that my misery brings you. . .pleasure." He dipped into a lower octave on the last word, glaring at her with an extra jolt of sinister intent.
Hermione, though, was tired too, and not fond of being sport for his ever and increasingly tiresome games. "Immense. In an hour, when you find I've laced that Calorum with a delayed physiologic Incendio, only then will you know how much."
True pleasure flickered over his face at that. "You've learned to lie with relish."
"And you don't need your wand for quite as much as you'd like me to believe." Hermione stood.
"Miss-" Snape stood as well. "You're right, that was. . .something I would not have done seven years ago. Something I should not have done now."
"I'm getting you out of here for that very reason. And I will return your magic. Your power, as you see it. I disagree but I'll respect your right to believe as you will."
They stared at each other for a while before he sunk back into his seat. "I thought you would cease these visits once you'd accomplished your aims."
She said, with the exact same measured tone as he had used minutes earlier, "You don't know me very well."
"I never wanted to."
"Am I to take hope from your choice of tense?"
"You'll have to inquire of someone else. Hope and I have long since sworn never to cross each other's paths."
"You lie with relish."
"I believe the descriptive word you were searching for was 'intent.'"
"Maybe," Hermione gave him. "Maybe it's a bit of both."
Hermione showed up for tea at the time Minerva and she had agreed upon. The headmistress wasn't in the office (password: Mistopheles) but Dumbledore's portrait smiled at her and said, "She'll be right upon us, Miss Granger. A seat?"
Hermione took one. There was already a tea service out on the table and Hermione took the liberty of pouring them each a cup. She hadn't the slightest idea of whether Minerva enjoyed sugar or milk so she just fixed her own and waited while it cooled to a preferable drinking temperature. She was thinking about taking her first sip when Minerva appeared with an "Apologies. Last minute disciplinary issue. They're forever popping up."
Minerva took the cup Hermione had poured her and sipped at it. "Thank you for that."
"May I presume this is about the upcoming trial?"
Hermione took a biscuit. "Of a sort. I thought about going to Pansy Parkinson. The Slytherins who didn't take the Mark all are rather vehement in their defense of Mr. Snape and I know she does a bit of real estate work." Hermione took a sip and looked away from her former professor. "We never got on, Pansy and I."
"You can face a nigh on betrayed and long incarcerated Severus Snape but not Pansy Parkinson?" Minerva asked, the hint of a laugh in her voice.
"Oh, I can and I will if need be; I just thought- It's been some time since we've spoken anyhow. And Pansy's unlikely to offer me shortbread."
"True enough. You need somewhere for Severus to call home?"
"Spinner's End, that's what they called his home, yes?" Hermione dug through some scrolls she'd brought. "Yes, the wards were taken off it and it was sold to Muggles. We can hardly just kick them out, and I'm not entirely sure he'd want to retake possession of the place anyhow."
"Those poor Muggles," Minerva said. When Hermione peered at her curiously she shrugged. "No doubt the Ministry missed a few tricks. They always do when it comes to Dark Magic."
Hermione filed that thought away for later. "I need somewhere remote. Somewhere we can implement wards easily, wards that will have to be uniquely crafted so as to be penetrated by non-magic users but not by Muggles. I'm thinking of a way to key it, I'm almost there. The place needs to be unknown largely to both magical and Muggle community although not inaccessible by either and not so far away as to make those communities inaccessible by the inhabitant."
Minerva poured herself another cup of tea. "It occurs to me that I don't want to know what you're not telling me."
"If it becomes necessary I assure you I'll speak up."
"Mm. There's nothing I can think of off the top my head but I can do something for you."
"I rarely turn down the help of friends."
"You'll need to learn not to turn down the help of others as well." With that Minerva turned to her fire place and threw some floo powder down. Whether she was using nonverbal magic or her floo was specialized, Hermione never knew what was coming when Pansy Parkinson stepped through the flames, not a hair out of place. Very consciously, Hermione didn't put a hand to her own fly-away curls.
Pansy nodded at Minerva. "Good to see you, Headmistress." She blinked at Hermione.
Hermione stood. "Pansy, it's-"
Pansy laughed. "Not exactly a pleasure, I wouldn't imagine."
Hermione matched her laughter. "No, not exactly that."
"We've all got our eyes trained on you," Pansy said. Hermione wasn't sure whether it was a warning or something else.
"You find houses."
Pansy's eyes turned inward. "Yes, he would need one, wouldn't he? Assuming you succeed."
"It's an odd feeling, actually hoping you're right."
"I'll give you a moment to register the shock."
"What are your requirements? On the house?"
Hermione repeated what she'd told Minerva moments before, with a challenging glare just in case Pansy took it in her head to ask questions. Pansy said, "I don't understand."
Hermione said, "I won't explain."
"I'm doing my best to keep him safe. Surely you can't imagine I would spend all these years trying to get him out of prison just for a petty little revenge for a man I only knew in a vague haze of hero worship?"
"Gryffindors are bloody odd."
"Maybe if you ever just spoke with one of us-"
"I'm a busy girl."
"Can you find the house for me, or can you not?"
"I'm a perfectly capable woman and witch, for all that you ever noticed."
Hermione shook her head. "I never cared one way or another, Pansy, except that you were always making my life a misery when you could. I have no doubt of your abilities. I wouldn't have bothered to ask if I did."
"I'll find him a house," she said quietly. "A perfect one."
Pansy turned back toward the fireplace, then, hesitating, turned toward Hermione once more. "Granger, I have. My parents-"
"No, Pansy, no." Hermione hated saying that, she did, she could imagine how it would feel were it her parents but she saw what the others did to Snape time and again and she wasn't going to descend into that. "I only ever see him. That's. . .only him."
"Then at least. . .ask him? To let them know that I'm. All right."
Hermione swallowed. "I'll relay the message."
Pansy's smile was bitter. "They won't care a jot. He'll know that. But I. Well, I care." She turned completely then, and disappeared back through the fire.
From the corner she'd retreated to, Minerva asked, "There that wasn't so bad now, was it?"
"Your manipulations are less gentle than your predecessor's."
"I like to think my problems aren't as subtle."
"And here I thought you were relatively devoid of the famous Gryffindor foolhardiness."
"That's the bun. It makes people assume things."
"Perhaps I should try it in court."
Minerva sat back down. "I think you'll manage just fine as you are."
Hermione slid a rather sizeable chocolate bar over to Snape. He raised an eyebrow. "Something you would prefer not to discuss?"
His suspicion didn't stop him from taking the candy and she waited until he'd neatly broken off a piece and slid in between his lips to ask, "Do you ever see any Parkinsons?"
"When they want to be seen." Snape broke a second piece off and held it out to her. For a moment she was so surprised by the offer that all she could do was stare dumbly at it.
Then, despite not being particularly hungry, she took it. "What does that mean?"
"The Parkinsons are notorious for their tendency to stay out of the way when they're not wanted. It came as quite a shock that the Ministry managed to convict nearly all of them."
"Pansy wasn't a Death Eater." Hermione didn't like the other woman but fair was fair.
"I was talking about her uncle."
Hermione hadn't known there was an uncle, so she just nibbled at her chocolate. Snape tilted his head. "Is this about Miss Parkinson?"
Hermione sucked the chocolate from her thumb for a moment. "I needed a favor from her. She asked a favor of me."
"I had no idea the two of you could be put in a room together and not end up horrendously disfigured."
"That was how I ended up, you simply haven't noticed the difference."
"My perception has grown immeasurably sharper since you were fourteen, Miss Granger."
Hermione hadn't really expected him to remember the incident to which she was referring. She knew how often the most horribly scarring events to one's mind could be completely commonplace in that of the person inflicting the damage. "We've both grown up. Pansy and I."
"Her perhaps more forcibly than you."
"I don't know her that well."
"What sort of favor would send you to her door?"
"She knows how to find houses, flats, office space, whatever a person needs."
"You want an office of your very own?"
"No, I work quite comfortably out of my own flat."
"Then a friend of yours?"
"I doubt you consider yourself that." She slanted her eyes at him. "Did you honestly believe I wouldn't ask for recompense in the suit? Minerva would gladly put you up at Hogwarts but given the measures we're taking to free you of this place I wanted to give you options of where you could go."
"That's not really your job, is it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I know how Muggle legal systems work, at least a bit. Father did divorce mother, of course, and there were your precious lawyers all involved. Their only duty was to the actual courtroom business of the drama. Had there been any other problems, and I assure you, there were-"
"I didn't convert the system into an entirely Muggle one."
"This still isn't your job. Not finding a house, not figuring out how to break the Vow, not working on a way to return my magic once the Vow breaks. Not even bringing me sustenance."
"Are you asking me to stop doing what I'm doing?"
"I'm asking you to explain yourself."
Hermione sighed. "I just want to be a person I can trust. That's it. There's nothing grand or exciting or even sinister about it. I was raised by two parents who taught me that telling the truth is as important as brushing and flossing every morning and every night, and more important than staying away from excessive amounts of sugar. They believed the same thing about kindness and respect and curiosity. Minerva believed in fairness and you believed in expecting us to be our very best and Harry believes in not stopping until you've done everything you can do. We are all fashioned by the people who teach us, the people who love us. I no less than any other person."
Quietly, Snape broke another piece of chocolate free. "What was this favor you owed Miss Parkinson?"
"She wanted her parents to know she was all right."
"They'd prefer she was dead."
"Maybe that's the message she'd like relayed. I don't know. It was a short conversation."
"I'll see what I can do."
Snape offered her another piece of chocolate. She shook her head. He ate it himself.
Not that Hermione regretted winning--far from it--but after all her months and years of efforts, it would have been nice for the actual trial not to be quite so anti-climatic. As soon as she was able to prove the presence of an altered Fidelius and Minerva testified, the Wizengamot called a recess to the trial. When they returned they'd come to an early verdict in Snape's favor.
Hermione waited until she had permission to go and then skulked as far into the Department of Mysteries as she could get until someone went further in and found Ginny for her.
Ginny came out looking slightly confused. "Aren't you supposed to be proving your professional merit right about now? I'll grant you've got the right building, if you need help to the right-"
"They decided early."
"They found him guilty?" Ginny sounded so angry Hermione thought for a split second about bringing her wand up.
"No. Charges dropped. Immediate release."
"Why aren't you smiling? Why aren't you bloody well dancing? Hermione!" Ginny put her hands on Hermione's shoulders. "Seven years of work!"
"And guess who gets to tell him that now he has to go through that which he fears most in order to actually attain that freedom with more than just words and paper?"
"All right." Ginny tilted her head to the side. "I'll grant you, that part's not likely to be a carnival."
In spite of the enormity of the task before her, Hermione let go of a laugh. It felt good enough for her to allow a few more to escape the confines of her lungs. "Good perspective you've got on things."
"You want me to. . .I don't know, ride out there with you?"
"As you have every time before? As you're actually pretty well required to?"
"Look, you're not being very gracious about my offers of friendship, here."
Hermione curled a hand over one of Ginny's, still both resting on her shoulders. "I told myself in the beginning of all this that it couldn't be about him, at least not in the respect of caring what he thought. He's never thought well of me or really anyone I liked other than the Headmaster, and I didn't like him so far as have a rather firm respect for authority figures that he played on expertly. I reminded myself that his opinion didn't matter and that this was about what was right and wrong and all those abstract concepts that for a short, blissful period of time I actually believed meant something."
"But you want him to be proud."
"Bugger proud, I want him to. . . To want to be free."
"People want that, Hermione. It's innate."
"Just because something's innate doesn't mean it can't be overcome. For him I think." Hermione closed her eyes. "For him I think he'll let Harry and me go through with this because he's lived the better part of his life in extreme forms of penance for crimes that probably deserved even more extreme forms. He may have forgotten that he is only human at some point, that some things are innate, or that nature matters at all. That should be enough, that I'm getting my way, what's 'right' for all that it counts, but-"
"But you've been bringing the man chocolate for the better part of two seasons now."
"All kinds. And he never refuses."
"So you'd like him to take this like the chocolate."
"Like he wants it, yes."
"Then you're just going to have to be more patient then you're being now."
Hermione opened her eyes. "Is that what I'm lacking? Patience?"
"How long did it take before he bit into the chocolate without clandestinely sniffing at it, examining it for several moments on end?"
"He hasn't stopped." Hermione caught Ginny's eyes. "Ah. Baby steps, as my mum would say."
"My mum too."
"Linguistic traditions tend to be more varied by nation than by magical-use within European-" Hermione stopped. "Something I read."
Ginny grinned. "He'll want his freedom. You just have to. . .teach him how to again."
Hermione took a deep breath. "There's a boat waiting, somewhere."
"A boat and a man."
Hermione thought about how to tell him on the whole way over. She thought some more as she waited for Ginny to find him and bring him to their meeting spot. She thought as he was bearing down on her, lacking the impressive billow of his robes or even of body mass but impressive all the same. Finally she just handed over her wand and said, "They destroyed yours."
"I know, what has that to do with anything?"
"I thought you might like to work with it a bit. Before we break the Vow."
Snape reached out to run a finger over the handle-end of her wand, the end being held out to him. "That was. . .hasty."
"They decided after Minerva. I told you that might happen."
"It has been my observation that people in power like to argue."
"Occasionally, however, common sense has the gall to win the day."
Snape didn't seem particularly content with this but he wasn't going to let that get in the way of his desire to practice magic. Smoothly he took the wand from her fingers and cast a Warming Charm on them both. He worked some basic healing magic on himself and then turned to more complicated things, things that Hermione could only just barely follow without verbal cues. He asked, "Does it not worry you, not having any insight into my intentions?"
"I suppose if you're going to be ungrateful now there's not much I can really do about it."
"Ungrateful?" Snape raised an eyebrow.
"We weren't all huge prats about this," she returned, unwilling to take on any more guilt just because she hadn't been inhabiting a rock in the middle of the Aegean with him and a few of her nearest and dearest enemies over the past seven years. "Besides, Harry's rather a handful when he's angry."
"Still absolutely no self-control?"
"Oh please, if Harry had no self-control you'd know it by the size of the crater where the isles had previously existed and the fact of your own death, among a few thousand others. He just doesn't like losing friends."
"He hasn't come after Avery."
"In my more narcissistic moments, I pretend I've taught him the value of justice."
"Do you have less narcissistic moments?"
"That's when I think he remembers what killing feels like."
Snape held the wand loosely. "Power has its allure."
"Killing isn't power, it's the illusion of it, dressed up in its mother's clothing."
"What, then, Miss Granger, do you understand as power?"
She smiled ironically at him. "Justice."
He looked, in spite of himself, sardonically amused. Before she had time to react to his mild accession, however, she was hit with a wave of Legilimantical communication so overwhelming she had to close her eyes and hold to the wall for it to make any sense. Layers of frustration and gratitude and loss and cautious joy and admiration and exasperation interjected themselves through her own understanding of emotional experience. It was over in not a minute. Hermione opened her eyes to see his, surprisingly calm.
"Do you understand?" he asked.
"You could have just said 'thank you,'" she whispered, not entirely sure whether what she had just been given was a gift or retribution.
He smirked. "Not nearly as fun."
"You're welcome," she said, sensing that perhaps there were things for him that words couldn't say, or at least that he couldn't trust her to properly translate.
He looked away and waved her wand silently. Hermione thought she smelled pine.
Anthony and Harry weren't long in arriving. Hermione hadn't imagined they would be, even given the shortness of her message, which had read, "Appeal won. At Azkaban."
Kingsley brought them. Technically Kingsley was an Auror but his status as head of the MLE gave him access to the island. He asked her, "Is there anything I can do?"
Hermione said, "Coordinate with Ginny. It's imperative that we aren't interrupted." She sent him off and turned around to where Harry was asking Snape, "Would you like to undo the Debts, or would you prefer we did?"
With a look that Hermione thought might have been regret but that Snape passed off well as disdain, he said, "The break is cleaner if he who holds the Debt enacts it."
"Yes," Harry agreed, "but I've never held you to it and you're the one who hasn't had the pleasure of a wand for seven years."
"Oh, but these seven years were nothing. Isn't that correct, Mr. Potter?" Snape managed to say this with enough venom that even Hermione, used to the acidity of his verbal ploys, winced. Anthony looked away.
Harry took a deep breath. "If you don't believe Hermione will figure out a solution to that even now, then you're bloody well not going to listen to me. Shall I start the breaking?"
Snape slashed the wand he was holding in Harry's direction. Life Debts involved magic but weren't Unbreakable, not in the sense that Vows could be. Anthony was the one to say, "Odd, I didn't think I would feel anything."
Harry waited but when Snape didn't move his wand again a small movement from Harry's wrists was enough to resolve an issue that Hermione was beginning to understand had haunted Snape the entirety of his life. In a way, she wished Harry had used his wand. She knew this was for the best though, making it clear to Snape just how powerful Harry had become, how easy even the largest magical tasks were to him.
After a bit, Snape nodded. Hermione read that he'd understood the implicit message. He asked, "How is this done?"
"The overview was exceedingly technical and precise, Mr. Goldstein but I think given the circumstances I'd prefer we talk with each other through the process. In case one of you forgets."
Anthony blanched but then looked to the side. Hermione had to wonder if he was hiding a smile. She said, "Sit down, if you will, Mr. Snape."
He offered her back her wand. It was the first time in her life she'd ever regretted taking it in her hands. She stepped backward as Harry said, "I've been told this isn't precisely pleasant."
Snape honored him with a look that clearly said he'd met inbred trolls smarter than the man standing before him. Harry shrugged and held up a battered text that he'd pulled from his satchel. "We had planned on holding your Core in this, unless you have something you'd prefer."
Snape's eyes glanced over the cover of the Potions manual he'd so thoroughly made his own. "It seems you will have far more of myself than I will, Mr. Potter."
"No, I'll be relinquishing it to you as soon as the Spell's over."
There was a beat missed before Snape said, "Very well then, get on with it."
So Harry did. And where for Gabrielle it had been, as she later described to Hermione, "A bit of a sick pulling sensation," whatever it was for Snape was obviously far more intense, as after all these months and months of watching him say or do nothing to indicate the ubiquitous pain caused through Dark Magic eating at his insides, hunger, cold and the beatings of his fellow inmates, Snape threw back his head and moaned, low and so controlled as to be nearly silent. Hermione swallowed back the word, "stop," and waited, waited, waited until Harry slumped against the wall, exhausted by his efforts. Anthony crossed cautiously to Harry while Hermione made her own way to Snape, who seemed unconscious.
She looked across the cell. "Harry?"
"I'm not sure he could help it."
"No," Anthony said, "I can't imagine he could. Sorry I didn't think about that."
Harry attempted to wave a hand. They got the message. Anthony finally said, "My part worked."
Harry nodded. "Yeah, I won."
Hermione slid over to him and gently wrested the book from his hands. Harry asked, "You'll get me home?" but was asleep before she could remind him that she always did.
As Harry's eyes slid shut, Snape's struggled their way open, pain-addled and confused but somehow still knowing. She held the book out to him. He turned his head from her.
Despite her intent, Hermione entrusted Harry to Ginny. It was a bit scary, she wasn't used to giving him over, not even to people with the last name Weasley but Harry had people who loved him, who would get him home, or at least to somewhere comparatively safe.
Snape had her.
He narrowed his eyes when she allowed Harry to slide bonelessly from her hands into the waiting ones of Ginny, Kingsley watching all the while. He asked, "Are you going somewhere?"
"With you," she said.
"And where, exactly, is that?"
To her surprise, he asked, "In Wales?"
"Outside the town, to be precise."
"Miss Parkinson found me a house outside Tywyn."
Hermione couldn't determine his tone of voice but she had often found safety in assuming the worst with him. "It's near the coast, far enough away from the Muggles so that you won't be bothered, deeply historical in its context as a town. The property itself also struck her as. . .well-suited, and I agreed."
"What would ever make you imagine that being near to a coast might be a positive aspect to a property?"
They were nearly to the shore at this time and Hermione looked out over the waters as she whispered, "It's over the water that leads to freedom." She wasn't sure if he heard her or not as he chose not to pursue the subject.
"How am I to pay for this property of mine?"
That was easy enough. "The Ministry owes you reparation."
"And in the meanwhile?" he asked as they climbed into the waiting boat.
Hermione had been hoping he wouldn't notice the slippage. "Pansy and I have made arrangements."
"Convenient bit of loose language, there."
"Don't ask questions to which you know the answers will cause you pain." She personally would've thought he'd had enough of that.
"Is it Miss Parkinson or you to whom I should be extending my gratitude?"
Hermione looked him in the face and lied. "Miss Parkinson. You think I have those sorts of funds?"
He called her on it. "I think you have friends with those sorts of funds. Your friends are the type to extend favors, I've noticed."
"Leave it, Mr. Snape," she cautioned lightly.
It was a mark of how disoriented he felt that he listened to her directive. She asked, "Do you feel-"
Before she could finish he answered, "Empty," and looked out toward the shore, coming perilously ever more close.
Controlling side-along Apparition always left Hermione feeling like someone had scraped her across a cheese grater and left her to melt. She was careful not to relay any of this by appearance. Luckily Snape was fairly distracted by the two bedroom cottage directly within their line of sight.
Admittedly, the exterior was a bit. . .cheerier than anything Hermione would have chosen for Snape. But she had left the decision to Pansy, who didn't even like the colors green and silver, not unless the word "pastel" was modifying them. It wasn't as though there hadn't been geographical specifications, either. Kill her though it might, Hermione didn't plan on saying a word to Pansy.
Who actually had helped to purchase the place. Lies were best when they contained some element of truth. That was one of Hermione's favorite mottos, picked up at the age of twelve in some sage advice from her mother. Who had then mentioned that maybe she oughtn't say anything about that to her dad with a wink and an extra crumpet. Hermione had never minded the fact that she was easy, at least not when it came to her mother.
After a long while, Snape said, "The architect was fond of sunlight, I see."
The prominence of windows marked the cottage's design. Snape sounded neutral on the issue which led Hermione to believe he rather liked the idea. She thought she might end up having to say something to Pansy after all. Something nice. "Shall we?"
He followed her silently. She said, "We've put plenty of Muggle security measures on the place, even though I doubt there will be a problem in that regard. Ginny and Remus designed some wards that won't bother you but should keep anybody you don't want in from disregarding that desire."
She pulled a key from one of her pockets and handed it over to him. "This is yours."
He took it from her without pause and slipped it into the keyhole. She was glad that someone had obviously taught him the use of the Muggle key system. It wasn't that wizards never used keys, just that mostly they didn't look, act or work precisely like Muggle ones.
Inside was light and open but didn't have the vaguely storybook look that had made Hermione somewhat jittery about the outside. The layout was actually quite convenient, with a sitting and a dining area out in front, a kitchen toward the back and two rooms off to the side. "There isn't much furniture as of yet. Neither Pansy nor I had much idea of your tastes. We were going to ask Minerva but she had a small faculty issue and hasn't had much time to chat."
Hermione shook her head and lied to him for a second time that day. "She hasn't really said much else to me about it."
Snape sneered at that lightly. "Yes, I'm quite sure you let things go at that."
"You, however, plan on being a gentleman and doing so."
Snape sighed. "Does it have a bed?"
"That we were relatively sure you'd want." Hermione lead them into the larger of the two bedrooms, equipped with a queen-sized bed sporting a quilt-topped mattress. "We put a desk in the next room over, and some shelves. We thought you might like a study. Your belongings were largely. . .distributed. Minerva was able to come into your library. We plan on restoring that to you. The rest has been harder to track down but we're still pursuing it."
"There isn't anything else of particular worth."
"And yet, it's still yours."
"Was. A tense I don't entirely mind using, at least not in this instance."
"We'll revisit the topic later."
"Yes, you rather enjoy getting your way."
Hermione smiled tiredly at him. "Do you know how to use a Muggle kitchen?"
"Well enough. I won't burn the place down."
"Good, because I doubt you'd enjoy sharing space in my flat."
Snape's eyes flews to hers. She smirked. "We shopped a bit for you. Not much. There's a market in town, and I'll be back tomorrow. We can Apparate just outside and you can take care of things."
"Don't you have a job?"
"One that I'm sure is going to keep me far, far more busy that I'd ever hoped in the years to come. I'll be back tomorrow." She walked toward the door, stopping at the last minute, realizing there was one question he wouldn't ask. "We didn't purchase an owl. We can if you want. There's a telephone with numbers posted above it in the kitchen. The numbers were left for use at any time. Day or night."
She waited until he nodded at her. Then she made herself leave.
Hermione went back early in the morning. Snape answered her knock with a snide, "Couldn't sleep?"
"You don't precisely looked roused from your bedclothes." A fact she would have forgone mentioning if he hadn't pushed. As it was, his mildly awkward breathing made her somewhat regret giving into the temptation.
He stepped back from the door without inviting her in and she didn't step inside. "May I come in?"
"If I refused you entry, would you go away?"
"It's very likely that I would go back to my office and work at my job for a bit before checking to see if you were completely without supplies just yet."
"Could I not walk to the town?"
"You could. Have you found the money?" Hermione had supplied him with Muggle and Wizarding money in separate locations.
"As you so kindly pointed out, I did not spend last evening sleeping."
"And the map, I assume?"
"Your organization skills are impeccable."
"You'll make me preen," Hermione said completely without inflection.
"Walk to town with me," he said, equally without inflection.
She didn't press her luck in asking why he preferred walking over Apparating. She supposed she'd want to know how to get there on her own two feet in his situation as well. "There's a chocolate shop in the center of town."
"Are these reparations you spoke of enough for new. . .garments?"
She heard the "robes" that had gone unspoken. "Yes."
"Should I be looking for employment in the town?"
"I think that can be put off for a bit." Minerva was planning on speaking to him about taking over several administrative duties in the school not the least of which was liaising with all of their potion ingredient and medicinal suppliers. Hermione had told her in no uncertain terms that she would be the one to discuss that with Snape.
"What are your defined limits for a bit?"
"At least until you've actually managed some sleep."
"It's been seven years on that. I'm not optimistic."
"No, but that would be out of character for you."
One corner of Snape's mouth quirked upward. "Would you like to wait inside while I make myself appropriate for Muggle surroundings?"
Hermione stepped in the door.
When Hermione returned to her office at mid-day there were about twenty messages waiting for her. Most of them were congratulatory, a few from the Ministry about logistical issues of reparations, one from the Prophet asking if she could get them an exclusive with Snape which allowed Hermione one of the better laughing bouts she'd had in quite some time and a simple envelope, the type one would buy in a Muggle office supply store, forwarded to her through the paper's classifieds section. Hermione slid a finger under the seal and pulled out a piece of typing paper with the crest for St. Catharine's College at the top. She scanned the message.
My name is Hazel Whitby, my younger brother Kevin was a few years behind you at Hogwarts. He brought to my attention your advertisement for a physicist. I've been a doctor and professor of physics for nearly four years now, and your project fascinates me. If you know how to use Muggle post I can be reached by my name at the College. If not, owl Kevin, he'll relay the message.
Hermione hunted around for the paper she knew she kept somewhere in her office, finally finding it hidden inside one of her law books and wrote out a response with her home telephone number on it. She didn't keep a phone at the office, as the necessary wiring to install one was more of a hassle than Hermione had any time or patience to bother herself over but her parents had insisted that she keep one at her flat. In the years since she'd capitulated, Hermione had never told them that it had actually kept her life far more simple than it probably would have otherwise been.
She transfigured some parchment into an envelope, looked up the address in her A-Z and set it aside for later, when she could make it to a post. While relieved someone had finally answered the add, she deeply hoped this Hazel wasn't as timid as Hermione clearly remembered Kevin being. She'd liked Kevin well enough, surely, but his backbone had consisted of melting rubber, and Hermione needed someone who could handle Snape at his worst.
Because he would be part of this; that she was an issue on which she was absolutely unwilling to compromise. On the positive side, she was relatively sure he wouldn't take much convincing. Offering him control was, at times, more suggestive of intoxicating pleasures than offering him chocolate. Most of the time, at that.
Hermione answered the mail from the Ministry so as not to have anything stalled longer than absolutely necessary. She combed through the congratulatory mail finding three requests for representation within them. She didn't even bother to suppress a smile. She did respond to each of them with a politely worded demand for far more information on their case and a promise to look the facts over before deciding whether to accept employment from them.
An owl from Fleur arrived not two minutes before another one from Remus came and soon Weasley-house originating owls were crowding her window. Hermione considered what she'd managed to get done and what still had to do and gave into the aviary pressure with an, "All right, I suppose it couldn't hurt to eat."
She walked to the post and mailed her response to Hazel Whitby before finding a nice alleyway for her purposes and Apparating straight into shouts of "congratulations!" pelting her from every which way.
Rona was holding up a sign with "You Win!" colored onto the front of it, the words somewhat lopsided but the art clearly enthusiastic. There were smells coming from the kitchen that Hermione tentatively identified as baking treacle and before she had even felt herself fully re-appear, the twins were taking turns tossing her in the air.
For once she didn't even bother reprimanding them.
Hazel Whitby reminded Hermione of Minerva. The two looked nothing alike, excepting the neat bun that held Dr. Whitby's, "No, call me Hazel, I only like to impress the tots with that," back from her face. Despite only being in her early thirties, Hazel's hair was going a premature grey, so that her hair did lend her something of a professorial (and more specifically, McGonogall-ish) air. Her face, however, had that look of perpetual excitement on it that Hermione generally categorized as belonging to toddlers and Weasley twins.
She was neat in every aspect of her appearance, her fingernails rounded and manicured in a way that Hermione had never been able to manage, the toes of her loafers unscuffed and the buttons of her shirt done up to the neck. Somehow, though, when she extended her hand and smiled politely at Hermione, the sense Hermione had of her was someone who had learned to hide her mischievous tendencies well. It might have been the unruly teeth in her particularly small mouth, or the way her cheeks seemed to take over her face when she smiled. Or it could have just been the easy way she gripped Hermione's hand, not too much force, not too little.
Either way, Hermione was pretty sure she had her physicist from that first moment.
Hermione offered her crumpets and she wrinkled her nose. "I hate to be rude but if you have any sandwiches, it's been crazy and I haven't eaten much all day-"
Hermione conjured sandwiches. "Please, sit."
Hazel sat, poured herself a cup of tea, placed two sandwiches on the plate nearest her and said, "Your advertisement wasn't terribly forthcoming."
"No, there are issues of secrecy at hand, to be honest."
"I haven't anyone to tell."
"You've your brother."
Hazel laughed a bit before catching Hermione's eye. "You're not kidding."
"Would that I were."
"All right. Nobody, not even my brother."
"I hate to seem untrusting but-"
"Oh, I would imagine my word's not good enough, not with us just having met. You're a wizard, though, you must have some way of making me keep my silence."
"Ironically, and please don't ask me to explain the irony, we've enacted what's called a Fidelius with me as the Secret Keeper. For all intents and purposes, you'll know what you know, you'll know that you know it, you just won't be able to talk about it to anyone else who doesn't already know."
"And those people will be?"
"Myself, Severus Snape, Harry Potter, Anthony and Alicia Goldstein, and Minerva McGonagall."
"How does the spell work?"
"My friend Harry's going to tap you with his wand, say a few words, and you'll be included. All the hard work's over at this point, really."
"Before I agree, can you at least tell me what you need from me?"
"I need to understand more about particle physics, I'm trying to apply the idea to an area of Soul Magic."
"Will I ever be able to talk about it?"
"If we're successful, yes." Silently, Hermione prayed fervently for that to end up being a promise.
"I suppose you'd best. . ." Hazel smiled, that look of unalloyed expectation flickering in her deepset brown eyes once more, "tell this Harry of yours that I'm in."
Hermione scribbled the words "she's in" on some parchment, tied it to Hedwig's waiting leg, and sent her back to Harry.
Three hours later, when Hermione had explained and even drawn illustrations (not good ones, she'd always needed Parvati for that sort of thing) Hazel looked down into her (many times over) empty tea cup and said, "Well, I'm going to have to think about this."
Hermione tilted head. "Yes, of course. Also, you're going to need to meet Mr. Snape."
"Fantastic, the one professor who could always make Kevin pee himself."
"At this moment I'm deeply hoping I don't run into Kevin again. Ever."
"He has a fantastic sense of humor about these things."
"Hufflepuff," Hermione said softly, fondly. "Does my idea have merit?"
"I believe so. Particle-splitting's been rather well established, I just need to know more about the ways in which these types of, erm, particles work."
"Anthony's going to be available for any questions you have. He's more knowledgeable than I in that area but if you need to call me for anything, you already have the number."
"You wouldn't have a mobile?"
"Trust me, a landline puts me clearly in the rebel camp as dedicated witches go."
Hazel frowned. "Kevin keeps a mobile."
"He probably- My parents are the only ties I really have to the non-magic community at this point. I'm an only child who didn't have many friends before I left, and the ones I did weren't all that good at answering letters. My parents are contented that there's a machine. I call back."
"Isn't it odd, though, just leaving an entire existence behind?"
"When you went to Uni, with how many of your friends from home did you keep relations?"
"I had a close-knit group."
"Ah. Cognitive dissonance, then."
Explicably, but suddenly all the same, Hermione had a yearning for sugar free treats and a full night spent playing bridge with her father. She shook her head. "I'm going to warm Mr. Snape up to the idea, explain all the details and then I'll call you in. Does this time generally work for you?"
"Yes. I'm free most evenings after seven, and Sundays all day."
"Look, if he's rude to you-"
"I've made it through the British University system."
"Closest thing to it?"
"Because when he feels threatened he can say things that are completely unforgivable."
"Yes, but I probably won't understand them. Kevin says things I can't decode all the time that I just try and pick apart from context. I don't think he even realizes he's picked up a second language."
"No, you don't notice after a bit."
"Anyhow, I'm hard to offend. And I know how to bite back."
"You'll ring me, then?"
"As soon as I have news."
"Does this professor draw any better than you do?"
Since Hermione wasn't entirely sure whether Snape had ever actually drawn anything or just used magic to create the diagrams he needed she said, "No idea, but Anthony's not so bad."
"All right, I'll just be off then."
Hermione laughed a bit. "Right."
Hardly to Hermione's overwhelming shock, Snape didn't take to the idea at first. Unfortunately for all involved, instead of just mentioning this, he chose to attack. "You're sure you accomplished the Fidelius correctly?"
Though she tried to suppress it, Hermione broke out into laughter. "Harry enacted it. And truly, that's your best?"
"I'm out of practice," Snape told her primly.
"You've had me to practice on for months."
"I had my mind on other things."
"Your mind, I suspect, can run on three hundred and thirty three tracks all at once and never falter."
He chose to focus on "Three hundred and thirty three?"
She shrugged. "My favorite number as a child. I liked the anagrammatic qualities and the shape of the threes."
Snape neither denied nor confirmed the charges, returning instead to the originating subject of discussion. "You can't possibly believe you'll get something useful out of this woman."
"She's bright, she has training in Muggle sciences and insight into small bits of wizarding society and magic, and I know what it is I'm looking for. Yes, I do believe I'll get something out of her."
"And what is that elusive knowledge which you seek?"
"How to split the Vow and the remnants of the curse from your Core."
"Ever heard the dictum 'one step at a time'?"
"My mind can simultaneously affect three hundred and thirty three thoughts. Why would I bother with such a ridiculous dictum?"
"My mind can't."
"Despite your pretensions to the contrary, that's always been glaringly obvious."
Sleep deprived from several days of going through case petitions on top of contacting Hazel, helping out Snape when possible and making sure to get around to see Harry, Hermione took a few moments to talk herself down from snapping something rather cruel at him. Hermione kicked all she wanted but not when her opponent was already on the ground. She mentally cursed him a few times for still being able to reach her insecure spots and then said, with an even voice, "Painful how my acquiesance comes at a time when you're so little able to enjoy it."
Her silence had given her irritation (hurt) away and they both knew it but surprisingly, he pulled back from the not-so-open invitation. "My life can be predictable in that way."
His unexpected mercy made her say "I brought you chocolate cake."
"I bought three pounds of the substance in town. And can walk in whenever I want more."
"I know. I made the cake."
"It was my big act of rebellion when I was a child."
And somehow it was that admission that threw Snape completely off for the first time all evening. "Baking?"
"My parents are dentists. I liked to use real sugar."
"Yes, Merlin save us from cream-fillings."
"You haven't the slightest," she said, but it was accompanied with a smile.
"Are you any good?"
"I have no doubt you'll not think so."
"I would need to actually try the cake to come to any conclusions."
Hermione produced the test subject, packed neatly in plastic ware. "That's never been a problem before."
Snape raised an eyebrow but forebore to answer, rising to seek out a fork instead.
Hermione brought chocolate chip scones to the meeting to soothe the way. Snape didn't ask if they were hers before eating them and she didn't offer the information that they were but he took two off the plate straight away and Hermione chose to think that some type of oblique compliment to her skills. Then again, she was probably just imagining things.
Once he'd challenged Hazel's credentials in a manner that was in no way socially acceptable, and Hazel had smiled and said, "Oh yes, I had several professors just like you," turned to Hermione and asked, "Are we waiting for someone else?" things had settled a bit.
Only to rile back up once Anthony was there and Harry came in last, occasioning Snape's ire. "What is it with super stars that they can't be bothered to read clocks like the rest of the population?"
Harry threw Hermione a clear look of "for fuck's sake, is it going to be like this all day?" and said, in ill-timed revenge for Sirius, "Some of us have professions, Profess- oh." Harry creased his mouth as though the slip hadn't been planned.
Hermione sighed. "Harry, why don't you have a scone?"
"I was unaware you actually chose to work for a living."
Harry's work as a security consultant for large wizard gatherings was lucrative and on again off again, but when it was in an on again period it generally ran him ragged. He'd been helping the Americans plan some sort of yearly festival that was evidently held within spitting distance of a sizeable Muggle city and Hermione wasn't sure when the last time he'd breathed was. Now that she thought about this, things were ripe for potential disaster. She wasn't going to send him away, though. She needed Harry. Snape did too. He would just have to live with that.
Harry chewed on his scone. "I work," was all he would respond. That suited Hermione just fine.
"All right, now that we're all here we can begin."
Harry and Hazel had met the day after Hazel and Hermione first had, when he'd enacted the Fidelius on her. Hermione introduced Hazel to Anthony before asking Hazel, "You've read all the scrolls I sent?"
"And those the Healer sent as well."
"Anthony," said Healer insisted. He told the others, "Basics of how the core works, at least what we know at this point, which as Hermione and Harry found out and I'd imagine you're well aware Mr. Snape, is pitifully little."
"So infinitely glad you've chosen me as your subject for experimentation."
Everyone ignored Snape. Hazel continued, "Anyhow, I think Hermione's onto something, only my concept of how to make a splitting practical when it comes to magic is. . .I have a feeling there's going to be a considerable amount of trial and error." Kindly, given his attitude toward her, Hazel threw Snape an apologetic look. One he ignored in turn.
"Hermione and I have been working on ways to replicate the condition of the core so as to try these things out," Anthony told her.
"Any luck?" Harry asked.
Hermione made a face. Snape sneered, "No, of course not."
She said, as pleasantly as humanly possible under the current situation, "Far be it from me to suggest that you use the intellect you so clearly mark as superior to the rest of ours to help in our endeavors to re-grant your own magical abilities."
"Abilities I would still have but for your interference."
Hermione fought the urge to stand up so that she could tower over him as he so often had her in their school day confrontations. "Yes, for all the good they were doing you."
Snape stood and walked out of the room at that, the robes he'd recently received by order from London swirling around him almost exactly like she remembered. Almost.
It was that small differential that made her say, "Stay here and talk shop. I'll. . .bring him back."
She knew even as she followed him into his house that she was trespassing and that her words were most likely a lie but her words to him had been worse than a lie and somehow her own sense of right and wrong pulled at her not to leave things that way. She found him in his study and stayed at the door.
He said, "You've followed this far past where I would have allowed anyway; you might as well come two steps further."
"I shouldn't have- Of course you should never have had to take that Vow in the first place."
He didn't say anything and she was left to wonder if he disagreed. At the very least, she knew that wasn't what they were fighting about. "Don't you want to help?" She shook her head. "You'd deny it but we aren't so very much unalike and I- I would be unable to watch at all without being a part of this."
"You thought you were Muggle for so very long."
"Eleven years is hardly-" She stopped, suddenly understanding. "We need your help. Magic or no magic. We need your mind and your attention to detail. Your accumulated knowledge. I wouldn't ask if I didn't need the help and Harry certainly wouldn't bother to work with someone, who, let's be honest, makes him miserable."
"Instinct," Snape said.
"All the same." She crossed the room to him, looked up into his face. "I wouldn't ask."
After a while he looked down at her, none of the condescension she remembered from this position present. "It feels- I can't remember how-"
He closed his eyes.
She said, "Tell me about the curse."
"There's a lot to tell."
"Start when you're ready."
Hermione holed up in her office after a long and rather vicious meeting with "leading educational experts" found under a rock by the Ministry to argue that it was precipitous to set up programs whereby to train wizards in the specifics of the law. Knowing this had been the opening volley in what promised to be a drawn out fight--wands sheathed only at times--Hermione bought herself a bag of black grapes, an indulgence from back before her Great Adolescent Sugar Rebellion days and buried herself in the notes she'd collated from what Snape had divulged and the beginnings of Hazel's scratchings.
It wasn't much to go on.
Anthony had sent her reference books for the type of curse with which they were evidently working after reading the notes. He'd added his own sense of the curse from his healing of it but between his own energies and the drain of the process, there wasn't much he remembered.
The part Hermione kept coming back to was Snape's answer to her question, "Why didn't the curse affect you the same way it did Professor Dumbledore? It stands to reason Voldemort would have placed the same protective curse on the horcruxes, doesn't it? Or no?"
To which he'd replied, "Potter took out four of them and was never once affected."
Harry had been affected, though. The only destruction of a horcrux that hadn't sent him into a two week coma had been the diary. Hermione and Anthony theorized this might have something to do with the fact that the diary seemed to be Riddle's first horcrux, and probably the one where his knowledge of formation and protection was least finalized. Also, there had been the basilisk venom and phoenix tears to contend with and both Hermione and Anthony agreed that there was any possibly number of ways that either of those substances could have interfered with a curse.
Then again, Snape's point stood in that the second horcrux Professor Dumbledore had destroyed, or rather, consumed in order for Snape to be able to actually destroy. . .it (when Hermione stopped to think about how Snape would have agreed to kill his only friend she had trouble moving past the thought. She was learning not to give into its sickening, seductive power), hadn't acted in the same way as the first curse had. Although Snape had admitted to her that the first would have eventually killed the Headmaster, slowly slowly and then more slowly, but eventually all the same. So perhaps the second curse just hadn't had time to manifest in the same way. She jotted down the question for presentation to Snape.
Even if they weren't all the same, Hermione wondered if the spells might not be connected. According to Harry, Professor Dumbledore had mentioned Voldemort liking the number seven for its magical properties. This, along with his obsession with the Founders suggested a clear dedication to the observance of ritual, tradition.
Hermione popped one of the last grapes in her mouth at this, scolding herself under her breath. "Always start at the beginning, Granger. You know that."
She stepped around her desk to throw some floo powder in the fireplace, call, "Hogwarts, Minerva's office," and slip into the grate.
Long after Madam Pince had left Hermione to her own devices with a suspicious twist of her mouth and the grudging use of several torches, she heard the rustling that usually meant out-of-bounds children. Not really in the mood to create ruin and havoc for others and far too busy to try and find the closest faculty member, Hermione re-focused on the text through which she was currently flipping.
She maintained, even in later years, that this was how Severus Snape managed to sit across from her without her once noticing until a stray glance led her heart to skip three or four full, and probably important, beats. When her circulatory system regained functional status she said, "Given the amount of trauma my cohorts and I have subjected it to, your body probably does need sleep."
"You should pay more attention to your surroundings."
"I thought you were some students in here for a midnight romp. I figured I could face them if it came to a fight."
Hermione shoved the text aside. "I'm sorry?"
"Could I? Face the students. I think it'd be best if we both let off pretending that Minerva wasn't eventually going to find what she considered to be the best time to offer me her pity job."
"I think what we'd best leave off is descriptors, as you're horrid at finding the right ones."
"Yes, but do you think it insignificant to ask if I can protect myself against students should I get in the middle of a fracas, or should one decide it's in the interest of familial or house allegiance to hit me with an, ahem, stray curse."
"Your magic was never the most intimidating of your powers, for one, and if you think Minerva will put up with that sort of thing for a second then your premise of consideration for all things concerning this needs some fine tweaking."
"Was flawed in ways she isn't."
"And she is flawed in ways he wasn't."
"Aren't we all?"
After a long silence he peered over to the open print of her text. "Origins and Originators? Suddenly have copious amounts of free time?"
"It's nearly midnight, Mr. Snape, if this were my freetime, I think the adjective 'copious' would be doing it a bit of an injustice, do you not?"
"You're the expert on justice."
Hermione actually smiled. "Nice that somebody wants to acknowledge that fact."
"There was a hint of sarcasm to my acknowledgment."
"I'm far past picky these days."
Snape tilted his head slightly. "History. Formal history. The kind in which He took an interest."
Hermione heard the slight accentation on the male pronoun. She forewent asking about the referent. "I'm trying to reconstruct his thinking, at least enough to lead me to ideas about the curse."
"It's not the curse I need removed, it's the Vow."
"I'll argue the specifics of that at a later point. Suffice to say, and I'm sure you'll enjoy this enormously, I haven't gotten anywhere in thinking about the Vow, and I was hoping cracking one might help me with the other."
Instead of taking the opportunity to mock her, as she had fully expected him to, he nodded slightly. "The completion of theory and practice can be. . .tangential."
"Yes. I've also been doing some reading on Life Debts. Your request led me to thinking about the similarities."
"The difference between voluntary and involuntary magic is nearly unbreachable."
"I'm working through concepts, not hard facts."
"The two must meet for anything to work."
Hermione flipped a page in the book. "Do you think you'll take Minerva up on her offer?"
"Have I choices?"
"Yes," she said, without mentioning the list she'd been working on during her meal periods as to what they were.
"I most likely will then."
Hermione knew that feeling, although she imagined nowhere near to the extent that he did. "She'll. . .that will set several people more at ease."
"And several others less."
"Which is no doubt your aim."
"Said result was certainly part of my considerations."
Hermione laughed a bit, quiet even in the emptiness of the library. She motioned to the pile of books surrounding her. "Want to take one? I've mostly gone through the ones on my left."
"For what would I be looking?"
"Yes, I had gotten-"
"I rather trust you to fill in the blanks from there," she said, and returned to reading. Shortly enough, the sound of leather binding sliding over burnished wood floated in her direction. She didn't look up.
"What we need," Snape said in a conspiratorially low voice, "is an account of the split."
Madam Pince was unlikely to be anywhere near the library but as Hermione had smuggled in some highly illegal meringues for the latest of their late night research sessions, she kept her voice low as well. "One would think. . .historians love strife. Why does nobody write about it?"
"Historical theoreticians believe it has to do with reverence for the Founders. Although that doesn't explain why non-British historians haven't attacked the subject. There's also notions of subjectivity and objectivity and what one can write about with the latter."
"Nothing, I thought we'd settled that."
"Not even Muggles have settled that and they've been arguing over it far longer than we have."
"Interesting pronoun choice."
"Are you suggesting that you don't identify more strongly with your wizarding identity?"
Hermione nibbled at a meringue. "I still go home for Christmas, cook with a Muggle stove, read Muggle newspapers, watch the odd series on television. . . I don't believe I ever gave up what you're referring to as my 'Muggle identity.'"
"How, Miss Granger, would you refer to it?"
She thought it was more than a little sad that she had to say, "Me," to him.
She wasn't surprised when his next words occasioned a change of subject. "We might be able to get the portraits to talk, the oldest ones."
"If they invested themselves with the knowledge."
"There seems to be a greater possibility of that than any of these texts supplying what we desire."
She could give him that. "Have any experience in getting portraits to talk?"
He looked mildly disgusted but said, "I think we'd best enlist Minerva. They're more likely to say something to a Headmistress than to two. . .interlopers. Albus's portrait might be willing to help if he catches on, which he no doubt will."
There was even more disgust evident at that last statement and Hermione could barely hide a smile. "Good plan." When he didn't respond she said, "I've been thinking about the way a non-consensual Unbreakable works. If the person who enters into doesn't do so of his or her own free will-"
"It takes the form of a curse in many ways."
"You think it's that easy? That to solve one problem is to find the key to the next?"
"When you would brew, wouldn't one thing often lead to another?"
"You make optimism a disease."
"I would be disheartened by that comment if I believed you'd ever seen it any other way."
Snape's upper lip curled in distaste. "I'll speak with Minerva."
"Thanks for that."
He wouldn't admit to her being welcome.
Hermione was working background on her latest client when Hazel's note came through the window by way of one particularly hyperactive owl. Hermione looked suspiciously at said owl and made a mental note to ask Ginny if Pig had any offspring. She managed to hold onto the tiny courier for long enough to release the letter and then sprang it free. It buzzed happily over her.
Received your note. You think that self-inflicted non-consensual vows and curses might have common grounding? Because if so I think I might be approaching this the wrong way. Physics looks at what is DIFFERENT inside the atom, that's the whole point of splitting it. Perhaps I ought to be looking at what is the same. After all, we're actually not splitting a single entity, are we? Or at least, not originally single. We're splitting two FUSED entities. The more appropriate question here might be "how do these things fuse? What common properties allow for that?" Is this something I need to be asking Anthony?
Hermione didn't respond just flooed herself over to the hospital and waited outside Anthony's office while he met with someone and someone. Hermione hadn't paid particular attention to what his assistant had told her. She ended up waiting for nearly an hour, most of which she didn't notice because she was too busy thinking about the ways in which things came together, not split apart. At one point she frantically asked for parchment and scribbled off the note,
What are the properties that all the Founders had in common? How is it that they all came together? And what made the split possible?
The assistant had promised her it would be sent before the end of the business day. It only occurred to Hermione later to ask when exactly the business day of a wizarding hospital ended but she figured she could always just speak to Snape before he received the note if it came down to that.
Anthony saw her waiting and asked, "How long have you been here?"
"I haven't the slightest. Hazel's had a brilliant thought."
Anthony ushered her into his office. "She was quite the find, that one."
"Incredible," Hermione agreed, handing him over the note.
His eyes scanned over the text and then he was silent for a bit, circling slowly back around to his chair and sinking into it. "She's exactly right, of course. Magic is inherently cohesive."
"I wouldn't have imagined magic being inherently anything. It comes in too many forms, cultural practices of it are widely divergent-"
"Well, yes, but the. . .whatever it is that causes some humans to be able to enact what non-magical beings think of as metaphysically impossible, that aspect of it is cohesive, it always pulls toward a whole. That's why healing is easier than killing. Healing is a natural talent, wizards are born with it all the time. The Dark Arts have to be learned. Even people who are strong in them have to build up that strength."
"You're telling me that magic essentially sides with the Good? Because I'm sorry-"
"No, nothing like that. It's essence is neutral. It just likes whole things rather than fractured things. That's one of the reasons Voldemort was considered so powerful, because he could make the Dark Arts attend to the whole. Witness the way his curse interacts with Snape's core. As Hazel said, a fused entity. The fact that Voldemort could enact so many horcruxes, going against the essential grain of the magic is a testament to the ways in which he knew how to balance those disruptions."
"So not only should we be looking at similarities but at a way to balance the, erm, splinching action of taking the curse and vow away from his core."
"I should talk to Harry. See if he's got any instinctual insights."
"Probably." Anthony rolled his eyes in a mixture of envy and fondness.
Hermione grinned. "I sympathize completely."
Harry didn't want to talk about curses, vows or magic's cohesive properties. He wanted--and therefore did--to squint tiredly at Hermione and ask, "Was anybody going to tell me about Remus and Ginny?"
Sensing that she wasn't going to get anywhere until she dealt with this latest emotional stumbling block on the Path of Harry, Hermione said, "I rather assumed either Remus or Ginny would." Privately she was willing to admit that this assumption might have bordered on the na•ve side.
"The twins." Harry frowned. "I think they thought I'd already been told."
Bill was going to eat them alive. Possibly literally. "Harry. You and Ginny-"
"It's not like that."
"Then what's it like?"
"It's like I bloody well told Remus and Ginny when I was thinking of asking Tonks out on a date."
Hermione remembered. She'd had to be the one to relay the message to Ginny. "Then again you have the liberty of thinking of Remus as a friend figure while he has to think of you with a considerably amount of pseudo-paternal baggage attached."
"Probably is taking some kind of stance on how she doesn't owe it to you."
"It's not about debt," Harry said, sounding so sad that Hermione couldn't help but cross to him, lean up against his chest and say, "I know that, Harry. She even knows that. It's just that things are always so complicated between the two of you."
"They weren't always."
"No, well, you weren't always in your late twenties with miles of dead bodies stretching out in non-linear fashion between the two of you and years of unintentional emotional abuse but life will do odd things to people."
"I try not to wish I could go back."
Hermione pulled back and brought her fingers up lightly over her scars. "Going forward is better, really it is. There's Tonks and your job and your friendships. Talk to Ginny, okay? And Remus. You'll see, things are fine. You know they didn't keep quiet out of a desire to hurt you."
Under her fingers, Harry shivered just a tiny bit. Hermione pressed her lips to where her fingers had been. He asked, each word heating the skin of her throat with his breath, "What'd you actually come here for?"
"To use you shamelessly," she said, straightening out.
"I think the time for that's a little past, but if you want I can floo Tonks-"
"I'm not challenging your Auror-trained girlfriend. No, I just came from Anthony. We were talking about basic properties of magic and Hazel's latest idea of how we might be looking in the wrong direction."
"Offer me lunch and I'll stay to explain."
"I don't have anything here, I've been in America most of the last week."
"Offer to take me out."
"You make more money than I do."
"And you inherited more than I'll ever make, Mister Gentleman."
Harry grumbled, "Use my parents legacy against me, why don't you?"
Hermione had very few qualms about doing so in this instance.
Snape showed up at her door one evening and after she had let him in and pointedly not asked any of the things she wanted to ask (such as "did I give you my address" and "how did you get into town?" she looked at her kitchen and said, "I'm making trifle, mind if we have this conversation in there?"
He moved in the direction indicated. She had a breakfast nook off to the side of the kitchen where he could sit and still be within conversational range. He took a seat. She went back to whipping cream. "What brings you here?"
"I still haven't many details on the split but the portraits were more than happy to talk about commonalities among the Founders."
"Anything you found to be useful?"
"Not at first." He narrowed his eyes at the motions of her wrist. Hermione had a feeling that wasn't actually where his focus was. "They were all wandless magic users."
"Most wizards can do wandless magic given the impetus."
"Yes, but very few can do it just because they've a mind to."
Snape nodded. "I suppose that's unsurprising, given the amount of power we attribute to them."
"Exactly." He paused. "Except that Mr. Goldstein mentioned something about the necessary core properties of a wandless wizard. Evidently the actual substance of the magic within that type of wizard is somewhat altered from the rest of us."
Hermione tried to remember the conversation, relatively sure Snape and Anthony hadn't spoken to each other without her being present but none of this was sounding at all familiar. "In what way?"
"A wand, according to Mr. Goldstein, helps draw on. . .atmospheric magic, for lack of a better term. Magic that exists in the raw around us and that we- wizards are capable of accessing. A wandless wizard has more direct contact with that. It's not, in fact, greater power, it's greater access."
"And all of them had this access?"
"Which explains the Dark Lord's obsession, assuming he knew all of this."
"I find it generally useful to assume he had a fair bit of knowledge." Hermione tapped the spoon against the side of bowl thoughtfully. "He had access, didn't he? To wandless magic?"
"And the Vow, while enacted by an outsider's wand, is largely built upon the person making the Vow's core. That's why removing it was the only way to remove the Vow."
"Are you suggesting that both have elements of the wandless about them?"
Hermione opened her refrigerator and rooted out the berries she'd bought earlier in the day. "Elements, although not the entirety."
"Yes, but I can't- I couldn't do casual wandless magic."
"I would have to inquire of Mr. Goldstein but I would stake a fair amount on the mind magics being of different sustenance than other branches, given that those who can perform them, perform them sans wand, and being able to initiate wandless magic otherwise is never an issue of ability."
"I still think we'd best ask Anthony, but for argument's sake, let's say they are entirely separate."
"We have perhaps found our way to differentiate."
"The Curse and the Vow will have different components than your core, components of the larger magical sphere. Which should allow for us to draw them apart. Perhaps some sort of magical magnetic field or something of that nature. . ."
"That would be Ms. Whitby's area."
"Hm." Hermione flicked her wand in the direction of a cabinet and brought the trifle dish floating down carefully in front of her. "Yes."
"Would you like me to pen a note?"
"No, I can handle it." She smiled at Snape. "We have a working relationship."
There was something oddly hesitant in his, "Of course."
Hermione said, "If you're trying to get me to ask you to stay for trifle, it has to sit for a bit and besides, I was going to bring you some tomorrow."
"Your baking skills aren't on a level with seduction, Miss Granger."
"Well, you're dawdling in my kitchen for a rea-" Hermione closed her mouth. "Do I have your permission to hook your place up to my floo?"
"That would be appreciated," he said, his mouth not moving very much.
"Certainly, give me a moment."
He gave her quite a few. Despite herself, she found it generous.
Snape leaned slightly over his kitchen table, coughs racking at his entire frame. Hermione asked, "Did you visit the infirmary?"
When he had recovered his powers of speech he said, in a voice so scratchy Hermione had to think about every word, "Poppy says I need more rest."
Hermione couldn't decide whether to smile at the inevitable outcome of that visit or frown, as he obviously needed something more than rest and they both knew that rest was something easier talked about with him than acquired. "Did she give you something to help?"
"Potions are. . .similar to the floo of late."
As long as Snape was going somewhere he knew extremely well the floo worked just fine. He'd ended up in the wrong place four times now trying to head to places in Diagon or other spots where his final destination was less imprinted in his head. Hermione and he both surmised that magical items interacted with the magical trace inside a person and that what was left of Snape's was only enough for the interaction to happen properly some of the time. "There are Muggle remedies."
"So she mentioned, sounding severely stymied."
"Your father never-"
"My father would have let me excrete a lung up my throat if the sound wasn't annoying him." Snape went back to coughing.
Hermione snapped shut the book on particle physics that Hazel had sent her, conveniently highlighted in all the right places. She stood and waved her wand a few times, bringing to herself a pot and some cocoa powder and the milk. She checked the date on the last, relieved to find he was better than Harry at paying attention to that sort of thing. She flicked the hob on with one hand and set to pouring the proper amounts of powder and milk. When everything had heated and mixed to her heart's content, she reached above the hob where she knew he kept his tea cups and poured him a full cup's worth of hot cocoa.
She brought it to where he was still sitting, breathing shallowly. Cautiously. "Drink."
He brought the cup to his lips, blowing across the surface before taking a sip. After three or four more he said, "That's. . .better."
"I'm going to run out for some basic cold and cough meds. They're not going to work the way a Potion would but it will be something. And they'll put you to sleep."
"I'm not sure-"
"As someone who unintentionally hooked herself on Dreamless I know every single possible end to that statement. You still need the sleep."
"The types of things you might see would be child's play comparatively, Miss Granger."
He said it so tiredly, so non-combatintavely, that she let him get away with it. "Be that as it may, this will only get worse without sleep. And Madam Pomfrey and Anthony will all confer that the best thing for you is to be put into a Muggle hospital where they will put you on drips that force the issue and it won't be just you and I around to see the results."
"Just myself, you mean."
"I'm not leaving you in this condition."
"I was under the impression that this was my house."
"Correct impression, although I'm sorry if you thought that meant I would listen to you any more actively than I did in your classroom."
Snape blinked at her. Finally he said, "You listened in my classroom."
Whatever she had been expecting, that hadn't been it. "You noticed."
That was all he was ready to give her, evidently, though, as he said, "You'll bring back the medication and leave, Miss Granger. I'll pay you whatever the cost and a courier's fee."
"It's myself or someone of your own choosing but I'm not leaving you alone like this. I," she shook her head once, violently, "can't."
Cruelly he said, "I'll brew you some Dreamless as soon as your brilliant plan to set me back up with my birthright actually comes through."
"I can't," she repeated.
"Whyever not? If it's a Gryffindor thing-"
"It's a you and me thing."
"There is no-"
"I know, but that's what it is."
Snape looked down into his empty cup. Hermione crossed the room to sweep by and refill it. He never once looked up. "Go get the medicines. Perhaps I shall feel more up to fighting with you when you return."
From the coughing sounds that followed her out of the house, Hermione doubted it. Then again, this was Snape, and she wasn't putting anything past him.
She set the bottles down in front of him one by one. Of the aspirin she said, "For the fever."
To which he replied, "I don't have one."
She put a hand to his forehead. "Beg to differ." Of the cold capsules she said, "For the congestion," and of the cough syrup she said, "For the cough. You do know how to swallow pills, yes?"
"I've swallowed things far more substantial in my time, Miss Granger."
"Well that settles the rumors about you and Regulus Black then."
There was a slight flicker of his eyes before he said, "There are no rumors of myself and Regulus Black."
"No, but it was rather delightful seeing you doubt that for a moment."
Snape threw her a long-suffering look before standing to cross to his sink where he used the tap to swallow two of the cold capsules and two of the aspirin. He shot back the cough medicine without even so much as a shudder on the down swing. Hermione stood captivated for a bit at the casualness of the actions. She'd never seen him so much as loosen the position of his arms at his sides before. Shaking herself out of the reverie she said, "You should take a hot bath."
"Thought about it but Muggle forms of drying one's self-"
"I can supply a Drying Spell."
"You could if I were to allow you to stay."
Unwilling to take too much agency from him, not when she was at least part of the society that had done so for a goodly chunk of his existence she let her pride dissolve like the capsules he had just swallowed down and begged. "Please let me stay. Please."
"You'll get in my way."
"I won't. I'll stay in the study, I have work to do anyhow."
"You'll annoy me with Gryffindor platitudes when I wake from-"
She was silent for a bit at this charge. Then, carefully, she said, "I know exactly how far words will get me."
"You'll-" he didn't seem to know what else she would do, only that it would invariably be something he wouldn't like.
"I'll make porridge in the morning. With nutmeg and allspice." That was her favorite kind.
"Is this some sort of. . .thing that people like you do for each other?"
"People like me," she repeated slowly. "Harry was the first person who made me porridge in bed." And cleaned her when she'd brought it all back up over both of them. She was most certainly not mentioning that part to Severus Snape. "And who taught me how to make it." Along with several other useful recipes which she generally made for Harry, because unlike her, he didn't enjoy the experience. Kitchens devoid of bustling house elves brought up memories he preferred to forget. "Other than that I'm not sure this exactly qualifies as a ritual."
Her dad had been a real big fan of bringing her mom breakfast in bed (eggs and kippers and fruit, nothing so sugary as porridge) but Hermione didn't think that counted.
Evidently the non-normative nature of this calmed him to the extent where he was able to order, "You're to stay in the study," as though he'd thought that plan up himself.
"Yes, of course."
"And. . .I like cream in my porridge."
Hermione was most certainly not going to smile. She told herself that over and over again as she said, "That shouldn't present a problem."
Snape's jaw was screwed even tighter than his usual, suggesting that he needed to yawn and wouldn't give into the urge in front of her. "Night then, Miss Granger."
She tipped her head, "Sir."
He turned from her, keeping his eyes on her until he could no longer do so without looking foolish. As soon as he was behind a closed door, Hermione clapped both hands over her mouth and let the giddiness of victory gush out behind them.
Hermione let Snape's own screaming wake him up the first two times it started. The third time he--she had to think of the word, whimpering seemed so out of line with what she knew of the man--started up she knocked at his door until he snapped out an, "I'm awake."
Hermione deliberated for a moment. "I could bring you tea."
"There's no need."
"You sound like you need another dose of the cough medicine anyway."
"Are you going to allow me back to sleep or merely stand at my door bothering me for the rest of the night."
Hermione rested her head against the door. "I haven't the least interest in your weaknesses. It's seeing you strong again in which I have a rather vested interest."
After a long pause he said, "A good dose of honey."
"Of course." She went to the kitchen and chose a mild chamomile after some hesitation over the merits of a peppermint. While it was heating up she poured out another dose of the cough medication and wet a flannel before hitting it with a Warming Charm. The tea kettle whistled at her and she placed it on the tray, the leaves still steeping. They both liked their tea strong.
She levitated the tray alongside her, knocking peremptorily as a warning to him and then making her way inside. He was huddled up in the covers and yet somehow managed a decently intimidating glare as she made her way to him. Luckily, she was used to his bark. She even had some experience with his bite.
"Here," she said, and handed him the flannel. "Put that at the back of your neck."
That he did so without arguing was, she thought, a statement to how miserable he must be feeling. He also downed the cough syrup without instruction as she poured the tea. She mixed in his "good dose" of honey and handed the cup silently to him. He brought it to his face and breathed in the steam for a bit before taking a sip.
Despite herself, she couldn't help asking, "Is it always this bad?"
His upper lip curled and he looked as though he were heading straight for something cutting and vicious to say but in the end all he told her was, "I usually get up after the second time. And no, it's more. . .once every couple of days I'll have one."
Hermione remembered how exposed it had been in Azkaban, how skinny he'd been, how much stress constantly having to watch his back must have caused, the emotional trauma of the Vow and the way he chose to flagellate himself with the past. "You were sick in there."
"Once or twice."
"They aren't about that."
"All right." She reached out slowly so that he would see her hands moving before they arrived at their destination. He acknowledged their presence with a flickering of his eyes and she touched the flannel, after which she renewed the Charm. "How is that?"
"Mine are always about Ron," she said. It wasn't exactly true, occasionally there were ones about Harry or her parents but mostly they were about Ron. "Harry's are generally about Ginny. Even now."
"Too much information, Miss Granger."
"Knowledge is power, Mr. Snape."
"You are all too well aware of what I tend to do with power."
"I think things are different."
"Do you really?"
She gave the question the consideration it deserved. "Yes."
He shook his head. "Still the foolish little girl."
"Still the greasy old git. And yet somehow we're here in this house sharing tea, so I think my point has some merit."
He set his teacup down. She poured him some more without asking and when he opened his mouth to protest said, "You don't have to drink it."
Which, of course, had the effect of him picking it up for a sip. His eyes drooped and he said, "The cough syrup-"
"Contains a sedative," she confirmed.
"Chemical sedative." He wrinkled his nose in distaste.
"You're falling asleep all the same." She took the cup from him and removed the flannel, levitating the tray again so as to allow him to burrow back down under the covers. He was asleep before she made it to the door.
Hermione caught his cold, an occasion which had him obviously holding back a smile of only mildly malevolent glee. Hermione sniffled miserably when she let him in the door and said, "Oh bugger, just laugh. You'll feel better."
He didn't laugh but his lips curved marginally more. "I came to tell you that Mr. Goldstein confirmed my suspicion about mind magics."
"The Hogwarts owls all on holiday?"
He tilted his head at her rather morose tone. "Would you rather I left?"
"As you see I've quite a bit of work to get done, and I'm-" she motioned wordlessly at the wastebasket filled to brimming with used tissues and neatly labeled potions bottles with handwriting that he recognized as her own.
"Basic Pepper-Up, a little willow bark infusion with a touch of lavender and the Healer's Inflection, Cold Cure-All."
"Are substandard wishwash that only the unknowing purchase, yes. But I made this one by myself and it works decently for the most part. I'm passable at what you're brilliant at and not in the mood to argue any further with you on that subject."
"Why isn't it working, then?"
Hermione opened her mouth. Closed it. Took a while before saying, "Perhaps I made a mistake in the brewing. Truly, if you don't mind-"
"Pepper-Up. The addiction to Dreamless. It affects your sleep patterns."
"As it turns out once addicted is pretty much forever addicted. I suppose I should have read the fine print."
"There are other-"
"Can't risk it."
"Will you at least-"
She looked up at his snapped out, bitten off exclamation. "At least?"
"I believe I can help."
He wasn't much one for exaggerating the truth so Hermione said, "I somehow read pleasure at my misery, what with your rarely-seen smile, and all."
"Do you wish for my help, Miss Granger?"
"Enormously, Mr. Snape, I just thought I'd best clarify exactly what I was getting myself into."
"Go change your bedding to something that's not completely infected by. . .you, take a bath and lay down."
Hermione took one last look at the notes she'd been trying to decipher for the better part of the day and stood up. She headed toward her bedroom without asking what his plans were. Once there she used magic to change the linens and run the water at the same time. She Banished her clothes to the hamper and Summoned a fresh nightshirt and some flannel pants, laying them out on her vanity.
Once she was in the bathtub it was hard to convince herself to rise up and dry herself off, particularly with the way the heat was working at both her muscles and her chest but she could hear Snape in the outer parts of her flat and the last thing she wanted was for him to ask what was taking so long.
She skipped using a towel completely for the convenience of a Drying and then a Warming Charm. She put herself in the pajamas she'd picked and slipped into the clean sheets, thinking silently that changing them had been a ridiculously good idea, one she probably should've considered herself.
She was making friends with more tissues when Snape knocked on her door. She called, "Come," and he came, carrying a tray with six Potions bottles and two cups of tea. He set it down on her nightstand and ordered, "Drink."
Between each sip he handed her a different bottle and told her exactly how much to take. She didn't ask what he was giving her. If this was betrayal, she would have to enact revenge when she woke up.
She finished the tea and set the cup down. "And now?"
"Lie on your side, facing away from me."
It was a weird request, and in the wake of the medications she was feeling well enough to say, "Erm-"
He cut her off with, "This will work."
The first touch of his hands, warmed by his own tea cup, was startling despite the soothing temperature and pressure they exerted. She took a breath in to say something but he pre-empted it with, "I will stop when you ask."
Which meant, she somehow knew, that she wouldn't have to.
He was still working patiently at the crossroads of her neck and shoulders when she drifted off to sleep.
He was there when she woke up as well. The first, second and final time.
"How do you feel?" he asked on the final time, not like the first and second when he'd just waited for her screaming to die down, straightened the sheets back out, given her two or three of the six potions and manually unknotted her muscles until she loosened her grip on consciousness.
Hermione took a breath, pleasantly surprised to find that it came without a fight. "Nearly new." She smiled at him and a slow-trickling awareness of how good his hands had felt on her skin. The thought assembled itself entirely in her head, nearly wiping the smile from her face.
"Is something- Are you still ill?"
"No," she worked with what she had, "just morning wooziness." To herself she continued her previous train of thinking with a well, that's certainly. . .new. "You came yesterday to tell me," she had to dig it up from underneath the haze of finally accomplished sleep and banished microbes, "Anthony said you were right about the Legilimantic branch of magic."
"So far as the Healing branch is aware."
"That's really going to have to be good enough for us."
"I am not arguing the precept, Miss Granger."
"You sounded as though you might be working up to some sort of confrontation." The look in his eyes told her she wasn't wrong, that just hadn't been the peak. "Let me clean myself up a bit and then I'll come out and pull some breakfast together."
There was only the hint of a breath before he said, "I can handle breakfast, if you prefer."
"That will move things along more quickly." She rolled out of bed and walked toward her bathroom. "I'll be out shortly."
He had found the breakfast muffins she'd frozen a month earlier after making too many, and fried up several eggs when she emerged, hair pinned back rather than brushed and a clean outfit hiding any other crimes of slovenliness. She'd had a bizarre and fleeting impulse to look nice before remembering that this was Snape and even if he somehow noticed that she was no longer thirteen, he still wouldn't appreciate the effort. She opened her refrigerator. "Orange juice?"
"I'm heating water for tea."
She shrugged and took the carton out for herself. He handed her a plate with a toasted muffin laying face open with butter spread on the surface and two eggs lopsidedly perched atop it.
"Thank you." She sat down. "All right, let me guess. You want Hazel off the problem now that we're nearing a solution."
"Not a bad idea."
"I'll stop giving you anymore. You just tell me."
"Now that we're nearing a solution. . . I want Potter off the problem."
Hermione stopped cutting into her egg for just a second before resuming her actions. "Probably should have seen that one coming."
"You'll speak to him then?"
"Not for a second. We need him, and if you talk with anyone else in the group excluding Hazel, who will probably look at you blankly, they'll tell you the same."
"There are other wizards who are as powerful."
"No, there aren't."
He acceded the point with a nod of his head. "There are other wizards who are powerful enough."
"Not whom I trust like I trust Harry."
"That's a pretty narrow category, people you trust as much as your best friend of fourteen years."
"Glad you can understand that."
Snape set his fork down softly. He said, as softly, "I can't have another Life Debt to him."
She paused in her eating as well. "You're really willing to possibly sacrifice your magic over the issue?"
"Having magic has always meant being bound to something I abhorred, since I was sixteen and James Potter- Always. I would like, just for once, to know freedom from that."
Somewhere deep inside she registered the fact that she didn't count as something he abhorred. Or perhaps she didn't count, as she wouldn't be the one literally restoring the magic. She would have to read some more on Life Debts at some point. "Perhaps, then, you should learn not to abhor Harry."
"Don't finish that sentence. You don't know. You never have. If you had you way you never would and I would like to respect that, truly, but I shouldn't have to tell you that life is full of-"
"Yes, Miss Granger?" The question was level and yet Hermione could smell the poison lurking behind it.
"Why did you save him?"
"Because it was never about him."
"No," she said pointedly, "it wasn't." She went back to eating.
Harry found her and accused, "You set Severus Snape on me."
Hermione uncurled from her not-particularly-hidden position on her own couch and said, "Not the terminology I would have chosen but if that's how it's been I can see where your bitterness spills from."
"I'm not bitter," Harry said, only somewhat bitterly, and disappeared into her kitchen. "Tell me you have coffee."
"In the freezer." Where it had been ever since she'd moved into the flat a year out of law school but she never called attention to Harry's somewhat faulty memory for details. She listened as he rustled around. "The percolator's above the sink."
Harry appeared after a bit more rustling. "He's insufferable."
"You'll be happy to know he feels the same way about you."
"The day 'happy' and 'Severus Snape' enter into a conversation and there isn't a 'not' involved somewhere as well is the day I. . .stop drinking coffee." Harry slipped back into the kitchen to claim his addiction. "You want some?"
"No, but thank you."
"Honestly, Hermione, why would you send him to spend time around me? You couldn't have possibly thought any good would come of this." Harry sat himself down across from her and sipped eagerly at his steaming beverage of choice.
"I was out of options," Hermione said, and summarized the conversation between herself and Snape.
"Leijonhufvud might be able to access the necessary power." Harry had met the Swedish Prime Minister of Magic through one of his jobs. The man had filled something of the whole that Professor Dumbledore had left in Harry but Hermione had yet to be introduced.
"Yes, but I know you can. This is something I don't really feel we can afford to have any more variables in than already exist."
"You're the one who's always concerned with personal choice," Harry accused without malice.
Hermione buried her face in her hands. "Yes, but as I already somewhat robbed him of that in the case of giving over his core, I feel it my duty to return the bloody thing to him, intact and minus the problematic attachments."
"I've been spending some time with it."
"Anthony told me about the advances you made while I was gone, he wanted to know if I could feel the differences in the magics."
"Without even trying."
Hermione looked up. "Really?"
Harry shrugged. "Even when I first took the core out I could feel the fractures, I just didn't realize what I was feeling. It's honestly the most bizarre thing. It's like something's gone wrong in the fabric of his. . .soul."
"The core isn't his soul."
"No, he'd have to have one for that."
"Harry James," Hermione mumbled tiredly.
Harry took another sip and tilted his head at her. "You want me to make nice?"
Hermione came back with, "Do you really want him feeling the way he does about you?"
"And when has what I've wanted with him ever mattered even just the least bit?"
Hermione couldn't find an answer to that until she remembered the firm grip of Snape's hands at her shoulders, the way he'd held the necessary potions to her mouth. "We're all older than we were, Harry. And I think that might be a good thing."
"Tonks wants to have a six month anniversary."
It seemed like a non-sequitur, but Hermione knew Harry very well. "Older doesn't mean any more sane."
"I could invite him."
"I could. . .convince him he was wanted."
"You're very powerful," she said. She wasn't talking about his magic.
Anthony flooed Hermione at a little before eight on a Sunday and said, "Listen, I was- Were you sleeping?"
Alicia's head popped in next to his. "Sorry, I usually catch him before he makes it to the fireplace but I was a little slow on the getting up myself this morning."
Hermione smiled at them, both sporting mussed hair, Alicia looking at Anthony with a sort of benign amusement, Anthony's face screwed up in apology. "I was up. What's on your mind?"
"It's all very helpful that Harry can actually feel what needs to stay and what needs to go, but we still haven't got a way of separating the two magics out from each other, let alone reinstating the core."
"I think you should work on the latter problem."
Anthony frowned. "That's a bit premature, don't you think?"
"No, Hazel and Mr. Snape and I are all on the former and I think between the three of us with the odd slip of input from Harry that we'll find the answer. On the other hand you're the only one of us who specializes in cores, their maintenance and they ways they interface with the physical body of a wizard."
Alicia kissed Anthony's shoulder. "Like she said."
"But I'm pretty sure its going to require some kind of transference magic. Horcruxes are transferential at their most basic and I can't imagine that the solution isn't going to involve that."
"You could speak with Harry."
"No offense, I know he's your friend, but Harry's shite at explaining. He just sort of looks at you and goes, 'erm, it's like this' and then moves his hands a whole bunch and whatever he was trying to explain is done and there was no explanation anywhere in the vicinity."
Harry was her friend, so Hermione was well able to sympathize. "Yes, he does that. All right then, talk to Remus. You'll probably get Bill and Fleur in the deal which is good, as they're both well-versed in several areas most people wouldn't expect. You have access to their floo?"
"I'm pretty sure we hooked me up to Ginny Weasley's. Can I access them from there?"
"You'd have a hard time catching Remus anywhere else these days."
Alicia was back at that. "Oh, really? He seems a little tame for her."
Interesting choice of words, Hermione thought. "He has his moments."
"Is that going to be all right with Mr. Snape?" Anthony asked.
"I'll use my womanly wiles on him," Hermione said without inflection. Alicia laughed. Hermione snickered just so that neither of them would think she was actually thinking about it. She wasn't, but only because she was fairly sure he wasn't interested in her womanly anythings and therefore that approach was doomed to failure.
"You sure, because I can find someone-"
"Remus is good. He knows bits and pieces of what's going on already and that's not a circle of people I'm eager to widen. I'll speak to Mr. Snape. I already snitched Remus out for his help earlier without having to kill or be killed, I'm relatively sure I can manage it one more time."
Anthony looked a bit reluctant but he mumbled, "'Kay."
"Tell me if you start thinking interesting things."
"He always does!" Alicia called from somewhere outside the flames. Anthony blushed.
"About this," Hermione said, redefining the parameters of her statement.
"I'll let you know."
"Hope to hear from you soon." Hermione terminated the floo connection and mused on the other types of wiles she had available to her.
"What is that?" Snape asked.
"Don't poke at it," Hermione instructed.
"I was not poking at it. I do not, in general, poke at things."
"You were thinking rather loudly about poking at it," Hermione insisted.
Snape glared at her for a moment. "You wouldn't Legilimize a person even if you knew how."
"There's no need to be insulting, not when I've brought you cake."
"If you've brought me cake," Snape said, looking uncertainly at Hermione's latest experiments in decadence, "it's only because you want something of me."
"Well, it would be a shame to change the terms of our relationship now, wouldn't it?"
Snape took one last look between her and the cake. "I'll require a plate and a fork."
Hermione Summoned two of each and waited until he was chewing (and therefore, by his own codes of behavior, unable to immediately respond) to say, "Anthony's speaking to Remus and likely Ginny and Bill and possibly Fleur about Transference Magic."
To his credit, Snape didn't even pause in his chewing. When he was finished he asked, slowly, "Did you know that William Weasley set his hair on fire his first year at Hogwarts? I personally was not around for the incident, seventh years not hanging around first years much, but they tell me he didn't look all that different."
Hermione cut herself a large chunk of cake without deigning to answer. Snape eyed the piece. "Do you really suppose you need all that?"
Hermione had filled out since her years at Hogwart, her parts softening and becoming more substantial in the post-adolescent years. She wasn't fat, though, and she wasn't sure she would have cared were she; she deserved that damned piece of cake. "In a bizarre and unusual twist, I do believe I need it every bit as much as you."
Snape backed down at that, not apologizing (which would have caused Hermione to spit cake everywhere anyhow, and so was probably for the best) but ceasing his attack. Hermione said, "They already knew, and Anthony needed someone who wasn't working nearly full-time on other parts of the problem."
"And you could always be sent in to deal with me."
"I was the one to suggest it, and yes, we have, against all the odds, formed something of a working relationship. Besides, I think you've had your years of cutting off your nose to spite your face."
"Except, evidently, in the literal sense."
"And thank goodness for that, really." Hermione made a face. "Is there somebody else? Somebody you would prefer?"
"My contacts are somewhat lessened since my indictment."
"There were those of us who remained loyal. And I didn't even like you so if somebody did chances are they're still recruitable."
"Is there some way in which I could get a written list of all the things I've done wrong in my life to end up with you on my side?"
"That's going to take a while; can it wait?"
Snape sighed and went back for a second piece of cake, despite the size of his first. She didn't stop him. "If it were Potions or even Defence, I could find you someone."
"Defence is multi-disciplinary. I don't think Anthony or I would turn away anyone you were willing to give us from that area but I think we'd still have to open things up to Remus and the others. We need minds and mouths on all sides of us."
"Have your way then, Miss Granger. You always have."
"Mr. Snape." She snapped the words out so harshly she was surprising not to feel them against her own skin. She almost immediately regretted their harshness but she was tired, nearly as tired as she imagined he was, and all she wanted at this point was a little bit of cooperation. "It's your bloody magic."
"Not, interestingly, what you were saying when you wanted to take it from me."
"We've been here before. Time and time and time again. I couldn't just leave you in there."
"I find what you can and cannot do to be endless sources of amazement."
"The same, I'm sure."
His eyes blazed and for a moment she was certain he would say something so damaging that she would have to leave and take her cake with her. But the fire died down and all he said was, "I couldn't have stayed there."
Never having received a true apology from him, she blinked and said the only thing she could think of: "You can keep the rest of the cake."
Hermione was a little surprised when, after an evening of staying determinedly to himself, Snape made his way to her side. Granted, it was long after the custard and the brandy (both of which he'd gone in for seconds on) and even after Bill and Charlie had left to put their respective little ones into bed. Even after the shock of Snape actually showing up to Harry and Tonks' "anniversary, erm, event," as Harry had so eloquently Christened it, Hermione was still taken a bit off guard by his deciding that she was the lesser of all the possible evils in the house.
"He looks happy."
This statement on Severus's part, leveled in Harry's direction and so clearly disgruntled that Hermione couldn't help but smile, elicited a small, "He's glad you came," from between her upturned lips.
Which earned her a sneer. She felt safer at that, back on familiar ground. He asked, "Why am I here, Miss Granger?"
"I presume because you were invited and hadn't any previous or preferable plans."
He muttered something she didn't catch. "Have you plans for later?"
"There's a case-" she looked sideways at him. "Why do you ask?"
"There are some studies I have been perusing. Ms. Whitby made an interesting observation about 'sticking to one's strengths' or something of that type of vernacular and I found myself returning to Potions journals-"
"Why didn't I think of that?"
"Because mine is the far superior intellect."
"Would you like some more brandy? You're nearly mellow."
"Your tactics might work better on one of the twins could you get them to sit still long enough." He switched back to the matter at hand. "As you are no doubt unaware, several potions are brewed purely for the purposes of separating items which have been magically fused either by accident or to an end."
"Yes, but most potions have to be imbibed by someone with a core in order for them to have any effect."
"Or come into direct interaction with the core, which is what occurs with most potions, since they are internally ingested or soak into the skin."
Hermione tilted her head. "Still, I'm not sure, I mean, unless you were planning to just pour the potion over the container in which we're keeping the core-"
"Hardly," Snape sniffed. "The fumes should be more than enough."
Hermione stilled. "And you've found the right potion?"
"Well," Snape moved in that slight way that Hermione had learned to translate as fidgeting. It wasn't, not as other people did it, but it was the closest she had come to a word for it. Like everything else with him, her instincts on language were just a bit off. "Not yet. It's going to take a bit of. . .manipulation. No one has thought to work with discorporialized cores, nor to deal with Unbreakable Vows or Horcrux Protective Curses as fragmentive values on a core but I'm confident of my abilities-"
"Certainly," she interrupted.
"You haven't the slightest- Oh. Yes."
"That thing I had for later tonight, I could probably put it off until the morning. If you were willing to share in your research so far."
"Why should you let my need for privacy and personal choice stop you now?"
"Because there are a few things left that still fall under the category of sacred."
"And you find research to define itself as such but not the wholeness of one's body?"
"We all have our quirks, Mr. Snape."
He stared at her for a bit. "Did you make the custard?"
"No. Want me to steal the last of it?"
"Who made it?"
"Arthur. I gave him The Joy of Cooking last Christmas."
Snape stared some more. "All right then."
"I'll knock three times on your door."
"Why three times?"
"It's a code. For thieves and under-the-cover research sharing peoples."
Snape didn't respond. An hour later, though, he answered her three knocks.
At some point after three he said, "You shouldn't leave."
"I've never yet stopped out of the wrong floo. And trust me, law school engendered whole weeks where I forewent sleep."
"Was that before, after or during the Dreamless withdrawal?"
"I've a perfectly serviceable couch."
"Yes, well, and my flat has a perfectly serviceable bed, which has the added bonus of belonging to me. Also, a toothbrush and some other minor conveniences."
"Your transfiguration skills are well within reach of a toothbrush."
"I feel abask in the glow of your admitting simple truths about me."
"It's three in the morning," she reminded him, tactfully leaving off the part where she had been quitting her sleep habit for years in his service and this moment was no different.
"And you shouldn't leave."
"Will you leave me alone if I give in?"
"On this issue."
Hermione went back to research. Only a few moments later he asked, "Tea?"
"Without caffeine," she said, not looking up.
He made an indecipherable sound and for a second Hermione thought, he makes potions, but then lost the thought in another sentence that it took all her brain matter to parse. She had no idea how much time passed between his sweeping from the room and the cup, warm and gently fragrant being set in front of her. She blinked at it and then looked up. "Peppermint?"
"Among other things."
She took a sip. "Oh." Holding the cup between her hands, she asked, "Found anything?"
"Several things. Most of which I will need to discuss with Mr. Goldstein."
"Not going to ask me what I've found?"
"You have neither instinct nor passion for Potions, and the discipline requires both."
"Then why am I here?"
"Because you offered to steal the custard."
"Is that why you hated me? My potential but lack of concern?"
"You? Lack concern? And what makes you believe for a moment that you had potential?"
She didn't want it to hurt that he hadn't denied hating her. There had been years and years and years where that knowledge had been nothing more personal than a Prophet article's words or the shouts of "mudblood" from disenfranchised purebloods. Evidently those years had come to an end. "That the potential has come to fruition. Is that why you hated me?"
"I hated you because you annoyed me and you ran with Potter. Either was enough, both together were cause for the creation of new curses meant solely for you."
Hermione took another sip, knowing the heat that filled the cup wouldn't help the kind of chilled sickness pressing at her spine and breastbone. "Well, at least it wasn't just one reason. That would seem paltry."
"That time. . . It is past."
Hermione had learned to understand when he was telling the whole truth, unadulterated and unfiltered. It wasn't a particularly common occurrence, which was one of the ways in which it was remarkable. "I'm glad."
"Your tea is getting cold," he said.
Conscious of nearly everything about him, Hermione drank quickly rather than casting a casual calorum. He didn't thank her.
Hermione had deep faith in the fact that when the twins weren't unintentionally causing havoc and evil to reign upon the earth, their inventions tended to inspire good things. She had never told them this, of course, nor would she ever. Never had she been more tempted, though, than when Anthony was watching Harry play with one of his latest toys--something about giggling and a few other alliterative phrases--and said, "Transference magic," before running off to his study.
It wasn't until a few days later that he emerged, explaining that Remus had made the point that all Transferents have to start with a strong emotion and Anthony had been thinking about how the twins were manipulating that, downplaying it, in effect, to spread a singular person's emotion. He'd talked to them about how they'd managed it in order to have some idea of how to strengthen the magic, which was going to be necessary even with Harry's powers. "I'm relatively sure I've found the right force necessary for the Transference to stick, which was the part that was proving absolutely impossible. Finding the right spell to alter should be a breeze, comparatively."
Hermione frowned at him. "You know better than to say something like that aloud."
Anthony shrugged. "I'm having a good week."
"Maybe you ought to sleep a bit," she suggested lightly, noting the seeming thinness of his skin.
"Probably safest," he agreed.
Hermione found Harry at his home working through some basic training exercises. She told him what Anthony had found. He asked, "Snape anywhere near on those potions yet?"
"He's been talking with someone, which I doubt he'd do if he didn't have strong evidence to support his theories."
"It doesn't make anyone the least nervous that his is really the only core we have to test these sorts of things out on?"
"Well, he has an idea about how to do some basic separational tests, but none of us are precisely thrilled about the situation."
"How is he?"
"You saw him a little over a week ago."
"At my party, where he appropriately refused to acknowledge that I was host. We didn't speak much."
"You think he talks to me?"
"I think so," Harry said softly, in a tone Hermione couldn't decipher.
"He- It's hard to talk about him."
"I did it all the time as a child."
"It feels like. . . I know he wouldn't like it," Hermione said, realizing at that very moment how oddly protective she'd become not just of what he represented but of who he actually was.
"Mm," Harry said.
"He misses magic," she said because that was pretty much obvious. "But he's competent in ways I didn't think he would be. He doesn't whine or even snap the way I expected. Not about that."
"Some things are too much even to pretend otherwise." Harry's eyes strayed to the one picture of Ginny he still kept on his fireplace. She was standing with Ron.
"I keep thinking its how I would feel if I woke up not being a woman anymore, or a lawyer or the daughter of my parents. Like the things that had always constituted who I was just suddenly didn't exist and yet everyone else kept on going right along."
"I couldn't do it."
Hermione shook her head. "You could, Harry."
"No," Harry said, and she knew there was no use arguing.
"I'll let you know when there's more."
"Being of use some time, that would be nice."
"We're working on it."
Harry grinned lopsidedly. "Dinner?"
"I could eat."
Hermione went to check on Snape, as nobody--not even Minerva, who employed him--had heard from him in days. She knocked on the door to his place, cautious always Apparate a fair distance away and walk. Knowing him he'd find someone to erect wards as a surprise one of these days. He opened the door looking harried. She said, "We've really got to get you a calendar. Or, barring that, a clock."
He stood back from the door to let her in. "What day is it? One does forget how useful such things as Temporus spells are." He said it briskly, which made her wince all the more than she would have had he actually made a production of the parts of himself he was conspicuously missing.
"I'll send Minerva an owl of apology."
"Well, no, but I suppose the owl will serve metaphorically in that way."
"You seem to have found yourself. Were you hiding in a broom closet?"
"Several books I hadn't opened in quite some time."
"So the experimentation is going well?"
"My colleague is brewing the first few of several permutations we want to try."
"You like the chase," she said softly.
"It's nearly always better than what you have once a thing's been caught," he said.
"Not this time."
Snape didn't say anything for a long while, scratching down a, "sorry I disappeared into my head," message to Minerva that Hermione doubted was worded so casually. He was right that Minerva would forgive him, and Hermione supposed he deserved the recognition of such a fact. The quill was still poised in his hand when he said, "I went to the market yesterday. I was out of bread and they make it fresh at that one shop, the place we found that first day."
Hermione didn't say anything, couldn't say anything. Snape wasn't one to indulge in small talk so either this was going somewhere, somewhere she would have to wait to get, or something was horribly wrong and no words were going to alleviate the situation.
As it turned out, it was a combination of both. He continued, "I ended up buying more than I had planned, some ice cream, that sort of thing and before I knew it I had a full bag. The woman who runs the store looked at me and said, 'You've your hands full, why don't you let my Jack give you a ride?'"
When it was clear there wasn't any more to the story, Hermione asked, "Did you accept?"
"After a moment. Would have been foolish not to. The ice cream would have melted."
"He obviously got you here safely."
She admitted, "I don't understand. I'm sorry."
He smiled then, a bit, twisted and harsh but somehow amused at the same time. "No, you wouldn't."
"Tell me," she said.
"In our world-" he started but shook his head. "It's unimportant."
That was enough though, and Hermione enunciated what he clearly couldn't, "In our world she would have known who you were, and possibly refused to ring you up, let alone offered to help you to your home without even knowing you. Is that- You want your magic, you just don't want the things it comes with anymore." Hermione tried not to think how very much she was part of those things, even at her most outside of wizarding culture she was still part of it in her role as opposition to the center.
"For seven years that world was Azkaban. Before that it was Voldemort."
Hermione swallowed painfully. "Believe me when I tell you this world has its rough patches as well."
"I just haven't been at the core of them. Do not plan to be."
"Leave aside the core of our world, then. Your powers don't have to mean your involvement."
"Is it not implicit?"
"I. . ." Hermione had always found it to be so. "I don't think so. I think. That things can be different now. They are different. But I meant for you."
"You left Azkaban, but it was only you. You didn't bring them with you."
"You sound ever so certain of that."
"Not an easy thing to be, particularly at night, but I am. I am," she repeated.
"I haven't your-" startlingly, he stopped, rolling the hand that wasn't holding the quill, seemingly at a loss for the word he needed.
She didn't care what it was at that moment, she didn't think she'd care later. "You can borrow mine. It's. . .I've plenty of it," she finished, nearly as helplessly as he had.
"Miss Granger," he said, and it didn't sound like an honorific, a title, an address, it sounded like the word he'd been unable to find.
She nodded a bit, and stayed where she was, unsure of where she would go were she to move, even just a little.
The first five potions all failed at even the simplest tests. Hermione told an ill-tempered Snape, "You're used to brewing them yourself, there might be an issue of dysphoria."
Hazel, though, was the one who came up with an actual solution. "What we've forgotten, is the physics."
Snape started to say something but she held up a hand. "You trust these potions, I know, so I found a way to ask Kevin about them without bringing the topic of you up, seeing as how I can't really bring that topic up. Kevin had decent marks in the subject, I know because my mum would have killed him if he'd brought home anything less, so I asked him about properties of potions, things like that. You've been brewing something that will work as a literal separating agent but what we need to try is using a potion as a type of split-particle barrier."
"Are you suggesting that we throw the core of magic through a wall of potions to split the Vow from the core?" Snape looked almost too perplexed to be rude. Almost. "Are you absolutely out of your mundane muggle mind?"
"Use muggle as an insult with me and my wand in this room once more. Please," Hermione said, emphasizing the statement with a lift of her wand.
It settled him down enough. "This cannot possibly work."
"When something forces a particle through a barrier, the particle splits into two pieces, assuming the correct type of barrier," Hazel said, "and if you trust these potions that much, it makes them the perfect type."
"The split is random," Snape argued. "I don't want my core randomly splitting, I need the foreign elements splitting off from it."
Hazel furrowed her brow. Hermione said, "Brewer's Gift."
"I can't brew at the moment, in case you'd forgotten," he snarled.
"What's a Brewer's Gift?"
"It's when a Brewer imbues her magic within the potion. Few wizards are strong or gifted enough." Hermione turned to look at Snape.
"No," he said.
"He can feel the difference between what's supposed to be attached and what's not," Hermione started.
"Potter couldn't brew a cup of tea competently when I had him." Snape crossed his arms, obviously settling in for a long argument.
"He's come quite some ways in that case. And you know that's not true. No, he's not the brewer you are, in fact, he's not the brewer anyone who went into Potions professionally is, but he is certainly good enough to do this if you can find the right potion and take him through it. He's the only person we know who's both powerful enough and actually has the magical intuition necessary to complete the potion."
"You can't just explain Brewer's Gift to someone," Snape scoffed.
"You can to Harry. You don't understand, you never listen when I'm trying to tell you about him, but he's. . .afterward he was something else completely. All it takes with him is a bit of guidance and he gets things where they're supposed to go. For the love of- What have you possibly got to lose?"
"The last of a small amount of self-respect?"
"Or perhaps you'll gain some back," she snapped.
They glared at each other for a few moments. Hermione backed off first but Snape turned nonetheless to Hazel, who was trying to peruse books without seeming like she was party to anything going on in the room. "Tell me more about particle splitting."
Hazel grinned. "It's really, really cool."
Hermione, despite having better things to do with her time, sat in on the brewing sessions after the first one, when Harry locked himself in his own flat for the two days following. It had been one of the concessions of his surrender that she mediate for the two men. Which was how she found herself interrupting the beginning of a rant on Snape's part, seeing green not just in but behind Harry's eyes. "Harry, could you- I'd like to talk with Mr. Snape."
Harry said, "You're sending me out of the room?"
Hermione well knew Harry's issues about being blamed for things he hadn't done but all she did was give him a look that asked, what in the bloody seven hells are you on about?. It got him moving.
"He's a moron," Snape said, just in time for Harry to be in the last range of where the comment could be heard.
Hermione put up a silencing spell and gave Harry, who had partially turned, a pleading look. He left the room and shut the door behind him, locking them into their private conversation.
"And you're a self-defeating moron. Anybody want to guess who's going to end up being happier?"
"Life is not about happiness, Miss Granger," Snape told her unequivocally.
"Please, do tell me what it's about in your world."
Snape looked startled at being called on his bluff for all of a second. "The greater good."
"And you having your magic back somehow undermines that?"
"Myself and Potter getting along certainly does," he muttered.
"Mis-ter Snape," she bit out all three of the syllables entirely separate from one another. She made herself breathe, back down both in physical stance and volume. "Do you even know what the hell it is you want? What happiness would look like for you? Or is that it? Is it that if Harry can't do this you don't even have to imagine?"
"If Potter can do this my belief in certain basic tenets of this universe will have to be forsaken in any case."
"Do you know what happiness is?"
"In certain forms. I know what I imagine it as." She didn't, in that second, think of his hands on her bare hips. She couldn't have, because Hermione didn't spend much time on the impossible. That wasn't happiness, that was frustration.
"I suppose now you're going to tell me about the little things."
"No, for you I can only believe it would have to be the big things at this point. Being able to let go of bitterness, feeling the potion come together at the last of your bidding, having that potion be yours."
"And those are all big things."
"From your perspective, yes. From mine, mostly."
Snape took a rather long breath in and waited on the exhale. His words, when they came, were slow and almost to himself. "A potion is personal. Not meant to be done through a conduit, let alone a conduit-"
"Whom you don't like. But really, our options were limited on that, weren't they?"
"You were a perfectly competent brewer."
Hermione forced herself through years of long practice not to preen at the compliment. Harder, less familiar, was forcing herself not to babble, "You. . .you like me?" Of course he did. She wouldn't be in this room doing this had he not. She just hadn't expected to hear it. Not from anyone, most days, but particularly not from him. "Thank you. But I'm not, nor was I ever, the Boy Who Lived. There's a reason we capitalize things, as it turns out."
Snape threw her something that might have been a smile. "I. . .could feel that. When he came to Azkaban."
"It's hard to miss."
"Do people fear him?"
Hermione nodded. "In terribly visual ways."
"And here I never sought to have anything in common with him."
"He doesn't quite revel in it."
"You think I do."
"I know you did."
"Makes my recent thoughts on the subject somewhat disorienting."
"But unsurprising, given where that fear landed you."
"Motivation aside, as you have reminded me, I did commit the crime."
"Is that why you're doing this? Because if you're not literally imprisoned it has to be something else? Professor Dumbledore would have your head."
"Yes, but Albus and I rarely agreed on how to go about things."
"Why can't you just acquiesce now, as you did then?"
"You are no Albus Dumbledore."
"Nor, quite honestly, do I strive to be, and that wasn't what I meant, which you knew perfectly well."
"Because he's not here to remind me that he's right."
Hermione winced. "I'm here."
"I just said-"
"Relationships aren't meant to be held through conduits."
"No more than potions, but I swear to you, Severus, I swear to you this is going to work."
"I did not give you permission to use my given name."
"No," she said.
"How would you feel were I to just take the liberty of addressing you as Hermione?"
"Honored, but worry not, I won't hold my breath." Then, "The potion will work. Even through the conduit. Even through Harry."
"Your logic is-"
"Generally irrefutable. It makes you a rather annoying sparring partner."
"And even should it work-" he began but stopped, looking at her. "You're no Albus Dumbledore."
There was something in his tone for which she had no context and it threw her for a second but she planted her feet and said, "I'm Hermione Granger, and I swear to you, I can make that good enough."
Snape looked at the cauldron, the beginnings of this morning's attempt congealing in it, useless. "Lift the silencing spell."
The potion did work, too, but not on the first attempt. Snape postured at that. Hermione asked, "Truly, everything you've created before now has worked on the very brew? You're even more brilliant than I was lead to believe."
"Small surprise, with your sources," he'd grumbled but he'd worked with Harry again, and that was all Hermione had needed.
On the fourth time through, Anthony's recreation of a Bound Core (not terribly reliable but considering how little choice they had in articles to test, nobody was complaining on that score) split cleanly in the right places. Hermione said, "Well, that's new."
Snape turned and left the room. Harry, Anthony and Hazel watched him go. Harry asked Hermione, "Should you maybe-"
"He values his privacy."
"He looked a bit off," Anthony said, the healer's itch to fix everything apparent in his voice.
"He's dealt with worse over longer periods of time. How would you feel if you now knew you had to trust a relatively untested potion on your core?"
"More than a bit off," Anthony admitted.
Having gotten what she wanted, Hermione switched subjects. "We're set on the magics for reinstating the core, yes?"
Harry and Anthony looked guiltily at one another. Hermione sighed. "Something the two of you want to mention?"
Anthony clearly passed that responsibility to Harry with a lift of his eyebrow. Harry shuffled his feet. "It's like this. The spell works, it works fantastically, we even ran the Gabrielle test. It works."
Hermione waited. Harry did not elaborate. Hermione made a signal with her hands for him to. Anthony took pity on him, though. "It evidently hurt. Immensely."
Hermione could hear the strain in Anthony's voice, the sense of doing harm where the intent is to heal. Necessary but unpleasant. Hermione asked. "The fusing process?"
Harry shook his head. "The force necessary behind the spell." He sounded a bit off himself, Harry despised causing pain. Hermione could only imagine that in the case of Snape, where his feelings were already so conflicted and causing pain might be part of a larger choice, which would only be more horrifying.
"All right." Hermione hooked a hand over Harry's shoulder. "I'll talk to him about it."
Harry nodded. "Yeah."
Hermione squeezed. "You're part of the solution, Harry. Not the problem."
"Welcome to life, as far as that goes," Hazel said.
Anthony chuckled a bit at that. Harry managed a small smile. Hermione leaned her head up against Harry's shoulder. Harry said, "You think you should go see-"
Hermione shut her eyes so as not to roll them. "Ladies first when fighting fire-breathing dragons?"
"I just want to give someone else a chance," Harry said, as though innocence could not be more pure itself.
Hermione laughed. "I'm sure." She straightened up and left through the door that Snape had several moments ago. He wasn't far, drawing in deep breaths a few feet down the corridor. She said, "We noticed you looked a bit off."
He said, "Last steps are always the most daunting."
Hermione didn't make a point of his admitting that anything could daunt him.
Hermione had seen people hit by the Cruciatus. She had seen people lose limbs to well-aimed severing spells. She had seen someone have the core of his magic taken from the shell of his body.
After watching said core be put back she thought that perhaps she'd have to rethink her definition of pain. Harry was standing feet from where he'd been when he'd enacted the spell, his hands on his knees, his breath coming in fierce pants. Hermione murmured, "Anthony," and Anthony waved a hand in Snape's direction.
Snape was where he'd been at the beginning of the invocation. He wasn't standing.
Hermione enacted a few simple cleaning spells for the area around him. There were few things that still had the power to scare Hermione, and most of them operated at a higher ideological level, but Severus Snape loosing control of his own bodily functions to pain remained in that category, and Hermione could see her hands shaking as she waved her wand this way and that.
She knelt down by him but kept her hands to herself, unsure of what still hurt, unsure of where she had permission to touch. His hair was hanging over the one side of his face that wasn't to the ground and she wasn't even entirely sure he was conscious. He was breathing, though. "Severus?" she asked.
"Bugger. Off." He said it with a notable marking of each syllable, although Hermione thought that was probably more from the pain than from any need for emphasis.
"The floor's cold."
"Right now's not really the best time for me to be having that argument with you." She kept her own tone immoveable.
She didn't say anything to that. It was beneath her. She did put a hand experimentally to the hand that wasn't hidden somewhere beneath his torso. "I'd rather you were fine in your bed."
He didn't move his hand, although she couldn't tell if that was from sheer exhaustion and having better things to do with his energy, or because he appreciated the touch. Finally he said, "I'd like some tea first."
"I can bring you tea once we get-"
Hermione glanced over at Harry and Anthony, who looked caught between the urge to laugh and the bizarre shame of having caused this situation without exactly having meant to. "Tea. Any particular kind?"
Hermione Conjured a mug with water and Summoned his leaves and a strainer. She hit the water with a Warming charm and packed some of the leaves into the strainer, dunking it into the mug. He rolled over a bit when he perceived all this having been done, focused an eye on Harry and Anthony and said, "Go."
Anthony pulled one of Harry's arms over his shoulder. Harry looked at Hermione but she shook her head at him. Snape grunted. Hermione waited until the two men were out of the room to say, "He's protective."
"I can't see as I'm a threat at the moment."
"To Harry you'll always be a threat," she said simply. "More so now you've got your magic back."
"Feeling in the mood to try anything?"
"We'll just rest our laurels on theory for a moment or so, then." She set the tea aside and worked carefully to lever him up. In the end she could only get him partially upright and only then if he leaned against her as support. She reached out for the tea and put it in both of his hands, waiting to let go until she felt the distinctive resistance of his grip.
He took a few sips. "Needs honey."
Hermione Summoned some but let him take care of the adding process. She waited as he slowly finished the tea. He set the cup down in front of himself and stared at it for a while. After a moment, something clicked for Hermione and she Summoned his wand from the lab surface. He took it from her hand and Banished the cup. It went. Perhaps not where it was supposed to go, but neither of them were looking for miracles of that sort.
"Better now?" she asked.
His laughter was short and somehow, though she'd never once thought to describe him or anything associated with him this way, sweet.
She stayed the night. She sent Harry and Anthony--both waiting out in the hall--home and stayed. Snape grumbled about her presence but she just made herself some dinner, offered him some (he accepted after more grumbling) and made sure he was settled in his bed.
She brought him Dreamless when the nightmares came. He asked, "Where-?"
"Anthony gave me some. We thought it might be necessary."
"You shouldn't have any in your possession."
"It was for you," she said, feeling rather as though she were pointing out the obvious, which was something he generally had no patience for but given the circumstances she felt it worth the risk.
"I meant," he swallowed back the potion, closing his eyes as it made its way down. "I meant that the temptation-"
"It was for you," she repeated.
"Most addicts would not care, were they even able to understand the division."
"Shockingly, then, you seem not to have given me enough credit."
Snape laid back down. "Can we fight about this when the effects have worn off?"
"Why not?" Hermione asked. He was already asleep, though. She resisted the urge to scrape the sides of the flask with her fingers. Or her tongue.
She washed the flask with a precision she hadn't much used since her student days, at least not when it came to the art of potions. Then again, she hadn't much ventured into the arena of flasks and cauldrons during those days. It was a gift to recognize one's strengths, her mother had always told her that.
She fell asleep on his sofa and awoke before he did. She made oatmeal with blueberries and took some into him, even though he hadn't been very nice to her. Her mum had never held that against her when she'd felt sick as a child, it seemed unfair to do so now, when the forces affecting him were so much larger than a summer influenza. He took the bowl. "Brown sugar?"
"Feeling prescient this morning?"
"Long term sleep deprivation sometimes has that effect."
"You should tell that to Sybill."
"She'll inform me of my impending insanity."
"You'd deny her the chance to be right on occasion?"
"Harry affords her more than enough of those."
Snape smirked. "So he does."
There was a silence which at first comfortable but slowly slid into awkward. Hermione had forgotten how that felt around him and would have preferred not to be reminded. All she knew was that she was now in his space with no reason to be, and he was not a man who liked his space invaded. She stood. "I've work to get to."
"I'd imagine," he said, and it wasn't a get out. It wasn't an invitation to stay, either.
"I checked when I awoke."
"Right. Of course. And there's nothing you need?"
"I was entirely self-sufficient without the skills I spent a lifetime mastering and honing. I think now that they've returned I shall find things not just surmountable but annoyingly simple."
Hermione tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I suppose I will. . .see you, then. At times." She left before she could say anything she didn't mean. Or perhaps anything she did mean. She thought she might have felt his eyes on her back as she made her way to the door but she wasn't quite Gryffindor enough to turn around and check.
Hermione spent the next three weeks not asking after Snape. He wouldn't appreciate the prying, she told herself. Nor did she have any desire to try and look Minerva McGonagall in the eyes and act casual.
Work was there, conveniently ready for her to bury herself in. Harry needed some hand-holding as well in the aftermath of the spell and his re-recognition of his own powers. Ginny had somehow managed to get herself pregnant (and Hermione just didn't believe in mistakes where that girl was concerned) and stuck Remus (who, in perfectly good old-fashioned form, insisted that they be married) with wedding plans. Fleur and Bill had been drafted into helping out which meant that sooner or later, Hermione was sure she would be as well. She didn't mind much, a busy life meant one with less room for thought (somehow, Hermione could always find too much.)
The fourth week he Owled her. It took her the better part of the day to actually open the missive, afraid of words like, "Your services were appreciated," or something nasty but metaphorically equivalent. She thought cordiality might be worse.
Instead it said, Healer Goldstein has contacted me about publication. He wishes to put my name on the article as a contributor. I have told him this will merely end his fancies of seeing the piece in actual print but he is rather insistent. I do not suppose you could intervene? Severus
Hermione read it three or four times and then tried to convince herself that it meant nothing, his still asking for her help when there was no need. There were easier ways to make Anthony co-operate, not the least of which would have been to just refuse. Snape was smart enough to know that.
She chose not to think about his permissive bent toward his given name. There was only so much flattery a person could handle at one time.
She Spelled her hand, since it was shaking slightly and she couldn't have that affecting her penmanship. You wrote well-knowing that I would agree with Anthony on this issue. I will talk to him if you absolutely insist but I think your concept of how the wizarding world views you might need some refocusing in the wake of the trial and your long absence. Something you should explore. Hermione
She did talk to Anthony, as she had said she would. He stuck to his principles and she offered to consult on the article by way of thanks.
She wasn't surprised when Snape's next letter told her, Ravenclaws have more courage than anyone credits them for. If the article is not published, he shall have nobody to blame but himself, and perhaps you, for not employing rhetoric more successfully. Severus
Hermione scribbled off a My rhetoric is quite polished when it needs to be. We are having this conversation outside of Azkaban, are we not? Hermione and endured another two weeks of silence. She pushed aside thoughts of how she may have driven him off for the solid motto of reminding herself of his fierce independence, something she herself understood. She had never appreciated it so little.
She won her second case, this one by a much closer margin than Snape's victory. The third wasn't looking to go so well but Hermione was determined to take one thing at a time. Even more so when she received the letter telling her, Congratulations. They say that you can twist the truth even more thoroughly than one Albus Dumbledore used to be able to. I believe they mean it as a compliment. If you've made some sort of sweetened good by way of celebration, I would not be adverse to joining you in the consumption of such a good. Severus
Hermione threw some floo powder into the fireplace and stuck her head in, calling out her intended port of call. Snape blinked at her appearance. "You look. . .incensed."
Hermione snorted, calmed by his bad humor, a sure sign of nerves. "I've been a little busy for baking."
"I am awkward at initiating human interaction."
"I had actually noticed. You could bring me dinner. I've been a little busy for eating, as well."
"I do not know what you like."
"Bring me something you like. I have the same dilemma, I'm afraid, despite my months of culinary aiding and abetting."
"I wasn't being particular at that time."
"So you see my problem."
"Right this moment?"
"Let's just say that I'm not in any mood to be particular either."
He nodded. "I will be there shortly."
He came with roast venison and she nearly laughed because, well, take away venison and all but he was holding himself stiffly even when compared to his normal bearing and she said, "Smells delightful."
She pulled out nice plates and utensils, as his arrival with the venison suggested something more formal than she had been thinking about. She could respect that. Something told her it was his way of respecting her. It almost made her wish she'd made a cake.
There was always time for that later.
He had gorgeous table manners. She knew that already, had noticed back in Azkaban when there was nobody around to impress as he certainly hadn't cared on her account. It was less noticeable in these settings but he didn't seem intent on striking up conversation and she was lost for something to say and so the delicate clicking of silverware was abnormally intrusive.
Finally she offered, "I could teach you how to make the triple-decker."
"You look tired."
"It's not as hard as it tastes like it should be."
"I meant that perhaps another time."
Hermione took a deep breath. "I'd rather you didn't leave right away."
"Is there something-"
"We haven't seen each other, in some time."
"I wasn't sure you would welcome-"
"I was quite sure you wouldn't."
"Ah." He set his fork and his knife down carefully, aligning them with the edges of the plate. "I could stay. Learn how to make the cake."
Hermione looked at her plate. She still had a ways to go. "You could tell me what you've been doing. While I chew."
"Surely Minerva's told you."
"I don't talk of you behind your back," Hermione said, knowing that what from anyone else would have been a simple statement of fact was more an accusation with him.
He fiddled with the handle end of his knife before snatching his hand back to himself. "She offered me my job back."
"Tell me you refused."
His look was sharp. "I. . .did."
"You abhorred that job. Which made you rather lousy at it."
"You're merely bitter that I never pandered to your attention seeking ways."
Hermione thought he was about to make up for all of that so she just snorted. "All right, so what are you doing with yourself?"
"Working with an apprentice of Healer Goldstein's on curricular advances in medicinal and potions-based vocational level education that includes knowledge of the Dark Arts." He was sitting stiffly again, looking at her as though he wished his eyes would turn into wands, able to spew hexes at the merest hint of censure.
"Our unwillingness to handle the Othered sector of magic has made us rather vulnerable, has it not? It would be best if the idea caught on in other fields and practices." She made her tone casual. He would have to learn to trust that she wasn't always his enemy. Rarely, even, at this point.
"If you would like to see some of our notes-"
"I'd love to. I'm mostly hopeless in those areas, but my curiosity is nigh uncontainable."
"You tend to be good with applicability."
She didn't even bother holding back her grin. "I have a job, Severus."
He smiled wryly back at her. "And you were never one for extra-curricular activities."
She took his double-entendre and raised him one. "I've had other types of extra-curricular activities in mind of late." Again she kept her tone casual, without any type of mischief even poking it's head around the corner.
He pressed his lips together. "What would you have done had I not called?"
"Assumed that with this, as with many many other things in my life, what I wanted would just have to be something I went without."
"No," he said vehemently, enough so to take her slightly aback.
She looked at him, silent, unwilling to ask. He reached out and raked his fingers through her curls, not at all gently. She tilted her scalp into the uneasy slide of his nails. "No," she agreed.
Hermione's first time had been with Viktor, something she'd never told Ron, well aware that she was far too happy over the fact. Viktor, close to four years older than her and possessing a name that everybody but everybody knew, had known what he was doing. That, Hermione knew, was the right kind of partner to have a girl's first time out.
Ron was her second partner and though Hermione didn't much think about the sex when she thought about Ron (every day, although she'd managed to get away from the every hour/every minute intensity of loss some years before) she remembered that it had been fun. Silly and informal and messy.
She'd had something of a shag-partner in a fellow law student throughout her years in school and the two of them had generally liked things fast and release-intent. They'd liked each other well enough, she supposed. She still heard from him now and then. Mostly, though, they'd been having sex to have sex.
She'd carried on a two year long distance relationship with a wizard from Italy who was working on different types of social reform within his Ministry. Domenico had been gorgeous and skilled but never quite attentive enough. Hermione didn't need much, but knowing that she was the only thing her partner was thinking about at the time of climax? That was on her list of necessities.
Viktor and she had always come back to each other in between their own involvements, always ready to receive the other. It was from him that she'd learned how sex could change, even having known about its variant forms, choices, and emotions.
For all that, Severus was a revelation. He said to her, hand still at the base of her neck, "You should be aware that I know proper protocol is to cozen you up a bit before all of this."
"I think protocol might be out of place in this situation."
"More significantly," he stood and pulled her up to him by his grip on her neck, "I've been in prison for seven years." He moved his lips closer to hers.
She stayed still, not coming to meet him. "You have to say that it's more than that."
His eyes, inches from hers, flashed up to where the two met. "Do you honestly think I'm the type to take anything that comes my way?"
"Honestly," he repeated.
"Kiss me," she said.
He did. Only, there was a second before the kiss where he murmured something and Hermione felt her nerves come alive in ways she hadn't realized to be possible. She gasped as his tongue brushed across hers and she could taste flavors she hadn't previously recognized. She wanted to ask what he'd done but couldn't think to take her mouth away from his, not when things felt like this. Later. She always remembered the important questions.
She pulled her wand out of her sleeve and cast a divestio on both of them. There were times when she felt like undressing herself and her partner, being undressed, and one of these days she would ask him for that, but not wasn't about the extras, it was about him and her and skin and having waited far too long.
Severus grunted appreciatively into her mouth. His hands dropped from her shoulders to her breasts. The spell was making the parts of her body that were generally sensitive excruciatingly so, and Hermione came up on her toes as the calluses on his palms--not from brewing, she'd have to ask about that as well--made contact with the underside of her breasts. He squeezed nearly to the point of pain, nearly, and Hermione moaned.
"Yes," he said, dragging his mouth from her mouth to her jaw and, when he'd had enough of that, to her throat.
She managed to ask, between soft, fluttering breaths, "Do you want-"
"I'll take what I want," he told her, almost reassuringly, and pushed her into the kitchen table chair where she'd so recently been eating. Hermione pondered the thought that the line between mundane and positively incendiary was rather flimsy in her life these days.
Then Severus slid to his knees, grasped her hips, his hands spread wide over them, and ran his tongue entirely over her vagina up to her clitoris. Even without the spell it would have been something to give her complete attention over to. With the spell she could hardly breath for lack of the ability to pay attention to anything other than the sensation. "Bugger, Severus."
He bit her. Lightly. She screamed. When her brain managed to regain some clarity she heard him asking something about the neighbors. She didn't bother to answer. He laughed over the surface of her clitoris. She made more involuntary sounds.
"Severus," she said, and found one of his hands with her own.
"I want you-"
"Forget that," she said.
"There's protocol for this as well," he argued.
Hermione rolled her eyes. Trust her to have found the one man in the world who would bring up something like that at a time like this. "We're not- That doesn't matter."
One of his fingers stroked along the inside of her thigh and she mewled. "All right," he said softly. "For now."
Hermione didn't care about later just at that moment. She slid off the chair and into his arms at the slightest tug on the hand that was still around her thigh. Her chest fitted tightly against his and she raised herself up a bit so that she could settle herself down on his cock. His gasp when she did so was rewarding, pained and relieved and perhaps a little bit amazed. His hands clenched at her back, setting the nerves there to absolute extremes of pleasure.
"Touch me," she said, unnecessarily, and moved.
He held on, more than anything else, but that was all she needed. At some point one of his hands slipped between them and that was too much. She threw her head back, caught only by the one hand splayed over her spine and came, whispering things that made no sense, at least not in their spoken form.
She leaned into his chest again when she had finished, unable to entirely keep herself upright. Without thinking she bit slightly into his shoulder, still wanting to have him on her tongue, that first taste not something she was willing or possibly even able to give up right then. The prick of her teeth brought him over the edge, his hands curling into her hair just a little too roughly.
He let go as soon as he had done, a mumbled, "Sorry," falling off his lips, followed by an end to the spell. She didn't move herself off of him, unwilling to allow things to end like that. He said, "Hermione-"
She said, "Later," and settled her lips against his neck with no intent to kiss him.
When she leaned back, the warmth of exertion leaking from her, and propped her shoulder blades against the seat of her kitchen table chair, she asked, "What was that?"
Both his voice and his face were free from the smugness that she was used to in post-coital males. "A little something I know."
"I will just find out," she said, because she would. It had been wonderful, but it had been used on her, and trust this man or no (and Hermione wasn't even yet sure if that was still up in the air--she didn't think so) Hermione learned about the things that had touched her person.
"You're so fond of the chase, though," he said.
She wondered when he had started truly knowing her. "Have you ever- I mean, other than that once, have you ever legilimised me?"
He shook his head slowly, with a kind of lazy emphasis. "You tell me everything I need to know."
"I wasn't suggesting that you meant to."
"Neither was I. As I understand it, one of the true feats of a great Occlumens is the art of misdirection."
"Luckily, you seem to think I've been lied to enough."
"No." He slid her from himself and cast a cleansing charm over the two of them, reassembling her outfit onto her body so as to stop the shivers that had taken over the moment before.
Hermione used her hands for the very same task on him, and he didn't object. "Is that why. . . Is the solitary villianish hero thing a choice?"
"I know Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs can be a bit of a hive mind-"
"It's not about making honey. It's about the fact that human living is relational. You joined a group, Severus. If that isn't a relational decision I don't know what is." She wondered if she shouldn't stop talking before he realized that having her on the floor of her kitchen was also somewhat relational. Before he could think about this she distracted him with an obvious non-sequitur: "Biscuits?"
"I thought you weren't making any."
"I ordered out."
"Are they as good as yours?" He asked, clearly looking for an objective answer.
"Careful," she told him instead, "between that and making love to me like you enjoy it I'm going to get an ego."
"There are always other people willing to have sex," he said noncommittally.
She hit him with a laughing hex for a few seconds before releasing him. He lifted an eyebrow, "If you expect me to quake-"
"I wanted to hear you laugh." And get his attention but she was pretty sure that point had been underscored.
"I would have-"
"Done nothing. You've never touched me."
"In a manner of which I disapproved," she clarified.
"You're not going to continue on with some psychological drivel about how my words were far more abusive than any hex, curse or physical attack could possibly have been?"
"Why should I? It seems like you already know, which was probably your intent in the first place. If it gets under your skin any, they weren't for me really, because after a bit I learned to ignore you. I'm rather smart, you know."
"Is that why you were able to come back for me?"
"I was able to come back for you because I still have one best friend living. You could have set me on fire at some point and I would have come back because believe you me, the fire would have been infinitely less painful than losing Ron."
He was silent for a bit at that and she Summoned the Biscuits from one of her cabinets, along with some plates. "Tea?"
He didn't answer. "Is that why you stayed?"
"Ye-" She caught his eyes. "Partly."
"Is this why you stayed?" Quietly, ever so quietly asked.
"It occurred to me that I might desire benefits of this sort. It didn't occur to me. . ."
"That I might as well?"
"You have never given much indication. And I was your student, I do have some idea of how that must represent itself ideologically."
"You're not, precisely, her."
"And you're not, precisely, Professor Snape."
He looked at the spot on the floor they'd previously occupied. "I'd imagine not." He took a biscuit and chewed slowly. "What made you-?"
She took her own biscuit. "You needed me without needing me."
"That makes no sense," he said.
She shrugged. "Suppose you'll just have to puzzle it out. You like the chase, too."
Hermione fire-called him in the middle of the night, three hours after the nightmare had woken her up and refused her any more sleep. She was alert when she called, aware. When he blinked blearily at her and asked, "Miss Granger?" she answered, "No, nevermind, go back to sleep."
"Do not disconnect this floo," he said testily. He ran a hand over his eyes. "Hermione. What time is it?"
Hermione glanced over at a clock. "Almost four."
"You needed something?"
"Dreamless Sleep," she said.
"You can't have any."
"I know. I usually call Harry when it gets like this."
"Truly?" he asked.
She shifted her position, ill at ease. "We have a pact of sorts."
"Because it was you I wanted," she said simply. Hermione had been unable to conceive of a time when she would want something other than Harry in a time of emotional or physical distress, just as she had once been unable to conceive of going to anyone but her mum for advice. These things happened, though, she knew.
"Would you prefer I came there?"
It was Hermione's turn to blink. "I usually-" Then she realized that this wasn't usually, and none of that mattered. "Yes."
He came through the floo. She hit him with a light cleansing spell for the soot nearly as soon as both his feet were on the floor. He said, "Come," and walked in front of her. Hermione almost protested that it was her bloody flat they were in, but she was tired and he was here, and that was what she needed, not some useless argument over space and dominance.
He found her bedroom even though she'd never once shown him to it and pulled her into the bed after him. He said, "Is there anything else you need?"
She fitted herself tightly against him. He was no less draped in clothing than he generally was during the day, albeit these were nightclothes. She didn't mind the barriers, had at some point come to see them as part of him, as intimate as skin. She curled her hand inside his. "No."
"Anything you. . ." his chest tensed slightly, "want?"
Hermione frowned. "Is there something you want?"
"Not to care."
"Ah." She wasn't going to help him out with that. She wasn't that nice. "No."
"You'll sleep then?"
"Shh," she requested, and with her free hand, pulled the covers just a bit more highly over her shoulders. The arm that was wrapped around those shoulders helped her out. "Thanks," she mumbled.
He patted her shoulder somewhat awkwardly, given the positioning. She took a deep breath, and on the exhale, fell asleep.
When Hermione lost her first case, Snape took her out for dinner before taking her to his place for an evening of thoroughly satiating sex and an utter lack of coddling. He did have her stay, his hands loosely but possessively splayed over her stomach and hips.
When he would lose an argument on the extent of Dark Arts able to be implemented into any type of curriculum with either Minerva--who consulted on his project--or worse, Anthony's apprentice, she would melt chocolate frogs (willing to brave the croakings as they dissolved into the pan) and allow him to eat them off of her.
When things worked for them, which was most of the time, they worked well.
When things didn't, Hermione generally said things she knew she would regret and he would leave, regardless of whether they were yelling at each other in the middle of his house or not.
When he returned, they would make up. Sometimes with sex. Other times with apologies. The first time he had apologized to her, Hermione had almost cast a few identifying spells, just to make sure the right man had come back to her. The first time he'd come back she'd felt the same way. He didn't seem the type to come back to anyone.
When she'd told him that, he'd said, "A person who will return to Azkaban for the purpose of. . .friendly comfort is a person worth returning to after a few harsh words."
Unable to restrain herself, despite sensing the lack of wisdom in bringing the fight up again, she said, "I accused you of causing your own problems by a lack of willingness to open up to others."
"You were a bit more poetic than that," he reminded her, in a masterpiece of understatement. Because really, what she had yelled had been far closer to the turn of phrase, "Your tendency toward acting the smarter-holier-and-meaner than thou arse is why you spent seven years rotting until a Gryffindor had to come and haul you out of your own mess!"
"I know." She stood up and walked over to where he was standing.
"Did you mean it?" he asked when she reached him.
"I think we both realize that you cultivate an attitude toward others meant to drive them off, and that your lack of popularity contributed largely to your sentence. But I did not mean that you deserved it. Nor should I have implied that."
"Then why ask?" She knew he only played games when he was either mad or he felt he had something to gain.
"Because I thought it might illustrate the ways in which you've already proven to me that you didn't mean it. Have you stopped listening to your own words?"
Also, she knew, he'd wanted to hear her say it. She didn't know how she knew these things, it wasn't as though he had physical tells or any sort of alteration in his tone that gave them away but something in her throat always told her. "I would have found you. If you hadn't come back."
"As you know both where I work and where I live and as I'm not the type to attend places socially, really I can't see how that would have presented a challenge."
"The finding not terribly, but I'm sure you would have made up for it once I'd located you."
He reached out to touch at her cheek. "Most like."
"I'm glad you were where I left you."
"Would you have looked, if I'd moved?"
He hesitated for a long while. She kept her eyes on him. Finally he said, "Until I found you."
She said, "I'm not the type who hides," but she could see that he didn't necessarily believe it. That was all right. If he was willing to come back, she had plenty of time to prove herself.
After roughly two months he asked, "Is there a reason why you haven't told your friends? It always seemed to me you told them everything."
The last was slightly sneered. Hermione had gotten used to telling when he was covering for a severe case of preferring the Cruciatus to whatever he was doing at the moment. "I was waiting for you to suggest that it was all right."
He frowned at her. "You don't need my approval for. . .anything else."
She pointed out the obvious: "Most other things don't involve you the way that one does."
"I suppose we're ignoring all the decisions you made around my release from Azkaban."
"Unless you want to rehash them for no particular reason seeing as how I came through on my promise to you and you're doing all right for yourself far far away from the Aegean Sea."
He put the scrolls he'd been buried in since the beginning of the evening aside. "It's not because you're ashamed?"
Hermione swallowed a gasp of horror. It wasn't all that pleasant to be drastically underestimated, but she imagined she could understand his thinking. "Do I seem the type?"
"Not particularly. Like I said, however, you seem to share things of greater impropriety than this with Potter on a regular basis. Miss Weasley and her siblings to some extent as well." He shuddered at the end of that thought. She had no doubt he was considering the fact that "Miss Weasley" knowing would lead to Remus's knowledge of their liaison.
"I don't really see the impropriety in this," she said. "But you have a sore spot with Harry knowing things about you. I don't know where exactly it comes from-"
"He stole into my pensieve."
Hermione must have looked sick. She knew she felt it. Snape narrowed his eyes slightly. "I would have thought he'd told you."
"No. Harry- He wouldn't," she finished lamely.
"I certainly would."
She had faith that he wouldn't but sometimes it was easiest just to let him believe he was as cruel as he thought he was. "May I take this as tacit permission to tell him?"
"You. . .want to, then."
She looked at him, hard. "I want to."
"I suppose they'll all expect me to come around and participate in their disgustingly interconnected lives," Snape said with a tone of utter resignation.
Hermione shrugged. "Vaguely hope for that, in that you're part of me now? I suppose yes. Have any belief that you'll accede to those desires? Probably not. You do as you do. It's worked for us until now, it'll work for us after I let my friends know."
"Then it doesn't bother you?" He didn't look at her as he asked.
"If it bothered me, I'd say something. I told you to stop talking down about Harry, did I not?"
"Rather loudly, if I recall."
"You have a habit of not listening to my classroom voice," she said wryly.
"Muggle expression. Means speaking at a conversational level." Snape hadn't attended day-school. His mother had insisted on home-schooling until Hogwarts.
"Muggles and their odd ways," he said without an ounce of venom, his eyes raking over her.
"Turns you right on, does it?" she asked in her most business-like tone.
He made to go for the scrolls again. She knew he wouldn't make it. His willpower was nearly painfully barren where she and her wiles were concerned.
It was too cold to be out in one's garden the way Harry was when Hermione found him, let alone barefoot and laying stomach down with one's chin propped upon one's hands. Hermione knew before she even heard the hissing that he'd found another garden snake. Evidently garden snakes were friendly little things.
"Awfully cold out for one of them to be around," Hermione said softly as she approached, stopping to stand over Harry.
Harry looked up. "He's hurt. I'm trying to convince him to let me take him inside."
"You've mentioned it's warmer in there?"
"He doesn't seem to think I'm telling him the truth."
"Harry," Hermione crouched next to him. "You're bigger than him. Pick him up and take him inside."
"I don't want to scare him."
"You'd rather leave him here to suffer?"
Harry wavered, hissing some more. The snake still wasn't approaching. Finally, Harry gave in and moved with a quickness that in anyone else, Hermione would have found terrifying. He wrapped the snake close to his body, hissing all the while. Hermione had never been able to differentiate cadence and tone in Parseltongue but she thought Harry was trying to reassure the creature. The two humans moved inside and Hermione immediately spelled a fire into the hearth. Harry set the snake down on the stones in front of the fire and hissed some more. After a prolonged moment, the snake hissed back. Then he closed his eyes and turned from Harry.
Hermione asked, "What'd he say?"
"That he's tired."
"If only Severus could speak Parseltongue," Hermione lamented. "They'd be perfect for each other."
Harry laughed. "Says the woman who spends nearly all her free time with the man."
Hermione smiled. "That's actually sort of what I came about."
"To say you're sorry for abandoning me for him?"
"Right around the time you apologize for your dating life."
"It's not the same. I know you think books are better than sex but a goodly quantity of the human race, myself among them, disagrees, and getting someone to dish out takes a certain amount of commitment."
"No. Harry. It is the same."
"You're not usually this intractable on the subject. Are you upset over something?"
Hermione ran a hand over her face. "No, just trying to tell you something that you're not catching onto."
She could see Harry going back over the conversation. She could also see the moment realization dawned on him. He frowned. "Severus Snape?"
"You're allowed to rail about it in front of me. Only, mind you, because I know the way he treated you and that you had a hard enough time of it without his assistance. And because I know you were the first person to ask me to help him and to help me out whenever I needed it in actually doing so. But when he comes around, I don't care about all that, Harry, you can't. . .you'll have to be the bigger person, is all."
"It's just that I always wanted you to end up with someone who. . .well, someone who had mooned over you for nearly five years."
"Ron wasn't mooning, Harry, he was going through a phase of adolescence wherein all it takes is a whiff of pheremones and the breeze the whiff was carried in on."
"He was mooning, Hermione. He was just a bit dense about it. And you deserved it, that sort of adoration. I can't imagine Snape being nice to you, let alone making you feel special. Even Viktor chased after you. You sure you and Viktor aren't going to work out one of these times?"
"Viktor's dating a really nice librarian."
"You helped conquer Voldemort, surely that's more enticing."
"He goes out of his way for me," Hermione said, hoping Harry would follow her implicit shift in pronouns.
Harry did. "That's something he should do. You bloody well saved his life."
"I didn't do it for his gratitude."
"Somehow that doesn't change the way I feel."
"The sex is really fantastic."
Harry looked flummoxed. "I always thought the end of the world would be a bit more dramatic than this moment."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "He tells me about himself."
"I can see I'm not going to convince you of his utter unworthiness."
"Do you really believe in it? Because I seem to remember you being willing to fight me over this man's right to a trial. I seem to remember you only being alive due his actions before and throughout the war."
Harry looked at a loss. He leaned against the nearest sturdy structure. "It's not that I find him repulsive as a human. It's that. . .he let Malfoy hex you. Repeatedly."
"He's apologized." She wouldn't say that he'd said sorry. He hadn't. She hadn't needed him to.
"And when you're around him," Harry tilted his head, surveying her, "he makes you feel wanted?"
Hermione thought she deserved just a little mischief. "Desire is not a problem."
"That wasn't what I meant," Harry accused, "and you knew it."
She grinned. "He makes me feel nearly cherished."
"Nearly." Harry had never been one to be happy with partialities.
"We haven't been together all that long."
"It doesn't take-"
"The deep kind does," Hermione interrupted him. She'd only had that once, but she knew it took a while.
Harry grunted. "So, is he ever going to come around, or does he plan on just stealing you from us forever?"
Hermione looked over at the sleeping snake. "I think he's still waiting to see if I'm telling the truth about the inside being warmer than the outside."
Harry reached out and put his hand over her heart, a shockingly intimate gesture even between the two of them. He said, "You're bigger than him. Just take him in and show him."
After nearly seven years without a wand, and another eight months completely without magical capabilities, Snape sometimes forgot that he had magic. When he realized what he was doing he would mostly pass it off as his choice to forego the magical way of accomplishing things, and Hermione, who often did prefer Muggle customs, never called him on it. This meant that often when she would come over there would be a tea kettle heating over gas on the hob, or that he would be perusing his bookshelves, looking for something in particular.
She liked this last one, as she could sidle up behind him--he always heard her coming, and ask, "What is it you want?"
The question left his range of answers open wide, which was the intention, of course. It was rare that he merely didn't answer, having gotten used to her need for spoken communication. Somewhat to her surprise, it had taken him far longer to adjust to that need than to her demand for physical contact. She didn't know if he'd always been as giving of his body to his previous lovers or if she had come along at a time when his ability to go without human touch had been stretched long past its limits. Either way, she wasn't ashamed to take advantage.
He plucked a book with the title Wicked Whimsy from the shelf and turned to face her. She stepped back a bit. "Severus?"
"Potter sent an invite to some sort of dinner at his place. Just the two of us, him and Miss Tonks."
"It drives her crazy that you use a title with her last name."
Snape's glance told Hermione he well knew this fact. He asked, "I suppose you said something?"
"Maybe more than I should have," Hermione said with an equally devious glance.
"I'll have to trust that your common sense prevailed." He whisked past her as the tea kettle came to a shrill boil.
She followed. "You've won, Severus, you can stop pouting."
"I am not-" He shook his head, pouring the water into two cups. "I picked up a eucalyptus blend, you've sounded a bit under the weather."
"Sweet of you to change the subject, but I'd much prefer you didn't."
"Kindly refrain from accusing me of childishness in that case." He ripped open the bag and splashed it into her cup before rifling through the tea container looking for something that hit his fancy.
"I just meant that you finally have the upper hand over him. You could go to the dinner and gloat."
"I can hardly imagine that would please you."
"I don't seem to be the one most in need of pleasing at the moment." She took the cup out from in front of him.
He didn't turn from the counter. "Let it steep longer."
"I know. I am."
Finally he fished a packet from amongst the rest and dipped the bag into his cup. "What does that mean, I've won? Were Potter and I fighting?"
"You're certainly fighting him. Always."
"And his inviting me to dinner is his, what, sign of concession?"
"Harry is terrified that you'll steal me from him. As he sees it a lover takes priority, and he counts you as fully capable of using that to your best advantage."
"For knowing you so well, he hasn't any idea of who you are." Snape swiveled slightly to the side, looking at her from the corner of his eyes.
"I think, more significant to this issue, is that he has no idea of who you are."
"Are you suggesting I wouldn't press my advantage?"
Hermione Banished her tea bag to the sink and took a sip. Immediately her lungs felt a little bit less tight. How odd of Snape to have noticed that she was a little rundown before she had. And then again, how very. . .Snape. "Not if it meant hurting me."
Snape sneered. "Awfully trusting."
"You accepted the invitation to dinner."
"How do you know?"
"Because you wouldn't have bothered telling me if you hadn't. You would have waited to see if Harry told me and if he did, then we'd have had a confrontation, and if he didn't, which was the more likely given Harry's issues over rejection, you would never have had to deal with my ire."
"I said I would check with you to see if you were free," he said stiffly.
Hermione smiled at him, the most open smile she could muster. "I love you."
"You shouldn't say things like that aloud."
"No, probably not," she agreed. "But it sounded so good, just then."
Snape shook his head at her. "Is the tea helping?"
"Not as much as crawling under running hot water with you right next to me would."
"Finish your tea first."
Hermione made a face. Snape put a finger to her nose, "Silly."
She heard the echoes of things one wasn't supposed to say aloud.